Today in London radical history, 1649: executed mutineer Robert Lockyer’s funeral becomes a Leveller demonstation

“I am ready and willing to dye for my Country and liberty and I blesse God I am not afraid to look death in the face in this particular cause God hath called me to.” (Robert Lockyer, 1649)

Robert Lockyer (also spelt Lockier) was born in London in about 1626. He received adult baptism in 1642, when he was 16, together with his mother, Mary, into a sect of the particular Baptists in Bishopsgate, then a suburb on London’s northeastern edge. This seems to have been where Robert grew up and had several relatives – it would also be the scene of the mutiny that would result in his execution.

Although this area had some ‘fair houses for merchant and artificers’, it had experienced a rapid building boom in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and along with Spitalfields and Shoreditch the Bishopsgate area had long also been associated with migrants, often denied entry to live or work in London, with various forms of criminal subcultures, and those looking to evade control or close scrutiny by the City authorities… Since 1500 the area’s population had increased, and refugees from the increasing enclosure of common lands, dislocation in the countryside, and the desperate seeking work, had swelled the streets around Bishopsgate. It’s unclear what Lockyer’s background was, whether his family had been resident for generations, or were relatively newly arrived… but the mix of classes, wealth and poverty side by side, the inevitable mix of ideas and resentments that arise in such ‘barrios’ may be relevant to his story.

His background in, or choice to enter, a separatist sect, the particular Baptists, is typical of many of the radicals of the English Civil War. The religious ferment, the spreading of ideas, creeds, the multiplying of branches of the protestant faith and offshoots from it, forms a vital backdrop to the English Revolution. It wasn’t just that freedom to worship as they chose, in small and self-directed congregations, without interference from the Anglican Church authorities with their secular backing from the king, was a huge demand that bubbled up for decades before the 1640s. Many of the sects were also developing radical critiques, both is purely religious terms, and when applied to the social order around them. This was harshly repressed for a century after the Reformation, but with the struggle between parliament and king out in the open, would erupt in a multi-shock volcano of ideas, proposals, and programs, and manifest in word, print and action. They saw themselves as the Saints, God’s own, though their views often diverged at to what God approved of and what kind of world He would want them to build, and as to what role the Saints themselves had in doing God’s will on Earth…

The Baptists in particular produced many political radicals in the English civil war period, as they had in the 16th century, when, known as ‘anabaptists, usually by their enemies, many had held extreme political views, and been involved in insurrections, revolutionary plotting and spreading of subversive social theories. But while the general suspicion of the Anglican church and state authorities, was that Baptists were basically dangerous extremists likely to do a ‘John of Leyden’ and introduce communism and bloodshed against the wealthy at the drop of a hat, many baptists were in reality quiet-living and law-abiding, so long as they could worship as they chose.

The range of ideas among the puritan and other sects was wide – many who sought independence from the established church for their own sect deplored tolerance for others (and catholics could basically whistle), but also feared and denounced the social rebelliousness that seemed to follow religious questioning. Many on the parliamentary side in the war were happy to enlist religious radicals to fight the king’s army, but had little intention of allowing this to imply the radicals had any right to either determine their own congregational path, or worse, start offering opinions on how wider society might be reshaped to the benefit of a wider swathe… A clarion call for freedom of conscience as a battle standard was a dangerous strategy, and it was to backfire on the cautious reformers and even many of the more devout leaders, as they saw subversive ideas spreading among the lower orders…

On the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, Robert Lockyer joined the Parliamentary Army (Roundheads) and served as a private trooper. It is telling that he joined the regiment commanded by Colonel Edward Whalley, having first served in Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Ironsides’: this regiment was filled with hardcore puritans and sectaries, who saw the struggle against the king as doing God’s work, but also debated and discussed among themselves, around campfires and on the march, the kind of society the Godly should help create. And by the mid-1640s they were coming to radical conclusions. Richard Baxter, a leading puritan preacher and theologian, chaplain to Whalley’s regiment in 1645-46, observed this, to his horror: “Many honest men of weak judgments and little acquaintance with such matters… [were]… seduced into a disputing vein… sometimes for state democracy, sometimes for church democracy.” Baxter would spent much time denouncing this kind of uppityness among the common sort, who ought to listen to the learned and stop thinking they had the right to question or offer up opinions of their own.

Some regiments in the victorious New Model Army elected Agitators or agents, who, in alliance with the London Levellers, drew up the Agreement of the People, a program for a widening of the electorate and some measure of social justice. Its four main proposals were to dissolve the current Parliament (suspected of lukewarm sentiment for change and many of whose members had been intriguing with the defeated king Charles to work against the power of the army), radically redraw constituencies to better represent the country, more regular elections, freedom of religious conscience, and equality for all before the law. (To this was added, in later editions, the vote to be extended to all adult male householders, and the exclusion of catholics from freedom of conscience. There are limits, after all.)

It’s not known when Robert Lockyer became a Leveller sympathiser, or whether he was heavily involved in the New Model Army agitators campaign for democracy of 1647, though it is assumed he was involved, as Whalley’s regiment was at the heart of this ferment. It was later said of Lockyer, after his death, that he had supported the Leveller Agreement of the People, and had been present at the abortive mutiny at Ware in November 1647, which had broken out as the more radical elements in the army began to realise that the leadership were outmanoeuvring them and had no plans to implement anything like as ground-breaking a program as the Agreement. The mutiny had followed on from two weeks of argument among the army leadership and agitators at the Putney Debates. Here the Army leadership made it very clear that they very opposed the idea that more people should be allowed to vote in elections and that the Levellers posed a serious threat to the upper classes. As Oliver Cromwell said: “What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces.”

Lockyer’s regiment was in fact stationed at Hampton Court, (guarding the imprisoned king, though Charles escaped on the 11th November), which was near enough for Lockyer to have ridden to Ware, (though he would have been AWOL at best, risking serious punishment if caught, up to the death sentence for desertion), if he was involved in the plans for a mutiny to impose the Agreement; but this may also be backward-myth making. We will never know. In any case the mutiny was quashed, as the majority of the troops present were persuaded to remain loyal to the Army Grandees, and Leveller/Agitator leaders Thomas Rainborough and John Lilburne realised that active support for a democratic army coup was weaker than they had thought. If Lockyer was present, it was not be the last mutiny he saw.

The Army leadership, represented most vocally by Oliver Cromwell, had ensured that the possibility of the army taking up arms against parliament on the basis of the Agreement could not happen, and in fact a Second Civil War followed as royalists rebelled in Kent and elsewhere. The threat in fact drove Grandees and radicals into temporary alliance against resurgent royalism and its sympathisers in a Parliament determined to put the army back in its place. But the rapprochement lasted only as long as the Second Civil War and the resulting purge of Parliament. When the king and his supporters were again beaten, Leveller demands for some quid pro quo for falling in behind Cromwell and co during this crisis, and rapidly led to the arrest of leading Leveller spokesmen.

This took place in early 1649. But the Grandees continued to pursue radicals in the army who attempted to push for the ideals set out in the Agreement of the People. In March 1649 eight soldiers from various regiments were court-martialled for petitioning the army’s nominal top brass General Fairfax to restore the more electoral structure the army agitators had briefly achieved two years before. The humiliating punishment five of them received – being paraded held up on a wooden pole, their swords broken, and then cashiered – made it clear that protest for democracy – in the army, or society in general – were not to be tolerated.

This formed the immediate background to the confrontation that cost Robert Lockyer his life. Future attempts by grassroots soldiers at independent action, on any issue, would be squashed.

A few weeks later, Captain Savage’s troop of Whalley’s Regiment, then quartered in the City of London, was ordered to quit these quarters and join the regimental rendezvous at Mile End, in preparation to march into Essex. On hearing this, 30 troopers seized the troop’s colours from the Four Swans Inn at Bishopsgate Street where it was stashed, and carried it to the nearby Bull Inn, a noted haunt of radicals at that time. Captain Savage demanded they bring out the colour, mount their horses and proceed to Mile End but they refused, fighting off his subsequent attempt to wrestle the flag off them. Lockyer told Savage that they were ‘not his colour carriers’ and that they had all fought under it, and for all that it symbolised (which could be interpreted in a number of ways, given the widespread debate about what the civil war had been for and how what many soldiers had felt were its aims had been closed down). Lockyer’s companions echoed his words, shouting ‘All, all!’

That a stance by just 30 men worried the army hierarchy can be seen in the quick reaction of Colonel Whalley and Generals Cromwell and Fairfax both hurried to the Bull. Whalley, arriving first with other regimental officers, and a large force of loyal troopers, negotiated with the 30 men. The ‘mutineers’ complained that they had not been paid enough to pay for the quarters they had been occupying in the city. This was a major grouse among civilians who housed soldiers in their homes – whether voluntarily, or in many cases, by force. The army was notoriously slow to cough up pay to its troops, sometimes arrears would run to months or even years, and the cost and inconvenience of quartering soldiers was a severe economic burden for householders. Seeing themselves as they did, as a kind of citizen army, the armed wing of righteous public opinion, some of the democratically-minded among the army were angry that they often could not pay their way, and this issue was a huge one at this time (not to mention the expenses mounted troopers like Lockyer’s company had for themselves – ie gear, horses, which often came to half their daily pay by themselves) . However, there is little doubt that both the 30 men and their superiors both saw this as the tip of a large iceberg, with all the repressed demands of the agitators and levellers looming threateningly below the surface. It was not what Lockyer and his comrades DID that required rapidly putting to an end – it was the potential for an insurrection that could spread to the city, and the wider army.

Although Whalley offered a sum of money to pay these arrears for quartering, the troopers pushed for stronger guarantees that he would offer, and Whalley lost patience, ordering Lockyer to mount, and when he refused, arresting him and fifteen of the other men. A crowd of civilians sympathetic to Lockyer and the rebels had gathered, but were scattered by men who obeyed Whalley’s order to disperse them. At this point Fairfax and Cromwell turned up, and ordered all fifteen to be taken to Whitehall to be court-martialled.

At the court-martial, one man was acquitted, three left to the discretion of the Colonel, five sentenced to ‘ride the wooden horse’ (the same punishment the five soldiers in March had suffered) – and six, including Lockyer, condemned to death. The six petitioned General Fairfax for mercy, promising to be obedient in future, and he pardoned five, but upheld the sentence on Lockyer. This was, Fairfax said, because at the court martial he had attempted to defend himself using the argument that their was no legal justification for the imposition of martial law (in reality, military control of the state) that the army grandees were operating under, in a time of peace – a clear challenge not just to daily gripes about pay but about policy and about whose interests the army were now representing. This defence enraged the court, and his death sentence was upheld not just to punish him, but to give an example to the alliance of army radicals and civilian activists that the Grandees feared was still active and brewing. A group of women supporters of the Levellers who had been visiting Parliament to petition for the release of the civilian Leveller leaders (ignoring the advice of MPs and Grandees to go home and mind their wifely duties and not meddle with the affairs of men!) had gathered outside the court-martial at Whitehall; they greeted the soldiers as they came out of the court, saying that there would be more such men as the accused in other places soon, and that Lockyer was a godly man and a Saint, who the authorities were going to murder.

The brief mutiny had aroused support among the discontented in London, and the possibility of a mutiny becoming an uprising had to be cut off. Whether Lockyer was in fact the ringleader of the protest or not, he was picked out to be a dreadful example for any potential rebels.

On April 27th, Robert Lockyer was marched to St Paul’s Churchyard by soldiers of Colonel Hewson’s regiment, to be shot. Speaking before execution, Lockyer is said to have announced

“I am ready and willin to dye for my Country and liberty and I blesse God I am not afraid to look death in the face in this particular cause God hath called me to.”

He added that he was happy to die if his fellows could be spared, but was troubled that he had been condemned for something so small as a dispute over pay, after fighting for seven years ‘for the liberties of the nation’. Refusing a blindfold, he spoke directly to the soldiers assigned to shoot him, “fellow-soldiers… brought here by your officers to murder me.. I did not think you had such heathenish and barbarous principles in you as to obey your officers in [this]” Major Carter, commanding the firing squad, being visibly shaken by this, Colonel Okey, who had been on the bench at Lockyer’s court-martial, angrily accused him of attempting to incite the firing squad to mutiny, and seizing his coat belt and jacket, distributed them to the firing squad, who then announced themselves ready to obey their orders. The sentence was carried out.

Lockyer’s funeral, two days later on Sunday 29th April, took the form of a political demonstration, a reminder of the strength of the Leveller organisation in London. Lockyer’s coffin was carried in silent procession from Smithfield in the afternoon, slowly through the heart of the City, and then back to Moorfields for the internment in the New Churchyard (underneath modern Liverpool Street Station – recently excavations here for the Crossrail train line has disturbed the bones buried here, presumably including Lockyer, and his fellow civil war radical, John Lilburne). The coffin bore blood-stained rosemary and a naked sword (a threat aimed at the Grandees of the potential for armed rebellion?)

Led by six trumpeters, about 4000 people reportedly accompanied the corpse. Many wore ribbons – black for mourning and sea-green to show their allegiance to the Levellers whose colour this was. A company of women brought up the rear, testimony to the active female involvement in the Leveller movement. If the reports can be believed there were more mourners for Trooper Lockyer than there had been for the martyred Colonel Thomas Rainborough the previous autumn, or king Charles a few months before. As the Leveller newspaper, The Moderate said, a remarkable tribute to a person of ‘no higher quality that a private trooper’ (quality meaning ‘class position’ here).

But while Lockyer’s funeral procession showed the strength of the support for the Levellers and sympathy with army radicals, Lockyer’s execution in fact showed that the Grandees were firmly in control of most of the army, enough at least to put down discontent and isolate troublemakers. Radicals in Whalley’s regiment were scared into submission, many signing a declaration of loyalty in May, and they did not join the subsequent army mutiny at Burford at the end of May, whose (again rapid) defeat marked in reality the end of any threat of an concerted army rebellion in favour of democratic ideals or Leveller principles. Three soldiers were shot 24 hours after the Burford mutiny, after another drumhead court-martial.

Written protest from Leveller spokesmen John Lilburne and Richard Overton, and a petition from Leveller women activists, at Lockyer’s execution fell on deaf ears – the Grandees were secure in the saddle, and knew it. They no longer needed the support of the radicals against the king or the moderate parliamentarians, and knew they could cow much opposition by executions, and ignore objections that martial law was no longer legal. They had also perceptively realised that their preparation to use terror and force was not matched by a similar determination on the radical side – as Colonel Hewson observed: “we can hang twenty before they will hang one.”

As with the other ‘radical’ army mutinies of the late 1640s, the way that Lockyer and many of his fellow soldiers saw themselves – as representing both the righteous of the nation, but also doing God’s work – gave them the justification for asserting their voice against their commanders; many of their commanders shared their background among the Saints, and so they also felt that this argument would be understood, at least. But diverging views as to what the interests of the nation and God’s work consisted of had been opening up since the beginning of the civil war – based on class interests, as much as interpretations of scripture. The actions of Cromwell, in particular, enraged the godly radicals, as they had seen him as one of them, a betrayer of the ‘good old cause’: but his class background meant his practical cleaving to the defence of the ‘men of property’ was always likely.

In the end, the program of the New Model Army agitators and the Levellers was forward thinking, and garnered wide support, but at a time of weariness of war, divisions and violence, not enough backing to push through into actual social change. The army mutinies all failed because, whatever widespread sympathy radical views inspired, only a minority were prepared to defy orders, whether for immediate grievances, or for larger social aims. Many of the reforms that the Levellers fought for, and Robert Lockyer and his comrades argued over in the army in the later 1640s, were later won, and are now widely help up as our democratic rights. Whether Lockyers of today would accept that, or push forward for more radical interpretations, for a wider redistribution of the wealth, power and responsibility in society… we can only speculate.

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London literary history, 1962: Joe Orton & Ken Halliwell nicked for defacing library books, Islington.

‘I used to stand in the corners after I’d smuggled the doctored books back into the library and then watch people read them. It was very fun, very interesting.’

Before Joe Orton became famous as a writer, he and boyfriend Ken Halliwell had already gained public notoriety together. In 1962 they were jailed for six months and fined for theft and malicious damage, having been convicted of stealing books from Islington’s Central and Essex Road Libraries.

Orton later hinted they had been sparked off by the poor choice of books available at the Library. “I was enraged that there were so many rubbishy novels and rubbishy books. … Libraries might as well not exist.” An early novel co-written by Orton and Halliwell suggests another alternative. In The Boy Hairdresser, one character describes his own library transgressions: “We’re public benefactors in a way. We steal—the shops order more—the publishers are pleased—everyone is happy. We finance literature.”

Over three years they had been altering book covers, adding lewd new blurbs to dust jackets, swapping heads and pasting in surreal and satirical collage – then replacing books secretly on the shelves. They also used torn out illustrations to decorate the walls of their Noel Road flat with a growing collage.

These acts of guerrilla artwork were an early indication of Orton’s desire to shock and provoke. His targets were the genteel middle classes, authority and defenders of ‘morality’, against whom much of Orton’s later written work would rail against.

“The two spent every moment together, reading, writing, and living cheaply off brown bread and baked beans. Halliwell was older, middle-class and better educated; Orton his handsome young protégé, given the foundations of a classical education from the confines of their apartment, with its yellow-and-pink checkered ceiling. They shunned electric light to save money, sometimes going to bed at 9:30pm, and lived a puritanical, even hermetic, life.

They had been lovers, friends and co-conspirators for over a decade when they began doctoring the library books, using stolen pictures and their Adler Tippa typewriter.”

For over two years, Orton and Halliwell smuggled books out of their local libraries, and then returning them, er, slightly edited…

Orton hid books in a satchel; Halliwell used a gas mask case. They would take them home, redo their covers and dust-jackets, and then slip them back onto the shelves.

The couple added collages and new text ranged from the obscene – a Dorothy Sayers whodunit acquired blurb about some missing knickers and a seven-inch phallus, with the warning “READ THIS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS! And have a good shit while you are reading!” – to the bizarre or merely mundane…

To a collection of plays of Welsh dramatist, Emlyn Williams, new and exciting apocryphal titles were added: “Knickers Must Fall,” “Olivia Prude,” “Up The Front,” and “Up The Back.”

“The collages on the covers were no less subdued, and often overtly queer. On the cover of a book of John Betjeman poetry, a middle-aged man glowers in scanty black briefs. His body is covered entirely in tattoos. A now mostly forgotten romance novel, Queen’s Favourite, was redone with two men wrestling, naked to their navels.”

The walls of their one-bedroom apartment, were adorned by a collage Halliwell had made from thousands of stolen pictures; while another 1,650-odd pictures were stashed around the apartment.

Mythical beasts jostled for space with tabloid headlines and Renaissance high art: a grotesque ape-horse hybrid wore a map of Australia as its tutu.

Other covers showed a monkey, gazing astonishedly from the middle of a flower, on the Collins Guide to Roses, and giant cats on an Agatha Christie novel.

Possibly the sharpest comment though, in “an act of queer as well as class protest” (Emma Parker) can be seen on their detourned cover of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII – the king, who introduced a law in England making sodomy a criminal offence, punishable by death. The old mad bastard gets the full Orton-Halliwell treatment – he has had his arms cut off at the elbow, while his army swarms away from him.

Many other of the improved book covers celebrated queer love, one way or another: On the cover of Othello, Othello looks past the naked Desdemona, whose hand hovers suggestively above her crotch. Behind him a man points an arrow at his backside.

But the subversive and groundbreaking artform Orton and Halliwell were creating was not to everyone’s taste… Other readers of Islington’s library books had begun to come across the altered books and complain to the library. As the pair gleefully retouched book after book, the librarians at Essex Road library, began to observe regular users in an attempt to expose the culprits.

As a librarian later wrote in the Library Association Record, “it was possible to observe individual readers more closely and to notice which possible culprits had been in the library before ‘finds’ were made.” The head librarian’s suspicion settled on Orton and Halliwell, who were generally seen together in the library, and whose shared address was easily discovered.

Once they were under suspicion, the investigation expanded – the library staff called in the cops, who suggested staff from other library departments keep Halliwell and Orton under observation at Essex Road, to try to catch them red-handed replacing books on the shelves. However, this proved unproductive. “After several weeks of unproductive observation,” chief librarian Alexander Connell wrote, “we contrived to obtain a sample of typewritten matter.”

This was the work of Sidney Porrett, the Islington Borough Council legal clerk, who made this something of a personal vendetta. “I had to catch those two monkeys,” he later said. “I had to get results.” Porrett seems to have sussed the ‘queerness’ in the case, not hard from the obscenities on the covers; he observed after the trial, “They were a couple of darlings, make no mistake.”

Porrett composed a scam letter, addressed to Halliwell, urging him to reclaim a car parked in the street, apparently registered in his name. As intended, this provoked Halliwell into a stroppy reply: “Dear sir, I should like to know who provided you with this mysterious information? Whoever they are, they must be a liar or a moron: probably both.” The letter was signed, triumphantly, beneath the salutation: “Yours contemptuously.”

But examining the typeface and idiosyncrasies in Halliwell’s reply, police were able to , match it to the transformed book covers… Suspicion became certainty…

Police came to the door of Orton and Halliwell’s flat at 9 a.m. on 28 April, 1962.

“We are police officers,” one said, “and I have a warrant to search your flat as I have reason to believe you have a number of stolen library books.” Orton replied: “Oh dear.”

The Metropolitan Borough of Islington sued Orton and Halliwell for damages: 72 books stolen and many more “mutilated.” The total damage was estimated to be £450—over $12,000 today.

Halliwell and Orton were sentenced initially to six months in prison, an unusually savage sentence that reflected the apparent shock of the magistrate, Harold Surge. “Those who think they may be clever enough to write criticisms in other people’s books, public library books, or to deface them or ruin them in this way,” should understand it was “disastrous,” he said in court, denouncing their actions as “sheer malice” toward other library-users. Orton later commented that the court had realised they were gay and that the severity of the sentence was ‘because we were queers’.

Orton’s family were not told he had been arrested and found out from a story in the Daily Mirror. Titled The Gorilla in the Roses, it was illustrated with the altered Collins Guide to Roses. William Orton had stayed up to read the paper and on reading the story ran upstairs to his wife with the exclamation ‘Our John’s been nicked!’.

Porrett didn’t think six months in prison was a sufficient punishment for the men’s crimes. On their release in September, he threatened them with a charging order for the remaining £62 of damages they’d not yet paid. This would have given him power of sale over their mortgaged apartment to meet the unsettled debt.

The £6 a month Orton and Halliwell paid to this came out of their benefits—around a quarter of their income. For a comparatively mild crime, they had lost their jobs, gone on benefits, spent six months in prison, and “paid practically all our pathetically small bank accounts.”

Within a year, Halliwell tried to slit his wrists.

“Orton, on the other hand, channeled his rage into his art, and began pumping out plays. “[Prison] affected my attitude towards society,” he said, later. “Before I had been vaguely conscious of something rotten somewhere, prison crystallised this.” First, a radio play for the BBC—then plays performed around London, which attracted the attention and praise of British dramatist Terence Rattigan. Rapidly, he became well known and then quite famous, mingling with celebrities and asked to write a script for a Beatles film.”

In the way that acts of rebellion that in one decade get you sent down, but a few years pass and it becomes a fond memory… The book covers that Orton and Halliwell vandalised have since become a valued part of the Islington Local History Centre collection. Some are exhibited in the Islington Museum. The same local authority that prosecuted them now lionises them… A cynic might say that of course, Joe Orton later went on to become famous, and died, so he can be used to sell Islington a little as a tourist attraction, while if someone did the same as Ken and Joe today they’d still get prosecuted. Rebellious acts of any stripe can be acceptable – as long as they’re safely in the past.

It has been suggested that the two different prison experiences of Halliwell and Orton mark the beginning of the diverging of their fortunes that would end in Ken bludgeoning Joe to death in a depressive jealous rage, five years later. Orton found prison useful in pulling together his view of the world, and the lesson seems to have set him on his way to his onslaught on social mores. Ken’s already depressive nature only grew more marked and more morose; Orton’s increasing success as the ’60s went on highlighted to him both how he was not making something of himself, but also how Joe was drifting away from the relationship. Although the murder and suicide of August 1967 casts a long shadow backward… I always think of them both when I visit Essex Road library…

There’s a good website on Joe Orton’s life and death: http://www.joeorton.org/

Some of this post was sourced from here

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London gay history: the South London Gay Centre evicted, Brixton, 1976

In 1972, some transpontine activists in the Gay Liberation Front founded a South London branch, which initially met from 1972 in the Minet Library, North Brixton. Among their early actions was street theatre in drag, parading though Brixton market. After meetings at the Library, the GLFers often went to the Paulet Arms in Paulet Road round the corner for a drink, although the pub wouldn’t let them use the function room for discos (Fun fact: 25 years later the early planning meetings for the 1998 Brixton Reclaim the Streets party were also held in the Paulet)… Later the South London group met at the Hanover Arms in Stockwell, (where they WERE allowed to have socials upstairs!), at the crypt in St Matthews Church opposite the Town Hall, where they were once besieged and bottled by bigots; then at Oval House Theatre in Kennington… Later still at the Hamilton Arms in Railton Road (a lovely pub, another old hangout of yer past tense typist, where we sometimes held 121 Collective Centre meetings in the late 80s/early 90s, on days when the 121 was too cold to even sit in! – this pub is sadly now gone).

The GLFers also met at the Women’s Centre at 80 Railton Road. GLF socials and dances – attended by 100s of people – were held at the Surrey Halls in Stockwell and even at Lambeth Town Hall.

The GLF group was still active in 1974, doing a Gay community zap (action) against Tescos (not sure of the reason).

In 1973 or 74, three South London GLF members stood as GLF candidates for the Council elections; none got in; later Malcolm Greatbanks stood again in the second General Election of 1974. “Being against Parliamentary Democracy as a meaningless sham it was pointed out that we were just doing this for the free publicity.” Canvassers came in for a fair share of abuse, including a deliberate attempt to run one down – possibly by NFers, as the GLF had been active in opposing NF candidates in Brixton that year. At the Election count a number of GLF drag queens in feather boas livened up the evening!

The Railton Road ‘frontline’ was an alternative and rebellious hotchpotch at this time – along with the black street culture and numerous blues parties, squats, there was a constant sense of siege from police, sparking various confrontations. It was also diversely counter-cultural: there were two women’s centres on Railton Road, an Anarchist News Service, Squatters Groups, a Claimants’ Union for those on welfare benefits, the Brixton Advice Centre, Icebreakers (a gay liberation counselling group), the Black Panthers and Race Today Collective, black centres and bookshops… and a food cooperative, all on the frontline, or on nearby streets like Shakespeare Road and Atlantic Road.

However, Gays on the frontline often faced hostility, from some local blacks and some other local whites: GLF members were thrown out of two local pubs, the George (The George had also previously been prosecuted under the Race Relations Act for barring black people) for holding hands, and picketed the pubs over it.

In March 1972 GLF activists were thrown out of the Union Tavern in Camberwell New Road, for leafleting; the landlord’s son had punched one of the GLFers the previous day… (Not sure if any of this was purely homophobic, or anti-political – sometimes venues that were ok with gay events were quietist, wanting to avoid anything political or activist/lefty – or possibly rightwing-based? Especially interesting as The Union Tavern was hosting gay skinhead dances a couple of years before this time, late 1960s, I think: “Tuesday night was skinhead night and you could walk into the pub and there’d be a sea of crops. Fantastic! And everyone was gay! We’d dance to reggae all night, you know, the real Jamaican stuff, and all in rows, strict step. It was a right sight seeing all those skins dancing in rows. The atmosphere was electric.”

The South London Gay Centre

In May 1974, no 78 Railton Road, (next door to one branch of Brixton Women’s Centre at no 80) was squatted, giving birth to the South London Community Gay Centre.

“During the short period of its existence the Centre acted as a focal point bringing together gay people from many different backgrounds through social activities and political action.

The Gay Centre, as a self-determined group, also took its place among the other community based groups to challenge prejudice, discrimination, heterosexist attitudes and the complacency of officialdom.

There were many different activities at the Centre. A modern dance group was formed and run by Andreas Demetriou.

There was a wrestling group in the basement and, to counter the ‘macho’ posturing of the group, a sewing bee and knitting circle was formed in the upstairs front room run chiefly by Alistair Kerr and Malcolm Watson.”

The Centre was sneeringly described by a visiting reporter as “a shabby set of rooms”! Another visitor to the Squat said: “I was expecting some sort of brotherhood and it wasn’t like that. It was rather like… people who were all already close.” The Centre seems to have lasted till around 1976. The Centre applied for a council grant at one point, but were turned down… the Council was old school right wing Labour at this point, so being gay was deeply suspicious, and squatting in council property probably didn’t help. Some of the young New left labourites objected to their being turned down, including Norwood Councillor, soon to be infamous Lambeth would-be Lenin Ted Knight!

“There were weekly discos in the basement, individual counsellors and regular meetings of the Centre ‘collective’ to determine which campaigns and social events we would support and be involved in.

Discos were also organised at Lambeth Town Hall and an open day was held for members of the public to come and meet us.

Besides all of this there was a regular duty rota so that all the people who visited the Centre would be greeted and made welcome. The 1976 Gay Pride event was also organised by Brixton Gays.”

NB: Around this time, there was actually a black gay ‘blues’ club, on Railton Road, quite well known in the pre-Gay Liberation days, run by a Jamaican woman named Pearl (who was also mildly famous as a ‘naïve’ painter); although according to one source “there was little contact between black and white gays on the Frontline”, others remember things differently, that some ex GLFers did go to Pearl’s shebeen. “It wasn’t quite Queer Nation, but we did enjoy ourselves, in an environment that was free from the usual racism that was pretty much run of the mill prejudices encountered by black people on the gay scene at the time.” (Terry Stewart)

The Centre drew a number of people into the area, who squatted several back-to-back houses on Railton and Mayall Roads, (both very run down then, with lots of empties and knackered houses) with a shared garden in between them.

These houses became the nucleus for further political activity after the closure of the Centre but equally it grew, over time, as an experiment in new communal living arrangements for gay people with varying levels of success.

South London Gay Liberation Theatre Group

“The South London Gay Liberation Theatre Group, which later became the Brixton Faeries, produced several plays, sketches and street theatre performances. They were mostly unashamedly agit prop but later became more sophisticated with better characterisation and plotting. Beginning with a Gay Dragon paraded in a local street festival the group went on to perform sketches for local community groups.

The first play, ‘Mr Punch’s Nuclear Family’, was performed at the Centre and in a local school playground at a community event. The play attacked patriarchal values by showing the devastating effects on the wife and gay son of ‘rule by the father’ and the collusion of the male-dominated authorities in acquitting the father of murdering them (1975).

Next came ‘Out of it’ (1975/76) showing the relationship between patriarchal values, fascism and the extremes of christian morality and how they contributed to gay oppression. This was followed by ‘Minehead Revisited or The Warts that Dared to Speak their Name’.

A highly topical and controversial play at the time about the Jeremy Thorpe trial at the Old Bailey. As leader of the Liberal Party he had been accused of plotting to have a former male lover intimidated and even killed in order to keep him quiet about their affair (1977-80).

‘Tomorrow’s too Late’ was an anarchic blend of music, song and fantasy around gay activist groups and the banning of Gay News by WH Smith for carrying an advert about a paedophile group and later a poem by James Kirkup suggesting a homosexual relationship between Christ and a Roman soldier (1977-80). ‘Gents’ told the story of ‘cottaging’, that is, the reasons why men have sex with other men in public toilets.

The more respectable gays viewed cottaging as repulsive and giving ordinary, decent gay people a bad name. The police frequently arrested and charged men with ‘gross indecency’ often ruining their lives in terms of losing jobs and destroying relationships.

Brixton Faeries decided to expose the oppressive nature of police entrapment and to present cottaging in positive terms as an ideal fantasy even going so far as to suggest the local council attempting to stump up funding to ‘improve facilities’ (1978-80).

We also did Joint productions with various other groups such as Gay Sweatshop in ‘Radio Gay’ at the Oval House Community Centre.

Most of the productions were at fringe theatres or community centres and one performance of ‘Out of it’ was in front of the Young Communist League who were shocked to see two men kissing on stage.”

Many people who used the Centre were unemployed and could not afford to fund it. Infighting between different factions and lack of funding contributed to the demise of the Centre.”

However the final blow came when the Centre was evicted, on 21st April 1976, by police and bailiffs so that the private owners could take vacant possession of the property and sell it to Lambeth Council for redevelopment.

The building was however re-squatted, at least for a while:

“The Gay Centre did not close due to eviction. We re-squatted the next day !
It closed after the principal people involved gave up the struggle with those we rudely called “The Nerds” who took over but were so un-together that they failed to pay the electricity and phone bills and and within months, it had collapsed.”

This marked the end of the “first public and visible institution with a clear gay identity. With this closure the focus for political and social activity shifted from the Centre to the gay squats.”

From about 1972 on there had been a number of gay squats/communes in Railton and Mayall Roads, later there seem to have been 11 houses in a group, back to back with a big communal garden. They had discos in basements… “people would bring their own records… we just had a few coloured lights, although it could get quite randy down there. It was more Dante’s Inferno than ‘Disco Inferno’ “(Ian Townson). Apparently the attempt to establish a ‘common gay identity’ didn’t really work, and there were divisions, due to different class and backgrounds of the residents… often the splits came down to “love and peace and brown rice” versus “political activists”. Later several of these squats joined Brixton Housing Co-op, and were redeveloped into single person units.

“While this made for more secure accommodation and the shared garden was kept in tact it led to a more ‘privatised’ existence and some of the original elan and spirit was lost as a result.

However the gay households are all still there with more or less permanent inhabitants.

Gay people arrived at the squats for many different reasons. Some were desperately fleeing from oppressive situations in their lives. Others were glad to find the company of unashamedly out gay people rather than remain confused and isolated.

Some consciously saw this as an opportunity to attack ‘straight’ society through adopting an alternative lifestyle that challenged the prevailing norms of the patriarchal nuclear family and private property.

There were many visitors from overseas. Everything would be shared in common including sex partners and gender bending was encouraged to dissolve rigid categories of masculine men and feminine women. For others dressing in drag was a sheer pleasure and an opportunity for ingenious invention.

The ‘cultural desert’ in South London offered little social space in which to gather strength as ‘out’ gay people. The ‘straight’ gay scene was inhospitable, exploitative and a commercial rip off  (it is now gay-owned, exploitative and a commercial rip off).

With a common garden between the houses the back doors were often left open so that people could come and go in and out of each others squats.

The kitchen more often than not became the hub of food, conversation and play. In the shared garden people would gather to dine Al Fresco or play music or even rehearse for various theatre productions. Even just camp it up for the hell of it.”

Many of the Centre’s gay activists continued to be active in Brixton after the demise of the Centre. The National Gay News Defence Committee was originally based at 146 Mayall Road and then moved to 157 Railton Road. The group was set up when Mary Whitehouse, a right-wing moral crusader, prosecuted Gay News on a charge of blasphemous libel for carrying the notorious poem by James Kirkup, imagining Jesus having sex with a roman soldier…

“This happened at a time when there was also much police activity against gay people in different parts of the country on cottaging charges and the wrongful assumption that we were paedophiles.”

With the successful prosecution of Gay News the NGNDC became the Gay Activists’ Alliance, a late-70s attempt to repoliticise the gay scene and link gay liberation to other struggles; which continued with both national and international campaigns with many locally active groups.

There was also a gay socialist paper “Gay Noise’. Some ex-GLFers set up ‘Icebreakers’ in Brixton, this was a radical counselling group which helped many people to come to terms with their sexuality and come out. The idea had arisen from the GLF’s ‘Counter Psychiatry’ sub-group, which attempted to challenge psychiatry’s treatment of lesbians and gays as sick or mad.

“Also the fascist National Front was particularly active at this time; mostly against immigrants, black people and left-wing organisations but also several gay establishments had been attacked by them including the Vauxhall Tavern in South London.

In 1978 a massive Anti-Nazi League march came along Railton Road for a Rock Against Racism festival in Brockwell Park. We fully supported the demonstration and the marchers passed under a banner we had slung high across Railton Road saying: Brixton Gays Welcome Anti-Fascists.

Also there was Anita Bryant, the Florida Orange lady, who campaigned in the United States against gays. Her famous phrase was: ‘God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’ and she became even more famous when an irate gay activist shoved a cream pie in her face in full view of television cameras.

Union Place Community Resource Centre in Brixton… encouraged us to go along and make posters, diaries, badges, calendars and banners for our campaigns. Ian Townson and Colm Clifford from the gay community became employees and Colm initiated ‘Homosexual Posters’ from there producing pictorial biographies of gay people and even gay Christmas cards.

Brixton Riots

A special mention should be made of the Brixton riots of 1981 which happened chiefly as a result of the racism and heavy-handed harassment of black people by the police. The riots were centred around Railton Road and when Brixton was burning we showed our solidarity with the oppressed by joining them on the streets.

We even took tables and chairs out onto the street in front of the gay squats for a celebration party – some people in drag – getting a mixed reception from people on the street. Some hostile, others indifferent, some amused.”

Two of the Brixton gay squatters were sent to prison for a couple of years for supplying petrol to the rioters for Molotov cocktails…

Many of the original gay squats survive as co-op houses in Railton and Mayall Roads, lots with their original residents.

Some of this post was nicked from here

(where there are lots of great pics of the Centre and other gay squats, and a great thread of comments from former South London GLF folk and Centre goers)

and from No Bath but Plenty of Bubbles: An oral history of the Gay Liberation Front, ed Lisa Power.

But… there are some other accounts available now of gay lib and related skulduggery of the times…

here’s a previous post we did on Bethnal Rouge, another offshoot of the GLF

Today in London trade history: master tailors go to court to restrict rights of their workers, 1415

In London, as in many other cities, the middle ages saw work and its rules and regulations codified in trade Guilds, composed of workmen from specific trades and crafts. Their purpose was to defend the interests of the trade, regulate the quality of workmanship and the training of new members, and provide support and welfare for their members. Established by charter and regulated by the City of London, London’s guilds also provided a political voice to their members, who as freemen of the City had the right to elect members of the Court of Aldermen and Common Council. London had eighty-nine guilds in the eighteenth century, ranked according to a hierarchy of precedence with the twelve Great Companies at the top. The powers of the guilds to regulate economic activity declined substantially in the eighteenth century, and their primary functions were increasingly confined to providing social prestige, business contacts and a political voice to their members. They also provided substantial charity to their members, partly funded by large charitable bequests which they administered.

Membership in a guild could be taken up in one of three ways: by completing a seven year apprenticeship, by patrimony (if one’s father was a member of the company), or by redemption (payment of a fee). None of these routes of entry ensured that the member would actually practice the company’s trade. Owing to the Custom of London, members of London guilds could practise any trade in the City. Consequently, even though a completed apprenticeship remained the most common route to membership, guilds often included numerous members who did not actually practice the relevant trade. The ratio of members practising the craft to others varied from guild to guild, with the less prestigious guilds such as the Carpenters’ Company having a larger number of practicing craft members. Other companies, such as the Grocers’, Fishmongers’, and Goldsmiths’, had many fewer practising members, and, owing to the high cost of admission, became “little more than gentleman’s clubs”.

Most guilds were composed of men from a mixture of social backgrounds. Apprentices were almost invariably young and came from both relatively poor and wealthy homes. Journeymen, craftsmen who had finished their apprenticeship but had not set up an independent business, were relatively poorly paid. Master craftsmen ran anything from a small one-man workshop to a thriving business with several apprentices, journeymen, and partners in other trades. By the eighteenth century most guilds did not include women, though sometimes widows who took over their husbands’ businesses became members by default, and took over the training of their husbands’ apprentices. Even in this instance, women were excluded from participation in company business.

Guilds were normally governed by a master, two wardens, and a Court of Assistants, which set policies, oversaw the administration of company properties, and governed the distribution of charitable funds.

But the Medieval guilds, while designed to unite trades vertically, were themselves inevitably split by class struggle. The interests of the masters and more prosperous employers diverged from those of the journeymen who worked for them, and the apprentices who were learning the job.

Journeymen’s resentment at working conditions, poor pay and lack on control over their work sparked attempts to get together, organise, demand change… this was met by guild hierarchies and the masters, to repress this organisation by the ‘servants’ of the guild.

Against this background the lower orders or ‘yeomanry’ of City companies like the founders, tailors, curriers, bakers and clothworkers fought running battles with the livery over elections to guild positions and the posts of aldermen in London’s council, over control of charitable funds for the poor and use of the right of search.

The Merchant Tailors Guild was notable among these struggles. For centuries one of crafts where organisation among the lower orders was most active.

Tailors were often seen as radical, politically, by tradition… it has been suggested that radical politics often flourished among tailors partly due to their working in quiet conditions, often one or two in a house or workshop, with time to think, discuss ideas… But economics also probably played a large part – in a trade where piece work was the norm, work was very subject to ups and downs of general prosperity, seasons, trade depressions, the imports of cloth…

The early fifteenth century saw legal moves by master tailors to shut down autonomy and ‘combinations’ among journeymen and apprentices. On 19 April 1415, masters challenged in court the right of their servants’ to live in their own dwellings, assemble and meet together freely, and to belong to their own separate fraternity. These yeomen possibly lived in “3 Shears Court,” described by Stowe in his Survey as lying adjacent to the church of St. James’, Garlick Hill.

The masters complained that the journeymen tailors were living in their own dwellings “by themselves alone in companies,” against the licence or will of the Master, and “without head or government.” Woo. Dangerous.

Not only that, but they had ‘behaved in an unruly manner, and that allowing them their own fraternity or gatherings ‘would lead to disturbances, as similar assemblies of the same mistery had done before’.

Two of the offenders were summoned to appear before the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, who adjudged “that the servants of the foresaid trade shall be hereafter under government and rule of the Master and Wardens of the aforesaid trade, as other servants of other trades in the said City are, and are bound by law to be, and that they shall not use henceforth livery or dress, meetings or conventicles, or other unlawful things of this kind.”

The masters thus won the case; ‘yoman taillours’ were subsequently only permitted to gather within the church of St John in the presence of their masters. Clearly there was already a dissident faction among the journeymen and apprentices, and they had been agitating prior to this court case…

The court case didn’t end the tailors’ struggles. Two years later in August 1417, the journeymen “as a Brotherhood of Yeoman Tailors,” approached the Lord Mayor for permission to assemble “on the Feast of the Decollation of St. John the Baptist next following and so henceforth yearly, in the church of St. John of Jerusalem, near Smythfield, there to offer for the deceased brothers and sisters of the said brotherhood, and to do other things which they have been accustomed to do there”. However, this proposal, while sounding innocuous, must have implied dangerous and rebellious tendencies – the masters objected, and the Court thought fit to “order and consider that in future times no servant or apprentice of the said trade shall presume by themselves to make or enter assemblies or conventicles at the foresaid church of St. John or elsewhere, unless with and in presence of the Masters of the said trade, etc., on pain of imprisonment and fine.”

Any gathering not overseen by the guild hierarchy was basically suspect.

In the 1440s the struggle between the lower orders of the tailors and their masters was to erupt into serious revolt. The wealthy masters were attempting to strengthen their rights to examine journeymen’s work, and prosecute those ‘guilty of defective work, while the ‘yeomen’ clamoured to be able to elect their own representatives to the ranks of the City Aldermen. Alliances were made between the journeymen across guild lines, and in 1443 a conspiracy was supposedly quashed, in which 2000 armed artisans were planning to riot in support of a demand to be admitted to the process of electing aldermen and the mayor. However, the masters were better organised, and not was this plot defused, but journeymen tailors and their allies in other guilds in fact faced defeat, with previously held rights lost, a situation that lasted decades for centuries. But the journey men tailors would maintain a stubborn resistance to their betters, organising in secret, evolving fraternities and clubs to agitate for better wages and conditions… So formidable that this network would be labeled the ‘tailor’s republic’ in the 18th century…

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history, 1870: a Land & labour League unemployed demonstration.

On 15th April 1870, a Land and Labour League unemployed demonstration took place in London. The winter of 1869-70 had seen a large rise in unemployment, and on Good Friday the League organised a demonstration of the jobless, which aroused considerable comment. League members wore “broad scarlet sashes…around the waist, in the exact pattern current among the sans culottes of the first French Revolution, and, in a further imitation of that class, poles were born aloft with the emblematical caps of liberty”. (The Times, 16 April 1870)

The Land and Labour League had been formed in October 1869, by a group of radical trade unionists affiliated to the International Working Men’s Association. The meetings had been proposed by the O’Brienite National Reform League and were attended by a variety of working class radicals, as evidenced by the somewhat eclectic programme. Its formation had been sparked by a discussion of the land question at the Basle Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association (the ‘First International’) earlier in the year.

The League advocated the full nationalisation of land, in the interests of the people that worked it; its membership was associated with many of the working class activists and trade unionists who formed the backbone of the political reform movements of the 1860s-70s, (it has been described as the successor to the Reform League) the secularists and the shortlived working class republican network in London.

Although originally concerned mainly with land nationalisation the League became the leading left republican organisation in Britain.

Patrick Hennessey, an Irish trade unionist, was the Land League’s President. The secretaries were Martin J. Boon (who had been strongly influenced by the group that grew up around the former Chartist socialist James Bronterre O’Brien, based at the Eclectic Hall in Soho) and John Weston, and the treasurer was Johann Eccarius, well known figure in the English section of the First International.

Boon’s involvement in the formation of the League is illustrated in the presence in the original principles of the L&LL many of the demands of the ‘O’Brienite’ wing of Chartism – nationalisation of the land; home colonization; equal electoral rights and payment of MPs, along with more more generally radical aims – free compulsory state education; abolition of standing army; state limitation of working hours. To this was added a plethora of concessions to the rising tide of currency reformism (single tax; nationalisation of the banks; abolition of national debt).

Members of the IMWA’s General Council were noticeably active in the League. These included JG Eccarius, then a disciple of Marx, George Odger, John Weston, Martin J Boon and Tom Mottershead. Marx was a member of the League, joining on 30 November 1869, but did not play a prominent part. Charles Bradlaugh, the secularist, was also a leading figure.

‘The Republican’ (1 September 1870 to 1 February 1872) was the de facto publication of the League. Daniel Chatterton, former Chartist, secularist speaker, fiery communist orator, later of ‘Chatterton’s Commune’ fame, was the proprietor.

The Land & League reached its organisational height due to wide spread public sympathy with the new French republic declared in 1870 at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. At a League rally on the issue of the war and the French Republic in January 1871, “a dense sea of human faces…men- workers primarily and a few women ‘daughters of Labour’ – understanding the speeches and keen about them; and on the platform a small knot of men, the Irreconcilables of English policy”. The latter included Beesly, his friend Harrison, Bradlaugh, Odger and Applegarth. (Eastern Post, 14 January 1871).

Originally neutral, the League later helped organise an Anglo-French Intervention Committee to press for military action against the Prussians – at this meeting a motion for war if Alsace Lorraine was annexed was passed. This latter action and the outbreak of the Paris Commune brought dissensions. More moderate (Odger, Bradlaugh) and more radical (Weston, Boon) elements broke off. Competition from the middle class Land Tenure Association stole many of the surviving adherents. A rump of currency cranks lingered on until the end of the 1870s.

Despite effectively petering out by 1873 the League had some radicalising impact on the Land Tenure Reform Association established by John Stuart Mill, which adopted a policy of taxing the unearned increment on land value under pressure from the League.

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Address of the Land and Labour League to the Working Men and Women of Great Britain and Ireland

Drawn up: by JG Eccarius on about November 14, 1869;
Published: as a pamphlet Address of the Land and Labour League to the Working Men and Women of Great Britain and Ireland, London, 1869.

This address is in fact the programme of the Land and Labour League; drawn up by Eccarius who was on the commission preparing it, and edited by Marx, and this found expression in the League’s programme.

Fellow-Workers,

The fond hopes held out to the toiling and suffering millions of this country thirty years ago have not been realised. They were told that the removal of fiscal restrictions would make the lot of the labouring poor easy; if it could not render them happy and contented it would at least banish starvation for ever from their midst.

They rose a terrible commotion for the big loaf, the landlords became rampant, the money lords confounded, the factory lords rejoiced — their will was done — Protection received the coup de grâce. A period of the most marvellous prosperity followed. At first the Tories threatened to reverse the policy, but on mounting the ministerial benches, in 1852, instead of carrying out their threat, they joined the chorus in praise of unlimited competition. Prepared for a pecuniary loss they discovered to their utter astonishment that the rent-roll was swelling at the rate of more than £2,000,000 a year. Never in the history of the human race was there so much wealth — means to satisfy the wants of man — produced by so few hands, and in so short a time as since the abolition of the Corn Laws. During the lapse of twenty years the declared value of the animal exports of British and Irish produce and manufactures — the fruits of your own labour — rose from £60,000,000 to £188,900,000. In twenty years the taxable income of the lords and ladies of the British soil increased, upon their own confession, from £98,000,000 to £140,000,000 a year; that of the chiefs of trades and professions from £60,000,000 to 10,000,000 a year. Could human efforts accomplish more?

Alas! there are stepchildren in Britania’s family. No Chancellor of the Exchequer has yet divulged the secret how the £140,000,000 are distributed amongst the territorial magnates, but we know all about the trades-folk. The special favourites increased from sixteen, in 1846, to one hundred and thirty-three, in 1866. Their average annual income rose from £74,300 to £100,600 each. They appropriated one-fourth of the twenty years’ increase. The next of kin increased from three hundred and nineteen to nine hundred and fifty-nine Individuals: their average annual income rose from £17,700 to £19,300 each: they appropriated another fourth. The remaining half was distributed amongst three hundred and forty-six thousand and forty-eight respectables, whose annual income ranged between £100 and £10,000 sterling. The toiling millions, the producers of that wealth — Britania’s cinderellas — got cuffs and kicks instead of halfpence.

In the year 1864 the taxable income under schedule D increased by £9,200,000. Of that increase the metropolis, with less than an eighth of the population, absorbed £4,266,000, nearly a half, £3,123,000 of that, more than a third of the increase of Great Britain, was absorbed by the City of London, by the favourites of the one hundred and seventy-ninth part of the British population: Mile End and the Tower, with a working population four times as numerous, got £175,000. The citizens of London are smothered with gold; the householders of the Tower Hamlets are overwhelmed by poor-rates. The citizens, of course, object to centralisation of poor-rates purely on the principle of local self-government.

During the ten years ending 1861 the operatives employed in the cotton trade increased 12 per cent; their produce 103 per cent. The iron miners increased 6 per cent; the produce of the mines 37 per-cent. Twenty thousand iron miners worked for ten mine owners. During the same ten years the agricultural labourers of England and Wales diminished by eighty-eight thousand one hundred and forty-seven, and yet, during that period, several hundred thousand acres of common land were enclosed and transformed into private property to enlarge the estates of the nobility and the same process is still going on.

In twelve years the rental liable to be rated to the poor in England and Wales rose from £86,700,000 to £118,300,000: the number of adult able-bodied paupers increased from one hundred and forty-four thousand five hundred to one hundred and eighty-five thousand six hundred.

These are no fancy pictures, originating in the wild speculations of hot brained incorrigibles; they are the confessions of landlords and money lords, Recorded in their own blue books. One of their experts told the House of Lords the other day that the propertied classes, after faring sumptuously laid by £150,000,000 a year out of the produce of your labour. A few weeks later the president of the Royal College of Surgeons related to a jury assembled to inquire into the causes of eight untimely deaths, what lie saw in the foul ward of St. Pancras.

Hibernia’s favourites too have multiplied, and their income has risen, while a sixth of her toiling sons and daughters perished by famine, and its consequent diseases, and a third of the remainder were evicted, ejected and expatriated by tormenting felonious usurpers.

This period of unparalleled Industrial prosperity has landed thousands of our fellow-toilers — honest, unsophisticated, hardworking men and women — in the stone yard and the oakum room; the roast beef of their dreams has turned into skilly. Hundreds of thousands, men, women and children, are wandering about — homeless, degraded outcasts — in the land that gave them birth, crowding the cities and towns, and swarming the highroads in the, country in search of work to obtain food and shelter, without being able to find any. Other thousands, more spirited than honest, are walking the treadmill to expiate little thefts, preferring prison discipline to workhouse fare, while the wholesale swindlers are at large, and felonious landlords preside at quarter sessions to administer the laws. Thousands of the young and strong cross the seas, flying from their native firesides, like from an exterminating plague; the old and feeble perish on the roadside of hunger and cold. The hospitals and infirmaries are overcrowded with fever and famine-stricken: death from starvation has become an ordinary every-day occurrence.

All parties are agreed that the sufferings of the labouring poor were never more intense, and misery so widespread, nor the means of satisfying the wants of man ever so abundant as at present. This proves above all that the moral foundation of all civil government, “that the welfare of the entire community is the highest law, and ought to be the aim and end of all civil legislation”, has been utterly disregarded. Those who preside over the destinies of the nation have either wantonly neglected their primary duty while attending to the special interests of the rich to make them richer, or their social position, their education, their class prejudices have incapacitated them from doing their duty to the community at large or applying the proper remedies; in either case they have betrayed their trust.

Class government is only possible on the condition that those who are held in subjection are secured against positive want. The ruling classes have failed to secure the industrious wages-labourer in the prime of his life against hunger and death from starvation. Their remedies have signally failed, their promises have not been fulfilled. They promised retrenchment, they have enormously increased the public expenditure instead. They promised to lift the burden of taxation from your shoulders, the rich pay but a fractional part of the increased expenses; the rest is levied upon your necessaries — even your pawn tickets are taxed — to keep up a standing army drawn from your own ranks, to shoot you down if you show signs of disaffection. They promised to minimise pauperism: they have made indigence and destitution your average condition — the big loaf has dwindled into no loaf. Every remedy they have applied has but aggravated the evil, and they have no other to suggest, — their rule is doomed. To continue is to involve all in a common ruin. There is but one, — and only one, — remedy. Help Yourselves! Determine that you will not endure this abominable state of things any longer; act up to your determination, and it will vanish.

A few weeks ago a score of London working men talked the matter over. They came to the conclusion that the present economical basis of society was the foundation of all the existing evils, — that nothing short of a transformation of the existing social and political arrangements could avail, and that such a transformation could only be effected by the tolling millions themselves. They embodied their conclusions in a series of resolutions, and called a conference of representative working men, to whom they were submitted for consideration. In three consecutive meetings those resolutions were discussed and unanimously adopted. To carry them out a new working men’s organisation, under the title of the “Land and Labour League”, was established. An executive council of upwards of forty well-known representative working men was appointed to draw up a platform of principles arising out of the preliminary resolutions adopted by the conference, to serve as the programme of agitation by means of which a radical change call be effected.

After mature consideration the Council agreed to the following:

  1. Nationalisation of the Land.
  2. Home Colonisation.
  3. National, Secular, Gratuitous and Compulsory Education.
  4. Suppression of Private Banks of Issue. The State Only to Issue Paper Money
  5. A Direct and Progressive Property Tax, in Lieu of All Other Taxes.
  6. Liquidation of the National Debt.
  7. Liquidation of the Standing Army.
  8. Reduction of the Number of the Hours of Labour.
  9. Equal Electoral Rights, with Payment of Members.

The success of our efforts will depend upon the pressure that can be brought to bear upon the powers that be, and this requires numbers, union organisation and combination. We therefore call upon you to unite, organise and combine and raise the cry throughout Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, “The Land for the People” — the rightful inheritors of nature’s gifts. No rational state of society can leave the land, which is the source of life, under the control of, and subject to the whims and caprices of, a few private individuals. A government elected by, and as trustee for, the whole people is the only power that can manage it for the benefit of the entire community.

Insist upon the State reclaiming the unoccupied lands as a beginning of its nationalisation, and placing the unemployed upon it. Let not another acre of common land be enclosed for the private purposes of non-producers. Compel the Government to employ the army until its final dissolution, as a pioneer force to weed, drain and level the wastes for cultivation, instead of forming encampments to prepare for the destruction of life. If green fields and kitchen gardens are incompatible with the noble sport of hunting let the hunters emigrate.

Make the Nine points of the League the Labour programme the touchstone by which you test the quality of candidates for parliamentary honours, and if you find them spurious reject them like a counterfeit coin, for he who is not for them is against you.

You are swindled out of the fruits of your toil by land laws, money laws, and all sorts of laws. Out of the paltry pittance that is left you, you have to pay the interest of a debt that was incurred to keep you in subjection. You have to maintain a standing army that serves no other purpose in your generation, and you are systematically overworked when employed, and underfed at all times. Nothing but a series of such reforms as indicated on our programme will ever lift soil out of the slough of despond in which you are at present sunk. The difficulty can be overcome by unity of purpose and action. We are our opponents are few. Then, working men and women of all creeds and occupations, claim your rights as with one voice, and rally round, and unite your forces under, the banner of the “Land and Labour League” to conquer your own emancipation!

John Weston, Treasurer
Martin J. Boon, J. George Eccarius Secretaries

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Thanks to Keith Scholey for some of this post… Readers interest in the secularist, republican scene in London between the 1850s and 1880s, especially the followers of Bronterre O’Brien, could do worse than read Club Life and Socialism in Mid-Victorian London, by Stan Shipley. EP Thompson’s biog of William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary, and The Slow Burning Fuse, by John Quail, pick up the threads of this, describing how many of these elements went on to form the early English socialist and anarchist movements.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history: the 1981 Brixton Uprising

“Between 6.10pm on Friday, 10th April, 1981, and 11.34pm, on Monday April 13th April 1981, during a very warm early spring interlude, serious disorder occurred in the immediate area of Brixton, SW9, within the greater London Borough of Lambeth, when large numbers of persons, predominantly black youths, attacked police, police vehicles (many of which were totally destroyed), attacked the Fire Brigade and damaged appliances, damaged private premises and vehicles, destroyed private premises and vehicles by fire, looted, ransacked and damaged shops…” (Metropolitan Police Report on April 1981 Brixton Riot)

“All you fucking cunts, it’ll be your turn next, the whites will turn on you, come on you cunt, take a swing at me man to man.” (White policeman to black passers-by, Villa Road, Brixton, 11th April 1981.)

After more than a decade of repeated attacks, arrests, harassment, and racist provocations by the local police and the paramilitary riot squad, the Special Patrol Group, in April 1981, Brixton erupted in a massive uprising.

The riot – followed by more in July, part of a nationwide wave of disorder – shocked the British state. Though labelled ‘race riots’ by the press, in fact blacks and whites fought side by side, in the first anti-police riots for more than a century. The riot was a prelude to widespread uprisings in communities across Britain that took place in July.

The following is mostly taken (with some additions) from the pamphlet ‘We Want to Riot, Not To Work’, originally published in April 1982, by the Riot Not to Work Collective, a group of anarchists who lived in Brixton and took part in the April ’81 riot. As the original publishers wrote: “Generalisations about events are hardly useful unless they reflect the experience of those involved in them. The contributors to the first section express their thoughts, feelings and aspirations during the course of the April uprising. The first account also gives some background information about Brixton and the events which led up to the uprising. All these accounts were originally written just afterwards.”

Something of the background to the riot in terms of policing and black resistance to it can be read here

We have left the accounts in the present tense, to preserve the immediacy of the writing. Obviously social relations in Brixton have changed massively in the 37 years since 1981, as the initial description of the ‘Frontline’ most clearly indicates – though some burning issues remain.

THE FIRE THIS TIME

By now the social and economic background to the Brixton riots will be familiar to most people. A housing waiting list, in the borough in which Brixton is situated, of 18,000; a third of the housing stock sub-standard; high unemployment with about 2 out of 3 of the unemployed being black; a high robbery rate (in fact the highest in London, it being twice the nearest figure); next to no social amenities.

This is all very true. The area around the Railton Road (Frontline/Mayall Road triangle) is inhabited by mainly black council tenants and mainly white squatters (leftists/anarchists/marginals). Empty houses are also used by local blacks as drinking and gambling clubs, dope centres and venues for all-night ‘Blues’ (parties with sound systems pumping out non-stop reggae). Down the Frontline a black crafts centre has recently started in one empty building and further down a former black bookshop is now a squatted anarchist bookshop. People down here tend to live on the left-overs of capitalist society. For years, the Triangle has been on the drawing board for demolition but only in the last two has any attempt been made to carry this out. But the council keeps running out of money so it has been coming down piecemeal, making a rough area look even rougher. However, the maze of streets west of the Front-line look brighter as they have increasingly come under the occupation of white, liberal professionals and self-made respectable blacks.

Down the Frontline there are two distinct cultures – the black and the white – and it is the black culture which predominates and on the fringes of which the young whites participate. Dope and Reggae. The blacks have their own language – Patois – and this gives them an independent cultural identity that is not easily co-opted or diluted . Perhaps the most relevant aspect of this culture (in terms of the riots) is that it is very much a street culture (despite British weather). Winter or summer there are always crowds of blacks out on the Frontline rapping, smoking, laughing, visibly occupying their social space.

But it is the cops who claim they control the streets of London. Certainly in the two years I’ve lived on the Frontline I’ve noticed that the cops have always tried to intimidate the Frontline community with constant vehicle and foot patrols and less frequently, horse patrols. (The most bizarre policing incident I’ve ever seen happened a few months ago when a cop on horseback chased someone down Mayall Road).

Actually, the cops know they cannot fully control the Frontline. Despite their claims and their patrols the police policy on the Frontline has been one of containment – periodical raids to remind locals who is boss and to warn them not to get out of hand. Operations such as the one in 1978, when the SPG scaled off the Frontline and searched anybody and everybody, have caused outrage. Blacks, especially the second generation, are, on the whole, defiant. A month or so ago a black motorist tore up the ticket a cop had just given him and threw it back in his face, to cheers from the assembled crowd.

The cops constantly use the SUS laws to stop and search young blacks. And they do this with vengeance. Another events on the Frontline will illustrate this. Two vehicles collided and the cops on the scene immediately searched both vehicles and their drivers and passengers. The accident was secondary. With such everyday deprivation and such mindless state bullying, for being deprived, the one thing which united the disparate elements of the Frontline community is a burning hatred for the cops. What most surprised local people when the Bristol riots happened last year was that they hadn’t happened here first. Another surprise was that the anarchist graffiti which went up after [the 1980 riot in] Bristol – Bristol yesterday, Brixton today – took a year to be made real.

The establishment knew this too. Only a few months ago Lambeth Council published a report criticising the cops and predicting trouble.

THE WEEK BEFORE THE RIOTS

The constant intense policing of Brixton and of the Frontline in particular was heightened in the week leading up to the riots. At 11pm on Friday April 3rd, the Frontline area around Dexter and Leeson Roads was sealed off by cops with no-one being allowed in or out for over an hour. Over 20 arrests were made. Then, in the following week, Operation Swamp 81 saw over 1,000 people (mainly young blacks) stopped and searched. This was all adding to the increasing frustration of local people. At about 2.30am on Friday 10th I was stopped and threatened by 3 young blacks with bottles. This confused and angered me (it was the first time I’d ever been hassled on the Frontline) and it was only later that I realised that they had been victims of Swamp 81, perhaps only minutes before meeting me.

On Friday 10th at about 5pm a young black with a knife wound was stopped on the Frontline by cops. What followed is the source of many different stories. (The Notorious DC Duncan was in charge, a man with a very bad rep locally. Onlookers claimed the cops knelt on the bloke and kept him there bleeding for 20 minutes. Obviously the old bill claimed they’d been helping the lad.)

Whatever happened (and it isn’t necessary to seek justification for what followed anyway) the cops were attacked by a gang of locals, the young bloke freed and taken to hospital. A brief battle with cop re-inforcements occurred. The cops took this as a challenge and so the following day, Saturday 11th, the Frontline was under police occupation. “Brixton was thoroughly over-policed. There were officers at every street corner, transits parked all over the place… it feels, once again, like the police have taken your town over… A local shopkeeper, not known for his radical views, was to be heard proclaiming that he wouldn’t be surprised if the youths started fighting again. And he wouldn’t blame them either.” (The Leveller)

On the Saturday morning the rumour went round, that the stabbing victim, Michael Bailey, had died due to police delays…

Usually the cops patrol the Frontline. But on that Saturday they parked up and down the Frontline every 50 yards, just sitting in their vans waiting for something to happen. It was a warm day so the Frontline was full of people standing around doing the usual things and, this time, eyeing the occupation force with hatred. All afternoon most people expected trouble of some sort. At about 5pm in the afternoon a plain-clothes cop received the free gift of a brick on the head for wanting to search a black guy’s car. Up in Atlantic Road an arrest was attempted and this further angered an already angry crowd. Most of this crowd was gathered in the space at the apex itself and is at the beginning of Atlantic Road, The odd brick began to fly at the cops isolated in the crowd. A window was smashed. Tension rose. Electric. Then plain-clothes cops appeared from the crowd and joined the uniformed lot. Battle fines were now clearly drawn and the first barrage of bricks flew in the direction of the cops. They threw a few back and charged. At first we retreated a little but, realising we were many, they were few, we stopped. Then, spontaneously, the whole afternoon’s tension being released like a spring, we charged them.

(What follows may seem confused and incoherent. But this is how I experienced the rioting. I report on only what I saw and heard. Certain incidents are omitted for obvious reasons).

A massive surge of adrenalin. War whoops. Class war whoops. ‘Whoops! Class War!’ A scramble for bricks. ‘I must have a brick. Where are the bricks?’ A hail of bricks. The cops are confused as they realise they are no longer in control. Puppets without a role. They look at us, at one another and around themselves. Then. Run. Away. Down Mayall Road, leaving their vehicles in our hands. in the twinkling of a rioting eye the vehicles are smashed up and turned over. A light is instantly provided and poof! Up goes a cop’s van. Wild cheers. Laughter, dances of joy. I see a comrade and we beam solidarity at one another.

Our savage celebrations are interrupted by a charge of cops. (They had regrouped with re-inforcements). The crowd splits. The cops are mad. Truncheons thrashing. I run to safety up a side street and meet another comrade. As we point with child-like glee at the rising pall of smoke; a white guy is bricked, inexplicably. He is immediately defended by black youths and all eyes look around for the idiot thrower. A nearby friend has transport and as I got to seek its availability a black guy bearing an old grudge grabs me, revenge in his eyes. Before he can find an excuse to brick me (was the brick which hit the other guy meant for me?) I make it plain that assistance is needed. Van not available. Questions from friends. Tune in to police radio. They are out of their heads. Sounds of windows going in on Coldharbour Lane. Back onto the streets.

In Coldharbour Lane an SPG van is on its side like some stranded whale. A boutique has its windows smashed and twisted dummies litter the pavement. Crowds of onlookers. Glass smashes in Electric Avenue. A jewellers is looted. Another further up. Black and white youths kick their way through the roller shutters. I watch out for cops on Brixton Road, Announce to the passing shoppers, who are all eyes, that free jewellery is available should they want it. Am ignored. Notice that the jewellers is, perfectly, next door to a consumer advice centre. Necklaces, bracelets, rings and watches are thrown into the pavement. Jewellery in the gutter. Great! I have a game of football with some bracelets, a game I can’t lose. There are some squabbles over loot. Depressing.

Move out onto Brixton Road. Burton’s tailors is done in and a dummy set ablaze. Magical sight. Cops arrive. Pull dummy onto pavement. The tube station is closed but Brixton Road is still open to traffic. The motorists and bus passengers look in confusion as looting spreads to both sides of the road. A black youth kicks in plate glass windows as if he is swatting flies. More cops. Burglar alarms scream out to deaf ears. More and more cops. Running battles. More looting. Then I notice there’s no more traffic. The cops have sealed the main road off from the cop shop to the Town Hall.

Looting and smashing now all along Brixton Road area, the market area and up Acre Lane. My name is called out. Another comrade. We shake hands muttering ‘Great! Great!’ I give him a garbled resume. Bulk of crowd now around Brixton Oval. Woolworths smashed and looted. Television sets, stereo, carted off. Some smashed. Occasional cop van races through and is smashed. Many in the crowd realise cops have to pass us to get into the battle area so crowds line up on either side of Brixton Road with bottles and bricks. ‘Here’s another’ Smash. ‘And another.’ Smash. A proletarian fairground. ‘And the next one please!’ Smash. Everyone a winner. Cops wise up and a convoy arrives, stops and a horde of meanies piles out, truncheons thrashing. Crowd splits up but sniping still possible. A charge and we escape up a side street. All casual, like, we call into a pub for a drink. A rumour goes round that a cop has been kidnapped. My comrade and I smirk into our glasses.

We decide to go to the Frontline. It is now dark and we worm our way through back streets, avoiding cop cordons. We approach the top of the Frontline along Kellett Road and are met with an unbelievable sight. Three rows of cops stretch across the Frontline, facing into it. A non-stop hail of bricks batters their shields. Then suddenly a molotov (the first I’ve ever seen) comes up and over and smash! whoof! lands on some shields, which are hurriedly dropped. Look down Mayall Road and see the Windsor Castle (pub) ablaze. The Frontline is barricaded with burning vehicles. I’m elated and pissed off. Elated that the Frontline is a no-go area and pissed off that I’m now cut off from defending it. I look around. Exhausted and injured cops sitting on the ground smoking fags. The fires, the cops, the atmosphere. Class war. ‘Will they bring the army in?’ Belfast.

“Councillor John Boyle, in Railton Road, used his loudhailer to try to calm the situation: there was an attempt at negotiation. Previously, some of the youths had offered to stop throwing bottles and bricks in return for a release of all prisoners. Senior officers said, ‘no way’ “ (The Leveller)

We detour to the south end of the Frontline, which is also sealed off. Watch a shop blaze. The sub-post office has disappeared. Back to the Town Hall area. Cops now holding strategic positions – the big junction at the Town Hall, the cops station, etc. Still looting. More friends arrive. Talk. Back to the Frontline. All fires out by now. It’s getting on for midnight. Things much quieter. Cops slowly regaining control. Up to cop shop. Barricaded with cop vans. Under siege. Cops attack us and force people down back alley. Beatings. Arrests. We are split up. I wander back along Brixton Road surveying damage. Only a few civilians are about now. Cops are in control. Get off the streets. Talk to friends for hours and then back to Frontline for celebratory drink. One last look at the blitzed Frontline in the dawn light and then sleep. I dream of cops, cops and more cops.

Sunday 12th. Tired, hung-over. Rage at the newspapers. Commissioner McNee and others have the gall to blame ‘outside agitators’. (The cops were the outside agitators.) Frontline is crowded with people debating. Lots of cops patrolling warily. Firemen inspect damage. Discuss events with friends. News of arrests. Early evening. More trouble, but more easily contained, as over 1000 more cops are in the area. Brixton is sealed off, up as far as Kennington Oval. Fascist attack in Villa Road [famous squatted street: NF members attacked squatters here on Sunday night]. Cop station again heavily protected. Cops use ‘Nightsun’ helicopter for the first time. (Can light up an area the size of a football pitch and is fitted with infra-red cameras.) More cops. They’re gaining the upper hand.

A Long Week

Since the weekend there has been confusion and paranoia. The gutter press stress not only ‘outside agitators’ but also ‘white anarchists conspiracy’. Comrades are raided. (Who’s next?) Where are they held? Which court will they appear in? First fines are heavy~£200. Hassles about getting bail. Newspapers print photographs showing faces. (Who’s next?) Frontline now quieter than usual. Massive police presence but this isn’t immediately visible. Coaches in side streets, up to 2 miles away. Reports filter back about treatment of those arrested. Heavy. Can’t sleep. (How can the people of Northern Ireland have survived 10 years of this without cracking up?) The black community is divided. The rally for Easter Sunday is called off. Recriminations. The Brixton Defence Committee and Lambeth Law Centre are organising counter-information and compiling a list of cases against the police. It’s still early days yet.

Easter Weekend. Frontline much quieter than usual. Brixton still occupied. All varieties of political groupings trying to colonise the local initiative. (The worst I saw was Militant, with the headline ‘Brixton – Blame the Tories’.) Difficult to judge the atmosphere. People having to re-think, trying to get these extraordinary events in perspective. It is now a higher level of confrontation. All the shops in the market and main road areas are boarded up. For how long? There is talk of more ‘aid’ for the community. Sticking plaster for leprosy. Class society is rotten through and through. Where will the next eruption take place? The struggle here is far from over.

For people who live outside Brixton who wish to express solidarity – you have police on your streets.

THE DAY THE IMAGE CRACKED / THE HONEYMOON ENDED/ THE GAME WAS UP/DIXON OF DOCK GREEN SNUFFED IT etc…

My strongest memory of the Brixton riot (two weeks past at time of writing) was the Saturday afternoon that I returned from shopping at the market and found myself increasingly anxious at the large police presence. This pressure made swallowing food or drink difficult and I was unable to concentrate on anything but the source of my cancerous fretting. The arrogant pigs were every where on my route home and the air seemed thick with humid heat and pressure, like before a storm. I put my weekend shopping in my home and when I came outside I heard an explosion and I either laughed or cried and ran along the street . I saw many faces and it was like a dance without a stage /music / popstars or songs; energy began to flow through my arms and legs, I felt like jumping up and down so I did and all around me perhaps 500 people were whooping and yelling hurrah and leaping about. Police were on the run, running away down Leeson Road and a car was being put over to be used as a barricade… once it was on its side, someone lit some screwed up paper and threw it on the leaking petrol, all stepped back and a small flame suddenly grew into a burst of fire and black smoke clouded up. Down along Railton road I could see some more cars being turned over and I rushed down to help.

From the demolition sites of what was once lived in homes lots of us brought out bricks to break up so that smaller pieces could be used to throw and planks of wood to toss on the burnin’ cars.

Time was at a standstill…. so many bricks did I break up with an iron fence railing that my hands blistered…. a large sheet of corrugated iron was piled up with debris and dragged up to a big crowd and was quickly emptied at coppers behind long shields. Through the smoke I could see a photographer among the police lines with a telescopic lens trying to focus on the group I was in, so we all threw whatever we could find at him but he was just out of reach and our missiles fell short. Some friends arrived and I wore a scarf to cover my face from the cameras and to keep out the smoke; from then on others too began covering their faces. A bus was liberated and the driver quickly pissed off. Following some arguments it was driven down the road at the police lines and it simply went to one side just beyond the burning cars as no-one stayed inside to steer it. But the short journey was a laugh. (Although according to the police petrol bombs were thrown from the bus as it careered down the road?)

“At the corner of Coldharbour Lane and Brixton Road we ran across a group of police officers; we followed. About 20 ran down the road. One, sobbing, when asked whether there was a senior officer present, cried, “senior officers, mate, I haven’t seen a fucking sergeant all night.” They seemed to be the local police, running scared. Further up the road, some policemen had armed themselves with pick-axe handles and were laying out anyone in sight.” (The Leveller)

So much seems out of time context, my mind jumps forward and back: I can recall observing the police maneuvres in Mayall Rd. In Particular a group of plainclothes detectives /vigilantes / police in uniform but without their hats, coats and ties, with their sleeves rolled up. Uniformed (and looking very young) formations were lining up nearby with shields. Then I noticed the long sticks (the ‘pick axe handles’ rarely mentioned in the media) which these plainclothes lot were handing to each other. One bloody faced and overweight pig, who I recognised from an SPG (State Paid Gangster) raid the week before, was letting off a tirade to those who would listen about ‘fucking niggers’. The sight of these goons cursing and tooling up for further aggro made me at once very sick (and I mean really churning inside – have a piss or shit now – and dry throat gagging) and shakingly angry with incredibly strong desire to be a sniper and blow the thugs away with a rifle or some explosive. Together with some other observers we yelled out “FUCK OFF” and they started to look at all the windows on the side of the street facing them across the derelict site . We were masked and I am sure they did not know what we were capable of, so they closed up closer together and then two with shields moved up to pry sheets of corrugated iron apart to get in across the vacant block at us. Suspecting we might become the victims of a snatch squad we checked out the place for escape and where it was likely the pigs would enter. Somewhere in the street a voice called up and asked us if we were thirsty and we came downstairs and onto the street for some quenching beers – the Managers of the George [a local pub notorious for racism, which had barred black people and gays] had pissed off leaving us a lot to drink heh, heh, heh we were all grinning. It was exhilarating; adrenalin and booze went straight to my head, from the street it looked like several cars were on fire in surrounding streets too and I felt like I was really living. Someone actually said “This is history and we’re here, YAHOO!” and I felt amazing, no drug can compare to that exuberant rush/high fun feeling. I warned those nearby to look out for possible snatch squads and went up to see the George, Windsor Castle, Post Office, Plumbers and Dr. Khan (I once was refused to be seen by the good Doctor’s Secretary and the ‘menstrual pain’ turned out to be appendicitis) getting looted and burned. All the bad memories attached to places came back and I thought Brixton is going to explode now that we have a chance to get even. I think the Pakistani newsagents in Effra Parade getting burnt out was a mistake as the woman and two kids only just got out in time and the amount of cash or goods was fuck all. What was a target and what was not (the Tory Club and the local Police Doctor were left alone!) Well it was only the mercenary jerks who were indiscriminate and if the cops had kept out of it for a few days, I think the shithead element would have gotten some aggro back. A woman who was being hassled by some big guys was suddenly surrounded and the men made to leave her alone; likewise some black racists who were picking on a young white were told to fuck off by a quickly gathering group of black, Asian and white, young and old, male and female gay and straight people. The story in the Sun about the rape of a woman which occurred on Saturday night was chosen to divide and frighten people (Black rapists attack white woman headlined!). If the cops had not kept everyone on the run then this and other incidents which the media did not publicise but I know of ( a lone individual who gave shelter to some fugitives from a police raid, then had to put up with 3 hours of machismo display and knife threats for example) would have been dealt with,

Unable to pass through the police cordon at the base of Railton & Mayall road triangle we walked through the back streets which seemed barely changed compared to the picturesque ruins of Railton Road. A stroll past the police meant no harassment because they were desperate to keep up some face it seemed; only those running were stopped. We joined in the window smashing and looting in Electric Avenue and managed to get some booty back through the police cordons by surrounding the person holding the box of goodies and then walking briskly on as if we meant business and did not want to waste time, just get off the street and safely behind doors Once deposited we went out to see the pitched battle between the rigid lines of police and the dancing rebels. We got in a few bricks, bottles and even saw the shit bags get run off the street by one firebomb armed group who then got stuck in with iron bars on fallen cops. On television was the Space Shuttle but it seemed so ridiculous that I could not watch and went back to the street where real decisions were being made then and there. Fires were up and down the street and on the FM band of the radio the Old Bill seemed to be panicking in the Frontline. But Lima Delta Control urged them on as they had orders from ZULU (Whitelaw or MeNee’s sick joke?) If only we had been able to break out of Railton Road as a large group and actually attacked the police station and freed the prisoners… But it was surrounded and the tourist element or passive spectator/innocent bystander types had come as more cops secured the streets. The skirmishes that flared later in the night were hit and run battles, after some soup and sugary tea I collapsed asleep.

SUNDAY – white ribbons with tourists hanging on staring at the burnt out places like zoo exhibits or a fun fair; the idiot priests and social workers who were allowed behind our lines yesterday to get the ultimatum POLICE WITHDRAW and FREE THE PRISONERS, for an arrogant Police Chief and media to coldly deny, had today returned with camera and note taking sociologists, TV, radio and paper journalists (I even met one from Brazil TV),self-appointed Community Leaders and the Left who had come to organise us into their dead Parties, slimey fronts and so on to add insult to our police-inflicted injuries. Rumours of fascist vengeance and off-duty police and Army paramilitary attacks were rife. Politicians who never said a thing about South London let alone Brixton were suddenly falling over themselves to talk about unemployment, the race issue (sic) housing, criminals and or ‘political extremists’ whom the Tory hacks saw as the brains behind the riot. By late afternoon people were brawling with cops again and some looting broke out again. I saw this group of kids grabbing Easter eggs and shouting “It’s Easter early. HA!HA!HA!” which lifted me right out of the depression I was beginning to slide into. Dogs were being used to keep people on the move, especially away from Brixton Police Station with its ridiculous Crime Prevention Exhibition tent outside. I heard lots of youth decide that there were too many coppers and instead to go up Stockwell/Clapham/Herne Hill/Streatham and then it hit me: What has happened in those areas, why haven’t people risen up there? I met people from Balham who had heard nothing but sketchy /flimsy reports and some others from North London who said that nothing was different up there. This was jarring, we had been so well Contained, Isolated, Dispersed that it was all over bar the odd brawl which the bastards would surround and smash much more efficiently second time around One group of people we ran into were not even prepared to stand and fight, we just ran for several blocks. Surprise was gone and I began to worry about those arrested and the slow painful readjustment to routine and survival – paying up and working again- began to take its toll. Most changed their appearance except those who cannot go back to the old slow death and lie low waiting to get back to the ‘no-go’ exhilaration: the chameleons and the bitter will go much, much further next time be it next April, or before?

ALL IN A DAY’S WORK

About 4.30 on the Saturday, I went out to buy some tobacco and saw a crowd gathered outside the Car Hire in Railton Road. There’d been cops up and down our street all day and rumours of police activity over the previous week. Something was going on, so I hung around to see what. People were milling about, some shouting and arguing with the cops, half a dozen or so, who were standing about doing nothing. People continued to gather on their way home from shopping, and more policemen arrived. I couldn’t understand it at all, what everybody was waiting for . The police arrived, gathered in a group at the tip of the triangle, couple of dozen of them, discussing among themselves and from the back of the crowd were thrown a few bottles and insults. As soon as they turned around the throwing stopped, but pretty soon more cops arrived. One van was parked in the middle of the street, and suddenly half a dozen blacks ran out and started rocking it, trying to turn it over. The back doors flew open and out leapt 3 or 4 cops with shields and truncheons, and the blacks disappeared into the crowd. Odd bricks and bottles were being thrown whenever the police turned their backs. They were presenting themselves as a target. There wasn’t any violence until there were 20 or so cops on the scene. I got the impression that if the original cops had kept their cool and just stood around swapping verbals with the crowd, they’d have got bored and gone home, and no riot, but as it was everybody resented more and more cops arriving. What were they there for if not to threaten? So the missiles got more frequent, the thud of a brick against a van or car is a very distinct sound, gets the adrenalin going The police decided to do something and formed a line across the street, which was immediately bombarded.

They started to charge, and everybody ran, so they stopped and the crowd regathered. This happened a couple more times, and then someone tipped over and set on fire a police van at the tip of the triangle, behind the police. This was the first fire of the day. Once again the crowd formed, a bit further away this time, and again the police charged, this time chasing the crowd right down Railton Road. After that it seemed to quiet down a bit. In fact the scene shifted the other way down Mayall Road and Railton Road.

Later in the evening, about 7.30pm, I went out again, walking down Rattray Road. At the Railton Road end of every street leading off Rattray Road, a vehicle was burning. I could see a lot of smoke from Railton Road so I walked on down to the top of Effra Parade where a dozen or so cops were standing about, dishevelled, smoking. I’d never seen a cop roll a fag before. I walked past them and down to Chaucer Road, and down there. People had been looting the plumbers there, had got the safe out of the Post Office and were trying to open it while others were wandering about with bottles of booze, and others were setting fires. The road was littered with bottles, bricks, sticks and riot shields. A Fire Engine was slewed across the road, apparently abandoned There were no uniforms to be seen anywhere. Railton Road was swathed in smoke, so I crossed over and went up Mayall Road, where all seemed oddly quiet, after the destruction going on in the next street. The Windsor Castle pub was smashed up, people scrounging round inside. The little shops opposite Leeson Road were open and doing a fine trade in iced drinks. Thinking it was all over I went home, ignorant of the battles still going on and the looting that had taken place in the market area. There were cops at the scene of the beginning of the riot and at the junction with Coldharbour Lane, but none at all down Mayall Road, Railton Road or the back streets immediately off it. The police had obviously abandoned all hope of controlling the rioters, and I figured they’d withdraw, and let them wear themselves out burning and looting, which is what happened. There wouldn’t have been any riot if the police hadn’t tried to prevent it..

About ten o’ clock I went out again. This time there were thousands of cops everywhere, the whole of Railton Road seemed to be on fire, cars still smoking in the street, the fire engines had got in and were hosing down the buildings, illuminated by searchlights, people wandered up and down, still locals, outsiders wouldn’t come gasping until the next day, if they could get through the blockade . It was like a scene from the Blitz and my initial exhilaration at the people fighting back, turned to depression, that the result should be the destruction of their own neighbourhood and not that of Sloane Square, say. This time I walked around the market area, every other window seemed to be smashed, several shops on fire, including Woolworths, which produced a loud bang just as I walked past, the only incident, apart from the police charges, that frightened me all evening.

People kept ringing up to see if we were all right, apparently not realising how specific the fighting was, under the impression it was a race riot, which it wasn’t. It was a reaction against the police attempt to regulate if not repress local West Indian culture, which taking place as it does on the street, offends the eyes of Authority. People sitting indoors smoking are not a threat, people doing it in the street are, they get to know one another and form a community, rather than being atomised, and rendered impotent. Without that street culture the blacks wouldn’t have been victimised by the police, and without that culture they couldn’t have fought back so successfully.

a young fellah getting busted by a gang of coppers, dragged into a van and bashed so loud you could hear the blows against the walls of van outside in the street. Much adrenalin/fight or flight flows in these circumstances… It is like drinking way too much coffee, you run around get winded, go for it again, always being startled, noises seem harsher as your brain tells your body DANGER. Finally you crash out from exhaustion after talking your friends, family, fellow inmates ears off for hours as you come down from the roller coaster of traumas. Stepping in blood on the streets – whose, when, why questions questions flood into ya mind – oops no time for that, sounds of cop car swerving on the streets, cops bash their – then long – shields with batons to psyche crowds out, while local pensioners fill up bottles with petrol from heaters for the youths to use to defend the area from invading cops…meanwhile a paper seller from a Trot group stands there, ignored, as shop windows are smashed in and loot quickly removed …yikes the memory hole sucks ya in alright – old codger scratches grey beard well young fellah in my day we gave the old bill a right fright that’s forsure … drones on and on and on about the battles of the class war, got this scar in the attack on the cop shop itself blah blah.

WARNING: THE LAUGHTER IS EXPLOSIVE!

SATURDAY 9pm

Sitting in a flat in Streatham – pleasantly pissed after a picnic on the Common . nice weather. cup of coffee. – anyone mind if I put the radio on?        no.

–the London suburb of Brixton is in a State of siege tonight after a night of rioting. Shops have been burned and looted and forty seven police have been injured

-bloody hell –

-let’s go –

confusion, indecision, fear, hope.

wait for the bus . ten minutes. black teenager says – no buses to Brixton – we walk. quickly.

Brixton Hill – we see smoke over towards the market. thousands of Police. they’re scared. very scared. cross Acre Lane to go down the high street. they stop us. “CAN’T go down there”. up Acre Lane. line of cops with riot shields across Delmere Close. We try the pavement anyway. – “oi YOU, you can’t go down there.” “well which way can I get home then?” (try them out a bit) They’re angry and frightened. “DON’T ARGUE, just move”. they start getting edgy – riot ‘ shields twitch visibly and some move to wards us. “I’m not arguing – I’m asking.- “MOVE” one of them repeats “don’t argue”. – they get closer. we back off quietly up the Hill.

Skirt around Brixton. Back home at Kennington for a coffee and a change of clothes into something inconspicuous and empty all our pockets. We talk about what to do. We want to see Brixton, but we’re also feeling a bit adventurous.

– every copper in South London will be in Brixton now. How about a bit of looting in Camberwell or Kennington? spread the area of revolt – let’s see Brixton first – ok – we take rucksacks anyway, move in cautiously down Coldharbour Lane, corner of Atlantic Road – under the bridge – we stop and gape in wonder. Coldharbour Lane seems to be on fire . Railton Road can’t be seen for smoke fire engines, police cordons, SPG vans, police seem to be calmer here, taking control, not many of them. a familiar face.

“been here long?” “ten minutes. “same.” “seen much?” “I heard a rumour that the old Bill killed someone “Shit!” but then I realise it’s too quiet for that . He pisses off. Old lrish guy starts talking about rebellion. We realise he could go on for hours so we move on – sightseeing. We try to get down towards Railton Road. “You can’t go down there!” we move off politely, more sightseeing – looted shops, broken glass everywhere . Up and down the High Street. big gaps in memory

Brixton Oval – big group of old friends. Fifteen of us suddenly together. “I been here since it started” a friend says grinning from ear to ear. A few stories . Wander down the High street. Wall to wall cops. We scare them a bit . They’ve been trying to stop groups gathering. Fifteen of us amble casually down the street . It looks like something starting. They move us on when we stop, keep us in pairs or threes when we move . Everywhere is smashed. It’s beautiful.

walk up and down sightseeing. gaps in the memory

A guy is pulling a lighter out of a broken jeweller’s window through the grille. I stand between him and the nearest police fifty yards away. He walks off with it casually.

Hanging around near the Lambeth Town Hall. Suddenly blue lights flashing. Blue, blue, flashing lights lights lights lights dozens of them, vans cars, bells, sirens, screaming down the Hill – its on – summat’s up – start walking down the hill – casual like.

Someone yells “the young black coloured kids are here. the coloured kids have arrived.”

No time for questions – walking quickly – black teenagers on the other side of the road start running down the hill – they’re not scared at all – some in the road – some on the pavement.

Some of us start running – big group of black women in front of us – more people in front of them. and blue lights – those blue lights.

Two or three vans stop – they pile out – riot shields. “BACK! BACK!” –they stop us and force us back up the hill – maybe thirty of them. Fifty of us. Pushing and shoving. I stay near the front. Pushing – they get us to the top. Guy next to me says we could turn, take them on, push them back, fight them back. I treat it with the contempt it deserves. Keep moving.

They give one black guy a hard time, he pushes back at the corner, they grab him, women grab him back screaming – a voice shouts Charge! let ’em have it! – they run.

Screams, running boots. I’m well in front so I hang about a second. People run down a dark alley. The cops are running still.

I can see truncheons flying I just fly out up the street no time for bravery.

Suddenly in a strange housing estate, a group of a dozen cops, some in shirt sleeves jog in step like army double time through a courtyard .

Bottom of the hill. fuck where is everyone? must find them.

no sign of anything happening here. cop station quiet . it was probably all a false alarm. I look around – lost. a big cheer. I look up the Hill and a Police Landrover is limping down slowly the back left tyre flapping uselessly about. laughter all round.

Back up to the estate. meet two friends again. the cops are looking for someone in the estate. this is low profile time. let’s re-group, find the others – who got done?

Eventually we gather together a few more. Sightseeing. people going home, cops arriving by the busload. when we leave at midnight the ratio is about one to one and they’re still arriving. everyone goes home.

Back at the flats . two people busted – they ran down the alley – there had been cops at the bottom!! sod’s law – the two who got busted were the one’s with the worst records .

Home to bed. I close my eyes and there are blue flashing lights everywhere.

Next day I expect the afternoon to be quiet so I go out, arrive back in Brixton at six – reach Saint John’s Crescent – they’re stopping people – residents only allowed in. the road block was at Camberwell New Road. I don’t even try to get through . up Saint John’s Crescent down the back streets – literally thousands of cops in buses behind the station. Lots of horses. I walk through them all unhindered and come out about fifty yards past where they had stopped people .

Walk up and down sightseeing – no-one I know is about. look at a few burnt out buildings. Railton Road carpeted with bricks and glass. burnt out cars everywhere. It’s beautiful.

Top of the Hill by the Town Hall. the road’s blocked so everyone hangs about in the middle of the road watching. we get too many for their liking so they charge up the Hill, clear us out of the church yard. a woman had some bricks that she’s throwing on the ground trying to break them . I show her how to break them cleanly in half against the corner of the kerbstone. fighting in Coldharbour Lane – they charge again and clear us off Effra Road. not enough of us.

Black teenage gang. one says ” ok who’s, for the burning and the looting and the pilfering in Streatham? “

Great!

They set off – maybe a dozen. I wait ten minutes, watching the to-ing and fro-ing on the Hill then I follow.

I get to Streatham. nothing. dead. I sit in a doorway and wait half an hour.

Nothing doing. I wander back. get back to the end of Brixton Hill by the road block – another group heading South, maybe twenty this time, black and white, mainly early teens. I tag along.

Three or four police vans pass us and stop a hundred yards ahead. we stop and cross the road. they turn and come back, piling out. we piss off into a housing estate. I find I’m quite good at hurdling fences. wait on the grass in the shadows. More running. three or four of us start going over the chain link fence into the school – about 8 feet high . someone says wait and see if they come around. we drop down and wait. they come around the back. we run. I yell “they’re coming round the back”. everyone gets out into the street. down by the lights outside the pub. people disperse. one guy gets arrested as a few more vans arrive and about a dozen go screaming off towards Streatham. well that’s the end of that idea.

Sit down by the road block. I watch the cops and consider the possibility of a brick through the window of the car in front of me. too many cops. nice idea though. sit for half an hour then back to Brixton. quiet. very quiet. it’s all over.

Walking back down the Hill two black teenagers behind me. one says to his friend “I bet there’s all these coloured Ladies really glad they brought up their kids proper and then a copper knocks on their door and says ‘excuse me have you got a son called Kevin?’ and she says ‘yes’ ‘well he’s in Brixton nick’ “ Laughter. we’re criminals in a way our parents don’t understand. back home.

think about it. “next time- ‘ “next time” “if only…” but whatever else, next time I won’t be so scared.

As well as the usual “wasn’t it great” tales though, it should never be forgotten that some rapists preyed on local women, stand-over merchants armed with knives and machetes robbed & bashed other looters, one nasty gangster after failing to find a safe in the local newsagent in Effra Parade set it on fire and yelled “fuckin’ Pakis”… squatters across the road got inside and helped the family escape with their kids and not much else. As ID was a little easier then some of the more active locals departed to the Continent others who did not alas got busted eg Patrizia Giambi whom the media pilloried as crazed Italian red Brigade organiser manipulating “the Blacks” and she was detained awaiting trial and deportation.

A RIOT A DAY KEEPS THE COPPER AWAY

I hadn’t heard about what happened on Friday night (10.4.81), so when I got down to Railton Road Saturday lunch time, I wondered why there were so many police hanging around. The police later said that they had done a low-key operation that morning, but that was obviously rubbish. There were groups of police every fifty yards and others in cars and vans, so they were out in force and prepared for some kind of action. I was told about the events of Friday night and most people I spoke to felt very nervous about the numbers of police hanging around like gangsters.

When we heard the sirens coming from the bottom of the triangle (the

junction of Mayall Rd and Railton Rd) we walked down to see what would happen. A lot of people were doing the same, mostly out of curiosity. The police later said that the riot was planned because a lot of people were hanging around the area on street corners etc., but that just shows their ignorance. In Brixton there are always people hanging around the streets, especially when it’s sunny, simply because there’s nowhere else to go.

When I got to the bottom of Railton Road I saw a police van and a car with a crowd around, blacks and white. I had no idea what was going on but people were arguing with the police who were quite aggressive. One of the ‘higher officers’ was really nasty; he had taken his ID numbers off his shoulders, and the crowd were pissed off about that. People with cameras were taking photos and police later claimed claimed these ‘white photographers’ were in leading or organising positions but again it’s rubbish. After Friday night people knew something might happen and a number of local people wanted to take photos if anything happened. No one was in a leading position. Finally one copper pushed a black kid hard and that was it. People just threw everything!

That was the spark and for the next six or seven hours we were involved in one of the ‘worst breakdowns of law and order’.

Nothing I can write can describe the exhilaration I felt when that first police van went up in flames. From that spark it spread up and down Brixton. For so long the police had an arrogant air of invincibility, as if they could do anything they liked and get away with it. But that burning police van and retreating cops did more to boost our confidence than anything else.

Most people grouped around the middle of Railton Rd. The police had moved up to Mayall Rd up as far as Leeson Rd and many of us were stoning them to get them to retreat, but they made a wall of riot shields. It was totally spontaneous., no one told us to attack here or there, we saw for ourselves and if we felt the need to fight here and there we did so. The crowd kept a constant barrage of bricks and bottles but the police wouldn’t move. People called for petrol bombs but none had been prepared. Police talk about bomb-factories is the result of their own inability to understand how a riot works, they cannot understand how a non-hierarchical system works.

It didn’t take long for the petrol bombs to appear… all it takes is some petrol a bottle and a bit of paper or rag, it doesn’t need any experience or brains.

It’s just another sample of the racism of the state to say that black people need white experts to make petrol bombs. We were using any bottles we could find (black polythene rubbish bags were ripped open to get bottles); there were enough cars around to siphon off all the petrol. The first bombs were used at Leeson Rd and the crowd cheered their appearance. I never knew how easy it was to turn over cars, they go over so easy; the symbols of consumerism only need a couple of people to go over and they burn so well! It was like being high, we felt so powerful for the first time ever.

The police retreated to cheers and a rain of missiles. People started smashing the windows of the pub and others went in and began breaking everything, pulling out drinks for all of us! I’ve lived in Brixton most of my life and I never saw anything like it before. Blacks and whites, rastas and punks, men and women, young and old, gays and hets. Unity just isn’t a strong enough word as we shared drinks and cigarettes, everyone patting each other on the back smiling. It was like a street party, with no tension between us at all. Words just can’t express that feeling, and in the distance the lines of police watched.

At about this time the looting started, the police just fell back and no one was really trying to move forward. There was a lull in the fighting, and behind our barricades was a free area, no leaders and no authority. The second pub was smashed up and burned, and then the plumbers (who really disliked the people in the area) and soon every shop was open target. For the first time ever people took what they wanted without having to work like slaves to get the cash or beg from the state. When the sweetshop was gotten into, those who got inside were throwing things to those on the outside! A lot of the negative things happened at about this time, but that was because we had ceased to be on the offensive and people had started to get drunk. Also it was a good chance for people to get what they wanted for themselves and forget about the rest. Most of these anti-social acts were on the periphery; next time we should be ready to deal with these sorts of acts as a collective mass as we did with the fighting. On the whole people acted together; before any buildings went up in flames, some of the crowd made sure that no one was inside. If you believe the media the rioters didn’t care. Someone suggested putting a brick through the anarchist bookshop window; the rest of the crowd said no (and not just the anarchists either).

Gradually the police began moving forward again and we fought hard but a lot of us were getting really tired. It was dark and people were drifting away, buildings collapsing around us. Its how I’d always imagined the blitz. The police were moving closer yards at a time, they were armed with pick axe handles and base ball bats, they kept banging their sticks on the floor to raise the tension, they had their war cries and chants prepared (all the best psychological warfare techniques learned at school).When they charged they were like animals grabbing hold of anyone and beating shit out of them. The police violence was more vicious and painful than any of ours.

On escaping from the immediate area I was surprised to see how far it had spread. The people in the main riot had very little idea of what was happening outside their immediate area; lack of communication is one fault we mustn’t make again. The people I spoke to wanted to join in but were cut off from the Railton Riot, but everyone was glad the police had received a beating even if only temporarily. Brixton was practically under siege, police were everywhere and sporadic fighting was taking place – The police station was ringed and they obviously felt vulnerable because they knew it would be our next target. The police couldn’t let it go because it served as their communications centre and because it’s their symbol of power over us.

The area had been cut off, trains and buses stopped so that reinforcements for us couldn’t get there. Fires had been started and some of the main department stores looted! The police tactic of isolating the riot only in the Frontline had failed partially at least.

COPS, DAMN COPS, AND STATISTICS

7.472 police officers were used to police the area, some on more than one occasion.

285 arrests

415 police officers and 172 members of the public injured

118 police vehicles damaged

4 police vehicles destroyed

61 private vehicles damaged

30 private vehicles destroyed

158 premises damaged

28 premises seriously damaged by fire

– Met Report on the Riot

The first state/media reaction-to say the riot was a race riot-failed miserably. It was so obvious that the riot was anti-police and anti-authoritarian; when a priest asked for our demands the crowd asked that the police fuck off and all prisoners released. But even these were not true demands because a demand requires some level of negotiation which none of the rioters were willing to engage in.

From the very beginning the police had said that the riot was pre-planned but their theory is easily demolished. Firstly they say there were a lot of people on the streets but what do you expect on a sunny Saturday. Secondly they say white photographers were in leading positions but those white photographers were mostly residents and in no way leaders or organisers. Thirdly the police say petrol bombs had been prepared but you need no skill to make them and it doesn’t take long either. And lastly they say ‘white anarchists’ were in the crowd, but those white anarchists are part of the community, we all live and some of us work in the area. I’ve lived in Brixton most of my life.

When the race riot tactic failed the police fell onto the theory of white anarchists organising the riot. The state cannot admit that people are sick and tired of the system and that they are capable of rising spontaneously and successfully attacking the state and its representatives. The main lesson of Brixton is that it can happen anywhere without the need of leaders or organisers. Therefore the state must find scapegoats and invent leaders where none exist. Anarchists are that scapegoat and the police decided we are all terrorists and plotters. The reasons we are chosen must he because we made no secret of our wish for another Bristol and we are known to be active in the community and easily identified as well as the only politicos active in the riots.

The state media brought on ‘international terrorists’ as stage props in a well-orchestrated bid to use us to explain away the hatred people feel for the system. For a start this is inherently racist, the refusal to accept that black people can act without white leaders. Secondly it gives the state special branch a chance to get back at troublesome anarchists.

When the raid on the flat in Coldharbour Lane happened it had the effect of frightening us, as far as we knew it could be the start of an anti-anarchist pogrom. Thought of Persons Unknown* etc. ran through my mind and it made us all a lot more tense (which may be the whole point anyway). It’s certainly not over yet; the press has caught on to the name ‘anarchist’ with parasitical glee and are harping on about international links (making us out to be in touch with the spirit of Ulrike Meinhof practically).

After the riots, community leaders descended on Brixton like flies (the press haven’t attacked them as outside agitators, because they serve the very useful task of pacifying us). These self-appointed leaders have been loudly apologising for the riot blaming bad housing and unemployment, asking for more cash etc. But there can be no apologies for the riot, none. Unemployment and bad housing are contributory factors but discontent goes much deeper than that. The riot can only be interpreted as the free expression of anger and disgust at the whole farce. During the riot there were no demands for jobs, we wanted everything then and there. It was a rejection of the system of which bad housing and unemployment are parts.

The left have been attempting to colonise Brixton for a long time; practically every Left group is active in the area in some way or another. Their calls for revolution and action have been shown to be nothing but hot air. During the riot the Leftists were nowhere to be seen; they had disappeared as soon as the action began. They returned only when the police had cleared the streets. Now every sect is claiming the riot as a victory but still making the usual pathetic apologies. They too blame unemployment, bad housing and racism. But if racism is to blame why did the rioters attack pubs etc? Racism is a factor but not the whole story. The left are no no doubt electing themselves onto committees and looking for recruits, but I wonder how effective they will be. The people in the area generally treat them with the contempt they deserve.

As anarchists we must learn from the riots and be prepared for the next, also we must not apologise for the riots. This is probably the first riot of its kind in this country where a large number of anarchists were involved. It’s a danger and a mistake to claim the riots as anarchist, in the same way the leftists claim it for themselves. Nevertheless the riot was anti-authoritarian in character and spontaneous; those of us involved felt the thrill of liberation even if only for a few hours and we also saw that the state is not invulnerable.

The struggle was limited in that we stayed in one area (the main riot in Railton Road); this was due to a reluctance to give up territory already won, though there was much talk of attacking the police station. If we had had more reinforcements it might have been possible. The police did their best to hem us in and to a certain extent their presence succeeded in discouraging any more advance. The next time we should make concerted attempts to a advance; the only way to do this is by our own example. I’m sure that if we had managed to get into other areas people would have joined us.

Better communication would also be a step forward; those of us in Railton Road had very little idea of what was happening in the rest of Brixton and vice versa. A press black-out would also be a possibility next time so a feasible communication system as in Europe is a must if such riots are to spread. The majority of police in London were probably in Brixton on Saturday night, so actions in other parts of the city would have been appropriate.

Even during the riot some priests and social workers made attempts to mediate but we did not want any negotiations. as soon as negotiation begin the battle is lost. All attempts at negotiation should be resisted vigorously. If we want prisoners released we shouldn’t beg for them but either get them ourselves (anti-snatch squads?) or capture prisoners ourselves if possible.

As anarchists we do not need to beg the state for crumbs but take what is rightfully ours. The policy of direct action was put into practice on Saturday 11th April, and it was a celebration of our power over our own lives. Next time we should use the experience of Brixton ’81 in an attempt to further the struggle, to spread the action to new areas, to adapt new tactics and still keep our aims in mind.

All this was written as a purely personal response to the Brixton Riots, events which have not yet finished and will no doubt be talked about for a long time. This article only represents the beginning, we are all still learning from the experience.

1.The attitude of the left press has shown only a slight difference to that of the state press. They have gone overboard in apologising and excusing our actions whilst presenting a package deal of community leaders with answers to the ‘problems’ in the way of begging the government for money. They have gone ahead and printed photographs of rioters engaged in action which the police can use for identification and victimisation (it is said police are using these photos as evidence already). Yet there are no such photos of police attacking us.

2.The police were obviously ready for something on Saturday; their numbers suggest this, some had taken off their I.D. numbers in readiness. But they were not prepared for the militancy and size of our attack. Rumours about the army were going round on Saturday night, but we can be certain that the army were made ready and trucks were seen in Kennington ready to reach Brixton. It is also said that the SAS were prepared to move into the area at the first sign of guns from the rioters. We also know that a navy liaison officer was called into Brixton police station with a quantity of CS gas. Rumours among the police were that two of their number had been burnt to death, this was guaranteed to cause greater tension on their side.

  1. What is surprising is that in the circumstances no one spoke about Belfast, and only Bristol was mentioned. The riots are presented as purely due to local conditions and circumstances but it is truer to say that the same conditions exist in other places, all over Britain and beyond. The hatred most people feel exists from Belfast to Berlin, anywhere where authority shows itself. It is very important that we stress this fact and the belief in our power as individuals to confront the system is applicable everywhere. People are saying ‘where next’, anarchists should be saying and hoping ‘here next’.

4.Unity and co-operation were unspoken principles; everyone helped build barricades, no one was ordered to help. No one was pressured into fighting or looting. Middle-aged white women celebrated beside teenage rastas and white punks (this is a feature which was reported in other riots but which I never quite accepted until I saw it for myself). Whenever people felt that more ammunition was needed, groups of people would collect bottled or crates full of bricks for everyone to use.

  1. The reformist Left have always stated that rebellion cannot happen, that people do not need to resort to violence. The fallacy of that argument is obvious to most people. On the other hand the argument of the so-called ‘revolutionary’ left that action is not possible unless led by the vanguard party is not so easy to discredit. But the events of Brixton as well as Bristol and across Europe “prove that” the only successful riots are not led and that leftists and their vanguard parties play no part at all. No doubt while we fought in Railton Road, the left were selling their papers or attending meeting meetings or conferences.

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Other accounts of the 1981 riots are available… Undoubtedly the above is coloured by the anarchist ideas of those who contributed –

The original edition of ‘We Want to Riot Not to Work’ contained much more on the post-riot aftermath, arrests, the campaign to defend those nicked, and the reaction of the left… As well as much class analysis of the wider context. We haven’t room to print it all here.

Past Tense republished much of this in a pamphlet reprint of ‘We Want to Riot Not to Work’, in 2013, which is itself now out of print again, though we are working on reprinting this.

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Past Tense has written quite a bit about Brixton (and reprinted/posted stuff written by friends and other earlier residents), relating to policing, riots, black radical politics, racism, squatting, gentrification, and much more… Because most of us lived there, through events, took part in struggles and daily life there, and think about it all. More to come – there’s lots to say – though it’s only part of what we are interested in, its an area that has helped shape us and still makes us think.

It isn’t to claim uniqueness for the area (though that is true!) – whatever ends you’re from, the tale needs telling.

Published in pamphlet form so far:

• In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist policing, Resistance, and Black Power in 1970s Brixton

• Black Women Organising: The Brixton Black women’s Group & the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent

We Want To Riot, Not to Work: The1981 Brixton Riots.
(Reprint of 1982 classic our mates put out: Currently out of print again, but plans are afoot…)

Through A Riot Shield: The 1985 Brixton Riot
(More incendiary stuff reprinted from Crowbar…)

Trouble Down South:
Some thoughts on gentrification in Brixton.

Most of the above can be bought online here

and several good radical bookshops in London.

In preparation:

It is our intention eventually to publish history and thoughts on: Brixton’s early history, the growth of working class and migrant communities, the birth of council housing and squatting, Brixton women’s scenes and gay scenes, music and streetlife, further riots, race relations, the council and the left, the poll tax, and more on social change, development and gentrification. Because we are self-funded, have families and need to survive in the morass of wage labour, and also because we have a million projects on the go, we have no idea when any of this will appear. Lots of it is also talked about elsewhere… other people are writing about it and posting up pictures etc.

10th April 1848: the Chartists vs the State

Expanding on our post from earlier today on the Kennington Common Chartist rally of 10th April 1848, it is worth looking in further detail at some of the forces of the state and its supporters arrayed against the Chartists and especially against the possibility of the rally sparking a working class uprising.

Socialist historian John Savile’s account of the government’s preparations for the day are instructive:

Chartism and the State in April 1848

J. Saville

The announcement that the third Chartist petition would be presented on Monday 10 April had been formally made in the Northern Star on 18 March; but it was the assembling of the Chartist Convention in London on Tuesday 4 April that enormously heightened public alarm. Everyone, whichever side they favoured, felt the levels of excitement rising throughout the country. The whole of society had been reading for weeks past about the clubs in Paris: their communistic statements, and their importance as the bases for the popular demonstrations that seemed to be taking place daily. The month of March in Britain had seen a series of minor riots and disturbances, and against the background of a Europe in turmoil the tide of fear was already seeping into the consciousness of the better-off classes throughout the kingdom. And now here was the Chartist Convention meeting publicly in the centre of the capital city, bringing together the local and national leaders of a great mass movement which had been stirring the country for the past decade, and which now seemed stronger than ever. The debates and deliberations of the Convention have been somewhat ignored by historians in the build-up to the Kennington Common demonstration, yet it was the daily reports, published in full in the London press and copied by the provincial papers, which steadily influenced, and hardened, public opinion against the general aims of the working-class movement; and which, above all, convinced the propertied classes that physical force was being planned.

The Convention opened on Tuesday 4 April at the Literary Institute, John Street, Fitzroy Square, and Philip McGrath was elected chairman, with Christopher Doyle as secretary. The number of delegates was limited to 49 `in order to escape the penalties of the Convention Act’. The first two days were spent mainly in listening to reports from the delegates of different towns. Ernest Jones representing Halifax, made a somewhat wild speech on the first day in which he said ‘that his constituents had urged upon him the desirability, if possible, of conducting the movement on moral force principles; but they warned him not to stoop to one act of unnecessary humility in urging their claims. To a man they were ready to fight (cheers). They were eager to rush down the hills of Yorkshire in aid of their brother patriots in London’; and the delegate from Barnsley reported that he had been instructed to say that ‘if the Government let the military loose upon Ireland, something else would be let loose here’. On the second day the most militant speeches were made by Cuffay and the Irish delegate from London, Charles McCarthy. Both favoured the establishment of rifle clubs. There were other speakers, however, on both these and later days, who specifically repudiated violence. A letter on behalf of the Metropolitan Committee from John Arnott had appeared in the London Times of 4 April dissenting from the violent language which Vernon had used about the forthcoming Kennington Common meeting; and the chairman of the Convention appealed for less rash talk at the beginning of the session on Thursday morning. It was, inevitably the violent language which impressed the outside world as well as the constant reiteration of the new unity between the Irish and the Chartists. On Wednesday 5 April the Convention issued a placard which was extensively posted throughout London and which made a special appeal to the Irish in the metropolis:

Irishmen resident in London, on the part of the democrats in England we extend to you the warm hand of fraternisation; your principles are ours, and our principles shall be yours. Remember the aphorisms, that union is strength, and division is weakness; centuries of bitter experience prove to you the truth of the latter, let us now cordially endeavour to test the virtue of the former. Look to your fatherland, the most degraded in the scale of nations. Behold it bleeding at every pore under the horrible lashings of class misrule! What an awful spectacle is Ireland, after forty-seven years of the vaunted Union! Her trade ruined, her agriculture paralysed, her people scattered over the four quarters of the globe, and her green fields in the twelve months just past made the dreary grave yards of 1,000,000 of famished human beings. Irishmen, if you love your country, if you detest these monstrous atrocities, unite in heart and soul with those who will struggle with you to exterminate the hell-engendered cause of your country’s degradation – beggary and slavery.

In its final paragraph the placard reminded the working people of London that `the eyes of EUROPE are fixed upon you’ and it concluded with a general exhortation that the great demonstration would strike a great `moral blow’ for the achievement of `liberty and happiness to every sect and class in the British Empire’. The discussion in the Convention during Thursday further revealed the differences of approach and opinion within the movement, and the Friday session was dominated by the decision of the metropolitan police to ban the meeting and the procession. There was again some very violent language from certain of the delegates, but the Convention agreed in the morning session to send a deputation to the Home Secretary to emphasise the peaceful nature of the demonstration on the coming Monday. Reynolds led a deputation of three and he reported back in the afternoon. Sir George Grey was not available and the deputation had been received by the Under- Secretary at the Home Office, Sir Denis Le Marchant, the Attorney-General and the chief magistrate from Bow Street. It was indicated that Sir Denis Le Marchant `exhibited great coldness’ and it was made clear that whatever the deputation said on behalf of the Convention there was no possibility of the government changing its mind. A letter was left for Sir George Grey which he read to the House of Commons that evening.

Some of the discussion on this day continued the previous days’ threats of physical force. Charles McCarthy `would not say what would be the fearful consequences if a blow were to be struck by the police force or the military. They were determined, in the name of liberty, if attacked, to resist the blow to the utmost’. Ernest Jones argued that the government did not seriously intend to stop the procession, and in a later intervention he moved a resolution to the effect that they should circulate all towns asking for simultaneous demonstrations on Monday `in order that in case the lamentable event of a collision with the troops should take place here, the myrmidons of the law would be kept in their respective districts’. And Harney, just before the Convention closed its session for the day, moved for a committee to select alternative delegates `so that in the event of the present Convention being mowed down in the streets of London or swept into Newgate, there would be others to take their place’.

Reports of this kind in the press were hardly calculated to allay fears, and middle-class hysteria continued to mount. The Saturday session of the Convention heard a long rambling speech from O’Connor and in the afternoon reports from some delegates who had been to see various members of Parliament. All these matters were reported in detail in the London press on Monday morning as was a public meeting in Victoria Park on Sunday, 9 April, at which Ernest Jones was the main speaker. Jones had been among the most violent speakers during the Convention and this speech, as reported in the Morning Chronicle on the day of the great demonstration, would have been confirmation again of the militant intentions of at least some of the Chartist leadership. After repeating his argument that he did not think the government were serious in their intention to suppress the procession, Jones continued:

‘If the Government touch one hair of the head of the delegates – if they place them under arrest, or attempt the least interference with their liberty – every town represented by the delegates, would be in arms in less than 24 hours [tremendous cheers]. If I were to be killed, or wounded, or arrested, the moment the intelligence arrived at Halifax the people would rise and disarm the troops – imprison the authorities – and 100,000 Yorkshiremen would march upon London [enthusiastic cheers]. So help me God I will march in the first rank tomorrow, and if they attempt any violence, they shall not be 24 hours longer in the House of Commons [cheers].
These words of Jones were echoed by the chairman of another Chartist meeting at Blackheath: `We are determined to conquer tomorrow; nothing shall put us down. We shall not be terrified by bullets or bayonets. They have no terrors for oppressed starving men.’

It is not by any means surprising, as the general level of apprehension rose, that precautions and countermeasures were put in hand. The Queen and her family left London for the Isle of Wight on the morning of 8 April. Waterloo station was cleared and several hundred special constables moved into place. The day before, Palmerston had written to Lord John Russell: `I conclude that you have made all the necessary arrangements for the security of the Queen at Osborne; but it is a rather unprotected situation, and the Solent Sea is not impassable.’ The Royal Family themselves were concerned at the public reaction to their departure from the city where so many were fearful of what was likely to happen in the coming days. Prince Albert instructed his equerry, Colonel C. B. Phipps, to report on the public sentiment in this matter, and in a letter dated 9 April Phipps noted that he had found no negative reaction in general, and that he ignored the tittle-tattle of `aristocratic Drawing Rooms’. The justification for the Queen’s departure was clearly that of a constitutional monarch accepting the advice of her prime minister. Phipps ended his letter with a statement of his impressions of the public temper:

There is every shade of opinion as to what will occur tomorrow. Some say that there will not be the slightest disturbance of the peace, others that there will be serious riots – and then again that there will be some partial disturbance, such as breaking windows – the latter is my opinion – I think that in the present excited state of the lowest classes, the day can hardly be expected to pass over without some disturbances but that they will be easily suppressed.

Colonel Phipps travelled from Windsor to London early on the morning of 10 April, and his report to Prince Albert, written at 5.30 p.m. the same afternoon, gives an interesting statement of what so many were thinking and discussing in the hours before the expected demonstration:

The morning, which was very beautiful, brought all kinds of sinister reports; even at Windsor before arriving at London by the train I was informed that immense bodies of people were collecting, and that all the bridges would be occupied by troops and Guns pointed, and that an immediate battle was expected. Coming from Paddington Station to Buckingham Palace the town certainly wore a most warlike appearance – all the Park Gates were closed and each guarded by a Picquet of the Foot Guards, with haversacks and Canteens upon their backs, prepared for actual service. At Buckingham Palace I heard that very large bodies had assembled at Kennington Common, and that numerous additions were marching towards the meeting in different directions.

The correspondence of leading politicians and the columns of newspapers all over the country were full of the expressions of anxieties and fears which had affected the whole country, and which without question had a very marked influence upon the Chartist leaders themselves. One piece of evidence of the latter is the well-known statement which Ernest Jones is reported to have made on the evening of 9 April concerning the willingness of some at least of the Chartist leaders to abandon the Kennington Common meeting. The most pervasive sentiment was undoubtedly that which equated the possible outcome of 10 April with what had occurred in France. It was revolutionary Paris, and the rapidity with which the revolution had spread, that was in most people’s perceptions of what might be the possible consequences of a large gathering in London of those hostile to the existing order. Every paper in the country, without exception, carried in each issue the news from France; and along with the rising phobias against the French and French ideas about work and property went the reports of the violent speeches in the Chartist Convention. As The Times wrote two days after the Kennington Common meeting, on 12 April,

It cannot be denied that the public mind, stunned and confounded by the events on the Continent, had become, as the ancients would have expressed it, meteoric, unsteady, open to strange impressions and diffident of its own most habitual beliefs.

It is necessary to distinguish the attitudes and responses of those concerned in the practical business of maintaining public order from the rest of the propertied classes, whatever the size of their property stake in the country. Government ministers in Whitehall were in no doubt about the gravity of the situation in early April. The revolution in France had shocked them with the rapidity of its escalation, and they were fully alert to the consequences of accidents such as the shootings in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris. Moreover they were equally aware of the possible repercussions in Europe of any demonstration of weakness on the part of the English government in dealing with unrest and disturbance. The reports that had appeared in the French and Irish papers of the quite minor rioting that had occurred in Britain during March had greatly exaggerated the scale of the incidents; and uncertainty and irresolution at this time would only encourage the Jacobin element in all the nations affected by revolutionary movements. British diplomacy in March had achieved its main objective: the neutralisation of France as an active military force in Europe. This, for the Whig ministry, was as important for western and central Europe as it was for Ireland.

There was, however, never any doubt among the leading political groups in England that the coercive forces at the disposal of the British government were wholly capable of dealing adequately and successfully with any confrontation that might occur, either on the mainland or in Ireland. The problem, and really the only problem, was that Britain was not Ireland. The Irish had always been treated as a colonial people, and a scale of deaths acceptable in Ireland could not possibly be admitted in England. A soil stained with English blood would bring forth martyrs. No minister at this time seems to have mentioned Peterloo in his correspondence or in speeches, but the need to avoid bloodshed and implicitly the political consequences of bloodshed were clearly understood and strongly emphasised on a number of occasions. At the same time the Whigs never allowed their liberal principles to obstruct the security requirements of the state. Their own position in society depended on the preservation of the existing order, and they were conscious of how far class hostility from the lower orders should be allowed to express itself given their own capacity for constraining its violent manifestations. Clarendon wrote to Sir George Grey on 7 April during the period of growing anxiety and concern prior to the Chartist meeting on the 10th:

There is so much loyal and good feeling in the Country, such mighty interests are at stake, the circumstances of Europe are so grave, the future is so menacing, that I feel sure you will not appeal in vain to the `Haves’ in England against the ‘Have nots’. But this is not the time for stickling about Constitutional forms or party consistency. If we lose Ireland, it will be as much owing to the want of an Arms Bill and to the imprudent policy of the Whigs two years ago as any thing else.

The impression accepted by many historians that the plan for the defence of London was largely the work of the Duke of Wellington is incorrect. The reputation that the Duke enjoyed in the country was an enormous asset to the government of 1848. Greville wrote on 13 July 1847: ‘the Duke of Wellington was if possible received with even more enthusiasm. It is incredible what popularity environs him in his latter days; he is followed like a show wherever he goes, and the feeling of the people for him seems to be the liveliest of all popular sentiments; yet he does nothing to excite, and hardly appears to notice it. He is in wonderful vigour of body, but strangely altered in mind, which is in a fitful uncertain state, and there is no knowing in what mood he may be found: everybody is afraid of him, nobody dares to say anything to him; he is sometimes very amiable and good-humoured, sometimes very irritable and morose.’

The much quoted comment of Chevalier Bunsen which suggested that Wellington was in command of the preparations for the Chartist demonstration was no doubt an accurate statement of what passed between them. Wellington was certainly brought into the discussions at a rather late date when the crucial choices had been made, and he was present on the day of the demonstration itself, but all the basic decisions had been taken by Sir George Grey and Lieutenant-General Lord Fitzroy Somerset, the Military Secretary. Wellington had contributed his own memorandum on 5 April which began very curiously:

Having seen in the newspapers statements that 200,000 Chartists are to be assembled in and around London on Monday next the 10th instant; and knowing that Her Majesty’s Servants have ordered the movement of certain troops upon the metropolis . . . I have not heard that the Government has adopted any measures to dissuade or to prevent these large bodies from assembling near the Metropolis. I do not know whence they will come, or what is their avowed or their real or their supposed object.

Wellington then proceeded to set out quite reasonable precautions which could be taken. He was especially concerned to place great emphasis upon the need to keep communications open: similar to his insistence on the matter for Dublin in his memorandum of 2 March which has been noted above. His main points, however, had already been well taken.

It was on 3 April that Sir George Grey issued a general circular to all the relevant authorities in the country recommending the swearing-in of special constables, although by this time many thousands had already been enrolled. The Home Office was in continuous correspondence with all parts of the United Kingdom, but until the Kennington Common meeting, except for Ireland, there was an inevitable concentration on the preparations within the London area. The tactics overall were simple and straight-forward. The decision of the metropolitan police commissioners to ban the procession on Monday was phrased as `assemblage or procession’ and this was generally taken to refer solely or mainly to the procession back from Kennington Common which would accompany the petition to the House of Commons. In a memorandum to the Lord Mayor of London dated 9 April Sir Denis Le Merchant set down the precautions which had been agreed and which were already for the most part in operation. Le Marchant wrote that the meeting on Kennington Common would be allowed provided that it remained peaceful, but no procession would be permitted under any circumstances. The main force of professional police would be on and around the bridges across the Thames, with a special concentration on Blackfriars Bridge. Cavalry and foot soldiers would be stationed out of sight at various strategic points and especially at the bridges. At Blackfriars, for example, four houses at the north end were taken over, with the consent of their owners, for a large party of infantry. Only in the event of the civil forces being unable to contain the demonstrators would the military intervene, and it was assumed by all who were involved in these decisions that military intervention would come only as a very last resort. There were 7,122 military including cavalry in London for the 10th; 1,231 enrolled pensioners; just over 4,000 police – metropolitan and city – and about 85,000 special constables. The disposition of troops was the responsibility of the London Military District subject to the agreement of the Home Office. The main problem was to find suitable accommodation for the military in order that they would be out of sight but within reach of central London. Several owners of large houses put their stabling at the disposal of the cavalry, and a director of the South West Railway arranged for 500 infantry and 100 cavalry to be accommodated at Nine Elms station on the Sunday and Monday. Many of the infantry were inside government offices and buildings.

Army morale had always been appreciated as a matter for close concern. This was the great objection to billeting. Palmerston’s experience at the War Office had taught him that the contact of ordinary soldiers with civilians could be a subversive matter. In Ireland, partly because of the potentially more explosive political situation and partly because of the very poor housing conditions in the country as a whole, there was no choice but to provide accommodation; and almost all the army was quartered in their own barracks. On the mainland, however, even by 1848 there was often not sufficient barrack buildings to house the troops as they were moved rapidly round the country where disaffection was threatened; and tented camps, as in Liverpool in the summer of 1848, often had to be accepted.

Every scrap of information about the political conversation of ordinary soldiers – nearly always supplied by the local police – was carefully scrutinised; but there was very little. In London a constable of the E Division reported a conversation with a sentry on duty at the west entrance of the British Museum in Great Russell Street in which the soldier was alleged to have said: `You’ll find that if we are called out we shall not do much, and he thought that plenty of his people had signed the Charter but did not say if he had signed it’; and in the week before 10 April there were reports of up to a dozen soldiers of the Scots Fusiliers, stationed at Charing Cross barracks, talking in public houses of the Kennington Common meeting: one of them further stated that he had an aged father and mother in the country, who were reduced in circumstances and who now received for their maintenance from the Parish only three shillings a week – and what use was three shillings a week to an old couple of their age – He, for one, knew others of the same mind, would never fight for any Government or any other system which would behave so to any poor people’.

On another occasion, again with no precise dating but in the week before 10 April, a report of four soldiers of the same regiment stated that a civilian addressing the soldiers said: `I hope my lads you will not interfere with us next Monday’ and one of the soldiers replied: `There is little fear of that, my boy. Do you do your Duty and we will do ours – And if we are called out and ordered to fire – we shall fire over your heads.’ In this episode one name was quoted with identification markings. The only other incident reported in this particular War Office file was a short report dated 5 April when a police constable noted that he saw three privates of the Grenadier Guards stop and sign the Chartist petition on Westminster Bridge.

These were trivial affairs and cannot have caused the military authorities any serious concern. It is worth remarking that there do not appear to be any reports in government papers of the slightest anxiety about the metropolitan police. It was, of course, the Roman Catholic part of the army which the authorities were worried about in 1848, but this was a new problem. In the years preceeding 1848 the Catholic hierarchy in England had always come out strongly against physical force politics, and the influence of O’Connell against the Chartist movement was powerful. In 1848 itself there are a number of reports in the Home Office papers where evidence was given of the steadying influence of the local Catholic priest, evincing disapproval of the link with militant Chartism. The new situation in 1848 was one in which Irish soldiers might come into contact with Irish Repealers united with English Chartists. As events turned out, there was nothing to worry about on the English mainland. Ireland was, as ever, likely to produce disturbance; and on the night before the Kennington Common meeting in London, when there was rising excitement in Dublin as everywhere else, fighting broke out in Dublin between the soldiers of two regiments over the Repeal question. Clarendon, in a letter dated 10 April, described the incident in a letter to Sir George Grey:

There was a disagreeable row here last night between the soldiers of two Regiments about Repeal and they fought in the street. They were soon brought back to Barracks . . . We have heard too that the Repeal soldiers will attempt to break out of their Barracks tonight – the whole spirit of the garrison (or the R.C. part of it) appears to have altered since the 57th came here. We have fortunately got rid of them now by sending them to the North but P[rince] George tells me he inspected the two foot companies before they marched yesterday, and that he never saw such a mutinous and sullen set of fellows – he expected they would knock him down.

In later letters of the next few days Clarendon reported that the military commanders had investigated the incident and were now less troubled. He especially emphasised that the account in the Nation was `entirely false’ and that only two regiments had been sent out of Dublin; and it was the 57th alone about which there were still doubts.

The protection of strategic buildings was an important part of the general security precautions. In the early weeks which followed the Paris revolution there had been a number of reports in The Times especially from various correspondents in the French capital, which provided much detail as to the logistics of revolution by the masses; and Normanby, in his despatches to the Foreign Office, was also full of information on these matters. It was plain that the occupation of important buildings in the centre of the city, thereby providing permanent bases, was a quite crucial factor in the escalation of the revolution, allowing the possibilities of constant demonstrations, invasion of the Assembly, and a continuous renewal of revolutionary spirit and morale. The matter was well understood in Britain beyond the small groups of ministers and their military advisers. There were constant demands from those in charge of buildings for additional troops and arms in the days leading up to the Kennington common demonstration, among them an interesting letter from the director of the British Museum, Sir Henry Ellis, who asked the Home Office for additional protection, on the grounds that it could now be expected that disturbances would be more serious than had previously been anticipated. He added:

Please to remember if it should by any accident happen that the Building of the Museum fall into the hands of disaffected persons it would prove to them a Fortress capable of holding Ten Thousand Men.

The date of the letter was 9 April. All the main buildings in Whitehall were heavily protected. At Somerset House a portcullis had been built; the roof of the Bank of England was parapeted with sandbags, and guns mounted through the apertures; all the prisons in the central London area were reinforced with additional arms and soldiers or pensioners. Other precautions included the earlier lighting of public lamps in the areas of London most likely to be affected; renewal of the instructions to gunsmiths to make their weapons unusable in the event of looting; and the compulsory taking over by the government of the national Electric Telegraph system for the whole week beginning Sunday 9 April. A month earlier the Home Office had asked for a special line to be constructed between the central office of the Electric Telegraph at Euston and the Home Office.

The distinguishing feature of the measures taken by the British government against its own radical movement, compared with the situation in Paris in the days before 22 February, was the overwhelming support given throughout the country by the middle strata of society. It could be taken for granted that the landed aristocracy and gentry would support the forces of order, but it was the middling groups – from the wealthy bourgeois at the top to those referred to in contemporary literature as the shopkeeping class – who rallied in large numbers and with great determination to oppose the radical disaffected. Already, in the aftermath of the Glasgow riots of 6 March, Archibald Alison, the high Tory deputy sheriff of the County of Lanark, had written to the Home Secretary commenting on the `most excellent’ disposition of the `whole middle classes’; and in London Rowan, the senior commissioner of the metropolitan police, was also taking it for granted that he would be able to rely upon a large inflow into the ranks of special constables. It had not always been so, which is why leading Whigs and Tories were now so ready to congratulate their middle-class allies. Corn Law repeal was, after all, still in everyone’s mind; and there had always been hesitation and uncertainty among some groups of the middle ranks of society in times of social crisis: in part ideological, but much more, it may be conjectured, because of doubts about the efficiency as well as the efficacy of government security measures. Even in 1848, when the Whig government acted throughout with competence and expedition, there was hesitation in the early days in some areas; but this was probably the fault of the local authorities rather than of central government. What can be said of this year is that the firm direction of affairs by the Home Office encouraged confidence that demonstrations of support by middle-class groups would be strongly reinforced by government action. Certainly by the middle of March the tide of opinion was running strongly in favour of the government; and in the weeks preceding the Kennington Common meeting an upsurge of confidence and support for the government of a quite extraordinary kind took place. Normanby had been constantly emphasising to Palmerston the failure of the July monarchy and of the Guizot government to maintain the confidence of its own supporters, and Normanby came back again and again to what he regarded as the crucial factor in the revolutionary process: the falling away of middle-class support for Louis-Philippe and all that he stood for. The urban middle classes in Britain were, of course, more numerous and more powerful economically than similar groups in France; but there was at the same time a widespread anti-aristocratic sentiment among many business circles and within middle-class nonconformist chapels. The threats from below to social stability and to the rights of property were, however, of such a kind that there was no doubt on which side the middle classes would stand; and the firm determination of the government overcame doubts and fears that the middle-class support of security measures – in their role as special constables – would receive the full backing of the coercive powers of the state. These considerations were especially important for the shopkeeping classes; and all over the country the middle classes offered their services in overwhelming numbers. Never before had there been such a mobilisation of all who for many different reasons were self-interested in the preservation of the existing structure of society. The mayors of all the large towns in the industrial North reported large numbers of special constables having been sworn in, and there were similar reports from less threatened areas. But it was London, inevitably, upon which national attention was focussed in the days before the Kennington Common meeting; and here the response was solid everywhere in the central parishes of the city and in some it was overwhelming. By 27 March Hackney had 200 special constables each with a staff and white arm-band. Limehouse divided their recruits into sections with different colours in their button-holes: the rank and file wore blue, sub-leaders red and the leader of five or more sections had blue and white. Towards the west of the town the upper classes took over. Marylebone had a printed notice calling for a meeting on the Saturday evening. The officers had already been elected, presumably more or less self-elected. Lieutenant-General Sir James Bathurst, a Peninsular veteran on the retired list but still Governor of Berwick for which he received £568 15 shillings and 10 pence per annum, was Superintendent-in-Chief; his deputy was Lieutenant-Colonel Sir J. J. Hamilton; and among the superintendants of the divisions into which the special constables were grouped were two rear admirals, one knight and one colonel. There was a good deal of self-help. Before the Kennington Common meeting – the exact date is not given – between thirty and forty tradesmen formed themselves into a company ready to be sworn in as special constables. They met at the Bell Inn, Kings Cross.

There were, inevitably, some rather unusual offers of help which the government felt it necessary either to do nothing about or to reject. On 7 April a gentleman farmer from Essex offered his services: `I am an experienced sportsman and a good steady shot’; the young gentlemen of Rugby school who were seventeen years or over offered to assist the authorities; and two days after the Kennington Common meeting the Keeper of the Queen’s prison in London wrote to Sir George Grey enclosing letters from various inmates serving time who were offering their services to help put down any disturbances: the Keeper adding that `I confidently believe I should have received the most loyal and efficient support from most of the Prisoners had there been any real occasion for their services’. Thomas Allsop, in a letter to Robert Owen, who was in Paris, summed up the prevailing mood in London: `Very great alarm prevails here, and very grave apprehensions are entertained for the peace of the country generally by grave and reflecting men. The worst feature is the antagonism of classes shown by the readiness of the middle classes to become special constables.’

Allsop’s letter was dated 8 April. Two days after the Chartist meeting The Times summarised the political lessons: `London will crush treason at once, and that all classes are at one in this respect. Such is the new strength we have gained by that noble day’s work, a strength we could not easily have gained in any other way’; and on the same day the Nonconformist, whose anti-aristocratic sentiments have already been quoted and whose political position was liberal-radical and certainly not Whig, insisted that while armed forces cannot kill `a living sentiment’, it nevertheless emphasised the importance of the `counter-demonstration on the part of the middle classes, not against the principles of the Charter, but against that recklessness of counsel which sought to realise them in social confusion and streams of blood. A physical-force revolution is thus, we hope, become an impossibility, never again to be attempted.’

The most controversial question concerning the special constables of 1848 is the extent to which working people themselves enrolled for 10 April. It was widely stated, and if not stated then assumed, by contemporaries of most political views outside the Chartist movement itself that at least many of the respectable artisans had volunteered in London and elsewhere in the country. What happened in the months which followed has hardly ever been discussed, and it is still a matter unresolved. We can list the working-class groups who wore armbands as special constables in London and other towns and about whom there is no argument. These were those employees who were either in a close master-servant relationship in which it would have been impossible to retain employment without being sworn in. Such were male domestic servants and the country employees of the landed classes. Many aristocratic families sent their women and children out of London and kept back their male servants as well as bringing up from their estates their gamekeepers, on the principle no doubt that good marksmen might be useful – as the Essex farmer noted above had assumed. There were a number of accounts in the contemporary London papers of titled persons enrolling as special constables along with their complete male establishments. Then there were the employees of railway companies and of public utilities such as gas companies. The railway companies ran their organisations for decades with a quasi-military discipline, and it was expected that their employees would volunteer. A letter of 5 April from the London and South Western Company to the Home Office reported that three to four hundred were already sworn in and that the number would increase to 800 on the day following: `of this number 40 or 50 are superior officers and clerks, upon whom I can thoroughly rely.’ Among the gas companies which provided lists of officers and workmen sworn in during the period preceding the Chartist demonstration were the Commercial Gas Company of Stepney; the Imperial Gas Works, Margaret Street, Shoreditch, and the Independent Gas Company, Haggerston. There was some opposition by workers to this voluntary conscription, but hard evidence is difficult to establish. The magistrates who received the oath also had problems, and there were several letters to the Home Office asking for guidance when large establishments tried to enrol their workers in the mass. The original circular from Grey of 3 April had referred to the enrolment of `respectable individuals’ but as 10 April approached the Home Office indicated its approval of these mass registrations. There was one particular group which received much publicity and which was certainly beyond the pale of working-class respectability. These were the Thames coal-whippers for whom Parliament had legislated in 1844; and their offer of service was widely used to indicate the extent to which the Chartist movement did not represent the whole of the working classes. It was also used, by Gladstone among others, as an example of the returns governments could expect from social reform measures. The coal-whippers were at the lower end of the labourers’ group, and although so much publicity was given to their commitment to public order, a report in the Weekly Dispatch suggested that many in fact had been more or less compulsorily enrolled by their labour superintendent. After the demonstration of the 10th was over, the coal-whippers demanded payment for their services since they had lost a day’s work, or in some cases, part of a day. Their request set up a mild flutter in Whitehall, but they had been so useful in the government’s propaganda that there was no question but to pay them. Richard Mayne, the metropolitan police Commissioner wrote to C. E. Trevelyan at the Treasury – whose economic heart must have been much displeased at the prospect of this frittering away of public funds: `it would be mischievous and impolitic to make them dissatisfied especially after the public notice taken of them’. There was careful calculation of the rates of pay deemed politic.

Many workingmen were either committed Chartists or like Mayhew’s costermongers, were for `us’ and against `them’, but there must have been quite large numbers who took no clear attitude or who followed their masters. Any quantitative analysis is obviously not possible, but there is an interesting phenomenon that has not been much commented on, and yet was to be found, in these early days in April at any rate, both in London and in the industrial North; and it may be significant as an indication of changing political attitudes. This was where working operatives refused to be sworn in as ordinary special constables but were prepared to act within their own works to protect their working premises from outside attack and, presumably, in Manchester, against visiting bands – pickets – who in the past had forced a turn-out. Magistrates who accepted workers on these terms were acting illegally in that the terms of a special constable’s appointment were such that while it was usual to employ them within their own neighbourhood they were obliged to serve anywhere in their own county; and according to a later ruling from the Home Office, even in another county as well. Service within their own working establishment was much more common than has so far been noted. There is, in the return of special constables made by the metropolitan police to the Home Office an interesting comment against Lambeth (St Mary’s parish): `Mr Maudsley, Engineer, has 1000 for his own premises most of whom are thus secured from taking the wrong side as they are on ill terms with the Police.’ There are also scattered pieces of evidence which show opposition to enrolment, one of the most important being a letter of 8 April sent to the Home Office by a London magistrate, a Mr P. Bingham who attended the Geological Museum to swear in the considerable number of workers employed in its building:

I am sorry to have to apprise that the feeling exhibited by them was anything but satisfactory. Some refused to be sworn, and those who consented, insisted on limiting their services to the inside of the Building. I willingly assented to this under the circumstances I have stated, considering they might otherwise be on Kennington Common.
I was then desired to attend at Lord Ellesmeres, where a very large body of workmen is employed. The Foreman informed me that the whole of them, with the exception of three, refused to be sworn, but that they had promised to defend the building in case of attack.
After this, I thought it better to abstain from going further.

Much was made by contemporaries of the business establishments who signed up all their workers and this support has been used by modern historians to buttress their own belief in working-class involvement in the maintenance of public order against the potential or threatened Chartist violence. One of the most striking examples of a large-scale opposition to service as special constables came from the industrial North during the second half of March. The story was told by Sir Thomas Arbuthnot commanding the northern military district who added to his report that he had made particular enquiries on the matters stated and found them to be `essentially correct’. What happened was that the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company swore in 700 of their workmen as special constables. The day after, a mass meeting of the men was held to protest against their involvement `at a moment’s notice’ and the resolution given below was unanimously adopted:

Resolved, first: That we, the workmen of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, do disapprove of the abrupt manner in which we were called up to be sworn in as special constables by the authorities, and that we did fully expect to be treated as men capable of comprehending right from wrong – Secondly: That this meeting is of opinion that it is in the interest and duty of all classes to protect life and property, and that we, the workmen of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, do pledge ourselves to do so, as far as it in our power lies, providing the middle class do pledge themselves to protect our capital, namely, our labour – Thirdly: That it is the opinion of this meeting that the present distress of the working classes arises from class legislation, and that it is their unanimous opinion that no permanent good can be effected for the community at large, until the working classes are fully and fairly represented in the Commons house of parliament, and that intelligence and virtue are the proper qualifications of a representative. The workmen here present do pledge themselves to offer no resistance to any body of men who may struggle for such a representation.

The resolution just quoted was taken from a press cutting from the Manchester Examiner of 18 March which Arbuthnot enclosed in his report to the Home Office. His accompanying letter said that it appeared that a number of the railway workers were well-known Chartists and some were in well-paid positions; that at the meeting there were some good speakers and that cheers were given for the Charter. Without doubt the resolution had been drawn up by someone or group accustomed to political activity.

One example of a group of militant railway workers does not make a case for the total opposition of working people to middle-class appeals for the law and order approach of the Whig government; even when put alongside the evidence already quoted from London. It does, however, encourage scepticism and highlight the need for more serious research into working-class attitudes, both in the run-up to the London demonstration of 10 April, when the hysteria in the country at large was widespread and pervasive, and in the months which followed. Most of the discussion about working-class involvement as special constables has related to the April days, and little to the weeks which followed when in some parts of the country – in particular London and the industrial North – the combined Irish and Chartist movements were growing and violence was coming to be accepted. From the evidence which is available, it would seem that the gap in later months between social classes was widening. This was certainly true of the liberal grouping within the middle classes whose attitudes towards working-class radicals were appreciably hardening; and, as political bitterness developed, it is probable that working-class enrolment in the security forces, whatever its original size and social composition, was lessening or being completely eliminated.

On the morning of 10 April the National Convention met at 9 a.m. in its usual hall in John Street. G. W. M. Reynolds took the chair in the absence of Philip McGrath, and Doyle reported that he and McGrath had waited on the police commissioners on the previous day to inform them that the Convention, as an indication of their desire to lessen tension, had changed the route of the procession as originally planned, and now intended to keep it some distance from the Houses of Parliament. The police, on their side, had replied that there could be no change in the decision to ban the procession. The Convention then heard Feargus O’Connor at his most rambling and, after shorter speeches from the floor, the Convention concluded at 10 a.m., and the leading Chartists then entered the vans outside the hall. These wagons contained the petition and were drawn by horses supplied by the Land Company. This official group then drove slowly down Tottenham Court Road, through Holborn and Farringdon Street over Blackfriars Bridge, and arrived at Kennington Common about 11.30 a.m.

The police had set up a control centre in the Horns Tavern on the edge of Kennington Common early on the Monday morning. Richard Mayne, the junior of the two Police Commissioners, was responsible for its direction. Messages from all parts of London came to this control point where the Chartists were assembling and later marching; and these reports were then sent on to the Home Office. Some examples follow:
9.15 a.m.:
`Report from Clerkenwell Green that 3000 assembled.’ (The Globe reported in its second edition that on two poles carried by the demonstrators there was a cap of liberty, a tri-coloured flag and an American flag).
Police Station, Stepney, 9 a.m.:
`There are at present about 2000 persons assembled on Stepney Green, who are now being formed in procession five deep, with Music, Flags etc. All seems peaceable, and no appearance of their being armed’
E. Div. 9.50 a.m.:
`The procession is now moving from Russell Square about 10,000.’
11.15 a.m.:
`The procession is now filing onto the Common having arrived by the Walworth Road. There are numerous flags and banners but not the slightest appearance of arms or even bludgeons.’

Soon after O’Connor arrived at Kennington Common he was called for a discussion with the police who informed him that the meeting would be allowed but that the procession would not. Mayne reported the interview at length in a communication to Sir George Grey. O’Connor returned to the demonstration and addressed it from one of the vans, arguing that they had established the right of meeting and to avoid a physical confrontation with the authorities they should accept the presentation of the petition by a few people; and that the meeting should disperse. `He would again call on them for God’s sake not to injure their cause by intemperance or folly’, and he ended: `Let every man among you now take off his hat and bow to the Great God of Heaven – thank him for his goodness, and solemly promise not to break his law.’ Ernest Jones was the next speaker and, to quote the Morning Chronicle report:

said that he was a physical force Chartist, but in their present unprepared state he deprecated any attempt at collision with the authorities. He had recommended that the procession should not have been brought on this side of the water, and that the bridges should not have been placed between them and the House of Commons. He believed that if they had met on the other side of the water the police would never have attempted to stop the procession. But at present they had been completely caught in a trap. They would, however, meet on the other side of the water, if their petition were not granted, and carry their remonstrance to the foot of the throne. He entreated them to disperse peaceably on the present occasion, and they might depend upon it, if they followed his advice, they would be able to meet in larger numbers upon another occasion, joined by thousands of the middle classes.

There was opposition to the platform from militants such as Cuffay, and this was the beginning of an alternative leadership in London to the hitherto accepted personalities of Chartism. It is possible that Ernest Jones, despite the discredit which this day must have brought upon him in the minds of some Londoners at any rate, might have continued to move to the Left; but he was the first of the major figures of the movement to be arrested in early June, and was not therefore part of the illegal movement that began to grow during the summer months. In the rest of the country the failure of the Kennington Common meeting had remarkably little, if any, effect upon the morale of the Chartist movement; in the industrial North especially, it continued to increase its political activities until the mass arrests of the late summer.

For the government 10 April was of crucial importance. The Chartist demonstration was never intended to be a physical confrontation with the government; and when the Chartist leaders protested their peaceful intentions, they were not dissembling. The Whig government, however, did, not overreact, as has often been suggested. A demonstration of their coercive power over their own radicals, in the context of this period, was of central importance, both at home and abroad. As the Chartist Convention correctly noted, Europe was looking anxiously and carefully at what was happening in England; and it was not hysteria but calm resolve that moved the Whig ministers to their elaborate precautions in their own capital city. They had absorbed the lessons of Paris, and to have permitted a mass demonstration to accompany the petition to Westminster might have offered opportunities for disturbance or riot the consequences of which, in the tense atmosphere of these days, were certainly incalculable. Again there would have been no doubt about the outcome; but a bloodless victory – one indeed that could be laughed off, as this one was – offered confidence and relief not only inside Britain but in every European capital that was beleaguered. To contemporaries in 1848 the affair of Kennington Common was certainly not as trivial as it has mostly been portrayed in the history textbooks. It provided evidence, as noted already, of the wholehearted support of all the various groups within the middle strata. The House of Commons could have its fun at the expense of the fictitious names on the Chartist petition as well as at the grossly exaggerated claims of its total signatories, but the government was under no illusion that the radical movement had disappeared or was suffering any serious loss of morale. As Palmerston wrote to Clarendon on the day following the Kennington Common meeting: `Things passed off beautifully here yesterday, but the snake is scotched, not killed.’

Taken from J. Saville, 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 102-20.

Today in radical history, 1848: the last great Chartist rally on Kennington Common.

Sometimes called “the first great British working class political movement”, the Chartist movement, which spanned the late 1830s to the early 1850s, was in many ways the culmination of a diverse collection of radical and reform movements that had been developing in Britain for the past 70 years. Pressure for political reform, a wider franchise, and a greater say in how society was run for the ‘lower orders’ (almost everyone except the aristocracy and the high bourgeoisie) that had been slowly gathering pace since the early 1760s. This movement had been re-galvanised by the ideas of the first French Revolution of 1789, and spiced with the coagulation of resistance to rapid and traumatic economic change and the imposition of capitalism, by the people most impacted, the industrial working classes – still wet behind the ears from recognising its own existence.

The movement combined the traditions of political liberty with the struggle for economic power in a bewilderingly altering society, adding in a powerful influence from the scene of blasphemous writers, seditious preachers and agitational journalists that had articulated rebellion against religious and social restrictions and raged against enclosure, the dispossession of people from the land, and in some cases, slavery… The movement that had built the mass opposition to the stamp tax on newspapers…

Chartism inherited and amplified the demands and the language of these traditions, but was also heir to the deep divisions over tactics, methods and – ultimately – the true goal. Like groups as far-ranging as the London Corresponding Society and the National Union of the Working Classes before them, the movement argued about whether ‘moral’ (campaigning) pressure could win the vote for working men, or whether the aristocracy and the increasingly dominant capitalists would ever allow this. Could middle class and working class reformers really work together, given the obviously divergent interests? Was representation in parliament enough, or was total working class power needed to ensure their aims? And if radical means were required, how was it to be done – underground plots, mass strikes, grasping control of the land en masse?

These questions had been fought over within and around Chartism since its birth, and had already produced one abortive general strike, and a wave of desperate plans for uprisings of which only one had really got going (in Newport in 1839). The defeats of 1839-40 did help send the movement into something of a decline nationally, but it this masks a different reality locally – the ideas of the movement were spreading into the daily life of millions of people, adding to and enriching a working class political and social culture, in self-education, history lessons, songs, alternative ceremonies and the creation of meeting places and social spaces. We don’t have space to go into this here, but in many ways the historical concentration on the big petitions, the monster rallies, the secret plots, highlights the less significant aspects, at the expense of how Chartism helped change a way of thinking in millions of people… (Something this blog with its concentration on ‘events’ and anniversaries also tends to fall into, we admit…) However, the big events served as a focus for the grassroots level, a coming together, building from the bottom up, so the two are not really separate.

“Not a small active party with a large passive membership but a movement which deeply affected every aspect of people’s lives. It was an inclusive organisation with popular leaders who were Catholics, Protestants and Freethinkers. West Indian and Asian people were prominent and in fact the organiser of 10th April was William Cuffay, a black Londoner, who was subsequently deported for his efforts. The Irish, in the midst of the great potato famine at home had good reason to take part and did. There were also women’s groups in spite of the charter only demanding male suffrage. Chartist meetings sometimes had a carnival like atmosphere, and at other times were preceded by hymn singing and processions. There was a Chartist culture which had its own christenings and funerals and its own songs. It was a counter-cultural experience that changed people’s perception of themselves… through this process they became conscious of a profound and unifying new urban class identity.

The main political strategies of Chartism became the petition and the monster rally. The petition also grew to be a monster and assumed the status of an unofficial referendum. The great rallies were a show of strength which also gave the participants a direct sense of community.

… it was such a collective network of groups that it is difficult to reduce to conventional narrative history, partly because the fieldwork is still being done and partly due to the class bias of historians and their publishers who have done their best to undermine its importance.” (Kennington Park: Birthplace of People’s Democracy, Stefan Szczelkun)

In April 1848 the Chartists’ national profile had been in eclipse for some years, but was visibly reviving. The third great Chartist petition codifying the 6 demands of the People’s Charter was gathering pace. The revived Chartist movement was growing stronger: a many thousand strong Third Petition to Parliament.

The petition for The Charter had grown huge, by then it had between three and six million signatures depending on which side you choose to believe. A carriage, bedecked with garlands, was needed to transport it. Parliament was to be presented with this petition, for the third time, after a monster rally on Kennington Common on the 10th April 1848.

The Chartist Convention, meeting in Fitzrovia, had seen some intense debate between those advocating moral force and those believing armed uprisings might be necessary, especially as an attack by police or the army was anticipated.

This moment in the struggle for democracy was recorded in a historic photograph. William Kilburn, an early portrait photographer, took two daguerrotype plates of the Kennington Common rally from a vantage point in The Horns, (the famous pub on the edge of the Common, long a venue for radical debate itself) – the oldest surviving photo of a crowd.

But mirrored to the enthusiasm from a mass of working people, for the upper and respectable middle classes, the increasing agitation induced probably the greatest fear of the lower classes since the Gordon Riots. Revolutions and uprisings which were breaking out all across Europe gave the usual violent rhetoric from some of the Chartist leaders a slightly more threatening edge, to the ears of the authorities and the middle classes, and the government made elaborate preparations to resist any attempted insurrection. Thousands of troops and police were moved into London, and hundreds of middle class volunteers and special constables were signed up (reminiscent of the Volunteers of the French Revolutionary wars, and foreshadowing the specials of the General Strike eighty years later).

“In the morning (a very fine day) everybody was on the alert; the parks were closed; our office was fortified, a barricade of Council Registers was erected in the accessible room on the ground-floor, and all our guns were taken down to be used in defence of the building.” (Charles Greville, Diary)

Bundles of old copies of the Times were also used to barricade buildings on the river adjacent to the bridges, in case of armed attack by insurgents.

The royal family were even moved out of the capital. The bridges and important and strategic buildings were barricaded:

“The bridges were the chief points of defence, of which Blackfriars-bridge appeared to be a sort of centre, as it had the strongest force..” “About 300 gentlemen of the Stock Exchange were sworn in special constables, 100 of whom attended under their respective leaders in the Royal Exchange, from whence they were marched to Blackfriars-bridge…”

“The proceedings in its neighbourhood were nearly as follows:- By ten o’clock a considerable crowd had collected in Farringdon-street and New Bridge-street, and at the point where Fleet-street and Ludgate-hill join this line of street. The stable-yard of the Rose Inn, in Farringdon-street, had previously been occupied by a body of cavalry. Special constables were also mustered in great force by the authorities of the ward, but kept out of sight. Soon after ten the crowd assumed a “processional” shape, and by half-past ten began to pass over the bridge. Men who had been talking together in groups joined arm-in-arm, and the march commenced. From half-past ten till half-past eleven one continuous stream of people crossed the bridge – the pavement on the east side being occupied by the more systematic procession, and the roadway being thronged by a closely-packed body. At the latter hour vans, decorated with flags, and containing some of the leaders of the “demonstration,” made their appearance, and passed on without any appearance of confusion. With the exception of a few closed shops, there were, in this locality, no signs of alarm, and no symptoms of disorder.”  (Illustrated London News)

The Chartists’ national leadership was divided as to how to proceed. Some were for all out pressing ahead while the movement was on the up; others were scared by the clear willingness of the government to arm itself. On the one hand this was recognition that where force was concerned the stare had the upper hand; but the more radical elements also accused some of the more vocal mouthpieces of the movement of being happy to shout and bluster but not being really up for real confrontation. The fiery orator Feargus O’Connor, always more mouth than trousers, came in for much criticism. The Chartist Convention, meeting in London, was riven with argument.

William Cuffay, the black tailor delegated from the London Chartists to represent them at the Convention, was notable in calling for radical action and denouncing the vacillators. Cuffay’s actions around this time illuminate some of the division, suspicions and rows the Chartist leadership was falling prone to.

For Cuffay, as for so many other working people in western Europe, 1848 was ‘the year of decision’. He was one of the three London delegates to the Chartists’ national Convention that met in April. From the start of the proceedings he made his left-wing position plain. Derby had sent as delegate a sensational journalist and novelist called George Reynolds (he gave his name to the radical magazine that eventually became Reynolds News) and Cuffay challenged the middle-class newcomer, demanding to know if he really was a Chartist. Cuffay also at first opposed the granting of credentials to Charles MacCarthy of the Irish Democratic Federation, but the dispute was settled, and MacCarthy admitted, by a sub-committee of which Cuffay was a member. The convention’s main task was to prepare a mass meeting on Kennington Common and a procession that was to accompany the Chartist petition, bearing almost two million signatures, to the Commons. When Reynolds, moved an amendment declaring ‘That in the event of the rejection of the Petition, the Convention should declare its sitting permanent, and should declare the Charter the law of the land’, Cuffay said he was opposed to a body declaring itself permanent that represented only a fraction of the people: he was elected by only 2,000 out of the two million inhabitants of London, He moved that the convention should confine itself to presenting the petition, and that a national assembly be called – “then come what might, it should declare its sittings permanent and go on, come weal or come woe.” At length the idea of a national assembly was accepted. In a later debate Cuffay told his fellow delegates that “the men of London were up to the mark, and were eager for the fray”. 

When a moderate speech was made, Cuffay burst out: “This clapping of hands is all very fine, but will you fight for it?” There were cries of ‘Yes, yes’ and cheers. Appointed chairman of the committee for managing the procession, Cuffay was responsible for making sure that “everything… necessary for conducting an immense procession with order and regularity had been adopted”, and suggested that stewards wear tricolour sashes and rosettes. Things had now come to a crisis, he said, and they must he prepared to act with coolness and determination. It was clear that the executive had shrunk from their responsibility. They did not show the spirit they ought. He no longer had any confidence in them, and he hoped the convention would be prepared to take the responsibility out of their hands and lead the people themselves. At the final meeting, on the morning of the demonstration, Cuffay opposed endless debate.

“The time is now come for work,” he insisted. An observer recorded that, as the convention broke up and delegates took their places on the vehicles, carrying the petition, Cuffay ‘appeared perfectly happy and elated’ for the first time since the proceedings opened.

In contrast, Feargus O’Connor, facing the reality of the forces arrayed against the march, was getting cold feet:

“Presently Mr. Mayne [Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) appeared on the ground, and sent one of his inspectors to say he wanted to speak to Feargus O’Connor. Feargus thought he was going to be arrested and was in a terrible fright; but he went to Mayne ‘ who merely said he was desired to inform him that the meeting would not be interfered with, but the procession would not be allowed. Feargus insisted on shaking hands with Mayne, swore he was his best of friends, and instantly harangued his rabble, advising them not to provoke a collision, and to go away quietly-advice they instantly obeyed, and with great alacrity and good-humour. Thus all evaporated in smoke. Feargus himself then repaired to the Home Office, saw Sir George Grey, and told him it was all over, and thanked the Government for their leniency, assuring him the Convention would not have been so lenient if they had got the upper hand. Grey asked him if he was going back to the meeting. He said No; that he had had his toes trodden on till he was lame, and his pocket picked, and he would have no more to do with it.”

O’Connor and other leaders abandoned their attempt to process to Westminster to hand in the petition.

When the crowd at Kennington Common heard this, many of them were very angry. There were shouts that the petition should have been carried forward until actively opposed by the troops then withdrawn altogether on the ground that such opposition was unlawful. One of the protesters was Cuffay, who spoke in strong language against the dispersal of the meeting, and contended that it would be time enough to evince their fear of the military when they met them face to face! He believed the whole Convention were a set of cowardly humbugs, and he would have nothing more to do with them, He then left the van, and got among the crowd, where he said that O’Connor must have known all this before, and that he ought to have informed them of it, so that they might have conveyed the petition at once to the House of Commons, without crossing the bridges. They had been completely caught in a trap.

However thousands of demonstrators did attempt to march across the river, and were blocked off at the bridges, leading to clashes with police. Blackfriars Bridge saw the most vicious fighting –

“After the meeting on Kennington-common had dispersed, an immense crowd on their return straggled irregularly along Blackfriars-road. Upon arriving at Stamford-street, they of course came face to face with the mounted police, who refused them passage, and ranged themselves across the road. Together with these were the police and special constables. Many strenuous attempts were made by the Chartists to get across the bridge. As fresh numbers arrived from Kennington-common, those in advance were pushed forward, but were immediately driven back by the horse-patrol without drawing their sabres. The metropolitan police made use of their staves, and, from time to time, repulsed the crowd, which grew thicker and thicker every minute. In about an hour and a half, however, the mob, which, by this time, reached as far down as Rowland Hill’s Chapel, made many vigorous attempts to force their way through; and, notwithstanding the cool steady courage of the police, the latter were, at intervals, separated. The special constables at these times were very roughly handled, a great many of them having their hats broken and being deprived of their staves. Showers of large stones were every few minutes thrown on the bridge, and the police received many severe blows, but gave more than equivalent in return with their batons. A great number of men who were seized by the police for throwing stones were rescued, and the yells and shouts were deafening. At half-past three o’clock the pressure of the concourse was so great that the line of police was forced, and a great many of them carried with the throng over the bridge, holding their staves up as they were borne along. On the City side of the bridge a great many arrests were made, and the mob, which seemed inclined for a minute to make a stand, were uniformly repulsed by the horse patrol, the sight of whose drawn sabres, wielded over the heads of the mob, soon put the more noisy and impudent to flight. Both on that and the other side of the bridge there were numbers of men with their heads bleeding, who were led away by their friends.” (Illustrated London News)

Preventing the demonstrators from reaching parliament defused some of the ‘pre-revolutionary tension’ the ruling class was suffering from… Although there was localised fighting around different working class areas of London and wider afield all summer, usually after Chartist rallies were attacked by emboldened police, given their head to disperse any challenge.

This forced the still determined radical elements of the movement back into the old pattern of insurrectionary plotting for an armed seizure of power, which while it did have some support, was by necessity more fractured and hard to pull off.

Small numbers of physical force Chartists met throughout the summer of 1848, planning a revolt, but their organisation was heavily penetrated by police spies, one of whom was actually a member of the seven-strong ‘Ulterior Committee’ that was planning an uprising in London. William Cuffay was one of those on the Committee. But the plans were not to bear fruit.

On 16 August 1848, 11 ‘luminaries’, allegedly plotting to fire certain buildings as a signal for the rising, were arrested at a Bloomsbury tavern, the Orange Tree, near Red Lion Square. Cuffay was arrested later at his lodgings. At the Orange Tree, a regular Chartist meeting point, a meeting was raided; cops found “a number of loaded pistols, pikes, daggers, spearheads, and swords, and some of the prisoners wore iron breast plates, while others had gun powder, shot and tow-balls.” Cuffay, Fay, W. Dowling, W. Lacey, William Ritchie were convicted of ‘levying war on the Queen’, and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life; 15 others were jailed for 18 months to 2 years.

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1848 represented Chartism’s last big push; although the movement survived several years longer it increasingly split and fell into factions, which withered in a more prosperous economic climate in the 1850s.

But it had sown many seeds in the among working people, which were to continue to influence future movements. Many Chartist activists continued to fight for social change for decades, taking part in the more obviously ‘successful’ reform movements in 1866-7, which did win an extension of the franchise, in the secularist and republican agitations, in trade unions and the co-operative movements, and can be seen in the early british socialist and anarchist groupings. Chartism should certainly by seen as partly a product and itself an influence on a didactic working class culture that evolved, often through local clubs and discussions/debates, and which was to continue changing and producing bursts of political energy into the 20th century.

It’s difficult to analyse the events of 10th April, especially if you view it through the prism of ‘revolutionary moment missed’ as it is tempting to do. Was it really an opportunity for radical upheaval? In many ways the chance to overthrow the state in one great push was an outdated ideal, especially in Britain. Across Europe, where more autocratic regimes had not yet experienced anything like the UK’s experience of industrialisation and the bourgeoisie forcing the aristos to share power with them, the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 etc were always more widely supported by the middle class, eager to get their share of influence. Here, the traditions of the 1689 ‘glorious’ settlement, social change in the 18th century, and the 1832 reform act had already broadened the spread of power to the newer wealthy capitalist classes. Chartism was in reality never going to win cross-class support (leaving aside the many working people who loyally stood by their ‘betters’ or who religion persuaded to abide in their ‘place’). Can insurrections by themselves, without a base in a mass agitation already prepared to take power, succeed? Chartism had a mass base but the preparedness to build any kind of dual power was not there. In many ways the earlier Plug Riots of 1842 had been more threatening, although too localised; and there too the authorities had been able to repress and arrest many activists. Possibly it was not a ‘revolutionary moment missed’ because revolution would have needed to be more organic, growing from below towards the centre, only succeeding because it was already inevitable by the time of a mass confrontation like April l0th. It’s worth reflecting on the Chartist idea of a ‘sacred month’ or general strike, compared to Rosa Luxemburg’s later conception of how such a movement might win working class power.)

But perhaps looking at April 10th this way is to take too narrow a view of events. As Stefan Szczelkun has observed:

“The fact that the events of the 10th April 1848 did not herald a British Revolution or immediate voting reforms has been held up by official historians as the ‘failure’ of Chartism. But the success of Chartism should not be measured in such terms but rather in the effects it had on the consciousness of the millions who took part. This is something historians have found difficult to register. There was a real democratic culture and powerful desire for social justice behind The Charter which remains unrealised to this day.”

Check out a really good site on Chartist history

And a local group working to commemorate April 1848 and the Chartists

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Today in London’s drunken history: a gin riot in Seven Dials, 1735.

The Gin Craze was a period in the first half of the 18th century when the consumption of gin increased rapidly in Great Britain, especially in London. The heavy drinking culture of the time became a virtual epidemic of extreme drunkenness; this provoked moral outrage and a legislative backlash that some have compare to the modern drug wars… Although more recent parallels with minimum alcohol pricing spring to mind…

Cheap gin, first imported from the Netherlands in the 1690s, became an extremely popular drink in the early 18th century. Politicians and religious leaders began to argue that gin drinking encouraged laziness and criminal behaviour. In 1729 Parliament passed a Gin Act that increased the tax on the drink. This law was deeply unpopular with the working classes (or at least the drinking strata thereof), which resulted in mass agitation against the laws, widespread avoidance, attacks on the numerous informers out to make money by dobbing in unlicensed ginsellers, and to a number of riots in London. The government eventually gave in, reducing duties and penalties, claiming that moderate measures would be easier to enforce.

The British government tried a number of times to stop the flow of gin. The Gin Act 1736 taxed retail sales at a rate of 20 shillings a gallon on spirits and required licensees to take out a £50 annual licence to sell gin, a fee equivalent to about £7,000 today. The aim was to effectively prohibit the trade by making it economically unfeasible. Only two licences were ever taken out. The trade became illegal, consumption dipped but then continued to rise and the law was effectively repealed in 1743 following mass law-breaking and violence (particularly towards informers who were paid £5 to reveal the whereabouts of illegal gin shops). The illegally distilled gin which was produced following the 1736 Act was less reliable and more likely to result in poisoning.

By 1743, England was drinking 2.2 gallons (10 litres) of gin per person per year. As consumption levels increased, an organised campaign for more effective legislation began to emerge, led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson, who, in 1736, had complained that gin produced a ‘drunken ungovernable set of people’. We we’ll drink to that…

Prominent anti-gin campaigners included Henry Fielding (whose 1751 ‘Enquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers’ blamed gin consumption for both increased crime and increased ill health among children), Josiah Tucker, Daniel Defoe (who had originally campaigned for the liberalisation of distilling, but later complained that drunken mothers were threatening to produce a ‘fine spindle-shanked generation’ of children), and William Hogarth. Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane is a well known image of the gin craze, and is often paired with “Beer Street”, creating a contrast between the miserable lives of gin drinkers and the healthy and enjoyable lives of beer drinkers. Arf arf.

The Gin Craze began to diminish after the Gin Act 1751. This Act lowered the annual licence fees, but encouraged ‘respectable’ gin selling by requiring licensees to trade from premises rented for at least £10 a year. Historians suggest that gin consumption was reduced not as a result of legislation but because of the rising cost of grain. Landowners could afford to abandon the production of gin, and this fact, coupled with population growth and a series of poor harvests, resulted in lower wages and increased food prices. The Gin Craze had mostly ended by 1757. The government tried to ensure this by temporarily banning the manufacture of spirits from domestic grain. There was a resurgence of gin consumption during the Victorian era, with numerous ‘Gin Palaces’ appearing.

The late 1730s saw a constant battle in the streets over gin, with the ‘mob’ targeting informers, fight off the constables, and, if possible, grab as much free booze as they could… In 1735, one small riot seems to have involved the simple storming of a gin shop…

“Tuesday, 8. At Seven Dials occurred a Riot at the closing of a Gin Shop owned by Captain Speke. When the Mob became outrageous in their attempts to force the stoutly defended Building, Justice of the Peace Mr Maitland read the Riot Act but the Mob refused to disperse peaceably as required, the Guard of the Tower was called to enforce the Peace with Ball, Butt and Bayonet, after which all was quiet. The Shop was wrecked by Intruders and all the Genever Spirits lost.”

The attack is also referred to in a bizarre satirical report, attributed to ‘Charles Cholmondeley-Fitzroy, Lord Foppingham’, which contains cryptical references and head-scratching complexities… (Note that ginsellers had invented the slot machine by 1735…)

“To : Mr Berry, Secretary, Society for Effectual Redress.

Sir,

In accordance with the customs of our esteemed Society, I have the honour to submit for your Observation the following Intelligence, being an Account of the recent Motions of those worthy Fellows of our Club, Messrs Church, Elmhill, ben Ezra, and the Rev Munro, somewhat aided by Myself. For all that no one Principal, in search of Redress, has enlisted our Aid, we nonetheless hold it True that some Deviltry is plainly afoot, and have taken up the Burden of combating these latest dark Manifestations of the Juniper Scourge.

The business in hand was first observed thanks to the vigilance of some of the Hon Members above, they having witnessed a Riot in the street, evidently occasioned by mass consumption of Gin. Notwithstanding the commonplace nature of this event, they (being Gentlemen of some penetration) decried some Singular factors in the business. For one, the mobile nature of this disturbance. The odd behaviour of some members of the mob; viz, that they rallied to the cry “get the monsters!”, even though none such were evident. More singular still, one of the rioters, a strumpet, was seen to dive into an alley, and entice therefrom a worthy footpad of the town; who had, but moments before been lurking about his improper trade, as befitted any trueborn English criminal. But one kiss of the Maenad’s gin-sodden lips had him dancing along with the rest. Much effort was expended by the crazed mob in the destruction of any glass, windows and mirrors alike becoming objects of their wrath. And yet, within a very short time, this revelry petered out, as though a summer storm had passed. Seeking for some intelligence as to the cause of this baseless riot, Jack Church was able to divine that, before reaching its apogee in the destruction of a glaziers shop, the disturbance had its origin by the gin shop of one Capt. Speke.

Of this remarkable emporium, I shall have more to impart in due course. Suffice to report, that, upon meeting at Kent’s, we formed the opinion that the business had been the work of no common distillate. The antiquary ben Ezra identified one kind at least of monstrous agent with an affinity for mirrors, the Geburith of ancient fable. Having been but lately pursued by just such a creature, I thought it sufficient reason to take such warnings with no small gravity. Thus encouraged we paid a visit to the glazier whose shop had suffered at the hands of the mob. From this worthy, one Sydenham, we obtained the information that the broken mirrors (fine quality Venice glasses, tho sadly but poor trumpery work for the settings) had been obtained as a job lot from a vessel in the Pool, one “Black Pig”. Bespeaking a few samples, we left.

Here I must add, the remarkable facts that the honest builder Jack Church had obtained in regard of the gin shop of Captain Speke. This novel innovation of trade has no entrance, doors, nor any visible shop-man. In their stead, one pays custom by introducing coin into a slot, whereupon gin issues forth from a spout below. The expense is of the common sort for such trade – perhaps one shilling for a pint bottle. Their trade was brisk. Church struck up an acquaintance with two Tipstaffs, there to serve a summons (Sir John, naturally, being vigilant against this new outrage). They had, he heard, been unable to serve it, their diligence baffled by the extraordinary nature of the place. None had been observed to enter or leave. Boldly, that night, Church effected an entry to the premises, in search of incriminating evidence. He reports that the place is so shuttered as to be wholly dark within. The gin is stacked up, crammed into every space. Once in, he was accosted by a crone, who in some fashion, overwhelmed his will, and forced him to consume the raw Geneva. Being of stout heart, he was able to recover his senses and escape; tho he has informed me, that the noxious liquor engendered fantastickal visions akin to waking nightmares. Some light was to be shed on this the next day. Having been at study, ben Ezra confirmed that, while mirrors were innocent, the Gin sampled from Captain Speke’s carried a taint, for those who could sense it. It reeked mightily of the Geburim.

It is at this juncture that I must acknowledge a great debt to Old blind Tom. Hearing of our difficulty, (we being somewhat at a stand) this gentleman examined the bottle and gin from Speke’s. Wise in the ways of these things, he imparted to us the name of both bottle manufactory, and of distiller. The Gin was made, it seemed, at Danvers distillery in Southwark. Naturally, we repaired to Danvers forthwith. Through the agency of Jeremiah Elmhill, we heard tell that a new process had of late been introduced, one that had allowed the manufacturer to make do with fewer workers. However that may be we soon determined that all the products of Danvers work had the taint of Geburim.

It was clearly to be seen that, once more, confidential nocturnal investigations would be needed. On this occasion, Church took ben Ezra as his guide to unravel any mysteries of antiquity. It was well that he did so. In the distillery hall, but one of the five vats was alight. This last was raised on a most unusual brickwork wall. To their eyes the resemblance of this to the brickwork of Capt Speke’s shop was unmistakeable. More than this; stamped into the bricks was some strange writing. Even our Mosaic Sage could not decipher these. Indeed, it was only after great effort that he found an answer, by consulting his coreligionst, one Mendoza the Apothecary. From this learned son of Abraham we heard that the inscription – cuneiform, a writing used perhaps before the Flood – was an incantation. The purpose of the sorcery, in design, was to make good gin. In execution, thanks to a mistake in the script, rather a different result was obtained. Few living men, of any creed, would have known how to make the writing. We hold that the brick makers may be but dupes or tools in the affair; they being the Tom Yardsman company. ’Twas in the exact placing of the bricks, said Mendoza, that the Art consisted. So it is that our efforts must now turn to how we can identify that person.

As I finish this summary, I have from my fellow members one further receipt of news, touching the investors in the Danvers company. One Downsman, whose son Cartmel so heroically and tragically met his end at the hands of a beast in the affair of the Guys, was an investor. You will, Sir, doubtless remark the coincidence that those plotters against the realm, also had at their command one of the Geburim.

Of our continued efforts to root out this, latest, mischief from the hands of Bottled Ruin, you may be assured.

I remain, with the highest deference and respect,
  Your Honour’s
   Most obedient
    And most obliged,
     Humble servant,
      Foppingham”

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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