Today in London rebel history: Nicholas Jakes leads protest in London, 1450.

King Henry VI, nominally ruler of England between 1422 and 1461. was throughout his whole reign successively a child, then pious, frail and mentally unstable; he was never in charge of the government for very long before he fell ill. He fell under the influence of a succession of powerful aristocrats; some his own close relatives; while some were fairly pragmatic, others were rapacious power-brokers out for what they could grab into their own hands, both in terms of power and wealth.

In 1449 the King was almost bankrupted. The War in France was grinding to a halt through lack of funds and a succession of defeats at the hands of the French. Parliament refused to raise any more money for a government it distrusted. The cloth trade from City of London guilds was prevented from exporting to Flanders for fear of the French ships invading. The loss of trade and tax revenues crippled chances of recovery. The humiliation and retreat from France threatened to end the Lancastrian monarchy, running a deficit of £320,000 pa.

In the late 1440s, the power behind the throne was William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk and his willing lieutenants the Bishops of Salisbury and Chichester. Suffolk however became wildly unpopular – widely blamed for a series of military disasters in the long war against France; to the point where he was accused of being a traitor and plotting to support a French invasion of England.

He was generally believed to have embarked on large scale corruption, embezzling vast sums of money which should have been spent on the war effort, and of allowing his personal retainers in East Anglia to run riot.

Suffolk was also accused of using his lieutenants in Kent and Sussex to evict tenants unlawfully from their land. His arbitrary conduct was enforced by Stephen Slegge, Sheriff of Kent 1348-9.

A combination of populist discontent at the disastrous turn the French war was taking, and the collapse of the economy, sparked widespread unrest, and in early 1450 this became violent.

On 9 Jan 1450 a furious mob of unpaid soldiers attacked Adam Moleyns, Bishop of Chichester, a partisan of Suffolk who had been accused of embezzlement, and murdered him.

Days later, Suffolk was impeached by Parliament accused of trying to surrender Wallingford Castle to the French.

But this didn’t put a stop to protest. Around 29th January Westminster yeoman Nicholas Jakes led a protest in London against the government; thought there are no records of what the demonstrators said or demanded, whatever it was spelt death for Jakes: “…on the last day of Janeuer in the same year was oon Nicholas Jakes, a servaunt late of Bassingbourne, Squyer, drawen through London to Tibourne and there hanged, beheaded and quartered for treason of language…”

In the same week, Thomas Cheyne, a labourer from Newington, Southwark, led an uprising of people from Kent between Sandwich and Dover who had a list of men they wanted beheaded that included Bishop of Salisbury William Ayscough, Duke William of Suffolk, James Fiennes the Lord Saye, and Lord Dudley the abbot of Gloucester. They appointed other captains (who adopted nicknames like ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘king of the fairies’ to conceal their identities); two hundred people marched on January 26, but thousands were said to have joined as they marched to Canterbury where an anti-clerical group attacked St. Radegund’s abbey hospice. However Cheyne was captured in Canterbury on January 31.

A week later on February 6th, Cheyne, who had called himself Bluebeard, was taken outside Canterbury to Westminster, where he was tried with plotting the murder of the king’ leading counsellors, and faced the same fate as Jakes. His head was stuck on a spike on London Bridge.

It’s not known whether these attempted revolts were co-ordinated.

This disorder scared the government immensely. In February 1450, proclamations were issued in London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex, banning all persons except lords, knights and eminent esquires from wearing arms or carrying weapons of any kind. Around the same time, the civil powers in Maidstone, Canterbury and Oxford, among other towns, were thanked by the King Henry’s Privy Council for sending in reports regarding gatherings of people ‘under untrue faines and pretense colours of intending to the common weal of the land’… The relevant authorities were ordered to break up any such rebellious gatherings.

But the ominous sense of impending rebellion hung about. In March, the King was finally forced to banish the Duke of Suffolk from the realm effective from 1 May. In April, the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex issued a proclamation denouncing the dissemination of false and seditious rumours, bills and libels, many of which had been fixed to the doors of churches and other buildings in the capital.

The duke fled to Eastthorp, his manor in Suffolk, but was chased there by the angry Londoners. As he was trying to get to the continent, the duke was spotted and men of Nicholas of the Tower boarded his vessel in the Channel and beheaded him on board. The body washed up on Dover beach.

However, all these events were to some extent just precursors to the more large-scale and dangerous Jack Cade’s revolt that took place in Kent in the summer of 1450.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in pamphleteering history: William Benbow’s Grand National Holiday and Congress of the Productive Classes published, 1832

William Benbow was a radical pamphleteer, publisher, propagandist and bookseller, who in the 1830s ran a radical bookshop at 205 Fleet Street, in London. An activist of the National Union of the Working Classes; he later became a leading physical force Chartist. Both the NUWC and the Chartist movement became quickly divided between those who thought protest, petition and mass pressure for political reform would gain working men the vote, and those who felt the rich and powerful would always defeat peaceful campaigning, and only ‘physical force’ – mass strike, uprising and revolt – could do the job.

Benbow was probably not the first to think up the idea of a ‘general strike’, but in his classic pamphlet of 1832, The Grand National Holiday of the Productive Classes, he proposed that the producers of the wealth, being exploited by an idle and rich minority, should cease to work en masse, for a month. This would be enough to kickstart the process of depriving the rich of the fruits of the labour of the working classes, who would elect a congress to begin the process of re-ordering society in their own interests. The way Benbow writes about the Holiday, as a sacred and glorious festival, designed to usher in happiness and prosperity for all, carries echoes of the biblical Jubilee, when work was banned, debts were abolished and prisoners freed… Benbow was also a non-conformist preacher, but the Jubilee had transcended religious imagery in the early nineteenth century, as ultra-radicals like Thomas Spence and Robert Wedderburn revived the idea as a vehicle of almost millenarian communist significance. But mass stoppages of work were also part of a long tradition in working class culture. Benbow’s genius was to invest the theory of the strike with a cataclysmic and transformative aura.

It was at the Rotunda, the leading radical centre of the day, in Blackfriars Road, Southwark, that Benbow first publicly advocated his theory of the Grand National Holiday. Benbow argued that a month long General Strike would lead to an armed uprising and a change in the political system to the gain of working people. Benbow used the term “holiday” (holy day) because it would be a period “most sacred, for it is to be consecrated to promote the happiness and liberty”. Benbow argued that during this one month holiday the working class would have the opportunity “to legislate for all mankind; the constitution drawn up… that would place every human being on the same footing. Equal rights, equal enjoyments, equal toil, equal respect, equal share of production.”

Not only was no work to be done, but workers should make all effort to cripple the state and the financial system. Supporters of the Sacred Month should withdraw any savings they had in banks or other institutions. They were also required to abstain from all taxable articles such as drink and tobacco. Benbow’s proposals included addressing practical problems of how the mass of striking workers were to support themselves; first of all living on their saving (admittedly meagre), but then taking over parish funds and extorting money and goods from the rich to survive. but that He also suggested local committees should be set up to administer food distribution and keep order: these local committees would be the basis of elections to a national Convention – a working class government in effect.

Below, we reprint the text of Benbow’s 1832 pamphlet:

GRAND NATIONAL HOLIDAY, AND CONGRESS OF THE PRODUCTIVE CLASSES.

“Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl…
Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth; and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and they do not resist you.” JAMES,c.v.

BY WILLIAM BENBOW.
LONDON:

PRINTED AND PUBLISHED BY THE AUTHOR, 205, FLEET STREET. SOLD BY WATSON, 33, WINDMILL STREET, AND ALL BOOKSELLERS.

DEDICATION TO THE PRODUCTIVE CLASSES.

PLUNDERED FELLOW-SUFFERERS!

I lay before you a plan of freedom – adopt it, and you rid the world of inequality, misery, and crime. A martyr in your cause, I am become the prophet of your salvation.

A plan of happiness is pointed out and dedicated to you. With it I devote to you my life and body, my soul and blood.

WILLIAM BENBOW.

Commercial Coffee House, 205, Fleet-street.

INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS.

Her princes in the midst thereof are like wolves ravening the prey, to shed blood, and to destroy souls, to get dishonest gain.
The possessors of the land have used oppression, and exercised robbery and have vexed the poor and needy.
EZEKIEL.

LIFE, when good for any thing, consists of ease, gaiety, pleasure, and consequently of happiness. All men enjoy life but do not enjoy it equally. The enjoyment of some is so very limited, that it does not deserve the name of enjoyment; that of others is without bounds, for they have the means of procuring fully ease, gaiety, and pleasure. Thus happiness is circumscribed, and is becoming every day more and more so, that is, the numbers who are deprived of it are hourly increasing. Now, who are they who do enjoy; does their enjoyment proceed from their own merits; are they laborious,-do they work for the happiness they possess? We shall see. Let nothing but truth, glaring stark-naked truth, be stated.

The only class of persons in society, as it is now constituted, who enjoy any considerable portion of ease, pleasure, and happiness, are those who do the least towards producing any thing good or necessary for the community at large. They are few in number, a fraction, as it were, of society, and yet they have become possessed of a most monstrous power, namely, the power of turning to their own advantage all the good things of life, without creating themselves the smallest particle of any one of those good things. How, in the name of wonder, have they obtained this monstrous power! It must have been either by an involuntary and unnatural consent, or by what seems nearest to the truth by the most stupid ignorance on the part of the people. Of course this monstrous power held by the few is exercised with an iron hand, and necessarily begets indescribable wretchedness and misery among the great mass of society in every part of the kingdom. And this fraction of society, to which has been foolishly conceded, or which has impudently and unnaturally usurped, the preposterous right to exercise a monstrous power over almost every man, is as one to five hundred when compared to the people who produce all the good things seen in the world. Notwithstanding the one, the unit, the mere cypher, has all the wealth, all the power in the state, and consequently prescribes the way and details the manner, after which he pleases the 499 should live in the world. The 499 who create the state, who are its instruments upon all occasions, without whom it can not go on for a single second, who dig deep, rise early, and watch late, by whose sweat and toil the whole face of nature is beautified – rendered pleasant to the sight, and useful to existence; – the 499 who do all this are reduced to less than nothing in the estimation of the unit who does no one thing, unless consuming may be called doing something. The one – the unit or cypher – consumes, luxuriates, revels, wastes: in the winter fur and down warm him: in the summer he cools himself in the marble bath or in the shady bower: the seasons are his – their flowers, fruits, and living creatures are his – the 499 are his purveyors, they procure him every thing; and more to be pitied and worse treated than the jackal, they are not left even the offals. Not content with every thing – marrow and bone – if the bone be of any use: not content with their own peculiar titles, this consuming portion of society call themselves the people

They are the people of substance, the people of character, the people of condition the people of honor! so they say; but perhaps another definition of what they are would make them more easily recognised. They are the jugglers of society, the pick-pockets, the plunderers, the pitiless Burkers – in fine they are all Bishops! They exist on disease and blood: crime and infamy are the breath of their nostrils. The 499 bleed for them, die of disease for them; by hard and cruel treatment they are hurried into crime and infamy, if crime and infamy can justly be imputed to beings who make an occasional effort to obtain a portion of the heaps they produce.

The people are formed out of our proportion of 499: they are in number as 499 is to 1. By saying what the people do, we explain what they are. By saying what they can and ought to do, we explain what they can and ought to be.

For many years the people have done nothing for themselves. They have not even existed, for they have not enjoyed life. Their existence has been enjoyed by others; they have been, as far as regards themselves, non-entities. They have had neither ease, gaiety, nor pleasure; they have not lived ; for a state of continual toil, privation, and sickness can never be called life. What working man can say he lives? Unless he says he lives when he is pining away piecemeal producing with an empty stomach and weary limbs what goes to make others live. The existence of the working man is a negative. He is alive to production, misery, and slavery- dead to enjoyment and happiness. He produces and is miserable: others enjoy and are happy. The people then, since we call the mass the people, are the drudges of society ; they do every thing and enjoy nothing. The people are nothing for themselves, and everything for the few.

If they are the source of all wealth- that wealth is not for them: if they are all-powerful, their power is used for the benefit of others: – they protect and support those who grow fat on the sweat of their brow! They fight too yea, they fight – but for what? for religion, for honour, for the caprice of kings and ministers!

When they fight for themselves, then will they be a people, then will they live, then will they have ease, gaiety, pleasure and happiness; but never, until they do light for themselves! When the people fight their own battle – when they are active in resistance to the greater part of existing institutions – when they have a proper opinion of themselves; that is, when they are convinced of their own power and worth, they will then enjoy the advantages a people ought to enjoy. They will be every thing they were not before: they will be no longer abused, maltreated, and lessened in their own estimation. they will be no longer robbed of the fruits of their toil: no longer oppressed and goaded to despair, their lives will be no longer a burden too heavy to he borne. The few- the grasping, the blood-sucking few – will be no longer able to do all this. The few- the idle, dronish few – will be forced to work as well as others, and every man’s share of the good things of life will be in proportion to his production of them. When the people are resolved and prepared upon all points to fight their own battle, the rapacity of the landlord, the inhumanity of the king’s tax gatherer and of the bishop’s tithe proctor will disappear. And if there should happen to be any poor and infirm persons to be provided for, they will not be entrusted to hospital-governors and poor-house keepers, who live in splendour on the parish allowances or charitable donations made solely for the exclusive advantage the poor and infirm, who may justly be considered, and ought to be treated as the martyrs of labour.

How is it that the people have never existed- that is, have not enjoyed ease, gaiety, pleasure, or happiness? How is it that they have been the instruments of the few, procuring them a superabundance of ease, gaiety, pleasure, and happiness? How is it that they have always been the productive party, and never the consuming party? The lion makes the jackall hunt and provide for him, because the lion is stronger; but, in the case of the people, the position is reversed, for the weaker party have hitherto forced the stronger party to hunt and provide for them. How has this most monstrous state of things been established and kept up? Simply thus: by keeping the people in ignorance- by hoodwinking them with the bonds of superstition and prejudice.

Ignorance is the source of all the misery of the many. On account of their ignorance they have been oppressed,- plundered,- ground down to the earth, and degraded like beasts of burden. It is ignorance that makes us incessantly toil, not for ourselves, but for others: it is ignorance that makes us fight, and lavish our blood and lives to secure to the few the power of still keeping us their tools; it is ignorance that prevents us from knowing ourselves and without a clear knowledge of ourselves we must ever remain the tools of others- the slaves of the consuming party. In every age of the world the people, for want of knowledge of their own worth and power have been the unpaid, unrecompensed tools of kings, nobles, and priests. Yet at no time, in no country, among no people has there existed so much degradation, oppression, and misery, as exists at this moment in this wretched country. Ignorance has reduced England to distraction, and unfortunate Ireland to phrensied madness.

There is no greater folly than to expect that people will do that which they are ignorant of. To fulfil a duty or to obey a law, we must understand it. Our lawgivers have kept us in ignorance, for if we had knowledge we would not obey laws framed for our own destruction. Our lords and masters are doing every thing that our ignorance may continue, in order that they may continue, like the lawyers of old, “to load us with burdens too grievous to be borne, which they will not, touch with one of their fingers.” Since our lords and masters have very good reasons for keeping us in ignorance, we have still stronger ones for getting knowledge. By keeping us in ignorance they enjoy: by getting ourselves knowledge we shall enjoy, and cease to suffer. The knowledge we want is very easily acquired: it is not that taught in schools or books, or at least in very few books. The knowledge we want is a knowledge of ourselves: a  knowledge of our own power, of our immense might, and of the right we have to employ in action that immense power. We cannot have this knowledge without having an opposite kind of knowledge:- namely, the knowledge of the numerical and real weakness of our enemies, though they have been so long enabled to oppress us and drain us to the last drop of our heart’s blood. The people of Paris had this knowledge when they revolted against tyranny, and trampled it for a moment under their feet: the people of Paris will give a still stronger example of the sort of knowledge we want, when they declare that kingship and privilege are incompatible with popular liberty: in fine, when they shall strike for a republic- and this example way be expected shortly. The men of Grenoble the other day gave a proof of this knowledge when they refused to pay unjust taxes, burned the tax-gatherers’ houses and books, and forced the government to come to a compromise. In short, the knowledge we want is to be fully convinced of the weakness and villainy of our enemies, and to be resolved to use the means we have of destroying them.

The interest of the people has been the same in every age of the world; and yet, extraordinary as it may appear, they have never understood it. If the people had understood their true interests, could any power or accident reduce them to the state they are now in? What that state is we all, alas, know: it is, beyond all contradiction, a state of privation, bordering on starvation, – a state of misery and degradation. Inattention, and the most culpable and dishonourable indifference on their part, have produced their own ruin, and consequently that of the countries they inhabit. Look to the people of this kingdom – look to this country: are they far off from ruin? If you, O people, do not rouse yourselves, you will leave to posterity a nation of the most miserable slaves.

The remedy? the remedy? you all exclaim. You have it within your own reach; but since it seems you cannot see it, you shall have it named to you, and pointed out to you so palpably, that if you do not make use of it, the brand and curse of slavery will stick to you during your wretched lives, and your children and children’s children will curse you as traitors, who have sold yourselves, and them, whom you had no right to sell. Now the remedy that is to better your condition, and to snatch you from final and everlasting ruin, is placed within yourselves. It is simply – UNITY OF THOUGHT AND ACTION. – Think together, act together, and you will remove mountains- mountains of injustice, oppression, misery and want. How do you suppose you were brought to your present condition? By never thinking or acting- by being ignorant of yourselves. The bulls in the fable, whilst united, defied the strength of the lion; he sowed jealousy and disunion among them, and they became his prey. Our enemies, by their unity of thought and action- numerically and physically weak as they are- have succeeded in making us their prey. A small portion of mankind, by adopting plan and method, by putting their heads together, have been able to do as they pleased with the greater portion. The smaller portion, by their unanimity, have made the greater portion toil for them: by unity of thought and action, the smaller party have become lords and masters, the greater party slaves.

Lords and masters! They are united; and therefore they may be whatever else they please; they have become, by their unity, lords and masters; and they are, without impunity, the possessors of all power, pomp, greatness, wealth, vanity, lewdness, beastiality, cruelty:- they are a living catalogue of all the vices and crimes that human nature has been forced to be the source of. A want of unity of thought and action on our parts has been the cause of this unnatural state of things. Our indifference and disunion have enabled our horrid enemies to cover the earth with thousands of Sodoms and Gomorrahs.

Of all the follies human nature can be guilty of, there is no one greater than to expect that others will do for us what we ought to do for ourselves. If others do not feel as we do – if they have no cause to feel as we do – if they are not oppressed, robbed, plundered, degraded – how can they enter into our feelings who are so! To expect aid from Tories, Whigs, Liberals – to expect aid from the middling classes, or from any other class than those who suffer, (from the working classes), is sheer madness!

Are liberty and equal rights worth enjoying: are ease, gaiety, pleasure, and happiness worth possessing? Is the satisfaction of seeing ourselves on the same footing with all men – of beholding no longer such a distinction as that between peer and peasant – of no longer seeing ourselves trampled on by the horses and carriages of persons of a different order- of seeing every man either on horseback or on foot, – is such satisfaction worth nothing? What more glorious, more consolatory, more honourable to man than equality! Equality, O people and friends, is grand and beautiful: we may have it; but let us he united!

Virtue- where is it to be found? Among the people! Who have died- who have been martyrs for their principles- the people! Who have been hanged, who have suffered at the stake for their country, and for the good of humanity – the people! From Wat Tyler down to Emmet and Thistlewood, the martyrs of truth have always been found among the people. Their martyrdom would not have been in vain, had we supported them: they relied upon us- they gave us an example- they held forth a torch-light they sounded a tocsin- their heartstrings wrung it; but we, O shame, have been deaf to it! We have had hearts of steel- we have been worse than the deaf adder for we have heard the music of liberty, and have not listened to it!

It is almost superfluous to say, that the horrid and merciless tyrants, whom we have allowed to lord it over us, have no feeling in common with us. The whole study of their lives is to keep us in a state of ignorance, that we may not be sensible of our own degradation and of their weakness. To expect good at their hands, to hope that they will break one link of the chain with which they bind us, to dream that they will ever look with pity upon us, is the vainest of all dreams. But enough; they have fattened upon the sweat of our body; they are determined to continue to do so; it is our business to prevent it, to put a stop to it. We are the people, our business is with the people, and to transact it properly, we must take it into our own hands. The people are called upon to work for themselves! We lay down the plan of operation; we despair of all safety, we despair of liberty, we despair of equality, we despair of seeing ease, gaiety, pleasure, and happiness becoming the possessions of the people, unless they co-operate with us. We chalk down to them a plan; woe to them if they do not follow in its traces!

THE HOLIDAY.

A holiday signifies a holy day, and ours is to be of holy days the most holy. It is to be most holy, most sacred, for it is to be consecrated to promote- to create rather- the happiness and liberty of mankind. Our holy day is established to establish plenty, to abolish want, to render all men equal! In our holy day we shall legislate for all mankind; the constitution drawn up during our holiday, shall place every human being on the same footing. Equal rights, equal liberties, equal enjoyments, equal toil, equal respect, equal share of production: this is the object of our holy day – of our sacred day, – of our festival!

When a grand national holiday, festival, or feast is proposed, let none of our readers imagine that the proposal is new. It was an established custom among the Hebrews, the most ancient of people, to have holidays or festivals, not only religious feasts, but political ones. Their feasts were generally held to perpetuate the memory of God’s mighty works; to  allow the people frequent seasons for instruction in the laws,- to grant them time of rest, pleasure, and renovation of acquaintance with their brethren. The Sabbath was a weekly festival, not because they supposed that God reposed from his labour on that day, – but immemorial of their deliverance from Egypt;- out of the house of bondage, and of their feeding on manna in the wilderness. The true meaning of feeding on manna is, that the productions of the soil were equally divided among the people. They fed upon manna- that is they were fed in abundance. During the various festivals, no servile work was done, and servants and masters knew no distinction. Every seventh year, which was called the year of Release, a continued festival was held among the Hebrews. Mark, a holiday for a whole year! How happy a people must be, how rich in provisions, to be able to cease from manual labour, and to cultivate their minds during the space of a whole year! We English must be in a pretty state, if in the midst of civilisation and abundance, we cannot enjoy a month’s holiday, and cease from labour during the short space of four weeks! But to return, – the year of release was a continued- unceasing festival; it was a season of instruction; it was a relief to poor debtors. The land lay untilled; the spontaneous produce was the property of the poor, the fatherless, and the widow; every debt was forgiven, and every bond-servant dismissed free, if he pleased, loaded with a variety of presents from his master. There was another holiday or feast deserving of mention;- it was called the jubilee. No servile work was done on it: the land lay untilled what grew of itself belonged to the poor and needy; whatever debts the Hebrews owed to one another, were wholly remitted; hired, as well as bond servants, obtained their liberty; the holding of lands was changed, so that as the jubilee approached, the Hebrew lands bore the less price. By this means landed possession was not confined to particular families, and the sinful hastening to be rich was discouraged.

We have now shewn that the holding of festivals is consecrated by divine authority; it only remains for us to show the necessity that there is for the people of this country holding one; and then to proceed to its details and object.

The grounds and necessity of our having a month’s Holiday, arise from the circumstances in which we are placed. We are oppressed, in the fullest sense of the word; we have been deprived of every thing; we have no property, no wealth, and our labour is of no use to us, since what it produces goes into the hands of others. We have tried every thing but our own efforts; we have told our governors, over and over again, of our wants and misery; we thought them good and wise, and generous; we have for ages trusted to their promises, and we find ourselves, at this present day, after so many centuries of forbearance, instead of having our condition bettered, convinced that our total ruin is at hand. Our Lords and Masters have proposed no plan that we can adopt; they contradict themselves, even upon what they name the source of our misery. One says one thing, another says another thing. One scoundrel, one sacrilegious blasphemous scoundrel, says “that over-production is the cause of our wretchedness.” Over production, indeed! when we half-starving producers cannot, with all our toil, obtain any thing like a sufficiency of produce. It is the first time, that in any age or country, save our own, abundance was adduced as a cause of want. Good God! where is this abundance? Abundance of food! ask the labourer and mechanic where they find it. Their emaciated frame is the best answer. Abundance of clothing! the nakedness, the shivering, the asthmas, the colds, and rheumatisms of the people, are proofs of the abundance of clothing! Our Lords and Masters tell us, we produce too much; very well then, we shall cease from producing for one month, and thus put into practice the theory of our Lords and Masters.

Over-population, our Lords and Masters say, is another cause of our misery. They mean by this, that the resources of the country are inadequate to its population. We must prove the contrary, and during a holiday take a census of the people, and a measurement of the land, and see upon calculation, whether it be not an unequal distribution, and a bad management of the land, that make our Lords and Masters say, that there are too many of us. Here are two strong grounds for our Holiday; for a CONGRESS of the working classes.

The greatest Captain of the age has acknowledged, that there was partial distress; Londonderry has said, that ‘ignorant impatience’ was the cause of our misery; the sapient Robert Peel has asserted, that ‘our wants proceeded from our not knowing what we wanted.’ Very good during our festival, we shall endeavour to put an end to partial distress; to get rid of our ignorant impatience, and to learn what it is we do want. And these are three other motives for holding a Congress of the working classes.

When Governments disagree; when they have a national right or interest to settle; a boundary to establish; to put an end to a war, or to prevent it; or when they combine to enslave, in order to be able to plunder the whole world, they hold a Congress. They send their wise men, their cunning men, to discuss, plan, and concoct what they call a treaty, and so, at least for a time, settle their differences. In this mode of proceeding there is something that we must imitate. In our National Holiday, which is to be held during one calendar month, throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, we must all unite in discovering the source of our misery, and the best way of destroying it. Afterwards we choose, appoint, and send to the place of Congress, a certain number of wise and cunning men, whom we shall have made fully acquainted with our circumstances; and they, before the Holiday be expired, shall discuss and concert a plan, whereby, if it is possible, the privation, wretchedness and slavery, of the great mass of us, may be diminished, if not completely annihilated.

We affirm that the state of society in this country is such, that as long as it continues, heart-rending inequality must continue, producing wretchedness, crime and slavery;- plunging not a few, but the immense majority of the people into those abject circumstances. Our respect and love towards the human race in general, and more especially towards the working classes to whom we belong body and soul, has induced us to reflect and consider, and thus to discover what we think will bring about the object we aim at; namely, the happiness of the many. Our lords and masters, by their unity of thought and action, by their consultations, deliberations, discussions, holidays, and congresses, have up to this time succeeded in bringing about the happiness of the few. Can this be denied? We shall then by our consultations, deliberation-, discussions, holiday and congress, endeavour to establish the happiness of the immense majority of the human race, of that far largest portion called the working classes. What the few have done for themselves cannot the many do for themselves? unquestionably. Behold, O people and fellow labourers the way!

Before a month’s holiday can take place, universal preparations must be made for it. lt should not take place neither in seed-time nor in harvest-time. Every man must prepare for it, and assist his neighbour in preparing for it. The preparations must begin long before the time which shall be hereafter appointed, in order that every one may be ready, and that the festival be not partial but universal.

Committees of management of the working classes must be forthwith formed in every city, town, village, and parish throughout the united kingdom. These committees must make themselves fully acquainted with the plan, and be determined to use the extremest activity and perseverance to put it into execution as speedily and effectually as possible. They must call frequent meetings, and shew the necessity and object of the holiday. They must use every effort to prevent intemperance of every sort and recommend the strictest sobriety and economy. The working classes cannot lay in provisions for a month; this is not wanted, but every man must do his best to be provided with food for the first week of the holiday. Provisions for the remaining three weeks can be easily procured. As for wearing apparel, since the holiday will take place in the summer, there can be no great difficulty in being provided with sufficient covering for one month. If the committees do their duty, and earnestly explain the nature and necessity of the holiday, they will induce all lovers of equal rights, to make every sacrifice of momentary inconvenience in order to obtain permanent convenience and comfort.

We suppose that the people are able to provide provisions and funds for one week; during this week they will be enabled to enquire into the funds of their respective cities, towns, villages and parishes, and to adopt means of having those funds, originally destined for their benefit, now applied to that purpose. The committee of management shall be required to direct the people in adopting the best measures that shall be deemed necessary. The people must be made aware of their own folly, in having allowed themselves to have been deceived by the Parish parsons, and Select Vestries, and they must cease permitting others to vote away their own money. The people, so soon as they shall see themselves in want of provisions or funds, must have immediate recourse to vestry meetings, which have power to grant, in despite of Overseers and Justices, such relief as may be wanted. There is nothing to prevent any six or ten persons from calling a vestry meeting as often as may be deemed requisite, and the registers, books, and other parish documents must be consulted, and will give sufficient evidence, that there is wherewithal to support the people during the holiday. Let it be constantly borne in mind, that the united voice of the people will be duly attended to, and that an equal division of funds and provisions will be allowed them by the parish authorities, when their object is known. The committee, which may also be looked upon as the commissary department, must likewise watch over the good order of its district, establish regularity, and punish all attempts at disorder. The people having a grand object in view, the slightest points in their character must be grand. About to renovate Europe, the people must appear renovated.

In the earlier periods of our history, monarchs, princes, and rulers of minor titles, had recourse to voluntary loans. At first the people raised these loans voluntarily, for they thought by so doing, they would enable their chiefs to protect them. It was soon seen, however, that the voluntary loans were converted to the sole advantage of the chiefs, and their more immediate partisans, consequently the people began to grow slack in contributing them. By means of the voluntary loans, the chiefs or governors became powerful enough to exact involuntary loans, and the method of raising them was taxation, and other sorts of exaction. Hence, though sovereignty was at first supported by voluntary loans, as soon as it was discovered to be a self-interested institution, it was obliged to levy involuntary loans, that is, taxes. Now there is a species of sovereignty- we mean the sovereignty of the people- that has not as yet been supported, and it is for its support that we claim at this moment, during the festival that is to establish it, voluntary loans. When we talk of establishing the sovereignty of the people, we talk of establishing the grandeur, the happiness and liberty of the people. Nothing can be more deserving of praise and support. We have hitherto contributed to the sovereignty of particular families, that is to their grandeur, happiness and liberty; and their liberty must be called uncontrolled licence- tyranny.

Now, since we have so long tried the sovereignty of particular families, let us try the sovereignty of the grand family- the human race. That species of sovereignty can never become tyranny. We call then upon every man to add his mite to this voluntary loan, and particularly the rich, who are always so generous in keeping up the splendour of ancient race. The antiquity of the human race they will not allow to be sullied by modern degradation. If they show pity and support towards the descendants of a Stuart, a Bourbon, or a Guelf, they will surely show more towards the descendants of Adam.

“The cattle upon a thousand hills are the Lord’s.” When the people’s voice, which Lord Brougham proclaims to be the voice of God, and surely we need no higher legal authority, calls for its own, demands the cattle of the thousand hills, who dares withhold the cattle of the thousand hills? During our holiday the people may have need of this cattle: let them order it to the slaughter-house, and their herdsmen and drovers will obey them. There may be some persons, who having been so long a time the keepers of the Lord’s cattle, will be inclined to keep it still longer. However, we are of opinion, that when solicited they will render “unto the Lord that which is the Lord’s.” But there are other keepers of the people’s cattle, whose unbounded liberality and strict probity are known to the whole world. These keepers may be classed under the denominations of Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Lords, Barons, Baronets, Esquires, Justices, and Parsons, and they will all freely contribute to our glorious holiday. Some of them, according to the extent of the Lord’s flocks, will send us a hundred sheep, others twenty oxen; loads of corn, vegetables and fruit will be sent to each committee appointed by the Lord’s voice, which, when distributed among the people, will enable them during the CONGRESS to legislate at their case, without any fear of want tormenting any part of them.

Should there, however, be a few who may refuse to render up the Lord’s cattle, the number of the greatly generous will infinitly counter-balance them. To the NEWCASTLES, who think every thing their own, we will oppose the BURDETTS, who think all they possess, the Lord’s or people’s. What a faithful keeper of the Lord’s cattle we shall find in Sir FRANCIS! The relief we shall obtain from him when we wait upon him at Belper, Burton, and in Leicestershire, will be a proof of his generosity and probity. The following is the way Sir FRANCIS and all such honest keepers are to be waited on, and our wants and wishes made known to them. Although we name Sir FRANCIS, we do not give him any real preference over the Westminsters, the Russells, the Lansdowries, the Althorpes, &c. Let him, however, be supposed the keeper, that for form sake we are to wait upon. The Committee will depute 20 persons to wait upon Sir FRANCIS, and state to him respectfully, but energetically, their business. Suppose, but it is the most improbable of all suppositions, that Sir FRANCIS should not be inclined to pay full attention to the application. Then the Committee will send 100 persons, with the same request, urging it still more respectfully and energetically; and should there still be indifference on the part of Sir FRANCIS, the Committee shall send 1000 persons and so on, increasing in proportion, until the Lord’s cattle be forthcoming. The persons sent by the Committee, shall allow no one to disturb the peace of the people. Upon all visits from the committee, the person visited must be seen in person by the Committee: not being at home is no excuse. Sir FRANCIS may be at Belper, Burton, or in Leicestershire; the Committee of those districts will find him at one or either of them, and solicit ‘England’s glory’ for support, which be will freely grant, as he is very rich, and very willing to establish the sovereignty, happiness, and liberty of the people.

Here be it observed, that the above mode of proceeding is not limited to any part of the country, or to any one Sir FRANCIS. All the Sir FRANCISES, all the reformers are to be applied to, and the people will have no longer any reason to suspect reformers’ consistency. The reformers of the united kingdom will hold out an open hand to support us during our festival. O’Connell will abandon the collection made for him; indeed that collection is virtually destined for our Irish brethren during the holiday. Until they are tried no one can imagine the number of great men ready to promote equal rights, equal justice, and equal laws all throughout the kingdom.

When all the details of the above plan are put into execution, the committee of each parish and district, shall select its wise men to be sent to the NATIONAL CONGRESS. A parish or district having a population of 8,000, shall send two wise and cunning men to Congress, a population of 15,000 four, a population of 25,000 eight, and London fifty wise and cunning men. The advice of the different committees is to be taken as to the most convenient place for conference. It should be a central position, and the mansion of some great liberal lord, with its out houses and appurtenances. The only difficulty of choice will be to fix upon a central one, for they are all sufficiently vast to afford lodging to the members of the Congress, their lands will afford nourishment, and their parks a beautiful place for meeting.

It may be relied upon, that the possessor of the mansion honoured by the people’s choice, will make those splendid preparations for the representatives of the sovereignty of the people, that are usually made for the reception of a common sovereign.

The object of the Congress; that is what it will have to do. To reform society, for “from the crown of our head to the sole of our foot there is no soundness in us.” We must cut out the rottenness in order to become sound. Let us see what is rotten. Every man that does not work is rotten; he must be made work in order to cure his unsoundness. Not only is society rotten; but the land, property, and capital is rotting. There is not only something, but a great deal rotten in the state of England. Every thing, men, property, and money, must be put into a state of circulation. As the blood by stagnation putrifies, as it is impoverished by too much agitation, so society by too much idleness on the one hand, and too much toil on the other has become rotten. Every portion must be made work, and then the work will become so light, that it will not be considered work, but wholesome exercise. Can any thing be more humane than the main object of our glorious holiday, namely, to obtain for all at the least expense to all, the largest sum of happiness for all.

We think that the necessity of a GRAND NATIONAL HOLIDAY has been fully impressed upon the mind of every man who may have read us. We have etched out the plan; not detailed and matured it, for it will take a longer time and deeper reflection before we can pronounce our plan complete. We expect the assistance of others, and we invite them, without putting us to unnecessary expence, to communicate to us their hints. We have explained in a few words our object; it will be seen that never was there an object, an aim so sublime, so full of humanity. We will not revert, now that we are forced to a conclusion, to the necessity of a holiday, but we must repeat ourselves respecting the plan.

We are sure that there is no one who will not be ready to join heart and hand in our festival, provided he can be persuaded of the possibility of holding it. If we had not been convinced of the possibility of holding it, we should never have mentioned it. All we require is that our holiday folk should be prepared for one week; we engage ourselves to provide for all their wants during the last three weeks of the festival. We have shown in what way the people should have recourse to vestry meetings, and what power they had over all parish authorities. We have shown that the parish authorities are entirely dependent on the people, and that without the consent of the people they can raise no rate, nor dispose of any fund already accumulated. We have shewn that the people had a right to examine the parish accounts, and become cognisant of the funds held by the parish authorities, and that the people could dispose of those funds as they thought proper. If, then, there are funds in hand, the people will apply them to their own support during the holiday; if it should happen that there are not funds, the people must vote a supply, for the people must be convinced of one thing, namely, that it is they alone who have a right of levying parish contributions. Some few persons may not like the idea of having recourse to parish allowance for their support even during the short period of three weeks, but these over-delicate individuals must reflect that they are becoming a momentaryburden to their parish, in order to rid it of increasing  and everlasting burdens. We think we have said enough to prove, that by vestry meetings alone the people would be fully able to support themselves during the holiday. Let the people only reflect on the sums that the parish authorities have from time immemorial levied upon the people, without the concurrence of the people, and then they will have no longer any scruples, but will, if the occasion require it, have recourse to the same method for raising funds for the benefit of the many, that the few have always had for the benefit of the few. We are too honest, too conscientious, too delicate, consequently the few who are neither honest, conscientious nor delicate dupe us. We must avoid all squeamishness; we are not only working for ourselves but for the human race and its posterity. We beg of the people to throw off all false delicacy. They must boldly lay hands upon that which is their own.

We call our reader’s attention to what we have said about “the cattle upon the thousand hills.” They are the Lord’s, that is the people’s; and when the people want them, the guardians who have kept them so long, will deliver them unto the people. We repeat, and we do so expressly that the people may be the more convinced of what we assert, that Sir FRANCIS BURDETT, and all such liberal men, will come forward in shoals to support us. There is nothing enthusiastic or ideal in this assertion. Let us reflect upon it. MR. COKE, of Norfolk, is a very rich man, and a very liberal man. Now we ask, what does a liberal man amass wealth for, if not in order to be able to support liberal principles. MR. COKE’S heart will beat with joy when he finds such an occasion for his liberality, as we are going to give him. We see him already ringing for his check-book, and ordering droves of his oxen, and waggon-loads of his wheat to be sent to us holiday folks. We hear him I wearing at his servants, damning their laziness, when the demands of the people are to be satisfied. And in every county a COKE is to be found; in Middlesex you will find a BYNG, in Bedfordshire a WHITBREAD. It would be too long to mention names, but you have only to look over the list of the majority in the House of Commons on the Reform Bill, and the list of the minority in the House of Lords on the same Bill, and then you will see, at a glance, the number of liberal men who are keeping their riches for your advantage. Only think of the immense sums that these liberal men spend at elections, in order to legislate for you, and consequently do you good! Now can you be persuaded, that they will not liberally resist you when you are fighting your own battle. Be assured they will; not only will they send you funds and provisions, but you will find them simple volunteers in your ranks. HENRY BROUGHAM, Lord Chancellor, will, if you accept of him, volunteer his services as one of your Deputies to CONGRESS. These great men, O people, are waiting for you; as soon as they can rely upon you, you may rely upon them. All they want to declare themselves for you, is your support. Let them have it.

We intended to give a list of the principal subjects to be discussed and settled during our CONGRESS. The Public shall have this list in a Periodical, advertised on the last page.

FINIS.

Printed by W. Benbow, 205, Fleet Street.

THE TRIBUNE OF THE PEOPLE,
A MONTHLY PERIODICAL,

To be first Published on the 21st of January.

Price Two Pence.

This PERIODICAL will be purely Political; it will “speak daggers but use none.”- It will advise the separation of the people from the Aristocracy; each portion of society must shift for itself, until plain dealing is established. The Tribune of the people is the Advocate of the people. The people shall be no longer duped.

PUBLISHED BY BENBOW,
205, FLEET STREET.

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Postscript: The Grand National Holiday in action

The Chartists took the idea of the ‘Grand National Holiday’, although some preferred to called it the ‘Sacred Month’. After the first flush of enthusiasm of mass meetings and petitioning had given way to disillusion as Parliament rejected the first Chartist petition in July 1839, rioting had occurred across various parts of the country in response to the Commons vote, and a number of Chartist leaders were arrested and jailed – including Benbow. He had been spreading the idea of the Grand National holiday again, and it had been widely discussed in Chartist circles around the country. Workers in Wales, the north of England and the midlands were especially agitated, and many were prepared to take extra-ordinary steps.

August 12th 1839 was agreed as the date when the ‘Sacred Month’ would begin. The Chartist Convention of summer 1839 adopted it as policy. But Chartism was not a homogenous movement; although united around some demands, tactics and even ultimate ends were often hotly debated. If some were openly planning insurrection, stockpiling pikes, staves and other weaponry, many more moderate elements shied away from violence, whether because they felt it was wrong in itself, or because they believed it would draw state repression and end in mass arrest and jailings. In the event the repression came anyway.

The Chartist movement aroused great fear, among the middle classes, in particular, and some among the authorities… The government had already begun to crack down on Chartism before the Grand National Holiday could get going, arresting 100s of activists including leading speakers, agitators and lecturers, and charging them with sedition. William Benbow himself was nicked on August 4th, and spent eight months in prison awaiting trial. These arrests not only weakened the strike by taking crucial figures out of the picture, but the trials and supporting prisoners became an alternative focus, and the Convention in fact voted to suspend the Sacred Month just before it was to begin and replace if with a three day General Strike starting on 12th August

To some extent the Sacred Month, did begin, in that workers in a number of areas stayed away from work. On 12th August 1839 in many, mainly northern areas, the pubs were shut. The weekly Chartist newspaper The Northern Star for the 17th and 24th August 1839 reported meetings across the north, in which it gave accounts of large turnouts comprising a majority of the working population of particular areas, which then proceeded to march to surrounding locations to pull others out in support of the Sacred Month – flying pickets, in fact, often a useful tactic in large-scale strikes. A number of factories were closed down.

Even in areas where the strike did not take hold there was at least symbolic support. For instance, in London, on 12th August, Chartists held a mass meeting on Kennington Common.

The response to the strike call was, however, in reality very patchy, and there is no clear picture of how many workers stayed away from work. Despite huge Chartist rallies, which seemed to reflect mass support for Chartism in some areas (eg Kersal Moor), in 1838, there is some uncertainty about Chartism’s real support. In some Lancashire towns with large working class populations, Chartist support seemed to be dropping off, not building. On 4th August in the run-up to the start of the Sacred Month, Chartists were called on to attend church en masse: but numbers who in fact turned up were disappointing (150 at Manchester, 1500 at Stockport, 2-3000 at Bolton and 4000 at Blackburn.) On the 12th, Chartists paraded through the main cotton-producing towns, but in some places work continued as normal – for instance in Oldham and Rochdale. In Oldham, a meeting of factory workers agreed that the National Holiday was unnecessary and the Charter could only be achieved by peaceful means.

In some areas the strike lasted several days, though not the whole month. In most places, within a week, the movement had collapsed.

In essence, “without working class unanimity it could have no hope of success.” (Donald Read)

It seems that in many areas there was a division between factory operatives and handloom weavers who worked out of their own homes. The latter formed a more solid support for Chartism, and its more radical elements; factory operatives were possibly more likely to back away from more extreme Chartist measures. This could have been influenced by the clear link between poverty and economic hardship and preparedness to support or initiate ‘physical force’ measures. In areas or trades his by depression and resulting lack of work, increased desperation led to wider willingness to enlist in revolts, plots and the ‘Holiday’; where trade was more prosperous or at least reviving, support for radical measures fell away. (So in Oldham, where, as mentioned above, support for the Sacred Month was scant, trade in the textile mills had recently picked up.) The handloom weavers, whose work was being replaced by factories, were being driven to the edge and were correspondingly more up for a sharper, deeper change…

But more fundamental problems of planning also undermined the attempt to put the Sacred Month into practice. Benbow’s suggestion, that revolutionary local councils should organise the expropriation of the rich to provide for people deprived of wages when they struck, proved difficult, with an organised police force, now properly up and running, soldiers deployed around the country, and a government in reality more prepared for violence than the workers were. Mass expropriation sounds attractive when you’re starving and angry, but logistically, it was quite a step to take. It was not to be attempted, which may well have doomed the Grand National Holiday from the start.

Few workers had any savings, and if some had small plots of land to feed themselves, many had nothing. Without a mass will to seize the means of production from the start, a simple economic stoppage was up against it from the start.

By September, the Chartists were themselves discussing the strike’s failure, and some were admitting they had not been adequately prepared. According to Bury Chartist Dr Fletcher, “It must be admitted that they had been attempting something which they had not either the strength or the wisdom to enable them to effect.” Fletcher, for one, did not give up on the idea of force to achieve Chartist ends, though he felt that it could be more effectively achieved if control of any future ‘physical’ action lay with local groups, not with a National Convention which had proved itself wobbly in the face of the crucial moment. Fletcher also identified a factor other theorists of the General Strike would later re-iterate: “if the working classes would fight, they must begin themselves, and the convention must not be the father of the act, but the child of it.” A centrally declared national strike is much less likely to succeed than an organic movement built towards the centre from the grassroots (See the appendix below on Rosa Luxemburg and the Mass Strike.)

So in the end, the Grand National Holiday, the Sacred Month, fizzled out. Many of the Chartists still at large began instead to plan insurrections, based locally. Armed revolt did break out in Newport, South Wales, in November 1839, and plots were also barely forestalled by the authorities in Yorkshire.

Though the Grand National Holiday failed to overthrow british capitalism in its infancy, the idea remained strong among the international working class. The theory of the General strike, as a method of overthrowing class society and introducing a more just and egalitarian economic and social order, was revived, most powerfully by the French syndicalists in the late 19th century. Some socialist historians have asserted that French radical workers were introduced to the idea by English workmen during meetings of the First International in the 1860s. So perhaps old Chartists influenced by William Benbow, or recalling 1839, passed this idea of to a new generation who picked it up and ran with it…

More on William Benbow’s life

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Appendix: Rosa Luxembourg and the Mass Strike

It’s not our intention here to go into detailed theoretical proposals for how a possible future General Strike might pan out differently. But one classic communist text we have read we did find useful. Initially it was interesting to us when looking at the British General Strike of 1926, and relating theories of a General Strike as a method of initiating possible social revolution. But it also can be helpful when looking at 1839.

Rosa Luxemburg, in her book, The Mass Strike (1905), made some critiques of how anarchists, syndicalists, and trade unionists of her time all saw the General Strike. She suggested that the idea of the anarchists and syndicalists of a political general strike pre-arranged with a political aim to overthrow capitalism was unlikely to succeed, but posited instead (based on an analysis of the 1905 Russian Revolution) that a mass strike, evolving more organically out of people’s immediate economic struggles in daily life, meshing together, constituted a new phase in the class struggle, not an abstract and artificial moment plucked from the air, but a historical development, emerging from below, not being imposed or ordained by any higher authority, or even she suggests by an external political radical structure like a socialist party.

Part of Luxembourg’s intent in writing The Mass Strike, it is true, was to discredit the existing theories of the General Strike as put forward mainly by anarchists and syndicalists, trends of radical thinking that she and other marxists were struggling to liquidate from the working class movement, as they saw it. But she was also engaged in a parallel battle against those within the Marxist camp who were attempting to steer Marxism towards a reformist position, away from the idea of a revolutionary transformation of capitalism; as well as being critical of trade unionists mainly concerned with purely day to day economic gains at the expense of the bigger picture.

Theorists of the General Strike thus far had almost exclusively conceived of it as a road to revolution. Sixty years after the Chartist Grand National Holiday, the French syndicalists, organised in the CGT union confederation, developed theories in which the General Strike was central. They saw it as the supreme weapon for the workers to overthrow capitalism and take control of society in their own interests. One of the CGT’s founders and leading theorists, Fernand Pelloutier, wrote about the General Strike. Two examples showing how he and other revolutionary syndicalists saw this future strike:
“ … Every one of them (the strikers) will remain in their neighbourhoods and will take possession, first, of the small workshops and the bakeries, then of the bigger workshops, and finally, but only after the victory, of the large industrial plants….”
“ … Because the general strike is a revolution which is everywhere and nowhere, because it takes possession of the instruments of production in each neighbourhood, in each street, in each building, so to speak, there can be no establishment of an “Insurrectionary Government” or a “dictatorship of the proletariat”; no focal point of the whole uprising or a centre of resistance; instead, the free association of each group of bakers, in each bakery, of each group of locksmiths, in each locksmith’s shop: in a word, free production….”

The syndicalist line on the General Strike was very much to the fore when The Mass Strike was written. It attempts to dismiss the prevailing ideas of the potential of such a struggle : “It is just as impossible to ‘propagate’ the mass strike as an abstract means of struggle as it is to propagate the ‘revolution.’ ‘Revolution’ like ‘mass strike’ signifies nothing but an external form of the class struggle, which can have sense and meaning only in connection with definite political situations.”
You can’t create either by going round calling for it, in other words; it will emerge as and when needed and according to the conditions of the moment. It is not ONE predictable fixed open and close struggle, but an inter-connected web of movements events, themselves caused by local or specific economic conditions, though led and expressed by people with a political idea of the movement, at least as Luxemburg saw it.
Another nice quote: “It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena.”
Rosa saw it as not a method but THE form itself of workers struggle… A rallying idea of a period of class war lasting years or decades… It cannot be called at will by any organization even The Party! She goes further and almost says that it cannot be directed from above or outside, though she does say elsewhere that the socialists have to provide political leadership.
She does contrast the mass fighting strikes with one off ‘demonstration’ strikes – what the TUC or Unison calls today ‘days of action’ in other words.
Related to this, she says the successful mass strike arising in the way described above would not/must not be limited to the organized workers: “If the mass strike, or rather, mass strikes, and the mass struggle are to be successful they must become a real people’s movement, that is, the widest sections of the proletariat must be drawn into the fight.” The union structures must recognise the common interest of unionised and non-unionised workers, in other words (to their surprise many strike committees learnt this lesson in practice in 1926, as unorganised workers flocked to the struggle in thousands).

She suggests minority movements are pipe dreams; “a strategy of class struggle … which is based upon the idea of the finely stage-managed march out of the small, well-trained part of the proletariat is foredoomed to be a miserable fiasco.” Even though the Socialists are the leadership of the working class, she suggests, they can’t force things through on their own… (past tense would question that the working class needs an external leadership, here we do differ from auntie Rosa).
Later on she talks about trade unions getting to the point where preservation of the organisation, its structure etc, becomes end in itself, or at least more important than taking risks, entering into all out struggles, or even any at all! Also how daily struggles over small issues often lead people to lose sight of wider class antagonism or larger connections… Interestingly she points out that TU bureaucracies become obsessed with the positive, membership numbers etc, and limited to their own union’s gains, ignoring negative developments, hostile to critics who point out the limitations to their activities. And how the development of professional bureaucracies increase the chance of divorce of officials etc from daily struggles… Nothing sharp-eyed folk have not also pointed out over the last hundred years, but she was among the first to diagnose it. (She also says the same ossification processes are dangers the Revolutionary Party needs to beware of… showing foresights to the developments of the communist parties and other left splinters over the following decades).

Rosa Luxembourg’s assertion that a successful general strike would have to arise organically, meshing together from below rather than being ‘called’ by any committee or confederation, is possibly a more realistic guess at how a successful strike movement might threaten to overthrow capitalist social relations than some other theories. In the case of 1839, some Chartists were attempting to crowbar a General Strike into existence, in conditions that may have doomed it from the start. Interestingly, viewed through her prism, the plug strikes of 1842 in the north of England probably had more ‘revolutionary potential’, arising from the immediate need of the workers involved, as they did, rather than the somewhat forced Grand National Holiday. However, it is also interesting to compare Benbow’s idea of local committees of working class activists taking on ordering food distribution and keeping order, with both the councils of action in the 1926 General Strike (and similar structures thrown up elsewhere, like the 1956 workers councils in the Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination, or in embryonic form in some places in the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent in Britain). Benbow was early to spot how such structures would be necessary in a time of ‘dual power’, where capitalist state still exists but workers are powerful enough to begin to supersede it.

Though Rosa Luxemburg disagreed with Fernand Pelloutier, her vision, like that of Benbow, also suggests a revolution that is ‘everywhere and nowhere’, part of a tangled period of change and dual power… a future that remains open and in our hands…

The text of the Mass Strike can be found online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1906/mass-strike/

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London educational history: London School of Economics occupied, 1969.

In January 1969 the London School of Economics was occupied by its students in protest at the appointment of Walter Adams as Director, due to his links to the rightwing regime in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The college authorities erected steel gates in an attempt to prevent students congregating and moving around…

An account and analysis was written shortly after by Martin Shaw, then a sociology student, member of the International Socialists and leading light of the occupation (now a professor of international relations and global politics at the University of Sussex):

“On 24th January the students at the London School of Economics tore down steel gates erected to control sit-ins and occupations, bringing on themselves a three and a half week closure of the School in which police and law courts were used by the LSE authorities against the students.

Although the authorities have now been forced to open the college, legal and disciplinary action is still (at the beginning of March) under way against some staff and students. Students are still faced with a long fight against these measures.

This struggle can be traced directly to the occupation of the School in support of the Vietnam demonstration in October 1968. It was after this action (which lasted for a weekend and was supported by 600 LSE students and thousands of outsiders) that the authorities began to prepare an offensive against the militant movement which had grown up over the previous two years. Since the successful sit-in of March 1967, supported by a majority of the students, students led by the Socialist Society had continually challenged the power of the authorities, without meeting any response. But if the actual events at LSE since March 1967 had not been of proportions to necessitate a showdown, the spreading of student action to other colleges, culminating in the summer of 1968 with the sit-in at Essex and the long bitter conflicts in the art colleges – which coincided with events in France – had made the university authorities determined to act against the students. Meetings of the University vice-chancellors in June, to coordinate their own response, and in October, to rally the National Union of Students to their support, prepared the way for the clamp-down at LSE. The LSE authorities themselves liaised with the Government and the police (as the report of Dr. Adams, Director of LSE, on the October occupation admits). When the lock-out came they received extremely strong backing from the State authorities. It is obvious that the Government, already attacking the educational system for its lack of subordination to economic priorities and determined at the same time to crush opposition in the factories, was ready to support an attempt to crush student militancy and expel the revolutionaries. By January events were coming to a head with the college. A strong movement had developed against the involvement of LSE in Southern Africa, and pressure for direct action built up as the authorities refused to act on student demands that LSE should give up its investments in companies with interests in Southern Africa, that governors should not hold directorships in such companies and that they should not be allowed to recruit on campus. When in mid-January the authorities’ new measures against student militancy, planned since October, finally became clear, a clash was inevitable. The Academic Board ignored an overwhelming student request not to approve the new code of discipline prepared by its General Purposes Committee of which the Director and other Academic Governors are key members. The authorities refused to negotiate over demands to remove the newly installed steel grilles, offering to discuss only the particular location of individual gates.

The gates were removed after a Students’ Union vote by a party of 300 students who walked round the School dismantling each in turn.”

Robin Blackburn: “I was a lecturer at the LSE from 1967. Partly because of the occupation of the college in ’67 the authorities decided that college shouldn’t be used to assist things like the VSC and should never again be open to things like being seized by the students. They put steel gates and grilles in strategic places throughout the corridors and staircases of the university. The Students Union decided to ask the authorities to take them down, which of course they refused to do. Eventually the radical group in the Students Union got a vote that the students themselves should directly tear down the gates, which they did, with the help of some building workers who were building the Barbican and with whom they had been involved. There had been a strike and people from the Socialist Society had been helping them picket and leaflet and so forth. So when the gates had to be taken down they were able to get a couple of building workers in who had the right equipment. I had actually had nothing to do with the decision to remove the gates but I did come out in public, and the papers quoted me afterwards, saying that they’d done the right thing. So the university authorities DECIDED TO give me the sack. That caused more reaction from the students and actually by this time the LSE had been closed down ‑ there was a lockout of the students and the staff.
During these occupations I did try to keep teaching. We did courses on the sociology of revolution, that type of thing.” (Robin Blackburn, in ‘Days in the Life’)

“After this was accomplished, the militants elected an action committee to coordinate action against the measures expected from the authorities. Although Dave Fernbach, an LSE militant, has written that ‘in the face of threats to close a college, we must show that we are prepared to run it – as a Commune …’, at this point the extreme ‘Left’ in the Socialist Society were just as much opposed as were moderates to a proposal to occupy the School to prevent its being closed. A fatalism about the inevitable showdown, which had already gripped many non-revolutionary students, producing a relatively low vote for the dismantling of the gates, extended at this point to the Left itself, which deserted the main buildings. (Most just went home – others stayed in the bar, where the police assault came, hours later.)

After the closure and the clashes with the police outside LSE and Bow Street police station, on the night of Friday 24th January, the Left began to organise. Morale recovered to the extent that ideas of storming LSE were seriously entertained. The main advocates of this were those who saw the LSE as a ‘red base’ from which to set society alight. Borrowing from Mao and Guevara (to the extent that one prominent supporter of NLR [I’m guessing this stands for New Left Review – ed] seriously suggested raiding a sea-cadets’ hall to get rifles in order to frighten the police!) they ignored the weakness within the base. Students who had been unwilling to occupy on Friday, or even to unscrew the steel grilles, were nowhere near prepared to storm LSE on Saturday or Monday. This became clear when the first large meeting, of 500, was held on Monday 27th. If any change had occurred, fatalism was giving way to a curious wishful thinking, with an inclination to believe a hint by the Director that the School would reopen the same week. In any case, few LSE students were prepared to come on a demonstration that afternoon, and if demands for a reopening without gates or police or staff informing were carried overwhelmingly, it was nevertheless without enthusiasm for action. The militants had clearly mistaken their own consciousness for that of the mass of students. Direct action could obviously be undertaken only if the militants substituted themselves for the mass. That ideas of such action were entertained, especially after Monday’s meeting had clarified the position, was due to two main factors.

One was the level of support from outside LSE. Whereas a weariness and fatalistic attitude persisted among LSE students, in many other colleges the authorities’ actions, in bringing the police on campus, cut through much of the liberal ideology of the university and aroused large numbers of new students to support LSE. The Left in many places made major advances. Of course, in many colleges motions of support were defeated, or were carried only in order to defeat proposals for action. And where solidarity occupations or demonstrations did occur, they were often minority actions and all of a token character (only at the most advanced, Essex, did action last for more than 24 hours). But a considerable enthusiasm gripped the Left in most colleges, who came to support the London demonstration. These were the people who found themselves in the University of London Union (ULU) building on Monday night, after the first demonstration, (representatives of most left-wing groups in London were also there, including some who found it much easier to cash in on the LSE than to organise solidarity in their own college.) Many of them – and some of the Left in LSE – believed that LSE would have a far greater impact on the rest of the world than the evidence actually suggested. Thus this outside support combined with some elements in LSE to produce a second factor which was decisive at the time – an ideology of the ‘red base’.

This was the idea that ‘the university or college with a red strategic majority can function as a revolutionary political presence or foco, expressing the ideas of socialist revolution to which the working class must be won.’ This conceives of the student struggle as necessarily a revolutionary struggle, the function of which is to ‘set fire’ to the working class (as in France in May). So despite the fact that most LSE students did not see their struggle as at all revolutionary, and were not even prepared to demonstrate, never mind to storm LSE, and that there was no sign of an insurrection in the universities, or even of token support from more than a handful of workers, it was necessary to take some action which would spark off such national developments. To many it seemed that to occupy anywhere would do. Unwilling to attack LSE or even the University of London Senate House just down the road from ULU, where the LSE students were meeting, they decided to occupy ULU itself – which was the most convenient if strategically irrelevant target.

Of course, LSE students needed a base in which to meet and from which to circulate propaganda among themselves, to other colleges and to workers. The ULU authorities had offered minor obstruction to the LSE militants, but there was no definite prospect that ULU would be closed to us. In any case, even if convenient it was not essential. And LSE students could not be mobilised to defend its use – indeed only a few of them could be mobilised for anything at that point. There was little justification in the LSE struggle itself for seizing ULU – unless it was argued that this would spark off nationwide actions. And, this was in fact the basis on which the occupation was voted, by a meeting in which LSE students were a small minority. Outsiders, identified with Maoist and Posadist tendencies, proposed an occupation in order to establish a ‘revolutionary centre’ for the ‘working masses’. They were not challenged by an NLR spokesman from LSE whose ‘heroic’ speech decided the issue – he too saw the act as indicating a ‘rebirth of a revolutionary movement’. LSE students who spoke against it, and for maintaining direction of the struggle by LSE students, were shouted down.

It became clear the next day that LSE students who had not been present the previous night were even further alienated by this ‘revolutionisation’ of their struggle. It was a big mistake for the militants, because it gave the impression that the struggle was not for non-revolutionaries in LSE, but for ‘revolutionaries’ from all over London (who were themselves isolating themselves from any local base they may have had). It could not have the effect outside LSE which only a strong united stand of the LSE students themselves could have had. The LSE militants began to understand that this was what they had to work towards, and that the ULU occupation was actually a threat to this task. On Tuesday the occupation was ended by a virtually unanimous vote of LSE militants. Many of those who had supported it on Monday were however to disappear from the scene after this, and left-wingers in other colleges who did not understand what was done were disillusioned.

Later that week it became clear that the authorities were not prepared for an immediate reopening, unless it was clear that most students would capitulate to disciplinary measures. These were now being prepared: three lecturers were to be tried for their jobs, thirteen students were placed under injunctions restricting their political activities, and a porter sympathetic to students was suspended. The Director wrote to all students demanding guarantees of orderly conduct and acceptance of disciplinary proceedings if LSE was to be reopened. A special meeting of the LSE Union, called for February 3rd by the Union Council with the support of the right wing in the hope of crushing the militants, roundly refused the Director’s terms and adopted the militants’ demands instead. A committee was elected including ten students under injunctions, which was to act as coordinator for two and a half weeks until LSE was reopened. The militants’ strategy now was to keep the students together while waiting for the pressures to build up on the authorities to open the School – the point being that action was much more possible at that point, with the mass of students constantly around and less intimidated. By Thursday the same week the Academic Board, a powerless if quite influential assembly of the staff, voted for a reopening within eight days. The Director had indicated that the authorities’ intention was to keep the School closed until March 10th while disciplinary proceedings were taken, but next week the Governors announced a reopening on February 19th – a few days after the academics’ deadline.

The reopening of the LSE was accompanied by a firm threat to continue disciplinary action against staff and to launch it against ten students when legal proceedings are concluded. The Governors also threatened renewed closure if students took direct action. The students’ response was a militant march into the LSE, but at a meeting of more than 1,100 a proposal to occupy on the demand to end victimisation was defeated by about 7-4. Another meeting has also rejected this, albeit more narrowly, while verbally reaffirming opposition to victimisation. Students may act when expulsions actually take effect, as they did in 1967 in the cases of Adelstein and Bloom after refusing any action before the verdict was known. But it is difficult to see how this will be possible if the authorities wait until the vacation. This has raised again the question of minority action by the militants.

Although this is often raised as a question of moral duty, it is also argued for on the basis that only a minority will ever act. This of course is very much opposed to the concept of a ‘red base’ with a ‘red majority’, although paradoxically supported by many of those who put forward at least the former slogan. It is contradicted too by the experience of the first LSE sit-in, and of many actions in Britain, that it is possible for a majority to act, or at least for a minority to take action with the definite acquiescence of the majority. There seems to be little reason to wholly exclude this at a later stage of the LSE struggle. The organised right wing is growing, but it is only a small minority who will definitely refuse to act on the issue of victimisation at any point. What is true, however, is that the majority will only act (in the present, non-revolutionary, situation) on limited issues. Although influenced by revolutionary ideas, because the socialist students are in the lead on every major issue in the college, it is not a ‘red’ majority which is likely to won decisively to revolutionary politics. Those who are, are still a small minority; but in order to win these socialists must advance demands around which a mass student movement can emerge. It is in demonstrating the relevance of socialist ideas to meaningful demands within the universities, as well as by general political propaganda and agitation, that revolutionaries will win adherents.

The concept of a ‘red base’ is dangerous because it constantly obscures the nature of the student movement in a non-revolutionary situation, and the relationship of revolutionaries to it. When revolutionaries believe that mass support on Vietnam, or Rhodesia, or repression within the university means they have a firm ‘red base’ ready for any challenge, they are likely to minimise their tasks and resort to the kind of substitutionism seen in LSE. There is a strong danger of isolation and defeat. But in another sense, too, the LSE struggle has demonstrated the danger of the ‘red base’ conception for the revolutionary left. Such ideas derive largely from the May experience in France. On the basis of this it is argued that the proclamation of the ‘red university’ is likely to fire the workers and create a revolutionary situation. This idea was expressed both after LSE closed, and when there was a prospect that an occupation of LSE would coincide with the Fords strike. This hope is a constant temptation to the ‘revolutionary’ gesture. But even in France it was not by general gestures but by a determined fight for their own demands that the students provoked the strikes and occupations. And it is a mechanistic approach which learns nothing from France which expects even this course to be followed here. Revolutionary situations are products of more than just a clash between students and police. Such clashes have occurred on a large scale in many countries without resulting in a significant response from the workers. Revolutionary students must make a real attempt to build links with the workers. Their ‘example’ will not suffice.

One task rather neglected in the LSE lock-out was the attempt to gain trade union support. The LSE branch of ASTMS supported students’ demands, but took no action. Some propaganda work among workers was done by LSE students leafleting, mainly in Fleet Street among printworkers. This was done partly through contacts already made by IS. Much of the leafleting of workers about LSE was done, however, by local socialist groups, and its impact must have been affected by previous activities of these groups. And the only regular information and propaganda about LSE for workers was carried by papers like Socialist Worker. Similarly, support given by LSE students to Ford workers has been organised through contacts at Fords made by IS in months of regular work beforehand. In the LSE struggle the slogan ‘Students Workers, Unite and Fight’ has begun to receive some meaning through the support given to each other’s struggles. But it has depended on a more permanent unity of students and workers inside socialist organisations. The building of such organisations inside the working class is a much more important means of raising the level of working-class activity than the attempt to ‘spark’ working-class militancy from the ‘red base’. What is more, it offers the only possibility that a revolutionary situation will be resolved in a socialist direction. These questions of strategy and tactics, arising from the LSE struggle, will increasingly confront the revolutionary student movement.” (Martin Shaw)

A couple of days after the lockout started at LSE, students also occupied the University of London Union buildings (on January 27th):
‘University of London Union is now liberated territory occupied by  revolutionaries The buildings are yours to use as you want. It can be turned into a permanent base for agitation in the London area.The facilities can be used by anyone joining us. We are using the duplication facilities in the Union office on the ground floor, and they can be used by anyone wishes to circulate any kind of document. There is no control over free expression. This goes for the rest of the building ‑ so far only partly explored. The only thing which needs to be organised in common is defence and basic survival ‑ food and sleep. Inside the building, we are all responsible for resisting any bureaucratic organisation of activities: discussion, decoration, planning for agitation, music. Remember there is a swimming pool. If anyone tells you what to do, report them to the security committee. IT IS FORBIDDEN TO FORBID. EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED.
The Security Committee’

Amongst those who answering the radical call to occupy ULU, were some of those involved in the ‘pro-situationist’ King Mob group:
“When we took over the ULU building, Chris Gray and the Situationist mob decided that the only interesting part of the student union was the kitchen, which they took over immediately and rifled the fridge. He just thought it was fantastic that he could fry all these steaks simultaneously. I remember them all cooking and thinking this was brilliant. They could have started their own restaurant right there down in the basement of the student union building.”

“When King Mob was going at full blast, after the LSE sit~in there was a sit‑in at the University of London Union and we got involved in that. It lasted several days Everyone was sleeping on the floor and all that. The New Left crowd tried to run it. We gave Robin Blackburn a really bad time, howled him down, told him he was a wanker. They were very worried this, we might damage things ‑ don’t scratch the paintwork ‑ so a bunch of people went and bust open the swimming pool and had this huge swimming party. The whole thing was very fraught because you’d got this mass of students, the New Left people telling them to be serious and responsible, and King Mob telling them to get their rocks off, let it all hang out, etc. It was very iffy, because the great mass in the middle were swaying both ways. Only a minority supported us; the majority wanted to be quiet and respectable, but these two guys came out of the crowd and joined in with us and said, ‘We’re with you.’ They were a couple of art students from Goldsmith’s and one was called Fred Vermorel and the other was called Malcolm Edwards. They both had long, dirty khaki macs, a couple of impoverished an students. And of course Malcolm went on to finer things and became Malcolm McLaren…” (Dick Pountain, in ‘Days in the Life’)

According to some accounts, it was King Mob who had demolished the LSE gates in the first place:

“Before they could do anything the director, Pall) Dahrendorf had these security gates built so you couldn’t get into the library. They’d just been installed and the Trotskyists were talking about sitting down in front of the gates and standing in pickets and walking around saying ‘No gates’ and the anarchs listened to this meeting which was going on and on. Robin Blackburn of the International Millionaires Group: ‘We think, comrades, that what we should do is blah,bIah, blah… Then Duffy Power got up, pissed out of his mind, and shouted, ‘We’re the International Mine s a Pint Committee and this over here is my friend from the Black Hand Gang and we think we should fuck the gates and take them away and burn them.
‘And they got screwdrivers and they went up and stole the gates.” According to Fred Vermorel, Dave and Stewart Wise’ supplied the muscle (and 2 sledge‑hammers) to despatch the infamous ‘gates’…’ King Mob and The Black Hand Gang (Chris Gray and the Wise brothers) subsequently put out ‘Comrades Stop Buggering About’ LSE poster mag (KING MOB 49) including:’THIS IS YOUR BUILDING. GO WHERE YOU WANT. TELL YOUR SECURITY GUARD To FUCK OFF!’; ‘furtively taken down by the security guards… The LSE, like all other occupations so far, was a mere introjection of the bourgeois order. What do we want: all the shit of bourgeois society?’ (Dave Robins)

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London dole history: Greenwich/Deptford guardians offices occupied by unemployed, 1922.

The National Unemployed Workers Movement emerged as a powerful organisation of the unwaged working class in Britain during the post-World War 1. Although the NUWM later became associated with the huge national hunger marches, in its early phase it was based on local action by small self-organised unemployed groups, working on issues affecting the unemployed. Often this meant pressing for more generous ‘relief’ payments or other handouts. These were grudgingly dispensed by the local Boards of Guardians, local officials appointed by the parish, whose remit was to keep down the costs to rate-payers by restricting relief or by forcing people with no work into workhouses.

In 1921-22 local unemployed groups put pressure on Boards of Guardians for help for the poor. As just one example of this struggle, we reprint a snippet from Southeast London:

“The Greenwich and Deptford unemployed organised a deputation on 18th January, 1922, to the guardians’ offices with the intention of compelling the board to grant one hundredweight of coal to those who were on relief. This coal allowance had been promised three weeks previously, but had not been actually provided. The deputation, numbering twenty, were received by the board. Trouble started as soon as the deputation began to state their case – members of the board continually interrupting them and trying to tie them down to the discussion of only one item.

As the board would not listen quietly to their case the deputation decided on direct action. The doors were fastened and windows were guarded, and for an hour and a half the business of he board was held up whilst threats were hurled at the unemployed by the chairman for their unconstitutional action. Ultimately the police, who had been repeatedly rattling the door, forced it open, but strange to say, when the police entered the chairman asked them to withdraw. He then opened the meeting of the board, while the unemployed stood around the room. Within the space of two minutes he took a vote on the question of the coal allowance, deciding that it should be granted from that afternoon onwards and promising to call a special meeting to deal with the other points that the deputation had raised.” (Wal Hannington, Unemployed Struggles 1919-36)

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London religious history: Lodovick Muggleton ordered to be pilloried, his books burnt, Old Bailey, 1677.

Lodowick Muggleton was a self-proclaimed prophet, who emerged from the swirling pool of sects, preachers and cults that characterised mid-17th century London. Muggleton could be said to have broadly been associated with individuals who were lumped together as ‘ranters’, though he moved away from this scene and sought to distance himself from its ‘excesses’. Nevertheless his views on religion and his elevating himself as a prophet got him into trouble with the authorities, and he was imprisoned twice for his beliefs. His follower, later called Muggletonians, developed an individual creed, and survived until 1979.

After claiming to have had spiritual revelations, beginning in 1651, Muggleton and his cousin John Reeve announced themselves as the two prophetic witnesses referred to in Revelations 11:3. Their book, A Transcendent Spiritual Treatise upon Several Heavenly Doctrines, was published in 1652. They further expounded their beliefs in A Divine Looking-Glass (1656), maintaining that the traditional distinction between the three Persons of the Triune God is purely nominal, that God has a real human body, and that he left the Old Testament Hebrew prophet Elijah, who had ascended to heaven, as his vice regent when he himself descended to die on the Cross.

According to Muggleton and Reeve, the unforgivable sin was not to believe in them as true prophets. Although they gained some notable men as followers, the group’s notions provoked much opposition. Muggleton was imprisoned for blasphemy in 1653, and his own followers temporarily rebelled against him in 1660 and 1670.

Muggleton also entered into a long feud with the Quakers, which led their leader, William Penn, to write The New Witnesses Proved Old Hereticks (1672) as an attack on him.

Muggleton spent his working life as a journeyman tailor in the City of London. He held opinions hostile to all forms of philosophical reason, and had received only a basic education. His discovery that he was a prophet emerged from his musings about resurrection and hellfire. Having somewhat despairingly concluded that he must leave it all to God, “even as the potter doth what he will with the dead clay”, he then began to experience revelations concerning the meaning of scripture. This was obviously influenced by other ‘prophets’ Muggleton observed speaking in London at the time.

“It came to pass in the year 1650, I heard of several prophets and prophetess that were about the streets and declared the Day of the Lord, and many other wonderful things.” Notable among these preachers mentioned by Muggleton were John Robins and Thomas Tany (Muggleton calls him John Tannye). “I have had nine or ten of them at my house at a time,” reports Muggleton. The prophets claimed power to damn any that opposed them.

Muggleton says of Robins that he regarded himself as God come to judge the quick and the dead and, as such, had resurrected and redeemed Cain and Judas Iscariot as well as resurrecting Jeremiah and many of the Old Testament prophets. Robins displayed considerable ‘magical’ talents; presenting the appearance of angels, burning shining lights, half-moons and stars in chambers, thick darkness with his head in a flame of fire and his person riding on the wings of the wind. This clearly theatrical performance left a lasting impression on Muggleton.

While Muggleton denounced Robins as a false prophet, for ‘self-deification’ and of indulging in dangerous powers many years later, he wrote appreciating Robins’ power and the belief even his enemies had in his curses.

 The Muggletonian ‘movement’ was born on 3 February 1651 (old style), the date Muggleton’s cousin, fellow London tailor, John Reeve, said he had received a commission from God “to the hearing of the ear as a man speaks to a friend.” Reeve claimed to have been told four things:

  • “I have given thee understanding of my mind in the Scriptures above all men in the world.”
  • “Look into thy own body, there thou shalt see the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Kingdom of Hell.”
  • “I have chosen thee a last messenger for a great work, unto this bloody unbelieving world. And I have given thee Lodowick Muggleton to be thy mouth.”
  • “I have put the two-edged sword of my spirit into thy mouth, that whoever I pronounce blessed, through thy mouth, is blessed to eternity; and whoever I pronounce cursed through thy mouth is cursed to eternity.”

Reeve believed that he and Muggleton were the two witnesses spoken of in the third verse of the eleventh chapter of the Book of Revelation.

Throughout the period until the death of John Reeve in 1658, Muggleton seems to have acted only as Reeve’s ever-present sidekick. There is no record of him writing any works of his own nor of him acting independently of Reeve. The pair were tried for blasphemy and jailed for six months in 1653/4.

Apparently, on the death of John Reeve, there was a power-struggle between Lodowicke Muggleton and former ranter Laurence Clarkson (or Claxton) for leadership of the sect, and subsequently there were disputes with those followers of John Reeve who did not accept Muggleton’s authority.

The Muggletonians emphasised the Millennium and the Second Coming of Christ, and believed, among other things, that the soul is mortal; that Jesus is God (and not a member of a Trinity); that when Jesus died there was no God in Heaven, and Moses and Elijah looked after Heaven until Jesus’ resurrection; that Heaven is six miles above Earth; that God is between five and six feet tall; and that any external religious ceremony is not necessary. Some scholars think that Muggletonian doctrine may have influenced the work of the artist and poet William Blake.

The six principles of Muggletonianism were perhaps best summed up thus:

  • There is no God but the glorified Man Christ Jesus.
  • There is no Devil but the unclean Reason of men.
  • Heaven is an infinite abode of light above and beyond the stars.
  • The place of Hell will be this Earth when sun, moon and stars are extinguished.
  • Angels are the only beings of Pure Reason.
  • The Soul dies with the body and will be raised with it.

These principles derive from Lodowicke Muggleton, who added one other matter as being of equal importance, namely, that God takes no immediate notice of doings in this world. If people sin, it is against their own consciences and not because God “catches them at it”.

John Reeve’s formulation also included pacifism and the doctrine of the two seeds This credo held all humans had within themselves something from Seth and something from Cain: the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. The former promoted faith within us, the latter promoted reasoning and desire. This is the conflict within every person. This is a predestinarian belief but, because there are two seeds and not one, humanity is not rendered abject and the innocence of Adam and Eve still has a chance of coming to the top within modern humankind.

According to Rev Dr Alexander Gordon of Belfast, “The system of belief is a singular union of opinions which seem diametrically opposed. It is rationalistic on one side, credulous on another.”

Muggletonianism was in many ways profoundly materialist. Matter pre-existed even the creation of our universe; nothing can be created from nothing. God, identified as the Holy One of Israel, is a being with a glorified body, in appearance much like a man. There can never be a spirit without a body. A purely spiritual deity, lacking any locus, would be an absurdity incapable of action in a material world (from which doctrine came Muggleton’s particular disputes with the Quakers). The man Christ Jesus was not sent from God but was the very God appearing on this earth. Speculation about a divine nature and a human nature, or about the Trinity, is not in error so much as unnecessary. At worst, John Reeve said, it encourages people to ascribe to the deity a whole ragbag of inconsistent human attributes expressed as superlatives.

Reason stems from desire and lack. Reason is not seen as a sublime mental process but as a rather shoddy trick humans use to try to get what they misguidedly imagine they want. Angels are creatures of Pure Reason because their only desire is for God so that their lack will be totally satisfied over and over again. The reprobate angel was not at fault. God deliberately chose to deprive this angel of satisfaction so that, by his fall, the other angels would become aware that their perfection came from God and not from their own natures.

Professor Lamont sees 17th century Muggletonianism as an early form of liberation theology. Because there are no spirits without bodies, there can be no ghosts, no witches, no grounds for fear and superstition and no all-seeing eye of God. Once persons are contented in their faith, they are free to speculate as they please on all other matters. God will take no notice.

Through the 1600s and 70s Muggleton entered into hostile polemics with a number of Quakers.

In 1669, Muggleton’s An answer to Isaac Pennington, Quaker was intercepted at the printers by the Searcher of the Press, and Muggleton was tipped off that a warrant for his arrest would be issued and he was able to disappear for nine months to live in hiding amongst the watermen of Wapping.

In 1675, Muggleton, as executor of the estate of Deborah Brunt, became involved in property litigation against Alderman John James. He seems largely to have been successful until his opponent hit upon the idea of trying to get him excommunicated in the Court of Arches so that he could no longer have defence of law in civil matters. At the time, Muggleton was in hiding at the house of Ann Lowe, a believer, from an arrest warrant of the Stationers Company. Hiding was now no longer a solution as Muggleton could be excommunicated in his absence if he did not appear and plead. On doing so, Muggleton was remanded to Guildhall Court on a warrant of the Lord Chief Justice. It was Muggleton’s ill-luck that the Lord Mayor that year was a stationer. Muggleton was bailed to appear to answer charges arising from his book The Neck of the Quakers broken, specifically that he did curse Dr Edward Bourne of Worcester, therein. Muggleton remarks that it was strange that a curse against a Quaker should be considered blasphemy by the established church. Muggleton’s problem was that it was common practice for recently published dissenting books to bear false dates and places of publication to escape the law. Muggleton’s bore a false place (Amsterdam, not London) but a true date, some 13 years earlier, and he should have escaped prosecution. No evidence, other than innuendo, was offered by the prosecution.

On 17 January 1676 (1677 new style) Muggleton was tried at the Old Bailey, convicted of blasphemy, and sentenced to three days in the pillory and a fine of £500. At each of his three two-hourly appearances in the pillory (at Temple Gate, outside the Royal Exchange and at the market in West Smithfield) a selection of the books seized from Muggleton were burnt by the common hangman. Considerable public disturbance arose from fights between Muggleton’s supporters and members of the public who felt deprived of their sport. Nevertheless, Muggleton (who was no longer a young man) was badly injured. Muggleton’s attempts to get himself released from Newgate gaol were frustrated because his keepers were reluctant to let go a prisoner from whom they could derive a profit. Muggleton was advised to get Ann Lowe to sue him for debt so that a writ of habeas corpus would remove him from Newgate to the Fleet prison. Eventually, the Sheriff of London, Sir John Peak was persuaded to release Muggleton for a payment of £100 cash down.

Lodowicke Muggleton died on 14 March 1698 aged 88.

In 1832, some sixty Muggletonians asubscribed to bring out a complete edition of The Miscellaneous Works of Reeve and Muggleton in 3 vols.

Muggletonianism has been called “disorganised religion”. Believers held no annual conferences, never organised a single public meeting, seem to have escaped every official register or census of religion, never incorporated, never instituted a friendly society, never appointed a leader, spokesperson, editorial board, chairperson for meetings or a single committee. Their sole foray into bureaucracy was to appoint trustees for their investment, the income from which paid the rent on the London Reading Room between 1869 and 1918.

Muggletonian meetings were simple comings-together of individuals who appeared to feel that discussion with like-minded believers helped clarify their own thoughts. “Nothing in the Muggletonian history becomes it more than its fidelity to open debate (though sometimes rancorous).”

Records and correspondence show that meetings took place from the 1650s to 1940 in London and for almost as long in Derbyshire. Regular meetings occurred at other places at other times. Bristol, Cork, Faversham and Nottingham are among those known, and there were many others, especially in East Anglia and Kent.

In both London and Derbyshire two types of meeting were held. There were regular discussion meetings and there were holiday meetings of a more celebratory nature held in mid-February (to commemorate the start of the Third Commission) and at the end of July (to remember Muggleton’s release from imprisonment).

There remains a description of a Muggletonian holiday meeting held at the Reading Room at 7 New Street, London on February 14, 1869. There were about 40 members present, of whom slightly more than half were men. One quarter were said to have been born into the faith. Tea was served at 5 o’clock. Discussion continued until 6 when a lady sang “Arise, My Soul, Arise”, one of the Muggletonian divine songs.Then a large bowl of port negus with slices of lemon was served and a toast enjoined to absent friends. More songs were sung by each who volunteered. Beer was brought in and supper served at half past eight. “It was a plain substantial meal; consisting of a round of beef, a ham, cheese, butter, bread and beer. Throughout the evening, every one seemed heartily to enjoy himself or herself, with no lack of friendliness, but with complete decorum.” No speeches were made. “By ten o’clock all were on their way homeward.”

There is also an account for a far older holiday meeting which Lodowicke Muggleton and his daughter, Sarah, attended in July 1682 at the Green Man pub in Holloway, then a popular rural retreat to the north of London. In addition to a goodly meal with wine and beer, a quartern of tobacco, one-fifth of a pound, was gotten through and a shilling paid out to “ye man of the bowling green”.

Outside of holiday times, meetings seem to have altered little with time and place. They comprised discussion, readings and songs. There was no public worship, no instruction, no prayer. There is no record of any participant being moved by the spirit. Until mid-Victorian times, London meetings were held in the back rooms of pubs. In the early days, this is said to have provided an appearance of outward conformity with the Conventicle Acts 1664 and 1667. The meeting would look and sound to outsiders like a private or family party. Nothing would advertise religious observance. By 1869, pub life had become irksome and the London congregation obtained their first Reading Room at 7 New Street, which was reckoned to be built on the former site of Lodowicke Muggleton’s birthplace, Walnut Tree Yard. This was made possible by legacies from Catherine Peers, Joseph Gandar and the Frost family; all of whom had been active in the faith. The money invested in government stock yielded sufficient income to pay the rent and the wages of a live-in caretaker who, for most of the Victorian period, was an unemployed shoe-repairer named Thomas Robinson. 7 New Street is perhaps the only site with Muggletonian connections still extant. However, it may require considerable historical imagination from the modern passer-by to gain a mental picture of what it would have been like in Victorian times. Then, the area was full of warehouses and factories, not the smart, professional consultancies of today.

By May 1918, wartime inflation seems to have undermined the Victorian financial settlement.The Muggletonians moved to cheaper rented premises not far away at 74 Worship Street, to the north of Finsbury Square.They remained there until probably the autumn of 1940 when the building was destroyed by a firebomb during the London Blitz. This was the event which led to the transfer of the Muggletonian archive to Mr Noakes’ farm in Kent. As a fruit farmer, Mr Noakes received a petrol ration to take his produce to Covent Garden market in central London. On the return journey, the archive was packed into the empty boxes and taken to safety.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

New Publications from Past Tense

OK – first of all, hands up – these aren’t totally new. They came out in October, but we’ve been so busy with one thing and another that we haven’t had much time to publicise them as yet.

SO – Past Tense have published six new pamphlets, five for sale and one FREE.

• BLACK WOMEN ORGANISING
The Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent

£3.00
£1.50 P&P
ISBN: 978-0-9932762-7-9

The Brixton Black Women’s Group, founded in 1973, emerged among women who had been active in the Black Power movement in London in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This pamphlet reprints two articles
originally published in feminist journals in the 1980s – an interview with three Brixton Black Women’s
Group activists about the development of the group, and an appraisal of the national Organisation
for Women of African and Asian Descent.

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• RENT STRIKE: ST. PANCRAS 1960
Dave Burn

£3.00
£1.50 P&P
ISBN: 978-0-9932762-5-5

In 1960 over 2000 council tenants in the then London borough of St Pancras went on partial rent strike, against a new rent scheme introduced by the Conservative council. This pamphlet recounts the
causes and the history of the rent strike, examining the reasons the rent scheme was brought in, and the history of the tenants’ movement. A comprehensive but also compelling story of a community struggle, as well as a thoughtful analysis of its motives and possibilities.

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• “MENACING LANGUAGE AND THREATS”
The Anti Corn Law Riots of 1815

£1.50
£1 P&P
ISBN: 978-0-9932762-4-8

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, corn prices fell to nearly half their war level, causing panic among British farmers – many of whom were also voters. In response the government introduced the Corn Laws in 1815; banning cheap wheat imports, to ensure the high incomes of farmers
and landowners.
This was class legislation at its most blatant. It made sure aristocrats could continue to benefit from high bread prices, and the high rents that they supported; knowing well enough this law meant penury for the
poor, who relied on bread to stave off starvation.
Riots broke out in the area around Parliament as the Acts were being debated, and spread out around London and Westminster as the London houses of the MPs and lords held most responsible were targeted by crowds…

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• I HAVENT HAD SO MUCH FUN SINCE MY LEG FELL OFF
The North London Civil Servants Strike, 1987/88
Jean Richards

£2.00
£1 P&P
ISBN: 978-0-9932762-2-4

An account of a strike by low-paid civil servants across North London Department of Employment offices in 1988, also involving Job Centre and Department of Health & Social Security staff who came out in solidarity
when they were asked to do the strikers’ work.

By a woman civil servant who worked for 10 years in one of the offices in dispute.

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• THE ESTABLISHMENT VERSUS THE ROTUNDA!
£2.00

ISBN: 978-0-9932762-3-1
£1 P&P

In the early 1830s a building on Blackfriars Road became the most notorious radical political meeting places of its era. For a few short years, the Rotunda was the heart of radical London. The Rotunda entered
its golden age in 1830, when it was taken over by freethinker Richard Carlile, and was transformed into a centre of political and scientific education and theatrical anti-religious performances… It became home
to diverse radical groups and speakers, including the National Union of the Working Classes, Robert Taylor (known as the “Devil’s Chaplain’), and female atheist lecturer Eliza Sharples, the ‘Pythoness of the
Temple’.

The Rotunda was feared and hated by the political establishment, who saw it as influencing all radical and rebellious opinion. The reactionary Duke Of Wellington considered the battle for the future of society as
one of “The Establishment Vs The Rotunda.”

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• WE REMEMBER WAT TYLER
A6 pamphlet

£1.00
£1 P&P

The 1381 Peasants’ Revolt remains one of the most cataclysmic and inspiring events in British history. At its heart stands a figure of whom so littl4 is known… Wat Tyler. A man who appears for two weeks, is elected leader of a peasant rebellion, articulates a demand for the abolition of classes, and is killed… Who was Wat Tyler?

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• TROUBLE DOWN SOUTH
Free
£1 P&P

Some thoughts on gentrification & resistance to gentrification in Brixton, with historical digressions, experiences, and some ranting… By a longtime Brixton resident now living in exile.

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And don’t forget – the 2018 LONDON REBEL HISTORY CALENDAR is still
available, it’s not too late to order your coy for the year… Only £6
plus £3 P&P

All of the above are available from Past Tense

either via our online publications page

here you can pay by card or paypal

Or ooooold style by post from:

Past Tense, c/o 56a Infoshop, 56 Crampton Street, London, SE17 3AE

These publications will also soon be available from radical bookshops in London, and some good local independent bookshops and the odd caff too!

If you’d like a list of bookshops that stock our output, email us and
we’ll let you know.

Today in London’s squatting history, 2013: the 491 Gallery closes. Leytonstone.

The 491 Gallery now lies in a pile of rubble between Grove Green Road and the M11 Link Road…. …but for 12 years it ran as a squatted social centre and multi-disciplinary gallery in Leytonstone, Northeast London. Taking its name from its street number, 491 Grove Green Road was home to a community-led art organisation between 2001 to 2013, and served as an exhibition space for a diverse range of artists of different origins working in varied media. It contained a range of art and music studios, which were used to host workshops, classes and musical rehearsals. 491 was subsequently demolished in 2016.

The building was originally a factory – at one point making safes. (During its 2016 demolition the workers carrying out the heavy roof beams found there was still an enormous safe inside.) It was later used as a storage space and warehouse for materials being used to construct the M11 Link Road, the A12 that cut through Leytonstone and the surrounding areas. Hundreds of houses were demolished to make way for this road, despite mass squatting of the emptied buildings, and fierce resistance, including the famous stand at Claremont Road.

Unlike the rest of the surrounding buildings, 491 and a few neighbouring houses were not subject to compulsory purchase orders and demolition for the A12 site. When in late 2000 the building was abandoned, it became occupied by a group of homeless drug users, who remained in it for some six months. Within a month of their leaving, the building was reoccupied by a group of artists, who spent the next several years turning it into a community space. They found human shit, drug works, and swastikas daubed on the walls, along with a collection of bags and purses thrown into the backyard by muggers who dumped them there after emptying them. The squatters set about clearing up the mounds of rubble outside, cleaned and painted the inside and, once the repairs were complete, threw open the doors and invited the local community to use the space for artistic and environmental endeavours.

The neighbouring building, formerly houses, was also occupied, and named Vertigo, after the film by Alfred Hitchcock, a famous resident of Leytonstone.

The 491 Gallery and Vertigo collectively collaborated on hosting regular exhibitions and offered studio space for musicians to use. They were maintained largely through small donations made by the public. Transport for London, the 491 building’s legal owner at the time, agreed to allow the continued use of the building, although no formal arrangement was made with the occupants. The owner of the Vertigo building allowed its use for an annual peppercorn rent of £1. The Gallery regularly hosted art exhibitions, themed events and film screenings, such as a Transition Towns screening of The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.

Following a fire in 2008, the Vertigo building was rebuilt throughout by its residents, and in 2009 was decorated with an exterior mural of Hitchcock to add to the artistic tributes in the local area. Local artists as well as those from further afield exhibited art in the 491 gallery. Those who could afford paid a modest fee that subsidised those who couldn’t afford to pay to display. The building hosted conferences, concerts, art exhibitions, film screenings, concerts and dramatic performances, and offer workshops in everything from life drawing to comedy, sculpting, yoga, technology, and photography; and had the area’s only music rehearsal studio for bands.

As one local commented after the demolition: “This kind of squatted social space links back to the London I knew when I first came to live here in 1989 and is slowly fading away. There are groups that still operate social spaces, sometimes in conjunction with the property owners using meanwhile leases, but they are necessarily temporary without time to grow roots into the community. The 491 Gallery was a real presence in the Leytonstone community and it’s very sad to see it go to be replaced with yet another uniform block of flats.”

There is more on 491 including lots of pictures at: http://491gallery.org/main.html

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London housing history: Elsy Borders goes to court in West Wickham mortgage strike, 1938.

Elsy Borders changed the course of legal and political history in the field of owner-occupied housing mortgages. The campaigns around rent control and investment in council housing that the Communist Party was noted for in the 1930s were extended by the Borders to home-owners who went on mortgage strike in protest at shoddy workmanship in the building of new homes.

A Communist Party member, Elsy played a prominent role in all this by taking her building society to court over its failure to ensure good building standards. Many homeowners were deeply concerned over the complicity of the building societies in accepting the low standards of construction from speculative builders and the campaign was successful in contributing to legislative change.

In the 1930s a ring of new built estates sprang up on the edges of London. Many were built by local councils, but there were a number of private developments too.

“Here was revealed one of the greatest rackets operating between the wars. The Conservative Governments were not prepared to grant assistance to the local authorities in order that they could build houses for the working class, to be let at reasonable rents. In fact, they deliberately cut down grants for slum clearance, slashed the housing programmes, and consciously encouraged building societies. There was therefore no competition, or very little, with the jerry-builders. What was their racket? Had they built houses to let, within a few years those houses, as the slums which many of them became, would never have been .. letable ” at the rents which the owners expected to receive in order to make them a profitable proposition. So developed the greatest racket of the time: … Own your own Homes “: … The Briton is an individualist.” Wonderful pictures were drawn and millions spent on advertising to show how glorious it was to be the complete master in your own home. Hundreds of thousands, even millions, lapped this up, bought their homes on … the never-never “, £50 down, 17s. 6d. a week. After a few years not only normal decorations but serious repairs were urgently needed for these houses were falling to pieces. The working-class folk who proudly inhabited these homes in the suburbs of London and other cities, and who could only make ends meet by account- ing for every penny, found themselves faced with the alternative of dilapidation, or of paying heavy repair costs. Meanwhile the payments to the building society had to continue or else. . . . I remember the time when working-class rent-payers of Stepney would envy the dwellers in these jerry-built suburban houses, and, of course, many of these people valiantly tried to keep up appearances. “

The 1930’s building boom – along with the rise of new consumer industries – was a vital initial factor in shifting Britain’s sluggish economy upwards (until pre-war rearmament came along).  But not all of the new buildings were well-built. Many of the new homes leaked, creaked, and crumbled. Building societies tended to be highly authoritarian towards borrowers and could even be considered beset with corruption and snobbery. A situation tantamount to renting emerged as societies employed weekly collectors of the mortgage to try to prevent mass mortgage default as more and more fairly ordinary working class people with secure jobs turned to mortgage-holding.

“As the tenure of owner-occupation opened up in the 1930s, building societies tried to create a situation very close to renting so that they could control their mortgagors. On the Coney Hall estate, as on many, the builders employed weekly collectors of the mortgage to try to prevent mass mortgage default…”

In March 1934, Elsy and husband Jim, a London cabby, bought a house on Coney Hall estate, twelve miles from Charing Cross in West Wickham, today firmly in the London Borough of Bromley but then thought of as being beyond and into the green belt of Kent. They moved in with their three-year-old daughter, Pamela, and, having a keen sense of humour, named their home “Insanity”. So, their address became, “Borders of Insanity”, Coney Hall Estate, West Wickham, Kent!! More formally and much later it was to become 81, Kingsway, Coney Hall, West Wickham, Kent.

Coney Hall estate was less than ten years old. One of many owner-occupied estates arising during the inter-War housing boom, it was built in the 1930s on hilly farmland south of West Wickham bought by the developers, Morrell Brothers, from Coney Hall Farm.

Following the death of lord of the manor Sir Henry Lennard in 1928, much of his Wickham Court estate was sold to building firm Morrell’s, which was also building on the western side of Petts Wood. Construction work on the estate’s 1,000 homes began in 1933 and the shops of Kingsway Parade were built on the south side of Croydon Road.

In the previous decade, opposition to road developments adjacent to West Wickham Common and Hayes Common had left the area accessible only by steep and narrow lanes. In Coney Hall’s early days. London Transport refused to provide a bus service, and a free private coach service connected the estate to the nearest railway station, Hayes. Many of the houses were in a standard style, with polygonal bay windows and half-timbered gables, and were priced more affordably than elsewhere in West Wickham, although this distinction has since diminished.

The Borders purchased the house, which was built by Messrs E. Morrell, through the Bradford Third Equitable Building Society. As a down payment, they paid £37 in cash – a considerable sum – and signed a mortgage for the remaining £693. The building society, in accordance with their usual practice, paid only £650 to the builders, keeping the rest as part of a pool to pay losses from defaulted mortgages.

Hardly were the Borders installed when they noticed cracks in the ceiling, squeaks in the floors. Soon plaster began to fall, dampness oozed through the walls, the roof sagged and leaked. Later, it was stated in court by Jim Borders that “…the house was in a bad condition.  The whole front … was damp, and the wallpaper fell off the walls by its own weight. The foundations were narrow and did not look strong enough to support the house.  There were cracks in the outer walls and windows in front did not fit.  Two of the windows would not shut and had been in that state for at least two years. The ceilings were cracked and the roof leaked.  The electric wiring was never safe, and the front of the house was cracked in several places and the eaves were open.  The glass on the front door has collapsed, the bath had dropped from its original place, and the fireplace had come away from the walls.  The chimneys were defective and the woodwork was infected by a small insect.  The party wall did not go up to the full height, and he had shaken hands over it with his next door neighbour. That was all he could think of for the moment, he added.” 

While the Borders grumblingly met their monthly four guineas payments, Elsy busied herself helping form first a local and then a national Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Association. Some 1,200 residents organised themselves into the Coney Hall District Residents Association and, as a result of the struggle, Elsy Borders later became a leading figure in the FTRA, along with Michael Shapiro as Secretary.

When, in a blaze of local publicity during 1937, the Borders began withholding mortgage payments until some remedy was provided about the building flaws, this prompted as many as five hundred of her neighbours on the estate to also intentionally defaulting on their payments to building societies. After three months, the Bradford Society brought a claim against Jim and Elsy, seeking repossession of the house on the simple grounds that the Borders were three months in arrears with their mortgage repayments.

In turn, the Borders hit back with a massive compensation claim of £500 to cover the accumulated costs of repairs already effected by the couple over the previous three years, a sum approaching the cost of the whole house. Their claim charged misrepresentation of the value of the house, questioned the legality of holding back part of the cost in a pool, while at the same time charging interest on the full amount, and charged the society that it had lent money on an insufficient security and had “wilfully and fraudulently” misled the couple into believing that the house was built of good materials and in efficient manner.

Unable to afford a lawyer, Elsy Borders spent several months reading law in the London School of Economics, and handled the case herself, winning national fame in the mainstream press as “the housewife Portia – the tenants’ KC”. [KC=King’s Counsel, today a QC, Queen’s Counsel.] The case began on 13 January 1938 and focused the attention of the whole nation upon the plight in which hundreds of thousands of house purchasers had found themselves.

Dubbing Elsy `the modern Portia’ was a nod towards Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and it was the strength of character that Portia displays on stage that made it a role always highly attractive to many notable actresses.  Elsy’s persona in court recalled such memorable stage performances. Portia’s role stresses that, irrespective of its formal legal merits or moral authority, an argument can be won through the employment of eloquence, loopholes and technicalities and the term had often been employed to denote a strong female advocate of sometime uncertain legal arguments. The term was made popular following the 1908 foundation of the New England School of Law, popularly known as the Portia Law School, and a women-only law school. The school’s nick-name was still in general currency until as late as 1969.

For 18 days at the beginning of 1938, the legal battle was fought out in the Chancery Court, which was permanently packed with crowds who came to see the “Portia, the tenants’ KC” in action. Elsy spoke for a stunning eight hours but, despite a great deal of fuss that made it seem as if they had achieved total victory, in fact, the Borders actually won only a part of their case, in so far as the Court’s judgment dismissing both actions gave them clear title to their house, without having to pay any more instalments, but rejected other claims.

The Bradford Building Society’s case failed, Mr Justice Bennett ruled, because it was unable to prove that the mortgage deed it produced as evidence was the one that the Borders had actually signed. But the Borders’ counter-claim failed too, because Elsy couldn’t prove that the building society was responsible for misrepresentation. She appealed, saying the case pitted the purchaser against the jerry-builder, the rogue who throws up a good-looking but poor-quality house and tries to sell it through a building society. Backed by a fighting fund – sympathisers subscribed the significant sum of 10 shillings a head – the Borders’ crusade gathered momentum with a packed public meeting on the Coney Hall estate. Jim Borders warned that their legal struggle might last as long as five years, involving as many as 40 building societies.

Indeed, following the first case, the Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations prepared writs against 24 “jerry” building societies, including Halifax and Abbey Road, the two biggest. “Portia” Borders now became the heroine for many Britons and aided the movement to found `Tenants’ or Residents’ Defence Leagues’, which were typically led by Communists. As many as 70,000 families were on rent or mortgage strike at one point. Mortgage strikes occurred in all parts of the country, including many suburbs of London, such as Hayes, Felton, Earlswood, Queensbury, Whitton, and Twickenham, and in scores of other places.

In 1939, on the centenary of the great working class Chartist Convention that demanded reforms such as universal suffrage and annual Parliaments, representatives of the 200,000 members of the booming Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations met for its first national convention.

Birmingham, the recent scene of a victorious strike by 46,000 families living in a municipal housing, was the convention city. The purpose of the meeting was to weld the scattered defence leagues into a national pressure group with a program of slum clearance, Government rent control, increased legal responsibilities for landlords. Although the Labour Party lawyers’ group, the Haldane Society, supplied the movement with free legal advice, no political party other than the Communist Party supported the Federation. Yet the NFTRA had 45 branches and membership of 45,000.

This was all a big deal; Britain had some one thousand building societies, with assets totalling £750,000,000. But the judgement had left all the major issues unresolved, whereupon in February 1939 some 3,000 owner occupiers in outer London went on mortgage strike, causing many houses to be repaired. A measure was rushed through Parliament to legalise the established practice of the building societies in respect of this collateral. Also, whilst it is true that the Borders’ ultimately lost their specific case, the endeavour did truly expose abuses of the building society system and was one of the factors leading to its regulation by an amendment in 1939 to the 1874 Building Societies Act. It was former Communist and left MP, Ellen Wilkinson, who introduced a bill in Parliament to reshape the Act. The 1939 Building Societies Act was passed with the co-operation of the Building Societies’ Association and the Government and it restricted the mortgage security that building societies could accept.

The “Tenants’ KC” was to return to court in March 1939 with a libel suit taken out by her husband Jim against the builders of the Coney Hall estate, Morrell Brothers, for describing him to his building society as “definitely a bad egg”.

Elsy’s opponent in this was Norman Birkett KC, no mean opponent in the least. At this point in time, pince-nezzed Birkett was mostly known as the man who got Wallis Warfield Simpson her divorce so that she could marry Edward VIII but he was also considered as Britain’s top criminal lawyer.  Described as “one of the most prominent barristers of the first half of the 20th century”, and “the Lord Chancellor that never was”, he was later to become Baron Birkett, a Court of Appeal judge and a member of the House of Lords. Birkett was noted for his skill as a speaker, which helped him defend clients with almost watertight cases against them. Birkett’s legal opinion helped shape the final judgment at Nuremberg Trial of the Nazi leaders in 1945.

Yet Birkett found himself more than matched for guile by Elsy, who won the case hands down, with the court awarding Jim Borders £150! Said Elsy, as Norman Birkett KC withdrew from an attempt to cut and thrust which was well parried by her: “I wiped the floor with him! He was bloody wild.” Elsy was described by one newspaper as “a brilliant and resourceful leader. She has insight, a cool head and, above all, a fervour which inspires her colleagues.”  Birkett’s opening observation on cross-examining Elsy was that she was “getting quite accustomed to litigation”. This drew a lightning response from her, widely and approvingly quoted in the newspapers: “This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of meeting you, Mr Birkett”, as laughter drowned the court.

Birkett sought to suggest to Jim Borders that he had only been put up to take the case to court by his domineering wife. “I put it to you,” he declared, “that Mr and Mrs Borders are one and the same person and that person is Mrs Borders.” In response, as Jim’s counsel, Elsy retorted: “There may not be any difference between Mr and Mrs Birkett but there is a difference between Mr and Mrs Borders.”  Birkett’s wife was widely portrayed by high society gossip columnists as a domineering woman, so even the judge burst out laughing and the court dissolved into momentary anarchy.

The Borders’ crusade against the power of the building societies was only finally extinguished as the phony war was began to turn to blitz.  The case was dragged to the House of Lords in 1940 by Bradford Third Equitable. There, the following year when judgement was handed down, predictably, the honour of building societies was redeemed and Bradford totally exonerated. The mortgage strikes promptly fizzled out. Nonetheless, this had been a moment of serious challenge to the conception of the property-owning democracy that was at the heart of Tory and Liberal thinking on housing – mass mortgage ownership would only be kick-started again in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Even though the legal outcome as regards collateral security, responsibility for the condition of mortgaged property, and for builders’ descriptions of new houses favoured building societies, remedies had to be found. In the short term, the campaign – and the associated struggles of rental tenants –  shook the very foundations of the political and economic basis of housing policy in Britain. As Claud Cockburn later wrote: “The whole freewheeling apparatus of the boom, the ramshackle financial machine which powered the productivity and profit of it, appeared to be in danger.”

Sadly, the Borders lost possession of their home through these crafty legal moves by the building society. In late 1940, as the blitz progressed, Elsy evacuated with daughter Pamela to Exeter, where she died in 1971. Her marriage to Jim ultimately failed, and neither ever owned a house again. Jim trained as a barrister, but died almost penniless in 1966.

He was uncertain about the long-term value of the struggle he and Elsy had gone through. When the people of Coney Hall presented him with a clock, he chose as an inscription lines from Southey which were intended in the circumstances to be ironic, although few appreciated this:

And everybody praised the Duke,
Who this great fight did win.
‘But what good came of it at last?’
Quoth little Peterkin.
‘Why that I cannot tell,’ said he,
‘But ’twas a famous victory.’

Elsy’s lasting legacy in the world of law is to be the by-word for what constitutes a fraud. In the case of Bradford Third Equitable Benefit Building Society v. Borders [1941], Viscount Maugham’s explanations of his view of what establishes the tort, or civil wrong, of deceit or fraud were not only accepted by the court, they have been used as precedent in countless cases from that time to this very day to establish liability or not.  Arguably, had Elsy not been previously so eloquent, the Viscount may not have been wheeled out by Bradford’s solicitors to issue his fine definition of fraud. Of course, the ultimate in judge-made law is the House of Lords and it was its judgement in 1941 that provides this `legacy’ of Elsy’s.

It is today taught in legal training that it was held in Bradford v Borders (1941) that the maker of a false statement must have intended for the claimant to have relied upon the statement if a tort is to be established. Moreover, the main difference between suing in deceit and in negligence was addressed by reference to the caps on remoteness of damages. In deceit, to mark the law’s disapproval of fraud, the defendant (in Elsy’s case the building society) is liable for all losses flowing directly from the tort, whether they were foreseeable or not.

But, Maugham’s definition also establishes that a common law action of deceit requires a representation of fact (her expectation that the home she was paying a mortgage on was sound) made by words, or conduct – but not silence or omission – made with a knowledge that it is wilfully false and with the intention that it should be acted upon so as to result in damage sustained by acting on a false statement. In other words, that it was necessary all along in English law to prove that Bradford Third knew that they were funding an unsound home. Effectively, the Borders’ claim that Bradford had “wilfully and fraudulently misled” them, was ruled by the House of Lords as something that could virtually never be established in the business of mortgage lending.

Elsy did not ultimately fail in her campaign, as some have suggested, but the British establishment did simply change the rules to favour themselves. Restrictions were put on the ability of the developers to sell badly built homes – though this is a struggle new homeowners are still going through today. Mortgage strike anyone?

This post was partially nicked from Graham Stevenson’s excellent site

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history: Richard Carlile jailed for supporting Swing rioters, 1831.

On January 10th, 1831, Richard Carlile was sentenced to 32 months imprisonment for sedition; specifically for advising agricultural labourers to continue their campaign of rioting, striking and destroying threshing machines.

Carlile was a leading radical and freethinker in the 1820s and ’30s: famous/infamous, depending largely on how religious or orthodox you were politically, as a publisher and printer. Repeatedly jailed for re-publishing banned political works like the works of Tom Paine, and anti-religious texts, in a time when blasphemy laws were used regularly to silence anyone questioning christianity.

Carlile had also been at the forefront of the ‘War of the Unstamped Press’, in response to crippling government taxes on newspapers, designed to repress a huge explosion of radical and cheap newspapers aimed at the growing working classes. A huge movement evolved to produce, sell, smuggle these papers, evading a massive official effort to close them, through the 1820s and 30s… Carlile, and hundreds of others, were jailed, often over and over again, during this struggle, which ended with a victory, of sorts, with the reduction of the stamp, thus opening the way for a cheap popular press. From which we still benefit today (??!!)

Through the late 1810s, and the 1820s, Carlile had operated from several shops in Fleet Street, becoming one of the main focus points for a freethinking, radical self-educated artisan culture very powerful in London at this time… A culture that fed into the turbulent and rebellious working class movements of the 1830s and ’40s.

In the late 1820s, Carlile had been eclipsed slightly as the most notorious rebel and blasphemer; he was bankrupt, his book sales were declining, and the radical movements that had erupted after the Napoleonic Wars were fizzling out. In 1830 however he took out a lease on the Rotunda, a huge venue on Blackfriars Road in Southwark, which was to become – briefly – the most important radical social centre of the time.

In 1830, southern England was rocked by the Swing riots: agricultural labourers smashed and burned threshing machines in a mass movement of riotous rebellion. Across much of the country, working people threatened by increasing mechanisation attacked and destroyed the machines representing the changes in rural work. From farm to farm, village to village, the trouble spread, by word of mouth, rumour and by crowds marching to inspire action in the neighbouring areas… Like wildfire ripping through a prairie… The world of the workers is Wild…

This was a hugely threatening movement for the ruling classes – despite the massive changes undergoing Britain as the Industrial Revolution transformed work, life, and social relations, the majority of wealth and power relied on a landowning aristocratic class exploiting a reliable rural workforce… Swing showed the potential for that to be undermined.

The reputation of the Rotunda can be seen in the fact that Government ministers of the time blamed the Swing Riots on the influence of the Rotunda: this was certainly untrue, in that the revolts were sparked by immediate grievances, and though some rioters may have picked up some radical ideas, it was not in itself inspired by any urban radicals. But the Rotunda was certainly feared by the powers that be.

The Swing Revolt certainly inspired Carlile and his circle. Carlile’s charismatic collaborator, the blasphemous ex-clergyman Robert Taylor, put on a play at the Rotunda enthusing about the riots: called ‘Swing, or Who are the Incendiaries?’. “Promoted by Carlile as a ‘politico-tragedy’, Swing! defended the agricultural labourers… Carlile’s paper the Prompter boasted to its readers of the literary and theatrical excellence of the tragedy, reporting that the ‘language is worthy of Otway, and the denouement of the plot beats that of any other popular tragedy’. The play, described as an ‘admirable tragedy’ in which the audience could ‘alternately cry and laugh’, was standing entertainment for two nights a week at the Rotunda and ran for several weeks.”

But in January the authorities got their own back, jailing Carlile for 30 months for defending the rioters in print.

Carlile had published advice to the insurgent labourers, in the third issue of his Prompter, dated 27 November 1830. In a letter addressed to the Insurgent Agricultural Labourers’ – a fairly minor article placed on an inside page – he extended a ‘feeling heart’ to the rural poor, “encouraging them to continue their strike and career or revolt. He told them that I was wrong to destroy wealth, but they had more just and moral cause for wasting property and burning farm produce than ever king or faction that ever made war had for making war. In war all destruction of property was counted lawful. Upon the ground of that, which was called a law of nations, Carlile told them theirs was a state of war, and their quarrel was the want of necessities of life in the midst of abundance. Further government severity of repression would warrant their resistance even to death… The issues Carlile impressed upon them in the following terms:-

‘You see hoards of food, and you are starving; you see a government rioting in every sort of luxury and wasteful expenditure, and you, ever ready to labour, cannot find one of the comforts of life. Neither your silence nor your patience has obtained for you the least respectful attention from that Government. The more tame you have grown, the more you have been oppressed and despised, the more you have been trampled on; and it is only now that you begin to display your physical as well as your moral strength that your cruel tyrants treat with you and offer you terms of pacification.’ “

Carlile’s advice to the labourers to ‘go on as you have done’ was interpreted by the authorities as a seditious call to arms. He later claimed that ‘neither in deed, nor in word, nor in idea, did I ever encourage, or wish to encourage…acts of arson or machine breaking’. In January 1831, however, Carlile was sentenced to two further years’ imprisonment, in Giltspur Street Compter.

The prosecution took Carlile and other radicals by surprise. Many of his past publications had been far more seditious and blasphemous than the Prompter letter. Indeed, Taylor’s performance of the Swing! tragedy contained far more seditious and provocative material than Carlile’s letter. Carlile had also previously regularly asserted his dislike of ‘mobs’ and ‘mob action’: he had written that a ‘few bullets’ should be distributed among the heads of rioters in Bristol, which ‘matched the most callous middle-class reactions.’ Carlile’s assertion that the prosecution was planned as a means to close the Rotunda was thus probably correct.

However, as his new prison address was relatively close to the Rotunda, Carlile was able to both continue to manage the venue, and publish his paper, the Prompter.

In the end, Carlile served about 8 months of this sentence, one of many he amassed during his life, mostly for publishing allegedly blasphemous and banned texts.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s penal history:John Smith gets 7 years in Newgate, for involvement in destruction of Dingley’s Sawmill. 1769.

On May 10th 1768, Dingley’s Steam-powered Sawmill in Limehouse was burnt down by 500 sawyers, who claimed it was putting them out of work.

This was a highly organised act; decided on collectively beforehand. When the sawyers marched on the Mill, Christopher Robertson, Dingley’s clerk, confronted the crowd and asked them what they wanted. “They told me the saw-mill was at work when thousands of them were starving for want of bread. I then represented to them that the mill had done no kind of work that had injured them, or prevented them receiving any benefit. I desired to know which was their principal man to whom I might speak. I had some conversation with him and represented to him that it had not injured the sawyers. He said it partly might be so, but it hereafter would if it had not; and they came with a resolution to pull it down, and down it should come.”

The mill, the first steam-powered sawmill to open in London, had been operating since early 1767, but the installation of new machinery there during a slack period in the trade when large numbers of sawyers were out of work pushed them into action. On May 6th, the sawyers had sent a communiqué to Dingley, announcing that they intended to stop the mill working. If he didn’t take it seriously, he soon learned his mistake…

Traditionally, sawyers had many privileges, perks of the job, notably the right to take and use offcut wood (especially in shipbuilding). This perk tended to be exploited liberally – management accused the sawyers of often abusing the custom, and making off with huge lengths of wood. Hence sawyers’ houses could often be better built than they financially could afford! However, sawyers’ wages were also generally considered relatively high.

The steam mill was clearly intended to gradually impose a more disciplined industrial process and do away with the perks and customary rights. While owner Charles Dingley received compensation from the government, and completed the rebuilding of the mill, it didn’t seem to re-open: in 1795 it was described as having been standing empty for many years. A generation passed before another such attempt to replace the sawyers’ labour was made in London.

Like the contemporary Spitalfields silk-weavers, and the Luddites after them, the London sawyers were able to clearly see how new technology was being used against them, and made rational decisions to defend existing wages, conditions and customs with a bit of sabotage: collective bargaining by riot and vandalism.

The mill’s owner, Charles Dingley, was considered an ally of the government, and had been ‘radical’ demagogue John Wilkes unpopular opponent in the Middlesex elections: he couldn’t even get near the hustings some days, being kept out and abused by Wilkes-supporting crowds, and was beaten up by Wilkes’ lawyer. He is generally said to have ‘died of shame’ at being so vilified.

On January 9th the following year, one John Smith was tried at the Middlesex magistrates Court (‘Hicks Hall’), for ‘riotously assembling with others’ to destroy the mill, and sentenced to seven years imprisonments in Newgate, to pay a fine, and to enter into recognisance for his good behaviour.

Interestingly, three years later, one John Green was petitioning the Treasury to receive a reward for having arrested John Smith.

Edward Castle had previously been tried in July 1768 for Riot and Breaking the Peace for the attack on the mill, but had been acquitted.

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