Today in London’s rebel past: Jack Sheppard escapes from Newgate Prison, 1724 (the first time).

“Whereas John Shepheard broke out of the Condemn’d Hold of Newgate (with his Irons on) by cutting off one of the large Iron Spikes over the Main Door on Monday the 31st of August last, about six a clock in the Evening, he is about 23 years of Age and about five Foot four Inches high, very slender and of a pale Complection, has lately been very sick, did wear a light Bob Wig, a light colour’d Cloth Coat, and white Waistcoat, has an impediment in his speech and is a Carpenter by Trade. Whoever will discover of apprehend him so that he be brought to Justice shall receive 20 guineas Reward to be paid by the Keeper of Newgate.”
(Proclamation from the Keeper of Newgate, 4th September, 1724.)

“A file’s worth all the bibles in the world…” (Jack Sheppard)

In his day he became the most famous name in England and he remained a folk-hero to the poor for over a century after his death. In the 1840s plays based on his life were still regularly being performed for working class audiences, and his name was better known amongst many of the poor than that of Queen Victoria. Jack Sheppard was the prison escaper supreme of eighteenth century England.

Born in Spitalfields in 1702, his carpenter father died during Jack’s childhood. His mother was forced by poverty to place him in Bishopsgate workhouse. Beginning a carpenter’s apprenticeship, he picked up some locksmithing skills that would stand him in good stead in later years…

“The apprenticeship system was still controlled by an Act passed under Queen Elizabeth, the Statute of Artificers. The system provided young people with a vocational education, in another household…. they were ‘bound apprentice’ between twelve and sixteen. Parish children might begin their apprenticeship as early as eleven, and continue in it until they were twenty-four. (Remember that the expectation of life at birth was then about 36 years.) The contract would continue for seven years or more, until the master was satisfied that the apprentice knew his trade. Apart from some public holidays, no home leave was given. The boy’s parents might not see him again until his time was up. Imagine the child of twelve leaving his home to live in strange surroundings with no parental love, withstanding the storms of adolescence and reaching physical maturity with only the recollection of his childhood and what support his master gave him to sustain him, and perhaps occasional letters from home if his parents could write.” (Restoration London, Liza Picard, 1997.)

But Jack rejected these narrow and constricted channels of apprentice life; with just ten months of his apprenticeship left to serve, he deserted the master to who he had been apprentied, Mr Kneebone, and joined the swelling ranks of the ‘idle apprentices’, a group that invoked fear and suspicion among respectable folk for many centuries – a leading moral bogey of the era.

Jack took to a life of robbery. It might be said that Jack wasn’t an especially successful robber, he was imprisoned five times – luckily he turned out to be a breakout artist par excellence, so that he escaped prison four times. These technically brilliant and daring escapades, as well as his taunting attitude to authority, secured his lasting fame among the working class.

In the spring of 1723 he aided the escape of his girlfriend Edgeworth Bess from St Giles’s Roundhouse. In April he ended up there himself; betrayed by his brother Tom (who was hoping to bargain his own release from a burglary charge) and his friend James Sykes, he was lured into a trap and delivered to a Justice Parry.

It took him less than three hours to escape.

That was in April 1724. From then until the end of November the saga of his escapes grew, astounding ever-increasing numbers of people for their daring and dexterity.”

Arrested again for pickpocketing a gentleman’s watch, Jack was now taken to Clerkenwell’s New Prison. As his common law wife, Edgworth Bess was allowed to join him from her confinement in the Roundhouse. They were locked in the most secure area, ‘Newgate Ward’, and Jack was weighed down with 28lb of shackles and chains. He soon set to work sawing through these and

then through an iron bar. Boring through a nine-inch-thick oak bar, then fastening sheets, gowns and petticoats together, they descended 25ft to ground level; only to find they had landed themselves in the neighbouring prison of Clerkenwell Bridewell! Undaunted, driving his gimblets and piercers into the 22ft wall, Jack and Bess used them as steps and hand-holds and made their way over the wall to freedom in the early morning of Whit Monday 1724.

While Sheppard’s later escape from the condemned hold of Newgate made ‘a far greater Noise in the World’, the London gaolkeepers regarded the New Prison escape as the most ‘miraculous’ ever performed in England, so they preserved the broken chains and bars ‘to Testifie, and Preserve the memory of this extraordinary Event and Villian.’

Jack spent the next three months of freedom engaging in highway robbery and burglary. He was recaptured after he robbed his old master, Mr Kneebone, who called in contacted Jonathan Wild, ‘the thief-taker General’. Wild was both a trainer of thieves and a deliverer of them to the courts, a fence of stolen goods and returner of them to rightful owners; “a complex and parasitic system” that “had in these years become a system of municipal policing.” Sheppard always refused to compromise himself by having any dealings with the repulsive and hated Wild.

Wild pressured Edgeworth Bess to reveal Jack’s hideaway, and, after an exchange of pistol fire, he was captured and taken to Newgate prison. In August he was tried and sentenced to hang.

On his return to Newgate he was locked in the Condemned Hold, a dismal cell next to the Keepers’ Lodge, and close to the prison gate. It had a stone floor, and a wide wooden shelf with a row of iron bolts above served as a communal bed for all inmates. Its narrow window faced onto the dark lane beneath Newgate’s famous arch.

Deputy Keeper Bodenham Rouse ordered Jack to be chained and fettered, but the chains were long enough to allow him to stand by the door and converse with visitors.

The Lodge acted both as a reception room for the prison, and a common room for the turnkeys and keepers, including a bar (run by Mrs Spurling, widow of head turnkey Spurling who had been shot in open court by a highwayman on trial 10 years before). From the table where they sat drinking the screws could keep an eye on those who passed in and out of the prison yard, as well as on the ‘Stout partition” that separated them from the prisons in the Condemned Hold.

In the last week of August, Jack’s ‘death warrant’ arrived, setting a date on September 4th for his execution at Tyburn. He had only a few days to escape if he was to avoid being ‘turned off’.

Jack had previously, according to his own later account, agreed a plan to break out with his three cellmates, but they had pulled out when it looked like they might be reprieved; Jack had also fallen ill with a fever. But on the day before their scheduled execution, news arrived that the reprieve was not forthcoming. One of the men, Davis, gave Jack all the tolls he had had smuggled in by friends, with a view to freeing himself. He and the other two cons then departed for their appointment with the gallows. Jack, determined not to share their fate, set to work with filing away at the spikes set in the top of the partition separating the lodge from the Hold. After two days filing (halting only when visitors or turnkeys passed by) he had filed halfway through the spike. Another day’s work would see it weakened enough to be readily snapped off, he thought, leaving him able to pull himself free through the gap.

However, the next day was Sunday, when crowds of visitors flocked to Newgate, passing in and out of the Lodge all day. Jack was unable to get much filing done. He dared not do it at night as the quiet made the noise stand out and he feared the screws would hear. On Monday morning he resumed his task…

By noon, when Edgeworth Bess and her friend Poll Maggot came to visit him, he was close to achieving his goal. As they talked and laughed he continued filing away. Cruikshank’s illustration (above) hints at how precarious this was, with the screws sitting only a few yards away around a corner. Around six in the evening he managed to snap the spike off, leaving a gap; though only around nine inches square, this was enough for the wiry Jack to wriggle through, dressed in a disguise of a booney and gown Bess had pushed through to him. Pulling himself up on the neighbouring spikes, he edged his way out, lowering himself down into the Lodge. Poll Maggot hid behind a pillar, and Bess and Jack sauntered out past the turnkeys seated at the bar, who he later commented were ironically discussing Jack’s own previous escape from the New Prison, and how they would have not allowed it to happen in THEIR jail. Two women had arrived and two were seemingly leaving, chattering and laughing…

Reaching the street without being challenged, Jack and Bess ran to a waiting coach driven by Jack’s mate William Page, to be joined by Poll Maggot, who had also walked out of the jail without incident. Driven to Blackfriars Stairs, they hired a boat which took them to Westminster… In a Holborn inn, Jack sawed his chains off, fortified by a bottle of brandy. He was free once more… He walked through the City to Spitalfields where he spent the night with Edgworth Bess.

Sheppard’s latest escape threw the shopkeepers of Drury Lane and the Strand into a panic. Jack took up robbing again, this time from a watchmaker’s shop in Fleet St.

In the meantime, the Newgate authorities were seriously embarrassed by Jack’s escape, and the mockery and bad publicity it gathered them: the Daily Journal called the breakout ‘the most surprising Accident at Newgate’, and penny ballads appeared rapidly, taking the piss out of the jailers, or accusing them of letting Jack go for bribes.

However, Jack was re-arrested on September 9th, after he had been recognised around London by various people that knew him, and rumours had spread. He legged it to Finchley Common, but a posse of Newgate turnkeys trailed him there and arrested him and his mate Page. Jack was returned to Newgate once again, and locked once more in the Condemned Hold – this time chained to the floor and heavily guarded.

By this time Sheppard had become a celebrity and folk hero of the labouring classes; visited by the famous and interviewed by journalists and ballad makers. He offered some lucid comments; when urged by a prison official to concentrate on preparing himself for the afterlife rather than attempting to escape, he replied “One file’s worth all the Bibles in the world.” He also condemned the corruption and hypocrisy of the criminal justice system.

As his trial approached Jack implemented his escape plan on the 14th October. This amazing flight from Newgate was to make him an enduring legend amongst the working class for over a century afterwards. Freeing himself from his shackles he then worked his way up the chimney, through several locked rooms and eventually on to the roof and over the wall to freedom.

On 29th October Sheppard robbed a pawnshop for some spending money and began a triumphant tour, a defiant spree through his old haunts and hunting grounds. He hired a coach and, with some female companions, toured his own native Spitalfields – he also drove through the arch of Newgate itself! Defiantly parading himself around the ale-houses and gin-shops, he was recaptured after fifteen days of glorious liberty.

Jack Sheppard was hanged on 16th November 1724 at Tyburn; a cheering crowd, said to number 200,000, lined the route to salute him. A last minute escape plan was foiled, and attempts to rescue his body to preserve it from dissection by surgeons prevented plans to bring him back to life…

Jack’s short and eventful life may have been cut violently short – but his defiance of authority and his resourceful ability ensured his fame has outlasted him for nearly three centuries.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Advertisements

Today in London squatting history: Camberwell Squat Centre/Black Frog evicted, 2007

“On the 10th March 2007, we climbed a high ladder and entered the empty building at 190-192 Warham Street in Camberwell, South London. It took five minutes to put life back into a building that had been left empty for 9 months.”

Camberwell, South London, has played host to a number of squatted venues and social/political spaces and centres over the last few decades.

We aren’t going to talk here about the old Dickie Dirts store (squatted four times for planning Stop the City, gigs and more), the Labour Club, Groove Park, the old Muesli Factory, Area 7, Crawford Street, and later the Ratstar, the Library House… Just some of the ones we can recall…

One squatted space in Camberwell several of your past tense mob were involved in was briefly in existence from March to August 2007, at 190-192 Warham Street, off Camberwell New Road, opposite the union Tavern (and also opposite the site of the old Duke of York pub, once used for meetings by a local group of the National Union of the Working Classes in the early 1830s).

The old Good Food Cafe in Warham Street was squatted in march 2007, by a group of mainly anarchist rebels and troublemakers living locally, some who had been involved in many alternative, radical and activists projects for years (including longer-running squats and social centres such as Brixton’s 121 Centre, 56a Infoshop, use Your Loaf in Deptford…) plus some folk who had been around slightly less time. Your typist had previously known the place as a greasy café – very greasy. Also very small. It had closed down the previous year, and lay empty and unused.
After months eyeing it up but having no time, some of us jumped the tracks and climbed in through an upstairs window using a ladder.

“As we descended the stairs, we began to put a reality to the dream we had all dreamed as we watched the building sit lifeless for all those months. We dreamed of opening up the dead lifeless space and bringing in living bodies. Bodies that could talk, have ideas, disagree, learn how to fix up and build a living space. Bodies that could share the space and enjoy it and extend an open invitation to others to be part of the new life in the building. Bodies to cook and eat together. To get drunk on what possibilities we can create here.

What’s the point of a fridge without any food in it? What’s the point of a bowl without any soup in it? Exactly, So, what’s the point of a building without anybody in it? Well, actually we know the answer to that one. It looks like this: Make £££££££. Well we choose another answer. Our answer: Make life. Surely that must be the point.”

On first sight the place did look unusable:

“The water pipes were open leaving water to run through two floors. Everything was soaked and stained with mould. The toilets and shower were smashed. The wiring was ripped out and walls were smashed.

No-one cared about the place. There was only one thing they cared about. Standing in midst of the debris that early Saturday morning, we almost turned back. We almost abandoned our dream.

We breathed in mould and looked at each other for a number of minutes. In silence. But we are dreamers…and what is the point of a dream that cannot be turned into something real?”

The chairs and tables, though, were still there from the old caff, and those with a sharp eye and long squatting nous reckoned it could be turned around with a couple of days work.

“With a passion we put our backs into the work. Others soon got involved and we fixed up the building. We brought fresh air and human warmth back inside. It’s a work in progress. There are always two questions – What needs doing? What can you do? Actually, there is a third more vital question: Are you enjoying yourself?”

The downstairs was quickly done up, replumbed and rewired, painted, and opened up, soon to host weekly cafes, a bar, film nights, benefits, meetings, parties, booksales and discussions… (the building also housed several people upstairs.)

A large argumentative collective ran the space: so quarrelsome among ourselves that Monday night weekly meetings sometimes lasted 3 hours, as we berated each other about every single detail of running the centre… While many of us knew each other, some didn’t – but the arguments came more from different ideas about what a space was, the politics behind it. Direct democracy in action, painful but absolutely consistent, and a really useful experience in how you get things done when your ideas can be almost diametrically opposed. Disagreements ran as basic as the name of the place: some of us called it the Camberwell Squatted Centre, some wanted to call it a Social Centre but others had no time for that term. Some called it Black Frog, for what reason I can’t now recall (of there was one). We never did settle on a name and the building lived under several aliases; appropriate, in a way, as it also focused diverse ideas of what the place was, what it was for. Ideas that clashed, as we argued, but also ended up complementing each other. Sure there was a lot of argument – there was also a lot of love, which brought people together in interesting and inspiring ways, helped to create new openings. Possibly the fact that a core of us had spent a chunk of the previous 15-20 years or so involved in one squat centre or another, or hanging out at others, helped us avoid some of the traps ’twas easy to fall into… although another advantage was the sheer smallness of the space. You literally couldn’t do loads of things, like having huge parties, gigs etc, that often caused aggro in squatted spaces…

We organised events, showing films every week, cooking food and holding bars, discos, discussions, history nights, workshops for various skills. Hundreds of people came down, both locals and from further afield, and many widely varying happenings followed. Some weeks we could have a totally different crowd in every night. We showed ‘The Brixton Tapes’ about the 1981 Brixton Riot, and had to turn large numbers away, as we could only fit so many in. We had talks from activists from as far afield as South Africa – from land squatting movement Abahlali base Mjondolo: “Richard Pithouse who did the talk on that day made some good connections about occupation, land and squatting etc. That was a particularly meaningful event and encounter for me – to bring such connections between two different but engaged land / housing battles but esp to hear about the self-managed politics of Abahlali.”

The space rang to live music from local session gods the No Frills Band, as well as from visiting Australian folks…

We held language classes, swapped seedlings, hosted Indymedia training, shared basic plumbing skills, heard talks on Camberwell radical history and underground Lambeth, on German anti-capitalist fascism and queer slang… The very dodgy old white nationalist geezers who lived opposite very likely took the pictures of us that ended up on some ultra-right website…

We lent the space to the Brixton Ritzy cinema workers to hold a social after their first strike over crap wages and conditions. (A struggle still going on ten years later). Novelty of novelties, we tried to have a varied decent selection of beers on offer… When Mayday came around instead of joining the leftie ramble through central London we held our own Mayday march to Kennington Park and erected a maypole there and danced around it… among much more…

“Early on, we had the unfortunate presence of two policemen inside the place with all their usual prejudices: squatters are junkies, squatters are all unemployed, squatters are this, squatters are that. They made it clear that they thought we were just rats. But who cares what they think!

‘Why can’t you live like normal people?’, they asked. But what is normal in these days? Speculating on a ruined building whilst others are homeless or can’t afford a decent place? Does it seem normal surviving another round of the working week? Labouring – commuting – shopping – resting – back to work. Some money but no time. A little time but no real enthusiasm. A two week holiday as some kind of escape. Yes, this is the normality of ourselves too! It was at this end point of the policeman’s questioning, that one bright burning spirit amongst us replied: ‘We are dreamers…’ and the words hung there, in silence, with nothing else needing to be added. Neither seeking approval nor apologising for what we are, this was a moment that we could have almost let go of but instead our good friend had let something loose amongst us all. Something that remains in the air. It pervades the building. It inspires. It fixes. It rebels.

As dreamers, we try to refuse what passes for being ‘normal’ because no-one is ‘normal’. We try to make alternatives to the daily grind. We try to open up escape routes here, now. Everyone knows that this grind cannot continue. We are all looking for a way out. For us, it cannot be an individual solution as we are all in this together. So the dream we dream is a collective one.

None of us wish any longer to slump exhausted in front of TV because that’s all our body can do at that point. None of us wish any longer to drink ourselves senseless in lonely isolation. None of us wish to feel any longer the crushing despair of the lives we are supposed to lead in 21st century London. None of us wish any longer to substitute our passions and our dreams or our desires for things, objects or trinkets. No more!

We are no longer interested in the decisions made elsewhere by waste of space politicians because we have our own decisions to make. We are no longer interested in the lives of rich celebrities because we have our own lives to be interested in.

In less than two weeks, we have created a beautiful living breathing alive space once more. What else could we do? We put in floorboards. We dried out rooms for people to sleep soundly in. We scraped off mould and put up paint. We built a kitchen. Built a café space. Put in toilets. Put in sinks. Put in ideas. We might have exhausted ourselves, some of us working 9-5, some of us working precariously but we always found more energy to keep building. What we discovered (once again), is that far from there being a scarcity of energy, knowledge, ideas, there is always a beautiful surplus available when we make our own decisions. We didn’t need a shop-bought plan nor a foreman. There was no book to tell us what to do. There was only our imagination and the fantastic possibilities that dreamers tend come up with.

We know that one day, near or far, we will be forced out of here and the building will once again be sealed off from light fresh air we bring in. We know that but it does not stop us working hard for the dream. Here now. And again. And again…And…

As one of our posters says: ‘As everyone knows, the dream is dead. The dream, the desire, the hope for a better world. And yet we are dreamers. We too should be dead, then. But if we are not mistaken…HERE WE ARE’.

But it is very much an open dream. Be here too. It is every dreamer’s space. Be occupied! This has been your invitation.”

It turned out that the building was owned by some small-scale property developers, and bizarrely they included, or were being fronted for, by a guy some of us knew vaguely, him having been the landlord of two Brixton pubs a number of the local squatters/musicians had drunk in/played in, Brady’s and the Queen. A wheeler and dealer, someone we thought we could maybe make some kind of temporary arrangement with. Before we could approach him the place was invaded by him and a couple of crap heavies, and a stand-off took place inside and outside, turning into an argument. When the cops turned up they reluctantly told the owners they’d have to go to court to get us out. Some negotiations took pace a few days later but came to nothing. So we just carried on as usual, making the best of the place while it lasted.

So after holding them off physically we were taken to court and lost, but carried on using the space as long as we could.

The Camberwell Squat Centre/Black Frog/Warham Street was eventually evicted early in the morning on 30th August, 2007:

Oh there is something inevitable about squatting and that is the free rude awakening you can get at 4am one Thursday morning on 30th August after losing legal ‘possession’ of the place. So yeah the Black Frog residents were turfed out by bailiffs in the end, as is the end of most squatting centre stories. What can we say? There just isn’t space here to go into everything that feels like it should be said. How can we answer those great questions that came up: Are you free to do whatever you like in a free space? Why do people make a dogma out of the number of ‘local’ people coming in, or worse, what some activists call ‘normal’ people? (ho ho ho). Is it a social centre or a centre? Words on a page cannot do justice to what we felt and lived at the Black Frog and we all know there’s no justice in the world.”

The building was smashed up to prevent us going back in; eventually, though planning permission for their grotesque flat and shop complex was repeatedly knocked back, a new block of flats sprouted on the site.

All in all it was a fun and mind-expanding experience for the people who ran and frequented the space, re-invigorating some people’s energy for collective rebelliousness and putting us in contact with others locally who felt like us. Unlike some previous squatted social spaces the Black Frog/Squat Centre very open, wide in its appeal, welcoming and broad-ranging in what went down there.

So it only lasted five months – it was an intense ride, and some of us were knackered afterwards. Sometimes a short sharp burst can be useful. Some of the folk involved went on to be involved in other squatted centres that followed in the area, notably the Library House. In some ways Warham Street signalled a renaissance in political squatting in that part of South London which had been quiet for a while.

Its also worth mentioning “the solidarity extended to us from Abahlali after their visit. They were very moved by seeing the images of the shack dwellers we put in the walls for their visit.”

They sent a message after hearing of our eviction:

“Solidarity from Abahlali base Mjondolo   05.09.2007 18:59 Abahlali baseMjondolo would like to extend solidarity to the Camberwell Comrades. Qina!   We acknoweldge and respect what you have done and understand your pain at this time. Keep up your courage.  

Message from S bu Zikode to Activists in London The time has come for poor people all over the world to define themselves before someone else defines them, thinks for them and acts for them. Do not allow others to define you. We are pleading to University intellectuals and NGOs to give us a chance to have a platform for our own creativity, our own politics. Our politics is not a politics that originates from institutions of higher learning. It originates from our lives and experiences. We are asking the academic intellectuals and NGOs for a work space to think and discuss – not for them to think and speak for us. We are not prepared to hear from anyone on a point of order. Not government, not NGOs. No one.”

We like to think we built something of our own. We remember it fondly, anyway. As the graffiti which quickly went up on the empty shopfront for the eviction read: “Missing You…”

“Face to face is better, so maybe we will have these discussions at the next Black Frog…see you there! Or better still squat your own place and we will pop round for a cuppa!!

We fix. We build. We occupy. TOGETHER.”

Above quotes are usually excerpts from ‘Yes We Are Dreamers’, a text written by one of our number for a social centres round up.

and another related text

And a related text with some critical observations on social centres and their relationships to ‘non-activists’ and our own history

Here’s more on the radical history of Camberwell

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London transport history: women tube workers return to work after equal pay strike, 1918

It’s generally well-known that during World War I, thousands of jobs normally done by men were taken over by women, as hundreds of thousands of men left to fight in the trenches and at sea (whether voluntarily, or increasingly as the war dragged on, against their will). The mass enlistment of women into work and supporting the war effort is generally also credited with the British government finally agreeing to ‘grant’ (some) women the vote in 1918, in supposed gratitude to the part women had played during the war.

Less well-known is a large-scale strike in August 1918, that began in West London and spread around a number of other cities and towns – women workers, doing jobs usually restricted to men, striking to obtain equal pay for equal work. On top of the labour shortage, the war brought new jobs as part of the war effort – for example in munitions factories. The high demand for weapons led to munitions factories becoming the largest single employer of women during 1918. There was initial resistance by employers and male workers to hiring women for what was seen as ‘men’s work’, but the introduction of conscription, in 1916, made the need for women workers urgent. The government began coordinating the employment of women through campaigns and recruitment drives.

Thus women were soon working in areas of work that had previously been reserved for men, for example as railway guards, ticket collectors, bus and tram conductors, postal workers, police, firefighters and as bank ‘tellers’ or clerks. Some women also worked heavy or precision machinery in engineering, led cart horses on farms, and worked in the civil service and factories. However, they received lower wages for doing the same work, and thus began some of the earliest demands for equal pay.

Women’s employment rates increased during WWI, from 23.6% of the working age population  in 1914 to between 37.7% and 46.7% in 1918. It is difficult to get exact estimates because domestic workers were excluded from these figures and many women moved from domestic service into the jobs created due to the war effort. The employment of married women increased sharply – accounting for nearly 40% of all women workers by 1918.

But because women were paid less than men, male workers suspected that bosses would continue to employ women in these jobs when the men returned from the war. (in fact this didn’t happen; usually the women were sacked to make way for the returning soldiers, though in some cases women remained working alongside men but at lower wage rates.) A series of unofficial strikes by men did take place, protesting at the ‘dilution’ of the workforce by women, and responding to what they saw as a threat of wages generally being reduced. However, these actions “simply exaggerated the manpower shortage, and had the unexpected effect of forcing up piecework rates for the women.” Other male workers took the slightly less chauvinistic approach of persuading the women workers to join trade unions, in a bid to prevent them being used as pawns in wage-lowering.

However, even before the end of the war, many women refused to accept lower pay for what in most cases was the same work as had been done previously by men. Public transport was an area where women were employed in large numbers.

“By February 1915, 21% of the men employed in London’s bus and tram services had joined the armed forces and only 3.5 percentage points of the shortfall had been made up. By late 1915 it was quite obvious that women would be needed to keep London’s transport infrastructure working. The first female bus conductor was taken on by Tilling’s (one of the smaller of the main bus operators) on their No 37 route in late 1915. The London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), the main bus provider in the capital, lagged a bit behind but eventually took on bus female bus conductors in February 1916.”

By the end of the war, the London General Omnibus Company alone was employing over 3,500 women, and thousands more were employed by the other bus and tram operators in London as well as on the tubes.

“As with most expansions of women’s work during the war, this change was greeted with much publicity around women doing their bit and how they could do ‘man’s work’. By mid-1918, the number of women employed on buses across the country had increased from 300 to 4,500 (on trams it was even greater: from 1,300 to nearly 22,000). It was estimated that 90% of conductors on trams and buses were women. Generally, men were retained as drivers and doing some of the heavier (and dirtier) engineering roles. The conducting role was said to be beneficial to the health of those women who did it.”

Although strikes were nominally illegal, the latter half of the war did see a rise in stoppages. Public transport was no exception. There had been a large bus strike in 1917, sparked when the London General Omnibus Company refused to recognise the Vehicle Workers Union. It lasted a few days, and was mostly solid. Out of a total of 1900 buses, only 20 were running on May 13th! The day after, it was reported that “The situation in the London bus strike today has undergone very little change. There was a repetition this morning of yesterday’s scenes as thousands of workers proceeded to business. Trams and tubes absorbed much possible the extra traffic thrown upon them.”
Services were resumed on May 15 pending negotiations – after discussion the strike was ended on the 18th. The strike was part of a huge wave of strikes in 1917, building as prices raises and wage constraints during the war hit hard, as knuckling under ‘to support the war effort’ began to crumble under disillusion with the war aims, horror at the casualties – and the surge of hope inspired by the February Russian Revolution…

Both management and the unions had consistently opposed conceding the principle of equal pay for what was obviously equal work.

“A large majority of women tram and bus conductresses joined unions by 1918. Many had been practically compelled by men members to join the union. The understanding was that they should be employed on exactly the same terms as men whilst their employment must terminate by the end of the war. In some cases women were employed on short shifts, but this policy was opposed by the Union. It was feared that any relief of this kind would not only give employers an excuse for deductions from wages, but add to men’s hours of work. It might even have the undesirable effect of encouraging women’s employment in the future. Women drivers who were entirely composed of commercial private employees formed a comparatively small section of members, probably less than 1/8th.

The larger number of women drivers involved for auxiliary war service were not encouraged by the government to join Trade Unions. Women tram and bus conductors who were well organised for a start, had little difficulty in obtaining men’s minimum rates of wages, but the question of war advances was a matter of constant dispute. The important National Award for February 1918 which men received an aggregate advance of 20/- a week on pre-war rates, laid down that, “Where agreements or awards already exist providing the same rates to be paid to women as to men, such agreements or awards are to hold good and an increase to be paid accordingly.” In the absence of such agreements, women were to receive only an advance of 4/- on the current rates. The London Women Bus Conductresses were at once accorded the full bonus and a subsequent decision of the committee of production by which they were refused, a further advance of 51- met with such a determined resistance that the decision was reversed. All women were however by no means so successful Outside London the women’s claim had been prejudiced for the most part by the terms of previous awards by which they received not more than about two thirds of men’s war advances. In London, however, their claim was undeniable and here they secured the full sum of 20/-, bringing up their earnings to 63/- a week. In the following July a fresh appeal was made to arbitration, and men were granted a further advance of 5/- a week. But this time the women were left out. The award met with an unexpected storm of indignation. London women bus conductresses were not accustomed to such treatment. They had, moreover, begun to taste power. A protest meeting was held at once and they announced their intention to take drastic action unless their claim received attention. It did not receive attention.”

Their claim for equal pay ignored, women workers on London buses and trams went on strike in August 1918 to demand the same increase in pay (war bonus) as men. The strike spread to other towns in the South East and to the London Underground. This was the first equal pay strike in the UK which was initiated, led and ultimately won by women.

The immediate cause of the trouble was that whereas the award of the Committee on Production gave a war bonus of five shillings to the men it declined a similar concession to the women employees.

On August 16th, 1918, a meeting of women at Willesden bus garage decided, without consulting or even informing either the management or the trade union leaders, to strike the following day. The next morning Willesden stopped work; they were immediately joined by women at Hackney, Holloway, Archway and Acton bus depots or garages, and thereafter the strike spread like wildfire. By the evening thousands of women had stopped work. The demand was initially for a 5 shillings War bonus, a demand which became upgraded, as the dispute escalated, to a call for equal pay for women workers, or as the strikers put it ‘Same work – same money’. « One conductress thus explained the situation, “When we were taken on by the Company they promised to give us whatever rise the men had. We are doing just as much work as the men who realise the justice of our case and are supporting our strike.”

It was reported that : “Male employees who are opposed to the women’s claim base their opposition to the fact that many conductresses are the wives of soldiers and are receiving separation allowances, whereas the men have families to support. No intimation of their intentions was given and many early morning workers found themselves unable to get to business. The inconvenience increased during the day. People in the Hayes and Hillingdon districts who desired to get to Uxbridge or Southall to do their Saturday shopping were faced with the alternative of walking or going without provisions. There was no question of buying locally for many of the villages are rationed for meat, butter etc at town shops and were therefore in an awkward position.”

Many of the men conductors and drivers who had heard nothing about the plan, as it had been more or less secretly organised by the women. The strike continued to spread. By August 23rd, women bus and tram workers at Hastings, Bath, Bristol, South Wales, Brighton, Folkestone, Southend, Weston-super-Mare and Birmingham had joined in, about 18,000 women out of the 27,000 employed in the industry had stopped work.

Back in London, many women working on the tubes – supported by some men – had also stopped work, on the same issue. The transport strikers had a series of mass meetings at the Ring, Blackfriars, where 4,000 women, many of them with children, well supplied with sandwiches and lemonade, made a day out of it.

“Sir George Asquith, the chief industrial commissioner, had held a number of conferences with the parties engaged in the dispute with the hope of arranging a settlement, but it was not until Wednesday night that an arrangement was reached.   A conference under the auspices of the National Transport Workers Federation was held in the morning and a resolution was passed committing the unions affiliated to the organisation of “Immediate appropriate and determined action” to enforce national adoption of equal pay for equal labour to women and men. The unions represented at the conference were the Amalgamated Association of Tramway and Vehicle Workers London and the Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers, National Union of Vehicle Workers, National Union of General Workers and Dock, Wharf and Riverside General Labourers Union.

The terms of the resolution adopted by the conference were sent to Sir George Asquith, chief industrial commissioner, and in the afternoon delegates from the conference were received by him. After discussion lasting four hours the following official announcement was made, “The three Unions concerned with representatives of the National Transport Workers Federation met with Sir George Asquith today and after lengthy conference decided to recommend to the Executive Committee the following terms.

Resumption of work pending reference to the Committee on Production of interpretation of their awards, namely whether under Clause 14 of the Award of July 9 the Committee be understood to nullify any agreement or undertaking and in particular any such undertaking as is alluded to in Clause 4 of the Award of March 8 and on the claim that equal total payments be made to women as to men for equal work in the tramway and omnibus, undertakings who were parties to the Award of March 8 and July 9 and that any present changes of payments are to date from the beginning of the first full pay day following July 9 and that any future changes of payments should take place jointly with those of the men. The Hearing will take place on Monday next at 2.30 and the Awards will be issued as speedily as possible.”

The public were surprised and not a little inconvenienced, but its sympathies were in the main on the side of the women. Even The Times admitted the strength of the women’s case which lay precisely in this – That their work was as well done as any man could do it and that everyone could see that it was. The Committee of Production by which body the award had been given was obliged to yield to the storm and to re-consider its decision and the women won their case. Such was the victory of the women tram drivers that Mary McArthur, the Leader of the Women’s Union declared the award to be the absolute vindication of the principle for which we are contending.”

The bus and tram strike was eventually settled on August 25th, after a tumultuous meeting at the Ring, and despite a vocal element opposing calling a halt to the struggle. However, the women working on the underground stayed out until August 28th. The women received the extra 5s War bonus, but the principle of equal pay was not in fact conceded. The details of organisation of this important struggle are obscure; indeed it is rather surprising that this strike, which must be one of the largest ever engaged in by women for their own demands, has not attracted more attention from historians of the labour movement.

London had even seen its first strike for equal pay by women working on the trams and buses – legislation wouldn’t arrive until the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

Parts of this post were taken and slightly edited from Don’t be a Soldier! by Ken Weller.

And Hayes People’s History

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s penal past: guns smuggled into Newgate, inside ‘Smoaking hot pyes’, 1735.

Newgate Prison, for 100s of years the most potent symbol of state repression in London, hated and feared by the London poor whose lives it loomed over… Inevitably its story is also one of resistance… As it was routinely used to hold those who had been condemned to death, those awaiting transportation, or court appearances which would very likely end in one or the other, many prisoners had little to lose by trying to escape.

Sometimes these were individual feats, Houdini-style, like Jack Sheppard or Daniel Malden. On occasion outsiders launched raids to rescue inmates, as a crowd of Irishmen did to free their mates in 1749, or the Gordon Rioters successfully achieved en masse in June 1780. Others were collective attempts to fight their way free. The first such mass jailbreak attempt we can find evidence of was in 1275; another riot ten years later was aimed at a breakout, which failed.

In 1735 four highwaymen staged yet another attempted jailbreak. Thomas Gray, alias Macray, Joseph Emmerson, John James alias Black Jack, and Henry Sellon, were all imprisoned in Newgate in August of 1735. They had all been sentenced to death at Kingston Assizes on August 9th, “Sellon, for robbing Mr Collins on the Highway… Macray, for robbing Mr Hammerson of his Watch and Money on Barns Common… Emmerson and James… for entering the House of Jasper Hale Esq of Peckham, and wounding him and his Servant maid…”

Macray had already escaped from the Old Bailey once… he also had a few mates rooting for him, having arranged for “14 well-dress’d persons to appear for him here, most of who, swore he was sick in bed the whole Week in which the Fact was committed, but finding they were suspected, all slipp’d out of Court. [Several of them are since apprehended by the Direction of Baron Thomson, in order to be prosecuted for perjury.]”

So it shouldn’t have been very surprising that outside help was clearly involved when Macray and the other three, attempted to escape the prison on August 18th:

“They were all wounded in an Attempt to break out of Gaol, two Nights before, which Mr Taylor, the Keeper, being inform’d of, and that they were filing off their Irons, got his Assistants arm’d with Blunderbusses, Pistols, and Cutlasses, went to the Door, and desir’d Macray to make no desperate Attempt, for there was so Possibility of his Escape. Macray replied, In their present desperate Circumstances they no body, and desir’d him to retire, for the first that entered was a dead Man. Upon this Mr Taylor order’d the Door to be unbolted and open’d a little Way; which they no sooner heard but they discharg’d 8 Pistols and one of the Keepers as Blunderbuss, but without Execution, the Door between them being very strong. Then Mr Taylor and his Guard rush’d in, attack’d them with their Cutlasses, and overpower’d them immediately. Macray was wounded in his Head, and his Arm disabled; Sellon desperately cut in several Places; Emmerson had one Side of his Face cut away; James was but slightly hurt. On Mr Taylor’s Part very little Damage was done. The Pistols were brought to the Prisoners in Smoaking hot Pyes, by the Assistance of a Man at a house in St George’s Fields, whom Emmerson, upon the Keepers threatening to dispatch him, dicover’d. One of the Keepers jingling his Keys at the Door of the said House, the Fellow took him for Macray broke out of prison, and open’d the Door to let him in, but was himself apprehended.”
(Gentleman’s Magazine, 1735)

Concealing a gun inside a ‘Smoaking hot pye’  – eat your heart, out shoe bomber… Smuggling in weapons to help friends locked in Newgate stage escapes was also a long London tradition.

Macray, Emmerton, James and Sellon were all hanged at Kennington Gallows two days later, on 20th August.

But collective breakouts continued; there were further attempts in 1758, 1763, 1771 and 1777…

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Follow past tense on twitter

This week in rebel history: Bermondsey’s women workers launch massive strike wave, 1911

“One stifling August morning, while the [transport workers’] strike was at its height, the women workers in a large confectionery factory, in the middle of Bermondsey, in the ‘black patch of London’, suddenly left work. As they went through the streets, shouting and singing, other women left their factories and workshops and came pouring out to join them . . . The women were underpaid and overcrowded . . . Yet they were oddly light-hearted, too. Many of them, dressed in all their finery, defied the phenomenal temperature with feather boas and fur tippets, as though their strike were some holiday of the soul, long overdue.” (George Dangerfield)

“The tropical heat and sunshine of that summer seemed to evoke new hopes and new desires in a class of workers usually only too well described as ‘cheap and docile’ . . . Most of them regarded the conditions of their lives as in the main perfectly inevitable, came out on strike to ask only 6d. or 1s. more wages and a quarter of an hour for tea, and could not formulate any more ambitious demands.” (Barbara Hutchins)

In August 1911, a wave of strikes in the southeast London borough of Bermondsey among 1000s of strikers, almost all women or girls, closed many of the numerous local factories and won huge improvements in their pay and conditions. They were initiated by around 15,000 women and girls employed in local jam, biscuit, confectionery and similar food-processing factories, tin-boxmaking, glue and other manufactures. The strikes began as a series of spontaneous demonstrations, among mostly non-union labour, calling for improved wages and conditions, but the intervention of National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) trade-union organiser Mary Macarthur helped to unify and give focus to the demands. The factory women’s action ended successfully with wage increases and improvements in working conditions.

The Bermondsey strikes took place during a year of militant upsurge in workers struggles to improve their lives throughout the country, with massive transport strikes the most visible aspect of an eruption of disputes across many industries. Workers in already heavily unionised workplaces, highly organised, were prominent. Many among them were expressing frustration with the existing union structures, and interest was growing in newer ideas and ways of organising, like syndicalism. Discussion and debate of socialist, communist, anarchist ideas increased. In response to the industrial unrest, troops were sent in to Liverpool and South Wales to intimidate and repress strikes beginning to coalesce into revolt; the government feared the new militancy. And although the peak of 1911 failed to match up to their fears and the dreams of some militants, the next few years would continue to see a rising tide of strikes, as well as political and social unrest.

The August 1911 Bermondsey strikes broke out in the midst of this ferment, but seemed even then to be very different to many of the other events of that year. Most of the local women workers were previously un-unionised, or had even been somewhat hostile to union recruitment; though fair numbers of male trade unionists had almost certainly not helped by regarding many of the workplaces women worked in as unreliable and women in general as not worth organising (a view expressed by gasworkers union leader and Labour MP Will Thorne, who said women ‘do not make good trade unionists’.) The eruption of strikes among the woman workers of Bermondsey took even local male union activists by surprise.

Bermondsey

The Bermondsey area spreads for over three miles along the south bank of the Thames, facing the City of London. The Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey, set up in 1900, included Rotherhithe, so that in the early twentieth century the borough stretched from London Bridge on the western side, bordering Southwark, to the Surrey Docks complex in the east, and as far south as the Old Kent Road. Bermondsey’s river frontage was the basis for its industry. Riverside docks and wharves created the primary source of employment for male workers in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, although railway and construction work also provided heavy labouring jobs. River transport for bulky raw materials fed Bermondsey’s semi-processing industries, such as leather tanneries and sawmills, and particularly the manufacture and distribution of food products, which explain Bermondsey’s title at the time of ‘London’s larder’. Tooley Street was the centre of this trade, with the Hay’s Wharf Company, the leading dockside distributor, responsible for handling a wide variety of foodstuffs including tea, and, after the introduction of refrigeration, which the Company helped to pioneer, an international trade in dairy produce and meat from the 1860s.

By the end of the nineteenth century, with the establishment of large-scale jam, biscuit and confectionery manufacturing and of ancillary packaging firms, such as those for tin-box making, food processing dominated Bermondsey’s industry, overtaking older industries such as leather tanning, and providing a major source of employment for women in the area. The Peek Frean biscuit company, for example, had existed in Bermondsey since 1859, but jam factories were not set up by major firms like Hartley’s and Lipton until the turn of the century. For male workers, major projects carried out around the turn of the century (which included the world’s first electric underground rail system, running from the City to Stockwell via London Bridge, and the construction of Tower Bridge in 1894 and of the Rotherhithe Tunnel in 1908) meant continuing opportunities for casual labouring jobs. With industrialization and the expansion of the transport system, the population of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe surged from around 65,000 in 1850 to about 126,000 in 1911.” (Ursula de la Mare, Necessity and Rage: the Factory Women’s Strikes in Bermondsey, 1911)

Bermondsey was well known for its particular poverty – 1,500 people lived in local workhouses. 40% of London’s population lived in dire poverty but in the dock areas it climbed to above 80%.

If this poverty was common to many other working class neighbourhoods, Bermondsey was marked by many individual characteristics which gave it a particular character. Its geography left it somewhat isolated and insular, and helped the growth of a cohesive community. Many people living locally were also born in South London, overwhelmingly so around the time of the strikes, helping to create a largely homogenous culture, predominantly working class. This contributed to the strength of industrial struggles; this was also partly a product of the domination of a few industries: the docks, and transport from them, and food manufacturing; workplaces people lived cheek by jowl with, their shared experiences linking both home and work life.

Local poverty was a consequence in part of the nature of employment there: dockers, for instance, the largest group of workers locally, depended on a system of daily and weekly hiring for subsistence wages; in 1892 the weekly pay for London dockworkers averaged between thirteen and seventeen shillings, and it remained at a low level into the 1900s.

Other trades among local male residents also dominated by low-paid or casual jobs, unskilled or semi-skilled, subject to seasonal variations and the vagaries of trade. Women’s work often topped up low wages of the male ’breadwinner’. “Female labour, as a consequence, became a source of supplementary earnings for family incomes, ‘a kind of reserve market . . . when the husband comes on bad time’. Booth identified the development of occupations for women outside the home with the pressures on male employment in Bermondsey, such as the increasing casualisation of dock work. This resulted, he said, in ‘a great extension of employment for women in the making and packing of jam . . . chiefly low-class work at low pay . . . largely seasonal in character’. He referred specifically to the Bermondsey and Southwark riverside as areas with family economies of male dock-workers and women engaged in jam factories and similar trades, or outwork. Statistical evidence indicates that in 1911 women in the jam, confectionery and biscuit-making trades were ten per cent of the female labour force in Bermondsey, with a larger proportion, twenty-four per cent, engaged in outwork such as sackmaking and furpulling.” (de la Mare)

Women workers were far from passive victims of poverty. Working in the jam and pickle factories might be badly paid, but was an improvement on some of the filthy, exhausting and degrading traditional jobs the area had provided, like fur-pulling, sackmaking and wood-chopping. And factory work did give the women a measure of independence from their menfolk, as well as a sociable and collective spirit (which manifested sometimes in ways disapproved of as immoral: the 1900 Bermondsey parish magazine, predictably censorious, reported attempts to reform ‘wild factory girls . . . half-drunk, and yelling the lowest music hall songs, and dancing like wild creatures’. Young women working in factories were often targets of moral reform campaigns: because they were working outside the traditional ‘place’ for women, because the pay they received could also even partly liberate them and allow them to party… among other reasons…)

However, work in the local factories was still badly paid, and the work was often seasonal, irregular… The women ere also often subjected to fines and deductions for ‘expenses’ by the managers. Hours were long, conditions tough, and facilities for the workers basic.

Prelude: the transport strike of 1911

The Bermondsey strike movement was influenced by the transport workers’ walkout during the previous month, part of a national transport strike. In the capital this included an all-London walk-out of the dockers, plus the Carmen (cart-drivers), including the men at the Surrey docks.

“In London the dockers’ union had been attempting, since 1909, to increase the hourly rate of pay of men employed by the Port of London Authority and reduce their hours. In 1910, the matter was again raised with the PLA by the Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Trades Council, without result. J.A. Fox, branch secretary of the dockers’ union, complained in January 1911 that “a number [of men] work 84 hours per week for less than the dockers’ tanner and nearly all get considerably below the rate paid by private employers.” By summer the men’s patience was exhausted and on 4th July 300 grain trimmers as the Surrey Commercial Docks struck for a minimum wages of 8 pence per hour. These men were members of the Labour Protection League, and, on the advice of their leaders, resumed work pending a Port of London Authority decision on their demands. When the PLA finally agreed to negotiation in the face of a strike threat, the Shipping Federation, representing private firms, was unwilling to join the discussion and the newly formed National Transport Workers Federation, led by Ben Tillett and representing the dock labourers, refused to negotiate unless they were present.

The National Federation of Transport Workers (NFTW) called a mass meeting of all riverside workers at Southwark Park on Sunday, 22 July, which was addressed by leaders of the watermen and lightermen and the carmen’s union, by Harry Gosling, representing the NFTW, and Arthur Harris of the South London Labour League. The purpose of the meeting was to unite all the different grades of dock worker under a common banner and to refuse any settlement which failed to include any worker the association represented. According to press reports this statement was greeted warmly by the meeting.

On Monday, 24 July, the Shipping Federation finally joined the conference but the coal porters and Carmen announced a demand that the private employers should recognize their union and decided to strike until their grievances were settled. The conference took place behind closed doors and little or no information leaked out of any progress towards meeting the men’s demands. The men. Impatient and frustrated by the length of the discussions and the absence of any news, agreed to stand together instead of awaiting arbitration, and 20,000 dockers and Carmen struck at the beginning of August.

Meanwhile, although the NFTW reached agreement with the PLA, the agreement fell short of the initial demands. However, it did represent a distinct improvement of between 4 and 5 shillings per week in wages. Agreement had not been reached with those employed by the Shipping Federation who were demanding an increase from 7 pence to 8 pence per hour, nor the question of lunch breaks which were left to arbitration. Harry Gosling said that every section of the workforce must be settled or members of the NFTW must be ready to come out on strike.

In the face of a strike threat at Surrey Docks, one of the private wharves, Stanton’s Wharf, conceded to the pay increase demanded and also agreed to pay the lunch break. Another firm, Mark Brown’s Wharf, agreed to the increased hourly rate but refused to pay the lunch break. The men at Stanton’s Wharf refused to return to work until the other striking dockers’ claims were met. Strike action spread rapidly. The coal porters were joined by other porters, dockers, lightermen and watermen. While some were striking for the extra penny per hour, others were striking for union recognition by private firms or a 10-hour day. On Thursday, 3 August 1000 men employed in the grain and Canadian produce departments at Surrey Docks came out in support of the payment for the dinner…” (Brockway, Bermondsey Story)

The Women Take a Stand

Local Independent Labour Party activist Dr Alfred Salter had Salter had been busy organising relief for the transport workers’ families; when the employers gave way, he returned home assuming that the struggle was over.

“The next morning he had a shock. Without any organisation, without any lead, thousands of workers employed in Bermondsey, men women and girls, came out on strike. They had tabled no demands, they could not even voice their grievances, few of them belonged to a trade union, they knew nothing of how to run a strike; they just knew that the conditions of their existence were intolerable, and they would no longer put up with them without protest.” (Fenner Brockway, Bermondsey Story)

Though there was no formal organisational link between the striking transport workers and the women factory workers who now took inspiration from their victory, family and community connections were strong. The connection between the dockers and women employed in the preserves and jam manufacturing industries was identified by Charles Booth. The work was seasonal and employers took advantage of a large pool of unskilled women workers, often the wives of casual labourers, who were willing to accept low wages for part-time work to help family finances during times of a husband’s unemployment.

As a consequence of these low wages and poor conditions, Pink’s jam factory, which was nick-named, because of its working conditions, “The Bastille”, became a target of the Labour Protection League which had attempted to unionise it in 1897 with the aim of increasing the minimum wage from four and a half pence to sixpence per hour for a 56-hour week. The employers were hostile to such moves and sacked employees who were union activists. As a consequence, the trade union were unable to get a foothold in such firms.

But a failure of trade unionism to take hold had never meant a lack of solidarity. In 1889, during the huge London dock strike, the South London dockers had received support from workers employed in industries totally unconnected with their own, and particularly from women employed in firms like Peak Freans and Spratts, both biscuit manufacturers. A large number of the women workers joined the striking dockers march through local streets. The similarities in the support given by this element of the South London workforce to the striking dockers in 1889 and 1911 is such that it must be considered to be rooted in links of kinship or neighbourhood.

In August 1911, the food processing industry of South London was virtually devoid of any trades union membership, despite having the nation’s largest concentration of manufacturers. Eight thousand workers, mainly women, were employed in jam manufacture and the turnover of its factories represented 40 per cent of the national production. It enjoyed a similar market share of biscuit production and was also the main centre of he manufacture of sugar confectionary, chocolate, soups and pickles.

In the summer of 1911, there was a handful of union activists in a few factories and some intimidation of workers through demonstration outside factory gates, but their influence was very limited, and the scale of the spontaneous protest which began on 12 August 1911 far eclipsed any trade union activity. There was no union call for action, indeed few of the workers were unionised at all, but on Monday, 14 August, 14,000 women suddenly came out on strike and nearly all the large factories were obliged to close. According to Mary MacArthur of the National Federation of Women Workers, the cause of the revolt was low pay. The average weekly wage for grown girls and women in South London was 7 to 9 shillings, while thousands of girls under 16 earned only 3 shillings per week.

The Daily Chronicle reported ‘strike fever’ spreading through the Bermondsey factories. Mary Agnes Hamilton, in the more literary style of her biography of Mary Macarthur, notes the oppressive heat, then describes how the ‘brittle nerves’ of the factory women, who had been supporting their striking menfolk, ‘suddenly gave way’ and they burst into action, suggesting the unrestrained nature of the women’s protest.

In a press report on the beginning of the strikes, the women were described as being ‘in the highest spirits’: They went laughing and singing through Bermondsey, shouting ‘Are we downhearted?’ and answering the question by a shrill chorus of ‘No!’. It was noticeable that many of them had put on their ‘Sunday best’. In spite of the great heat, hundreds of them wore fur boas and tippets – the sign of self-respect.

Women working at Benjamin Edgington, tentmakers, joined by some female employees from Pearce Duff, custard makers, marched down Tooley Street ‘singing the strike marseillaise, ‘‘Fall in and follow me!’’ ’ Women from Pink’s jam factory were in the forefront of the strikes, parading the streets of Bermondsey with a banner inscribed, ‘We are not white slaves, but Pink’s slaves’.

Besides the women from the three firms mentioned above, employees of over fifteen other firms came out on strike, including from Peek Frean biscuits and Hartley’s jam factories. A striker at Shuttleworth’s chocolate factory told a Southwark and Bermondsey Recorder journalist, ‘We are striking for more pay, mister, and we won’t go in till we get it’.

On such low wages as they had been earning, there was no chance of workers having savings to help them through the strike. Having no union, there was no strike pay. For those on strike, outdoor relief (the dole) was routinely refused, and pawn shops shut their doors. Some local charities supplied aid, such as Christ Church, Bermondsey, which provided breakfasts for strikers. But local support networks helped sustain the strikers when the first flush of enthusiasm had passed…

The I.L.P

The striking women turned for help to the newly formed Bermondsey Independent Labour Party, headed by three doctors who ran a local medical practice, and their wives. “The Bermondsey ILP had been formed in May 1908 by disenchanted Progressives like Alfred Salter, a local GP, and his wife, Ada, both of whom had been active in local politics. There were fifteen other founding members including both the other doctors at Salter’s practice, and their wives, one of whom was Eveline Lowe, who would later become the first woman chair of the London County Council. Other members were Joe Craigie of the railwaymen’s trade union, Arthur Gillian, who later founded the chemical workers union, and Charlie Ammon (later Lord Ammon) of the postal workers’ union. Most of the early members were drawn from the chapels and missions of Bermondsey, and they penetrated into every local organisation which allowed opportunities for discussion – brotherhoods, young men’s classes, adult education classes, and debating societies. The branch’s membership came to include a Church of England clergyman, a Congregationalist minister, a Baptist pastor and five Methodist local preachers. By early 1911, the Bermondsey ILP had purchased the former working men’s institute in Fort Road as its headquarters and the foundation stone was barely unveiled when the transport strike broke out.

… The ILP became the organisational centre for many of the wide range of industrial disputes which took place between July and September 1911. It also organised food relief on a large scale, distributing 8000 loaves of bread in two days and ensuring that single male strikers received a loaf of bread and families received groceries to the value of 5 shillings per week.” (Brockway)

The strikers at one factory after another sent deputations to the ILP headquarters to ask for leadership and help. Alfred Salter spent every moment he could among them. Meeting a deputation of railwaymen from the Bricklayers Arms and Willow Walk depots, he found that the maximum wage of the goodsmen was 20 shillings a week and of the yardsmen 18 shillings. “They were not members of the Associated Society of Railway Servants, which tended to cold-shoulder the lowest-paid workers, and they asked Salter to lead them. He agreed to do so, but insisted that their first step should be to enroll in the union, and within a few hours practically every worker at the two depots was in the ASRS with headquarters at the Fort Road Institute to accommodate them.

The railway dispute was a mere fragment of the strikes which swept over Bermondsey. The Institute was besieged by men and women who had left their jobs. Salter, Charlie Ammon and other members of the ILP worked late into the night, advising, organising, negotiating, but the task proved too much for them. Fortunately, as news of the Bermondsey revolt reached the headquarters of the unions, national leaders descended on the Institute and established offices there. The majority of the strikers were women and girls, and Mary MacArthur and Marion Phillips, of the National Federation of Women Workers, (NFWW) were quickly on the scene.”

The NFWW had come to international attention by leading the 1910 women chain makers’ strike, raising £4,000 from supporters. Their policy when approaching the Bermondsey strikes was that all strikers, union members or not, would receive support. Lack of funds never deterred the Federation. An appeal for the Bermondsey strikers raised £500 in one week and a donation of six barrels of herrings!

Victory

“From early morning till late at night meetings were continually in progress,” one report records. “In the grounds at the back of the Institute huge gatherings of railwaymen and other workers were held daily. Inside, one room would be occupied by a committee preparing a new wages list to submit to an employer; in another room workers were busy tabulating grievances so that they could the better present their case to the masters; whilst elsewhere girls were being shown how they could organise into local branches of the Womens’ Trade Union League.” Salter got the minister of a neighbouring chapel, the Rev. Kaye Dunne, to place his premises at the disposal of the strikers as a bread-distributing centre.” (Brockway)

At nearly every workplace important concessions were won. Wages were increased by amounts varying between 3 shillings to 9 shillings a week, in many factories piecework was abolished, and everywhere the strikers were enrolled in the trade unions. Reading today a summary of the concessions gained, one gets some idea of the wretched conditions which existed. The list of victories included a cocoa firm where a wage of 4 shillings 7 pence a week was won for girls of 14, increasing to 12 shillings 4 pence a week at 18. At a tin box works a minimum wage of 10 shillings a week was secured for women workers. At a metallic capsule manufacturers, piece workers obtained halfpence per 1000 more on ‘coloured work’.

Apart from three firms, the remainder of the factories which largely employed women conceded pay increases within a week. Deadlock continued at Peak Frean, biscuit manufacturers of Drummond Road, Bermondsey, who employed 3000 women. The firm, hit by a strike of over two thirds of its workforce, was also picketed by the carmen and unable to receive or make deliveries of its products. In the event, the firm closed down, locking out its workforce, and acrimonious threats were made both by employees and the Labour Federation League, the latter threatening to stage a national boycott of Peak Frean biscuits. The manager at Peak Frean declared: “I don’t know of a single business that is working in the district… It is what one might call a reign of terror”.

Meetings, reinforced with picket lines, were then called by the union organisers, and the workforce urged not to return to work unless wage increases were agreed. Peek Frean employees assembled daily at Rotherhithe Town Hall.

The boss at Pinks blamed the strikes on intimidation because his “workers were well contented” but had been “called out by the mob”.

“Further concessions were announced on Thursday, 17 August at Steel’s hammer and nail manufacturers, the wages of girls under 16 were increased from 7 shillings 8 pence to 9 shillings per week and a minimum wage for older girls of 12 shillings. At Cavendish, bottle washers, the rates increased from 9 shillings and sixpence to a minimum of 12 shillings. By the end of that week, Mary MacArthur had secured concessions from eighteen of the twenty firms whose workers she represented. The rise if the women’s wages amounted to between a shilling and 4 shillings per week. What made these strikes different, according to Mary MacArthur’s biographer, Mary Agnes Hamilton, was that

“the story of the Bermondsey women seems almost to have been isolated – with its mingling elements of unreason and necessity and gaiety and rage – the various spirits of the whole unrest… very soon the streets were filled with women… It was then, when they were all out that they discovered what they had come out for… they wanted an increase.” (Brockway)

Higher wages were also won for the staff at the local Lipton’s jam factory.

“As well as the women workers employed in the food manufacturing trades, men and women strikers employed in packing case manufacture who had been on strike for three weeks received increases ranging from 2 shillings to 4 shillings per week for unskilled and 4 shillings eightpence to six shillings for skilled workmen such as sawyers and boxmakers. Similar across-the-board increases were awarded by other trades like bottle washers and tin box makers. In the latter, where the industry was also consolidated in Southwark and Bermondsey, the strikers achieved a valuable concession that the tin box industry would be considered for inclusion under the terms of the Trades Board Act. The smaller firms welcomed the prospect of regularising wage levels which prevented competition by the undercutting of prices through lowered wages. The strikers were represented in their demands by C.J. Hammond, the president of the Bermondsey ILP, from the Fort Road strike HQ. From the same key area of operation… Eveline Lowe championed the cause of workers at the Idris soft drinks factory.

The widening militancy of the inhabitants of South London spread to Wolseley Street, Bermondsey and Leroy Street, Southwark, where the residents announced a rent strike until the transport strike was over. On 12 August, dissatisfaction among tramway men at New Cross with their conditions of labour culminated in a well-attended meeting that proposed increases in pay and improved conditions such as increased holidays and overtime rates.” (Brockway)

The government was worried enough about public order in the area to order the army station soldiers in a camp in Southwark Park. Its worth remembering in these same weeks, a much more scary situation was developing in Liverpool, with striking transport workers paralysing the city, and something like the beginnings of a revolutionary commune almost coming together, with navy gunboats sent to restore control. The working class was getting way too uppity generally, and the ruling elite were becoming very nervous.

“Publicity for the women’s strikes was also gained through the NFWW’s organisation of public meetings and marches, building on the impetus of the strikers’ own early demonstrations. Marion Phillipps, working out of the Fort Road Institute, planned daily processions, the strikers armed with collecting boxes. A strike rally held on 14 August, at which the speakers included Ben Tillett and Mary Macarthur, was reported to have attracted an audience of 10,000, the women marching (‘most of them hatless’) with banners flying, although another newspaper report spoke of weary-looking women, many carrying babies. The women were quoted as being determined ‘to have a bit of their own back’. A further meeting on 19 August marked the strikers’ victory. The cumulative effect of the press campaigns, relief work at the Institute, and open-air demonstrations had aroused support for the strikers from areas outside the borough, ‘infected by the Bermondsey spirit’.

The NFWW’s mobilisation of support for unionism as part of their campaign was more problematic, although this was a primary aim. Affiliation to a union was seen by Mary Macarthur as a powerful negotiating tool with employers; she considered that union membership strengthened strikers’ bargaining power. At the 19 August victory rally, she announced the establishment of twenty unions in Bermondsey, converting the borough, she said, from Charles Booth’s ‘black patch of London’ to a centre for women’s trade unionism. But it was only a partial conversion. Peek Frean granted wage rises, but refused to recognise the union.

Similarly, Southwell’s, a large-scale jam maker at Dockhead, agreed after face-to-face meetings with the strikers to increase pay for their female employees, but declined to give union recognition. This refusal was, however, not contested by the NFWW officials involved. Perhaps there was an unspoken awareness on their part of the paramount importance of material benefits, rather than union solidarity, for the strikers.” (de la Mare)

Virtually all the strikes in Bermondsey and across neighbouring parts of South London were over by 8 September 1911. The eventual outcome of the Bermondsey women’s strikes was success in obtaining wage rises from most of the employers involved. Dr Salter said that women in nineteen factories had returned to work with increased wages and better conditions, with no improvement in only three cases.

The NFWW, in its annual report for 1911, gave a detailed account of the wage rises ‘obtained by the Federation’ in Bermondsey. They presented standardised rates for all the trades involved, apart from those for jam factory workers, where they reported the figure for Pink’s, presumably because it denoted a benchmark amount for jam factory employees in general.

The following pay scale for workers in jam, biscuit and confectionery factories are listed in the NFWW report:

Pink’s jam factory: wage increase from 9/- to 11/- a week. [Other jam factories included Hartley’s, Lipton and Southwell.]

‘Biscuit-makers: 1/- rise all round for time workers’ [including Peek Frean].

‘Cocoa-makers’ [e.g. Shuttleworth’s]: improved wages for all workers.

A graded scale to be introduced, with a minimum wage for girls aged 14 of 4s 7d, rising annually to 12s 4d. at age eighteen; pieceworkers on day work to receive a rise of 3d. an hour; piece rates to be increased.

The most extraordinary feature of the industrial unrest in South London was its widespread character and the extent it permeated factories and workshops quite untouched by any previous industrial action. The unrest also spread to groups of workers as diverse as post office employees, dock policemen and even to public house barmen. All were clamouring for an improvement in their wages and conditions of labour. A report of the end of the strike in a local newspaper noted, “the barmen, realising the advantages of co-operation and combination as a means of compelling a recognition of their labour decided to form a union.”

While union leaders, churchmen and journalists were conscious of a peculiar feature of the strikes, describing the participants as being “infected with what may be called the ‘strike spirit’, and out for reasons they cannot define,” the Revd. J. Ewing, the pastor of Rye Lane Baptist Chapel, was clear in his mind that the strikers’ determination to improve their pay and conditions sprang from a realisation of a socialist solidarity among them. Dr Salter took the view that the strikers would have been crushed but for the spirit of solidarity, mutual help and sacrifice. “What was remarkable,” he said, “was that the strikes were without organisation or funds and that it was the employers who sought a settlement.”

The winning of victory after victory brought jubilation at the Fort Road Institute, the Independent Labour Party’s base locally, and HQ of so many of the strikes. Mary MacArthur, addressing a triumphant crowd, suggested that the biggest lesson of the strikes was not the small concessions gained on pay and other issues, but the larger picture of the nature of the society the workers of Bermondsey lived under : that they “were beginning to ask themselves why they should accept their conditions of living when before it seemed quite natural to them to lead unhealthy, stunted lives.”

The NFWW distributed 4,000 cards in one week, when the strike ended 8,000 women had joined the union. A general union, open to unskilled women workers, it had a low subscription rate and no strike fund. As the employers would not take the women’s union or its women members seriously, its only weapon was to strike.

However, though the TUC made much of the women’s action, and subsequent historians have placed the Bermondsey events squarely either within the context of the militancy of 1910-14 or the rise of women’s trade unionism, it could equally be pointed out that it was immediate need that led the women to strike, and they accepted the help of the National Federation of Women workers through expediency. Although local membership of unions among women workers increased dramatically in the wake of the strike, much of the organising was short-lived. It was the winning of immediate aims that was crucial, and large-scale membership of unions gradually dropped off again.

Ursula de la Mare comments on the specific female element on the struggle, which marked it out from usual methods of organising during strikes: “The boisterousness and disorganisation of the initial Bermondsey demonstrations correspond to Eleanor Gordon’s identification of specific female characteristics in workplace resistance at the time – spontaneity, lack of restraint, an element of street theatre – which, she argues, differentiated women’s militancy from more formal male trade unionism.”

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London radical history: Richard & Mary Overton’s house raided, both taken to prison, 1646

“You are so busied with the great affaires of the kingdome (as you call it) that you can find no time these sixe years to proclaime liberty to the captive, freedome to the oppressed, to right the cause of the poore, to heare the cry of the fatherlesse and widdow…”
The humble appeal and petition of Mary Overton, p. 9

Mary and Richard Overton, civil rights activists, published dozens of tracts promoting popular sovereignty; religious tolerance even for Jews and Catholics; separation of church and state; public education; freedom of speech; the abolition of imprisonment for debt; the right of commoners to petition Parliament; and a constitutional bill of rights. As a result, they spent much of their married life in trouble with the law.

Mary, eldest child of John and Maria (née Harpam) Tickell, was christened 3 September 1615, in Withern, Lincolnshire. On 23 April 1635, in Withern, she married Richard Overton, also of Lincolnshire. [Born about 1614, Richard Overton matriculated as a sizar from Queens’ College, Cambridge, at Easter 1631; he may also be identified with the Richard Overton(s) named as executor to (brother) Henry Overton, stationer of London (18 November 1646); and another (uncle) Henry Overton of London (1 Jan. 1650/1). ] The couple settled in London, where they became involved with religious nonconformists and political free-thinkers. By 1640, the Overtons had begun operating an unlicensed printshop. Richard was at first the sole author on the Overton booklist, writing without attribution. In November 1640 the Overtons published Richard’s Vox borealis, or the Northern Discoverie, a satire on the First Bishops’ War: a dialogue between “Jamie” and “Willie” figures Charles I as a trucebreaker, the Anglican prelates as war-mongering scoundrels, and the English army as a troop of buffoons who were chased from Berwick by Scottish housewives. Soon after came Questions to be Disputed in Counsell of the Lords Spirituall, which again lampooned the Anglican bishops. Both tracts bore the imprint of “Margerie Mar-Prelate” (from her press in “Thwackcoat-lane, at the Signe of the Crab-tree Cudgell”); but they were in fact printed by Richard and Mary Overton at their secret press in Bell Alley, near Finsbury Field (an establishment referenced in modern scholarship, until recently, as the “Cloppenburg” press, a misnomer). [NB: Bell Alley may well have been the same Bell Alley off Coleman Street, an area that housed numerous radical and dissident elements]. Overton’s first signed pamphlets were his Articles of High Treason Exhibited Against Cheap-Side Crosse (January 1642/3) and New [i.e., revised] Lambeth Fayre (March 1642/3); after which, he and Mary were never free, for long, from government surveillance and persecution, first from the Royalists, then from Cromwell’s government.

In 1641, the Company of Stationers, under direction of the House of Lords, seized the Overtons’ printing press, moveable type, paper, and printed books. For the next two years, Richard Overton’s pamphlets – chiefly anti-Catholic and anti-Laudian satires – were printed by others. But by 1643 the Overtons were back in business with their own underground press, having now a broader, more secular and developing agenda. They formed a loose confederation with John and Elizabeth Lilburne, and William Walwyn; and with the booksellers, Peter Cole and William Larner. Their common agenda: oppose the tyrant, King Charles, and the doctrine of prerogative rule; promote parliamentary governance; and proclaim the “natural” rights of the individual.

From the work of these few visionaries grew the Levellers movement, a coalition of soldiers and civilians whose organised efforts during the Civil War arose from their passionate commitment to individual liberty; for whose cause Richard Overton was the principal theoretician. From 1644-1649 the Levellers inundated London with political tracts; and the House of Commons, with petitions. The House of Lords, offended by this activity, waged a relentless but futile campaign to find the authors and printers of Leveller literature, to incarcerate them, and to confiscate and burn their unlicensed books. The Levellers received scant support from the House of Commons, and endured much persecution from Cromwell, whom the Levellers came to perceive as a new tyrant to replace the old one. Undaunted by repression, Richard Overton wrote, “this persecuted means of unlicensed printing hath done more good to the people than all the bloody wars; the one tending to rid us quite of all slavery; but the other, only to rid us of one, and involves us into another.”

As surveillance and repression escalated, the independent book trade thrived as never before. During the English Civil War, hundreds of unlicensed publications appeared that were critical of church and state. More than one hundred of those titles were from the pen of Richard Overton; and those, chiefly, printed at the Overtons’ clandestine printshop.

In July 1646, Overton published An Alarum to the House of Lords. MPs in the House of Lords, taking note of that alarum, smelled the rat for whom they had been searching. Their investigation ended on August 11th, with a dawn raid on the home of Richard and Mary Overton. A detachment of musketeers stormed their Southwark home, pulled Richard from bed, ransacked the house, and took many personal belongings, including books and papers. Richard was hauled before the self-serving prerogative bar of the House of Lords. Refusing to answer questions before a tribunal that he considered wholly illegal, Overton was sent to Newgate prison, on a charge of contempt.

Richard did some of his best writing and thinking while in prison. Mary soldiered on at the printing press. Despite Richard’s confinement, the Overtons contrived to publish A Defiance against All Arbitrary Usurpations (a narrative of Richard’s arrest, printed in September); and An Arrow against All Tyrants and Tyranny, Shot from the Prison of Newgate into the Prerogative Bowels of the Arbitrary House of Lords (October).

On 5 January 1646/7, the House of Lords directed the Company of Stationers, by prerogative order, to search out all copies of a seditious pamphlet called Regall Tyrannie Discovered, a book “full of treason and scandall,” published anonymously. All copies were to be burned; the author and printer, to be identified and arrested. The next day, officers of the Stationers Company raided Mary Overton’s house. When the thugs broke down the door, they found Thomas “Johnson” (as he first called himself – actually, Thomas Overton, brother of Robert) stitching printed copies of Regall Tyrannie Discovered. Mary Overton was found to be in possession of these and many other offending tracts by the same anonymous author (her incarcerated husband).

Thomas Overton, and Mary (with her nursing infant), were taken to the new prison in Maiden Lane, where they remained until brought before the Lords’ prerogative bar. From the Journal of the House of Lords for 6 January 1646/7:
“Overton’s wife examined, about the pamphlet called Regal Tyranny: This day Mary Overton, the wife of Overton, was brought to the Bar; who being demanded by the Speaker, Who brought the scandalous pamphlet called Regall Tyranny Discovered, &c., to her shop, and of whom she had them? And she said, She would not answer to Interrogatories; and she would not tell him. … Ordered: That the said Mary Overton shall stand committed to the prison of Bridewell, for her contempt to this House; there to remain during the pleasure of this House.”

The Bridewell (once, a palace of Henry VIII, then a poorhouse) was by now become one of London’s most notorious prisons for female offenders. Mary refused to comply with the warrant commanding her transfer from Maiden Lane: Her husband writes: “Like a true-bred Englishwoman brought up at the feet of Gamaliel, she told the marshal that she would not obey it, neither would she stir after it so much as to set one leg before another, in attendance thereto.”

Mary’s refusal to be escorted on foot to the Bridewell was ill received. Richard Overton reports: “No sooner had this turkey-cock marshal heard of her uprightness to the Commons of England, but up he bristled his feathers, and looked as big and as bug as a Lord … out he belched his fury and told her that if she would not go, then she should be ‘carried in a porter’s basket, or else dragged at a cart’s arse.’”

The Marshall sent for two porters to transport Mary Overton. When they came and found no criminal but only a “poor, little, harmless, innocent woman,” with a “tender babe on her breast,” they refused to take her. A city cartman was summoned. He, too, on “hearing what this woman was, wisely refused to lay hands on her, and departed in peace.”

Taking the labor upon himself, the City Marshall “struts towards her like a crow in a gutter, and with his valiant looks (like a man of mettle) assails her and her babe, and by violence attempt[ed] to pluck her babe out of her arms; but she forcibly defended it and kept it in, despite of his manhood.” The marshal and his cohort then “laid violent hands upon her, and dragged her down the stairs, and in that infamous, barbarous manner drew her headlong upon the stones in all the dirt and mire of the streets.” Suspended under the arms by two cudgels, and clinging still to her crying infant, Mary Overton was dragged the three miles across London to the Bridewell, being reviled along the way with the epithets whore and strumpet.

(Overton warns his readers, “this is the honour that their lordships are pleased to confer on the free commoners’ wives who stand for their freedoms and liberties.”)

At Bridewell, the infant was taken from Mary and delivered to Richard’s impecunious sister and her husband; who stayed that night in Richard and Mary’s house, with the three children. In the morning, deputies from the House of Lords were sent to arrest the sister and brother-in-law. By a stroke of luck, and with the aid of neighbours, the in-laws and the children escaped; but the residence was shut up, leaving the parents in prison without income, and their children homeless.

In February Richard Overton and John Lilburne collaborated on The Out-Cryes of the Oppressed Commons, arguing that arbitrary government had dissolved the social contract; the people were therefore entitled to draft a new Constitution.

Richard’s brother, meanwhile, languished in the Maiden Lane jail; and Mary remained in the Bridewell, her three days for contempt stretching to three months.

Concerned for his family, Overton on the first of February addressed his Commoners Complaint to Henry Martin, MP in the House of Commons, without results. In March was drafted The Humble Appeale and Petition of Mary Overton, a collaborative effort. This was the first of two petitions directly begging Parliament either to charge Mary Overton with a crime and bring her to trial; or to release her from custody. The “Petition of Mary Overton” was smuggled out of prison; printed by one of the secret Leveller presses; and submitted to the House of Commons in March 1647 (The second, shorter, petition was handwritten by Mary, in April, after the death of her infant).

[Nicked From Women’s Works, vol. 4. Mary Overton’s texts follow on pp. 321-332] Wicked Good Gooks.]

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s pubishing history: Levellers take over the Moderate newspaper, 1648.

The groundbreaking political ideas thrown up in the english civil war – including the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, fifth monarchism, and all the varied dissenting religious views – found expression most notably in print. Hundreds upon thousands of pamphlets were printed, tracts, often circulated very widely, and finding echoes among large sections of the population; partly because of the upheaval caused by economic and social crises…

In many ways, some of these pamphlets were collective representations as well as individual works… Some of them had mass circulation, and were being used at the forefront of the exchange of ideas; as one way of developing social policy, though debate, counterblast, agitation…

In the later years of the civil war, there was an explosion not only in pamphlet production, but also this kind of papers of ‘newsbooks’, of which large numbers appeared, some lasting one edition only, some being published for a few weeks or months, some for a year or more. Newsbooks had begun to appear from late 1641, as the county slipped into civil war, and the demand for regular news became important. In this period the state censorship partially lapsed, (as its powerful proponent, Archbishop Laud, fell from power) allowing an increase in free expression, though the war years would see several measures to tighten it again. Newsbooks were intimately bound up with the politics of the civil war and the political, religious and economic conflict that the wars were both born from and helped themselves to create and expand. Royalists, radicals, pro-and anti-parliamentary activists were involved in producing these newsbooks, some representing collective movements and voicing ideas being discussed by wide social movements; others the viewpoint of one, often eccentric writer.

While there was a powerful appetite in some quarters for the ideas expressed, there were also powerful forces mounted to repress this fermenting print culture. Censorship of radical social or religious opinions was exercised through licensing, controlled by the Stationers’ Office, and backed by Parliament. Royalist opinion also came to be banned and closed down as Parliament gradually emerged victorious from the civil wars. Underground presses operated in secret, moving to avoid detection, and being replaced when they were seized. Among the authorities and their supporters many were suggesting that access to print media should be severely restricted, to prevent the spread of dangerous ideas: ideas could only open up the potential for dangerous acts. Allowing ideas into print and allowing people to discuss them was in itself a threat to the established social order. This view had pre-dated the civil war – in fact the eruption of the war and the social movements that had come out of it was held as evidence that you couldn’t let just anyone think, speak, read or act – where would it end?

As well as being consummate pamphleteers, civil war radicals the Levellers also found voice, for a while, through the pages of their own newspaper, the Moderate, which appeared for a few months of 1648-49.

The Moderate launched in June 1648, with a format of twelve pages, much of it content being foreign news. After three issues, in July 1648, it shrank to eight pages, beginning a new series; in the sixth issue of which a regular feature was introduced, an editorial, which coincided with the paper’s becoming the mouthpiece of Leveller arguments, advocating a wider franchise and religious toleration. These arguments gained the Moderate widespread enmity; the Earl of Leicester asserted that the paper “endeavours to invite the people to overthrow all propriety, as the original cause of sin; and by that to destroy all government, magistracy, honesty, civility and humanity.” It consisted of a sheet of eight pages, small quarto size, the chief contents being the news of the day. It lasted for over a year, from July 1648 to the end of September 1649. No complete series of its numbers is extant; they are found, singly and scattered, among the collections of pamphlets of the so-called King’s or Thomason Library in the British Museum.

There is some uncertainty over who edited and wrote for the Moderate. Gilbert Mabbott, official licenser of the press from 1647 to 1649, was certainly associate with the paper’s creation. As licenser, Mabbot theoretically had the power to withhold a license to publish from any newsbooks he thought were subversive; however, he was progressively less successful. His name frequently appears on newsbooks of the period but was often used without his permission. He had attempted to suppress a newsbook called the Moderate Intelligencer in June 1648 after it expressed royalist views, and helped start the Moderate with a view to supplanting it. Mabbott was however, possibly an ally or sympathiser with the Levellers, and either gave over control of the paper of allowed the radicals a free hand in writing articles.

The Moderate was thought to have been edited later by Richard Overton, one of the most articulate theorists and pamphleteers of what was loosely identifiable as the Leveller party.

Despite widespread censorship of the press in 1648-9, including banning of Leveller publications and coinciding with the arrests of Leveller leaders and other radicals, the Moderate managed to keep is licence to publish. It remained openly critical of the government, arousing some ire in Parliament. In July 1649, Sir Henry Mildmay spoke up in the House of Commons, asking whether or not Gilbert Mabbott’s licence should be removed, specifically naming the Moderate as a dangerous publication. Although the Moderate continued to appear, the Council of State began drawing up further restrictions on licensing of publishers; meanwhile Mabbott himself resigned his position as licenser, seemingly because he was both narked at the notoriety he was attracting, as many publishers simply stamped his name in their issues without obtaining licences, but also in protest at the whole licensing system, which he denounced as a plot to enslave free people by keeping them in ignorance, as well as being a monopoly, and a measure which prevented expression by punishing licensees in advance, pre-emptively, rather than after something actionable was said.

German Marxist historian gives an account of the Moderate: “For a comparatively short time, viz., from the middle of the year 1648 to the autumn of the year 1649, information about the movement is forthcoming from a journal, which was described as the organ of the Levellers, and which within certain limits may be so regarded, as it reproduces most of the proclamations and pamphlets of the Levellers published during that time, and so far as it exhibits any tendency at all, represents that of the Levellers. Strange to say, this paper, though the organ of the most extreme political party of the period, bears the singular title of the Moderate. But this name was neither meant in an ironical sense nor was it chosen in a hypocritical spirit. It indicates the calm and impartial style in which the paper was written. Far from smacking of sans-culottism, as the elder Disraeli asserts in his Curiosities of Literature [9], we have nowhere met with a single phrase that could be remotely compared to the vulgar and obscene passages commonly found in the contemporary Royalist press, the Man in the MoonMercurius Elencticus, etc.

The Moderate was one of the first papers to publish explanatory leading articles, or at least the embryo of such. Several of its numbers open with disquisitions on political and even economical problems, and I venture to reproduce these articles so that the reader may judge whether we are justified in describing the Moderate as the pioneer of the Labour Press of our days. The issue of September 4 to 11, 1649 (No.61), commences as follows:

Wars are not only ever clothed with the most specious of all pretences, viz., Reformation of Religion, The Laws of the Land, Liberty of the Subject, etc., though the effects thereof have proved most destructive to them, and ruinous to every Nation; making the Sword (and not the people) the original of all Authorities, for many hundred years together; taking away each man’s Birth-right, and settling upon a few, a cursed propriety (the ground of all Civil Offences between party and party) and the greatest cause of most Sins against the Heavenly Deity. Thus Tyranny and Oppression running through the Veins of many of our Predecessors, and being too long maintained by the Sword, upon a Royal Foundation, at last became so customary, as to the vulgar it seemed so natural (the onely reason why the people at this time are so ignorant of their equal Birth-right, their onely Freedom). At last Divine Providence crowned the slavish people’s attempt with good success against this potent Enemy, which made them Free (as they fancied) from their former Oppressions, Burdens and Slaveries; and happy in what they could imagine, the greatest good, both for their Soul and Body. But Pride, Covetousness, and Self-Interest (taking the advantage of so unvaluable a benefit). And many being tempted to Swim in this Golden Ocean, the Burthens and Oppressions of the people, are thereby not onely continued, but increased, and no end thereof to be imagined. At this the people (who cannot now be deluded, will be eased, and not onely stiled, but really be the original of all Lawful Authority) begin to rage, and cry out for a lawful Representative, and such other wholesome Laws as will make them truly happy. These not granted, and some old Sparks being blown up with the Gales of new Dissentions, the fire breaks out, the wind rises, and if the fewel be dry and some speedy remedy be not taken for prevention, the damage thereby may be great to some, but the benefit conceived greater to all others.

This line of argument sounds very modern. The world moves but slowly, and it gives a feeling of humility to realize how old political wisdom is.

Mr. Isaac Disraeli is annoyed because the Moderate, in its issue of July 31st to August 7, 1649, when some robbers were executed for cattle-stealing, blames the institution of property for the death of these people, arguing that if no private property existed, there would have been no need for them to steal for their living. The article states: “We find some of these Fellons to be very civil men, and say, That if they could have had any reasonable subsistence by friends, or otherwise, they should never have taken such necessitous courses, for support of their Wives and Families. From whence many honest people do endevor to argue, that there is nothing but propriety that is the loss of all men’s lives in this condition, they being necessitated to offend the Law for a livelihood, and being; and not onely so, but they argue it with much confidence, that propriety is the original cause of any sin between party and party, as to civil transactions. And that since the Tyrant is taken off, and that Government altered in nomine, so ought it really to redound to the good of the people in specie; which though they cannot expect it in few yeers, by reason of the multiplicity of the Gentry in Authority, command, etc., who drive on all designes for support of the old Government, and consequently their own interest and the people’s slavery; yet they doubt not, but in time, the people will herein discern their own blindness, and folly.”

From the reports of the Moderate, as well as from other contemporary newspapers, it appears that the Leveller movement was not confined to London and its immediate neighbourhood and the Army, but also had followers in the country. Very interesting in this respect is a correspondence from Derby, in the issue for the last week of August 1649, particularly because we find mentioned in it a class of workers who are nowhere else mentioned in connection with this movement, viz., the miners, who had appealed to Parliament for redress in connection with a dispute with the Earl of Rutland, and the correspondence states that they were determined, if Parliament did not do them justice, to have recourse to “Natural Law”. Their number, including friends and sympathizers, was said to be twelve thousand, and they threatened, in default of a hearing, to form a resolute army. “The party of the Levellers in Town”, the article continues “promises them assistance in the prosecution of their just demands.” But a few days later, a letter from the “Freeholders and Mineowners, etc.”, of the Derbyshire mining district, published in a Cromwellian paper, states that the miners numbered at most four thousand, and that the Levellers did not have a dozen followers in Derby.

Moreover, the miners were accused of having repeatedly sided with the King, while the far more numerous freehold-farmers and mine-owners supported Parliament. This provoked a reply, in No.61 of the Moderate, which asserted that the above-mentioned letter was a fabrication of the Earl of Rutland and his agents; that the farmers and small owners had nothing to do with it. As to siding with the King, it had been stated in the original petition of the miners that the Earl of Rutland, then Mr. Manners, had repeatedly driven miners from their work, with the aid of Cavaliers, and when they complained, had sought to throw suspicion on them by false charges.

No.63 is the last issue of the Moderate. On September 20, 1649, Parliament enacted a press law, which re-established the system of licences, and prescribed severe penalties for the publication of abusive and libellous paragraphs. This undermined the position of the paper. On the other hand, negotiations had just been resumed between the Levellers and representatives of the Army and Parliament, with a view to reaching a compromise, so that it is by no means unlikely that the Moderate ceased to appear because the need for a special organ of the Levellers no longer existed. As a matter of fact, the Moderate reported on September 1st (and its report is confirmed by the Perfect Weekly Account, a paper which was more sympathetic with the Parliamentary party) that four representatives each, of Parliament, the Army, and “those called Levellers”, had held prearranged conferences in order to arrive at a mutual understanding, and if possible a settlement of all differences. “Time will soon show what will be the outcome of all this.” No compromise was effected, but it seems that, after Lilburne’s acquittal in October, a kind of truce followed, as during the subsequent years the Levellers adopted an expectant attitude.”

(Eduard Bernstein, Cromwell and Communism)

As Bernstein mentions, the Moderate and other publications were effectively closed down by parliamentary legislation in September 1649. There is no doubt that the regular publication of the Moderate, as with the flood of Leveller pamphlets over the previous 2-3 years, has been a powerful irritant to Parliament and the army leadership, linked as they had been to army agitation and mutiny, social movements and petitioning in London, as well as voicing protest over enclosures, religious intolerance, poverty, war privations, austerity, the continuing exclusion of the vast majority from political power… Through 1649, Leveller leaders had spent many months in prison, while mutinies against the army leadership, against being forced to continue fighting and being sent to continue the war/genocide then raging in Ireland, had shattered the on-off alliance that had sometimes operated between activists and agitators associated with the Levellers, and the emerging leadership of the New Model Army and its puritan allies in Parliament. The Moderate may have been allowed to continue while this shaky détente existed, but was eventually repressed when it became clear the interests of the ‘Grandees’ and the grassroots had diverged.

The passing of the parliamentary Act in September 1649 outlawed all newsbooks, binding over printers, booksellers, publishers and binders with large sureties to prevent them publishing such items. It also authorised the Stationers Company Master and Wardens to search shops for newsbooks as well as subversive pamphlets, giving them powers to break into premises, locks and chests, and search people. The Act was intended to last for two years. There’s little doubt that the two main targets were John Lilburne (and other Levellers), and the royalist press, which had been spreading virulent anti-government propaganda and wild rumours to inflame people against the new republican regime. The ideas was also to replace the bubbling undercurrents, irregular opinions and political ferment, with consistent propaganda to reconcile public opinion to the Commonwealth, and gradually exclude both radical ideas and pro-monarchist sentiment. After the newsbooks were repressed, two official organs appeared, covering news and parliamentary affairs, in an attempt to restrict the spread of wild rumour, but also with an aim of shaping public opinion in the direction the Commonwealth approved – towards a middle course, away from royalist revivals but also keeping a lid on agitations by the lower orders for wider freedoms and a greater say in public policy.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Follow past tense on twitter