Today in London’s radical history: North London dole-workers’ strike ends, 1988, in defeat.

Throughout the 1980s the civil service, broadly speaking the UK state government’s employees, had seen a number of struggles against the Thatcher government’s attempts to reduce it in size, re-organise if on levels more amenable to their ideological worldview, and to enable it to more useful to them for their onslaughts on working people generally.

However, the Thatcher government was also desperate to reduce the huge, and exponentially increasing, benefits bill, which was eating a larger and larger share of the national budget (particularly in the late 70s-early 80s recession), to simplify the vast complexity of welfare regulations; but also to cut the dole queues by forcing people into a plethora of schemes, scams and training programmes, so as to make the figures look less disastrous.

Civil service ‘re-organisation’ began relatively early in the Thatcher years, when in 1981 a massive strike, the biggest civil service strike in history, erupted when the tories scrapped the pay agreement that had been in place since the 1950s.

This was a prelude to what Cabinet Office ministers called the “bonfire of regulations”, as numerous national pay structures and agreements were reneged on, and a systematic attack on pay, jobs and conditions began. This reflected the government’s wide front of attacks on trade union conditions and workers’ rights at that time.

In 1984, the government unilaterally banned trade union representation at GCHQ, (the intelligence listening centre where all forms of communications were, and are, monitored, to provide the government, through the secret services, with info on what other governments, organisations, individuals and all are saying to each other), claiming that joining a union was incompatible with ‘national security’. A number of mass national one-day strikes, and appeals to courts as far as Europe, failed to overturn this; meanwhile the government offered a sum of money to each employee who agreed to give up their union membership.

(NB: The ban was eventually lifted by the incoming Labour government in 1997, and in 2000, a group of 14 former GCHQ employees, who had been dismissed after refusing to give up their union membership, were offered re-employment, which three of them accepted).

GCHQ was a major defeat, and encouraged Thatcher and friends to press ahead with plans to cut and totally redesign the civil service.

Civil service employees in what could be jointly described as the welfare departments – ie Department of Employment and the Department of Social Security, faced some of the most far-reaching changes to conditions and staged some of the fiercest resistance.

One stronghold of stroppy civil service fightback was across Job Centres and DHSS offices in North London. A number of disputes climaxed, in late 1987-early 1988, in a wildcat strike, made official, by workers in a number of job centres and unemployment benefit offices across North London (and some other parts, of the capital, briefly), against forced transfers, in response to a swathing re-organisation of working conditions. It’s worth noting that shortly before this strike, in April-May 1987, a large-scale strike across London and the southeast, lasting several weeks, in unemployment and social security offices (as well as magistrates courts, air traffic controllers, and customs officers – over 70,000 on strike at one point) had paralysed the payment of benefits to the unemployed. In several North London boroughs, this had resulted in collective action by claimants to force local councils to pay out emergency payments to people who could not get their dole cheques – in Hackney, Haringey and Camden, Town Halls had been occupied, (in Camden, joined by some strikers, and in Hackney, they stayed for 2 days; in Haringey, Saint Bernie Grant, the black Labour Council leader, famous for backing rioters against the police, er, called the police, to evict the claimants), until the council paid out. Although these payments were later deducted from benefits in some cases, direct action got the goods – and some tentative links between strikers and claimants must have narked both govt and civil service management. The onslaught was to continue…

Below we reprint an account of the December 1987- March 88 North London civil service strike, by a participant.

NB: In the fine tradition of British state bureaucracy, names of almost all the benefits, departments and so on have been changed, merged or abolished since 1988. Other mentions in the text also merit some explanation. A glossary is therefore included at the end of the text.

“Inside Info on the North London Three Month Long Civil Servants Strike

By a woman civil servant who has worked for 10 years in one of the offices in dispute.

A strike has taken place by low-paid civil servants over the last 14 weeks across North London Department of Employment offices. It has also involved Job Centre and DHSS staff who came out in solidarity when they were asked to do UBO work. They were also suspended when they refused. It ended on March 31st, in defeat.

Apart from one short news slot on London TV News, it has been virtually blanked in the newspapers, national as well as local London papers. Indeed, it seems La Republica, the Italian daily, mentioned the dispute more than the English-based newspapers! This has led many of us strikers to conclude that perhaps there might have been an orchestrated conspiracy of silence, as it was rumoured that Alan Robertson, the new principal manager for the D.E.s, had Thatcher’s full backing.

Certainly management acted in an unusually hard, but predictably clever, fashion, and quickly dampened down and gave into disputes elsewhere in the civil service. Basically, management wanted some issue, to get rid of once and for all the militant disruption which has taken place over the last few years in the north London offices. A few days after the strike started, a mole at Head Office let us know that one of the top managers had walked out of a meeting saying, “This is the end of the CPSA [civil servants union]. It’s finished.” It seems the government wanted to inflict a defeat in the heart of North London’s militant offices in preparation for a long attack on civil servants’ work conditions. In order, perhaps, to prepare the stage for the horrendous April social security changes, merit wages, and flexibility, YTS employment, the privatisation of the Employment Service, the possible abolition of the dole and/or welfare paid through a cash card unit you can’t argue with! No civil servants. No problem. No claimants. No problem.

Since the amalgamation of the Job Centres and UBOs under the new title of Employment Service, staff at some North London UBOs would be compulsorily re-deployed to Job Centres without then filling the subsequent UBO vacancies. Previously transfers had been conducted on a voluntary basis with the union. Camden ‘A’ was selected as the pilot office. On December 21st (just before Xmas and fitting in with increasing managerial sadism) casuals at Job Centres were sacked and those – on a last-in first out basis – at Camden ‘A’ UBO were compulsorily transferred to the Job Centre. One girl casual in tears came to say goodbye to her friends in the UBO.

There was an immediate angry response and the strike started. On Jan 11th, after a ballot, Marylebone ‘A’ and ‘B’ and Westminster UBO walked out in support of their Camden colleagues. From then on the dispute accelerated to affect 30 to 35 UBOs, Job Centres and DHSS offices in North London.

Initially the strike was a spontaneous angry response to managerial diktat. Strikers visited other offices to win support. Very quickly, however, the strike was taken over by Militant and Socialist Workers Party Trotskyists who tried to use the striker as cannon fodder for their own party political ends. Some non-party strikers didn’t like the fact that SWP members were usually the ones to visit offices because they knew colleagues elsewhere would be suspicious of their motives.

As more offices joined in, mass meetings were held every Friday on Camden’s claimants union office [1], who were expecting any day to be evicted by the Labour party-controlled Camden Council. In no time, a self-elected strike committee, comprised mainly of SWP members, came into existence. After that the meetings were totally monopolised by the SWP, who used the occasion to have their own private (but much publicised) battle with Militant (who, in their turn, had a lot of influence on the official, [CPSA National Executive Committee]-appointed, disputes committee). Macreadie, deputy General Secretary of the CPSA, and Militant member, was present on the platform at all these mass meetings. Basically, Militant didn’t want the dispute escalated, while the SWP wanted an all-out London strike.

There was, in fact, a token one-day, all-out London strike on Feb 18th.

Brixton UBO wanted to come out in support but was denied strike pay by the NEC. Macreadie didn’t really want to see the strike extended to South London. In fact Brixton did come out for a while, and some staff there stayed out to the end.

After the mass meetings, Macreadie would report back to the NEC about the strikers’ decisions. Finally, after weeks of procrastination, a ballot was prepared for an all-out London strike but with the rider that Macreadie and the NEC decided – there should be no strike pay at all from the coffers of the CPSA, which is one of the richest unions in the UK. It was a calculated shoot-yourself-in-the-foot policy, which (as was probably intended) gave hard-nosed management a good laugh. As it was, after a low turnout, with only 60% of CPSA members voting, and with some offices not having ballots, the voting was reasonably close: 41% for, 59% against. Nobody really expected any other result. And like the miner before us, we’ve returned to work without any agreement, which has filled more than a few of us with the horrors.

The mass meetings became jargon-slanging matches with many determined and well-meaning strikers not realising what was going on. Generally, the same long-winded boring speakers would have their say every week. They weren’t talking to the meeting but trying to prove themselves to their party. A lot of strikers felt too intimidated by this speechifying party atmosphere to ask questions. Moreover, all speakers had to submit their questions to the chair and many questions were passed over with the excuse of insufficient time. One excellent proposal suggesting there should be a mass picket targeting on a particular office decided secretly the night before (a tactic which would have terrified many scabs and possibly would have gained much needed publicity) wasn’t even considered because it was a non-party proposal [2]. Tactics, in fact, didn’t emanate directly from the mass meeting but had been decided in advance in closed party sessions. In fact, the different trotskyists didn’t want direct action and relaxed open communication, but behaved as pressure groups on lumbering union bureaucratic procedure. Because all real discussion was suppressed, the meetings finally degenerated into mad debates on any unrelated, fashionable issue. One of the last meetings spent half the time drooling on about whether members could smoke or not!

Non-Militant, non-SWP strikers got rapidly pissed off and didn’t turn up for future meetings. Then strikers started to get suspicious about what was being discussed between the strike committee and management. Management let it be known to the scabs that all the strike committee wanted to talk about was SBS (Staff-basing Scheme) figures, which they wanted to stay over the 10% level. It wasn’t what Camden ‘A’ had walked out over in the first instance. Issues were being sling in by the self-elected strike committee which strikers knew nothing about and weren’t informed about. This resulted in more scabbing, plus the fact that the strike seemed to be going nowhere.

Towards the end of the strike, a union rank ‘n’ file group called ‘Workhouse’ produced leaflets criticising the running of the strike (a little too late). They had valid points (e.g. condemning the party political games, emphasising the need to take control of the strike fund etc) but after so much manipulation of strikers one was left with the feeling – maybe they had an axe to grind! [3]

In the militant offices in North London, because management over the years has been pushed back a lot, there’s often quite a merry-prankster, bawdy, joking atmosphere which can make it a pleasure to be with your workmates. It’s been said of these UBOs that strikes there are an unholy alliance of the hard left and the hard drinkers. Some of this atmosphere got carried over into the strike. Although the dispute was a serous business, the way it was conducted meant the strike became farcical. Joking was one of the outcomes. In fact, in no time at all, the joker occupied the front rows at the meetings purely to wind up the platform and to bring in a bit of comic relief. When arguing over dates for an all-out London strike, (the 14th or 28th of March) one hard-drinking striker loudly said ‘April 1st would be more appropriate’. Another loudly mused ‘Is Macreadie anaemic?” Another proclaimed, after a meeting’s conclusion, that ‘I haven’t had so much fun since my leg fell off.’ This repartee got the Trotskyists furious. Other comments were more serious. One person asked if Macreadie and co. would contribute 50% of their wages towards the hardship fund. The platform remained silent.

A lot of UBO/DHSS staff earn a lot less than a sizable proportion of the claimants moonlighting in the black economy (and good luck to them!). Throughout the 1980s, because we’ve been constantly standing up against further incursions by the Tory government plus a growing recognition of just how badly paid we are, there’s been a growing sympathy from many claimants [4] In one of our local West London pubs, where UBO staff were having an Xmas drink, a claimant gave a bottle of champagne, with a nod and a wink, to a desk clerk. Delighted cheers all round!

It’s unfortunate, but during the strike it was the poor claimants who were the real ones to suffer. Outside one office, pickets on a stint were confronted, on a bitterly cold winter’s day, by a mam and dad with 2 kids who had no socks on their blue-with-cold tiny feet. These parents were enquiring about emergency payments. The pickets were devastated, and suggested a whip-round to help them. In other circumstances, this has happened before in the past.

Of all people, though, the fraud squad was running emergency offices for pay-outs. One such was Paddington Green church hall. In fact, there were heavy scenes and police were constantly called in. Obviously, the fraud squad were scabs and ready to fill in for striking staff but they also did this ‘service’ with an eye to their future career. Obviously they were trying to nail claimants who were claiming and working. Job Club and Restart didn’t strike (though in the one-day strike against YTS in late ’87 some Restart staff did strike).

Although receiving half take-home pay from the CPSA, strikers supplemented their hand-outs by finding jobs – ironically considering our function – in the black economy. When doing these jobs, they were afraid to say they were striking UBO/Job Centre staff because they were often working alongside people who were signing on. Strikers were worried in case some claimant recognised them and thought they were undercover fraud squad agents!

Once it became apparent we were being manipulated by the SWP and others, a lot of strikers forgot virtually about the strike – even though they’d never cross picket lines. They silently got their heads down waitressing, baking croutons in a bakery, pairing up shoes in a factory, handing out free rush-hour mags etc. Sadly, quite a few of the best people who could have made an imaginative contribution to the strike, left the civil service during the course of this dispute. The danger is that this could make the scabs cockier.

We returned to work on the 31st March, defeated, but with our heads held high, to be told ‘Welcome back’ by management. Maybe this was an individual response but it makes one suspicious. A lot of the scabs looked shame-faced and so they should – the amount of overtime they had been clocking up meant they had been doing very well by stabbing their striking colleagues in the back.

Management seems wary of crowing too much, because of the imminent restructuring of the civil service. It’s going to mean many fights in the offing.

April 1st 1988.

According to the Wise brothers on their Revolt Against Plenty site, the above was written by Jean Richards:

Jean worked as a civil servant in a UBO (Unemployment Benefit Office) in Marylebone and Kilburn, northwest London. What an eye! She saw and just as often provoked the hilarious in any given situation driven by an Irish sense of the absurd in daily life. Hardly surprisingly during the 1980s the offices she worked in were packed with a radical ferment combined with many a ‘mad’ incident amidst the personal chaos of office affairs etc and “Allo Allo”(TV sitcom) type piss-takes on the same. Secrets and peccadilloes were also something to be played with as a means of pushing the daily grind into the background and anything, literally anything, could be transformed into a comic turn subverting the bureaucratic boredom… a strike broke out in a number of offices and Jean’s office joined in. Though instigated by local branches of the civil servants union, by now other more consciously aware forces were developing a focus, mirroring to some degree what was happening on building sites and perhaps elsewhere which we knew nothing about. In Jean’s office in Kilburn this involved a small caucus of autonomists calling themselves Workhouse and guided by a studious but dedicated Chinese guy and his girlfriend whom Jean amusingly referred to as “the stick insects” – simply because they were so thin. Visible enough they occasionally distributed leaflets but looking back historically they just didn’t really have enough time to make their presence felt before the big, general crackdown throughout society. The union caucus in her office though opposed to the union big wigs was Trotskyist (SWP) and really didn’t know what to make of this caucus, this ‘new force’ appearing within their midst. There was however no problem with this during the strike as the main problem concerned scabs. One night, Jean together with one of the writers of these reminiscences regaled with super glue and sand sealed up the back entrance locks to the buildings, which the scabs crawled through every morning. To support Jean financially we took her to work on building sites as a cleaner upperer (all on equal wages) and she instantly became the best cleaner upperer in history! We also gave Jean the task of typing up “Once Upon a Time there was a Place called Nothing Hill Gate” awarding her the best wage rates of any office or typing pool. Sadly though the strike went on for weeks the outcome was again defeat.”

This account was reproduced as a leaflet after then end of the strike by BM Combustion, and reprinted in a News From Everywhere Bulletin in 1988. BM Combustion also compiled the following notes on the text (so the views there were theirs, not necessarily those of the original writer of the above):

1 – Camden Claimants: During the strike some people at Camden Claimant Union (CU) wanted to produce a leaflet in support of the strike but claimed they couldn’t as the council had cut off their funds. This was a poor excuse – they could easily have got them printed at other claimants unions. The excuse was probably to hide more secret reasons: as a claimant from another C.U said of Camden C.U., “what gets put out doesn’t depend on what you say but who you are – Camden C.U is largely organised around cliques…”

2 – Mass picketing: The outright rejection of even a discussion of mass picketing could have been a starting point for a challenge both to the bureaucrats, and to the union form of the struggle: in order to discuss such basic actions a completely different form of struggle has to arise. It’s worth considering some of the struggles elsewhere, whose actions could be exemplary. Like, for instance, the French railway workers strike of 1986-87. There, over a month before the strike, a class-conscious train driver put out a petition calling for a pledge from other drivers to an indefinite strike, listing the various demands. It was asked that this petition/pledge be reproduced and passed round by those in agreement. It receive an overwhelming response, & so later a leaflet was produced by other train drivers, two and a half weeks before the strike, also to be reproduced and passed around: it clearly put the strikers’ demands, stating exactly when the strike would begin, asking for the unions involved to support the strike, threatening them if they didn’t. the strike began without a single command from the unions – and developed partly by means of daily assemblies of strikers held in each station, in which no particular striker held any greater power than any other. Where delegation seemed necessary, it was subject to immediate recall by the assemblies. Of course, many exemplary actions – such as sabotage – were carried out without discussion in the assemblies, and occasionally specifically against the desires of the majority. But, without wishing to make out that assemblies are some insurance for active commitment, they did provide an environment of direct communication which made manipulation largely impossible, and provided the strike with some continuity. And it’s a challenge to traditional left-wing notions that such a magnificent collective activity had been launched by a simple individual initiative. Of course, you can never mechanistically transplant workers’ struggles elsewhere and in other times to the here and now, but they’re still worth considering and applying to different circumstances.

3 – Workhouse: At a meeting on the Wednesday before the return to work strikers from ‘Workhouse’ put forward – as a bloc – the idea of returning to work on the Tuesday after the bank holiday, rather than the Thursday before Good Friday, an idea also hoped for by sections of management. After all, since every striker knew they were returning on the Thursday just to get their two day holiday money, it could only mean that Workhouse were, as one striker put it, “just wanting to be different.”

4 – Claimants: see the (mostly) excellent leaflet ‘The Strike and other struggles – some views from a claimant’s perspective’.

On which note; here is the text of that claimants’ leaflet:

The Strike… and Other Struggles

Some views from a claimants perspective.

It is unfortunate that this strike should end just when real links were being developed between strikers and claimants – discussion was underway for the joint organisation of a demo by claimants and strikers to publicise the dispute, joint leaflets for the national unwaged day of action on April 11th, joint action for emergency payments if necessary… Formal and informal links always exist but its hard to forget that our daily contact is across a counter and shatter-proof screen, as well as less physical barriers. But your struggle is not over, and we too have many battles ahead, through which to develop our common struggle. Maybe the horror of returning to work alongside the scabs could be lessened by pointing them out to claimants as those (partly) responsible for lack of improvement in our conditions.

The most important factor in the success of the strike, and the respect gained from claimants (and others) was the fact that it was organised, run and controlled by the strikers themselves. There have been continual attempts to disguise (and so sabotage) this strength, by the SWP’s constant complaining that the union bureaucrats weren’t leading it. Their bleating about leadership is really nothing more than whining about the fact that nobody’ll follow them, the self-proclaimed leaders of the working class! The party bickering merely sabotaged debate, while the part lines themselves served to stunt the development of more direct tactics, mass pickets etc. – those who know the difference between discussion and parroting the party line must learn to deal with those who don’t. But recognising this strength of the struggle must also mean taking responsibility for the failures, not blaming them on those we should’ve known years ago will at best do nothing and at worst sabotage [sorry there’s a bit missing here!- typissed]

The union leaders and bureaucrats are not being forcibly transferred to Job Centres, their jobs, ages and conditions are not threatened by cheap labour schemes, they don’t have to face screaming, homeless, broke, confused claimants day in day out, their jobs aren’t being moved across the country into clerical factories… which is just as well for them, as if they did have to go on strike, who’d notice? The only threat to their jobs comes from ‘their’ members, getting out of their control, organizing their own struggles, making and enforcing their own demands and making their own real contacts with other sectors of the working class. Today we have the unpleasant spectacle of union leaders queuing up to offer their services to the bosses, to make deals that will mean greater control of the workforce, by the bosses, through the unions. We’re offered for sale, at any price, so the leaders can get their cut, which sounds rather like pimping. In Italy, where railworkers, airport workers, teachers and others have been running their own strikes, through ‘committees of the base’ (Cobas), mass assemblies with revocable delegates to the national co-ordinating committee, the union leaders having gone to the government to demand the banning of strikes in the public sector. Is this leadership?

The restructuring they’re trying to impose in dole and SS offices is the same as in every other sector, the same re-imposition of profitability, the same screwing the last ounce of labour out of the workforce. They tried to force UBO staff into new jobs the same as they try forcing us claimants onto cheap labour schemes. But this unified attack means that our immediate interests are even more unified, along with our common experiences and struggles. And the enforced flexibilisation and the de-skilling technology are themselves destroying the separation of those who happen to do different work, leaving only our ability to labour ,and our ability to fight. It has never been more clear that each struggle is the struggle of us all. Together we can not only fight these attacks, but also destroy the domination of profit over our lives and our production.

On April 11th we’ll be outside Archway Tower 9-11 (and probably other local offices) and outside Alexander Fleming House at 1. Where will you be – inside carrying out the cuts? [Again, there may be a line missing after this. Typissed. Not sure who produced this leaflet, either…]


Now these are past tense’s, and ours alone, so snipes to us and no other.

CPSA – The CPSA has now become Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).

Department of Employment – Possibly the lostest cowboy in the west… amidst a bewildering succession of name changes and mergers of branches of government since 1988, the functions of this Dept, and that of the DHSS (via some mind-fuckingly rapid amalgamations and subsequent rethinks), now come under the Dept of Work and Pensions.

DHSS –  the Department for Health and Social Security, the central government branch running the Health Service and all areas of benefits and welfare at the time. In 1988 Health and Social Security were separated into two Departments; so the Department of Work and Pensions is the DHSS’s modern successor. Many claimants in the ‘80s just called them the SS, after everyone’s favourite nazi unit. There is NO truth to the rumour that the DHSS break up was prompted by govt ire at the anti-authoritarian funkability of the name’s being evidenced in the Wham! Rap (RIP George Michael, if only for that little number alone).

UBO – Unemployment Benefit Offices, where you used to go and sign on every two weeks, so you could get paid your girocheque. Yes, a cheque, which you’d mostly get posted two days later, and then cash at the post office, assuming your dog hadn’t ate it, or you’d dropped it in the canal while cycling there at 12.25 on a Saturday, or Mad Terry, your ‘mate’ had not nicked it and (allegedly) given the money to oxfam. Etc. (the sacredness of the cult of the Giro most excellently giving rise to the Men they Couldn’t Hang’s fine version of an Irish classic, “Whack-fol-me-daddy-oh, I’ll buy Whiskey with Me GIRO!!!”)
UBOs are now merged within the Job Centre. Or Job Centre Plus, but they make you work a lot harder for your money, filling in those slips lying about the jobs you’ve tried to get, and sending you on those weird courses where you learn to sell yourself.

Thatcher – (is it daft, surely there are no young people reading this!) – this refers to then Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher, figurehead for the restructuring of capital and labour in the UK over the last 40 years – objectively the needle is currently favouring capital. If ‘impact on society and class relations’ was an arcade game she’d be up there in the high scorers.

YTS – Youth Training Schemes. Cheap labour designed to imprison the teenage jobless in pointless crap so they didn’t go out and riot; benefits would be withdrawn if you didn’t turn up. So shit even the government eventually decided simply cutting under 18s access to benefits completely was better value for money. YTS did however keep a lot of liberal lefties and other assorted bullies in work/voluntary work, though, and its legacy may well be remembered in the whole industry of parasitical scum who make fortunes by processing, administering, ‘training’ and assessing benefit claimants, and school leavers in particular. Now a multi-billion-pound privatised industry, one of the major changes instigated under thatcher and cemented by New Labour (obviously the gobbldy-jargon and bollokspeak increased dramatically after 1997).

Militant – The Militant Tendency, ideological heirs of the mainstream Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialist League, these days known as the Socialist Party. For may years a large faction in the Labour Party, their expulsion by the Kinnock-led Party hierarchy through the 1980s was reflected also in power struggles within unions, the CPSA being a notable example. Broadly speaking a more working class membership than its main rival, the Socialist Workers Party, also more dogmatic, a tiny bit more able to concentrate and stick with stuff (contrast the SWuPpies inability to hang around longer than you can shout ‘something superficially more photoworthy is happening down the road’). Equally able to fuck up almost any struggle though, as their titanic effort to control, and then sabotage the uncompliant sections of, the anti-poll tax movement witnesses.

SWP – The Socialist Workers Party – yes, that one, still around. Unlike virtually every other left grouping they have kept the same name/identity since the late 1970s, which might be because they have, a) found it a mite tough to keep any kind of stable consistent set of politics, b) decided to basically appeal to a new set of students every 3 years so the brand tarnishment affect hasn’t kicked in so heavy, or c) literally every other possible left-look domain name on the internet has been bought up now. The Swurp brand has been dinted even more in the last few years since the party hierarchy rallied to defend a leading member who raped a young party activist, leading to large numbers of members leaving. But since memory is short, turnover in leftist circles rapid, and willingness to ignore or condone abusive behaviour when it threatens other worldviews extremely common, the SWP remain ‘a force’ on the British Left. In galactic terms…hmm…

John Macreadie – Sometime General Secretary of the CPSA – Having worked in the civil service since the 1960s, and led the successful CAA Air Traffic Control Assistants strike in 1977, Macreadie, a long-time member of the group that evolved into the Militant Tendency, had risen within the Broad Left caucus of the union, to the point where in 1986, he stood for the post of General Secretary of the CPSA. In the elections, Macreadie initially won the ballot, but this was overturned after the ‘moderate’ union faction called in the courts; re-run, Macreadie lost. He was elected as Deputy General Secretary of the union in 1987, only to be named as one of a ‘dirty half-dozen’ by Gen Sec John Ellis in an ‘expose of the Militant-led left in the union.’ He remained a national CPSA, then PCS officer, till 2005, and died in 2010.

Tis worth noting that at the same time Macreadie was ensuring the 1988 strike was paralysed and sabotaged, Tory govt and CPSA officials were colluding to undermine him and other leftwing leaders.
Just because they’re seeking to control you and sabotaging your self-run struggles doesn’t mean that our rulers don’t have a jaundiced view of their dangerousness to capital.

Workhouse – A Rank and File group which emerged among workers in South London Dept of Employment offices from Autumn 1986. Dave Wise’s Revolt Against Plenty post calls them autonomists. A PDF of their 1988 pamphlet/manifesto gives a reasonable context to the above account of the N London strike in terms of the CPSA, government plans etc…
No idea what happened to them post-88… Would be interested to know tho…

Moonlighting – working secretly while claiming some kind of unemployment benefit. At the time the above was written, a widespread practice, even routine for many of us, and no morals attached. Also widely practiced was having more than one claim in either the same of different names at different dole offices. Developments in data sharing have made both mostly a thing of the past, these days (unless you are an out of work former undercover cop, who happens to have a false identity in the name of a dead child handy). It’s fair to say that the shift of ground socially and politically to the right/conservative over the last 30 years has made the idea of moonlighting, or even working cash in hand (ie plebs paying no tax), less socially acceptable, where it was once common ground. Legal, technological and ‘moral’ evolution has worked to push it into the fringes; we can’t really go into it here but this is an interesting point for discussion (tho possibly only to old folk like us?)

Fraud squad – the investigators who check up on and bust claimants suspected of making fraudulent claims, working on the side, lying about disabilities etc. Generally loathed not only by claimants but other workers in job centres too.

Some of the Offices mentioned

Camden ‘A’ Unemployment Benefit Office, was on Camden Road, near to Camden Road overground station.

Camden Claimants Union office – was located, I think, in a building next to the Unemployment Benefit Office on Camden Road.

Archway Tower – then housed DHSS offices for much of North Islington.


The North London strike (and the 1980s struggles within the civil service that preceded it) was the immediate prelude to vast changes in how the civil service departments dealing with benefits and welfare were run, as well as huge alterations in the management of the unemployed, those on any form of disability benefits or benefits for raising children. It would be impossible to go into that now. Briefly it has become much harder to claim, restriction, surveillance and sanctions are drastically applied, and cuts are regular and increasing. A massive increase in those working minimum hours and also claiming in work benefits like Working Tax Credit has enabled wages to be kept low in many arenas. What did pass for a claimants’ movement that existed in the 1970s-80s mostly died off, to be periodically revived, but with great difficulty and mixed success. It’s fair to say that the culture has altered almost unrecognisably since 1988, not only in terms of the dole and people’s attitude to claiming, but also to collective resistance.

Similarly with the workers in the various dole offices: the 1990s saw vast swathes of civil service welfare work being either moved to call centres, compartmentalized in huge offices in farflung regions of the UK, or hived off to quangos or private firms. In many cases a combination of these. Organising in this modern situation is tough, though not impossible, see:

Read some interesting writings on more recent organising within the ‘civil service’

For a (slightly earlier) text on unwaged struggles in North London, see Unwaged Fightback: A history of Islington Action Group of the Unwaged.
Also available as a pamphlet re-published by past tense, which can be bought here.


A final note on the left, and unions – A major arena of activity for all leftwing parties being trade unions, because even the doltiest Dimitrov can see that’s where there’s a lot of recruits to be gathered, sorry, ‘where the working class is organised’. The practical result of this is a massive amount of effort spent on capturing and keeping hold of, various union structures, from branch to regional to national level. Only a daft hap’orth suggests unions serve no useful function – and some of these are even in their members’ interests! Decades of anti-trade union legislation in the last 40 years have only compounded (or masked?) the basic reality of a leading role unions’ have been playing for years – as administrators, auditors, and all too often, pacifiers and gate-keepers, of workplace struggles.

To say this is not to say there aren’t and haven’t always been thousands of union activists and members doing useful and brilliant work for themselves and others.

The interminable hours of left maneuvering as described briefly in the strike account above reflect the wider obsession with control of union branches and other structures that fixates some of the left. It’s a complex issue, since members are also workers and union members; but Party strategy can often revolve around worming into union positions, and maintaining them, at the expense of the needs and desires of the workers in question. 1988 or now, this is hardly a dead issue. The catastrophic decline in union membership since then (and has anyone done a corresponding study of left group membership?), to be fair, results from many more myriad causes, but the alienating leninny dick-waving Jean describes above has been – and remains – utterly off-putting to non-leftists, while bafflingly many union branches routinely ignore the immediate needs of workers/slightly different reality of now to 1917.

Another question remains though, and its not trite – if an urgent fight is going on, and the leftists/union leadership are fucking it up, what do you do? Apathy, cynicism, disillusion are all options – taken by the vast majority. Many choose to be active both inside unions, because lots of people are there and there’s useful links to be made there, often despite the structures of the unions – both national AND local. But also, some people find they can often do more effective things individually or collectively beyond these structures. In the end both have their uses, and their drawbacks.

The examples BNC give in the notes of workplace vitality in other countries are illustrative – but as they point out, you can’t simply import tactics, or transplant cultures. This is a huge discussion that we can hardly even begin here, but its urgency is blindingly and headachingly immediate…


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

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Today in London publishing history: Johann Most arrested for celebrating the assassination of the Tsar, 1881.

“CHARLES HAGAN (Police Inspector). On 30th March, at 4.45 p.m., I went to the house of Most in Titchfield Street—I saw him in the printing-office at the back of the yard—I asked him if he was Johann Most; he said “Yes”—I told him in English that I was an inspector of police, and had a warrant for his arrest…”

Something of the history of the nineteenth century German anarchist newspaper Freiheit has already been recounted in a previous post. We briefly mentioned editor Johann Most’s 1881 nicking, for writing an article celebrating the assassination of the tyrannical Russian Tsar Alexander II.

Today is the anniversary of the police raid on the Freiheit offices and Most’s arrest. Below we reprint the text of his jubilatory editorial…

“At last! “Seize on this one, seize on that one, “‘Some one, nevertheless, will reach thee.’—C. BEEK.

“Triumph! Triumph! the word of the poet has accomplished itself. One of the most abominable tyrants of Europe, to whom downfall has long since been sworn, and who therefore, in wild revenge breathings, caused innumerable heroes and heroines of the Russian people to be destroyed or imprisoned—the Emperor of Russia is no more. On Sunday last at noon, just as the monster was returning from one of those diversions which are wont to consist of eye-feastings on well-drilled herds of stupid blood-and-iron slaves, and which one calls military reviews, the executioner of the people, who long since pronounced his death sentence, overtook and with vigorous hand struck down the brute. He was once more on the point of drivelling about the ‘God’s finger,’ which had nearly saved his accursed life, when the fist of the people stopped his mouth for ever. One of those daring young men whom the social revolutionary movement of Russia brought forth, Risakoff—with reverence we pronounce his name—had thrown under the despot’s carriage a dynamite bomb, which effected a great devastation on the conveyance and the immediate neighbourhood, yet left the crowned murderer to pray uninjured. Michaelovitch, a princely general, and others at once fell upon the noble executor of the people’s will. The latter, however, with one hand brandishes a dagger against the autocrat’s face, and with the other hand guides the barrel of a revolver against the breast of the same. In an instant he is disarmed, and the belaced, betufted, and by corruption eaten through and through retinue of the Emperor breathe again on account of the supposed averted danger. There flies a new bomb neat this time. It falls down at the despot’s feet, shatters for him the legs, rips open for him the belly, and causes among the surrounding military and civil Cossacks numerous wounds and annihilations. The personages of the scene are as if paralysed, only the energetic bomb-thrower does not lose his presence of mind, and is able safely to fly. The Emperor, however, is dragged to his palace, where yet for an hour and a half he is able, amid horrible sufferings, to meditate on his life full of crimes. At last he died. This in reference to the simple state of facts. Instantly the telegraph wires played up to the remotest corners of the earth to make the occurrence known to the whole world. The effect of this publication was as various as it was drastic. Like a thunderclap it penetrated into princely palaces, where dwell those crime-beladen abortions of every profligacy who long since nave earned a similar fate a thousandfold. For three years past has many a shot whistled by the ears of these monsters without harming them. Always and always again could they indemnify themselves in princely fashion for the fright endured by executions and regulations of the masses of all kinds. Nay, just in the most recent period they whispered with gratification in each other’s ears that all danger was over, because the most energetic of all tyrant haters—the ‘Russian Nihilists ‘—had been successfully exterminated to the last member.

“Then comes such a hit! William, Prince of Prussia, the now Protestant Pope and soldier Emperor of Germany, got convulsions in due form from the excitement. Like things happened at other Courts. Howling and gnashing of teeth prevailed in every residence. But the other rabble, too, which in the other various countries pulls the wires of the Government mechanism of the ruling classes, experienced a powerful moral headache and melted in tears of condolence, whether it consisted merely of head lackeys on the steps of an Imperial throne or of Republican bandits of order of the first class. The whimpering was no less in France, Switzerland, and America than in Montenegro or Greece. A Gambetta carried through the adjournment of the Chambers, and thereby put an insult on France from which even Austria was saved by the then President of the Reichsrath. Public opinion is startled, and seeks in vain for the reasons of such a miserable attitude. One thinks of diplomatic motives and the like, but one misses the mark. Much, perhaps, may indeed have contributed here snd there which resembles mere political hypocrisy. In the main the grounds lie deeper. The supporters of the ruling classes see just in the destruction of an autocrat which has taken place more than the mere act of homicide itself. They are face to face with a successful attack upon authority as such. At the same time they all know that every success has wonderful power, not only of instilling respect, but also of inciting to imitation. From Constantinople to Washington they simply tremble for their long since forfeited heads. This fright is a high enjoyment for us; just as we have heard with the most joyful feelings of the heroic deed of those social revolutionaries of St. Petersburg who slaughtered the tyrant on Sunday last. In this time of the most general humility and woe, at a period when in many countries old women only and little children yet limp about the political stage with tears in their eyes, with the most loathsome fear in their bosoms of the castigating rod of the State night-watchman, now, when real heroes have become so scarce, such has the same effect on better natures as a refreshing storm. Let some say behind our backs we are carrying on a ‘game with Nihilists’; let others blame us as cynical or brutal; yet we know that in expressing our joy at the successful deed we were disclosing not only our own feelings, but were also giving utterance to what millions of men, down-trodden and tyrannised over, thought with us when they read of the execution of Alexander. To be sure it will happen once and again that here and there even Socialists start up who, without that any one asks them, assert that they for their part abominate regicide, because such an one after all does no good, and because they are combating not persons, but institutions. This sophistry is so gross that it may be confuted in a single sentence. It is clear—namely, even to a mere political tyro, that State and social institutions cannot be got rid of until one has overcome the persons who wish to maintain the same. With mere philosophy you cannot so much as drive a sparrow from a cherry-tree any more than bees are rid of their drones by simple humming. On the other hand, it is altogether false that the destruction of a Prince is entirely without value because a substitute appointed beforehand forthwith takes his place. What one might in any case complain of is only the rarity of so-called tyrannicide. If only a single crowned wretch were disposed of every month, in a short time it should afford no one gratification henceforward still to play the monarch. Moreover, it is certainly a satisfaction for every right-thinking man when such a capital criminal is done away with—i.e., is punished according to his evil deeds. It does not occur to the jurists of civil society to hang no murderer or to lock up no thief because it is proved that these punishments do not remove murder and theft (both institutions of this society) out of the world. When one has entirely to do with such a subject as Alexander Romanow was, then one must accept his destruction with double satisfaction. If one could believe newspaper writers, then one must, according to their chatter, take it that the exterminated Czar was a real pattern of benevolence. The facts prove that he belonged to the worst doers of abominations that have ever disgraced humanity. Some 100,000 men were banished to Siberia during his reign, dozens were hanged after they had suffered the cruellest tortures. All these victims the Russian Crown Moloch claimed only because those concerned were striving for the improvement of society, wishing for the general welfare, perhaps had only passed on a single forbidden book, or written one letter in which a censure on the Government was expressed. Out of the war abominations which this tyrant conjured up we take but one scene from the last Turkish war. Alexander was celebrating his name-day, and wished a warlike spectacle. He ordered a storming of Plevna. The generals ventured to call to mind that such an one would not only fail, but would cost an enormous number of men. In vain! The order stood good, and in order to witness the slaughter with more gratification the tyrant caused a special stand with a kind of Imperial box to be erected for himself, whence he might watch the storming without himself falling into danger. The result corresponded with the predictions of the generals. The storming was repulsed, and 8,000 dead and wounded covered the ground outside the walls of Plevna. But the ‘little father’, as the despot by preference caused himself to be called, had amused himself cannibalistically. All petitions, all wishes for the introduction of ever so slight reforms which were almost daily laid at his feet, he only answered by fresh meannesses of an Asiatic Government barbarism. Genuine dragonades followed every warning or threat, attempted but unsuccessful attacks on his person increased his baseness to the monstrous. Who is scoundrel enough really to bewail the death of such a beast? But it is said, ‘Will the successor of the smashed one do any better than he did? We know it not. But this we do know, that the same can hardly be permitted to reign long if he only steps in his father’s footsteps. Yes, we could actually wish that it should so happen, for we hate the hypocritical, mock-liberal monarchs no less than the despots sans phrase,’ because the former perhaps have still greater power of retarding the development of civilisation than the latter. In addition, the persistence of the new Czar in the old principle of government must forthwith double and treble its enemies, because in Russia there are a number of people of that sort which has believed in the Crown-Prince legend usual in all countries, and at all times, according to which the successor spoken of only awaits the moment when he may be able to pour over the people a whole horn of plenty, full of blessings. All these enthusiasts are forthwith converted when they see that the new ukases smell as much of Russian leather as the old. Meanwhile be this as it may, the throw was good, and we hope that it was not the last May the bold deed, which—we repeat it—has our full sympathy, inspire revolutionists far and wide with fresh courage. Let all think of Herwegh’s words—

” ‘And where tyrants still exist ” ‘Then let us boldly seize them, ” ‘We have loved long enough, ” ‘And we wish at last to hate.’ “

The Russian government applied pressure on the British authorities to arrest Most (the German government was already on their case about him and his propaganda) and Most was arrested and prosecuted. He was found guilty of incitement to murder heads of state and sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment.

In solidarity, a short-lived English-language anarchist paper also entitled Freiheit was published, reprinting an English translation of Most’s article, but avoided being enmeshed in the prosecution by presenting it as part of the speech of the prosecuting counsel at the trial ! Socialist Jack Williams stood on the steps of the Old Bailey during the trial and sold many copies of this edition. Protest meetings were held. The prosecution of Most was opposed publicly on the grounds of the right of asylum and the right of free speech (although the first issue of the Freiheit did reprint some approving remarks of Disraeli’s on tyrannicide ). Such an approach did find quite wide sympathy – the jury at Most’s trial recommended mercy to the Jury, “in consideration of this being the first paper of his which had such matter in it,” hilariously adding, “being a foreigner, and probably smarting under some wrong, real or imaginary.”

The German Freiheit continued under caretaker editors until they did it again, publishing an article applauding the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish by Fenians in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in May 1882. The office was again raided and its plant seized. Freiheit was forced to move, first to Switzerland and then to the United States, where it continued under Most’s editorship until a few years after his death in 1905.

Read an account of Most’s Old Bailey trial


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

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Today in London’s multi-faith history: Cuthbert Simpson burned at Smithfield, 1558

Centuries of corruption, accumulation of wealth, extortion of rent, tithes and vicious punishment of dissenters provoked many rebellions and heresies against the Catholic Church. All were generally crushed or accommodated until the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century, which split the church across Europe.

After a slow start, protestantism took root in England, helped by the marriage difficulties and dynastic obsession of the obviously psychotic king Henry VIII. Never a protestant himself, the syphilitic nutter seized the chance to exploit the atmosphere of questioning of Catholic orthodoxy to divest parts of the Church of a great deal of their land and wealth, much of which was subsequently redistributed one way or another, sparking an upheaval in property ownership, and giving a huge boost to the agricultural revolution then being tentatively born.

But it was during the reigns of his children that serious religious division opened up in England. Successive protestant (under Edward VI) and Catholic (under Mary) regimes first instituted, then tried to reverse, reforms in religious practice, belief and creeds. While the religious divide in this country never took anything like the ravaging forms of the open warfare seen in France in the late 16th century or Germany in the 17th, Catholic repression in the 1550s and protestant intolerance in the succeeding decades saw hundreds of arrests and imprisonments for ‘heresy’, and tens executed.

The heaviest period for religious executions was under Catholic Queen Mary in the 1550s, and most of those met their deaths at Smithfield, just north of the City of London (as we have already discussed on this blog).

Since protestants could expect to be burned if they were caught and refused to repent, they went underground. Congregations organised themselves in secret, and met to worship in each other’s houses, or in woods, fields, away from the eyes of authorities or anyone who might grass them up. Despite this, a number were raided, and participants ended up on the Smithfield pyres.

Cuthbert Simpson had been arrested at a clandestine meeting in the Saracen’s Head inn in Islington. Simpson was (according to historian of protestant martyrs John Foxe) a married deacon of an underground protestant congregation, who was responsible for keeping a list of names of the group, collected moneys etc… He was arrested with two assistants, Hugh Fox and John Devenish; all three were charged with conspiracy and treason.

Simpson was held in the Tower of London, and is reported as having withstood harrowing torture there, as the authorities attempted to prise further names of secret ‘heretics’ from him.

John Foxe recorded an alleged last letter that Simpson sent to his friends from captivity, describing what happened after he refused interrogators’ demand that he begin naming names (paraphrased into modern English).

I was set in an engine of iron, for the space of three hours as I judged. After that, they asked me if I would tell them. I answered as before. Then I was loosed, and carried to my lodging again. On the Sunday after, I was brought into the same place again before the lieutenant, being also constable, and the recorder of London, and they examined me. As before I had said I answered. Then the lieutenant sware by God, I should tell. Then did they bind my two forefingers together, and put a small arrow betwixt them, and drew it through so fast that the blood followed, and the arrow brake.

Then they racked me twice. After that was I carried to my lodging again; and ten days after, the lieutenant asked me if I would not confess that which before they had asked me. I said I had said as much as I would. Then five weeks after, he sent me unto the high priest, where I was greatly assaulted; and at whose hand I received the pope’s curse, for bearing witness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And thus I commend you unto God, and to the word of His grace with all them that unfeignedly call upon the name of Jesus; desiring God, or His endless mercy, through the merits of His dear Son Jesus Christ, to bring us all to His everylasting kingdom. Amen. I praise God for His great mercy shewed upon us. Sing Hosanna unto the Highest, with me Cuthbert Simson. God forgive me my sins. I ask all the world forgiveness, and I do forgive all the world; and thus I leave this world, in hope of a joyful resurrection.

On March 28th 1558, Simpson and his assistants Fox and Devenish were burned or heresy at Smithfield.

Raids and executions of protestants continued… In April 1558, a few days after Simpson, Fox and Devenish’s deaths, forty men and women were seized at a nighttime protestant meeting in an Islington field. Half of them were sent to Newgate Prison, of whom thirteen, refusing to attend catholic mass, seven of these were burned at Smithfield in June. Despite a proclamation read by the Sheriff of London, threatening arrest and punishment for anyone showing support, a large and sympathetic crowd assembled, shouting and protesting at the executions.

Although we might think all religious belief is basically medieval, and view killing people for minor differences in doctrine to be alien, even laughable (if it wasn’t so tragic), obviously the desire to impose faith on others by force is hardly a dead issue in modern times… Some of the people execeuted at Smithfield were trying to work out some control over their own lives through the language and framework they knew, ie faith, and in many cases religious dissent either contained within it or masked social and political rebelliousness, or was itself directly challenging to the state. Many others were just (usually poor) people who were either wrong-footed by the rapid turnover of regimes and official religions under the Tudors, who simply continued to believe in what they had always been told to think (on penalty of everlasting fire), or merely expressed their own mind to the wrong person/made an unwise joke. Either way really Smithfield represents a site of abomination. The Christian whingers and tabloid godblatherers who today bleat about ‘aggressive secularism’ might want to reflect that there is a huge deficit on the account, which remains unpaid. Though there’s never a wrong time to burn a church or two.


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

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This week, and in 2006, trouble at parliament.

This post rambles from the immediate present to the past. Bear with us. It comes together in the end.

Seems like a good week to talk about Parliament…
Some thoughts (not comprehensive, or even maybe coherent) :

  1. As a project trying to link past present and future, we are generally opposed to random acts of terror involving passers-by; but it would be hard to deny Parliament has made itself a target by a number of its actions.
  2. An attack on Parliament is not an attack on OUR democracy – our democracy is of a different more direct kind (if it is democracy at all. Jury’s out).
  3. We’re broadly opposed to organised religion and specifically to religious fundamentalism of all kinds, and attempts to impose it by force.
  4. We’re also opposed to attempts to impose the aims of the US/UK capital-political-military complex on other people around the world by force. Which has killed a few more people, though its not a competition.
  5. Religious fundamentalists are leeches, particularly adept fastening onto vulnerable people with mental health problems, grooming them and pointing them at supposed enemies. This dynamic is present in some forms of Islam. And Christianity. And Judaism. And Hinduism. And Buddhism (Other whacko faiths are available).
  6. We think religion is something we have dispense with as a species, but we’re unlikely to convince everyone soon; however, we don’t think its racist to say ‘religion is possibly not sensible’ because some people who are religious are Black or Asian. Some people use attacks on one or more religions as a human shield for basic racism. Some others use the defence of ‘don’t oppress me for my beliefs’ to cloak their misogyny, social control and hierarchical position within a given community. This makes saying what you think about things complex and fraught with pitfalls. Is this why we’re writing in this simplistic way? Or is it that we’re hung over? Who knows. Some leftist ‘anti-racists’ and even some ‘feminists’ have attacked ex-muslims for speaking openly about the abuses in Islam, deciding that if there’s a ‘hierarchy of oppression’, people resisting the religion they grew up in should remain somewhere near the bottom. Now I know why we got so drunk last night in the first place.
  7. Nationalists, like fundamentalists, justify people mowed down in your path as you attack the perceived enemy as collateral damage. Or lump them in with the enemy because they’re non-believers, come from the same part of the world as the people ruling them, etc. Are you complicit in the crimes of your bosses, monarchs, parliaments, because of the borders you ‘share’? Is it your responsibility to differentiate yourself, and (whether you do or don’t), is it your lookout when the bombers (etc) come? On the other hand I heard a well-informed caller on the radio saying we should bar any Syrian refugees from Britain on the grounds that they were ‘all cowards’ who had failed to stay and fight Assad. Genuinely. “What would have happened if WE had done that with Hitler”? (NB, this person was not alive in WW2 so the ‘we’ must have been channelling a Blitz Spirit.)
  8. And irrational fear and hate can be secular too…
    But there’s also rational fear and hate. We prefer that kind. We are, we think, rationally afraid of what people can be persuaded to do in the name of this god or that, just as we are quite reasonably opposed to using these acts to justify locking up refugees, racism, xenophobia, sometimes drowned with lashings of secular Western superiority (paid for in the blood of millions sacrificed on the altar of slavery and imperialism over the centuries). We are afraid of what nationalist dickwaving can unleash (more than one former resident of Yugoslavia has compared the post-Brexit vote atmosphere to 1990 in that ex-progressive state, just before the war); as we are opposed to swivel-brained little Englanders who have to pretend they wouldn’t like to re-introduce the birch, abolish abortion, ban women from going out to work, jail gays and reduce the minimum wage to £2.13, so as to have a swipe at ‘darkies’ who ‘won’t accept our values’. Integrate on this, you halfwits.
  1. London is differently composed to much of the ‘UK”; there has been an element of ‘Keep Calm and Carry on, Londoners Won’t Be Cowed, etc. in the wake of this week’s attack. Appeals for a sort of cosmopolitan unity; which has a kernel worth discussing, but would be debateable, if not ridiculous in the face of the massive class cleansing taking place in this city. A process not devoid of the notable dynamics, that it is increasingly migrants doing the shit work that keeps the fabulous wealth of the capital comfy, and that they and older working class communities are in danger of being shifted out en masse to the midlands to make room for more wealthy muckyfucks. No obvious sign of ‘Keep Calm and introduce Rent Controls’ posters on the tube. Fake News? Fake Unity!

To stand against religious insanity AND racist foreigner bashing AND lefty fear of calling religion daft is strangely hard for many folk at the moment, and at the risk of being labelled liberal bleaters, the times they are a wee bit grim. Maybe all we can do is continue to oppose both where we can, avoid being hustled into kneejerk bollocks, try to talk and work out alternatives in as many arenas as we can, live in a way that is open and welcoming but not afraid to ask awkward questions. And bring up our kids to think for themselves, not take any faiths on wholesale.

And punch Nazis and Nigel Farage when you can. 


Police and parliament are likely to seize on the atmosphere generated by the attacks to introduce measures that will help them with surveillance and control, to an even greater extent than they do already. Bearing in mind the revelation in recent days that the Met employed Indian hackers to break into the email accounts of a number of activists – mainly revealed to be from the environmental movement, so far, though who knows what’s more to come? This kind of info often drips into the public arena, if it ever emerges at all. Support your local Netpol, COPS, Spies Out of Lives, and so on…

Another likely upshot could be further extension to powers to block, prevent and exclude protests from the immediate neighbourhood of Parliament (one glaring oversight in the security ring around the building being the lack of bollards that prevent drivers veering onto the pavement on Westminster Bridge, though some in the press also gleefully called for an end to cycle lanes as the attacker drove along the one on the bridge. Mysterious, the lack of calls for banning of 4x4s because he was driving one. Weird, that.)

Of course restrictions can be got around… The exclusion zone around Parliament was brought in in 2003, as we have previously discussed, as MPs cheerfully voting for mass murder of Iraqis pretended to be concerned that terrorists could infiltrate protests with the aim of an attack on Parliament. In reality this was aimed specifically at Brian Haw’s famous permanent picket protesting sanctions and war against Iraq, in Parliament Square. Iraq war, state violence, individual violence, Islamism – told you it was all connected.

Brian’s megaphone constantly echoing across the road was notoriously disturbing MPs and peers’ enjoyment of the subsidised bars and interfering with their family life (as they dictated letters to the members of their family hired on inflated wages and living rent-free in expenses-paid Mayfair flats). Their blunder, in failing to make the law to ban protests near Parlymental retrospective had us pissing ourselves, as Brian’s picket pre-dated the Act, and he managed to stay put and beat any number of court appearances and attempts to get round this loophole. Till a judge finally ruled the law WAS in fact retrospective, despite not saying so, and calling the idea that it wasn’t “manifestly absurd”, although in, like EVERY OTHER CASE acts of parliament state clearly when they apply from. We Are At War With Eurasia. We Have Always Been At War With Eurasia.

In the meantime Brian Haw and others who joined him were nicked repeatedly, usually for ‘unauthorised demonstration’, obstruction, refusing to surrender a megaphone or banner…

For instance, on this date 11 years ago, (March 26, 2006) Brian was arrested when he refused to give one of his banners to the police. The banner had been held by a supporter, Barbara Tucker (while holding a pink sequinned banner “Bliar War Criminal”), who was protesting with Brian and was arrested under Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. Both were later released without charge but were ‘reported’ to the CPS. Throughout the process Brian refused to hand over the banner or any of his other possessions. A Formal Complaint over this arrest was never investigated. They were both issued with a Summons to court, served on 9th May 2006, but on 14th September that year Police & CPS lost this one – the case failed because of abuse of process.

Brian Haw continued, with others, to protest in Parliament Square. He died in June 2011.

Lots more on Brian’s protest 


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

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Today in London radical history: Leveller printer William Larner arrested & jailed, 1646.

As we have previously discussed, during the English Civil War, the Stationers’ Office, was responsible for censorship and licensing of publications, and spent a good deal of energy chasing down illegal printers issuing pamphlets and newspapers spreading all manner of radical political and religious ideas.

As part of the Stationer’s campaign to shut down these domestic extremists, William Larner was arrested on March 22nd, 1646, by agents of the Stationer, and charged with publishing unlicensed pamphlets.

Larner, from Gloucerstershire, was a bookseller and printer, a member of the Merchant Taylor’s Company, who had been associated with puritan and later Leveller activist John Lilburne since the early 1640s at least, having published a second edition of Lilburne’s A Christian Man’s Triall in December 1641.

He had apparently operated from a succession of bookshops: at the sign of the Golden Anchor, near Paul’s Chain, in 1641 (a street that ran south of St Paul’s Churchyard, now part of Queen Victoria Street); at ‘The Bible’ in East Cheap, 1642 before moving to the Blackmoor in Bishopsgate Street, in the northern suburbs of the City of London..

Larner later served in the parliamentarian army against the king, was invalided out, to resume his trade ‘at the sign of the Blackamoor’. As well as printing unlicensed pamphlets there, he was known to have co-operated with other future Leveller writers Richard Overton, and his brother Robert, and to have been involved with the underground presses producing proto-Leveller tracts at Goodmans Fields, on the so-called the Martin Mar Priest Press, 1645-46, and in the radical heartland of Coleman Street. In 1645, the puritan William Prynne, Lilburne’s former mentor turned bitter enemy, denounced Larner as one of the distributors of Lilburne’s pamphlets (in Larner’s case in Kent). Larner association with Lilburne, the Levellers and army Agitators was to continue until 1649 at least…

When Larner was arrested at his shop, the Stationers’ men found 14 copies of Last Warning to all the Inhabitants of London, a plea for religious toleration. The Stationer, Joseph Hunscott, had been somewhat gutted to see this undergound squib appear, since he had thought his men had put a stop to the succession of illegal ‘libels’ when they seized a clandestine press in Goodmans Fields a few days earlier.

Larner was dragged (with the aid of a constable) before the Lord Mayor of London at the Guildhall, where he was treated as John Lilburne had been before him. He replied, very much in the spirit of ‘Freeborn John’: “I desire the liberty of a Free-man of England not to answer to interrogatories.” He refused to pay the fee to the Stationers, and was jailed. On April 3rd, he was brought before the House of Lords and questioned, accused of being the author, printer and publisher of the Last Warning. A Mr Smith gave evidence that Larner had given him money to buy a printing press for this purpose. Larner didn’t deny this.

Larner’s brother and Jane Hale, both employed by Larner, were also hauled in front of the Lords bar, but they refused to be sworn in or to answer any questions, so they too were committed, to the Fleet Prison.

On April 20th, Hunscott and some of his men went to search Larner and his rooms in prison, finding the manuscript of a pamphlet, A True Relation of all the illegal Proceedings against William Larner; but despite seizing this it was published 12 days later. The rage of the Stationer and the Lords must have been compounded by the appearance the same day of another tract supporting Larner, clearly printed on the same press that had produced the Last Warning. The underground printers were running rings around the authorities, though over the following year repression and increasing division among independent religious congregations and the radical direction the proto-Levellers were moving in made unlicensed printing much more difficult.

Larner was eventually released in October 1646, though his brother and maid (presumably Jane Hale) were still inside three months later (as were other ‘Levellers’). His shop in Bishopsgate was still running in 1650; after which he moved to a bookshop near Fleet Bridge (where Holborn Viaduct now spans the Fleet valley), around 1652, which was still active in 1659. After which he vanishes from history…


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Today in London’s radical history: Chartists hold mass meeting, John Street, Fitzrovia, 1848.

The John Street Institute was founded by utopian socialist and patron saint of the co-operative movement, Robert Owen in 1840, and became the main centre of Owenite activity in London between 1840 to 1858. It stood in John Street (now renamed Whitfield Street), off Fitzroy Square, in London’s Fitzrovia.

The Institute was nicknamed the Infidel Hall, out of resentment at its anti-religious lectures, by the London City Mission Magazine. It became a meeting place for radical workmen, Chartists, socialists, atheists, deists and other radicals…

A well-known rendezvous for Reformers in the middle years of the century was the John Street Institution, situated near Tottenham Court Road. It had been a chapel, I think, but was then leased by the followers of Robert Owen. Lectures were given there; meetings were held there; classes were conducted there. A more useful centre of social and political activity did not exist in all London. The platform was perfectly free. Chartism, Republicanism, Freethought, Socialism-all sorts and conditions of thought could be expounded in John Street if capable exponents desired to expound them. I had heard Mrs. C. H. Dexter lecture there in 1851 on the Bloomer costume, and in the Bloomer costume. There also, five years later, I heard the venerable Robert Owen, then a patriarch of eighty-four. The subjects discussed were of the widest and most varied character-social, political, religious, literary, scientific, economical, historical. And the lecturers who discussed them were as varied as the subjects-Thomas Cooper, Robert Cooper, Samuel Kydd, Dr. Mill, Dr. Sexton, Iconoclast, Henry Tyrrell, Richard Hart, Joseph Barker, Brewin Grant, George Jacob Holyoake, and many another whose very name is now forgotten. Of all the able men who endeavoured to enlighten the public from the John Street platform not one survives save George Jacob Holyoake. When the lease of the institution expired, a source of real light and ventilation expired also.” (William Edwin Adams)

The Social Institute was opened in February 1840 as the hall of the London branch of the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists, as the Owenite Association of All Classes of All Nations had now become. The branch had formerly met at 69 Great Queen Street. Around the country there were twenty or so of these buildings, more usually known as Halls of Science, which were built in the early 1840s to serve as the focus of propaganda activity of the mainly working class branches. Their function however was largely superfluous after 1842, when the ‘missionary’ aspect of the Owenites had been abandoned.

The exterior of this building was carried out in the plain stucco typical of era, projecting forward was a porch with square columns. Inside was a large hall, fifty feet square, equipped with a church-like organ and galleries. 1,100 people could be accommodated. Its cost was around £3,000.

Congresses of the Owenite Rational Association were held here in the early 1840s… (and Owenites were still holding Congresses here in 1857).

Later the Institution also became a meeting place for the Chartist movement. Chartists were holding regular meetings here by 1848, the year the Chartists held a national convention here, attended by 49 delegates, and including a mass meeting on 21st March, in the lead up to the final mass demo to hand in the third Chartist Petition on 10 April.

A National Assembly of Chartists was also held at John Street from 1 to 13 May, in the aftermath of the failure of the petition.

The Chartist movement was undergoing its last significant crisis, as some leaders bottled the implications of their bluster and rhetoric – but others plotted revolution. The ‘Ulterior Committee’, the secret Chartist group planning an uprising, also met here, as they moved around trying to avoid police spies, on 14 June 1848… 14 were present, with Peter McDouall in the chair… Allegedly, at this meeting, detailed plans were made for an insurrection to start the following weekend: “A map of London was produced, and different plans of attack formed” Barricades were to be erected from the Strand near Temple Bar to Ludgate Hill, from Cheapside up St Martins le Grand and Aldersgate Street to the Barbican, across Saffron Hill to Hatton Garden and St Giles Church, Drury Lane, Russell Street and Covent Garden back to the Strand. Theatres and public buildings to be set fire to. Pawnbrokers and gunshops plundered for arms. Barricades also across Waterloo Bridge to Kent Road. Police station there to be attacked and march by troops on London intercepted. Could rely on 5000 armed Chartists plus 5000 Irish.”

However, that same day the committee dissolved itself, apparently having become aware that had been compromised by spies. Plans were revived in July and August, but the spies were still deep in their midst, and arrests on 16th August curtailed the intended rising…

After use by the Owenites ceased in 1858 the John Street building came into commercial use and mostly seems to have been used for performing arts – the famous small person ‘General Tom Thumb’ was apparently ‘on show’ here at one time. By 1914 the building (since 1867 known as 40 Whitfield Street) was the Albert Rooms dance hall. The old Institute is believed to have been demolished in the 1980s. A smallish office block is on the site.

Thanks to Keith Scholey’s research for this post. 


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Today in London’s radical history: Brotherhood Church finally closes its doors, 1934.

On corner of Southgate Road and Balmes Road, on Islington’s border with Hackney, where a block of flats now stands above a Tesco Express, there once stood a church, for a few years one of North London’s leading socialist and anti-war spaces…

According to Ken Weller:

“The Brotherhood Church was founded in 1662, as an independent congregational chapel. In 1862 it moved to Southgate Road; at this time it was a conventional chapel, although it had some fairly radical connections. In 1892 the Reverend Bruce Wallace became the Minister. Wallace was a Christian Socialist. In 1887 he had founded the socialist paper Brotherhood at Limavady in Northern Ireland, in which he developed the ideas he was later to put into practice.

When Bruce Wallace took over he renamed the Southgate Road Chapel the Brotherhood Church, and it rapidly became the centre of a whole range of radical and socialist activities. The Brotherhood Association, the Church’s ‘political’ wing, had about 15 branches by the turn of the century, mostly in London but one or two elsewhere.

There were also several associated churches, for example those at Croydon, Harrow Road, Forest Gate and Walthamstow (It’s possible that the Walthamstow Brotherhood Church was connected with the Walthamstow Free Christian Church. whose minister, Reg Sorenson played an important part in the movement opposing World War 1 in North London). Also connected with the Church was the Co-operative Brotherhood Trust which operated several workshops and shops, of which at least one, the shop at 37 Newington Green, seems to have lasted until after the 1914-1918 War. In the 1890s, the Croydon Brotherhood Church was the main publisher of Tolstoy’s social writings; its minister.J. C. Kenworthy was also a well known anti-War campaigner.

About the turn of the century, the Brotherhood movement spawned a number of communities in the countryside where members lived together. There were four of these in Essex alone, and while many were relatively short lived, one at least, ‘The Commune’ at Stanford-le- Hope, was in existence until the Second World War. ‘The Commune’ and some other Brotherhood-connected groups seem to have played quite an important part in the informal network helping ‘dodgers’ on the run. After the end of the War ‘The Commune’ provided a recuperative haven for a number of anti-War activists, notably Reg Sorenson and Fenner Brockway and their families.

The politics of the Church were basically christian socialist and pacifist – a number of its members were Quakers. There was a strong Tolstoyan anarchist current and William Morris was an important influence.

The Church had strong links with the socialist movement, exemplified by the record of one of its prominent members, H. A. Barker.

Barker also illustrates how, whenever you look at the wartime radical movement, you have only to scratch the surface to find strong connections with previous radical waves embedded within them. Barker (1858-1940) was a Trustee of the Brotherhood Church for its last 30 years. A builder by trade, he was born in Shoreditch and seems to have lived in the general area all his life; as a boy he had been confirmed at the Southgate Road Chapel before it was taken over by Bruce Wallace. Barker was a pioneer socialist. He was probably a member of the Labour Emancipation League, a forerunner of the SDF, and he was certainly a very early member of the latter. In December 1884 Barker left the SDF with the Socialist League split, and he became a very active member of the new body, of which he eventually became National Secretary between 1886 and 1888.

In 1888 Barker left the Socialist League with a number of other members who objected to the growing anti-parliamentarianism of that organisation, and he helped to found the Labour Union, a short-lived socialist group which played a prominent part, with H. A. Barker much to the fore, in the industrial struggles in North London in the 1889-1890 period, notably the successful and pretty violent strike of coal porters at the St Pancras Arches complex in July and August 1889, which led to the formation of the Coal Porters’ Union. The Labour Union was also heavily involved in a disastrous strike of postmen at Mount Pleasant and other local post offices in July 1890, which was completely smashed by the authorities.

Barker went on to play a leading part in the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and he was a member of its first executive. He was an active member of the Brotherhood Church from its formation until its closure.

A notable event at the Church under Bruce Wallace was the Congress there in 1907 of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party which was attended by virtually all the prominent figures of both the Bolshevik and Menshevik wings of the Party (Among those present at the Brotherhood Church on this occasion were Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Plekhanov, Gorky, Zinoviev and Rosa Luxemburg).

In January 1911 the Church was taken over by F. R. Swan, who got the job with the help of the Reverend R. J. Campbell of the City Temple. Campbell had been Secretary of Finsbury ILP. Swan had lost his previous living because of his support for Victor Grayson, the successful independent socialist candidate in the Colne Valley election of 1907. He was a member of the ILP and had joined the staff of the Daily Herald virtually from its foundation.

Under Swan’s ministry the Church became even more explicitly political. Its service took the form of a reading from the Bible – in accordance with a clause in the Church’s trustee agreement – readings from other books, the singing of songs from the Labour Songbook, and a speaker. Among the huge number of speakers before the War were Annie Besant, Sylvia Pankhurst, Keir Hardie, Tom Mann and George Lansbury.”

During WW1 the Church was one of the main North London centres of anti-war activity, on socialist-pacifist grounds, but opening its doors to anti-war activists of other stripes too, such as the North London Herald League, Sylvia Pankhurst and other East London federation of Suffragettes/Women’s Suffrage Federation/Workers Socialist Federation (our Sylv and friends liked to change the moniker of their crew more often than Karl Marx changed his razor blades).

Various elements of the Brotherhood Church movement seemed to have played a very significant part in the informal networks helping men on the run from the authorities and dodging conscription during the war.

As recounted last week on this blog, several anti-war meetings here were attacked by ‘patriotic mobs’, often composed largely of soldiers, and not uncommonly stirred up by the police and Special Branch.

“Perhaps the peak of the Brotherhood Church’s involvement in the anti-War struggle came in July 1917 when, in response to the February Revolution in Russia, the Leeds Convention met to set up Councils of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegates. The Convention decided, among other things, to hold a series of regional meetings, one of them to be held in London. The original London hall having failed to materialise due to police pressure, the meeting was moved to the Brotherhood Church.

This meeting took place on July 28th. There were about 250 delegates including a number of servicemen. There had been some attempt to keep the venue of the meeting private but even so the authorities were well prepared. Basil Thomson, head of the Special Branch, noted in his diary on 27th July in relation to the meeting:

They will have a rude awakening tomorrow, as I have arranged for the Daily Express to publish the place of the meeting and strong opposition may be expected.

Leaflets were also distributed in the area stating that a pro-German meeting was taking place and that ‘scores of old soldiers and others are going to march to the canal bridge to show these traitors what we think of them’. The leaflets called on the local population to ‘remember the last air raid and roll up’. Part of the job of mobilising the mob was taken on by Horatio Bottomley, then MP for South Hackney, who ran a sort of mini-Tammany Hall locally which had a ‘stable’ of roughs on call.

Long before the meeting was due to start the mobs had begun to gather. It was estimated that they eventually totalled 8,000, many of them in uniform. The leaders of the military contingent seem to have been a Canadian soldier and two Royal Naval Air Service men. Also present were our old friends the Anti-German League. There was also a strong force of police in attendance.

By 3 pm the Church was completely surrounded. At 3.15 a sledge-hammer mysteriously materialised and the front door of the Church was smashed in and the fight started. The delegates who had already arrived were trapped in the small hall at the back. Meanwhile the crowd systematically smashed up the main hall; windows and fanlights were broken and frames ripped out, the furniture was almost completely destroyed, water pipes were pulled out of the walls and the hall was partially flooded.

Bertrand Russell – who was there – described what happened to the trapped delegates:

‘A few people, among them Francis Meynell attempted resistance, and I remember him returning from the door with his face streaming with blood.

The mob burst in led by a few officers; all except the officers were more or less drunk. The fiercest were viragos who used wooden boards full of rusty nails. An attempt was made by the officers to induce the women among us to retire first so they might deal as they thought fit with the pacifist men, whom they supposed to be all cowards. Mrs Snowden behaved on this occasion in a very admirable manner. She refused pointblank to leave the hall unless the men were allowed to leave at the same time. The other women present agreed with her. This rather upset the officers in charge of the roughs, as they did not particularly wish to assault women. But by this time the mob had its blood up, and pandemonium broke loose. Everyone had to escape as best they could while the police looked on calmly. Two of the drunken women began to attack me with their boards full of nails. While I was wondering how one defended oneself against this type of attack, one of the ladies among us went up to the police and suggested they should defend me. The police merely shrugged their shoulders. ‘But he is an eminent philosopher’, said the lady, and the police still shrugged. ‘But he is famous all over the world as a man of learning’, she continued. The police remained unmoved. ‘But he is the brother of an Earl’, she finally cried. At this the police rushed to my assistance. They were, however, too late to be of any service, and I owe my life to a young woman whom I did not know, who interposed herself between me and the viragos long enough for me to make my escape. But quite a number of people, including several women, had their clothes torn off their backs as they left the building.

Another illustration of the violence of the situation and the attitude of the police was what happened to Leonard Howard of the North LHL. With blood streaming down his face he was attacked again and again. He eventually took refuge in a furniture van, and the police finally acted- they grabbed him and threw him back to his attackers…

Needless to say the conference broke up; when John Maclean turned up a bit later all he saw was ‘a howling mob of male and female dervishes’ . Among the consequences of this rather one-sided fighting were numerous injuries, including lacerated heads and serious cuts; one delegate nearly had his eye gouged out by a stick; and a young woman had her throat badly cut when someone in the crowd tried to grab her necklace.

A. M. Barker the 18-year-old son of H. A. Barker – was present at the time and wrote of his experience to me:

But I will tell of an awful scene of a woman being swung around by her hair, the technique of women’s fighting in those days – and which could cause terrible scalp wounds – and a crowd of god knows how many howling ‘do her in’ and horrible language. . . . The next morning I found the Church itself wrecked, a shameful shambles of broken windows, broken down doors, smashed pews, piano, organ, and the floors of the Church almost solid with brickbats. I almost broke down and cried at this terrible shameful sight.

The police arrested only one man – one of the delegates. The excuse given for the police inactivity by the sub-inspector in charge was ‘that to have attempted to arrest anyone would have depleted our force and given them [the rioters] the opportunity of attacking the Church.’ In actuality the role of the police consisted entirely of gently shooing the rioters from the ruined hall after they had worked themselves out – a classic example of low-profile policing?”

The authorities were heavily involved in the attacks on, and harrassment of, the anti-War movement. They were certainly involved – as the entry in Basil Thomson’s diary indicates – in sometimes making sure that potential attackers were informed of the venues of meetings. What happened at the Brotherhood Church was not an isolated event: what happened on a local scale was repeated nationally.

“With the coming of peace the Church continued to function, but it was in severe financial difficulties, having to foot the bill for repairing the damage it had received during the War. It continued to be a centre for a wide range of political activities. For example, the first two conferences of the Young Communist League was held there, and trade union branches, local Labour Parties, the SPGB, the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the Shoreditch Unemployed all met at the Church. Eventually funds ran out and the Church finally closed its doors on March 18th, 1934. Regular meetings of the congregation continued at the Essex Road Library until the death of F. R. Swan in October 1938; the last meeting was held on January 12th 1939.

After the final closure, surviving members of the Brotherhood Church apparently used to meet in Walthamstow until the early 1960s. But a Brotherhood Church still exists at Stapleton, near Pontefract, Yorkshire. This community is a direct descendant of the Brotherhood community at Purleigh in Essex, which was itself an offshoot of the Brotherhood Church at Croydon.”

On a personal note, your past tense typist, in my wayward youth, met some socialists raised in the Stapleton Brotherhood Community, who were active in my local anti-poll tax group… the spirit lives on… This post is dedicated to John and Bracken x

This post was lifted with some text-slaloming from Ken Weller, Don’t Be a Soldier.

For information on some of the Brotherhood communities see Dennis Hardy, Alternative Communities in nineteenth Century England, 1979.


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Today in London’s theatrical history: Paul Robeson stars as black revolutionary Toussaint Louverture in CLR James play, 1936

“I was tired of hearing that the West Indians were oppressed, that we were black and miserable, that we had been brought from Africa, and that we were living there and that we were being exploited.” (CLR James)

“James’s treatment of ‘the most glorious victory of the oppressed over their oppressors in world history’ will remain an inspiration, because of its universal theme, for the foreseeable future.” (Christian Hogsbjerg)

In 1791, inspired both by the ideals of the French Revolution and the horrors and toil of their existence, slaves on the Caribbean island of San Domingo rose in revolt. For twelve years they fought off the white French masters, and armies from France, Spain and Britain, ultimately founding the independent black republic of Haiti. A number of outstanding military leaders masterminded the war for Haiti’s freedom: most famously, Toussaint L’ouverture, who emerged from the struggle as its most clear thinker and general, though he was betrayed into the hands of the French before the final victory and died in a French prison.

Hollywood, the socialist Paul Foot once noted, ‘made a film about Spartacus, the leader of the Roman slave revolt, because Spartacus was beaten. Toussaint L’Ouverture was victorious, so they haven’t made a film about him’. His being black may have something to do with it…

There may be no Hollywood blockbuster (I’m guessing it’d end up with Matt Damon in blackface anyway), but there is a French TV movie

And there was once a ground-breaking play…

In 1934 the fantastic Trinidadian Marxist polymath CLR James, then living in London, finished writing his play Toussaint L’Ouverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. The playscript was long presumed lost, (although James did revise the text in the 1960s), until the rediscovery of a draft copy in 2005. James was to go on to write the classic account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, published in 1938.

Born in Trinidad in 1901, Cyril Lionel Robert James was to become a marxist activist and theorist, leading pan-Africanist, cricket commentator, and cultural thistorian. He had arrived in England in 1932, and became engaged not only in literary challenges to racism, in revolutionary politics and the African and West Indian independence movements, in resistance to fascism… James’s play about a revolutionary leader defeating brutal oppressors was both a historical drama and a response to the news of the day.

Toussaint Louverture was staged on March 15th and 16th 1936 at London’s Westminster Theatre; another black communist, the incredible Paul Robeson, starring in the title role, one of the world’s most famous actors and singers– making it an event of international interest. The League of Coloured Peoples (discussed on this blog the other day), of which James was an active member, helped sponsor the performance. This was the first time black professional actors had starred on the British stage in a play written by a black playwright, and interestingly despite his long acting career and lifelong anti-racist stance, was to be the only time Robeson starred in a play by a writer of African descent. Just the idea of a meeting of the work these two giants of the twentieth century is enough to send shivers down the spine…

James wrote the play in 1934, but it remained unproduced until 1936, when the script came into the hands of Robeson, who had been looking for a chance to portray the Haitian leader on stage. Back in 1926, Robeson had told an interviewer that he dreamed “of a great play about Haiti, a play about Negroes, written by a Negro, and acted by Negroes . . . of a moving drama that will have none of the themes that offer targets for race supremacy advocates.” In 1935 Robeson had even discussed the idea of a film about the Haitian revolt with the great Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein, who had become fascinated with the Haitian story. Sadly this film never happened (is there an alternative universe where Eisenstein filmed Robeson in James’s play! – imagine…)

For an interesting and detailed description of the plot, themes and staging of he play, it’s worth reading Christian Hogsbjerg’s introduction to his published edition of Toussaint Louverture.

“The cast assembled around Robeson was remarkable, featuring as it did other black professional actors from throughout the African diaspora, including Robert Adams, who played Dessalines. Adams, born in British Guiana, had, like James, been a distinguished schoolteacher who produced and acted in amateur productions before coming to Britain. He had worked with Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River and Midshipman Easy, and in 1935 he made his London stage debut in Stevedore. Also recruited from Stevedore was the Nigerian Orlando Martins, who played the role of Boukman. Black amateur actors—including other veterans of Stevedore, such as John Ahuma, Rufus E. Fennell, and Charles Johnson—were included, while the remaining cast was recruited through the Stage Society itself, many of whom were experienced professional actors or rising stars such as Harry Andrews.

The play was staged at the 730- seat Westminster Theatre, on the fringes of London’s West End in Palace Street. The owner of the Westminster Theatre during this period was A. B. Horne, and it was managed by Anmer Hall. Michael Sidnell notes that Hall learnt that “Sunday performances were a way of getting a hearing for new or neglected plays without going to great expense.” With its quite liberal management, it is not surprising that the Westminster Theatre was a home for the radical Group Theatre, and James’s Toussaint Louverture had followed a series of plays by “the Auden Group,” most notably Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog beneath the Skin. The famous theatre critic Herbert Farjeon noted at the end of the 1930s that “the Westminster Theatre has probably housed during the present decade a higher percentage of interesting plays than any other theatre north of the Thames.” In 1955, the Westminster Theatre produced an all- African play, Freedom, which toured Europe and was filmed in Nigeria in 1956 with a cast of thousands.

Those wishing to see the performance had to pay at least one guinea, the basic annual membership subscription to the Stage Society. As well as the Sunday evening performance on 15 March, there was a matinee the next day, and for this final performance James himself was called upon to step in for Rufus E. Fennell, the actor playing the “small part” of Macoya. “I was in it by accident. . . . I wanted to sit in the back and watch the play . . . not to be mixed up in it. But I dressed myself up and played it.” Overall, though the production went well, James would always remember it was Paul Robeson who stole the show.” As James, interviewed in November 1983, recalled, “The moment he came onto the stage, the whole damn thing changed. It’s not a question of acting . . . the physique and the voice, the spirit behind him—you could see it when he was on stage.”

Reviews were said to be mixed (twould be interesting to know on what grounds – the explicit radical, anti-racist, and anti-imperial message may have coloured the artistic opinions of white reviewers), but by all accounts Robeson’s performance was typically outstanding. The first performance received an ovation. Broadway made noises of interest, and a couple of critics suggested the play would adapt well to screen, though in the end neither a Broadway run or a film materialised.

James was, according to Christian Høgsbjerg, (who discovered the manuscript in the papers of the former trotskyist Jock Haston, a sometime comrade of James in 2005), “acutely conscious of the need to challenge the mythological British nationalist narrative of abolition, one that glorified the role played by British parliamentarians such as Wilberforce. Indeed, in the original version of the playscript C.L.R. James mentioned Wilberforce himself in passing, but then later in a handwritten revision… decided to remove the explicit mention of the abolitionist Tory MP… to help bring home the essential truth about abolition — that it was the enslaved who abolished slavery themselves — to a British audience who would almost certainly be hearing such a truth for the first time.”

The play mingled elements of classic theatre (eg the use of the rebellious slave army as a kind of chorus, in the ancient Greek tradition) – though radically subverted “the final scene of revolutionary history sees what James would in 1963 describe as “the entry of the chorus, of the ex- slaves themselves, as the arbiters of their own fate,” making for an ending to a drama that no Greek tragedian or even someone with the far- reaching imagination of Shakespeare could have envisaged” – with modern alternative theatrical ideas and ideals. The mix of music dance and drama evokes the latest methods in European theatre, like the work of Brecht, while also deliberately echoing African culture.

James portrayal of Toussaint is of a tragic hero, as a revolutionary leader who ends his days in prison, having failed in the end to follow through the struggle to complete independence for Haiti (a task his lieutenants were left to finish), and paid the price for it. Having not begun the slave revolt, but emerged from it and been shaped by it, he became its outstanding strategist and thinker, but didn’t have enough faith in the black rebels’ ability to make their own future. Believing they should make a semi-colonial peace with revolutionary France, in the end he contrasted this with too much faith in the European enlightenment, and was betrayed, captured and imprisoned by the French republic. James was again bringing past, present and theory together in his raw discussion of the ideas of revolutionary leadership, charismatic thinkers and hero-figures, and the ability of the oppressed to shape their own destiny: vital questions then, as in the 1790s, as now…

The story of Haiti’s successful slave revolt is inspiring at any time, but in the 1930s, with almost all of Africa still under the colonial control of white European powers, putting on the play in the heart of what was then the most powerful empire of all was a bold move. The context of the times is crucial – fascism, based securely in the idea of racial hierarchies and white superiority, was rising; Italy had Just invaded Ethiopia (James was also a founder of the International African Friends of Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then called, and the parallels of Haiti with Ethiopian resistance to Italian invasion were obvious and stark); but also political opposition and revolt against the colonial powers across Africa was beginning to coalesce. This could not ever be seen only as a play about incidents from the past; it was also a clarion call for massive social change from below for in the present and the future. It’s worth noting that the audience very likely included a range of vital figures in the future development of black self-determination across three (if not more) continents, with Pan-African figures as George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, and Eric Williams being part of James’ immediate circle.

As Christian Hogsbjerg points out, the staging of the play also illustrates “the radical counterculture that has always existed in the “dark heart” of the British Empire”, and forms a brief bright illustration of the black radical traditions, leftwing ferment and literary bohemianism which all met and flowered so productively in both James and Robeson. James’ background in the Caribbean added a specific motivation for telling Toussaint’s story (which he had been researching for several years, spurred on by inadequate and racist accounts of Haiti and dismissals of black people as inferior to whites). If the project was “fundamentally inspired by James earlier environment, the colonial Caribbean society in which he was born and grew to intellectual maturity,” (Hogsbjerg) it also reflected how James had evolved politically since he left the West Indies – moving from “a continuing identification with imperial Britain” to a Pan-Africanist viewpoint and then on to Marxism.

But Christian Hogsbjerg also discusses how the staging of the play itself, not just the subject matter, formed both a break and a link with theatre traditions. A link to black West Indian theatre: “Although James’s play has been celebrated as a pioneering production in the history of black British theatre, and an important moment in the history of African and Caribbean theatre, Toussaint Louverture also stands as an outstanding contribution to what the late Trinidadian dramatist and scholar Errol Hill once described as “the revolutionary tradition in black drama,” a “tradition of writing and producing plays that deal directly with black liberation.” This revolutionary tradition dates at least as far back as the Haitian Revolution itself, for after Toussaint seized the power to rule as black Consul in Saint- Domingue, James noted in The Black Jacobins that “the theatres began to play again, and some of the Negro players showed a remarkable talent.”

But also a defiant two fingers to the racially dubious portrayals of black people on the British stage – of ‘nigger minstrels’, or credulous childlike figures needing a white authority figure.

Interestingly, nearly 30 years later, James also adapted his account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, into a play:

“James felt the victory of many national liberation movements internationally in the postwar world meant that, as he later recalled, “the idea I was expressing should be differently expressed . . . writing about the struggle for independence in 1956 or 1960 was very different from what it was in 1936.” As James told Reinhard Sander, “After twenty- five years the colonial revolution had made great strides so about that time I began to rewrite it [the play] in view of the new historical happenings.” The play version of The Black Jacobins was first performed at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in 1967, directed by Lyndersay amid the tumult of civil war to an enthusiastic reception. It has since been staged numerous times, and this later script has necessarily formed the basis of scholarly discussion of “James’s play.” The later play essentially followed the same chronological structure as Toussaint Louverture. There is the same humour, the lively music, drumming ebbing and flowing into the action, and there are still moments of rare dramatic power. Yet by the 1960s James had experienced for himself, in Trinidad with Eric Williams and in Ghana with Kwame Nkrumah, both the excitement and the disappointment generated by movements for colonial liberation in the Caribbean and in Africa. If Toussaint Louverture was about the vindication of national liberation struggles written in the age of colonialism, in The Black Jacobins James and Lyndersay explored what lessons the Haitian Revolution might hold for national liberation struggles in the age of decolonisation.”

Christian Hobsbjerg’s book, which includes the full script of the play, the programme, photographs, and reviews from the 1936 production, a contextual introduction and editorial notes on the play, and selected essays and letters by James and others, is published by Duke University Press. Tis a bit expensive however… 

Have a look at Hogsbjerg’s blog

And you can watch an abridged performance of the play put on by Bowdoin College (Maine, USA) students in November 2014.


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Today in London’s penal history: breakout attempt at New Gaol, Southwark, 1775.

Various sites around Southwark’s Borough High Street had served as County Gaol for Surrey over the centuries; jostling with a number of other prisons built in a relatively small area of what was for years London’s southern lawless edge… (Some erected here because Southwark was unruly and famed for crime, prostitution and dodgy characters… others just because land was cheaper and available.)

From 1580 onward the county gaol was kept in the house called the White Lion, a coaching Inn, just north of St. George’s Church, in Borough High Street, Southwark’s main drag. Stow, in 1598, speaks of “the white Lyon a Gaole so called, for that the same was a common hosterie for the receit of travellers … This house was first used as a Gaole within these fortie yeares last, since the which time the prisoners were once removed thence to a house in Newtowne, where they remained for a short time, and were returned backe again to the foresaid White Lyon, there to remaine as in the appointed Gaole for the Countie of Surrey.” 

The Gaol had long been a target for rebels and rioters: in 1640, in the run-up to the outbreak of the English Civil War,” the rabble apprentices released the whole of the prisoners in the “White Lion.”

In the 1650s the inadequate state of the Gaol led the magistrates to try to negotiate taking over the old Clink Prison near the river, but this fell through… The Gaol fell into disrepair as the keeper neglected its upkeep. By 1666 the White Lion, at least the part of it as was still available for use as a prison, was in such a bad condition that the sheriff was obliged to commit his prisoners to the Marshalsea. This state of affairs continued, in spite of numerous complaints, for over 50 years. In 1718 the Court of Sessions decided to levy a penny rate to cover the cost of building a new Bridewell and County Gaol, but 2 years later it was reported that no money had been paid in to the Treasurer.

Eventually, “after 70 years of delay and vacillation” the magistrates were threatened with being indicted “for having no county gaol”, and in the early 1720s a new County Gaol was built, on the same site off Borough High Street, next to the Southwark House of Correction (the authorities did love to cluster their lock-ups, prisons, workhouses and other repressive institutions together in them days… Now the fashion is to shove them out in the country where its awkward for relatives to visit.)

Like most of Southwark’s prisons, the New Gaol was to become a venue for resistance and rebellion. In March 1775, several prisoners attempted a collective breakout:

“Robert Rous, one of the turnkeys of the New Gaol, Southwark, seeing a prisoner, who was committed there for different highway robberies, with rags tied round his fetters, ordered him to take them off; and on his refusing to do it, he immediately cut them off; when finding both his irons sawed through, he secured him, and then sent up tow of his assistants to overlook a great number of prisoners who were in the strong room, and all [bound] him with their irons, which they had knocked off. Rous hearing of it, went up with a… pistol, and extricated his fellow-turnkey from their fury, and then locked the door. All the turnkeys as well as constables, now surrounding the door and the yard; and the prisoners fired several pistols loaded with powder and ball at two of the constables; when, the balls going through their hats, and the outrages continuing, one of the constables, who had a blunderbuss loaded with shot, fired through the iron grates at the window, and dangerously wounded one fellow committed for a burglary in the Mint. At length a party of soldiers, which had been sent for from the Tower, being arrived, and having loaded their muskets, the room was opened, and the prisoners were all secured and yoked, and 21 of them chained down to the floor in the condemned room. Some of the people belonging to the prison were wounded.” (Annual Register, 1775.)

By the time of this escape attempt, the ‘New’ Gaol was already in decline, and new fashions both in prison reform and surveillance rendered it out of date. Between 1791 and 1799 a new County gaol was built at Horsemonger Lane, next to County Sessions house (court). At this time it was the largest prison in the country. It remained Southwark’s principal prison until 1878.


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

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Today in London’s anti-racist history: the League of Coloured Peoples formed, 1931.

The League was a British civil-rights organisation, founded in 1931 to work for racial equality around the world, though in practice its primary focus was black rights in Britain. However it also was involved in other civil-rights issues, such as the persecution of the Jews in Germany.

Harold Moody, a physician and devout Christian, was frustrated with the prejudice he experienced in Britain, from finding employment to simply obtaining a residence. Moody, had moved to London from Kingston, Jamaica, in 1904 to study medicine at King’s College, but met prejudice and exclusion, had trouble finding anywhere to live, and was refused a post in a hospital because a matron “refused to have a coloured doctor working in the hospital… the poor people would not have a nigger to attend them”. Nothing like blaming the poor for your own prejudices. In February 1913, he started his own medical practice in Peckham, South London.

For 30 years Dr Moody helped hundreds of black people who came to him in distress, having experienced at first hand a degrading, or humiliating aspect of the colour bar: finding it hard to get lodgings, or work. Moody would confront the employers and plead powerfully on behalf of those victimised.

He was instrumental in overturning the Special Restriction Order (or Coloured Seamen’s Act) of 1925, a discriminatory measure which sought to restrict subsidies to merchant shipping employing only British nationals and required alien seamen to register with their local police. Many Black and Asian British nationals worked as sailors, but often had no proof of identity and were at risk of being laid off and arrested. Through his involvement with London Christian Endeavour Federation, Moody began to confront employers who were refusing jobs to black Britons.

On 13 March 1931, in a YMCA in Tottenham Court Road, London, Moody called a meeting with the contacts he had made over the years. On this night, they formed The League of Coloured Peoples.

The League had four main aims:

(1) To promote and protect the social, educational, economic and political interests.

(2) To interest members in the welfare of coloured peoples in all parts of the world.

(3) To improve relations between the races.

(4) To cooperate and affiliate with organizations sympathetic to coloured people.

In 1937, a fifth aim was added:

  • To render such financial assistance to coloured people in distress as lies within our capacity.

It was notable, in contrast with some earlier organisations concerned with black civil rights, for its deliberate attempts to become a multi-racial organisation. At the founding meeting Moody stated that he found himself in a position to ‘make representations to government authorities, hospital managements, medical faculties, commercial concerns, factory proprietors, hotel and boarding house keepers and a host of others, not only in his own name and on the basis of his own status and reputation, but in the name of all the coloured peoples in Britain’ . Moody attempted to work at a high level, corresponding with, lobbying and meeting with Colonial Secretaries to push the League’s campaigns.

The League’s inaugural executive committee of included:

  • C. Belfield Clark of Barbados
  • George Roberts of Trinidad
  • Sam Morris of Grenada
  • Robert Adams of British Guiana
  • Desmond Buckle of The Gold Coast

Also present at the inaugural meeting was Stella Thomas, who would go on to become the first woman magistrate in West Africa.

Other prominent members included West Indian Marxist  C. L. R. James, Jomo Kenyatta (later first president of Kenya) and Jamaican writer, feminist, activist, (and first black woman producer at the BBC) Una Marson.

In 1933, the League began publication of the civil-rights journal The Keys.

The League worked in alliance with a wide variety of people – pan-Africanists, race rights groups, the Colonial Office, and pressure groups in the various colonies.

From the League’s founding, its main focus was eliminating the colour bar in the British workplace, in social life, and in housing. Throughout Britain in the 1930s, black people found it extremely difficult to find a job in many industries, and were refused service or access in many restaurants, hotels, and lodging houses, and also. During the 1930s, The League of Coloured Peoples struck many blows for blacks in the workplace. Given Moody’s own experiences racial discrimination in the medical profession in particular drew the attention of the league. By 1935, a branch of the league focusing on equality in the shipping industry had grown to over 80 members.

During the Second World War the LCP continued to highlight discrimination. For instance, authorities organising the evacuation of children from big cities towns struggled to find families who would accept to take in coloured children, and the LCP lobbied against this sort of discrimination.

While relatively small – the organisation never exceeded 500 members, and in 1936 it only had 262 – it was able to command press attention and exposure.

But apart from the opposition the Moody encountered from those who considered whites superior to other races, he also had his critics from other directions… Most notably he came under fire for his initial policy of refusing black people from Asia from joining the League of Coloured Peoples – despite the fact that he did allow white people to join (though they were barred from the executive committee). Moody and a number of other League members felt that ‘coloured peoples’ meant ‘the Negro Race, particularly those in Africa and the West Indies and under the rule of Great Britain. However, others, including some members of the League executive, asserted that the organisation should accept Indians as members and ‘engage in conflict with the British Government on their behalf’. This issue became hotly debated, especially given the League’s particular links to and activity around Britain’s West Indian colonies, since the Caribbean islands had a large Asian population – 43% of the population of British Guiana were Indian, for example. Eventually the policy changed.

But others criticised Moody’s work from a leftwing perspective, as pandering to imperialism. Moody’s campaigning was very much oriented to a ‘loyal’ perspective to the British Empire, reflecting his middle class background in colonial Jamaica. Education was very much aimed at infusing a cultural imperialism, a respect for British culture and a sense of black West Indians as British subjects, with deep affiliation to the Empire’s institutions. While Moody’s and the League’s conceptions of British identity, racial equality, challenged the dominant idea that ‘true’ Britons were, by definition, white, their worldview was firmly based in a vision of a British identity, “invoking an imperial British identity that drew on widely accepted elements of Britishness, namely respectability and imperial pride.”

Its undoubtedly true that by framing their work this way the League was able to gain support from black colonials and white English people in its fight for equality that a more radical or anti-imperialist perspective would have threatened. But it has also been suggested that merely challenging the assumption of the British identity as being white was in itself a challenge to the very idea of this identity. The racial superiority of ‘whites’ was a crucial plank in the imperial project, central to the administration and suppression of the colonies; compounded by both class and gender hierarchies that effectively defined “the true Briton as white, male and middle-class.”

Opposed to this the League put up a conception of Britishness rooted in common cultural values, based on the ideas of equality, fair play and justice: concepts that great numbers of middle-class white folk liked to see in themselves and liked to believe lay at the core of the British Empire.

Moody was himself staunchly opposed to socialism and communism, overtly expressing the idea that black poor would turn to communism unless there were concessions on the colour bar and racism… Left-wing political groups criticised Moody as an “Uncle Tom” and under the control of his “imperialist masters”; Pan-Africanists, many influenced by Marxism, noted the absence of any analysis of class from the League (while co-operating with it on its equal rights campaigns).

Dr Moody died in 1947 at the age of 64, somewhat worn out by his efforts with the League. The League of Coloured Peoples dissolved four years later, in 1951.

Read more:
Reversing the Gaze: Wasu, The Keys and The Black Man on Europe and Western Civilization in the Interwar Years, 1933-1937, an interesting study of The Keys, the league’s journal, with other black publications coming out of London in the same period.


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

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