Today in Publishing history: leftwing tabloid, News On Sunday, launched, 1987.

In the mid-1980s, sick of the right-wing bias of the press, a group of Uk leftwingers decided, instead of complaining about it, they would set up our own newspaper: “a radical, campaigning tabloid that would speak truth to power.”

Thus was the News On Sunday born. It lasted 6 weeks.

Below we reprint an account of the birth and death of News on Sunday, which we have unscrupulously nicked from the Big Flame history blog. Sorry, but theft comes natural. The account does emphasise former Big Flame members’ role in the paper, but others were involved…

“Possibly the most ambitious project to come out of Big Flame was News on Sunday. The aim was to set up a radical campaigning tabloid Sunday newspaper, to challenge the right-wing domination of the media. It was created, and launched on 26th April 1987. We raised £6.5 million. And lost it all in 6 weeks, though continued to publish for a further six months – funded by the TGWU in partnership with the eccentric millionaire Owen Oyston.

The idea came from Ben Lowe, and was first set out in the Big Flame discussion bulletin in 1978. His idea was to go beyond the ambitions of newspapers like Socialist Worker and the Morning Star and establish a paper that was a popular tabloid – selling in the newsagent alongside the mainstream press. His belief was that, if we could establish sales of 100,000, it could be commercially viable. He was to be joined by Alan Hayling (a long-time Big Flame member who had been a TV producer before going to work at Ford on the assembly line), who fronted the project, built alliances and co-ordinated the raising of the funding that made it possible.

By this time Big Flame had dissolved but this was certainly a project inspired by the ideas of BF. Many other projects inspired by left-wing groups did happen then, but News on Sunday was probably unique in the scale of its ambition, as shown by the £6.5 million needed to make it happen.

Alan and Ben brought together a range of people on the left, inspired by the idea of taking on the mainstream media rather than just complaining about it. All working for free, and with no promise of any reward, a rather good pilot edition was produced in the Autumn of 1985.

With persuasive market research – on the basis of the dummy edition – and a strong business plan, Alan persuaded Guinness Mahon (a City of London merchant bank) to take it to the city. But the mainstream City investors could not understand it. “Where do the founders make their money?” was a common question. I don’t think we ever consider making money out of it – not beyond a basic salary. That wasn’t our motivation, we wanted to change the world. To most city investors the lack of a financial incentive was just weird and they were out. (It was the equivalent of going on Dragons Den and asking for a large amount of money, but then saying they could have 100% of the shares.)

I was one of the group known as the Founders (though I stepped down when I was employed on the paper). Although the newspaper was owned by the shareholders, the Founders held a Golden share, designed to protect the values of the paper and prevent a takeover by the likes of Murdoch or Maxwell.

We also, over many months, set down the political charter on which the newspaper was to be based. This was intended as the guiding principles. The idea was that just as every journalist on the Mail knows, almost intuitively, the Mail angle on any story so would any journalist on News on Sunday know the angle to approach news from. In practice, though pinned up around the office, it was largely ignored and people went with their gut feeling – which was sometimes a radical and alternative interpretation and sometimes wasn’t.

The Independent had just succeeded in raising the investment it needed and it always struck me that there was a far less clear gap for that newspaper than for a radical Sunday tabloid. It seemed very unfair that the city had been prepared to back it simply because of the experience and the authority of the management team, but not to back our project. Sadly, they turned out to be right.

The money was raised from trade unions, from individuals and – the majority – from local authority pension funds. To my mind this was the Big Flame approach at its best – building bridges, working imaginatively and with great ambition. And there was no subterfuge. We laid out very clearly, in the Charter, what the paper was about. Core to our argument was that it could only succeed commercially if it was genuinely radical. I always described it as a left-wing version of the Mail on Sunday. I remember Ron Todd (General Secretary of the TGWU, who invested £550,000) questioning the position on Ireland, which called for British withdrawal. He was won round after Alan pointed out that this was exactly what a recent Daily Mirror editorial had called for.

I remember well the party on the night where the offer closed and we had succeeded, we had raised £6.5 million. So many on the left had told us it could not be done but we had worked with the system and raised the money. It was an incredible moment.

If that was the Big Flame approach at its best, we were about to see the approach at its worst. The revolutionary left, Big Flame included, was oppositional. It campaigned against things. We had no experience of organising anything except political struggles. I could check with ArchiveArchie but I doubt there was a single article in the Discussion Bulletin, over more than a decade, on how to manage an organisation.

Shortly after publication, as the crisis hit, a ‘company fireman’ called Roy Barber was called in to sort things out. I remember him being very puzzled. “I get called into companies in crisis and normally I find de-motivated people who are really not very good at their jobs. Here you have highly motivated and talented people – and yet you are heading for bankrupcy.”

Those involved will point to many explanations of what went wrong. Some say it was because John Pilger (involved during the dummy period) was pushed out, some that it was because of his behaviour. Some that we should have been based in London, not Manchester. Some blame Alan Hayling. Some blame Keith Sutton, the man we hired as editor (after he produced the strikers’ Wapping Post during the Times newspaper strike). Some blame the advertising agency with their inflamatory slogan “No tits but a lot of balls”.

I believe we created an environment in which it was impossible to succeed. It was full of endless meetings, back-biting, lack of clear responsibility and a sense of blame if you got things wrong. The debate over “No tits” became so heated that there were groups of people who wouldn’t talk to you if they suspected you of supporting it. You had to watch what you said and who you said it to. It was, with hindsight, what you would expect if you put a group of 80s lefties in charge of running an organisation. And I include myself in that.

When Vanessa Engle (who worked as an editorial assistant at News on Sunday) was producing the BBC2 programme on the newspaper, she asked when I knew it would fail – imagining I would say 26th April 1987, the Sunday of the first issue, when we realised how low the sales were. I replied that it was two months earlier. It was the end of a heated day of meetings when we had decided to pulp £85,000 of posters that were ruled unacceptable. I walked round the block and wept, for I knew then the newspaper could not succeed. It wasn’t even that I liked the posters. But I knew an organisation that was capable of agreeing to commission and spend this amount of money, and then – in its schizophrenic decision-making structure – decide to ditch it, could not succeed.

We, those who set up the newspaper, took over the management and hired a group of journalists. I often think it would have better to do the opposite, to hire a group of managers and take positions as journalists. Many of us knew how to write, as we showed in the dummy. And we knew very clearly the radical angle we wanted to put on the news. We had no idea how to manage.

The result is best expressed in the title of the book about News on Sunday, “Disaster” (by News on Sunday journalists Peter Chippendale and Chris Horrie). The advertising – the TV ads and posters – that survived the internal rows was feeble. An argument with retailers over the % of the cover price they received resulted in lack of enthusiasm on their part. And the paper itself, in my view, lacked the radical political bite that we had envisaged – and had succeeded in producing in the dummy.

The paper only rarely lived up to our hopes and was often hard to distinguish from competitors like the Mirror and the People. I remember one shameful cover story ‘exclusive’ proclaiming that a convicted rapist was to be freed because his victims had been found to be prostitutes. The article, from any radical perspective, should have been asking why that made any difference. It was published from this angle because we had got hold of the transcript, not yet made public, and so were first to reveal this information. (And, in fact, the transcript revealed that the judge still regarded him as guilty but he got off on a technicality.)

On Ireland I did manage to get a freelance journalist commissioned form the North, who could give the nationalist perspective and had great connections with the Republicans. Her first artic le, published in one of the pre-publication dummies, was hard hitting. But then I discovered it was, word for word, the same article as she had written for An Phoblacht, the Sinn Fein weekly newspaper. She couldn’t understand why that was a problem and wouldn’t agree to write different articles for us. It would have made News on Sunday an easy target for some.

After the SAS killed 8 IRA men in an ambush I did write an editorial asking whether eight more mourning families would make peace more likely. To my astonishment Keith Sutton published it. (I had joined the project partly because of my desire to be involved in journalism but this was the only thing I ever wrote for News on Sunday.) But after that the Ireland coverage reverted to the media norm of British troops versus the terrorists.

By the time of launch the costs had ballooned to the point where News on Sunday needed to sell 800,000 to break even. This was a long way from Ben’s original hope of 100,000 but, given the market research sales predictions of over 1 million, didn’t seem at the time to be a problem. It would be interesting to see what we would have created if all our plans had been based on a break even at – say 250,000. A tougher business person could have insisted on it.

In week 1 it sold barely half a million and we knew it would go down from there, as all new launches did. Owen Oyston, a Lancashire multi-millionaire who had made his money in estate agency, was already an investor and stepped in to try and rescue the paper.

The 1987 general election was imminent and it seemed for a time that if the newspaper, funded by Labour local authorities, went bankrupt in the middle of the campaign it would be a gift to the Tories – as a great example of “loonie lefties” in action. Oyston went to see Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party. I don’t know what happened in the meeting but Oyston believed he was promised a knighthood if he could keep the paper going until after the election. With the TGWU he put in more money and the bankruptcy was delayed until the week after the election. The paper staggered on for four more months, owned and funded by Oyston and the TGWU.

I was by then Finance Manager and I remember bizarre trips to his mansion (where bison wandered the gardens) to have payments approved. Oyston was a strange character, for whom the newspaper – fresh off the press on a Saturday night – would be delivered by models from a local agency. He is better known now for the prison sentence he was to serve for rape.

I also came across a list of payments to local politicians, including £3,000 to somebody who is now a prominent North-West MP. It may have been perfectly legitimate but, when he discovered I had a copy, he went to great lengths to get it back. It was a sad end to have him in charge of our great idealistic project. I eventually left the newspaper, before it went bankrupt a second time, after refusing to sign the cheque to the model agency for ‘consultancy’. The head of the agency was later to go to jail with Oyston. It was a very seedy business.

The Golden share had proved to be no protection. Faced with the financial crisis and an ultimatum from Oyston (“give up the golden share or the paper closes”), the Founders had no alternative but to give in and hand over control.

After I left News on Sunday I set up a training business, now called Happy Ltd. When I am asked what motivated me to start Happy, I always refer back to News on Sunday. The greatest irony for me was that, for all our ideals, it was a far worse place to work than IBM – the great capitalist monolith where I worked in my year off. I left determined to find out how to create a company that was both principled and effective – and a great place to work in. I learnt most of what I know about how not to manage at News on Sunday.

We had great dreams. We would show it was possible to engage with the capitalist system and create an alternative within it. We succeeded in raising millions and, if we had succeeded, we could have set an example for others to follow. Instead we made it virtually impossible for a similar project to get funding again (though the actual amounts the pension funds lost was dwarfed by the losses caused by the crash of October 1987.)

And we didn’t even manage to create a publication that was especially radical or challenging. And, to me, that was down to our lack of ability in how to manage and organise to get the most from our people.

It could have been a truly great legacy of Big Flame. In fact those of us involved from BF did not play any separate role and certainly didn’t have a caucus of any type. We did have strong views on what should go in the Charter, meant to be the guiding document for the publication, but had no common view on the key question of how to build an organisation that could create a great paper – or the experience to make this happen.”

Henry Stewart, September 2010

Note on Big Flame

Big Flame were a Revolutionary Socialist Feminist organisation with a working class orientation in England. Founded in Liverpool in 1970, the group initially grew rapidly in the then prevailing climate on the left with branches appearing in a number of cities. One of the key sentences in the platform published in each issue of the newspaper was the statement that a revolutionary party was necessary but that “Big Flame is not that party, nor is it the embryo of that party”. This had the advantage of distinguishing them from some small groups who saw themselves as much more important than they were, but posed the problem of the ‘party’s’ real reason for existence.

They published a magazine, also entitled Big Flame, and a journal, Revolutionary Socialism. Members were active at the Ford plants at Halewood and Dagenham. They also devoted a great deal of time to self-analysis and considering their relationship with the larger Trotskyist groups. In time, they came to describe their politics as “libertarian Marxist“. In 1978 they joined the Socialist Unity electoral coalition, with the International Marxist Group.

In 1980, the anarchists of the Libertarian Communist Group joined Big Flame. The Revolutionary Marxist Current also joined at about this time.

However Big Flame was wound up in about 1984.

Much more on them here

For the fun of it: a TV ad for News On Sunday. Yes, it is bad.

Read about another attempt at a radical  tabloid: the Scottish Daily News


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

Follow past tense on twitter


Today in London rebel history: 1000s join anti-gentrification protest, Brixton, 2015

Written by a former longtime Brixton resident, now living in exile. (Its grim up North London!)

It’s a long post, no apologies, these are things I’ve been thinking about a long time… Responses welcome, re-post, but please credit past tense if you do.

Two years ago, today, on April 25th 2015, Brixton, South London, saw what was possibly the largest protest specifically against gentrification in the capital to date. Certainly the largest so far in Brixton. Over 2000 (other numbers are available) people gathered, many drawn from local communities, though reinforced by people from other areas also facing social cleansing.

Over the last couple of decades, Brixton has been changing, sometimes gradually and almost imperceptibly, sometimes juggernautically fast. What was for most of the 20th century largely a cheap area to live, housing mostly working class people, many of them from migrant communities, has been transformed, for a complex mix of reasons, into a much more trendy and up-market suburb, with a nightlife aimed at the moneyed, and a high street filled with glossy chainstores, while the market and railways arch shops that made it cheap and full of cultural variety are being patiently forced out by rising rents and council policies. A neighbourhood 30 years ago dominated by West Indian migrant culture, in its streetlife, food, music, now displays what planners and jargon-merchants euphemistically label a ‘social mix’ – ie more middle class people, mostly white.

An area which always teemed with alternatives to mainstream life – from squatting, through rebel parties, a maelstrom of radical politics – is now being aggressively Stepfordised. And a few minutes walk out from the centre of Brixton, whole council estates are being planned out of existence, to be replaced with private housing aimed at a higher class of people.

Luckily for us, the day of the protest was one of those April days when it feels like Summer (just before the temperature drops for another two months!), encouraging a wide spectrum out to fill Brixton’s Windrush Square (itself a heavily cleaned up echo of the informal social space we knew it as 25 years ago).

There was live music, what seemed like hundreds of handmade placards and banners, cardboard sculptural costumes… The green space and concrete turned into a mini-festival for a few hours, reminiscent of many others I can recall in the same space – riots against racist policing, squatting actions, anti-poll tax demos, cuts protests (Lambeth Town Hall being just over the road), the Reclaim the Streets party of 1998, and the 2013 nearly spontaneous party to celebrate Maggie Thatcher’s death to name but a few. We marched around Brixton a couple of times, though the markets to hoot at some of the trendy bars and their clientele,

And like many of those others, anger broke out; while most of those attending were not involved, a sizable minority took part in some direct action against some clearly relevant targets – part of Lambeth Town Hall, home to the council backing much of the social change with gusto, was invaded, leading to a small tussle with the cops around the doorway; the local branch of Foxton’s estate agents had their large and tempting glass window redeveloped into small pieces; and Brixton police station was besieged – the old bill had to defend their HQ with teargas.

In many ways an inspiring day; gathering people from a variety of situations, lots of whom are facing being moved from their homes, can help to beat feelings of isolation and pessimism that you are struggling on your own against huge and powerful forces which you can’t seem to reverse…

Just some of local campaigns against gentrification/social cleansing currently going on in Lambeth (updated 2021)

Save Brixton Arches: Shops in railways arches facing rent rises or eviction.

Save Cressingham Gardens: Estate on Tulse Hill threatened with demolition

Reclaim Brixton

Housing Activists in Lambeth 

Save Nour – Fight the Hondo Tower

Save Central Hill

Sorry if we missed you out…

Some ponderings on gentrification & anti-gentrification in Brixton

In some ways, looking back on April 25th two years ago, it is also depressing, not least because despite that day, those forces we sere opposing are overwhelmingly pushing forward at the moment.

Way back in 1983, a grumpy correspondent in the Brixton squatters paper Crowbar complained about how Brixton was changing:
“Right this is serious. Over the last year and a half Brixton and the surrounding area has gone through sons very visible changes. The unemployment and poverty is here, you can ace that in the DHSS waiting rooms or by standing in the streets. But new people are saying we’re going to be the new Camden, believing that it has already started with the hordes of young trendies (mainly professional) who are attracted to the area – buying up cheap property. It is also trendy to live here, well we’ve had riots and there’s the Ritzy etc.
The trendification has already started. Look around at the hairstyles. or the hurrying smart art people carrying smart little plastic briefcases. And then there is the left wingers who bring their bookshelves and don’t have net curtains so as to show off their botanical living rooms.
Next thing will be a social worker and a BBC current affairs producer called Terence and Julle moving in next door. Brixton has something no other part of London has with the Ritzy, Fridge, I21 Books, Ace, Frontline and the theatre, its blues clubs – and now the Art Gallery.
Soon we would be living in a swamp of quaint “health” shops, boutiques and galleries selling £200 paintings. The business people also have an eye on this area, because if something is hip it will be money. We have to be careful that all these cultural, sporting. artistic and musical events and venues do not take us over.
We have our own special and varied culture in Brixton which we can develop and do ourselves. We can show videos and films in our own houses, have parties regularly like the blueses with sound systems. Squats can be opened up for a couple of nights/weeks/years for our own gigs (free too) and to show our own art work.
There are ways if we organise and act to do things we want and cheaply which is not dependant on council handouts or just the tedium of always going to a place the same as it was when you went the week before and he week before that. So get scheming and I’ll see you there. Or maybe David Bowie will move back here!”

Yes well, you should see it today, pal. Many of this Anarchostrodamus’ dire warnings have come to pass, and much worse. Mind you Bowie never moved back, though there is that now-famous mural…

In Brixton, Lambeth on a wider scale, and London as a whole, a broad alliance of local councils, property developers, backed by the mayor of London are engaged in a bewildering number of plans to redevelop many areas, break up what remains of the city’s dwindling social housing stock, rebuild local shopping areas as corporate spaces, and encourage the break-up of existing communities. Despite protests by people being persuaded, bullied and literally forced to move.

The social, political and economic forces driving what is lumped together as gentrification are complex, though it may feel simple and black and white when you’re on the receiving end.

From the 1960s on, the kind of thinktanks, committees and foundations that dream up social policy looked at inner city areas mainly occupied by working class, migrant, poor communities and have seen them as a ‘problem’. Not just because poverty, and thus overcrowding, homelessness, crime, drug and alcohol become concentrated in these areas, but because resistance also breeds there – people begin to see their problems not as their own fault, but as symptoms of a system based on inherent wealth inequality, inbuilt hierarchies of race and power. From there it can a short step to start thinking of collective solutions. Some of which challenge fundamental structures of the way we live.

This is obviously a threat to those whose current power, wealth and status is based on these fundamental divisions. But their responses are not always identical. Attempts to simply brutally repress any collective protest only tended to spark fiercer resistance; hence inner-city riots, uprisings, the rise of strong locality based movements of solidarity. More subtle tactics for defusing and deflecting rebellion were needed.

In the USA, one response was a national strategy known now as Spacial De-concentration. Briefly this meant deliberately running down already poor areas, letting crime and violence increase, but using policing repressively, and then moving people out of the area, pouring money in to regenerate the neighbourhood, but with the aim of moving in a ‘better’ class of people. The dispersal of the existing residents would break up local solidarity and frustrate attempts at getting together, and even if part of the existing population remained, the aim was to make connections harder, as newer residents, hopefully more middle class & respectable, from different ethnic groups, would dilute immediate local unities. The dispersed may end up being moved/moving some way off, some will end up homeless; atomisation & alienation is a hoped-for consequence.

Neglect, coercion, dispersal were crucial to this widely-used strategy. But Spacial De-concentration was also mirrored in a liberal state approach too – regeneration, in the name of improving the lives of the existing community. Sometimes it genuinely was, sometimes it was cynically aimed at preventing rebellion, sometimes it was both. And change from below and change from above could mingle, merge, cross-fertilise…

Activist ‘leaders’ could be bought off or neutralised by negotiation, jobs with regeneration programs and police-community relations boards. Desire for collective self-empowerment can be easily subtly diverted into aspirations for individual and personal advancement, and for some the two can become the same thing.

What is important to stress that coercion and removal, and recuperation, diversity/empowerment, can and have gone hand in hand, sometimes one, sometimes both, are used, often (but not always) consciously as a twin strategy, to facilitate defeat for collective community and sowing confusion among movements. It’s hard to identify the forces of oppression, sometimes, amidst the seemingly contradictory forces, impulses and factions…

While in the UK, no specifically deliberate Spacial De-concentration program was launched, national regional and local government has often acted in a way that echoes, and often improves, on it. Most notably, social cleansing in parts of London has been heavily racial – it’s black communities that bear the brunt of it. To return to the specific example of Brixton (though it is far from unique) – the rise of angry rebellious movements eg the British Black Panthers, and parallel community movements, of the 1970s, and most particularly, the 1981 riots, against overtly racist police violence & harassment, necessitated an intense concentration of forces onto the area. Another worry was Brixton’s alternative ways of life, centred on west Indian street culture – hanging out in the streets, en masse, talking, dealing small amounts of hashish, as well as illegal blues parties, but also squatting (both black and white), sometimes occupying whole streets, plus the white alternative scene, based around leftist, anarchist, feminist, lesbian/gay projects, and much more… The area had two distinct cultures (sometimes overlapping, sometimes hostile, often co-operating in the face of the cops), which either questioned or rejected mainstream conformism.

The most obvious immediate manifestations of state response included a cleverer use of policing, and some bug chunks of public money to give bored angry youth somewhere to go etc; but also demolition of the most heavily squatted streets, where black and white squatters built alternative culture; alterations to physical space to make it harder for crowds to gather and move around. This was to be followed over the years with a plethora of programs, many of them in fact coming from national policy, which tried to tackle some of the underlying conditions which had allowed Brixton to become as it was.

Money from such schemes as the Urban Programme, the City Challenge, has been liberally distributed, both to genuinely improve the area (as some saw it) or pacify anger and frustration (as others would say). Grants and funding can be snaffled by those who know how to talk the talk. Layers of representatives from innercity communities developed, some of them former street/community activists… Community leaders, entrepreneurs, a rising caste of commentators and official spokespeople… some people rose to positions of authority, maybe determined to do good, but inevitably being to some extent mediated by co-operation by the state. An old process, and more complicated than ‘selling out’… So community activists involved in struggles in the early 70s are denounced by 1981 rioters as collaborators trying to get them to go home and go through the proper channels. And some rioters from 81 follow the pattern themselves… Former radical feminists come to run the council, and then to become tsars in the ‘diversity’ industry, teaching the police and the army how to look more inclusive…

Famed as a ‘loony left’ council in the early 80s, Labour in Lambeth gradually fell into line with he rest of the Labour party in the 90s, after leftwing labour councillors were either barred from office for refusing to set a legal rate, or purged by national Labour leadershop bent on ejecting the left. Lambeth became more New Labourish… more willing to sabotage social housing, work with developers, and keen to import more people like them into the borough…

But gentrification has not always been about defusing threats of disorder. More brutally, inner-city areas occupied by poor communities were also reservoirs of potential profit, expansion, social capital, too attractive to be ignored by big money interests and the parts of the state apparatus that are willing to facilitate these interests.

Wider dynamics were also at work, however, reflecting social changes that have emerged in recent decades:

1) Massive changes in both social mobility and also actual mobility. The decline of older manufacturing industries paralleled the massive rise in working class access to education, esp university… Both impacted on people’s expectations of what the would do in life, but also how far people had to move to get work. The return of the middle classes (especially young creative elements) to live in areas of the ‘inner city’ the affluent mostly left over the last 50 to 100 years; has played a part in the breaking up of former cohesive ‘working class areas’, but so has white flight, older or less adapting working class leaving inner cities ‘cos of all the furriners’ etc… as has aspiration, education, the broadening of horizons. Not least also for second & third generations of migrant communities…

(2) The dismantling of social housing since the 70s and the culture of council house sales and offfloading of stock to housing associations and other nominally social or just actually private organisations. To a greater or lesser extent huge chinks of the working class have bought into home ownership and the pressures this brings – the need to pay the mortgage, feelings of having a stake in something more than a council flat – play a big part in breaking down whatever unity or feelings of solidarity people had in being in the same boat.

(3) A growing consolidation of monopolies, in that chainstores and chain pubs increasingly take over from the smaller more traditional venues…

(4) However in partial conflict to (4) the influx of middle classes and their money as well as the ability of the canny to tap into the money swilling around as a result of (3) fertilises a varying crop of entrepreneurial projects – clubs, bars, art schemes, and the like – which help to transform the nature of the place. In Brixton as in other places, some of the self-made entrepreneurs are local as well as outcomers; and here as elsewhere many are themselves displaced and their dreams shattered as the processes of change roll on.

(5) This last is linked to a wider cultural change itself, in that our social and socialising habits have changed over the decades; the pub is not the centre of social life that it was, for many… So pubs both go to the wall for lack of business (some being turned into housing as house prices continue to rocket), and others being more desperately revamped repeatedly to try and capture a niche in the market. It’s worth pointing out that for many the old trad pub was no great shakes anyway, and many welcome changes that seem to increase variety…

(6) The increased specialisation in media and culture, concerted attempts to divide us up into niche markets and labels, sub-cultures etc, to make it easier to to sell us things and lifestyles (and subtly encouraged politically to make us easier to control?)

Elements of the influx mentioned in (1) became drivers in squatting & other social movements, got involved in feminist, socialist, anarchist politics etc, and some gravitated to the new left, young left labour party in the early 70s, from which some rose to positions of power…

And squatting and the alternative ‘white’ culture – massive in Brixton in the 70s and 80s – complicates the picture. Squatting was never homogenous – for some a necessity as housing crap or out of their reach, for some a cheap way to drop out for a while, for others a political statement and rejection of property and capitalism… Free space for creating alternative projects – squatted cafes, gig venues, bookshops, art galleries; much of 1970s-90s creativity, publishing, advice and self-help, health, was organized through squats, as much as political movements like feminism, gay liberation, anarchism, socialism… the list goes on.

Squatters, or at least some of us, long opposed gentrification.

As squatters we saw that gentrification was a threat to our own continued existence, and fought it, trying to make links with others we saw as also obvious targets – with limited results, in my own experience.

The stark fact that much opposition to gentrification is itself problematical. Some resistance does fly in the face of some genuine desire for improvements in people’s lives, when some oppose all change and almost yearn for deeper misery… On top of this opposition in some areas arises from people who themselves have moved into the area and helped the process of transformation. Leading to the spectacle of the first wave of gentrifiers attempting to halt the second wave. Or more complicatedly, some of the alternative types, anarchists, squatters and so on, many from middle class backgrounds, who organise against ‘yuppies’. Partly the latter is a genuine move to preserve the area as it is in their own interests… however sometimes it takes little account of other local communities, may with longer and more permanent ties, who may see things differently. This is not to denounce all anti-gentrification activity, having been involved in it ourselves; we do however see the contradictions. In some of the actions and publicity produced in Brixton in 1999 we had both positive and negative reaction, much of what we said chiming with some folk, who were saying the same themselves, and others validly pointing out that many squatters, almost exclusively young, often from abroad or transient, politically unrepresentative of much local opinion, would also probably not be around one way or the other in a few years… From the idealist squatters of the Railton People’s Planning Association in the 1970s, through the left of many eras, including dodgy Maoists who would go on to end up in court for kidnap and abuse, to some of the 90s anarcho-punks, you can see a thread of an ideology of coming into the area to organise and improve people’s lives… Of course this sort of vision is nothing new, from the 19th Century and the Settlement Movement, to 20th Century planners and student lefties, such parachuting to the rescue has been prevalent… This is neither to slag off the ideals or dreams of many of those activists, or claim that all were from the petty-bourgeosie, or to deny that transience and flow-through of populations have been a massive part of London life for hundreds of years.

But these dynamics exist and shouldn’t be ignored, if only because any true transformation of society must come from self-organised activity from below. And as a 1970s Railton Road activist ended up comcluding, if you aspire to change things FOR other people, from above, you may end up changing things only for yourself.

But for all of this, and the many squatting actions against gentrification, squatting as a process was both used as a pawn in the battle to regenerate Brixton, and for some squatters the gentrification was enthusiastically embraced. Like community activism, arty squatting contained seeds of gentrification… ‘Artwashing’ is a relatively new term., but the reality goes back decades. Squatted spaces with an art-creative bent were given easier rides by council policies (that would evict the rest of us much quicker), often proving launch-pads for people rising to run spaces lauded by council and police – some of which were nothing less than fronts for council and police project of defusing and dispersing black anger.

An example: the old Atlantic pub, on the corner of Atlantic Road & Coldharbour Lane. One of the old black pubs, a Brixton institution, part of the mythology the place, famous all over the world, a space controlled by black people, it was just integral to the street culture, yeah you could get drugs there (if they didn’t know you you’d likely get burned!) The cops hated it, of course, in the 20-year battle over control of the streets, the Atlantic to them was like a fortress of the enemy. They managed to close it after many raids (I’ll never forget the sight of 100s of cops swarming out of removal vans in that last raid). It stayed empty, until it was handed to a white entrepreneur who had flirted with the arty end of Brixton’s squat-scene, and re-opened as the Dogstar. The Council and the cops backed the new occupants to the hilt; knowing how much many locals would resent the usurpers of the Atlantic they basically promised them backing whatever happened. Lucky for them, as two weeks after it opened it was swiftly trashed in the December 1995 Brixton riot, rightly targeted for what it was, a wedge for gentrification. Of course it re-opened, and proved an inspiration for changes that would sweep the areas pubs. These days the Dogstar is kind of accepted now in these degenerate times, but that’s its history. (there’s lots more to this story but we don’t have the space here…)

Some of us used to think rioting as much as possible could help keep the gentrifier away. How wrong we were. There were six or seven large scale riots between 1981 and 1995, plus numerous smaller confrontations; this couldn’t derail Brixton’s evolution! Nor could every day violence: street crime, poverty, stabbings and shootings… It was all too ‘edgy’, drawing people excited by the thought of it all, but when they got there, actually wanting it not to scare them.

One wave of gentrification also resists the next… An incomer derided as a yuppie from 20 years ago now complains they are the true Brixtonite and these recent arrivals are the death of the Brixton they love… Tempting as it is to reduce the issue to individuals, shout at hipsters (yes I do), unpicking the social forces at work is like unravelling spaghetti.

For 20 years Brixton has been schizophrenic, an increasingly trendy white. Brixton is not wholly changed. It is however very different. The most obvious changes are in the street culture, the pubs, and the housing. The Frontline street crowds are gone, although as everywhere smaller groups gather, on estates, corners etc. The alternative economy that drove Railton Road still exists… dealers abound as ever in Coldharbour Lane.

What has been destroyed is the sense of autonomous culture – the sound systems, the blues parties, as well as the white rebel scene. These scenes drove much of what made the place tick. The interesting diverse spaces, pubs clubs, even some shops, are fewer and further between. it’s still there, of course you can’t destroy people’s spirit and desire to gather. But the growing space not controlled by capital and its authority, has been rolled back. If we meet it is back on their terms and in commodified spaces.

For the most part these conditions have been rolled back or recuperated. The mass individualisation of our daily culture, the rampant commercial colonisation of public space, a highly ideologically motivated assault on ‘social’ housing and the alternative/voluntary/social sectors have altered the landscape irrevocably.

Gentrification has had its supporters in brixton, because no area has one community. There are any number of communities, divided by race, class, also language, age, gender.

Its also worth remembering that Brixton, to some extent, and wider Lambeth, even more so, always also had another white scene, middle class or aspirational, sometimes racist, which co-existed into the ‘80s even (even giving us bizarre examples like the George Pub, on Railton Road, in the heart of the black frontline, notoriously racist, which led to its being burned down in 1981). There was always this rump that hated black people, at least those who they saw as rejecting getting a job; they hate the squatters, they hated the streetlife, and supported the police. Don’t forget that Borough wide, control of the council could even swing from Trotskyist-dominated Labour to a Tory/SDP coalition in 1982. Social change and utter frustration with Labour corruption or incompetence has produced tory-lib-dem administrations to run the council since then. Coercion and top-down regeneration won support from factions already here… and also from the more ‘respectable’ elements of the black community too at times. Black business could also have an interest in money coming in and producing opportunities… Even though the bigger money often ended in forcing out the small black entrepreneurs, especially bar owners and shopkeepers.

More recently, with the changes to streetlife in central Brixton, the clubs, pubs, and the disappearance of the majority of street properties into the hands of the affluent, Brixton’s estates were left as anomalies, increasingly out of step with the class of the people living around them; with the area being so trendy, greedy eyes were bound to be cast on the land estates sit on. Dismantling estates was always going to be much more difficult, street properties more fragmented and estates just have a more coherent potential unity (although rarely realized). And it has taken a lot longer. This is the battleground now, and it has taken on something of the air of a last stand in some areas (not just in Brixton).

Previous attempts to break up council estates – Housing Action Trusts (defeated in the early 1990s, partly after Brixton’s Loughborough Estate voted not to co-operate), parceling out estates to housing associations, to Tenant management Organisations, then to the ALMO, were all largely motivated by other considerations, among them the increasingly unviable financial burden of running them, the national policy (introduced by the Thatcher government) of preventing money from council sales being used to do up housing stock, attempts to reduce the role of local authorities as providers of services as much as possible… to name but a few.

But destruction of estates and wholesale removal of tenants is now rampant, and its moving working class people out moving the affluent in that’s at the heart of it. To be frank the level of opposition for previous dispersal of council stock, the ambivalence of people about remaining as council tenants, has resulted as much from the terminal state of people’s housing and the despair at the daily struggle over repairs, environment, under the council, as it has from the increased individualism and worship of owning our own home often blamed.

If and how things might be turned around is unclear. There is a current crop of struggles against ‘social cleansing’ in London, based mostly in estates, blocks under threat… This makes sense, as their living conditions make getting together practical and what unites them is obvious. Gentrification is affecting us all though, those of use now living more alienated lives as well. It’s a question of what London is to be. At the moment a rampant capital, aided enthusiastically by virtually all those with any power, is remaking a city for those with money, and telling those without to fuck off. To oppose this with any chance of reversing it, would need massive upheaval, revolt? Uprising? But sustained, linked up area by area, confrontational but also aware of contradictions and our differences… And connected to rebellion against the way we work, and challenges to the relate to each other, ‘indigenous’, incomer, migrant, ‘foreigner’, local… maybe even around class?!? Is it possible?

We don’t know if we are living in a lull before a new upsurge of social struggles, or if capital, with all it’s attendant poverty, grinding work, alienation, boredom violence, hatred and war, will continue to reinvent itself and remain triumphant. Apart from continuing to fight where we can against the conditions we are forced to live under, it is important to both celebrate struggles and ideas of the past and try to learn what lessons we can from them, as well as to recognise when conditions are different.

I tried here to set out a lot of complex thoughts and observations in this post, and some of it is about things I saw myself, some of it about larger social forces. Hopefully it is not too confusing… Its been impossible to cover everything that links into this subject.

One day a longer piece will appear, in print, or somewhere, with more on Brixton, squatting, its politics, alternative culture, the riots, etc… which past tense have been working on since we lived it, but are generally too busy with other things to finish writing…


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

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Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015


Today in London education history: Lewisham bridge school occupied to prevent destruction & privatisation, 2009.

On the morning of April 23rd 2009, parents of children at Lewisham Bridge Primary School, in Elmira Street, Lewisham, Southeast London, occupied the roof of the school buildings. They were protesting against Lewisham Council’s decision to demolish the school and replace it with a new school run by a City of London guild. The school had been closed down – pupils had to arrive an hour early to be bussed to a temporary school in New Cross, which meant a ridiculously long day for the children. Safety concerns have been raised concerning this busing of coach-loads of children every morning, including the fact that buses had been involved in two accidents.

The Council’s plan after demolishing Lewisham Bridge was to hand the school over to the Leathersellers Company, one of London’s medieval City guilds, to run a new school for ages 3 through to 16. The planned new school was to be a “foundation” school, which could set its own admissions policy. Staff would be employed by the governors, not by the local authority. It would probably have become part of a “Trust” federation, sponsored by the Leathersellers’ Company that backs the Prendergast federation of schools (although the section of Leathersellers that runs the educational charity is separate institutionally). The council had already handed two schools over to the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Academy federation and wanted three more to become a trust backed by Goldsmiths College. They really had a thing for unaccountable medieval guilds running schools in Lewisham! Lewisham Bridge was really being knocked down as part of a plan to break up the already limited comprehensive education in Lewisham; although, while Leathersellers is certainly interested in influencing local education and promoting ‘meritocracy’ it doesn’t profit financially from its sponsorship.

Leathersellers did have a long involvement in Lewisham eduction: having provided the site for the original site for Prendergast School in 1890, and funded its move to another location in 1995. The school became known as Lewisham Prendergast School in 1927, Prendergast School in 1951, and Prendergast Hilly Fields College in 2008.  They then were given Crofton Park (Prendergast Ladywell Fields) – considered then to be a, ‘failing school’, and still is – before being offered the Lewisham Bridge site.

The proposed new school was to be squeezed into a site previously occupied by the primary school, and cramming a projected 835 pupils in (twice the number Lewisham Bridge had), so play areas and room sizes would fall below government recommendations. The new school was planned to only have one primary class per year, instead of the current school’s two. (which was itself down from a four class intake a few years before).

Frustratingly for the Lewisham administration, (led by New Labour ‘elected mayor’ Steve Bullock), the school buildings had been ‘listed’ by English Heritage, preventing it simply being knocked down. However, campaigners pointed out that the situation was in many ways entirely of Bullock’s making, coming as it did at the end of years of one bad decision leading to another where Lewisham’s schools were concerned.

One of the rooftop occupiers writes: “Lewisham council’s approach to pretty much all its duties and responsibilities including education was and still is, is summed up in the phrase ‘being enablers not providers’. They certainly put a lot of energy into the promotion of soft and hard federations at this time. Think of it in terms of more of the arms length management style crap they had done in housing… I think it’s important to situate it the context of Lewisham Council plans for the overall area. The demolishing of an local estate which was well regarded if not particularly pretty. It was in fact meeting most of the council criteria for what makes a good area, including mix tenure. The removal of the travellers from nearby and continually redevelopment of the nearby area into a mini Croydon of flats in and around the two railway lines.

The plans to demolish the school and replace it with a private institution came against a shortage of primary school places across London and a local shortage of secondary places in the north part of the Borough of Lewisham. The shortage of secondary places dates back to Labour’s decision to demolish the Telegraph Hill Boys School in the 90s, due to poor results, and replace it with the Crossways Academy 6th form centre; Telegraph Hill had itself been an attempt to rebrand and remake the ‘failing’ Hatcham Wood’s boys school by appointing a superhead. “But what made Lewisham Bridge the target was it own ‘poor preforming’ status which was largely day to an intake of large numbers of kids from deprived families, English as second language and the children from the the then existing traveller site. It was never going to do well in the fucking league tables. But had fantastic pastoral care.” Most of the other schools in the north of the borough operated some sort of selection, meaning that many local children could not get into them. After losing a council seat to a local education campaign, Bullock recognised that a new secondary school was needed. He then prevaricated about a site before settling on Ladywell Swimming Pool, which at the time was the borough’s only open full size swimming pool. A vigorous local campaign by pool users, combined with crucial losses for Labour in wards local to it, meant that Bullock relented on using the pool site. Lewisham Bridge was identified as an alternative because it was next to another development site, and, having a high proportion of parents whose first language isn’t English, was seen as a soft target that could be bulldozed through without much opposition – or not by anyone who mattered.

This turned out to be a miscalculation…

Firstly, although the idea had first been mooted in 2006, the council hadn’t got a any planning permission and with the buildings listed, the council’s appeal was always likely to take many months. And ever since the proposal was first announced parents had expressed their concerns and objections in the form of petitions, letters and lobbies. This campaign had exhausted most other avenues when the roof was occupied (though it was the long campaign to save the school that would lead to its being listed – see below)

On April 23rd three parents climbed on the roof of the school to protest about the way parents children and staff have been treated in the entire process to attempt to privatise our school which culminated in the decant to the Mornington Centre against the wishes of the majority of parents and the local community. Support for the protest grew quickly and by 9am that morning 4 more parents had joined us on the roof and a number of supporters stayed on the ground gathering signatures for our petition.

The occupiers demanded that the school be re-opened, and that it should remain a local community primary school open to all, not be handed over to a private unaccountable body. 

As the protest went on, more parents and local supporters joined the occupation and solidarity links were built with workers then occupying the Visteon plants in Belfast, Basildon and Enfield, the Vestas wind turbine factory occupation in the Isle Of Wight and the Tower Hamlets college campaign. Links were also forged with parents occupying four primary schools in Glasgow in April that were being closed; and parents at another school in Southeast London, Charlotte Turner primary school in nearby Deptford, also occupied.

The Lewisham Bridge protest was not confined to the school roof. Hands Off Lewisham Bridge organised a 300 strong march through Lewisham, lobbied the council and disrupted then PM Gordon Brown’s visit to Prendergast School, run by the Leathersellers, brandishing placards and shouting and leaping out in front of Brown’s motorcade.

The roof top occupied by the parents was transformed into a lively campsite with running water and kitchen area and used for meetings and even for a re-hearsal by local socialist choir, The Strawberry Thieves. The South London local of Solidarity Federation and Autonomy & Solidarity, the Goldsmiths student group, were heavily involved in the campaign, doing regular shifts and building infrastructure. On Monday 8th June the garden area behind the occupied buildings was seized, opened up as it was a lot less daunting than climbing a ladder. A compost toilet was built, flowers planted, a mural painted, and coffee, tea and cake shared, amongst other activities.

The occupation of the garden seems to have prompted the council to start eviction proceedings

But in June, 100 people gathered at the School on June 24th to resist a scheduled eviction attempt: “A youthful and lively contingent joined local parents on the roof whilst local supporters gathered outside the front of the school. The mood remained positive, despite a strong police presence including a helicopter earlier in the day. Bailiffs entered the school but made no attempt to gain access to the roof where the tents stayed up and the occupation continued. Police left at around 12:30 with most of the bailiffs leaving shortly after. The occupation continued.

In August the Department of Culture Media and Sport) secretary announced that the English Heritage Grade II listing awarded to Lewisham Bridge Primary School remained in place, which as greeted by some campaigners as a sign of victory. After the plans to demolish were put on hold, the occupation was ended, after five months.

But in the end, while it put a spoke in the Council’s plans, the protection for the listed building didn’t prevent Leathersellers taking over and creating pretty much the school it had envisioned. The following year, a Lewisham Council planning board approved revised plans to replace Lewisham Bridge School. The Leathersellers-sponsored Prendergast Vale School opened on the site of Lewisham Bridge, in 2011, after pupils spent some time in temporary buildings on two other sites. The listing in the end didn’t prevent the building of the new premises (as with other listed buildings redeveloped, some large leeway can be taken to fit in with new buildings…)

More recently, in 2015, the three schools run by the Leathersellers Federation in Lewisham, including Prendergast Vale, undertook a ‘consultation’ on whether to apply for academy status, a further step into private control. Pupils and teachers at several of the schools demonstrated against the plan… Prendergast Vale saw students refusing to work in class and demanding to talk about the threat of academisation. Also playground demonstration and corridor sit ins…Teachers went on strike a couple of times in 2015 to protest against the idea. A staff governor at one of the other ‘Prendergast’ three schools did manage to veto the entire move, under a technical loophole, and the ‘Academy orders’ were rescinded in June 2015; inspiring the many similar struggles against academisation from parents, kids and teachers around the country.

Doubtless further attempts will be made by a government ideologically bent on splitting up education and turning it into a profit-making concern as much as they can get away with…

Check out the campaigns opposing academisation of the Lewisham schools:

Watch a video interview with some of the Lewisham Bridge roof top activists:



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

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Today in London’s penal history: a prisoner uses quick wits to escape, 1732.

“One Brown, a Prisoner, returning from Hick’s Hall to Bridewel, passing thro’ Clerkenwell Church Yard, desir’d his Keeper to let him speak with the Sexton, who was then making a deep Grave. He consenting, Brown took his Opportunity, threw the Keeper into it, and then made his Escape.” (Gentleman’s Magazine, Friday 21 April 1732.)

Nuff said? A brief news item, and we will never know what happened next. No more is said about it in the magazine. What was his ‘crime’? Was he recaptured? Did the screw who lost him get into official trouble for his ‘grave mistake’ (groan).

Legging it from Clerkenwell Churchyard, Brown could have easily slipped into the sprawling rookeries and slums that lined the nearby river Fleet, where shelter for a fugitive from the law was second nature, whole systems of pulleys and planks were set up within buildings to enable crims being pursued by constables to escape, and where whole communities would gather to frustrate the law in solidarity. If he was wearing irons of any kind a friendly soul could be found to cut them off for him…

There exists a relatively contemporary image of a grave being dug in Clerkenwell Church yard, above.

The venues of law, judgement and control mentioned are more tangible.

Brown was very likely being returned from a court appearance to prison. ‘Hicks Hall’ was The Middlesex County court and house of correction, built in 1614, on what is now St John Street in Clerkenwell. It was known as Hicks Hall, after Sir Baptist Hickes, a Middlesex JP who mostly financed the building. Previous to this the neighbouring authorities in the City of London criticised Middlesex JPs for their disorganisation and lack of a local base to try and hold criminals, which was allowing troublemakers, beggars, the poor etc to commit all sorts of wrongdoing in the City but escape into Middlesex with impunity. Previously the Middlesex Sessions had been held in the Old Castle Tavern, also on St John Street. There was local opposition to the building of Hicks Hall: Gracie Watson, an apothecary’s wife, was hauled into court for “giving reviling speeches against Sir Baptist Hicks touching the building of the Sessions House”.

The Bridewell, where Brown was incarcerated and was being returned, was originally a palace, built in 1515 for Henry VIII, stretching all the way from the Thames to Fleet Street. A big sprawling complex, which gradually came to house ambassadors, and visiting monarchs… But it rapidly fell out of favour as a palace, and in the mid-sixteenth century was converted for the relief of the poor. Huge numbers of poor people were arriving in the city, driven from the countryside by growing enclosure and poverty, and the collapse of the traditional welfare system (through the monasteries and abbeys) as religious reform combined with opportunist land-grabbing altered rural life for ever. The initial joint charitable project of the City and the king, the Bridewell soon, however, became mixed with coercion – the homeless poor, the idle, the ‘workshy’ and alleged drunkards were forced into the institution: “And unto this shall be brought the sturdy and idle: and likewise such prisoners as are quite at the sessions, that they may be set to labour. And for that number will be great the place where they shall be exercised must also be great.”

The way the poor were treated in the Bridewell set a pattern for future workhouse policy, and on a wider scale, for the modern welfare state, at least in its coercive face. Bridewell inmates were forced to spin, sew mailbags, clean the sewers in gangs, tread the wheel; even those who had lost a limb were set to on an ingenious hand and foot mill. Prostitutes and vagrants were whipped on arrival, and any acts of disobedience were punished by flogging. Bridewell became a popular place for locking up rebellious or just idle apprentices.

But it was not seen as a prison by the authorities, until much later, although ‘charitable’ inmates were joined by religious dissidents, Spanish Armada captives, and later local petty criminals. There was some dispute as to the legality of locking up those whose only crime was to be homeless and poor, but nothing came of it. Floggings in fact became novelty viewing: idle sadistic better off voyeurs would visit to get off on the punishment of others – a viewing gallery was built to house them.
The ‘president’ of the Bridewell in the early 17th century was Sir Thomas Middleton. He had the power to halt floggings by knocking on the table; the prisoners’ cry for mercy of ‘Knock, Sir Thomas, Knock’ was taken up by people who used to follow him and hassle him in the street, shouting the words after him…

In the 1610s a wave of prison riots occurred in London. They may have arisen less from a deterioration of conditions, than to the coming together of heretics and thieves, or political and common prisoners, creating new collectives of resistance. Martin Markall, the beadle of the Bridewell, stressed the association of landed offenders, such as Irish rebels, Gypsies, and Roberdsmen (marauding vagrants), with those of the sea, mariners and pirates. English, Latin, and Dutch were the languages of communication in prison. The prison, like the ship and the factory, organised large numbers of people for the purposes of exploitation, but it simultaneously was unable to prevent the prisoners thus massed together from organising against it.

In 1653 the Bridewell became a prison for petty offenders and ‘disorderly women’, particularly prostitutes. Short sentences were the norm here, but floggings were common, including public floggings twice a week; ducking stools and stocks also graced the place. Noted inmates included the Fifth Monarchist prophetess Anna Trapnel in 1654. Later the Bridewell pioneered the introduction of minor workhouse reforms, such as schooling for apprentices and children, introducing a doctor, providing free bedding (1788) and abolishing flogging for women (1791). It was closed down in 1855, and knocked down in 1863.

Although Bridewell was for a long time not called a prison, it formed part of a chain of penal institutions that loomed over the lower Fleet valley for centuries, with the Bridewell, the Fleet Prison, and Coldbath Fields on the river’s banks, and Ludgate, Newgate, the Clerkenwell Bridewell and Clerkenwell House of Detention within a few minutes’ walk.


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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London publishing history: Act passed punishing publishers of unstamped newspapers, 1743.

The tax on newspapers was first introduced in Britain in 1712; at the same time similar taxes on the price of paper, on adverts and on pamphlets and almanacs were brought in. Originally the statute regulating the tax, the Stamp Act, was trumpeted as being aimed at raising funds for the English state lottery, to monitor the circulation of newspapers and other periodicals, and to restrict publication of writing intended to stir up political opposition of any kind. But at heart it was designed to curb the production of newspapers, or make them unviably expensive to buy, especially for the plebs, who the authorities thought should definitely not be either aware of what was going on in the world, questioning the social order, or improving their mind – they should be reading the bible, and only the bible. Not getting ideas above their station. “All periodicals were already required by law to state the address and name of the owner, making taxation easily enforced on publishers, and allowing the government to see where legally printed publications were coming from.” Government-sponsored publications were exempted, and discretion was almost always used to allow pro-establishment papers to go unpunished if they did breach the rules, but to press hard against oppositional ones. “In order to exempt themselves from the tax, periodical authors pledged their patronage to members of Parliament, leading to publications rising and falling based on the party in power and a general distrust in periodicals of the time.”

The Act was not specifically aimed at raising revenue for the state; at least at first. But an initial stamp duty of a half old pence in 1712 rose, gradually increasing to 4 pence a century later. Adding such a cost to the publishers meant it was inevitably added to the price of the paper, and when wages were low, a price of a paper rising to 6 or 7 pence put it out of many working people’s reach.

As oppositional voices, movements for political reform and radical groupings emerged, expressing satires, critiques and outright rejection of the political system, personalities, and the establishment, government nervousness of the spread of ideas only increased. If in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the pamphlet conveyed the main bulk of radical and oppositional ideas, the birth of the daily newspaper in 1702 in London spawned a massive expansion. Over the next few decades political papers and journals became widely read; under the influence of the late 18th century pressure to reform the political system, and the French revolution, the number of radical newspapers proliferated exponentially.

This expansion, and the dangerous ideas it spread among the lower orders, was the main reason for the increase in the stamp tax. And the working class movement, in particular, that emerged as in the industrial revolution took hold, resented the stamp, as being aimed at keeping them down. As literacy increased, cultural expectations and aspirations evolved, the need for more educated clerking strata and so on developed, the Stamp continued to deny millions access to daily news. Of course, there were ways around it – not just the old practice of one literate person reading a paper to a less literate group, or people clubbing together to buy one… (In fact one of the factors that contributed to the development of radical clubs was the advantage of sharing the cost, through co-operative access, to papers and other reading materials…)

But also from the earliest times of the stamp on papers, there were attempts to dodge the stamp, putting out papers underground. This was not seen as in any way unethical – dodging the government’s Excise and Revenue officers was widely regarded in many levels of society as somewhere between a basic necessity and a national pastime. Smuggling of basic commodities was widespread; the 1730s also saw mass agitation against the introduction of the excise on Gin production, which involved demonstrations, the odd bomb, and several murders of informers grassing people up for selling the old mothers ruin… Some publishers were bound to attempt to avoid putting the tax on their papers, and many folk could be relied on to help them distribute them, if only to annoy the powers that be…

In response of course, the government, in April 1743, introduced an Act which laid down punishment for the publishers of unstamped newspapers (up to 3 months imprisonment in the Bridewell), offering rewards of 20 shillings per person jailed to informers who dobbed them in.) Of course there were always desperate lowlives available and happy to make a living collecting cash for snitching; but increasingly, especially in the early 19th century, there were a greater number willing to risk going to prison to write, print, sell and transport the unstamped papers. To many, the stamp on a newspaper was central to the ‘taxes on knowledge’, it was the ‘slave mark’, the sign of subservience to a government representing the upper class interests, hostile to change… Evading it was a badge of honour as much as anything. But even denouncing the stamp tax got you in trouble; Henry Hetherington, radical publisher of the Poor Mans Guardian, was jailed for calling the stamp duty ‘a tax on knowledge’ – his printing presses were ordered to be destroyed.

In the era of the French Revolutionary/Napeolonic War of 1792-1815, and in the period immediately following, the ‘war of the unstamped’ rose to fever pitch. Radical journalists who published papers, that refused to pay the stamp, the ‘shopmen’ and shop women who sold them, went to prison, in increasing numbers. As a post-war depression helped revive the long agitation for reform of parliament and more representation for the middle and working classes, and riot and insurrection grew, political repression from the state included a tightening on political newspapers. In particular the stamp was increased, under the draconian Six Acts, to include all publications which sold for less than six pence, contained an opinion about news, or which were published more frequently than every twenty-six days, and specifically banned papers “tending to excite hatred and contempt of the Government and Constitution of these realms… also vilifying our holy religion”; another of the Acts targetted publishers deemed guilty of “seditious or blasphemous libel”, ie questioning Church doctrine at all, or advocating political reforms.

Radical Richard Carlile was a central figure in ignoring the law, continuing to publish his newspaper, the Republican without paying stamp duty. Through the 1820s his shopworkers carried on when he was, as he often was, in prison… By the early 1830s, and into the 1840s, the struggle was led by men such as Henry Hetherington, James Watson, John Cleave, George Julian Harney and Bronterre O’Brien; many of whom ran radical bookshops, and were also active in the radical movements like the National Union of the Working Classes and later Chartism. Much of the huge agitation for reform and revolutionary undercurrents of these decades involved activists who had cut their teeth resisting the stamp. Tactics and methods of dodging the informers and government agents were legion: publishing your paper but calling it a pamphlet, smuggling copies around by numerous tricks (including inside a coffin at least once), printing on wood to avoid the paper excise…

At the beginning of 1836 the two leading unstamped radical newspapers, the Poor Man’s Guardian, and John Cleave’s Police Gazette, were selling more copies in a day than The Times sold all week. It was estimated at the time that the circulation of leading six unstamped newspapers had now reached 200,000.

In the House of Commons, John Roebuck led the campaign against taxes on newspapers. In 1836 the campaigners’ pressure became so overwhelming, they forced the government to reduce the 4d. tax on newspapers to 1d, a huge cut which allowed many radical and popular publications to reach wider audiences. The same year Parliament agreed to remove the tax on pamphlets. But the campaigned continued and in 1849 a group of publishers led by Henry Hetherington formed the Newspaper Stamp Abolition Committee. However, it was not until 1855 that the newspaper stamp duty was finally abolished.


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

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Today in London anti-fascist history: anti-semitic nazi march opposed, Clapton, 2015

On Saturday 18th April 2015, more than 100 local residents and anti-fascists turned out at short notice to bar the progress of a short march by a tiny but toxic group of hard core Nazis in Clapton, East London, a demo which included former 1970s/80s National Front leader Martin Webster.

The Nazi march was organised by Eddie Stampton, a longtime face of the skinhead far right, since the late 70s at least, (though it has been suggested that he also keeps the security services and journalists informed on some of his fash mates… he doesn’t seem very popular even in nazi circles these days…)

Nice Mr Stampton had invited a collection of individuals from an assortment of fascist and racist groups: Britain First, the British National Party, the National Front, the English Defence League and others. But altogether the turnout numbered just 22, carrying banners reading “Rights for Whites” and denouncing “Jewish power”.

They claimed to be marching in protest at the local Jewish community in Stamford Hill being allowed their own “police force” – in fact a private security outfit hired to protect the mainly hassidic community from anti-Semitic attacks, from the friends and associates of Messrs Stampton and Webster, and increasingly from right-wing migrants from Eastern Europe living in nearby areas of North London.

Stampton had wanted his rally in a park in Stamford Hill right in the middle of the local Jewish community but police redirected their march from Clapton station in the opposite direction to a corner beside the Lea Bridge Roundabout.

The walk was only a couple of hundred metres but it was long and slow as energetic and noisy young anti-fascists blocked the way and had to be forced back inch by inch by police while the Nazis were surrounded by scores of police to protect them from angry local residents.

Martin Webster launched a vitriolic attack on Jewish community defence organisations (while standing almost on the spot where, in the 1960s, a synagogue was destroyed by arson perpetrated by members of the Greater Britain Movement – of which Martin Webster and his then colleague John Tyndall, later NF and BNP leader, were members at the time).

A group of six Polish fascists invited by Stampton arrived just as the Nazi meeting was finishing.

Radical Jewish group Jewdas took part in the counter-demonstration. Alongside other activists and local community members, Jewdas claim that they were kept in a police containment area whilst the group were escorted down towards a local mosque at Lea Bridge roundabout; they accused the police of ‘facilitating’ the nazi march. Which is not the first time thats been suggested…

While Webster and his mates have been poncing around on the lunatic fringe for decades, failing to launch a thousand-year reich, but inspiring racist attacks when they could, the more recent influx of Polish racists has jacked up the fash level in North London a fraction. A few months before this (admittedly piss-poor) march, Polish nazi skins attacked a local music festival in South Tottenham, a couple of miles north of Clapton. About 20 Polish far-right nationalists attacked Jewish members of the audience at Music Day, held in Tottenham’s Markfield Park, rushing the stage, assaulted several members of the crowd and events team, and left one man in hospital with stab wounds. The crowd managed to push the skinheads back into a small corner of the park, before four riot vans turned up to shut down the melee and arrest several people for breaching the peace.

Footage shows festivalgoers and the far right exchanging missiles, including flares. Another video shows a man getting arrested wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan, “Wielka Polska”, meaning “Great Poland”. The attackers were from a group of far-right Polish immigrants known as Zjednoczeni Emigranci Londyn (Emigrants United London), a relatively small but hardcore group”, made up of ultra-nationalist Polish immigrants, who had some 350 members on Facebook, sharing ultra-nationalist iconography, racism and links to videos and stories about Polish football hooliganism. Lovely.

The brief hegemony of the British National party as the largest far-right party in the UK, achieving a near-respectability in electoral terms, was followed by chaos and near-collapse as UKIP nicked the ball and ran off swivel-eyed but less overtly violent, to achieve even greater heights of xenophobia and nationalist bollockery. (Though as usual the Tories act as the parliamentary arm of the racist backwater whenever they feel they can get away with it, so UKIP may now flounder).

As ever the BNP’s stumble was followed by a veritable smorgasbord of loony right splinters. Though the violent activity of many of these groups is supposedly denounced by others including UKIP, truth is there is more of a spectrum, with individuals and groups merging, arguing, moving from one to another, and reinforcing each other. Brexit, Trump, Alt-right developments can only help to reinforce such movements, and while they may be seen as a minor problem compared to more corporate forces, these are encouraging times for nazi fuckwits. Support/get involved in your local anti-fascist group…


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

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Today in London’s radical history: coalheavers riot in river strike, Wapping, 1768.

“A desperate fray happened at Wapping among several gangs of coalheavers; many persons were wounded, and several houses almost destroyed.” (Annual Register, 15th April, 1768)

Ah, ’68… year of riot, uprising and turbulence… No 1768, not 1968…

London, in 1768, seemed poised on the brink of apocalyptic revolt, as hunger, poverty and political agitation almost merged to give birth to revolution… Like 1381, 1649, 1780, 1889 during the dock strike, or 1919, was it a possible ‘revolutionary moment missed’, as we once wrote in a calendar? This may be going too far, for 1768, but it’s true that a number of movements came together, or co-existed, striking fear into the authorities, taking control of the streets, and one dispute or flashpoint would influence another, like wildfire…

On the political level ’68 was a year of mass agitation and crowd violence in support of John Wilkes, the rakish journalist, a scandal-mongering champion for reform of the political system, who won support from both the City of London merchant elite and the ‘Mobility’, the swelling, insurgent and always altering London mob. Wilkes had already been jailed and banished for challenging the establishment; in 1768 he was standing for election to Parliament for Middlesex, the huge (consistently politically progressive) constituency north and west of London, near enough for huge crowds to flock there and support him, leading to riots at the hustings, and assaults on Wilkes’ pro-government opponents. But his views got him barred from entering the house of Commons, even when elected (he was to be ruled ineligible several times, but re-elected each time). Pro-Wilkes marches became pitched battles, demonstrators were shot by the militia, Wilkes was imprisoned…

But 1768 was also a year of starvation: “the price of bread had doubled. The price of meat had increased by a third. Crowds forced street-vendors to sell vegetables at reasonable prices. The Whitechapel butchers ‘suffered prodigiously’. Elsewhere, butchers ‘were oblig’d to secrete their meat’. Corn-factors were attacked and their wagons stopped. The corn-dealers hid their plate, boarded up their coffee-houses, and closed the Stock Exchange…”

As rising food prices sparked protests, a wave of disputes swept London, especially in the East End, over wages, over working conditions and how work was regulated and controlled. Trade after trade erupted into stoppage and demonstration. “The sailors and the glass-grinders petitioned, shoemakers held mass meetings and the bargemen stopped work. The leaders of the tailors were imprisoned for ‘Irritating their Brethren to Insurrection, abusing their Masters, and refusing to work at the stated prices.’”

The political and economic turbulence mingled and sometimes merged; many of the workers in the London trades supported Wilkes, and marched for him… Though he was only ever mainly interested in the promotion of himself, and his image as the outrageous critic of the monarchy and government, darling of the mob, and would always balk at encouraging violence. He would end his days as comfortably, and almost respectable, having served as MP, alderman, Sherriff and Lord Mayor of London, (where he admittedly did work to improve legal protection for prisoners, servants and workers) and taken up arms to command soldiers to shoot down his former supporters attacking the Bank of England during the Gordon Riots. It’s not just the ‘reactionary populists’ we need to beware of…

To add to the fears of the ruling classes, there was talk of unrest in the army: “Soldiery may become a political Reverbatory Furnace”. If a regime loses the army, revolt can become revolution. Widespread flogging and repression in the ranks kept them from joining the swirling maelstrom….

The most dangerous disputes from the point of view of the authorities were the wage disputes and battles over mechanisation among the Spitalfields Silkweavers, and the work stoppage by the coal-heavers on the London docks. The silkweavers had been rebelling against wage cuts and increased use of machine looms for nearly a decade, but it was rising to fever pitch, with wage-cutting masters facing sabotage of their looms, intimidation of workers agreeing to low pay, and the formation of clubs of ‘cutters’ branching out into extortion of employers. It would climax the following year with gunfire and the army occupation of Spitalfields.

The coalheavers’ dispute was even more violent. As related in a previous post, for centuries one of the hardest jobs on the London docks was coalheaving: unloading coal from ships to warehouses from where it was sent off to fuel the City and industrial expansion. Coal lay at the heart of eighteenth century London life: not only was warmth, like food, basic to survival, but industry, business and commerce all needed coal to function.

Coal heaving, unloading coal from ships bringing it to London, was hard work, low paid, backbreaking; the heavers had a reputation for disorder and thieving, but faced harsh conditions which they were forced to combat in various ways. The work was centred on Wapping and Shadwell; Gangs of heavers were often controlled and organised by powerful City merchants and local publicans.

The heavers work patterns were being altered to speed up unloading of coal; ‘middlemen’, called undertakers, organised them into work-gangs, which worked to the interests of the coal-ship owners. But under the 1757 Coal Act, the coal heavers’ work was overseen by the aldermen magistrates of Billingsgate Ward, who registered the men, maintained a sickness and burial fund and regulated wages. By 1768 the magistracy was divided between a paternalist faction, interested in continuing protection of the workers (though with social peace and the maintenance of supply also at heart), and the representatives of the ship-owners, and large coal merchants… The latter were headed up by William Beckford, alderman of Billingsgate, largest sugar plantation owner (and thus slave-owner) in Jamaica. Beckford, ‘King of Jamaica’, twice Lord Mayor of London, MP for the City, was concerned to reduce the coalheavers independence to as near to the level of his Caribbean slaves as he could. Beckford is also where the links between the political and economic disturbances of 1768 come round full circle, since he was a stalwart supporters of Wilkes, a leader of the movement for reform in the City of London which saw sweeping changes to the corruption and inefficiency of the old regime as necessary for the unfettered growth of business interests and the pursuit of profit.

The confused mishmash of loyalties and interests here is typical of the time; perhaps some saw clearer than others, however, as striking sailors would by May 1768 sign a declaration ‘No W-. No K-‘ … No Wilkes, No King, breaking with the general support of the organised London workers for Wilkes… Why, isn’t certain: had they seen through the fundamental difference in interests?

Beckford backed the ‘undertakers’ who ran taverns in Wapping and Shadwell where heavers had to collect their wages and the gangs were also organised. “The tavern, even more than the parish, was the elemental unit of social life in London. The arduous nature of coal-heaving necessitated a close relationship with beer. The organisation of coal-heaving gangs, no less, required the public house. Since taverns were places of food and drink, control of them, especially during times of scarcity, was control of the river proletariat.”

The wage dispute erupted into open warfare, and the taverns were often the battlefield; heavers met in rival inns and mobbed the ones run by the gangmasters. Two ‘clerks’ (alderman’s aides), Metcalf and Green,hired by Beckford, ran taverns, organised the work, and drove down wages and conditions by hiring starving men from Ireland. The riverside was filled with Irish migrants (so many lived around one stretch of what is now Cable Street it was nicknamed ‘Knockfergus’)

But revolt against this evolved among the Irish workers, and the underground groupings of rural self-protection and resistance to British landlords in Ireland may have been used to build organised opposition on the docks. A wage dispute broke out and heavers stopped work. Scab labour was sent in from Green’s Roundabout Tavern (on Gravel Lane, now Garnet Street), and Metcalf’s Salutation Inn. In February 1768, the latter pub was gutted, and the war stepped up, as the undertakers allied with the constables and backed by Beckford pushed out the paternalist magistrate, Hodgson.

In April the Roundabout tavern was attacked by coalheavers with guns, fire was exchanged: “A shoemaker bled to death on the pavement; a coalheaver took a bullet in the head, ‘dropped down backwards, and never stirred more.’” This may be the same incident reported as taking place on April 15th in the Annual Register, but gunfire against scab taverns and those pubs where the striking heavers met was frequent for weeks. Green was charged with murder after these deaths, (seemingly the divisions within the magistracy were continuing), but he was acquitted.

The coalheavers were joined in May by sailors working the ships in the docks, agitating for higher wages, and ‘striking’ (lowering) the sails to prevent ship movement. The paralysis of work on the river became so overwhelming that ‘strike’ became general usage for refusing to work… and henceforth…

Further violence on board ships acting as scab labour in May brought mass repression, splitting the sailors and coalheavers; after a sailor was killed in battle on board a scab ship, several coal heavers were hanged, and the strikes were defeated… The army occupied the area to prevent further outbreaks, and ensure coal unloading carried on (two soldiers were murdered for unloading themselves).

In the end the massive agitation and riotous insurgency of 1768 peaked and declined, mostly in the face of massive state repression. The coalheavers continued to be unruly, if never again so effective. The Spitalfields silkweavers would also face vicious clamp-down after they became uncontrollable – but a few years later they would force the state to guarantee their wages, in a paternalist concession that would last 50 years. The class warfare against the changes in working conditions of course continued, though increasingly in other, less violent, forms.


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

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Today in London radical history: enclosure fences torn down, Wandsworth Common, 1870

“The Commons have symbolic roots going back to before the Norman conquest. They stand for the right of every human to have access to the fruits of our earth: in stark contrast to the predatory individualism promoted by the ‘enlightened’ imperialist… This lack of feeling was a necessary precondition for a class of men who were destined to lead the conquest and exploitation of peoples and ecosystems across the globe…The spirit of the commons was the antithesis of this dominating cult of individualism and private ownership.” (Stefan Szczelkun).

“For though you and your Ancestors got your Propriety by murther and theft, and you keep it by the same power from us, that have an equal right to the Land with you, by the righteous Law of Creation, yet we shall have no occasion of quarrelling (as you do) about that disturbing devil, called Particular Propriety: For the Earth, with all her Fruits of Corn, Cattle, and such like, was made to be a common Store-house of Livelihood to all Mankinds, friend, and foe, without exception.” Gerrard Winstanley, ‘Declaration from the Poor oppressed People of England… to Lords of Manors’, 1649.

Open space in London has always been contested space. Many of the green spaces around London (and elsewhere) which remain today were preserved from being built on over previous centuries, by collective action – rioting, sabotage, occupation, as well as legal contests, campaigns, demonstrations… In the years before the 19th century, this was often about subsistence – access to the Commons and the resources available there, like wood for fires, food like fruit, nuts and small game, and grazing land, were crucial to many people’s daily survival.

By the late 19th century, with the massive expansion of London, crowded with millions living in often poor housing and working long hours, open space for pleasure and relaxation was at a premium, and fast disappearing.

As part of our occasional series on enclosure battles around London, today we remember an incident in the resistance to the theft of Wandsworth Common.

Wandsworth Common is the remains of more extensive commonland which through earlier centuries had been known by a number of names, including Battersea West Heath and Wandsworth East Heath. It was originally part of the wastes of the Manor of Battersea and Wandsworth.

Between 1794 & 1866, 53 enclosures reduced its size; most of the enclosures were carried out by local bigwigs the Spencer family (later of Princess Di fame). Earl Spencer’s actions sparked protests in December 1827, when “a very numerous meeting of the most affluent and respectable gentry” of Battersea, Wandsworth and Clapham (held at the Swan in Stockwell) opposed an impending Inclosure Bill for the three respective Commons. They were partly concerned at threats to their own livelihoods, but also greatly worried that many poor folk would be deprived of a subsistence living – and thus become a burden on the rates! (Much was made of the results of the recent enclosure of Bexley and Bromley Commons, where ratepayers had ended up paying the price…) The Bill was defeated, but small scale enclosure continued.

The situation in Wandsworth was made worse by the Common being split into three parts by railway lines in the 1840s, & the enclosure of a further 60 acres for an asylum. At some point in the late 1840s, a Mr Parsons and others broke down fences aroun some enclosures, and were charged, but the case was dismissed, possibly on the grounds that they were asserting a traditional right of access.

Attempts by local people to preserve the Common against further encroachment began in earnest in 1868 when appeals were made to the Metropolitan Board of Works to take over responsibility, following the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866, but this was initially unsuccessful.

The East Common was the centre of a fierce struggle in the 1860s. Mr Kellar, who owned land on the Common south of Bellevue road, claimed he had to enclose it to disperse ‘gypsies’ who had been camping there, who he accused of trashing the Common; but it later emerged that he had supplied the travellers with booze & then kicked up a fuss when they got pissed & had a rowdy party.

In 1869, 2000 people gathered to pull down enclosure fences on part of the Common, roughly where Chivalry Road is now, and the following year Henry Peek (who had played a part in the preservation of Wimbledon Common from development) called together a Common Defence Committee (later the Wandsworth Common Preservation Society) to save the land threatened with development by the Spencers. Large public meetings were held in Wandsworth, Putney and Battersea. The Committee fought an unsuccessful legal battle that April to preserve Plough Green (around modern Strathblaine Road and Vardens Road, off St Johns Hill).
The agitation to save Wandsworth Common, although led by wealthier residents, involved working class mass involvement, including mass meetings in local factories.

In parallel with the legal campaigning, some locals went in for a bit of direct action… On May 14th 1869, John Buckmamster, a leading light of the Common Defence Committee, was had up at Wandsworth Police Court, accused of “wilfully and maliciously destroying a fence enclosing the property of Mr Christopher Todd at Wandsworth Common.” Todd had bought the land from the railway Company, but campaigners claimed they had no right to sell, as the Lord of the Manor had no right to sell it to THEM. Breaking down the fence, Buckmaster stated that he was asserting common right. Public meetings on the Common (including one allegedly 5000-strong in January 1868) had passed resolutions to tear down Todd’s fences.

In the months following fund-raising efforts and lobbying of support accelerated. And so did the wanton destruction of property. On April 13th 1870, “a large number of persons assembled and asserted their right of way by breaking down the fences”. Some 300-400 people armed with hatchets and pickaxes re-established a footpath enclosed by a Mr Costeker at Plough Green, possibly opposite the Freemasons Tavern. A report later noted:“At each crashing of the fence there was a great hooting and hurrahing.” In June of the same year there were protests at Spencer’s plans to enclose part of Putney Common.
Eventually Earl Spencer agreed to transfer most of the common to the Defence Committee, excluding the area which later became Spencer Park. The rest was later saved for public access, and remains open to all today.


Centuries of hard fought battles saved many beloved places from disappearing, and campaigning led to the laws currently protecting parks, greens and commons. But times change… Pressures change. Space in London is profitable like never before. For housing mainly, but also there are sharks ever-present looking to exploit space for ‘leisure’. And with the current onslaught on public spending in the name of balancing the books (ie cutting as much as possible in the interests of the wealthy), public money spent on public space is severely threatened.

Many are the pressures on open green spaces – the costs of upkeep, cleaning, maintenance,
improvement, looking after facilities… Local  councils, who mainly look after open space, are struggling. Some local authorities are proposing to make cuts of 50 or 60 % to budgets for parks. As a result, there are the beginnings of changes, developments that look few and far between now, but could be the thin end of the wedge.

So you have councils looking to renting green space to businesses, charities, selling off bits, shutting off parks or parts of them for festivals and corporate events six times a year… Large parts of Hyde Park and Finsbury Park are regularly fenced off for paying festivals already; this could increase. Small developments now, but maybe signs of things to come. Now is the time to be on guard, if we want to preserve our free access to the green places that matter to us.

Already space in the city is being handed to business – London’s Canary Wharf, the Olympic Park and the Broadgate development in the City are public places governed by the rules of the corporations that own them.

An example of public space being created, that will operate under private control, is the proposed Garden Bridge across the river Thames. Despite the promise of £60m of public money, if built under
current proposals, it will be plagued by corporate restrictions: cyclists would have to dismount to cross, while social gatherings, playing musical instruments, making a speech, releasing balloons and many other pursuits would be banned. It could be closed to public access for private events.

And increasing privatisation of space in cities is often tied up with CCTV, surveillance, control of our behaviour. Private space is space where they can tell us what we can and can’t do; space they can ban us from, keep us out of. Not that public bodies aren’t doing their bit: the last government introduced Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), allowing councils to make illegal ‘social problems’ like sleeping rough in an attempt to drive homeless people from town or city. Councils are also dealing with developers that give them control over paths. Planning laws are being ‘relaxed’ nationally to allow developers a freer and quicker ride when they want to build . Everywhere slivers of green not protected by law are vanishing; or social housing with access and views over green space is being replaced with new developments for the rich (as at Woodberry Down, or West Hendon). The threat to open space is part and parcel of the massive changes underway in the city, attempts to permanently alter the capital in favour of the wealthy, driving those who can’t afford it to the margins or out of the city entirely.

It may seem like parks, and other green spaces are givens; things that can’t be taken away. But what seem like certainties can be lost before we realise. Look at way social housing have been dismantled over the past 30 years. In the 1960s council housing was taken for granted as a right by millions: it has been reduced to a last resort, which current government proposals could sweep away. Or the way the NHS is being parcelled up into private providers… there are many who see green space as a luxury and something that can be got rid of or at least shunted off into the hands of some quango… Whatever gains we have, whatever we win, whatever rights we enjoy, came from long generations of battling – the moment we stop, rest on our laurels, powerful forces start pushing back against everything we have won.

If landowners, the rich, authority, have usually seen open space as a resource for their profit, or as a problem to be controlled, there has always been opposing views, and those willing to struggle to keep places open, and to use them for purposes at odds with the rich and powerful. From an invaluable source of fuel and food, to the playground for our pleasures; from refuge from the laws made by the rich, to the starting point of our social movements…



More on enclosure battles in South London can be read in Down With the Fences (from which the section above on Wandsworth Common is an excerpt).

And some more of our ramblings on open space can be found in Stealing the Commons


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

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Today in London’s legal history: trial of SDF leaders for incitement to riot ends in acquittal, 1886.

On 8 February 1886 a rally was held in Trafalgar Square, organised by the ‘Fair Trade League’ (a kind of tory front aimed at recruiting the working class), calling for protectionist measures to ‘protect British jobs’. At this time there was relatively high unemployment, due to a trade recession. The radical-cum-Marxist-cum-jingoist Social Democratic Federation resolved to hold a meeting to oppose the rally, arguing for the “Right to Work” and making demands for the establishment of state-directed co-operative colonies on under-utilised lands.

Workers should join the socialist movement, not the Conservative Party (Unashamedly brushing under the carpet the unpleasant fact that the SDF had taken money from the Tories just the previous year to stand several candidates in the general election, with the aim of splitting the liberal vote).

Both meetings were given permission to meet in different parts of the square; with arrangements for a small force of constables to police the square, and a reserve of 563 men standing by, and District Superintendent Robert Walker, 74 years old in charge. Walker may not have been up to the task – he went in plain clothes to observe the meetings, lost touch with his men and disappeared into the crowd, where he had his pockets picked.

The SDF managed to take over the Free Traders platform, where were some fiery speeches from SDF leaders, which led to some fighting in the Square. A massive crowd (estimated around 10,000) set off marching towards Hyde Park. The crowd was later reckoned as being a mix of artisans and working men, with what was described as ‘roughs’ and ‘loafers’. The march took them past various clubs and aristocratic hang-outs, where toffs and club servants slinging abuse & chucking shoes and nail brushes out of the windows out of the windows, led to the clubs being stoned by the crowd in return. The unemployed were hooted by Tories at the Carlton Club and jeered in return. In St James St they metal bars and loose paving stones were employed to smash Club windows. In Piccadilly people started looting shops, some nicking posh clothes then taking them off to nearby Green Park and Hyde Park to try them on.

When the SDF leaders and entourage arrived at Hyde Park they gave another round of inflammatory round of speeches, after which groups of rioters marched off back East, some via North Audley St and Oxford Street, breaking windows and looting as they went.

In the aftermath of the riot, a public panic swept respectable London; rumours flew on the following day that whole armies of the poor were marching from the East End or Deptford, whole areas of London saw shops putting up their shutters…

The more concrete results of the riot were in fact threefold: charity schemes for the unemployed, a determination to study and understand poverty as a motivator for violent events so as to head it off in the future, and last, increased repression of socialist meetings and groups.

Though the SDF had used fiery invective from the platform, there was little real link between their ideas and the rioters more immediate class resentment and willingness to get stuck in, hassle the poshos, and maybe grab a bit of loot into the bargain.

In addition, they, like the authorities, were slightly afraid of what they had partly unleashed: “THE steps taken by the authorities are an eloquent testimony to the alarm created by the riots in the minds of the middle and upper classes. But they had by no means a monopoly of alarm at the moment.   The leaders of the Social Democratic Federation were genuinely afraid of the Frankenstein that had been raised. It was no part of their plan that rioting should take place. What they desired was to discountenance the Fair Traders, and to repudiate their claims to the leadership of working-class opinion.   But they had so roused the indignation of the people that the jeering of the club habitue’s had been like applying a torch to a mass of gunpowder. And there was a very serious danger that the authorities would punish them Messrs. Burns, Hyndman, Champion, and Williams for what was really the fault of the men who assembled in the club windows, and insulted the men in the procession.”

However, the, as ever, slightly myopic government and police, always more afraid of the influence of radical groups than that influence generally warrants, felt it was time to crack down harder on the overt propagandists for socialism.

Four of the SDF leaders, H. M. Hyndman, Jack Williams, John Burns and H. H. Champion, were arrested but at their subsequent trial they were acquitted.

The Old Bailey trial lasted six days, from the 5th to the l0th April. Hyndman, who defended himself, said “had it been necessary he could have called hosts of witnesses as to character, and to prove that he was not likely to aid in looting shops. It was unnecessary to do so, because the great social work in which he was engaged would have been greatly injured by such action. “As to their position in the dock, he, with his co-defendants, really felt it an honour, for they appeared as representatives of a great social and national movement. “The real root of the prosecution was that the Government was instigated by the Grand Viziers on the Continent, who thought that too great freedom was allowed to the people of England, and that it might prove dangerous to Continental nations. He had found the condition of the people in this and other countries was worse than that of slavery and savagery, thus proving that there was a deep social question that had to be solved, and it was to help to solve that problem that he and the other defendants had spent their money and leisure.”

Burns added: ” My Lords and Gentlemen of the Jury:  ” As an unemployed worker, and a Social Democrat, I am placed in a somewhat peculiar position in this case. I expected when I was of the age of sixteen or seventeen that, at some time of my life, I should be brought face to face with the authorities for vindicating the class to which I belong. ” Since I was sixteen years of age I have done everything in my power to benefit the workers in a straightforward way. I have deprived myself, as many of my class have done, of hundreds of meals on purpose to buy books and papers to see if we could not by peaceful consultation, by deliberate and calm organisation, do what I am inclined to think the middle and upper classes by their neglect, apathy, and indifference, will compel artisans to do otherwise than peacefully. ” I plead ‘ Not Guilty,’ my Lord, to the charge of sedition, particularly to the charge of seditious conspiracy. I plead not guilty, not to deny the words I used on 8th February, or any other words I ever used, but simply because the language I used on that occasion had no guilt or sedition in it. I expressed the virtuous indignation against the misery and injustice of a man who had from his earliest infancy up to the present moment struggled and worked hard to support his wife and an aged mother, both of whom would instantly repudiate me if I were to go back from one single statement that I made on 8th February. I pointed out the steps that were necessary for a peaceful solution of the difficulties which the industrial classes have to encounter, and which press so hardly on the lower classes of society as they are falsely called. I pointed out how the unequal incidence of taxation pressed upon shopkeepers and others, and how the capitalists and the rich were able to tide over the difficulties. “Against this system of society I frankly confess I am a rebel, because society has outlawed me. I have protested against this state of society by which at present one and a half millions of our fellow-countrymen, adult males, are starving starving because they have not work to do. ” I had very strong feelings upon this matter of the unemployed, particularly on the day in question, when we were brought face to face with men who for month after month had trod the street in search of work, with men whom I knew were honest ; whose only crime was that they let the idler enjoy that which the producer alone should have not loafers and thieves but the real unemployed of our nation city. Talk about strong language! I contend my language was mild when you consider the usage they have received, and that the patience, under severe provocation, displayed by the workers, is almost slavish and cowardly. “Now what have we done? We have pursued the same course for the last five years. These are remarkable defendants who stand in this box. “There must be some unusual agitation to prompt one of the idle classes like Mr. Champion, a skilled artisan like myself, an unskilled labourer like Mr. Williams, and a middle-class man like Mr. Hyndman, to stand in this box for one simple cause. There must be something unusual to bring us here. ” We have gained nothing by this agitation; on the contrary, we have lost what material well-being we had, and we come before you not as paid agitators pecuniarily interested in creating riots, tumults, and disturbances, but men anxious to change the exist- ing system of society to one in which men should receive the full value of their labour, in which society will be regarded as something more than a few titled non-producers who take the whole of the wealth which the useful workers alone produce. “We are indicted for seditious conspiracy. If it were not so serious a charge in itself, it would be enough to raise a smile. Seditious conspiracy! Why, if there is one thing that the Whigs, Radicals, and the Tory Party accuse us of it is this that we have brought these questions and we are the first who have done it into the open street! When we are again accused of conspiracy it will be when all open methods of securing redress have been tried and have failed. ” If you want to remove the cause of seditious speeches you must prevent us from having to hear, as we hear to-day, of hungry, poverty-stricken men who from no fault of their own are compelled to be out of work, who are fit subjects for revolutionary appeals. If you want to remove a seditious agitation, as it is called, you must remove, not the effect, but the cause of such agitation. ” We are not responsible for the riots; it is society that is responsible, and instead of the Attorney-General drawing up indictments against us, he should be drawing up indictments against society, which is responsible for neglecting the means at its command. ” I have not one single word of regret to utter for the part I have taken in this agitation. If my language was strong, the occasion demanded strong language. I say we cannot have in England, as we have to-day, five millions living on the verge of pauperism without gross discontent. Well-fed men never revolt. Poverty-stricken men have all to gain, and nothing to lose, by riot and revolution.   ” There is a time, I take it and such is the present, a time of exceptional depression when it is necessary for men, particularly for the working classes, to speak out in strong language as to the demands of their fellows ; and I contend it would be immoral, cowardly, and criminal to the last degree if I, having what little power I possess to interpret the wishes of my fellow-workers, were not to use every public occasion for ventilating the grievances of those who, from no fault of their own, are unable to ventilate them themselves. “That meeting of 8th February called the attention of the people of Great Britain to this fact that below the upper and middle strata of society there were millions of people living hard, degraded lives men who were forced to live as they do, but who would, if possible, work and live virtuous lives men who through the unequal distribution of wealth are consigned to the criminal classes, and women into the enormous army of prostitutes, whom we see in the streets of our large cities.   “And, as an artisan, I cannot see poor, puny, little babes sucking empty breasts, and honest men walking the streets for four months at a time I cannot hear of women of the working classes being compelled to prostitution to earn a livelihood I cannot see these things without being moved not only to strong language, but to strong action, if necessary. ” Society journals demand our imprisonment. Why? Because £1,000 worth of windows have been broken. But how about the sacred human lives that have been, and are, degraded and blighted by the present system of capitalism? ” I am prepared to stand by what I said on that day. If I go to prison (as I think very doubtful) I shall serve my cause, as Mr. Champion has said, as well inside the prison as out. “The word prison has no particular terrors for me. Through the present system of society life has lost all its charm, and a hungry man said truly (as Isaiah said in the Holy Book) that there was a time in the history of our lives when it was better to die in prison, or better to die righting than to die starving.   “As the holy man said of old, so millions of men are thinking at the present moment; and if the governing classes want to bring on a revolution by force, such as has been mentioned by the counsel for the prosecution, they will find it come more speedily, and with more violence, if they deny to the poor men of England (who are too poor to pay for halls) the right to express their grievances and opinions in public meetings in the open air, and I would ask the jury, as they are for the moment the guardians of the right of free speech, as they have an opportunity in the present instance of laying down a good or bad precedent, I ask them in the interests of justice, particularly in the interests of the great mass of poverty-stricken men and women in this country, not to allow this opportunity to pass without stigmatising by their verdict as absurd, stupid, and frivolous, the prosecution that has been brought against us by Her Majesty’s Government.”

On the jury returning to the Court, the foreman said they acquitted Messrs. Hyndman and Williams, and with regard to the other two defendants, he was desired to say the jury are of opinion that the language of Messrs. Burns and Champion was highly inflammatory, and greatly to be condemned ; but on the whole of the facts laid before them, they acquitted those two defendants of seditious intent. The Judge: “That, gentlemen, is a verdict of ‘Not Guilty.'”

So the SDF leaders walked… But the government hadn’t finished with the socialists, and was to get its revenge a year and a half later, on Bloody Sunday, in November 1887, when a socialist-radical demonstration was outnumbered and heavily battered by the police, causing two deaths, and proving to many that the revolution was not just around the corner, as some had thought…

John Burns went on to leave the SDF, and became a Liberal MP and then a government minister in 1905 (the second working class minister); he resigned in protest at the entry of Britain into World War 1 in 1914 and left politics.

HM Hyndman led the SDF for the next 20 years, mixing dogmatic Marxism with nationalist and militaristic tosh, until he was ousted from the British Socialist Party (the SDF’s successor) after jingoistically supporting World War 1.

HH Champion, an ex-army officer, left the SDF in 1889, became a founder of the Independent Labour Party, but emigrated to Australia and worked as a journalist.

Jack Williams remained an SDF member and served on its executive, being mostly involved in unemployed organization. He died in 1917, having never recovered from his childhood in workhouses and time spent in prison for socialist agitation.


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

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Today in military history: conscripts in Savoy barracks bound for service in East India Company, riot; all shot dead. 1763.

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

Another group seemingly confined here, though as to how regularly is unclear, were ‘recruits’ destined to be shipped to India or other parts of the ‘far east’ to serve in the military forces commanded by the East India Company.

The East India Company formed in the late 16th century, receiving its Royal Charter in 1600. Its original aim was to expand trade in India and in other Asian countries. It was to grow into one of the most powerful transnational businesses ever created, and backed by the British state, to become a major agent of imperial conquest and domination, with its owned private armed forces. “the company rose to account for half of the world’s trade, particularly in basic commodities including cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpetre, tea and opium.”

Wealthy merchants and aristocrats owned the Company’s shares; the vast profits to be made in commodities the Company handled ensured shares traded at premium prices. The EIC made huge wealth for its shareholders, but also contributed to Britain’s massive enrichment in the 18th and 19th centuries, at the expense of local, regional and transnational economies in the East, which were often shattered, destabilised or re-oriented (arf) in the Company’s interest. This is not even to mention the famines, wars of conquest, the torture and expropriation carried out by the Company and its agents (check the looted contents of a museum or aristocratic mansion near you), and, yes, genocide…

At a similar time other European East India Companies were forming, notably the Dutch and French versions, which became competitors, and later struggles over trade routes and contracts became outright wars.

“During its first century of operation the focus of the Company was trade, not the building of an empire in India. Company interests turned from trade to territory during the 18th century as the Mughal Empire declined in power and the East India Company struggled with its French counterpart, the French East India Company (Compagnie française des Indes orientales) during the Carnatic Wars of the 1740s and 1750s. The Battle of Plassey and Battle of Buxar, which saw the British, led by Robert Clive, defeat the Indian powers, left the company in control of Bengal and a major military and political power in India. In the following decades it gradually increased the extent of the territories under its control, ruling either directly or indirectly via local puppet rulers under the threat of force by its Presidency armies, much of which were composed of native Indian sepoys.”

Although the Company could later often rely on the military support of the British army and navy to back up its trading/military interests, the early days of the wars in India against the French of the 1740s-60s required the Company bolster up its own forces, from a slightly shambolic guard force to a proper army, which was to become the strongest military force in the subcontinent.

The company eventually came to rule large areas of India with its own private armies, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions. Company rule in India effectively began in 1757 and lasted until 1858 when, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Government of India Act 1858 led to the British Crown assuming direct control of India in the form of the new British Raj.

In its first century and half, the Company used a few hundred soldiers as guards, but after 1750, (when it had 3000 regular troops), its military power rocketed. 13 years later it controlled 26,000 soldiers; by 1778, this had risen to 67,000. “The military arm of the East India Company quickly developed to become a private corporate armed force, and was used as an instrument of geo-political power and expansion, rather than its original purpose as a guard force, and became the most powerful military force in the Indian sub-continent.”

Most of its troops were local Indian recruits; however men were also hired in Britain. Some of these may, as was widespread practice at the time, have been ‘volunteered’ rather than enlisting of their own accord.

A problem for the Company was the entrenched opposition to them recruiting in Britain, first and foremost by the British armed forced themselves (as is suggested in the last line of the brief Annual Register entry).  “The Company’s efforts had long been hampered by Parliamentary feeling against standing armies – indeed an act of 1781 limited the number of recruits who could be held in England awaiting embarkation to 2000 in time of war and 1000 in peace time.”  British recruits were also, as late as the 1760s, legislated to make sure they must be Protestants, who could also be part of a general attempt to spread god’s own religion among johnny foreigner, meaning not papistry. But the quality of recruits was often criticised by the Company’s officers on the ground as being poor, though whether this was regarding their health, morals or ability, isn’t clear…

Professional and national forces generally resent ‘amateurs’, private security set-ups, even today (until they have to retire, then they all get lucrative jobs with private outfits).

Another reason for army sabotage of Company recruiting may have been that opportunities for advancement were easier in the Company’s service than with the Redcoats… “The army took responsibility for many civil and social activities in the country, particularly in the vicinity of the cantonments. These responsibilities were undertaken by Warrant Officers generally acting through Sergeants of differing titles. These were positions of significant importance and standing and the chance to attain them was one of the attractions of joining the Company’s army rather than the King’s/Queen’s army. Many NCOs were able to take on other work and attract an extra income. By doing so, they could frequently buy themselves out of their units, could earn more money and qualify for a pension much sooner.”

Whether pressganged, genuinely voluntary, or regretting it, many must have decided early on that service in the EIC’s army wasn’t for them… The brief account that follows suggests less than complete consent:

“Some recruits, confined in the Savoy for the East India Service, rose upon the centinels, wrested their arms from them, and made themselves masters of the keys; but the guards in the barracks being alarmed, another fray ensued, in which three of the recruits were shot dead, some others mortally wounded, and one of the soldiers had his hand so shattered that it had to be cut off. The propriety and justice of confining men in this manner for any service, except his majesty’s, has been matter of much dispute, however favoured by the coroner’s inquest upon this melancholy occasion.” (Annual Register, 1763).

On the face of it, it sounds like the ‘recruits’ were locked up. Not volunteers, then. Press-ganged? Regretting signing up?

The Company was a major player in the colonisation of the world in British interest, and a forerunner and inspiration for the transnationals of today (check out a historian’s comparison with G4S and the scumbag security corporations of today…)


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

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