Today in London policing history: PC Aldridge dies, after beating by crowd, Deptford, 1839.

When the Metropolitan Police were introduced into the streets of London in 1829, they were wildly unpopular with much of the working class, who saw clearly that the ‘Raw Lobsters’, ‘Blue Devils’ and ‘Peel’s Bloody Gang’ were there to protect the property of the wealthy and maintain the class system.

Officers were physically assaulted, others impaled, blinded, and on one occasion held down while a vehicle was driven over them. Two bobbies killed while on duty in the 1830s had their deaths judged to be ‘Justifiable Homicide’ by London juries, including PC Culley, killed while kettling a radical meeting. Ten years after the “new Police” first cracked heads in the capital, their unpopularity had not died down in Deptford, South London…

30 September 1839: “There had been a lot of rowdy behaviour in the Navy Arms pub in Deptford, a district in south London, that evening and the landlady had asked the police to intervene. Two of those who had been swearing and making a nuisance of themselves were brothers William and John Pine. William was twenty and his brother twenty-one. These two young men began larking around in the street after leaving the pub and PC George Stevens told them to calm down or he would have to arrest them. One thing led to another and John Pine punched the officer, who responded by drawing his truncheon and rapping the drunk man over the head before arresting him. In no time at all, a crowd gathered which was determined to rescue Pine from the police. At this point, constable William Aldridge appeared on the scene to help take charge of John Pine. Over 200 people surrounded the two police officers with, more arriving every minute as word spread around the neighbourhood that a ‘rescue’ was in progress. It was an ugly situation, but the two men were determined not to let their prisoner walk free.

As the constables continued to drag John Pine off, the crowd pelted them with rocks and stones. By this time, it was estimated by both the polie and local witnesses who later spoke to newspaper reporters that between 500 and 600 people were attacking constables Aldridge and Stevens. Two more police officers arrived to help, but the four of them were for ed to flee from the mob. PC No 204 William Aldridge went down, struck on the head by a large rock and he died at 4.30 the following morning.

Three weeks later the Pine brothers, who were well known to the police, found themselves on trial at the Old Bailey for murder. In the dock with them were two other men who had take leading roles in the riot: William Calvert and John Burke. The evidence was clear enough and the men were fortunate not to hang for their actions. As it was, they were convicted of th lesser charge of manslaughter. John Pine was sentence to transportation for life to Australia, along with Calvert, who was transported for fifteen years. The other two men received two years imprisonment each.”

(from Bombers, Rioters and Police Killers: Violent Crime and Disorder in Victorian Britain, Simon Webb)


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Today in London religious history: John Oldcastle convicted as heretic, 1413.

The Lollards were religious reformers, heretics against the Catholic Church of the 15th century, proto-protestants, in some ways. Lollardy derived from the teachings of John Wycliffe, a 14th-century cleric, openly critical of the worldy wealth of the church, who questioned many of the leading catholic doctrines. Other clerical students took up these ideas, calling for a simpler, more down to earthy approach to religion, based among the people, and for much of the high church theology and hierarchy to be abolished or revised.

These ideas were heavily crushed by the church authorities, backed by the state; their symapthisers were rooted out of the universities, where they were first mooted, forcing Lollard students to recant their beliefs or go underground.

But Lollard ideas spread into the wider population, often through wandering preachers, teaching secret conclaves of believers, and fleeing repression to spread the word in other areas.

Excommunication, arrest, imprisonment, and eventually executions, were used to try to extirpate Lollardy. Numbers persecuted were relatively small; how widespread these underground ideas became will always be unclear, but substantial communities did develop in various parts of England.

The church feared Lollardy could spread destabilising doctrines which could undermine its spiritual power and its material riches (at this point church institutions in one form or another owned between a third and a half of the land in the country). The secular authorities feared Lollards were also rebels, linking grassroots demands for reform of the church with social and economic dissatisfaction. In the wake of the 1381 Peasants Revolt, this was not an idle or unjustified worry. But repression of Lollards also bred anger and hatred, and played a part in an abortive Lollard rebellion on 1414.

If most Lollards were increasingly drawn from the poorer classes, there were, in its early years, a fair number of the gentry and merchant classes attracted to the creed. But Lollardy’s only prominent political leader was from even more rarified stock.

“John Oldcastle was born in 1378. His family, though of only moderate standing and wealth, had taken a worthy part in the local affairs of Herefordshire for at least two generations…

Like many other gentlemen of small fortune from Wales and its marches, Sir John, earned renown… in the wars of the Lancastrian kings. He was on Henry IV’s fruitless Scottish expedition of 1400 and saw considerable service thereafter against Owen Glyndwr and his Welsh. It was thus that he became the companion-in-arms and the personal intimate of the future Henry V, to whose household he became attached. In April 1406, the king rewarded his military exploits with an annuity for life of 100 marks. He had already found time to represent his native county n the parliament of January 1404, and in 1406-7 he served it as a sherriff. By his thirtieth year he had won a name for himself as a tough fighter who enjoyed the confidence of the heir to the throne. It was then that a second marriage raised him to baronial rank.

His wife, Joan de la Pole, had already buried three husbands when in the summer of 1408 she ventured upon a fourth. She seems to have had a weakness for soldiers of fortune and, in all, married five of them. She was herself an heiress twice over – of her father, Sir John de la Pole, who died in 1380, and of her maternal grandfather John, Lord Cobham, whose death in extreme old age occurred in January 1408. By marrying her, Oldcastle obtained the custody of a dozen scattered manors and of Cooling castle overlooking the Thames estuary. On the strength of this property and of his past services,, he was in the following year summoned to parliament as a baron. He celebrated his good fortune by taking part in an Anglo-French tournament at Lille. So far, no-one had breathed a suspicion of his orthodoxy.

But practices that received small attention in remote Herefordshire could not be safely indulged in for long under the very nose of a watchful Archbishop. [Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury]. Arundel was at Dartford in the spring of 1410 when he learnt that John, a chaplain living under Oldcastle’s roof, had been preaching heresy in the churches of Hoo, Halstow and Cooling, and particularly in the last, of which his host was patron. Too late to escape discovery, the rash offender had gone into hiding; only his baronial accomplice remained. Arundel’s reception of this news makes it reasonably clear that he at once guessed Oldcastle’s secret, but thought that it might still be possible to avert trouble. He cannot have known that he was dealing with a man who was unshakably committed to his heresies; for most men in Oldcastle’s position a clear warning would have been enough. So on April 3 the archbishop ordered the prior of Rochester to put the three parishes under an interdict and to cite John the chaplain for trial. Then two day later “out of reverence for” the lady Joan he relaxed the interdict and soon afterwards removed it altogether. But in future he had an eye on Cooling and its inhabitants.

How far Oldcastle was from heeding the primate’s warning is shown by two letters which he caused to be written not long afterwards. The first, dated from Cooling castle on 8 September 1410, was addressed to a Bohemian noble who was a prominent supporter of the Hus. [Bohemian religious reformer Jan Hus, who had been influenced by Lollard guru Wyclife, and founded a similar reformist movement.] Its purpose was to congratulate the Hussites on their recent successes and to exhort them to continue the struggle against the adherents of antichrist to the death. A year later Oldcastle wrote to king Wenceslas of Bohemia himself in a similar manner, mentioning that he had also been in correspondence with Hus. The chief interest of these letters is their clear assumption that the writer was a recognised leader of the English sect; it is therefore probable that he had been an active heretic for some time. Yet, apart from the chaplain John, the only other Lollard with whom his association can be traced was a priest named Richard Wyche. From the diocese of Hereford Wyche had wandered preaching as far afield as Northumberland, where in 1400 he fell into the hands of Walter Skirlaw, Bishop of Durham. It may have been a mere coincidence that Oldcastle was in that Oldcastle was in that area at the same year. After prolonged examination and many attempts to persuade him to submit, Wyche was finally driven to recant… he is next heard of writing to Hus from London on 8 September 1410. The letter had a similar purpose to that written by Oldcastle on the same day from Cooling: the noble congratulated the noble, the priest the priest; it is fairly obvious that they were accomplices.

In the autumn of 1411 Oldcastle was one of the captains sent by the prince of Wales to help the Duke of Burgundy to recover Paris. If the prince regarded him still as a trustworthy subordinate, there cannot have been any widespread knowledge of his Lollard sympathies. Unlike some of his co-religionists, he was no pacifist. The expedition was a distinguished success. When, therefore, his friend succeeded Henry IV as king on 21 March 1413, Oldcastle could with justice look forward to high military employment in the new reign, But already in the convocation which began its debates on 6 March, damning evidence against him was being brought to light. It remained to be seen whether Henry V would allow him to be persecuted.

In St Paul’s on the first day of the convocation Arundel’s registrar had just examined the credentials of those answering the primate’s summons when he was informed that there was present in the church a chaplain who was highly suspect as a heretic, accompanied by tow other unknown men. The registrar immediately sent for the chaplain and cross-examined him. His name, the man replied, was John Lay; he was attached to St. Mary’s Church Nottingham, and came from those parts; he had arrived in London two days before and that very morning had celebrated mass in Sir John Oldcastle’s presence. But when he was asked for his credentials and his bishop’s licence, Lay answered that he had failed to bring them with him. He was given a week to produce them. The episode has many odd features and suggests that Oldcastle was being watched. Unfortunately, there is no record of any sequel. One is left to assume that Lay, like John he chaplain, who may, indeed, have been the same man, made himself scarce.

Convocation, one gathers, then turned to other questions, but it can hardly have come as a surprise to anybody when the search of an illuminator’s shop in Paternoster Row led to the discovery of a number of heretical tracts belonging to Oldcastle. This was evidence that he would find it difficult to explain away and it was decided at once to inform the king. A meeting took place in the inner chamber of the royal manor of Kennington at which both Henry V and Oldcastle were present. Some of the most heretical passages inthe confiscated literature were read aloud and greatly shocked the king; never, he said, had he heard worse matter. Turning to Oldcastle, he challenged him to disagree. Oldcastle was unruffled, answering that the doctrines recited deserved condemnation, and excused his possession of the tracts on the ground that he had only dipped into them without grasping their character. If this satisfied the king, it quite failed to impress the clergy, who withdrew to prepare a more extensive indictment of the accused.

This, at any rate in the summarized form which has come down to us, was full of generalities and devoid of any factual detail. Oldcastle was alleged to have uttered and maintained heretical doctrines in man places, to have given aid and comfort to Lollard preachers and to have terrorised those opposed to them. In short, he “was and is the principal harbourer, promoter, protector and defender” of heretics, especially in the dioceses of London, Rochester and Hereford. When the lower clergy pressed for his trial and condemnation the prelates pointed out that more circumspect treatment was desirable in the case f one who was a member of the king’s domestic circle. It was therefore agreed that Henry should once more be consulted. A second visit to Kennington found him sympathetic towards the church’s case, but anxious to do all he could to avoid the public humiliation of a trusted servant. He asked the clergy to wait while he tried the effect of a personal appeal.; should he fail to move Oldcastle, then he promised to throw the full weight of the secular arm on to the side of the church. This was reluctantly agreed to.

Henry’s hopes of an obliging submission were disappointed. Oldcastle was obdurate and in August the king wrote to tell Arundel to proceed in accordance with the law. But when the primate tried to serve the accused with a formal summons the gates of Cooling castle were shut against his officer. This defiance was as short-lived as it was foolish and by 23 September Oldcastle, who had meanwhile sought another interview with the king at Windsor and been arrested for his pains, was a prisoner in the Tower of London. On that day his trial opened before Arundel, assisted by the bishops of London and Winchester in St Paul’. He was at once promised full forgiveness in return for submission. But deprived though he was of the king’s protection, Oldcastle was unwilling to admit his guilt. Instead he treated his ecclesiastical judges to a statement of his views which lacked precision on all the material points. Arundel was not convinced; he had had to do with such documents before. He admitted that as far as it went the confession of faith was satisfactory but he would like plain answers to two plain questions: Did Sir John believe in transubstantiation and did he regard confession to a priest as necessary in the sacrament of penance? Oldcastle at first refused to say another word. Then, irritated by the steady pressure to which he was submitted, he denied the right of popes, cardinals and bishops to lay down what should be believed about such matters. Even so, Arundel’s scrupulousness was inexhaustible. He gave the prisoner a week-end to think over his plight and provided him with a statement in English of the orthodox doctrine on the disputed points. He had little hope of securing a conversion or he would not have reinforced the court so powerfully for its next session.

He again began the proceedings on Monday 25 September with a conditional offer of absolution. Oldcastle first declined to be absolved by anyone other than God. Then he went on to assert that the bread remained bread after consecration and that confession, though sometimes expedient, was never essential to salvation. `next he broke into a tirade against the hierarchy: the pope was the head of antichrist, the bishops his members and the friars his tail. And finally, raising his hands he warned the crowd of spectators that those who judged and wished to condemn him were deceivers and would lead them to hell. It is recorded that the archbishop once more implored him in tears to return to the bosom of the church. Then, seeing it was vain to wrestle with him any longer, he delivered the judgement of the court. Oldcastle was excommunicated and left to the mercy of the secular arm.

…Oldcastle had had every chance, but he was a conscientious Lollard and when offered a choice between recantation or death he was to straightforward and too brave to deny his faith…”

(KB MacFarlane, The Origins of Religious Dissent in England)

However, Oldcastle’s closeness to the king meant he continued to be given a chance. Instead of the usual immediate execution, King Henry allowed him 40 days respite to think things over, locked in the Tower of London. But less than half this time had elapsed when, on October 19th, Oldcastle was helped to escape the fortress, and went into hiding in Smithfield… Where he began to plot a Lollard uprising to overthrow both king and church.

For the tale of that uprising, see our previous post

Oldcastle would escape the defeat of the uprising, but be captured in 1417, and burned as a heretic.

To a limited extent, Oldcastle was the original model for Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays king Henry IV and V… When Shakespeare adapted that play in Henry IV, Part 1, Henry’s companion was called Oldcastle, but when the play was printed in 1598, the name was changed to Falstaff. Though the fat knight still remains “my old lad of the Castle”, the stage character has nothing to do with the Lollard leader. In Henry IV, Part 2 an epilogue emphasises that the debauched buffoonish Falstaff is not Oldcastle: “Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already a’ be killed with your hard opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.”


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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London radical history: Major Cartwright, long time reform agitator, dies, St Pancras, 1824

John Cartwright, the third son of William Cartwright and Anne Cartwright, was born on 28th September 1740, at Marnham, Nottingham. His brother, Edmund Cartwright, was the inventor of the steam loom. His father, was a large landowner.

After education in a private school in Newark and Huddersfield, Cartwright was commissioned in the navy in 1758. He served under Captain Richard Howe, he took part in the capture of Cherbourg in 1759. He also served under Sir Edward Hawke at the British victory at Quiberon Bay in the following year.

According to his biographer, Rory T. Cornish: “Cartwright rose rapidly in the service. In 1762 he served in the Bay of Biscay as a lieutenant in the Wasp, commanded the Spy (1763–6), and devised certain improvements in naval gun exercises, afterwards incorporated in William Falconer’s Marine Dictionary. Promoted first-lieutenant in May 1766, Cartwright was sent to the Newfoundland station to serve in the Guernsey, and in 1767 was appointed deputy commissary to the vice-admiralty court there.”

Cartwright became seriously ill and in 1770 he returned to England to convalesce. In the years before the outbreak of the American War of Independence Cartwright attempted to improve his poor education by reading a large number of books. He took a keen interest in politics and in 1774 Cartwright published American Independence: the Glory and Interest of Great Britain. Cartwright criticised British foreign policy and argued that the American people had the right to choose their own rulers and to tax themselves and advocated “a political union based upon a commonwealth of interest”. The pamphlet upset the authorities and brought an end to his naval career. Instead, he was appointed as a major in the Nottinghamshire militia, which led to his being called Major Cartwright for the rest of his life.

After leaving the navy Cartwright wrote and published Take Your Choice (1776). The book argued the case for parliamentary reform including: manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, annual elections and equal electoral districts. This was followed by The People’s Barrier Against Undue Influence and Corruption. It has been argued that this was: “The finest of his pre-French Revolution works, revolved around six points. Continuing to advocate universal manhood suffrage, Cartwright also supported annual parliamentary elections, equal electoral districts, a secret ballot, the abolition of property qualifications for parliamentary candidates, and (to lessen political bribery) the payment of members of parliament.”

Edward Thompson, the author of The Making of the English Working Class (1963): “Major Cartwright defined as early as this the main claims he never swerved. Incapable of compromise, eccentric and courageous, the Major pursued his single-minded course, issuing letters, appeals, and pamphlets, from his seat in Boston, Lincolnshire, surviving trials, tumults, dissension and repression.”

In April 1780 Cartwright helped establish the Society for Constitutional Information. Other members included John Horne Tooke, John Thelwall, Granville Sharp, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Gales and William Smith. It was an organisation of social reformers, many of whom were drawn from the rational dissenting community, dedicated to publishing political tracts aimed at educating fellow citizens on their lost ancient liberties. It promoted the work of Tom Paine and other campaigners for parliamentary reform. Most members of the society were also opposed to the slave trade. Later that year Cartwright failed in his attempt to be elected to the House of Commons for Nottinghamshire. He also cooperated with Charles Fox and the Westminster Committee that also favoured changes to the parliamentary system.

In 1780 John Cartwright married Anne Dashwood, the daughter of a Lincolnshire gentleman. According to Rory T. Cornish, it was a happy marriage. The couple had no children but in 1786 they adopted their niece Frances Cartwright (1780–1863), who later became his first biographer.

The Gordon Riots frightened the establishment and made it more difficult for reformers such as Cartwright. men of property and weakened even demands for moderate reform. Even when the Whigs came to power under the Marquis of Rockingham, in March 1782, parliament showed no real interest in parliamentary reform. Cartwright attacked the new administration with a new pamphlet, Give us our Rights (1782).

Cartwright, also gave his support to the campaign to abolish the slave trade.

Cartwright also joined the Society of Friends of the People. Leading members of the group included Charles Grey, Richard Sheridan, John Russell, George Tierney, Thomas Erskine and Samuel Whitbread. The main objective of the the society was to obtain “a more equal representation of the people in Parliament” and “to secure to the people a more frequent exercise of their right of electing their representatives”. Charles Fox was opposed to the formation of this group as he feared it would lead to a split in the Whig Party.

On 30th April 1792, Charles Grey introduced a petition in favour of constitutional reform. He argued that the reform of the parliamentary system would remove public complaints and “restore the tranquility of the nation”. He also stressed that the Society of Friends of the People would not become involved in any activities that would “promote public disturbances”. Although Charles Fox had refused to join the Friends of the People, in the debate that followed, he supported Grey’s proposals. When the vote was taken, Grey’s motion was defeated by 256 to 91 votes.

Some Whig MPs objected to Major Cartwright being a member of the Friends of the People. They particularly disapproved of a speech Cartwright made where he praised Tom Paine and his book Rights of Man. On 4th June, Lord John Russell and four other Whig MPs resigned from the group in protest against Cartwright’s continued membership.

Cartwright made contact with the London Corresponding Society in 1793. At the end of that year Thomas Muir and the supporters of parliamentary reform in Scotland began to organise a convention in Edinburgh. The Society sent two delegates Joseph Gerrald and Maurice Margarot, but the men and other leaders of the convention were arrested and tried for sedition. Several of the men, including Gerrald and Margarot, were sentenced to fourteen years transportation.

The reformers were determined not to be beaten and Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall began to organise another convention. When the authorities heard what was happening, the three men were arrested and committed to the Tower of London and charged with high treason. The men’s trial began at the Old Bailey on 28th October, 1794. The prosecution, led by Lord Eldon, argued that the leaders of the London Corresponding Society were guilty of treason as they organised meetings where people were encouraged to disobey King and Parliament. However, the prosecution was unable to provide any evidence that Hardy and his co-defendants had attempted to do this and the jury returned a verdict of “Not Guilty”.

The government continued to persecute supporters of parliamentary reform. Habeas Corpus was suspended in 1794, enabling the government to detain prisoners without trial. The Seditious Meetings Act made the organisation of parliamentary reform gatherings extremely difficult. As a result of these meetings, the Society for Constitutional Information came to an end.

On 6th May 1793, Charles Grey once again introduced a parliamentary reform bill. Grey argued that one of the basic principles established by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was the freedom of elections to the House of Commons. Grey added that “a man ought not to be governed by laws, in the framing of which he had not a voice, either in person or by his representative, and that he ought not to be made to pay any tax to which he should not have consented in the same way.” Grey also attacked William Pitt, the Prime Minister, for the way that he exploited the present system. Grey pointed out that Pitt had created 30 new peers who nominated or indirectly influenced the return of a total of 40 MPs.

Charles Fox and Richard Sheridan supported Grey in the debate that followed. Robert Jenkinson and Lord Mornington, spoke against. So also did William Pitt who argued that any reform at this time would give encouragement to the Radicals in Britain who were supporting the French Revolution. When the vote was taken, Grey’s proposals were defeated by 282 to 41. Members of the Friends of the People now realised they had no chance of persuading the House of Commons to accept parliamentary reform and the group disbanded.

In 1805 John Cartwright left his large estate in Lincolnshire and moved to London. Cartwright made friends with other leading radicals living in the city including Francis Burdett, William Cobbett and Francis Place. In 1812 Cartwright decided to form the first Hampden Club. He then toured the country encouraging other parliamentary reformers to follow his example. Cartwright main objective was to unite middle class moderates with radical members of the working class. This worried the authorities and this led to Cartwright’s arrest in Huddersfield in 1813.

Samuel Bamford formed a Hampton Club in Middleton and Joseph Healey did the same in Oldham. Later that year John Knight and Joseph Johnson started the Manchester Hampden Club. Other clubs supporting the ideas of Major John Cartwright were also formed in Rochdale, Ashton-under-lyne and Stockport. Meetings took place once a week and as well as having debates on various political issues, radical newspapers such as the Manchester ObserverCobbett’s Political Register, the Black Dwarf and Sherwin’s Political Register were read to the members.

Paul Foot, the author of The Vote: How it was Won and How it was Undermined (2005) has argued: “The Hampden Clubs, founded by Major John Cartwright, split between those who wanted votes for those with property at a rateable value of more than £300 – effectively excluding all but a tiny minority of wealthy people – and Major Cartwright, who consistently urged universal male suffrage by secret ballot and annual parliaments. Cartwright sought tirelessly to bring the warring factions together, but every dinner or meeting he arranged ended in interminable squabbles on the central issue of how much property should have before they should get the vote.”

In 1818 John Knight became co-ordinator of Lancashire’s Hampden Clubs and was afterwards known as the “Cartwright of the North”. It was Knight’s idea to ask Cartwright to speak at the St. Peter’s Fields meeting on 16th August, 1819. Cartwright, who was seventy-nine at the time, was unable to attend and missed the Peterloo Massacre. However, as a result of speaking at a parliamentary reform meeting in Birmingham, Cartwright was arrested, convicted and fined £100.

Cartwright spent the last few years of his life writing a 446 page book called The English Constitution. The book outlined his ideas on the English constitution. This included government by the people and legal equality. Cartwright argued that this could only be achieved by universal suffrage, the secret ballot and equal electoral districts.

Major John Cartwright died on 23rd September 1824.

Major Cartwright is commemorated in statue form.

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Today in London housing history: St Pancras rent strikers fight police, Kings Cross, 1960.

St. Pancras and the Rents

In 1960 council tenants in the borough of St Pancras went on partial rent strike, in protest against a differential rent scheme introduced by the Conservative council. The numbers of tenants who were actually withholding the rent were to fluctuate during the nine or ten months that the struggle was at its height, and although two tenants were forcibly evicted and many others intimidated, the council was left at the end of the year with rent arrears totalling over £20,000.

At the time, St Pancras was a large central London borough stretching from Highgate in the north to Kings Cross and Regents Park in the south. (After April 1965 it became part of the London Borough of Camden.) Its population was mostly working class and there were over 8000 council tenants within it. Under Labour control, it had been council policy to municipalise all the land in St Pancras. This was, of course, hampered by property speculation and the rise in land prices. It was a prosperous borough and in spite of its working class population large commercial and industrial interests contributed 70% of the rates.

St Pancras council tended to change at each election from Labour to Conservative and back again. The Labour councils when elected were fairly tame ones until 1956, when John Lawrence took over the Labour leadership. Council policy swung to the left: St Pancras refused to operate civil defence arrangements, flew the Red Flag on 1st May, brought in a rent scheme where maximum levels were pegged on a low scale, and insisted on a closed shop for council employees. The rent reductions enraged the local Tories, who in 1957 and ’58 produced “typical” ratepayers who objected to these reductions at the council audit; but the District Auditor was persuaded by the council that the rent levels they had set were “reasonable”, but in 1958 added that a general review of rents was overdue. This could only really mean a general increase in rents. The auditor ruled that the yardstick of the 1957 Rents Act – rents at 21 times gross value – was to be used – this principle was to raise drastically the permissible maximum of rents for private tenants. (This led to the sort of exploitation practised by Rachman.)

Before the audit, there was a drastic change in the St Pancras council: in the summer of 1958 John Lawrence and 13 other Labour councillors were expelled from the Labour Party for “views believed to be inimical to the best interests of the Labour Party and indistinguishable from those of known Communists”. They retained their council seats, but sat as a group of Independent Labour councillors.

6 months later, the council increased rents. Although the increases were fairly small, local people saw them as a surrender to the Conservatives and the District Auditor. The Independent Labour group voted unsuccessfully against the increases. But some some of the council officials wanted to go further: the Town Clerk, Borough Treasurer and Housing Manager published a report at the same time as the rent scheme was announced, criticising councillors for not implementing rent levels nearer to those recommended by the 1957 Rent Act, and drawing attention to the growing deficit on the Housing Revenue Account, which was expected to reach £300,000 in 1960.

Labour wanted to keep the rents of large flats down in the interests of larger families. But in May 1959, council elections returned the Tories to power on St Pancras Borough Council. Almost immediately they announced several new measures, including a new rents policy which would mean higher rents for most council tenants.

The rent scheme was approved on 29th July at a council meeting which lasted from 7.00pm to 4.20am the next morning. The Labour group tried to refer back the report of the Housing Management Committee, but their opposition could only be verbal as the Conservatives were obviously going to win any vote. Meanwhile hundreds of people queued for the gallery and later went to a protest meeting organised by the St Pancras Trades Council.

The rent scheme was to consist of a system of maximum and minimum levels based on rateable value, plus a system of rebates. However, the new maximum rent level of 1s 9d in the pound rateable value meant a large increase over existing rents, and brought them above even the levels set for private tenants under the 1957 Rent Act.

The maximum rent was designed to allow the reduction of subsidies for rents, which were an expense on the Exchequer, and reduce council rates, which would benefit businesses and richer residents. Rents were therefore expected to bear the burden of rising land and building costs. Subsidies had considerably reduced rents for some tenants.

The new maximum rent levels amounted to a massive increase – and 52% of tenants had to pay the maximum rent. Most rents on pre-war estates were trebled, and those on the post-war estates doubled. The weekly rent for a four-roomed flat in Kennistoun House, Kentish Town, built in 1934, increased from 16s to £2 9s; and in a similar flat in Willingham Terrace, a post-war block in nearby Leighton Road, the rent rose from £1 3s 6d to £3 1s 3d a week. Similar increases were instituted all over St Pancras.

Most tenants were furious. The scheme went beyond the recommendations of the report published by the council officials in January and outstripped the recommendations of the 1957 Rent Act, where a level of 2⅓ times gross value was considered adequate; here the maximum level was over three times the gross value.

There were already some small tenants’ associations and other ad hoc organisations; but tenants only started to organise seriously after the rent scheme had been passed. The new organisations bypassed a lot of the existing ones whose committees were inactive. By the end of August 1959 various groups had come together to form the St Pancras Borough Council United Tenants’ Association (or UTA). At a meeting called at Kennistoun House, Leighton Road, the secretary of the new UTA, Don Cook, who had been secretary of the small Kennistoun House Tenants’ Association, spoke. Describing council remarks that rent increases would be nominal and that no-one would suffer, he said:
“This is an outrageous distortion of fact. Rents are to be doubled and in many cases trebled. More than 6,000 tenants will be paying an additional £735,000 a year in rent revenue. This means an average increase of about 24s a week for every tenant. Many tenants are forming themselves into associations. The anger and resentment apparent makes it obvious that tenants are not prepared to accept this imposition. The tenants of this borough can, as a united body, defeat the aims and intentions of this Tory council.”

In the early stages, many tenants in the meetings were calling for direct action. They wanted an all-out fight including, if necessary, a refusal to fill in rebate forms and a possible rent strike. The Labour Party tried to limit the struggle to legal means. Labour councillors and other representatives implored tenants not to go on rent strike.

A mass movement had sprung up and organised itself in the space of a month.
The tenants’ movement showed its strength with mass marches and rallies in the Autumn of 1959. There were now 31 tenants’ associations affiliated to the organisation; and support from the trade unions was evident from their participation on the marches. Committees were set up in every block and every week some 200 tenants would meet, representing all the associations in the borough. These meetings decided UTA policy, and in this sense the tenants themselves were the real leadership. Masses of people were involved on a day-to-day basis in keeping the struggle going. At one stage the UTA were putting out leaflets three times a week. They could produce a leaflet within 24 hours so the gap between the elected leadership and the rank-and-file tenants could be kept to a minimum.

At the height of the struggle, every night as many as 60 women, went out banging on the councillors’ doors. If a councillor did not get two visits a week he was lucky. It was a tactic and it paid off. The police were less likely to arrest the women and the women themselves were very keen. It wasn’t difficult for the average housewife to realise she was in trouble with the rent rises. They formed the backbone of the movement, keeping everything going in the day and giving each other mutual support.

However, the council was determined to implement the rent system, in spite of representations by the UTA to council and committee meetings, and the attempts of the Labour group to amend the scheme.

At a council meeting on 11th November, after tenants had demonstrated in the public gallery, the police were called in to clear it, although no arrests were made. Soon after, the UTA held a delegate meeting attended by 165 representatives from 35 associations, where two motions were passed with almost unanimous support. The first gave delegates a free hand to negotiate with the council if the opportunity arose. The second resolved that if negotiations failed or were rejected, and the council persisted in implementing the rents scheme, tenants would be advised to withhold the increased rent demand from 4th January 1960.

The Tenants Organise

In December 1959 the lines of battle between the council and its tenants had pretty well been drawn. The council was intransigent and the tenants were determined to resist. A petition to the council signed by 16,000 people had no effect. The council refused to negotiate while the tenants’ campaign continued.

The hated rent scheme began on Monday 4th January. In the early stages of the campaign about 80% of the affected tenants withheld the increases. Even leading tory Councillor Prior admitted that the UTA had had “some measure of success”, and a town hall spokesman stated that about a quarter of all St Pancras tenants were withholding their rent increase – that is, about half of the 4,200 affected. However, Cllr Prior warned that “… unless there are special circumstances a tenant who gets in arrears is liable to be evicted”.

The UTA answered this threat by recommending that the tenants pay no rent at all if eviction notices were issued. At the same time, they said that they were still ready to negotiate with the council.

Over January the number of tenants withholding their rent increase went down: a large number of tenants were intimidated and demoralised by threatening letters from the Housing Manager, and the public surrender of some local Labour Party leaders among the tenants, who went along to the rent office in the third week of the struggle and paid up in full view of the tenants. By the end of January only 624 tenants were withholding the full 10s increase. Meanwhile the UTA was looking to other methods of action against the council; a solidarity conference on 16th January showed that trade union support would be forthcoming, and a one-day strike in St Pancras was suggested if the council threatened to evict anyone.

A stormy council meeting, on 10th February, voted to serve notice to quit on tenants in arrears. Once again the police were called in to clear the public gallery. 223 notices to quit were prepared, 156 of these had been served and since then 88 tenants had paid the arrears. This left 68 still under the threat of eviction, but that number was decreasing by the day.

In February, the Labour Party attempted to persuade tenants to give up the rent strike so the council would negotiate with them, while the UTA canvassed support from trade unions including the local branches of the ETU, AEU and NUR. UTA leader Don Cook stressed that the tenants could not throw away what weapons they had and that the latent support for the “veto” would have to be mobilised.

A UTA delegate meeting agreed that if the council would withdraw the eviction notices, postpone the July increase, and agree to enter negotiations without prejudice, they would withdraw the rent rise veto. But this compromise proved unacceptable to the council.

During the next few months the pattern of claim and counterclaim on the success of the campaign continued. The public gallery continued to be cleared by the police at council meetings and this culminated in a demonstration in the council chamber on 27th April when tenants chained themselves to their chairs and threw eggs at the Tory councillors. The public was then excluded from the next three council meetings.

In March the Conservatives lowered the rates from 17s 4d, the level since March 1957, to 17s in the pound. This was made possible by the very rent rises which had caused so much resentment. As Mrs Sheridan an Independent Labour alderman noted, ordinary ratepayers stood to benefit by only 3d a week, while big business would gain “to the tune of thousands of pounds”.

Just before the council started court proceedings against 23 tenants, they announced that the increase in rent in July would be limited to 12s 6d and the balance of the total increase would now be demanded in January 1961. The Housing Committee claimed that this was a great concession, saying it would cost them £16,000 for that financial year and would increase the estimated deficit to £194,000. But tenants were reminded that rents could well increase again, if the deficit increased again – as it inevitably would.

The court cases started in May. Agreement was reached in the UTA that only a few tenants should face eviction so that their flats could he defended more easily. Most of the arrears were paid, until only three cases remained. They were heard at Bloomsbury County Court on 28th June and judgment was given against all three. These were Don Cook of Kennistoun House, Leighton Road; Arthur Rowe in Silverdale, Regents Park Estate, and Gladys Turner of Goldington Buildings. However, the notice for possession was extended for two months – the tenants could expect eviction to start from 28th August.

Now even the Labour Party felt compelled to echo the increasing militancy. Tenants, they said, ought to get together to show their opposition to the rents scheme. “No borough council tenant has ever been evicted in St Pancras and we must see that no-one ever is. The way to stop them [the evictions] is to jam pack the entrances to the flats so that no-one can get in.”

Nevertheless the UTA were still trying to negotiate and eventually an informal meeting was arranged on 26th July. However, the two-hour long meeting was fruitless. All that Cllr Prior would talk about was the size of the deficit on the account. He avoided any discussion of hardship effects on the tenants.

The council had been saying that only about 50 tenants were in arrears, but in the middle of August 250 notices to quit were sent out. The UTA claimed these 250 were still only a small percentage of those on rent strike. Their policy since the abortive meeting with Cllr Prior was total rent strike rather than the withholding of rent increases. At the same time tenants were making preparations for the defence of the two tenants faced with eviction. The third tenant who had been to Bloomsbury Court and ordered to vacate, Mrs Turner, had come to an arrangement with the council.

The Tenants’ Case

In their propaganda, the Conservatives insisted that council tenants were being subsidised by a contribution that went from the rates to pay the “deficit” on the Housing Revenue Account. They claimed that if the rent scheme had not been brought into operation, council tenants would have been subsidised by over £300,000 in the financial year 1959-60 and by increasing amounts every year after. What was the reason for this deficit? Were council tenants really being subsidised by the private tenants and house owners in the borough? Were the rent increases financially necessary?

Until 1955 the “deficit” in St Pancras was negligible; indeed in 1954 the council made £6,000 profit out of council rents. A balance was kept by fixing the rents of new dwellings at levels sufficient to cover the costs of building and maintenance of the estates. Up to 1956 there was a range of rents for different estates depending on their age. However, as both the costs of building and borrowing money rose, disproportionate differences in rent levels appeared. So in 1956 the Labour Council under John Lawrence decided to freeze rents at a level that they thought the average family could afford. All rents above these levels were reduced to the new maximum. Those below were left as they were. Maximum rent levels were high compared to some other London boroughs but less well-off families still had the opportunity of flats at low rents.

This meant that, although the deficit would tend to rise, the cost would be spread all over the borough through the rates. This was fair, since housing was a social service. In November 1956, however, the Conservative government abolished all housing subsidies (except for slum clearance, expensive sites and one-room flats). Thus in one year the deficit rose from £30,000 (the last year when full subsidies were paid) to over £95,000.

The increased price of land and building, and the rising cost of borrowing money also hiked up the deficit. By far the most important of the rising costs was interest. Under the post-war Labour government, councils could borrow money for housing from the Public Works Loan Board at the rate of 2½% interest. But the Conservative government elected in 1951 ordered councils to borrow money from “normal” sources – the finance houses, banks and insurance companies – at the prevailing rate of interest: up to 6 or 7% over 60 years. This caused an astronomical leap in the cost of the built dwelling. The proportion of council housing expenditure which went on interest to the moneylender rose correspondingly: over 50% of total expenditure by 1959-60.

Land prices in the borough were rising. Land in St Pancras now cost as much as £30,000 an acre. During 1955-60 the property boom was well under way. Land costs could be as much as £400,000 an acre, and large fortunes were being made by the developers

The rise in land prices in central London affected all prices for building land roundabout. It was ultimately the tenants who had to suffer for the sake of the developers’ wealth. The council’s policy of relying on the rates to “spread out” the cost of housing did not, oddly enough, involve raising the rates.

Judged by its total rateable value, St Pancras was a wealthy borough, because of the large industrial and commercial interests, mainly in the south of the borough. 70% of total rate revenue came from industrial and commercial ratepayers, and only 30% from residential ones; and the value of the former tended to rise more rapidly.

It was partly the recognition of the steady rise in rateable value, especially in the non-residential sectors, that had enabled the Labour Council under John Lawrence to stabilise rents and make the richer commercial interests take their share of the cost of providing housing. Naturally the commercial interests did not like this arrangement. It is interesting to note that the Conservative rate reduction in March 1960 only meant very small reductions for residential ratepayers, whereas savings were larger for the commercial and industrial interests.

In fact, rent and rates brought in almost enough to cover costs and the deficit – but the council had banked the money in various funds and bank balances, where it was mainly sitting unused.

Why then were the rent increases imposed? There can be no clear overriding reason. One cannot rule out the influence of the sheer antipathy of the Conservative Party and its backers to council tenants. There is the element that some large ratepayers would have objected to paying for council housing. Withdrawal of subsidies and high loan charges had made them pay a larger share towards the cost of housing. The opposition of these ratepayers and those who objected to the social spending of council money would be inevitable if rents were geared to the income of families rather than paying towards the profits of those in similar positions to the large ratepayers.

There was also national tory housing policy. Henry Brooke, then Housing Minister, had proposed that councils should fix rents “at such a level that many tenants would actually find it cheaper to move out and buy their own houses”, thus forcing them into the arms of building societies and doing speculators a good turn.

The Evictions

The extension of the eviction order, given by Bloomsbury Court expired at midnight on 28th August. By that time well-constructed barricades had gone up, both at Kennistoun House and Silverdale. Don Cook had 12 pianos in his flat barricading various doors, as well as other old furniture and doors put against windows, and barbed wire and an old bedstead on the roof to discourage bailiffs from entering that way. There were also plans for human barricades; tenants and trade unionists were to be involved in a 24-hour picket of both flats so that, in an eviction attempt, defence and warning could be simultaneous. Preparations were made at Kennistoun House for a bell to be rung and rockets fired if the bailiffs arrived on the scene. On hearing or seeing the warning, workers all over the borough were prepared to down tools and rush to the assistance of the two beleaguered tenants. An intercom system was set up between Don Cook’s flat and the campaign headquarters in another flat in Kennistoun House.

Local trade union support was evident. On Monday 29th August railwaymen of Camden No.2 branch of the NUR held a two-hour token strike; council workers also struck over the next two days; and local firemen stated that they would not be involved in any attempt at eviction. Support from the tenants at Kennistoun House was total. On 31st August when half the tenants in the block were supposed to pay their rent, only one old-age pensioner was at the rent office. Banners saying “No Evictions” and “Force the Council to Negotiate” hung from the access balconies and an effigy of Cllr Prior hung in the middle of the courtyard.

From that time the council refused to negotiate with the UTA. The Town Clerk set out four conditions for agreeing to a meeting:
“1. All picketing to be stopped, and all attempts to intimidate or coerce council tenants into withholding the rent to cease. 2. All obstructions, placards and notices to be removed from council property. 3. All demonstrations to stop. 4. Mr Arthur Rowe to pay the Court Judgment debt … since June 28th in accordance with the present rent scheme and to pay all rates due to the Council.”

Since this meant a virtual abandonment of the campaign by the tenants, these preconditions for talks were immediately ruled out as unacceptable. The Tories had now decided that they too would only negotiate if the Town Clerk’s proposals were accepted.

By Wednesday 14th September, 514 notices to quit had been sent out by the council. Determination to hold on was stronger than ever amongst the council tenants. There were regular marches and demonstrations throughout the borough, to which the NUR, ETU and AEU all sent delegations.

On the evening of 21st September – the evening before the eviction – a demonstration of about 500 tenants took place outside St Pancras Town Hall, as a housing committee was being held inside. The police had already banned demonstrations outside the Town Hall; now they cleared the area and violently manhandled demonstrators. Eleven people were arrested, including former council leader John Lawrence, and the crowd, which included young children, was charged twice by mounted police.

After the demonstration, a meeting was held in Kennistoun House with tenants’ representatives, Labour councillors and Communist Party members. The latter two organisations had been frightened by the demonstration and there was a great deal of talk about caution. However, there was now no time for new tactics to be instigated.

Around five o’clock in the morning of 22nd September, bailiffs supported by about 800 police attacked both Silverdale and Kennistoun House. At Kennistoun House the pickets put up a two-hour defence against the bailiffs and the police; oil was poured over them as they tried to get up the stairs to the entrance to Don Cook’s flat on the top floor, and one of their number was seriously injured and had to be taken to hospital; but the great mass of tenants were unable to reach the flats to defend Don Cook due to the large numbers of police and mounted police who had cordoned off the block with lines at least three deep.

One council tenant from Islip Street said: “I heard the rockets. We all ran out in our pyjamas. Everywhere there were people running towards Kennistoun House. But when we turned into Leighton Road all we could see were police. There were hundreds of them. We could do nothing. We could not get near. The police are here to help the bailiffs if they are resisted but we never had a chance to resist.”

Two other participants in the struggle reported: “The first we knew about the raid was when about five bailiffs came in through a hole in the roof. They came down the stairs and forced open the sitting room. We retreated to the kitchen and re-barricaded…. In the kitchen we made a cup of tea while the bailiffs were pushing and shoving to get in. The bailiffs used crowbars and hacksaws. Those who had come through the roof let more bailiffs in through the window. When they broke into the kitchen we offered them a cup of tea. They drank it…. They were unable to get through the window because of the barbed wire so they ripped the slates off the roof and made a hole in the plaster with their axes.”

“We ran up the stairs with the bailiffs behind us. There were seven of them, with two police officers. I was forced back against the wall. Then I was carried downstairs. I heard a lot of shouting and Don called out to me. They took us by surprise by getting in the back way.”

Over at Silverdale the police and bailiffs used similar tactics. Large cordons of police kept the tenants from defending Arthur Rowe while a group of bailiffs and police carried out the eviction. Arthur Rowe and his son held out for about an hour, but eventually bailiffs smashed a hole in a four and a half inch brick wall to get in. When they were finally evicted, they were lifted onto the shoulders of the other flat dwellers and carried up onto a grass bank where Arthur Rowe made a short impromptu speech. He thanked all his fellow tenants for their assistance and said that the fight must continue against the “greatest social injustice of this time”. He then went up to Kennistoun House to join the evicted Don Cook.

At Kennistoun House the fighting went on well into the day. 100 building workers struck at the Shell Centre site at Waterloo, and marched up Leighton Road, led by John Lawrence, but they hardly had time to get there before they were attacked by the police and fighting broke out again. During the day 200 men struck at Camden Goods Yards; overall though trade union support was more limited than had been expected.

The police cordons stayed around the two blocks of flats all day and tenants only dispersed when it was announced that a meeting would be held at Kennistoun House that same evening. During the day Don Cook issued a statement:
“The Tory council in St Pancras now stands condemned as the instigator of the most violent attack on ordinary people witnessed for many years…. Arthur Rowe and I are out of our flats, but there are many more who will follow us. The barricades of St Pancras have only just begun. We will continue the fight and justice must prevail.”

The violence of the morning was to pale in comparison with the march from the meeting at Kennistoun House down to St Pancras Town Hall in the evening. Most tenants were still raging at the events of the morning as a crowd over 14,000 strong made their way down Euston Road. They were faced by a cordon of about a thousand police around the Town Hall and a small number of demonstrators tried to force their way through the police lines. What followed was described in horrified tones by most newspapers as “violent riots against steadfast and patient police” but some degree of truth even slipped into the press. It seems as though a line of police, completely out of control, waded into the mass of the crowd:
“The police action last night was the worst – and the most frightening – I have ever seen. Quite unnecessarily, I was punched and kicked and sent hurtling against a wall by policemen who, in my opinion, had completely lost their tempers. At least 50 policemen advanced on a crowd in a solid mass. There was no simple request to ‘Move on’. Instead they just came at us with fists flying.”

Many were injured and large numbers arrested. However, “outside extremists” and the “red menace” were later blamed for the violence on that night; undoubtedly many people were extremely angry and windows in several cars and a bus were broken. But the method of eviction in the morning and the action of the police in the evening turned a large demonstration on the rent rises into a confrontation and a riot. Later comment on the situation stressed the Communist influence.

The area around the Town Hall was finally cleared by about midnight on the evening of the 22nd, but police remained guarding the Town Hall, Kennistoun House and Silverdale all night. Meanwhile Cllr Prior had announced that the Housing Committee would now meet a small deputation of tenants, provided that all demonstrations ceased.

The next day the Home Secretary issued an order under the Public Order Act 1936 banning all public processions. With the evictions carried out, a ban on all demonstrations, and negotiations opening, a new phase in the campaign started.

The Final Defeat

While the UTA was preparing for the next stage of the conflict, the fragile alliance of tenants and the Labour Party began to crack. Labour MP Robert Mellish attacked the “agitators”:
“Disputes such at that at St Pancras should be settled by negotiations. The approach of the Holborn and St Pancras South Labour Party has been right, but the situation has been exploited by outside elements who have come in wanting to start a mood of revolution. They have used any and every excuse, even the Labour Party, as a means for causing friction and trouble. We are diverted from the main issues in order to try to quell a tiny insignificant few who make the noise and get the press and publicity.”

The UTA did not see the coming negotiations as having any preconditions about the toning down of the campaign. On Wednesday 28th September, the central committee recommended that all tenants withhold the whole rent in order to cripple the council’s finances; and that the rent money be given a fighting fund to reimburse or compensate those jailed, fined or injured as a result of the struggles. As a result of this decision by the UTA and the leaflet issued setting out these proposals, the council decided yet again to break off negotiations, and refused to recognise the UTA as a representative tenants’ body. The council negotiated with various individual tenants’ associations but not with the UTA as a whole, with the purpose of gathering various proposals and amendments to consider for the “review” of the rents scheme in November.

The Labour Party establishment in St Pancras also distanced themselves from the UTA, even while they made noises about Tories being still chiefly to blame.

The awaited review and amendments to the rent scheme were finally announced at the council meeting on 9th November. The changes were marginal, involving some £15,500 in loss of rent revenue. The rent scheme was said to be fair on all tenants, and St Pancras ratepayers were alleged to be “subsidising” council tenants.

384 notices to quit were still outstanding, with court cases considered in 118 of these.

The UTA condemned the review as completely inadequate and repeated their determination to defeat the rent scheme and also to get Don Cook and Arthur Rowe rehoused. But support was slackening. The council were sending bailiffs around the estates during the day to intimidate tenants and their families, and to threaten them with the seizing of their furniture and all their goods if they did not pay up their arrears. This measure was to some degree successful.

At the UTA general meeting on 5th December, the central committee, realising that a number of tenants were paying the rent who had previously been on rent strike, announced that a new policy was being worked out. At a meeting at Silverdale on 5th February, Don Cook explained the new policy:
“Our position has altered in the light of previous experience. We cannot see other tenants thrown out onto the streets. I can assure you that we are not surrendering. If it came to any tenant being evicted we would act in every possible way to support him. In fact all we have done is to buy time. If the majority of the tenants were withholding the rent there would be no need for this change of policy. We cannot expect a minority to place themselves in danger of eviction – in fact we cannot allow it…. We must work to see there is a defeat for the Tories in the coming LCC elections and above all we have got to work for the return of a Labour council next year. We are not withdrawing from the battle. We are going to fight in a different way.”

At a rally at Silverdale on 22nd September, the anniversary of the evictions, the unity of aims between tenants and the Labour Party was reaffirmed on this new footing: the basis of unity was the approach to the forthcoming council elections. P. Richards the UTA chairman spoke:
“We want to see a new council swept into office next May and we want them to clear out this rents scheme and fix the rents at a level perhaps 10s a week above the old rents. We shall also expect Don Cook and Arthur Rowe to be rehoused.”

The message was repeated by a Labour councillor, Sid Munn: “We want your help to ensure the return of a Labour council next May. Both Labour Parties are in close touch with the UTA to try to work out a satisfactory solution to the rents problem.”

This was echoed by the Communist parliamentary candidate for St Pancras North, Jock Nicolson: “We want a Labour and progressive council at the Town Hall.”

Early in January 1962 the Labour Party announced the rent scheme they would adopt if re-elected in May. The differential rents would go, to be replaced by standard rents based on 2~3 times gross value. Any tenants in hardship could appeal to a housing subcommittee. At the time this was estimated to cost £100,000. The UTA endorsed the Labour rent policy, saying that it met many of the proposals they had put forward for consideration; several members of the UTA committee were putting up for election as Labour councillors (and some as Communist councillors). With this promising unity against the Tories, it seemed that if the elections were successful, the tenants were finally going to win their battle against the council.

In May 1962 Labour won control of the council by 51 seats to 19. The new leader of the council, Charles Ratchford, was quick to announce: “Of course there will be some big changes of policy straightaway. The differential rent scheme will be abolished. That was the issue on which the electorate voted us into power.”

However, time passed, however, and no new rent scheme was forthcoming. Eventually, Labour member Cllr P. Jonas, a member of the housing committee who had also been deeply involved in the UTA campaign, explained that if the rents were to be reduced by a “substantial amount” the councillors might be breaking the law and therefore be liable to heavy surcharges. “Reasonable rents” were demanded by law and the interpretation of what was “reasonable” was the prerogative of the District Auditor. He concluded, “I am afraid the high hopes we had cannot be fulfilled”.

In the end Labour did not withdraw the differential rent scheme, though rents were to be fixed at existing levels until the end of the financial year.

Tenants demonstrated in the public gallery and sang the “Red Flag”, but for them it was too late. Their realisation of what the Labour Party would do once back in office came only slowly in the months between July and October. They had pinned their hopes and policies onto a one party political bandwagon and it had broken down, leaving them completely stranded both tactically and strategically. Another rent strike was threatened, but with little confidence in its success.
In spite of a number of deputations to the council, and even threats of rebellion from the UTA Labour councillors, the scheme was passed in February and came into operation on 1st April 1963.

Could the Tenants Have Won?

The St Pancras Rent Strike and the tenants’ campaign against the differential rent scheme ultimately had failed. Although Don Cook and Arthur Rowe were rehoused by the new Labour council, the high maximum rents remained. Could the St Pancras tenants have won their fight? Against them were ranged immense forces. The council was actually the least of these; it was placed in the front position by virtue of its action in raising the rents, but the general situation which dictated that more income was needed from the tenants was not of its making.

Behind the council there was, first of all, the District Auditor. He was an executor of government policy. When the Labour council in the late 1950s subsidised the rents of de-requisitioned tenants, individual councillors were surcharged to the amount of “lost” revenue at the instigation of the District Auditor. When the 1962 Labour council reneged on its election promises for fear of being surcharged, it is arguable whether or not this would have been done.

The state machine was only evident on a few occasions, most explicitly on the day of the eviction. It seems as if the tenants’ movement had become too dangerous for the state to tolerate; the overwhelming numbers of police and the brutality of their tactics were meant to intimidate the tenants and to crush their opposition. The action of the Home Secretary, R.A. Butler, in banning all demonstrations in St Pancras immediately after the evictions was another part of this plan.

The most important force working against the tenants was the mechanics of the housing financial system. The increased rent went mainly to pay off the large interest charges on the loans the council received to build housing. Thus financial interest was involved against the tenants, and the actions of the state both at national and local level become clearer when seen as a defence of that interest. The rent scheme was necessitated not so much by the need to remove all rate contributions to housing, as by the fact that the total cost of housing was rising continually with the price of land and money. The aim was to keep the rates steady while making the tenants pay for the growth of expenditure.

Within the opposition to the differential rent scheme there were contradictions. The Labour Party as an official body was at best a lukewarm supporter of tenants’ direct action, in spite of many of its members’ activities as individuals in the campaign. National and local Labour figures that the “proper” way to fight the rent rises was “through the ballot box” – but then the St Pancras Labour parties failed to fulfil their promises made before the 1962 council elections.

The role of the Communist Party can in many ways be compared with that of the Labour Party. Don Cook and many of the leaders of the tenants’ movement were members of the CP, and in the early stages of the struggle. Communist Party support for the UTA was total. However, once the direct action had turned into the anti-eviction struggle, and the police had started to attack demonstrations, the Communist Party began to see direct action as “adventurism” and their members advised caution in private meetings, while still saying publicly that the struggle must continue. There was undoubtedly a desire not to see people hurt by police attacks, as had been seen in Euston Road, but there was also a large element of electoral manoeuvring. The contradictions can be seen within the activities of the CP generally. On one hand there had been successful agitation and the leading of a mass movement; on the other there was the CP’s overall strategy, the Parliamentary Road to Socialism, with its reliance on elected Left-Labour and Communist representatives to institute the new social system. This policy naturally led to close support of the electoral strategy of the Labour Party and, in this case, to a reduction in agitation and support for tenants’ direct action.

What of the tactics of the UTA itself? Its reliance on two “figureheads” to bear the brunt of the fight against evictions, whilst enabling the tenants to concentrate their strength, also allowed the state to concentrate its forces. With regard to the UTA support for the Labour Party council candidates, the mistake was letting this become the major tactic of the post-eviction struggle. Perhaps it was right for the tenants to try to force the Labour Party to adopt their programme; but this should not have allowed the Labour Party to seize the leadership from the tenants. This is unfortunately what happened in St Pancras, with the Labour Party’s consequent betrayal of the tenants’ hopes.

The lack of effective industrial action allied with the rent strike was another underlying cause of the ultimate failure of the struggle. Key sections of industry were not brought in. Admittedly St Pancras in 1959 was very different from Glasgow in 1915, where such a policy was successful. The links formed with the trade unions could have led to greater involvement by the rank and file workers in spite of the probable opposition of their union leadership.

A continuation of militant action by the tenants, admittedly in the face of more evictions, brutality and intimidation, would have been a more vigorous and positive policy. It has been argued that after the evictions many tenants became disillusioned. But the real disillusionment of the tenants occurred only after the failure of the Labour council to reduce rents in 1962. At times of great crisis, for example when the barricades went up, more tenants than ever before became involved in the struggle.

But no realistic strategy in struggles of this kind can afford to ignore the brute facts about where power lies in our society. The so-called democratic machinery of the state, right down to the local councils, is at the mercy of the dominant influences in the state who benefit by increased land and housing costs. The only force on which tenants and workers can rely is their own organised strength, while the elected representatives, sucked into the state machine, have no real power.

After the evictions, some tenants were enthusiastic about the Labour Party’s proposals and were ready to make them the only major policy of the UTA, in spite of Labour’s sabotage attempts earlier in the campaign. To some extent this was not the result of the state’s intimidation. The tenants’ association alone could not have successfully fought all the forces that the state was ready to use against it. Many tenants were confused in the period after the evictions, and the struggle might have died away.

A clear lead was needed which placed no faith in the council elections and gave an analysis of the total nature of the struggle. This would have maintained the solidarity of those tenants and workers who were prepared to carry on. It could not guarantee victory but would have provided a basis for continuing the fight, raising morale and widening the battle. The absence of this lead left the struggle to be waged on the purely electoral road which proved so disastrous.

This is an edited version of Rent Strike: St Pancras 1960, by Dave Burn


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Today in London festival history: illegal attempt to hold Southwark Fair, 1763.

Southwark Fair was for several centuries one of London’s largest and most important annual fairs. Established in the early middle ages, its charter ratified by king Edward IV in 1462, by 1550 it was held on St Margarets Hill (now part of Borough High Street, Southwark), in its later incarnation it moved to the edge of St Georges Fields, next to the Marshalsea Prison. After a riot in 1743, the Fair was held on Borough High St till 1763, when it was abolished.

The Fair had started life slightly further north around St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral) and was also known as Our Lady Fair, (for Mary, you know, the mother of God,). It was originally held on 7, 8 and 9 September to coincide with the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary but by the time it reached its heyday in the early 18th Century, it lasted for two weeks. Stalls and booths were erected along St Margaret’s Hill (now a part of Borough High Street) and in the surrounding courts and alleys as far as the church of St George the Martyr and the bowling greens of St George’s Fields.

Originally the Fair was an open-air market with economic functions, such as selling food and the annual hiring of rural labourers. The fair was a vital part of British life, presenting one of the few opportunities for trade and commerce in agricultural England.

The early fairs enabled peasants to obtain necessities, farmers to hire workers, helped the spread of new products… They also widened the gene pool, providing a meeting place for young folk…

As the Agricultural and the Industrial Revolutions progressed and the urban population grew, the fairs’ focus shifted, from trading (which was now possible on a more regular basis in the cities), to popular amusement and entertainment.

Along with the St. Bartholomew and Sturbridge Fairs, the Southwark Fair “was one of the three great fairs of importance described in a Proclamation of Charles I as ‘unto which there is extraordinary resort out of all parts of the kingdom'”.

By the eighteenth century, as with many urban fairs, Southwark Fair had evolved into a place of attractions, and entertainments. By 1720, Southwark hosted various distractions, including mime shows, farces, song and dance shows, conjuring tricks, puppets, acrobats and rope dancers; theatrical performances, both tragedies and comedies, tightrope walkers, boxing competitions, performing animals, magicians, puppet shows and waxworks. Plays were performed in the courtyards of inns. Some of the stall-holders collected money to help the prisoners in the Marshalsea.

Drink was of course rife and drunkenness widespread. Numberless stalls set up for the provision of refreshments; the many pubs of Southwark teemed.

The diarists John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys both wrote accounts of visits to Southwark Fair:

“I saw in Southwark, at St. Margaret’s Faire, monkies and asses dance and do other feates of activity on ye tight rope; they were gallantly clad à la mode, went upright, saluted the company, bowing and pulling off their hatts; they saluted one another with as good a grace as if instructed by a dancing-master. They turned heels over head with a basket having eggs in it, without breaking any; also with lighted candles ” in their hands and on their heads, without extinguishing them, and with vessells of water, without spilling a drop. I also saw an Italian wench daunce and performe all the tricks on ye tight rope to admiration; all the Court went to see her. Likewise here was a man who tooke up a piece of iron cannon of about 400 lb. weight, with the haire of his head onely.” (John Evelyn, 13 September 1660)

“To Southwark Fair, very dirty, and there saw the puppet-show of Whittington, which is pretty to see; and how that idle thing do work upon people that see it, and even myself too! And thence to Jacob Hall’s dancing on the ropes, where I saw such action as I never saw before, and mightily worth seeing; and here took acquaintance with a fellow who carried me to a tavern, whither came the music of this booth, and by-and-by Jacob Hall himself, with whom I had a mind to speak, whether he ever had any mischief by falls in his time. He told me, ‘Yes, many, but never to the breaking of a limb.’ He seems a mighty strong man. So giving them a bottle or two of wine, I away.”  (Samuel Pepys, 21 September 1668)

“The Fair attracted people from all walks of life, from the high class to the low, even royalty, and attracted the highest quality actors and other entertainment.  Some companies advertised their forthcoming performances at the Fair.  In 1731, Lee and Harper advertised their production of Jeptha’s Vow and the Fall of Phaeton which was to take place in their booth on the bowling green behind the Marshalsea.  There was to be a variety of singing and dancing in between acts and in addition a pantomime entertainment entitled the Harlot’s Progress.  Another advertisement described Jeptha’s Vow and The Fall of Phaeton, “the whole intermix’d with Comic Scenes between Punch, Harlequin, Scaramouch, Pierrot and Columbine”. This latter can clearly be seen in Hogarth’s illustration which also shows a large poster for the “most celebrated entertainment called The Siege of Troy”  advertised by Lee’s Great Theatrical Booth in 1734.  Another company, Yeates (Senior and Junior) advertised a performance of the “Ballad Opera” The Harlot’s Progress in 1722 “To which will be added Yeates (Junior) Incomparable Dexterity of Hand … and at a Large Room near Booth, 2 Large Ostriches, lately arrived from the Deserts of Arabia being Male and Female”.

Another entertainment was advertised in 1733 by Pinchbeck and Fawkes:

Divert the Publick with the following surprising Entertainments at their great Theatrical Room at the Queens Arms joining to the Marshalsea Gate … The diverting and incomparable Dexterity of Hand, perform’d by Mr Pinchbeck who causes a Tree to grow out of of a Flower-Pot on the Table, which blossoms and bears ripe Fruit in a Minute … the famous little Posture-Master of nine Years old, who shows several astonishing Postures by Activity of Body …an amazing Musical Clock made by Mr Pinchbeck, 2 beautiful moving pictures and performs on several muscial instruments … a curious Machine being the finest Piece of workmanship in the World for moving Pictures and other curiosities  … while the Booth is filling the little Posture-Master will divert the Company with several wonders on the slack rope…”

 William Hogarth depicted Southwark Fair in an engraving of 1733, (above).

As London expanded rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fairs increasing lost much of their old rural economic functions, becoming more and more festivals of debauchery, and a public order headache for the local authorities. Increasingly hated by the better off, on moral, disorder and policing expense grounds, there was pressure to restrict and abolish these festivals of wildness and eliminate the waste and common spaces where they were held.

“It is tempting to explain the decline of old sports and festivals simply in terms of the displacement of ‘rural’ by ‘urban’ values. But this is misleading. The more robust entertainments, whether in their ugly form of animal baiting and pugilism, or in more convivial festivities, were as often, or more often, to be found in the eighteenth century in London or the great towns as in the countryside. They continued into the nineteenth century with a vigour which recalls both the unruly traditions. of the London apprentices of Tudor times, and also the very large proportion of nineteenth‑century Londoners who were immigrants from the village. The greatest festival of all was Bartholomew Fair, with its menageries, pickpockets, pantomimes of Harlequin and Faustus, card sharpers, plays, exhibitions of wild men and of horsemanship. In 1825 the Trades Newspaper complained:

For weeks previous it is denounced from the pulpit and the press, and stories are raked up of apprentices led away from the paths of honesty, of ruined maids of all‑work, of broken heads and brawling…

In the previous decade the authorities had feared that the Fair would become ‘the general rendezvous for sedition and the signal for insurrection’.

On the other hand, the Industrial Revolution, which drained the countryside of some of its industries and destroyed the balance between rural and urban life, created also in our own minds an image of rural isolation and ‘idiocy’. The urban culture of eighteenth‑century England was more ‘rural’ (in its customary connotations), while the rural culture was more rich, than we often suppose. ‘It is a great error to suppose,’ Cobbett insisted, ‘that people are rendered stupid by remaining always in the same place.’ And most of the new industrial towns did not so much displace the countryside as grow over.” (EP Thompson)

The attack on fairs went hand in hand with the accelerating enclosure of land; the loss of access to the open space and marginal lands the poor had always used. For the wealthy and powerful, this was knocking off two birds with one stone: more profit, less tumult. Sometimes the disorderly use of greens and commons was a major justification for fencing them off: fairs were a common example of the kind of turbulent practices enclosure and later landscaping/creating laid-out parks could do away with. The ordering of a space could be used to order the people, since the nature of the built/leisure environment was held to have a central moral or immoral effect on those who used it.

Also, by the late eighteenth century, fairs, in fact largescale gatherings were feared by the powers that be, as possible sources of riot, haunts of the ‘Mob’… Not to mention the satirical shows which mocked the government and established mores. Put this together with the concentration of alcoholic debauchery and open-air sex… Repressing the fairs was not only an element of the narrowing of popular culture, a mass movement in European social development, which had been squeezing out carnivals, festivals and rowdy or pagan-tinted traditions for two centuries… By the 1760s, the crusade against rowdy entertainment was also a crucial plank of disciplining the unruly and reluctant lower orders – used to holidays, days off, unruly pleasures – with the aim of forging a more moral workforce, with internalised religious constraints and external forces and ties to keep them sober and more productive.

Southwark Fair was notorious for outbreaks of trouble. A woman had been trampled to death by the crowd in 1733 and a whole farrago of crime was associated with the Fair.

In the course of the 18th century, there were several attempts to restrict the Fair to its original e-day duration – these all proved ineffective. In 1710 several warrants were issued for the arrest of fair stall holders who did not respect the regulated three days. In 1718 it was decreed that fair booths that did not respect the by-law would be taken down and the owners prosecuted. The decree was flyposted on the town walls so that no-one could claim ignorance of the rules. In 1743 the better-off residents of the area, having had enough of the blatant ignoring of the rules by the took the matter to court “in order to preserve the Morals of their Children and Servants from being Corrupted (Daily Post, 23 August 1743). This legal action met with popular hostility – a riot resulted, which deeply alarmed critics of the Fair. This lead to its being moved to nearer to the Mint.

In 1750 a new petition was addressed to the Lord Mayor, which demanded the suppression of this fair “tending only to the Destruction of Youth of both Sexes, and the Encouragement of Thieves and Strollers (Penny London Post, 6 August 1750). The Daily Advertiser of the 18th September warned its readers that the Southwark Fair would, from then on, take place ONLY from the 18th to the 20th September. Any stallholders who would not take account of these new official dates would face arrest. However, the law was once again openly flouted, with as many stalls setting up for longer than three days, as usual. The local authority was forced to re-state the decree the following year, without much more success.

Eventually, the pressure grew too strong. In June 1762, the City of London council decreed that Southwark Fair be closed down. On 19th September 1763, several stall holders who tried to set up their booths in defiance were forcibly expelled by the police. Hundreds of years of fun and frolics were at an end.

If the closing down of Southwark Fair was an early battle in this war, over the next century almost all of London’s street fairs were to vanish, banned by the authorities. Resistance to this process was strong: in some cases attempts to close down fairs on some legal pretext were fought for decades.


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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London rebel history: Savoy Hotel air-raid shelter occupied by Eastenders, 1940.

In the early days of World War 2, after the German Luftwaffe’s attack on Britain’s air defences failed, the planes turned their attention to bombing of civilians.

During the early days of the Blitz the Government controlled media tried to show that life in London was carrying on as normal, and there was much coverage in the press of people going to parties, dining out and clubbing in the West End.

The reality was very different, especially for the largely working class population of the East End, which received especially heavy bombing throughout the Blitz. This was partly due to its proximity to the vital London docks, a major Luftwaffe target, but civilian areas were also deliberately attacked in an attempt to break their support for the war.

Stepney, West Ham, Poplar, as well as Deptford and Bermondsey on the south side of the river, were particularly hit. During August 1940 there was relatively light bombing, but on September 7th very heavy bombing began, and soon the East End was burning.

The government was accused of a lack of readiness when it came to building shelters to protect civilians in East London – contrasting with the more extensive preparation in wealthier areas of the capital.

Initially, the civilian population had attempted to take refugee in the government’s proscribed trench shelters but these had soon filled with water, the street level shelters had been destroyed and the famous back garden Anderson shelters, made of corrugated steel, offered only limited protection from bomb blast and splinters.

Anderson shelters were named after Sir John Anderson who stated in the House of Commons in 1938 “I do not think we are prepared to adapt our whole civilisation, so as to compel a large proportion of our people to live and maintain the productive capacity in a troglodyte existence deep underground”and on 12th June 1940 “I am devoutly thankful that we did not adopt a general policy of providing deep and strongly protected shelters”.

How Londoner’s paid for such stupidity, as Londoners were according to Ted Bramley “uprooted, blasted from their homes, scattered over the face of Britain”
The few deeper shelters which were situated mainly underneath large warehouses and privately owned and open to the public, once deserted werenow full to overflowing, poorly lit, wet, and unsanitary. People lined up from 12 in Stepney to enter the Tilbury shelter, originally planned for 1,600 now holding 10,000. Meanwhile, Godfrey Phillips shelter in the City, a shelter for 3,000 was locked every night at 5.30pm. Ted Bramley estimated another 200,000 safe shelter places were available in the City, but locked at night.

East Enders joked in the early days of the Blitz on how when caught out during a raid they had learnt to “hug the walls”.

Many other Londoners were forced to travel “trek” from East London to North London, West London or South London and even the Kent countryside (Chislehurst Caves in the side of the North Downs), or coaches taking people out into the countryside to sleep by the roadside at 2s 6d.

Eastenders invaded Liverpool Street Station on the 8th to take shelter there.

To highlight the plight of the people of the East End, the Stepney Communist Party decided to stage a stunt to highlight the drastically unequal conditions of air-raid shelters for rich and poor. The Party had previously organised an occupation by 200 people from the East End of the Mayfair Hotel shelter on the night of Thursday 12th September, but this seems not have secured much press coverage. The next target was a jewel of the West End, the ultra-posh Savoy Hotel, occupied on September 14th 1940.

Phil Piratin, then a Stepney Communist Party member (later MP), takes up the story:

“The shelters, which until the blitz were deserted, were now packed to overflowing, and now the conditions were revealed. The little trench shelters in the little Stepney parks were a foot deep in water. The benches were half-a-dozen inches above the water. It was quite impossible to use them, and certainly impossible to stay in them night after night. Now the street surface shelters were being put to the test. Many of them were destroyed.

The Communist party immediately began to organise Shelter Committees in the shelters in order to secure proper conditions and to provide for the feeding and amenities in the shelters. This idea caught on, and within a short while was being carried on throughout Stepney and indeed the whole of London. Later the authorities took over certain responsibilities such as refreshments. The Communist Party was the first to organise entertainments in the shelters. The Unity Theatre did excellent work in this connection; mobile groups went to different shelters to sing songs and to perform their lighter sketches. Later, other organisations began to organise entertainment.

The conditions in the shelters were frightful. Most notorious was the Tilbury shelter, which accommodated several thousand people in conditions which I find it impossible to describe. Many people were without shelter, and every evening there was a trek from Stepney to Central and West London to take shelter in on of the basement shelters of the large buildings there. The next morning thousands of bleary-eyed East Londoners were to be seen on the buses and trains coming back to East London from the West End.

The contrast between the shelter conditions for the rich and the poor called for exposure. This was done. When the blitz had continued for some days, we in Stepney took the initiative. One Saturday evening we gathered some seventy people, among them a large sprinkling of children, and we took them to the Savoy Hotel. We had heard from building workers of the well-constructed and luxurious shelter which had been built for their guests. We decided that what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families. We had an idea the hotel management would not see eye to eye with this proposition, so we organised the ‘invasion’ without their consent.”

Within minutes and with the help of sympathetic waiters the group had invaded and occupied the Savoy Hotel shelter:

“In fact, there was some effort to stop us, but it was only a matter of seconds before we were downstairs, and the women and children cam streaming in afterwards. While the management and their lackeys were filled with consternation, the visitors from the East End looked round in amazement. ‘Shelters,’ they said, ‘why we’d love to live in such places!’ Structurally, the lower ground floor had been strengthened with steel girders and by other means. But the appearance of the place! There were three sections. In each section there were cubicles. Each section was decorated in a different colour, pink, blue and green. All the bedding, all the linen, was of course the same uniform colour. Armchairs and deck chairs were strewn around. There were several ‘nurses’ – you could easily recognise them. One happened to be standing around and she was wearing the usual nurse’s white outfit, with a big red cross on he bosom. We were not quite sure what she was supposed to be nursing…

…We had earlier appointed our marshals to take care of all our people. They immediately made contact with the waiters, and asked for water and other such provisions. The waiters were most helpful. We were expecting trouble; we knew that the management was not going to allow us to sit there, just so easily. After a few minutes the police came. A plain-clothes officer said to me, ‘What is it all about?’ I explained. He said: ‘We will have to get you out.’ I said ‘OK – I’m curious to see what you do with the women and children.’ (The blitz was on). I said: ’Some of these men have seen mass murder, God help you if you touch the women and children.’ He wasn’t very happy. They tried intimidation, such as calling for identity cards, but we sat there.”

During the confusion an air raid alert, (all to helpfully), was sounded, and the Savoy Hotel manager realising that that could not be seen to send the “invaders”out into danger was forced to allow them to remain until the “all clear” siren was sounded.

“The management was in a dilemma. They urged the police to throw us out. We were able to impress the management that any such attempt would meet with some opposition, and that some of his guests in the dining room were likely to be disturbed. The manager left. He agreed to ignore us; that was what we wanted. Then we settled down. The first thing the marshals did was to call for refreshments. Many of our people had sandwiches with them, and therefore we asked one of the waiters to provide tea and bread butter. The waiter explained that they never served tea and bread and butter, and in any case the minimum price for anything was 2 shillings 6 pence. We said to the waiter: ‘We will pay you 2 pence a cup of tea and 2 pence a portion of bread and butter, the usual price in a Lyons restaurant. Three of four of the waiters went into a huddle, with one in particular doing the talking. He was evidently convincing the others. How they convinced the chef and management. I do not know, but within a few minutes, along came the trollies and the silver trays laden with pots of tea and bread and butter. The waiters were having the time of their lives. They were obviously neglecting their duties, standing around, chuckling and playing with the children.

The next day this news was flashed across the world. The contrast was made in bold headlines between the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney and the luxury conditions of the shelters of West London.”

The next day the press was full of stories about the audacious occupation of the Savoy Hotel shelter and the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney. The Communist Party had succeeded in its objective. At St Pancras The Party organised a picket of Carreras, the tobacco factory, demanding its shelter – capable of holding 3,000- be opened to the public at night.

In Walthamstow Councillor Bob Smith went with some homeless “bombed out” families and occupied empty houses, and similar actions took place in Chiswick (Heathfield Court) and Kensington.

“As a result, the Home Office took special steps to improve conditions in the Tilbury shelter and others. But this militant action led to further developments. A demand had been made for the Tubes to be made available as shelters. The Home Secretary, Mr Herbert Morrison, said that this was impossible. The only valid reason he could give was that children might fall on to the line and be killed. This was not a very impressive argument, when you consider the hundreds who were being killed because they had no shelter. The police were given instructions to allow no-one to use the Tubes for shelter. Loiterers were moved on by the police. The Communist Party decided that the Tubes should be open for shelters. This was done.

Two or three days after the Savoy incident preparations were made to break open the gates of the Tubes which the police were closing immediately the air-raid siren was sounded. At a number of stations these actions were taken. Various implements such as crowbars happened to be available, and while the police stood on duty guarding the gates, they were very quickly swept aside by the crowds, the crowbars brought into action, and the people went down. That night tens of thousands sprawled on the tube platforms. The next day, Mr Herbert Morrison, solemn as an owl, rose to make his world-shattering announcement: the Government had reconsidered its opinion in the matter of the Tubes being sued as shelters. From now onwards, they would be so employed. They were expected to accommodate 250,000. Arrangements would be made for refreshment and first-aid facilities. Later. Bunks were being installed. ‘The Government had reconsidered the matter.’ They had indeed! They had been forced to by the resolute action of the people of London which they had been powerless to prevent.”

(Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red).

Another account of the Savoy occupation gives a slightly different take on the numbers involved…

“There were forty of them. There were eighty. There were a hundred. They marched. They sauntered. They were angry. They were bewildered. They came with two dogs and they came with none. Theirs was a daring act that saved thousands of lives. Or it was a pretty piece of propaganda, gift-wrapped for the Führer. What happened beneath the Savoy Hotel on 14th September 1940, the eighth night of the Blitz, depended on the position of the observer: whether she or he was Red or anti-Red; East Ender or West Ender; dreaming of revolution or restoration. That Saturday night, when those forty or eighty or a hundred arrived at the doors of the hotel – with their dogs, or dogless – a small army of journalists was on the premises for a briefing by the Ministry of Information. Few, however, wrote about their uninvited fellow guests until the war was safely over. The government also maintained a public silence on the story, despite the urgent Cabinet discussion held the following Monday morning – a discussion with sinister undertones. But old comrades, years later, made that West End outing into a famous victory, a second Battle of Cable Street. It worked its way into plays and novels, into the mythology of the British Left. And though no horses charged and no batons swung, the Savoy Hotel invasion was the most serious political demonstration of the war – and dramatic evidence that conflict with Germany did not bring the class war to an end.

Max Levitas has spent most of his long life on the front line of that conflict. He was part of the famous human barricade that halted the Blackshirts’ progress through the East End in October 1936. He stood his ground at Brady Mansions during a twenty-one-week rent strike – brought to an end only by the government’s decision to freeze rents for the duration of the war. He was one of the dozen Communist councillors elected to the Borough of Stepney in 1945, during that giddy moment when the electorate could still see the avuncular side of Joe Stalin. He was there in 1991 when the Communist Party of Great Britain voted for dissolution and secured victory in the long war of attrition against itself. He was there, too, on that Blitz- struck Saturday night in 1940, shouldering the red banner of the Stepney Young Communist League as his group of demon- strators marched from the Embankment towards the silvered canopy of the Savoy. They marched for better air-raid shelters in the East End. They marched against the myth that the Luftwaffe had brought equality of suffering to Britain. And they received their marching orders from a series of urgent editorials in the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker: ‘If you live in the Savoy Hotel you are called by telephone when the sirens sound and then tucked into bed by servants in a luxury bomb-proof shelter,’ the newspaper asserted.‘But if you live in Paradise Court you may find yourself without a refuge of any kind.’ And above these words, in thick bold print:‘The people must act.’

Max Levitas nods in agreement when I read the article back to him. ‘The surface shelters protected you from shrapnel, from flak, but not much else,’ he reflects. ‘If a bomb fell on one of those it would collapse and kill everybody in it. The Communist Party argued for deep shelters. But the National Government wouldn’t listen. They wouldn’t even open the Underground. It was easy to ignore that message if you were sitting in the basement of a very nice hotel. So we decided to march on one.’ I ask him why they chose the Savoy. Max Levitas smiles a tolerant smile. ‘It was the nearest.’

I meet Max Levitas at the Idea Store, that gleaming cultural institution planted in the East End to compensate locals for the assimilation of their much-loved public library into the Whitechapel Art Gallery. He is a small, cloth-capped nonagenarian, wrapped tightly in a raincoat and muffler. Standing on the studded purple rubber floor of the foyer, he looks like a preserved fragment of the old Stepney. It is a chilling morning in February, and he can spare me an hour before he goes for his Turkish bath – a weekly ritual since the 1920s, when his father took him to the long-vanished Schewik steam rooms on Brick Lane. We catch the lift to the top-floor café, secure two cups of tea and a table with a view of the bristling City skyline, and he tells the story of his association with the area: how his parents fled the Lithuanian pogroms in 1912 and made landfall in Dublin, where Max was born three years later; how his father took the family first to Glasgow, and finally to Stepney, where work could be found among a supportive community of Jewish exiles. History radicalised those members of the Levitas clan it did not destroy: Max’s Aunt Sara and her family were burned to death in the synagogue of the Lithuanian shtetl of Akmian; Max’s father became a leading member of the distinctly Semitic, distinctly Red-tinged International Tailors and Pressers’ Union; Max’s elder brother, Maurice, fought against Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War; Max gave his youth to the Communist Party of Great Britain and was name-checked by Oswald Mosley in a speech denouncing the enemies of British Fascism.

The organisers of the Savoy invasion shared a similar ideological background: they were all revolutionaries. ‘And they’re all dead,’Max sighs. ‘Some were clothing workers. Some were bootmakers. Some were dockers.’ It is an inventory of lost trades. The first names he sifts from his memory are two stevedores, Ted Jones and Jack Murphy, veterans of pre-war campaigns for unemployment relief. The rest comprise a knot of men from the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League, which organised rent strikes against slum landlords in the East End: George Rosen, its bullish secretary, known as ‘Tubby’; Solly Klotnick, a furrier and a veteran of the Battle of Cable Street; Solomon Frankel, a clothing worker who took a bullet in Spain that robbed him of the use of his right hand. Michael Shapiro, a wiry young academic from the London School of Economics. At the head of the group stood Phil Piratin, Communist councillor for Spitalfields, chief spokesperson of the invaders, and the author of the most widely read account of their night at the Savoy. His memoir Our Flag Stays Red (1948) puts seventy in the hotel lobby, among them a number of children and pregnant women. Max’s memories are different. ‘There were forty of us,’ he affirms. ‘I’m sure of that.’ I ask if there were any dogs. He shakes his head. ‘No dogs,’ he says. ‘It was the Savoy.’ ”


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

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Today in London rebel history: Charles Moor hanged for breaking out of workhouse and robbing rich man’s house, 1707.

“Charles More , of St. Martins in the Fields , was Indicted for Feloniously Stealing Divers Books to a Considerable Value and a Silver Seal , the Goods of Sir John Buckworth Bart. on the 1st instant. The Prosecutor Depos’d that on Friday-night last his Study was shut up and Fastned, and at 6 a Clock the next morning the Window was found broken open and the Goods mention’d taken away. Others deposed that between 4 and 5 that morning, the Prisoner took Water at Mortlock for London; and was observ’d to have a Bundle with him; the Bookseller that bought the Books, Depos’d that he bought the Books of the Prisoner, and gave him 15 s. for them. The Prisoner giving no Account how he came by them, the Jury found him Guilty of Felony. But a Record being produc’d, which prov’d that the Prisoner had before receiv’d the Benefit of his Clergy, and having been an Old Offender, and broken Prison several times, he was denyed the benefit of the late Act of Parliament.”(Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 3 September, 1707)

In the eighteenth century, when you were up to be hanged, you were supposed to repent. Be penitent. Confess your sins and the depravity of your past life, feel the heavy hand of the Lord and your impending doom, and beg for forgiveness. Humble yourself. Oh and grass up your fellow crims.

Charles Moor just wouldn’t play the game.

“I Shall not here give the Reader so full an Account of this Man as I hereafter intend, when the other Malefactor, condemn’d with him, shall be out of my Hand. But so much I will now say for the present satisfaction of the Publick, That I found him all along to be a very harden’d Sinner. His Condemnation was for having broke out of Prison, wherein he was confin’d to Work for former Crimes, and for having now robb’d the House of Sir John Buckworth, Bart . all which he could not deny, but he would not discover his Accomplices, nor any thing that might tend to the clearing of his Consecience, and the satisfaction of honest Men. So obstinate he was, That when both my self and other Divines shew’d him the necestity of making a free Confession, he did more and more harden himself against all Admonitions that could be given him. True it is, that in general he acknowledg’d, that he had been a very ill Liver, having broken the Laws of Cod and Man, by doing that which he ought rot to have done, and omitting to do that which he should have done. Further, he came to acknowledge, that he had been guilty of Swearing, Drunkenness, Lewdness, and the Profanation of the Lord’s Day, That he had several times wrong’d his Neighbours, and had not thought to amend his Life by former Judgments upon him; and that if he had had Grace, he might have lived very well by his Callings, which were that of a Husbandman, and of a Sailor. He told me, that he had gone several Voyages, tho but Thirty four years of Age, and understood Sea-faring Business as well as most. He likewise told me, That if he had known when he was Tryed, that he should have dyed, he would have had one or two with him for Fancy, for then. he would have made some Discovery of Persons concern’d with him, but now he was resolv’d to make none.

Thus he express’d himself, and shew;d how little sensible he was of his approaching Death, seeming rather to be given to jesting, than to entertain those serious Thoughts, which were becoming a Man under his Circumstances. I would advise others by any means not to imitate him in this wicked and desperate Temper, which for ought we know, may now have ended in his Eternal Misery.”

“Charles Moor, condemn’d both for breaking out of the Work house where he was lately confin’d, when found guilty of Felony, and for committing a Robbery since that time, viz. the first instant, in the House of Sir John Buckworth, Bart . and taking thence several Books of great Value, and a Silver Seal. He confess’d he was guilty of this Fact, as he had been before of others of the like nature. But he would not discover the Persons that were concerned therein; saying, that he would bring no Man into trouble now; but that if he had known it should have gone so hard with him at his Tryal, perhaps he would have brought in one or two to suffer with him for Fancy-sake. These were his very Words. All that was offer’d to him, both by my self and others, prov’d of little use to the perswading him to disburthen his Sin loaded Conscience, by a free and ingenuous Confession, which he ought to make, and which could be of no prejudice to any, but of general use and service to the Publick, and possibly of particular benefit and advantage to those very Persons, whose Names and Facts he was so unwilling to make known. What I could get from him in this respect, was only this; That there were some Persons lie knew, but would not name, that had formed a Design to rob a certain House in the Country, at such and such a time, which he mention’d; telling me that it might be prevented, if I did signify the same to the Person whose House it was, But as he would by no means speak more openly to this matter, nor discover them, who were to commit that Robbery; so I perceiv’d, that he was not heartily dispos’d to serve honest Men, especially when I consider’d, not only the manner, but the time of his acquainting me with this wicked Design, which was but some few hours before it should have been executed, and the Place at a pretty distance from London; so that there was hardly time enough left for me to inform the Gentleman concern’d therein, that he might duly provide against it: Nevertheless it was taken care of; and such wicked Persons, whoever they are that contriv’d the Mischief, have found, and (by the Grace of God) will always find such their ill Attempts, fruitless and dangerous to themselves

When any one would speak to this Malefactor, Charles Moor, and represent to him the necessity of his making a full and free Confession, as well for the good of his Soul, as for the good of the World, he fell into a Passion, and would be for a while after muttering and maundering so, that no Body could guess what he said, or what he meant; but that he would have nothing offer’d to him that grated upon his deluded Fancy and vicious Inclination. However, I desisted not from my Endeavours of breaking him off from his Error and Obstinacy: But his Heart was so harden’d, and so season’d in Wickedness, that no good could be wrought upon him. He confess’d indeed, That he had been a great Sinner, That he might, if he would, have lived very well, by following the Sailor’s Profession, or the Business of a Gardiner (or Nursery-man) both which he understood, and had been long employ’d in, and particularly the former; he having gone several Voyages beyond the Seas, and been in some Actions, wherein he had receiv’d some Wounds. He said, that he was not above 34 years of Age; yet had seen and done many things. When I ask’d him how he came to steal Books, as he had done, both formerly and now; he said he never stole any but twice, and the first time was a great while ago, and a great way off; but he would not tell where or when. And as to those Books, for the stealing of which he stood under this Condemnation, he said it was not in his or his Companions mind to have taken them, if they could have presently lighted on something better: Neither did they design to rob Sir John’s House, but they mistook it; their Design being then upon another. But whose House that was, or who they were that assisted him, he would not declare. Both he and Elby, I verily believ’d, encourag’d one another in their wicked Obstinacy; which was such, as that I may say, I have hardly met with the like in almost seven years that I have been in this melancholy Office. God grant I may never see such harden’d Sinners again; and that Men, whose unhappiness it is to have been engag’d in Sin, may not in imitation of this poor miserable Wretch, cast themselves away.

When he was come to Tyburn (whither they carried him in a Cart, and where I attended him) I found him still obstinate, as before, in his absolute and peremptory Denial of making any Discovery; saying, What good would it do me to hang three or four Men, and ruine their Families as mine? Here I (as I had at other times) shew’d him, that by such a Discovery (which in Law could not affect or hurt any of his Companions) he would do a great deal of good, not only to others, but chiefly to his own Soul, which was now in great danger of being sentenc’d to Hell for this his unaccountable Obstinacy. But notwithstanding all this, he persisted to the last in his wilful and tenacious humour, and would not be by any means perswaded out of it; but express’d some vain hopes of his obtaining Mercy. Whereupon I openly declared to him (for the discharge of my Duty) in the presence of the Spectators there, That if he did not clear his Conscience by making such a Confession as I had often, and now again press’d him to make; i. e. To discover his wicked Accomplices, and all things of which he could usefully inform the World; I did verily believe his Soul should be eternally lost. And therefore earnestly pray’d him to take care of this, and consider it well, and make an open Declaration of what he knew in those Matters that had been discours’d of. But instead of giving me satisfaction herein, he fell upon reflecting on the Severity of his Sentence, tho he could not deny but that it was very just, and that he had deserved the Condemnation he was under. Which was so palpable and so evident a Truth, that he was forc’d to acknowledge it; saying, That he was sensible God (in his Justice) had appointed this Death for him, for his great Sins He declared, that he dy’d in Charity with all the World; and seem’d outwardly to join with me in Prayers and singing of Psalms; and thanked me for my Pains about him. After I had recommended him to the Direction of the Divine Spirit, and pray’d that God would be pleased to soften his hard Heart, I went from him, to whom some further time was allow’d for private Devotions. When he was ready to be turn’d off, he cry’d to God for Mercy, in these and the like Ejaculations. Lord have Mercy upon me! Lord Jesus receive my Soul! &c.

But how fruitless (alas!) are all such Prayers, which the meer Terrors of Death and Hell extort from such undone Wretches, is but too apparent. God grant, others may be wiser, and consider better (and in due time) their Latter End here, so as to make sure Provision for a happy Eternity hereafter.”
(Account of the Ordinary of Newgate Prison, 1707.)

A glass to you Charlie. Give ’em nothing. Fuck ’em all.


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

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Today in vegan history: Roger Crab, pioneering civil war veggie & prophet dies, Stepney, 1680.

“Among the many crazy sectaries produced from the yeasty froth of the fermenting caldron of the great civil war, there was not one more oddly crazy than Roger Crab… His wandering mind, probably not improved by the skull-cleaving operation, then imbibed the idea, that it was sinful to eat any kind of animal food, or to drink anything stronger than water.”
(The Book of Days,
ed. Robert Chambers)

Roger Crab (1621 – September 11, 1680) was an English soldier, haberdasher, herbal doctor and writer, best known for his ascetic lifestyle which included Christian vegetarianism. Crab fought in the Parliamentary Army in the English Civil War before becoming a haberdasher. But later became a hermit and worked as a herbal doctor. He then joined the Philadelphian Sect and began promoting asceticism through his writings.

Crab was born in Buckinghamshire in 1621. At the time of his birth his mother had an annual income of £20. As a young man, he began trying to find a way to live a perfect life. In 1641 he ceased eating meat, dairy and eggs. He also chose to be celibate.

At the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, Crab joined the Parliamentary Army under Oliver Cromwell. During a battle in 1645 he received a serious head wound from a sword. He was convinced that his life had been spared only by an act of God and he subsequently underwent a religious conversion, turning to vegetarianism as a form of spiritual purification.

At some point, he was apparently sentenced to death by Cromwell, but was later sentenced to two years in prison by Parliament. Christopher Hill has suggested that Crab may have been involved with the Levellers in the late 1640s and that his imprisonment resulted from this.

After leaving the army Crab moved to Chesham, where he started work as a haberdasher, which he continued between 1649 and 1652. In 1652 he moved to Ickenham, west of London, where he lived as a hermit:

“Determined to follow, literally, the injunctions given to the young man in the gospel, he sold off his stock in trade, distributing the proceeds among the poor, and took up his residence in a hut, situated on a rood of ground near Ickenham, where for some time he lived on the small sum of three-farthings a week”

Around this time he published his autobiography: “The English hermite, or, Wonder of this age”: subtitled “Being a relation of the life of Roger Crab, living neer Uxbridge, taken from his own mouth, shewing his strange reserved and unparallel’d kind of life, who counteth it a sin against his body and soule to eate any sort of flesh, fish, or living creature, or to drinke any wine, ale, or beere. He can live with three farthings a week. His constant food is roots and hearbs, as cabbage, turneps, carrets, dock-leaves, and grasse; also bread and bran, without butter or cheese: his cloathing is sack-cloath. He left the Army, and kept a shop at Chesham, and hath now left off that, and sold a considerable estate to give to the poore, shewing his reasons from the Scripture, Mark. 10. 21. Jer. 35.” (London: Printed, and are to be sold in Popes-head Alley, and at the Exchange 1655)

Holding that profit was sinful, Crab gave away most of his possessions, and attempted to live modestly, wearing homemade sackcloth clothes. Building up a practice as a herbal doctor, he advised his patients to avoid meat and alcohol. He was said to be a popular doctor among the village women. However, he was accused of witchcraft by a clergyman, possibly because he issued prophecies. He moved to Bethnal Green in 1657, and joined the Philadelphians, a local sect founded by John Pordage.

In common with many of the religious radicals of the era, Crab was an anti-sabbatarian, refusing to observe Sunday as a non-working day. Apparently he was at some point put in the stocks for it. He was also a pacifist (presumably after his stint in the army), and had radical views on the evils of property, the Church and universities.

Crab ate a vegan diet from 1641 until his death in 1680, holding that it was sinful to eat any kind of animal for food. Though unusual in the context of the political and religious upsurge of the mid-17th century, this form of personal stand did crop up among the many radical sects and individuals of the English Revolution. Forgoing the roast mutton, rabbit and other ‘dainty’ dishes of his former life, he lived on an ascetic menu of vegetables. Crab initially included potatoes and carrots in his diet, but later gave them up, eating mostly bran and turnips, before reducing his intake to only rumex (a kind of sorrel leaf) and grass, claiming to spend just 3/4 d. (three farthings a week) a week on food. Late in his life he pushed the boat out and added parsnips to his diet. Sellout. He also refused to drink anything stronger than water. Crab’s asceticism and vegan diet developed from a vow of poverty inspired by the figure of John the Baptist (whom Crab regarded as the first Leveller).

After his death he was buried at St Dunstan’s Church, Stepney, London. His grave is no longer seen, but the slab was imbedded in the walkway. Wikipedia has a transcription of his epitaph:

“Tread gently, reader, near the dust
Committed to this tomb-stone’s trust:
For while ’twas flesh, it held a guest
With universal love possest:
A soul that stemmed opinion’s tide,
Did over sects in triumph ride;
Yet separate from the giddy crowd,
And paths tradition had allowed.
Through good and ill reports he past,
Oft censured, yet approved at last.
Wouldst thou his religion know?
In brief ’twas this: to all to do
Just as he would be done unto.
So in kind Nature’s law he stood,
A temple, undefiled with blood,
A friend to everything that ‘s good.
The rest angels alone can fitly tell;
Haste then to them and him; and so farewell!”

Much of what of known of the life of Roger Crab is derived from the four pamphlets he printed in his lifetime, most notably The English Hermite (1655) and Dragons-Downfall (1657).

Read Crab’s The English Hermite

Some interesting observations on English Civil War era vegetarianism:


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

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Today in shopping history: naked demo in Selfridges demands release of naked protestor Steve Gough, 2003.

An account of a naked protest in Selfridges store, Central London, 2003.

“Steve Gough has been walking naked from land’s end to john o groats to highlight the issue that clothing should be optional in life. he has been arrested several times, with most charges subsequently dropped, he has been beaten up, and he is currently naked in inverness prison segregation awaiting a new trial, without exercise or access to a phone.

of the neglible mainstream reports of saturday’s selfridges naked protest, most confuse the fact that previous charges acquired by Steve Gough on his journey have been dropped, without mentioning that he is currently remanded unclothed in prison segregation. Thus giving the impression he is free as a bird with no worries, rather than incarcerated in isolation without access to even a phone. 

But worse is the obligatory, almost obsessive, need in the media to make the headline into a pun….. “naked protest over in a flash” being the most common. Flashing is an aggresive and sexual form of public nudity. A criminal act that predominantly targets and victimises women and children. It is exceptionally unhelpful and lazy, almost spiteful, of any journalist to add this association. Especially when there is zero balancing argument included in the reportage to underline our actual intent. 

my personal motives are as follows: There is nothing inherently bad or criminal in the appearance of the unclothed human body. I’m not some bloody hippy who wants to tell the world how ‘beautiful’ we all are, or how ‘natural’ and free it is to be naked. Naked protest is an extremely simple and direct political and philosophical action, that highlights the absurdity and extent of our corrupted social programming and the uniformed state that enforces it. 

Public nudity is a simple human statement that simultaneously invokes numerous important complexities. As Foucault pointed out: a culture’s power structures depend largely on how we look and are looked at. 

the initial premise for saturday’s selfridges naked protest in support of steve, was that an unknown number of people who had been notified of the event, would independently arrive and disperse themselves throughout selfidges department store, and at 2.30 we would remove our clothing and make our way to the exit. from there we would walk naked as an assembled group along oxford street and as far as we could without unnescessary police interference. 

the inside of selfridges was chosen as our starting point primarily because it had been the location earlier in the year for one of spencer tunick’s mass naked photo art events, in which around 500 people participated. and after selfridges became aware during the course of this week that todays naked protest was to begin there, it seemed as though they were generally cool about it. the police reaction however was another tired old matter. 

a group of 6 of us, who we knew would definitely participate, met earlier in the day. but it was hoped that by putting out the word to people, especially people who had previously been among the hundreds of naked participants in tunick’s highly publicised past art events, that the eventual numbers would be much higher. but it wasn’t really. 

i first got involved with naked protests and issues relating to the unclothed human appearance in public, on july 15 2000. it was a naked protest outside new scotland yard police hq. to date i have been arrested naked a total of 7 times without a single prosecution. this includes spending a month continuously unclothed remanded in prison segregation, until the charges (section 5 public order act) were dropped, jan 2001. (ref: guardian prison letter) 

last week, when i was first notified of the protest i was genuinely caught off guard having to contemplate going through the whole media and police circus-act yet again. it is obvious that having to endlessly repeat the justification and defence for public nudity, to the media (who mostly don’t really give a fuck about the issues, they just want a novelty story and a tiresome “the laws an ass” bum-shot photo caption) aswell as to the crown prosecution, it becomes an incredibly mind numbing mantra, and you need a break from it. 

vincent bethell, (who was tried naked in court for his january 2001 crown trial, and who was unanimously acquitted by the jury of men and women of the charge of ‘public nuisance’), was present today. but he was determined not to take his clothes off. he was present to give support and information, but he is still experiencing the stressful consequences of having been remanded continously unclothed for 5 months in prison segregation UNTIL he was acquitted by the jury. plus he is exhausted from years of organising protests that mostly end up as yet another futile “the laws an ass” bum-shot photo caption in the press, if it even appears at all. 

there was a general consensus among the handful of protestors saturday to comply if and when the police demand we get dressed. they don’t arrest you if you put your clothes on again. i’ve never complied before, and i found it difficult to imagine complying. the choice to wear clothes or not should be mine alone. so in the lead up to saturday i had decided it would be best if i therefore just remained clothed the whole time, if getting dressed on demand was going to be an issue for me. but as there were only 5 other definite participants, i felt it necessary to get undressed and go along with the consensus. 

at the allotted time i stripped somewhere on the first floor of the store. two store security people immediately approached me and asked me to get dressed. their request certainly wasn’t part of the deal, so i remained naked as they escorted me down the escalator to the main exit where a throng of police awaited. then the police demanded i get dressed or else i’d be arrested. (with of course officers trotting out that ridiculous old knee jerk reason that “there are children present among the public.” as if the sight of naked people could in any possible way matter.) 

now i have to tell you, i feel kind of soiled and empty after going along with the police demands on this occasion. this is no criticism of other people’s compliance, we’ve all got different limits, responsibilities in the rest of our lives, priorities and of course different fears, but i’ve never got dressed on demand before and i will never ever fucking do it again. 

so the whole event was brief. some photos were taken. some printed facts and thoughts were distributed. some questions were answered and written down in shorthand. blah blah blah, and mainstream reportage is bollocks as usual. 

back in the summer/autumn 2001, in the lead up to vincent’s and my last protest/arrest/trial, we had both decided and had begun publicly stating that if we were prosecuted (following our past acquittals in both crown and magistrate trials) we were prepared to commit to hunger striking to the death if necessary. but as it was we were subsequently acquitted AGAIN in our last bow street magistrate’s trial, october 2001. 

still hunger strike was and remains an obvious next level of commitment, among others, when media events and court acquittals are not enough to prevent unclothed people from being intimidated and arrested by the police and, as in the current situation with steve gough, remanded in prison segregation cells, then a more intense form of body protest is probably required in order to underline the seriousness of the issues and intent. 

Personally I have no great need to be naked in public, but at the same time MY ONLY NEED TO BE CLOTHED IS A POINTLESSLY IMPOSED ONE. I am neither a naturist, a nudist, a streaker, an exhibitionist, nor an attention seeker. Labels belong to clothing. Concealment of the human appearance is entirely unnecessary and should only ever be optional as an individual choice. 

In reply to the often heard return that “people should also have a choice not to look at the unclothed body”, that is something similar to the bigotry that doesn’t want to see 2 men kissing. GET OVER IT. Visual prejudice and embarrassment is not an equally valid freedom. Similarly I often hear people stating that there are certain body shapes and sizes that they wouldn’t want to see. shame on you!. As for that other well worn cliche, “the need to protect children in public space”, THERE IS NO EVIDENCE AVAILABLE ANYWHERE TO SUGGEST THAT NON-SEXUAL NUDITY CAN IN ANYWAY HARM CHILDREN. For those of you who can only giggle and express dog-eared innuendos at the thought of visible genitalia. GROW UP. While to those who believe this whole thing to be a trivial matter, I can only reply that FREEDOM IS A PRECIOUS THING IN ALL ITS FORMS AND MUST BE VIGOROUSLY AND CONSTANTLY DEFENDED. In these present times we should especially appreciate that fact. 

I can not comment on the level of support that steve gough receives from his family, but when i was continuously unclothed in prison segregation awaiting trial, my mum wrote to tell me how proud she was of me for standing up for my beliefs. i was raised to believe that in life it is vital to always QUESTION EVERYTHING. 

meanwhile what is definitely certain right now is that some kind of new strategy is required. exactly what form it will take…….. we shall wait and think and see. but the use of naked protest within other protest campaigns, as a powerful expression of simple humanity is one option. 

Finally I’d include a mention of the issues related to contemporary clothing. Aside from the obvious insidious voluntary act of paying to turn ourselves into walking adverts, like so many corporately branded cattle, theres the issue of the exploitative labour involved in producing fashionable garments. 

Women make up 90 percent of sweatshop labourers. In some cases, women are allowed only two drinks of water 
and one bathroom break per shift. Sexual harassment, corporal punishment, and verbal abuse are all means used by supervisors to instill fear and keep employees in line. 

Isolation means that sweatshop workers are often unaware of their rights, and have little or no contact with unions. they are denied fundamental rights such as Respect. Safe working conditions. Affordable health insurance. Fair treatment. Paychecks that meet basic needs. The simple fact is that for big corporations, profit comes first. Sometimes clothing, shoes or other products can be produced most cheaply in a sweatshop in a Third World country, where there are lower (or no) health and safety standards, low minimum wages and restrictions on the workers’ rights to free speech and association. 

Corporations choose carefully which Third World country they will “invest” in next. Repressive governments can be more profitable than democratic ones, because repressive governments and their militaries keep unions and radical workers in line. 

all of which adds to the fact that there is something fundamentally disturbing and all too passive in the notion that we must conceal the human body at all costs.”

russell higgs

Nicked from Indymedia London. (Mistookenly in the hard copy of the 2017 calendar as 8th Sept)


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

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Today in London’s anti-semitic history: attacks on Jews follow king Richard I’s coronation, 1189.

Anti-semitism and widespread persecution of Jewish communities is almost as old as Christianity. While the twentieth century witnessed its most horrifying peak, the root of events like the Holocaust go back centuries. Medieval Christian teaching on the Jews, labelling them killers of Christ, fed into xenophobia, scapegoating and distrust of outsiders or communities with differing religious or cultural beliefs. State and church persecution was regular, if inconsistent; officially sponsored massacres, riots and murders were common. At other times attacks on Jews might arise among the lower orders, whipped up by long-entrenched racism and the urge to blame an easy outside target for the shiteness of your own life.

Even when authorities were not behind such attacks, often elements of the ruling elites were involved or turned a blind eye.

Jews were bound by restrictive laws on what trades they were allowed to practice; in many places they were not allowed to own land, so could not become farmers. Jews were also not allowed to join the Christian trade guilds, severely limiting what work they could learn or make a living at. Local rulers and church officials closed many professions to the Jews, pushing them into marginal occupations considered socially inferior, such as tax and rent collecting and moneylending, tolerated then as a “necessary evil”. Catholic doctrine of the time held that lending money for interest was a sin, and forbidden to Christians. Jews were not subject to this restriction, and while the Torah and later sections of the Hebrew Bible frowned on usury, some leeway was given for lending to gentiles. Since few other occupations were open to them, Jews were motivated to take up money lending. This was said to show Jews were usurers, and subsequently led to many negative stereotypes and propaganda. Natural tensions between creditors (typically Jews) and debtors (typically Christians) were added to social, political, religious, and economic strains. Peasants who were forced to pay their taxes to Jews could personify them as the people taking their earnings while remaining loyal to the lords on whose behalf the Jews in reality worked. It suited the king and lords to have a buffer, a hated layer that could be blamed to deflect tensions, especially in times of hardship, shielding the aristos from getting turned over by the working people they forced to slave for them.

Of course only a part of Jewish communities became moneylenders, but the stereotype was useful.

It was in the late eleventh century that a recognisable Jewish community began to form in London. King William I (the Bastard/Conqueror, take your pick) encouraged Jews to migrate to London as part of a policy of stimulating commercial and financial development – a policy that proved to be instrumental to the restoration of London’s economic infrastructure following the devastating Norman Conquest of 1066.

The nascent Jewish community mainly migrated from northern France, though a minority came from Germany, Italy, and Spain, and one or two even from Russia and the Muslim countries. Migrating Jews brought with them money that they lent to the King at interest. For their services, the Jews of London were given rights proclaimed in the Statutum de judaismo, the ‘Jewish Charter’ issued under king Henry I. The Charter guaranteed the Jewish population of London “liberty of movement through out the country, relief from ordinary tolls, protection from misuse, free recourse to royal justice and responsibility to no other, permission to retain land pledged as security, and special provision to ensure fair trial.”

Succeeding rulers confirmed the rights established under the charter, and England in the main, during the eleventh century, was a relatively safe haven for Jews than many places in the continent where persecution was rife, especially after the beginnings of the crusades. King William Rufus (1087-1100) is even said to have encouraged them to enter into disputations with Christian clerics.

By the mid-12th century, communities were to be found in most of the greater cities of the country; besides London, they were present in Lincoln, Winchester, York, Oxford, Norwich, and Bristol. Smaller communities also existed in Exeter, Wilton, Canterbury, Devizes, Marlborough, Calne, Wallingford, Berkhamsted, Gloucester, Colchester, Sudbury, Ipswich, Cambridge, Bedford, Northampton, Warwick, Worcester, Hereford, Weobley, Coventry, Huntington, Leicester, Stamford, and King’s Lynn.

However, the London community was always the most important. Until 1177 the only cemetery allowed was in London. No communities were found west of Exeter or north of York.

However, English distrust of the Jewish population was growing. In the late twelfth century riots and massacres began, and the climate of fear and hate worsened, as a result of financial disagreements and scapegoating, and a series of criminal allegations, generally false and founded on jealousy and an irrational fear of the foreign and unknown.

In 1130 the Jews of London were fined the then enormous sum of £2,000 on the charge that one of their number had killed a sick man. Credulous Christian morons believed that Jews kidnapped and murdered the children of Christians in order to use their blood as part of their religious rituals during Jewish holidays – so-called ‘blood libel’.

The first recorded blood libel took place at Norwich in 1144 and was imitated at Gloucester in 1168, before the precedent came to be followed outside England. Similar accusations were made before the end of the century at Bury St. Edmunds (1181), Bristol (before 1183), and Winchester (1192).

But the wealthier Jewish bankers were a vital resource for the kings, lending them large sums to fund their pointless wars. Successive kings also imposed punitive taxes and penalties on Jews to fleece them of cash.
In 1168 a tallage (an arbitrary tax, theoretically levied only in emergency) of 5,000 marks (a mark was two-thirds of a £) was imposed by Henry II. In 1188 a tax of one-fourth of the value of their movable property was levied upon London Jewry. The amount raised, according to the rough contemporary estimate, was £60,000, as against only £70,000 raised from the general population. The annual revenue obtained by the state from the Jews is conjectured to have averaged at this time £3,000.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, London’s Jews were concentrated in what would later be called a ghetto, known as Jewry. The original London Jewry was centred on modern Old Jewry Street, then simply Jewry Street, which ran and still runs north from Cheapside, across Lothbury and to Coleman Street. The first Jewish Great Synagogue, the centre of the community’s religious life, was located in modern Ironmonger Lane, the next street across from Jewry Street. (It has been speculated that Coleman Street’s long later history of religious non-conformism had some relation to its being part of Jewry – was it already known for toleration, or did the later association derive from the previous Jewish population?)

Jewry Street, off Aldgate, was the second tolerated area for Jews to live, possibly in the 13th century when pre-expulsion persecution was at its height (under the bigoted Henry III and the rebellious barons who identified jews with king’s financial abuses.)

Old Jewry, like all of the ghettoes in the history of mankind, formed as a result of social, legal, and economic pressures. The very isolation of the Ghetto made it a safe haven, but also marked out and separated the Jewish community, making it a more obvious target and concentrating resentment

From the late eleventh century, anti-semitism in Europe was whipped up even higher than usual by the Crusades. Huge armies formed to march off and fight the muslims occupying the ‘holy land’ around Jerusalem, encouraged by religious blessings and announcements of concessions and free entry to heaven for sinners and criminals who ‘took the Cross’. Millenarian movements who saw this as the final struggle before Armageddon and Jesus’ second coming spread. Mass hatred of muslims was also shunted into the nearer and more convenient target, the non-Christians close at hand – the Jews. Crusaders and mobs massacred Jews all over Europe. Quite apart from general anti-semitic hatred, there was a growing feeling that the Jews should not be allowed to live in peace when brave Christians were preparing to endanger themselves overseas, besides which a belief had spread that to kill any unbeliever guaranteed admission to heaven for a Christian no matter what their other sins might be.

Although this persecution was noticeably absent in England, the muslim conquest of the short-lived Kingdom of Jerusalem in the late 1180s marked a turning point. King Henry II died after vowing to become a crusader. His son, Richard, is now known as Richard the Lionheart (although a more accurate moniker would be ‘Richard the rapacious Tax collector who bankrupted the country to fund crusades and other daft wars and his ransom when he got imprisoned by a rival royal parasite’. Doesn’t have the same ring to it I guess.) He planned to go off and fight the ‘infidel’ in Palestine.

As Richard took the throne, the latent hostility to England’s Jews broke into the open:

“A trivial episode at the coronation of the new king proved to be the spark which set the tinder ablaze. The proceedings at Westminster were long and stately, and the solemnity of the occasion was emphasised by a proclamation that no woman, and no Jew, should be admitted. [‘Because of the magic arts which Jews and some women notoriously exercise at royal coronations’ according to Matthew Paris (Historia Anglorum, ii, 9). It may be observed that Jewish custom prescribed a special benediction on seeing monarch, the recital of which might conceivably give rise to a suspicion of this sort.]

Nevertheless, on the afternoon of the coronation day (Sunday, 3 September 1189), while the festivities were at their height, a deputation from the Jewish communities of the kingdom presented itself at the gateway of Westminster Hall, bearing rich gifts – probably in the hope of obtaining a renewal of the charter of privileges granted originally by Henry I. Some of them, eager to see the magnificence, took advantage of a momentary disorder to slip in, and were driven out by a zealous doorkeeper with unnecessary brutality. This was enough to arouse the crowd at the palace gates. Several members of the deputation were beaten or trampled to death before they could escape. The wealthy Benedict, who had come as one of the representatives of the community of York, saved his life by consenting to embrace Christianity, and was immediately baptized in the adjacent Church of the Innocents by a priest from his own city.

Exaggerated rumours of what was happening at Westminster soon spread to London, where it was reported that the king had given orders for the Jews to be exterminated. In their well-built stone houses, the inhabitants were able to resist for some hours until, towards nightfall, one of the mob threw up a lighted torch which set fire to the thatched roof. The flames rapidly spread, and before long the whole of Jewry was in a blaze. Though some of the inhabitants found refuge in the Tower of London or under the protection of friendly neighbours, several perished in their houses, and others were done to death, when they ventured into the street. Thirty persons lost their lives, amongst them being the eminent Rabbi Jacob of Orleans, not long since arrived from the continent.

The news was reported to the king as he sat banqueting. He immediately dispatched the justiciar, Ranulph de Glanville, to check the disorders, but he was unable to make any impression. The outbreak had indeed been of so universal a character, and enjoyed such general sympathy, that it was not considered advisable to take serious measures against those who had participated. Nevertheless, some of the ringleaders were arrested and three were hanged – one for robbing a Christian and two because the fire they had kindled burned down a Christian house. Little else was done except to dispatch letters to all parts of the kingdom ordering the Jews to be left in peace.” (Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England).

However, this royal proclamation was only temporarily successful, with further anti-Jewish rioting postponed until Richard left the country in December. As part of his planned crusade, contingents were gathering in most towns in the kingdom readying themselves to march off and fight Muslims in the ‘holy land’. However, as had occurred during preparations for previous crusades, the first targets of the crusaders were Jews in their own midst.

As a result, a few months after the coronation and the king’s departure, a rash of anti-Jewish riots broke out, often where crusaders were gathering; and coinciding with Lent, always a time of heightened tension, as hatred of Jews for ‘killing our lord’ was then emphasised. There were vicious pogroms in Lynn, Norfolk (now Kings Lynn), where the Jewish community was all but exterminated, and in Norwich, Stamford, Bury St Edmunds, Lincoln, Colchester, Thetford, Ospringe, and most violently at York. Here, the largest Jewish settlement outside London had grown into a relatively prosperous enclave. As usual, however, local barons were heavily in debt to Jewish moneylenders, and they sparked a riot with the aim of evading payment. The community was massacred, with the remainder of the community taking refuge in the castle, but ending by killing themselves when it was besieged. At least 150 died in the castle and many more in the town.

In some places, Jews saved themselves by agreeing to covert to Christianity; in others, Jews were expelled from their houses.

King Richard, hearing of this, did get somewhat narked, in part because
a) it’s the royal prerogative to massacre your subjects, this is not to be sub-contracted;
b) disorder is generally considered a bad thing, c) the king had specifically issued his protection to the Jews, mass flouting of this making him look weak and ineffective,
and d) the royal treasury stood to lose, as the king milked the Jewish community heavily, and thus their goods getting nicked reduced the monarch’s take.

Some limited harsh measures were taken against a very few of the perpetrators of the massacres, but on the whole little was done. The king couldn’t afford to piss off the nobles on whose support he relied for fighting and ruling, and the unpopularity of the Jews made it difficult to make a point of defending them when faced with more important matters like fighting God’s wars.

The reigns of Richard’s successors, kings John and Henry III, were littered with similar events – accusations of ‘blood libel’, robbery, killings and persecutions. Jews as moneylenders were often associated with kings, whose royal power was being challenged by the nobility throughout the thirteenth century. Several popular rebellions against royal autocracy, battles between kings and powerful aristos, also sparked anti-semitic outbursts.

Nobles often targeted Jews because they were under his protection, or had lent the king money, or because they themselves wished to despoil them and/or avoid paying debts to them.

This pattern culminated with the wholesale expulsion of all Jews from England in 1290 by the psychopathic Edward I; officially Jews were barred from the kingdom unless they converted to Christianity, a prohibition which lasted nearly four centuries.


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

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