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:

https://www.facebook.com/SavePrendergast/

https://www.facebook.com/StopAcademiesinLewisham

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

 

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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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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.

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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…

https://antifascistnetwork.org/

https://www.facebook.com/londonantifascists/

https://northlondonantifa.wordpress.com/

http://jewdas.org/

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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.

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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.

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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…

THE COMMONS ARE OURS!

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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

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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.

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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 them).

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 an inspiration for the transnationals of today (check out a historian’s comparison with G4S and the scumbag security corporations of today…)

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

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Today in London history: War is the Ruin of the Drinking Classes, 1917.

Immediately after the outbreak of World War I, Parliament passed the Defence of the Realm Act  (on 8th August 1914) criminalising anything they could think of that could impede the war effort. A notable section of the Act restricted licensing hours in pubs, to reduce drunkenness, hangovers and nipping off work early for a swift one impacting on war production… Before the war, pubs could open from 5 am in the morning to 12.30 pm at night. The DORA slashed licensing hours in cities and industrial areas, which could only now open 12.00 noon to 2.30 pm and 6.30 to 9.30 pm. (However, in most rural areas, people could continue to buy alcoholic drinks throughout the day. Mostly cider, presumably.)

Other governments involved in the conflict were also worried about this problem. In August 1914 Tsar Nicholas II outlawed the production and sale of vodka. This involved the closing down of Russia’s 400 state distilleries and 28,000 spirit shops. The measure was a complete failure, as people, unable to buy vodka, produced their own. The Russian government also suffered a 30% reduction in its tax revenue. Attempts to reduce alcohol consumption were also made in Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and Italy.

This drastic reduction in British opening times was only the beginning of a campaign against alcohol that was to last throughout the war. “David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, led the campaign against alcohol. He had been told by shipbuilders and heads of war factories, that men’s wages had gone up so much that they could earn in two or three days what would keep them in drink for a week. A Newcastle shipbuilder complained that double overtime on Sunday meant no attendance on Monday.” In January 1915, Lloyd George told the Shipbuilding Employers Federation that Britain was “fighting German’s, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink.”

This campaign was to reach absurd proportions.

“Lloyd George started a campaign to persuade national figures to make a pledge that they would not drink alcohol during the war. In April 1915 King George V supported the campaign when he promised that no alcohol would be consumed in the Royal household until the war was over. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War and Richard Haldane, the Lord Chancellor, followed the king’s example, but [Prime Minister] Herbert Asquith, who was a heavy drinker, refused to take the pledge. The National Review commented: “The failure of the Prime Minister to take the King’s Pledge has naturally aroused comment.” Asquith retorted angrily that Lloyd George had “completely lost his head on drink.” Not in that way, I mean, he’s gone over the top on the sub- oh forget it, poor me another one. Lloyd George being a welsh chapel lad was a teetotaller anyway, so it wasn’t exactly a stretch…

With mass enlistment from young men, to be followed (as the first wave of recruits died en masse in France and Belgium) by mass conscription, women were recruited in large numbers to work in many industries where male workers had previously rigidly excluded them (often through the trade union structures), as well as particularly in making munitions and other war materiel. This was to open up all sorts of opportunities to women, sparking social change that shot off in all sorts of directions. However, one that most bothered the government, pro-war press and the Daily Mail-reading swivel-brained, was that the wages these women workers were al of a sudden receiving gave them massively increased spending power. And they liked to spend it on drink:

“The government was particularly concerned about the amount of alcohol being consumed by female munition workers. A survey of four pubs in London revealed that in one hour on a Saturday night alcohol was consumed by 1,483 men and 1,946 women. Newspapers claimed that soldiers’ wives were “drinking away their over-generous allowances”. The Times reported that “we do not all realise the increase in drinking there has been among the mothers of the coming race, though we may yet find it a a circumstance darkly menacing to our civilisation”.”

The moral outrage sparked by women living it up gathered pace. The Liverpool Echo – under the headline “Light on the ways of women drinkers” – reported in 1916 that “the great increase in the number of women visiting public houses during the past year has demanded drastic treatment”. Press reports and letters from the public talked about “the army of women crowding the public houses”, that the amount being drunk by women was “abnormal”, drinking the pubs dry so that and that male workers heading home from work were “unable to obtain any refreshment”.

Women drinkers were compared to prostitutes; a new scare warned soldiers would return at the end of the war to “find their wives dishonoured and drunkards”.

The bizarre range of measures thought up to “eradicate this blot” included banning women from pubs, selling licences to BUY drink, fitting clear windows to pubs, removing “partitions, snugs and other obstacles likely to facilitate secret drinking”.

In October 1915 the British government finally fell off the edge, announcing a number of several measures to enforce further reductions in alcohol consumption. “A “No Treating Order” laid down that any drink ordered was to be paid for by the person supplied. The maximum penalty for defying the Government order was six months’ imprisonment. The Spectator gave its support to the legislation. It argued that it was the custom of the working-classes to buy drinks for “chance-met acquaintances, each of whom then had to stand a drink to everyone else” and believed that this measure would “free hundreds of thousands of men from an expensive and senseless social tyranny”.

It was reported in The Morning Post on 14th March, 1916: “At Southampton yesterday Robert Andrew Smith was fined for treating his wife to a glass of wine in a local public-house. He said his wife gave him sixpence to pay for her drink. Mrs Smith was also fined £1 for consuming and Dorothy Brown, the barmaid, £5 for selling the intoxicant, contrary to the regulations of the Liquor Control Board.”

Ernest Sackville Turner, in his book, Dear Old Blighty (1980) has pointed out: “In Newcastle police reported a licensee who, with his manager, had sought to evade punishment by causing a customer who had ordered eight drinks to consume all of them. As time passed the Order began to be flouted, to the relief of bar-room scroungers who had been having a thin time, but the police fought back. In Middlesbrough fines on innkeepers went as high as £40. The licensing authorities had powers to close public-houses which allowed treating and occasionally exercised them.” 

The government also increased the level of tax on alcohol. In 1918 a bottle of whisky cost £1, five times what he had cost before the outbreak of war. This helped to reduce alcoholic consumption. Whereas Britain consumed 89 million gallons in 1914, this had fallen to 37 million in 1918. Convictions for drunkenness also fell dramatically during the war. In London in 1914, 67,103 people were found guilty of being drunk. In 1917 this had fallen to 16,567.”

Another effect of the war on drinking was a huge increase in prices. However wages were also increasing. Price and wage inflation rocketed during WW1. Prices had scarcely increased since the 1850’s, in some cases actually having fallen. In four years of war, they doubled. Pre-war the average weekly wage varied from 26s. 4d. per week to 34s. 4d. Half the women employed were paid from 10s. to 15s. per week. In 1917 London bus drivers were earning 60s. per week, cleaners, never the best paid, were getting 40s. By 1918 even agricultural labourers, the lowest paid manual workers, were earning 60s. to 70s. a week. Munitions workers earned considerably more – from £6 (120s.) to as much as £10 (200s.) or £20 (400s.) per week.

So drinkers had, for the most part, plenty of money to afford the higher price of beer, but the problem was a limited supply of beer available. Pubs were allocated a ration of beer based on their pre-war sales; however in some areas the population had increased dramatically – for instance where there had been an influx of munitions workers. In some places, there was just not enough beer to go around. And this caused trouble. Shortages encouraged publicans and brewers to raise prices; this narked their customers, but when some landlords couldn’t resist breaking agreements to put up the price of a pint across a neighbourhood, all sorts of aggro broke:

“The Price of Beer Yesterday – Threatened Strike of Publicans. —- BATTLE OF THE BAR.
Weekly Dispatch, April 8th 1917

There were some remarkable fluctuations in the price of beer in London yesterday, with a tendency to go back to the old prices.

At the Black Dog in Shoe Lane, London, bitter was only 3d a half pint – 2d. less that the price fixed by the Licensed Victuallers’ Central Protection Society London: at the Temple in Tudor Street the charge had also gone down to 3d.; at the Mail Coach in Farringdon Street it was still at 5d.; at Gatti’s Restaurant in the Strand itt was 4.5d.; at the Wellington Restaurant, Fleet Street, 5d.

In South London, in Camberwell and Peckham, there has been a battle of the publicans ever since Monday last. At a meeting it was agreed to put up the prices, but when the time came a minority did not do so. The news spread quickly and the old-price houses were beseiged. Another was held and again an agreement to raise the price was reached, but this time a few of the publicans had a vendetta against the men who played the trick on Monday. One man in Peckham Road put outside his house a notice stating that as other publicans in the district had been disloyal the old prices would be charged until further notice. Many others are doing the same. Yesterday in these old-price houses, it was fighting room only. In Manchester a boycott of formidable character is taking place.

In Manchester and Salford yesterday pickets were stationed near many beerhouses in the industrial areas, and the takings of hundreds of licensees decreased by over 50 per cent.

In Liverpool the boycott also continues. There has been a great drop in the trade and, contrary to expectation, the workmen have shown no sign of buying beer at the new price. At Sunderland the premises of one publican who declined to advance the prices and charged 4d. a pint were crowded to the doors, while people intending to enter premises charging 6d. and 7d. were assailed with cries of “Come out, you blacklegs” from pickets.

A strike was threatened by publicans in Chatham and Rochester yesterday. The licensed victuallers and beerhouse keepers there have decided to accept no further supplies of malt liquors from the brewery until they reduce their rates to the prices prevailing in the greater
part of the county of Kent. According to present arrangements the public is henceforth to pay 10d. a quart for its mild ales and 1s. 6d. a quart for bitter ales.

PROHIBITION BY PRICE.
“It’s prohibition by price – so far as beer is concerned.” said a London publican yesterday. He said that his sale had dropped by 50 per cent since the prices were increased in his establishment last Tuesday.

Old walked in and asked for “a pint of bitter,” and when told the price had been raised to tenpence walked out without touching the drink – a remarkable example of self-denial but typical of the kind of protest the British workman will always make when he feels, rightly or
wrongly, that he is being badly imposed upon.

The new rise in the price of beer in a consequence of the war, which to many men is a more startling fact than the inflation in the prices of foodstuffs or luxuries. Twopence on on tobacco was serious, but as one ounce lasts the average smoker two or three days he did not feel the
call on his pocket so much. But tenpence for the morning pint every morning has come as a brutal shock. Mild ale is only 7d., but to a man accustomed to bitter the change is extremely distasteful.

SPIRITS AS ALTERNATIVE.
But the consequence of the prohibitive price would not be serious if it simply compelled a man to become a total abstainer.

The truth is that beer drinkers are not becoming total abstainers; they are becoming addicted to spirits.

The other day a man walked into a well-known buffet in Fleet Street and ordered a small bottle of Bass. At the same time the man standing next to him asked for a Scotch whisky. For the Bass the barmaid demanded the new price, 7d.; for the whisky she turned to the other customer and said, “Fourpence, please.”

The beer drinker hesitated, then looking at the whisky, said: “Will you change the Bass for a Scotch?” The barmaid said that she could not do that, and the convert to whisky grunted, “Well, this is the last bottle of beer I’m going to buy. I shall save threepence by drinking spirits.” At the same place a customer had two glasses of mixed vermouth and they did not cost him any more than a pint of beer.

A manager who controls many public-houses, both in the City and the East End, said yesterday that there had been a very sharp rise in the consumption of whisky.

“Several men I know,” he said’ “who for years have had a pint of beer every morning, which was their only intoxicating drink for the day, and never touched spirits, now call for a ‘double Scotch.’ It costs them twopence less than the beer.”

He says that the same habit is also growing among the dockers.

The publican, of course, refuses to condemn these customers for giving way to what is a bad habit merely because the country’s food peril makes it imperative that the brewing of beer should be drastically cut down. The publican’s attitude is that beer is a very important food to a numerous body of workers, whose constitutions have become so habituated to the drink that they feel ill without it.

OLD STOCKS AT OLD PRICES.
A curious situation created by the new prices is that many public-houses which have large cellars and a considerable supply of barrels bought at the old price have not yet raised their charges. The result has been a migration, temporary, of customers from a new-price house to an
old-price house close by.

The new scale of prices as fixed by the Licensed Victuallers’ Central Protection Society of London is:

half pint ______Glass
Mild ale ______3.5d. _____-
Bitte ________5d. ______4d.
Stout ________5d. ______5d.
Burton _______6d. ______5d.
Mild and Bitter _4.5d. _____3.5d .
Stout and Mild __5d. ______4d.
Mild and Burton _5d. ______4d.

Other prices: Small Bass 7d.; Guinness 8d.; London stout (screws) 5d.; pale ale (screws) 5d.; barley wine nips 6d.; lager, light or dark, 8d.

It has been pointed out on behalf of the brewers that the existing large stocks of malted barley, sufficient to brew the 10,000,000 barrels of beer authorised for this year, are useless for any other purpose.

This has been denied by Dr. Saleeby, who says that malt cake is an admirable food for cattle, and can be turned directly into meat an milk, and that if the cakes were supplied to farmers they would release for food the unmalted barley, oats, and sedes now being used as food for cattle.

In any case the public have got to make up their mind that, high price or low price, there is not enough beer to supply the old demand, or anything like it, and a good many people have got to do without it.

It is stated that a dozen or more metropolitan brewers have decided to offer their customers (or “tied” houses) the old “four ale” at 90s. a barrel and a trade discount, which will enable the publicans to sell at 3d. a half-pint and make a reasonable profit. These brewers have always maintained that 100s. per barrel, the present price, was more than the circumstances warranted. There is a feeling that the present prices for beer will come down before the end of this month.”

Many licensing laws and restrictions introduced during World War 1 remained on the stature for decades. Because social control during wartime tends to become entrenched. Wars are very useful for that.

The above article was nicked from here…

Other bits were taken from here (sure the telegraph was somewhere there slagging women off for drinking back then)

And here.

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

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Today in London rebel history: William FitzOsbert, or Longbeard, executed,1196, after popular disturbances.

‘Around this time I noticed that there was bad feeling and conflict in the city of London between the rich and the poor’. (Ralph Diceto)

‘And in the same yere an heretyke called with the longe berd was drawen and hanged for heresye and cursed doctrine that he had taught.’  Chronicle of London, 1196

‘He (King Richard) used England as a bank on which to draw and overdraw in order to finance his ambitious exploits abroad.’ A. L. Poole in the Oxford History of England

In the early 1190s, taxation was provoking serious tensions between the rich and poor people of the city of London. King Richard I, bafflingly nicknamed the Lionheart (read either ‘pschopathic warmonger’ or ‘little bloke who wants to kick off in the playground but gets battered’) by centuries of groveling muppets, urgently ‘needed’ vast wodges of cash to fund his pointless dynastic wars to defend the parts of his lands he really cared about, in France, and his inept attempts to go down in history as a valiant defender of the holy faith by re-conquering a few slivers of territory in Palestine. Being the king, he felt it was his right to extort this from the population of England (though he only every spent two very brief periods in England in his whole life, amounting in total to less than six months.) In the process he would nearly bankrupt the country, increase poverty and desperation, and spark dissent among even his own family.

This would also contribute to a little-known incident in London history, a brief flash of anger and rebellion, the true significance of which is shrouded and will likely never be known: the ‘revolt’ of William Longbeard.

The late 1180s and early 1190s saw a succession of taxes imposed to fund the crusades, wars, and later the ransom for king Richard when he lion-heartedly managed to get himself kidnapped by a rival prince. London, being the largest and most important city, had to bear the largest share, including for the massive ransom demanded when the king was captured on his way home. A levy for the aid of Jerusalem, known as the ‘Saladin Tithe’, in 1188, a tax to contribute to the king’s ransom in 1193, and another tax in 1194, were all on top of the regular sums extracted from the city of London, such as the farm, which was paid once a year. The crown’s exceptional demands on the city brought taxation to the forefront of the civic political agenda.

Like most taxes, in theory the better-off pay more, as in the same percentage of earnings of property means more if you earn or possess more. As usual, however, the rich and powerful of London tried, (and often succeeded) in passing on the main burden of the taxes onto the ‘poorer sort’, commonly evading or getting out of their duty to pay. How things have changed eh? You wouldn’t see the authorities allowing that sort of behaviour these days.

The poor of London in the 1190s complained that they were far more heavily taxed than the rich.

In 1196 a brief and abortive rebellion sparked in London against the heavy taxes, led by one William Fitz Osbert, nick-named Longbeard, because, he and his kinsmen had ‘adhered to this ancient English fashion of being bearded as a testimony of their hatred against their Norman masters’. (Matthew Paris). Apparently long beards then were viewed as symbols of pilgrims, and of learning, but also had the implication of ‘resistance to authority’… The hippies would like that (though as to hipsters…? Hmmm) His striking beard which ‘made him more conspicuous in meetings and assemblies’.

It is thought William was a Londoner, the son of ‘Osbert the Clerk’. The family wasn’t rich but was certainly well-to-do, thus William had been able to study law at university, supported partly by his brother Richard. Later he went on crusade to the Holy Land, returning about 1192-3, when he became involved in the internal civic politics of London. He was said to have been endowed with ‘a sharp mind’, was ‘moderately educated but unusually eloquent’.

The chronicler Gervase of Canterbury, who was one of FitzOsbert’s most hostile critics, adds that ‘he was most eloquent’. Even allowing for the chroniclers’ exaggeration of FitzOsbert’s charisma, which was intended to explain why he secured a following among the masses, it seems clear that he must have been an articulate and sophisticated man, with a forceful personality.

At this time the collection of taxes and levies was ‘left to Londoners themselves’. The aldermen of each city ward met at the ‘wardmoot’, an institution that went back to Anglo-Saxon times. Consent needed to be obtained and then each citizen was meant to contribute according to his wealth, although normally wealthier citizens were expected to pay at a higher rate than poorer people. If anyone possessed a ‘stone house’ they were deemed to be wealthy and ‘singled out and required to contribute at a higher rate’.

This Anglo-Saxon custom was being increasingly bypassed and ignored by the wealthier citizens of London, many of whom were the French-speaking descendants of the Norman conquerors; the poor being mostly the English.

“Great and frequent were the talliages imposed upon the City of London, for Richard’s ransom: and the burthen, according to the popular opinion, was increased, by the inequality of its apportionment or repartition. London at this period, contained two distinct orders of citizens: the Aldermen, the “Majores” or “Nobiles”, as they are termed in the ancient Year Books of the City, the Patricians or higher order, constituting (as they asserted) the municipal Communia, and constantly exercising the powers of government. To these, were opposed the lower order, who — perhaps being subdivided amongst themselves into two tribes of plebeians — maintained that they were the true Communia, to which, as of right, the municipal authority ought to belong. And in these conflicting ranks, an historical theorist may suppose that he discovers the vestiges of the remote period, when London was inhabited by distinct races or nations, each dwelling in their own peculiar town — the Ealdormannabyrigy still known as the Aldermanbury — inhabited by the nobles or conquering caste: whilst the rest of the city was peopled by the tributary or subject community. All contemporary chroniclers tell the same story: there was massive discontent because the wealthy and powerful were trying to avoid their share of the levy being raised to pay the king’s ransom. (Sir Francis Palgrave)

By 1194 King Richard’s ransom had been collected from the citizens of London and from the rest of the country, and early that year Richard returned to England for a brief visit. At this time, William Fitz Osbert, who might have known the king, them being together on crusade, denounced his own brother, Richard Fitz Osbert, and two other rich Londoners to the king. He claimed they were not only avoiding paying their fair share of the taxes that were still being raising for Richard’s campaign plans in France, but that they had traitorous discussions against the king as well.

“A document preserved in the rolls of the curia regis confirms that in a November session of the court in the sixth year of the reign of Richard I (1194), Richard FitzOsbert, Robert Brand, and Jordan Tanner were accused by William FitzOsbert of having held a meeting in Richard FitzOsbert’s stone house at which treasonous statements were made. Richard was accused of resenting the obligation to pay royal taxes. Jordan Tanner was held to have expressed a desire that the king never return home, and Robert Brand was charged with declaring that London would never have any other king except the mayor.”

The thrust of the accusation may have been family jealousy or an attempt to win favour with the king; in any case the accusation ended in either no action being taken against the three, or it being dismissed. Hostile chroniclers took it as evidence that FitzOsbert was really motivated by a desire to acquire his brother’s possessions or personal animosity.

However, it marks the beginning of FitzOsbert’s rise to prominence as a critic of the rich as tax avoiders and, briefly, a popular agitator.

From personal accusations against people he knew, FitzOsbert moved onto a more general campaign of disruption and propaganda. He is reported by the chroniclers who tell the story as alleging that ‘on the occasion of every royal edict the rich spared their own fortunes and because of their power placed the whole weight on the poor and defrauded the royal treasury of a large sum’.

All the chroniclers suggest that FitzOsbert was organising a popular movement, under his leadership. There is no record of FitzOsbert ever serving in any recognized or elected post, as a sheriff or alderman: he seems to have gained influence without holding office. Prominent and established Londoners dominated the ranks of the mayors, sheriffs and aldermen. Aldermen at this time probably inherited or bought their position, without being directly elected; it is possible that Fitz Osbert achieved prominence by speaking out at the wardmoots or the folkmoot, effectively public meetings usually used for agreeing and ratifying local decisions.

The Folkmoots, assemblies of male citizens held at St Pauls, and wardmoots, local meetings in each ward, served as venues of London community self-government, on the level of local decision-making, but could also inevitably be opportunities for popular discontent and agitation, especially in times of particular grievance or pressure.

A charismatic speaker, such as William FitzOsbert is said to have been, might well become popular by being a loud voice of dissent and criticism at such meetings. According to Newburgh, Fitz Osbert disrupted public meetings, and Diceto, the dean of St Paul’s, suggests that he “bound the people to himself with oaths and that his rhetoric was responsible for a riot in St Paul’s.” (Note that the folkmoot was held next to St Pauls, so perhaps a riot that began at a folkmoot?)

Disrupting official meetings, and binding the citizens with oaths, represented a threat to the established political order. FitzOsbert was also prepared to appeal to the king, according to Newburgh FitzOsbert ‘deemed it necessary to go overseas to complain to the prince that he suffered the enmity… of the powerful’. Again, the budding popular leader may have been trading on personal contact with the king developed in the crusades, and made a point of public support of the king while challenging the immediate authorities in he city. Howden asserts that FitzOsbert ‘obtained [the king’s] peace for himself and the people’. If so, it was a temporary peace…

Although, the chroniclers use a variety of terms to describe FitzOsbert’s supporters, including paupers, plebs, and cives Lundoniarum, this may not mean all of FitzOsbert’s support came from the very poor. At a time when the idea of the poor having a voice in the city’s politics, or wider political decision-making, was not considered at all, or would have been seen by the elite to be a joke, an impossibility, or represented a threat of chaos and disorder, this emphasis may be deliberately aimed discrediting the movement. FitzOsbert’s supporters could in fact have included many people from the ‘middling sort’ and had wealth worth taxing – certainly people who had something to lose to the extra tax regimes, not people who had nothing. Proof is impossible to come by on this, though when Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury and Justiciar of England, was drawn into the troubles, and pressurised London’s citizens to hand over FitzOsbert, he ordered the arrest of London merchants visiting fairs in the surrounding counties. It’s not clear whether the merchant classes were known as supporters of Fitz Osbert, or merely being used as hostages.

In antagonising Hubert Walter, responsible in the king’s absence for keeping order in the realm, Fitz Osbert over-reached himself. Walter ‘convoked the common people, spoke to them squarely . . . and admonished them to give hostages for being loyal to the king’… but FitzOsbert, ‘supported by the crowd proceeded with a show of pomp and organized public meetings on his own authority’.

Hubert Walter saw the threat of disorder would be reduced by removing the figure at the movement’s head, and used both persuasion and threat to try to convince Londoners, including ordering the arrest of any Londoners caught outside the city (‘at Stamford Fair [March 31] some merchants… were arrested’.) But by April 1196, Walter resorted to force, after his men sent to bring FitzOsbert to trial were intimidated by the latter’s supporters. Walter sent armed men, supported by ‘noble citizens’, to arrest FitzOsbert; the latter and some of his followers fought them off, by all accounts, FitzOsbert personally killed one of the officers.

Realisation might have set in then that the forces arrayed against him might outweigh the 1000s he was supposed to by then command, or at least influence. FitzOsbert and a few supporters legged it to St Mary le Bow church, and took sanctuary refuge in the church tower, relying on the inviolability of sanctuary. But Hubert Walter decided to violate the sanctity of the church (very controversial at the time) and the steeple was burned to force FitzOsbert out, while more soldiers were sent into the city to overawe the common people.

FitzOsbert surrendered when the church was ‘besieged with fire and smoke’. Once captured, William FitzOsbert was taken to the Tower, tried, and then on April 6th, 1196, brought to Smithfield for execution, dragged “through the centre of the city to the elms, his flesh was demolished and spread all over the pavement and, fettered with a chain, he was hanged that same day on the elms with his associates and died”. This was unusual for the time, as “the public execution of a prominent public figure was clearly not part of the normal political process.”

His execution, and the occupation of the city by archbishop Walter’s soldiers, squashed the immediate threat of class disorder in London, though it did also, for a while, turn FitzOsbert into a martyr.

“Gervase of Canterbury relates that ‘a sudden rumour spread through the city that William was a new martyr and shone through miracles’. People started seeking out his place of execution. Newburgh notes that the gibbet was stolen and ‘the earth underneath, as if it were consecrated by the blood of the hanged man… was scraped away by the fools in small bits until a considerable ditch was formed’.

Even in death FitzOsbert was a threat to order, and Newburgh remarks that the ‘multitude continually kept watch’ at the execution site ‘and this very vain error became so strong that it could have misled even the wise’. The intensity of the spiritual focus on him after death does suggest the strength and depth of his support within the population at large, and could have sparked further imitation of his methods – or so the authorities though. Again, they resorted to violence. Gervase of Canterbury records that ‘an ambush was laid and those who came at night-time to pray were whipped’.” (John McEwan)

The budding cult of William Longbeard was suppressed.

It remains unclear, and is unlikely to ever be clarified, at this distance of time, how much William Longbeard FitzOsbert was the head of a genuine popular movement, how large the discontent spread, and how much of a threat to the London authorities it was. It seems to have dissipated quickly under the repression led by Walter and the London notables. And how much was Longbeard seeking to exploit anger for his own ends – power in the city? Impossible to tell.

Its clear that the events caused no immediate change in the power structures in London; “the civic leadership was disconnected from the population”, and it remained so afterwards. But the incident shows that popular pressure could have an impact, and that there the civic authorities could not necessarily expect unquestioning deference, and that there was a preparedness, at least from some elements in the lower and middling strata, to protest the unequal financial economic burden of taxation.

“The chroniclers maintain that the lower orders were willing to express their opinions, and indeed that they believed that their interests should play an important role in determining the policy of the community. The chroniclers also make clear that there were recognised mechanisms whereby public opinion could be made manifest. Public meetings provided a vehicle for the expression of sentiments of dissatisfaction, and indeed it was possible for a man such as William FitzOsbert, who was not in the first rank of London merchants, to acquire influence by articulating the critical opinions of an angry section of the population. Furthermore, even though poor and middling men did not serve as mayors or sheriffs, their opinions ultimately mattered in civic politics, because they were not easily coerced. When a restive section of the population opposed their methods of organising taxation, the authorities could not implement a policy.” (John McEwan)

William Longbeard’s posthumous reputation in written sources was initially dim, as the main chroniclers of London at this time generally took pains to portray him in negative terms, while acknowledging the anger the unequal burden of tax had aroused. But this was to change in the years following the events. To some extent the memory of Longbeard chimed with the tales of outlaws like Robin Hood: the good rebel, supporter and friend of the good absent king, who is being betrayed by evil counselors or rapacious sheriffs, who are oppressing the loyal people.

Less than a century after his savage death, in the hands of Matthew Paris, FitzOsbert was transformed from a villain into a hero. “Paris presents a stridently sympathetic portrait of FitzOsbert, describing him as the leader of a movement which resisted the unreasonable impositions made upon the poor by the mayor and aldermen. He calls the attack on St. Mary le Bow church a ‘sacrilege’ … Paris’s account, in addition to providing a perspective which contrasts with those of the earlier chroniclers, provides evidence that FitzOsbert lived on in the popular imagination. In part, this was because of the dramatic nature of his death, but it was also because taxation and conflict between the rich and the underprivileged continued to be relevant issues that excited passions and sparked debate.”

Alot of this was nicked John McEwan, William FitzOsbert and the Crisis of 1196 in London

 

https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/flor/article/viewFile/14454/15526

 

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

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