On the repression of a radical rally, the killing of a policeman, and the inquest verdict… with a digression to take in recently exposed former spycop Andy Coles. Oh yes, there’s a link.
In May 1833, the National Union of the Working Classes called a mass open air meeting, to be held on Monday 13th May to take place on Coldbath Fields, now the site of Mount Pleasant sorting office, at the junction of Rosebery Avenue and Farringdon Road. The meeting would end in a police attack on the crowd, the stabbing of a policeman, and a controversial inquest verdict…
When the Metropolitan Police were first formed, and first took to the streets in 1829, they were widely reviled. It was a time of rising working class protest and organisation. For 60 years movements had been building for reform of the class-biased political system years, and were reaching a peak; both middle class and working class organisations were pressing for reform. However, for decades a strand of radical and insurgent thinking had run through working class politics – a large minority of activists not only felt they had the right to political representation, but that the working class would not achieve it through peaceful lobbying or petitioning. Violent repression of rallies like Peterloo in 1819; government crackdowns and laws to band protest, radical papers and speeches; a network of police spies and agent provocateur/saboteurs burrowing into reforming groups to destroy and divide them…
Many thought opposition such as this could only be overcome by an armed seizure of power. A much wider group of radicals thought armed self-defence against attacks by the militia or constables was justified.
Regularly targeted by the authorities, radical activists were from the start suspicious the ‘New Police’ would be another weapon used against them. And were to be proved right.
But even beyond radical movements, the majority of working class people in many of the rapidly growing cities, especially London, saw the police as a threat; knowing, that the police were being set up to control them in the defence of property, and hating them for it. From the start the Constabulary’s were abused and attacked in the street, labelled with such fun nicknames as ‘Raw Lobsters’, ‘Blue Devils’ and ‘Peel’s Bloody Gang’. Early officers were physically assaulted, others impaled, blinded, and on one occasion one was held down while a vehicle was driven over him.
While the Police had a wider brief to get the teeming industrialised masses under control, radicals and political reformers WERE specifically on their radar. And in particular, the insurgent wing, and its potential to attract support from the very poor, and the shifting hydra that was labeled the ‘London Mob’.
In 1833 the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) was close to the top of the New Police’s list of concerns. The NUWC had arisen as an alliance of groups of London trade unionists, many of whom were also sympathetic to the ideas of the co-operator Robert Owen. However they largely rejected Owen’s belief that political reform was irrelevant, that the working class should organise only on the economic level. The NUWC instead maintained that political action was vital, that universal male suffrage, winning the vote for working men, would in the end bring about economic equality. They saw class relations as fundamental to society, and that in order to win their rights workers had to get together and do things for themselves: some in the NUWC said the workers should organise themselves separately, in their own movements and unions. In London their support was mainly among artisans, who had formed the backbone of the capital’s reforming and radical movements, with a strong tradition of self-education, self-employment, apprenticeship and independence.
Membership of the National Union of the Working Classes totalled about 3,000 in London, they were divided into local ‘classes’ of 80 to 130 people, mostly in then solidly working class areas like Lambeth, Bethnal Green, Hammersmith and Islington. But their influence was greater than membership numbers suggest: especially through papers like the Poor Man’s Guardian, which were read widely among artisans and the emerging working class. In government and official circles, fear of the power and influence of the NUWC was, however, probably wildly out of proportion to its real power.
The NUWC in many ways was a sort of proto-Chartism, though strong in London, where Chartism’s greatest strengths were in the new industrial cities of the north and midlands.
From 1831 to 1833, weekly NUWC meetings and debates were held at the Rotunda; on and off; during this time there was an intense agitation nationally for reform, and many of these were heated discussions, as the Union was from the start to its end divided. There were arguments over definitions of class, over strategy and tactics, over the uses of violence, over whether to ally with the (then stronger) middle class political reform movement, or the more progressive wing of the Whig party.
Especially after the 1832 Reform Act gave voting rights to middle class men, but not the working class, some elements of the Union came to the conclusion that the lower classes would have to rebel to obtain their ‘rights’. There was a strong sense that the middle class reformers had used the threat of working class uprising as a stick to force the aristocracy to share power with them, then shafted their proletarian allies. NUWC stalwart William Benbow made a speech celebrating the great reform riot in Bristol in 1831, but was opposed by other members of the NUWC Committee… Some NUWC members made plans to arm themselves in self-defence against police attacks on rallies, which jacked up the government and bourgeoisie’s fear of the Union. By 1833, the moderates were beginning to desert the NUWC and the more radical elements came to the fore, launching a plan to launch a Convention of the People (a scary notion for the upper classes, coming straight from the most radical phase of the French Revolution).
By May 1833 there had been three years of intense campaigning, riots, the Reform Bill, with the sense of betrayal of working people that it brought; there had been abortive plots to gather and launch armed revolt. The splits over the use of force and what kind of society was envisaged had weakened the NUWC; many of the ‘moderates’ had left. But the remaining elements of the organisation were determined to keep up the pressure… Some were arming, and drilling in preparation for an uprising.
A NUWC rally was announced for May 13th on Coldbath Fields in Clerkenwell, and was seen by some as a first step towards a revolutionary seizure of power. Resolutions for the rally included proposals for seizing the bank of England and the Tower of London… This was naïve; but the overconfidence on the radical side was mirrored by a fear in government circles. There was a determination to put down the radicals. The upcoming rally on Coldbath Fields was seen as a ripe chance, and the police were prepared to smash the rally by force. The meeting was banned, which led many not already distancing themselves from the NUWC to withdraw.
However on the day itself, several thousand still attended the demo. While the NUWC committee sat in the Union Tavern [still a pub today on King’s Cross Road], people began assembling outside in Coldbath fields, including a body from the NUWC with a banner reading ‘Death or Liberty’. Meanwhile large numbers of police were assembling in Grays Inn Road from where they were deployed in stableyards around Coldbath Fields. At around 3pm the committee left the tavern to address the assembly, by now between one and two thousand strong. The chairman had barely started speaking when the cry of ‘Police’ went up from the crowd. The police, between 1700 and 3000 in number, had formed up across Calthorpe Street before advancing on the meeting, while others came up another side street. In the words of the Gentleman’s Magazine the police having ‘completely surrounded the actors and spectators of the scene…commenced a general and indiscriminate attack on the populace inflicting broken heads alike on those who stood and parleyed and those who endeavoured to retreat’. New Bell’s Weekly Messenger also writes of the police attacking those assembled: ‘The Police came on and used their staves pretty freely…many heads were broken.’
During the assault three policeman were stabbed; PC Culley ‘ran about thirty yards and upon reaching the Calthorpe Arms [still a pub today on Gray’s Inn Rd] he seized the barmaid by the wrist and exclaimed “Oh, I am very ill”’. These were his dying words. One man, George Fursey, was sent for trial on the charge of murdering PC Culley and wounding PC Brooks. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
There then followed a local inquest on the death of PC Culley; it was convened in an upstairs room of the same Calthorpe Arms, close to the site of the demonstration. The inquest jury of seventeen men consisted largely of bakers from the Grays Inn neighbourhood. Summing up, the coroner called upon the jury to return a verdict of wilful murder. The jury retired and after half an hour sent a message to the coroner saying that sixteen of them were agreed on a verdict condemnatory of the police. The coroner protested and urged them to reconsider. A short while later their final verdict was delivered:
‘We find a verdict of justifiable homicide on these grounds; that no riot act was read, nor any proclamation advising the people to disperse, that the Government did not take the proper precautions to prevent the meeting from assembling; and we moreover express our anxious hope that the Government will in future take better precautions to prevent the recurrence of such disgraceful transactions in the metropolis.’
Reading between the lines, it appears that the jury’s view was that the demonstrators were deliberately penned in and ambushed by the police.
Again the coroner protested, locking them in the juryroom to try to change their minds, but the jury remained firm and insisted on their verdict; he could dismiss them and appoint another jury but their verdict would stand. They said that they were neither in favour of the meeting nor against the police, just the way the police behaved. As the foreman put it: ‘Mr Coroner we are firmly of the opinion that if they had acted with moderation the deceased would not have been stabbed.’
Local people evidently thought no expense should be spared in celebrating this popular victory; “When the inquest ended small impromptu torchlit processions carried the jurors to their respective homes. The Milton Street Committee arranged a free trip up the Thames to Twickenham for them. In July it was a free trip to the London Bridge Theatre to see A Rowland for Oliver. Each member of the jury was presented with a pewter medallion which bore the inscription ‘In honour of men who nobly withstood the dictation of a coroner; and by the judicious, independent and conscientious discharge of their duty promoted a continued reliance upon the laws under the protection of a British jury’. Funds were raised for a memorial. On the first anniversary of the verdict a procession took place from the Calthorpe Arms to St Katherine’s Dock. It was led by a specially commissioned banner, the funds for which had been raised by a Mr Ritchie, the landlord of the Marquess of Wellesley in Cromer Street, Grays Inn Lane. After reaching St Katherine’s Dock the procession boarded the Royal Sovereign for a return trip to Rochester, complete with free food and drink. A pewter cup was presented to the foreman of the jury with the inscription ‘…as a perpetual memorial of their glorious verdict of justifiable homicide on the body of Robert Culley, a policeman, who was slain while brutally attacking the people when peacefully assembled in Calthorpe Street on 13th May 1833’.”
Despite the wave of support for the jurors, the attack spelled the end for the NUWC, which began to fall apart. However, its influence helped give birth to Chartism. Both the London Working Man’s Association and the London Democratic Association emerged from same groups, neighbourhoods and individuals in London as the Union, and they were crucial in kickstarting Chartism in the late 1830s. But the NUWC’s inherent divisions over class, whether workers could co-operate with the middle class, over the use of persuasion and campaigning, or force, over the ultimate aim (just equality? or power for the workers as a class?), were inherited by the larger later movement, and continued to divide Chartism throughout its existence… And are indeed questions alive and kicking in our own movements and struggles today…
Postscript 1: Both the the Union Tavern, where the NUWC Committee met, and the Calthorpe Arms, where the inquest was held, are not only still a pub today, but has had more recent radical associations. London Class War used to meet in the Union Tavern in the 1990s, and a number of anarchist and anti-capitalist events and actions were planned upstairs at the Calthorpe in the 2000s, in the same room the jury held out in.
Postscript 2: (Bear with me. It makes sense in the end )
The government of the day, and the police acting to destroy the NUWC rally, had been greatly aided by the spies they sent in to infiltrate, report on and if possible disrupt the movement, and other radical groupings. This was a huge industry, even then, though many were informers, not specifically policemen. In our own time, we are still facing the issue of police penetration of community and activist groups, political movements and campaigns for justice and accountability (most notably for people killed by racists, and in police custody). However, long years of investigations by activists have uncovered the highly trained undercover police officers who have spied on us, lived with us for several years, and in many cases preyed on activists sexually, some fathering children. Police units like the Special Demonstration Squad, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit have spent billions gathering info on activists, attempting to provoke actions that can then lead to arrests, and encouraging abuse of women and miscarriages of justice. Now they are spending millions more obstructing any substantial process in the Undercover Policing Inquiry set up after public outrage became too angry to ignore.
But if they won’t tell activists who spied on us and release our Special Branch files to us, we will continue to uncover the undercovers ourselves. And here is where another strange echo of the early 1830s crops up. Just four days ago another ex-spycops was exposed – Andy Coles, once known as Andy Davey, when he infiltrated the animal rights movement in the 1990s. A man known to this writer.
Coles sexually exploited at least one woman, then aged 19, leading to a relationship; though he also launched unwanted advances on others. But since vanishing from South London animal rights circles in 1994, he had risen, oh he’s risen. He has become a Conservative councillor in Peterborough. A school governor. An expert on child protection and best of all, Deputy Police & Crime Commissioner for Cambridgeshire. Well the last until today, when he was forced to resign after the outrage at his grooming of a teenager into a sexual relationship forced him out. ‘Jessica’, the woman he abused, is now to sue the Metropolitan Police for colluding in her being groomed.
However, bizarrely, Coles fancies himself as a writer. He pens meaningful political poetry – of a quality that only be described as ‘McGonagallite‘. And he did have plans to write a novel, provisionally titled However Roguish a Man, though this may have been shelved. The subject: undercover policing as used against the radicals of early 1830s London! Strange that this should surface on this anniversary of the practical commonsense of a London jury recognising police provocation for what it was, eh, Mr Coles?
The plot summary is masterful, and so apt, drawn from Andy’s own exciting past:
“The working title for my novel about political unrest and policing in the era of the Reform Act 1832, when revolution was on the air and the great stink of London was just discovering the necessary inconvenience of being policed by an organised group of “Raw Lobsters”.
Beginning in the 1820’s, rural poverty was driving agricultural labourers to violence, burning hayricks and threatening the landowners and farmers who were turning to the new threshing machines instead of manual labour. Captain Swing letters abound and the wealthy are in fear of their lives.
At the same time a coal meter in Yarmouth finds his income is halved and the job he bought for 70 guineas no longer provides the annual income he needs to keep his wife and children. Looking for a new start he travels to London and is recruited into the Metropolitan Police.
The government needs to know what is going on in the new poor areas of London. Is riot and insurrection coming to the shores of Great Britain from the stews of Paris? Will the new King be deposed through bloody revolt? Fearful for the monarchy and the rule of the privileged classes in power, reform of the political system is contemplated by radicals and reformers, but bitterly resisted by traditionalists and those in rotten boroughs who will lose their seats in Parliament.
The Home Secretary demands that the New Police provide information on the new political unions that are springing up, and the Commissioners, Rowan and Mayne, depute divisional Superintendents to send men to the meetings to find out what is going on.
This is the story of one of these officers who penetrated a radical organisation, and what happened to him as a result.”
Whether Andy Coles has managed to work on what promises to be a fine historical epic recently, we aren’t sure – however, with the storm breaking about him, one post gone, and others surely soon to follow, he may get more free time to work on it. Since we are also very interested in the subject of police infiltration of radical movements, both down to our personal experience, and our studies of history, we await the appearance of However Roguish a Man. With baited breath.
PPS: Later the same evening I published this, Andy Coles took his writing blog down. Possibly misinterpreting our literary criticism. Mysteriously, the Peterborough Writers Circle, where Andy claimed to have first read his fine poem Aleppo, has also had its blog taken down simultaneously! Wasn’t a one-man band was it?
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.