“Disturbance of the Publick Peace”, Sunday 8th July: a free past tense radical history walk

Join past tense for

“Disturbance of the Publick Peace”


a FREE past tense radical history walk…

around Holborn & Bloomsbury

Sunday 8th July 2018

Meet 4.15pm, outside Conway Hall,
25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL

a wander through some of the riotous and radical history of Central London: Gordon Rioters, anti-fascists, suffragettes, Chartist plotters… and spycops, lots of spycops…

For more info email: pasttense@riseup.net

Part of the
50 Years of Resistance events
7th-8th July

Commemorating campaigns that continue to fight for social change, despite being targeted by undercover police units  since 1968.

 

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Today in London legal history, 1780: Charles Kent, Laetitia Holland and John Gray tried for the burning and looting of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield’s House.

In second half of the eighteenth century, nos 28-29 Bloomsbury Square was the residence of Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench: William Murray, Lord Mansfield. Mansfield was widely feared & hated at the time (the spikes on Kings Bench Prison walls were known as Lord Mansfield’s teeth); he was an innovative lawyer who helped to adapt English law to the needs of a growing commercial empire, in alliance with powerful men of business. In return he grew very rich. “He invented legal fictions that enabled English courts to have jurisdiction in places where English law had not yet been introduced…he took the usages of commerce…and …made them into law…The attack on his house was …an attack upon the leading exponent of British imperialism.” (Peter Linebaugh).

More immediately, as Linebaugh points out, Mansfield had served at the Old Bailey for 11 years, being known for his severe judgments, sending 102 people to the gallows, 448 to be transported and 29 to be branded. He was known by the poor as one of their greatest enemies.

On the night of 6 -7th June 1780 his house was attacked & burnt out by the Gordon Rioters. The riots started out on June 2nd as a protest against a proposed Parliamentary Bill to give more freedom to Catholics, but rapidly outgrew their sectarian origins to become a general insurrection of the poor against the rich and powerful.

The Judge had already been beaten up outside Parliament on June 2nd, and because of his reputation, the rioters were widely threatening to attack his house. On June 6th a magistrate and a detachment of guards came to protect him. Mansfield suggested they hid out of sight so as not to wind up the rioters. Soon after a crowd several hundred strong marched here from Holborn, carrying torches and combustible materials. They battered in his door, and he legged it out the back with his wife. The crowd tore down the railings surrounding the building, threw down all his furniture, curtains, hangings, pictures, books, papers and chucked them all on a huge bonfire. They then burned his house.

His whole library including many legal papers was destroyed. Interestingly, just as at the burning of the Duke of Lancaster’s Palace in the 1381 Peasants Revolt, the crowd declared nothing was to be stolen, they were not thieves… A survival of a strand of rebellious moral highmindedness, although unsurprisingly, while silver and gold plate was certainly burned, several of the poor folk present were later found guilty of helping themselves to some of the Judge’s possessions. And why not.

The troops arrived (a bit late!), the Riot Act was read, and as the crowd refused to disperse, they shot and killed at least seven people and wounded many more. When the soldiers had gone, some of the rioters returned, picked up the bodies, and marched off, carrying the corpses in a bizarre procession, allegedly fixing weapons in the hands of the dead, with a man at the front tolling Lord’s Mansfield’s stolen dinner bell in a death march rhythm!

Gordon Rioters also marched to Hampstead to burn Mansfield’s other house, Ken Wood House on Hampstead Heath. They were allegedly delayed by the landlord of the Spaniards Inn, (on Spaniards Road), who plied them with free beer to give the militia time to arrive and save the house.

Three rioters, Laetitia Holland, John Gray and Charles Kent, were tried on June 28th for involvement in the attack on Mansfield’s house. Gray, a 32 year old woolcomber, who walked with a crutch, was seen demolishing a wall in the house with an iron bar, and later making off with a bottle of Mansfield’s booze. One-legged Kent was also seen by a witness  “bringing out some bottles, whether empty or full I do not know.” Laetitia Holland was sentenced to death for being found in possession of two of lady Mansfield’s petticoats:

“June 28th, Old Bailey: CHARLES KENT and LETITIA HOLLAND were indicted for that they together with an hundred other persons and more, did, unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assemble, on the 6th of June , to the disturbance of the publick peace, and did begin to demolish and pull down the dwelling-house of the Right Honourable William Earl of Mansfield , against the form of the statute, &c.

– GREENLY sworn.

I am a baker, in Tottenham-court-road.

Are you a housekeeper there? – I am.

Do you remember being present on Tuesday night when Lord Mansfield’s house was destroyed? – I believe it was half after twelve on Wednesday morning before I went there. Some of the mob were then in the one-pair-of-stairs rooms, pulling down the wainscoting and throwing the goods out at the window. I observed Letitia Holland there throwing part of a desk and some small trunks and other goods out at the one-pair-of-stairs window.

Did she say any thing at the time she threw them out? – I did not hear her say any thing. I saw her remove from the one-pair-of-stairs floor to the two-pair-of-stairs floor, and throw out some more goods.

Did you hear her make use of any expressions? – I did not hear her speak at all. I saw Kent at the same time bringing out some bottles, whether empty or full I do not know.

How long was it afterwards before they went away? – In less than half an hour. Upon their going away I walked close behind them up Russel-street, through Tottenham-court-road. I heard her declare to Kent, who was with her, that she had loaded herself well. Kent has a wooden leg.

Was the man who carried out the bottles the man with the wooden leg? – Yes; he was with her.

Did you afterwards do any thing to either of them? – Yes, I watched them to the end of Bambridge-street, turning out of Russel-street. I went down the left-hand side; the prisoners were on the right-hand; they seemed rather to suspect me; they both turned round and set their backs to the house, and faced me. I went across the street and seised the woman by both her hands, and I took her to the watch-house. She asked what I wanted with her? I said, you know you have destroyed a great deal of Lord Mansfield’s property, and have some about you. She answered, She would give me the property if I would let her go. I said no, she should go to the watch-house. She said what she had got was given her in the house, and she had not taken it. Before I took her to the

watch-house she threw a small picture behind her, which I believe was the property of Lord Mansfield; this is it (producing a small oval picture). When I took her to the watch-house, the watch-house-keeper would not take charge of her. She had a great deal of bundling round her. I wanted her to be searched; the watchman said he would not run the risque of losing his life for me. She delivered this book in the watch-house (producing it). I left her there in care of the watch-house-keeper.

What became of the man? – The man went off directly as I seized her.

Are you positive that the prisoners are the persons you saw at Lord Mansfield’s house doing what you have described? – They are. I called upon Mr. Platt, Lord Mansfield’s clerk, the next day, to inform him that these things were in the watch-house. The watch-house-keeper said he knew her very well, and where she lived.

JAMES HYDE sworn.

I am house-keeper at the Rotation-office, in Litchfield-street. I was employed all night at the office. I did not go away from the office, till about three o’clock or a little before, on the Wednesday morning. I went with Mr. Parker, who is a magistrate, and a party of soldiers to Lord Mansfield’s, just before three o’clock. A little before four o’clock I was sent for an engine. When I got half way down Dyot-street I saw the prisoners, they crossed into another street; I crossed after them, and went to them; I perceived the woman had something under her arm, which caused me to follow her; it turned out to be this petticoat (producing it) it was wrapped up in a napkin. I asked her whose that was; she said she got it from Lord Mansfield’s, but it was given her by the mob. She had this apron on (producing it). I did not say any thing to her about that till I got her into the round-house, then I searched her, and took from her this petticoat (producing it) she had it under her black one.

ELISABETH KENDALL sworn.

I live at Lord Mansfield’s.

Look at these petticoats and aprons? – They came out of Lord Mansfield house; they were in the two-pair-of-stairs floor at the time the house was broke open. They are the property of Miss Mary Murray , Lord Mansfield’s niece.

HOLLAND’s DEFENCE.

I was at the fire but I was never near the house. I do not know of which side the house the door is. I picked these things up, except the green petticoat which the mob gave me. I thought I might as well take it as let the flames consume it. Coming away I met this young man; he was not near the house, nor was I; I was not near the fire myself; I was by the Duke of Bedford’s wall.

KENT’s DEFENCE.

I never was near the house; I stood at a distance off, with other people looking at the fire; there were several other people there whom I knew myself; and one or two, I knew myself in the house. I have but one leg, and so he took notice of me.

Court to Greenly. Did you see him bring the bottles out or throw them out? – I saw him do nothing else but bring out the bottles.

At that time were the mob destroying any part of the house? – Yes; they were then in the lower rooms of the house destroying every thing.

BOTH GUILTY ( Death .)

Tried by the Second Middlesex Jury before Mr. Justice ASHHURST.”

… JOHN GRAY was indicted for that he together with five hundred other persons and more, did unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assemble, on the 7th of June , to the disturbance of the publick peace, and did begin to demolish and pull down the dwelling-house of the Right Honourable William Earl of Mansfield .

2d Count. For beginning to pull down a certain out-house belonging to the dwelling-house of William Earl of Mansfield.

THOMAS LEARING sworn.

I am a constable of the parish of St. Giles’s I keep a shoe-warehouse in Holbourn.

Was you in Bloomsbury-square on Wednesday morning, the 7th of June? – Yes. The high constable and I had been all night at the Rotation-office, to defend it. We were in Bloomsbury-square about eight o’clock, I saw the prisoner at Lord Mansfield’s; I knew his person well before; he had a large bar of iron, and was sitting upon the cell of the window, and breaking down a wall of a building which was separate from Lord Mansfield’s house; there was a vast concourse of people there. I suppose near two thousand; I durst not apprehend the prisoner on account of the concourse of people. I saw him three days after at the Rotation-office, on another charge.

HENRY RICHARDS sworn.

I am under-cook to Lord Mansfield.

Do you remember, in the morning after Lord Mansfield’s house was destroyed, seeing any thing of the prisoner? – Yes, I saw him about five o’clock in the morning with an iron bar on his shoulder; I did not see him break any thing belonging to my lord. I know him particularly by his crutch. I saw him at five, and again at eight o’clock.

Is the building the last witness describes detached from the house? – Yes, it is the room where I lay, it is over the kitchen and under the laundry.

You are sure the prisoner is the person? – Yes.

Was that building, the kitchen, and the rest destroyed in the course of the morning? – They were totally down, I believe by ten o’clock.

WILLIAM POOLE sworn.

I saw the building destroyed.

WILLIAM DAWKINS sworn.

I am under-butler to Lord Mansfield. I was at my lord’s house on the 6th of June, when the mob first came. I saw the prisoner about four in the morning. I passed him several times in the house with my Lord’s liquor in his hand coming out of the house; I saw him in the street afterwards near the place that was pulled down; but I did not observe him doing any thing. He had nothing in his hand but his crutch then. I saw him carrying out the bottles before.

PRISONER’s DEFENCE.

I got up about a quarter before four o’clock, I was dry; the people said there was a shocking murder done in Bloomsbury-square. I went there and saw a soldier wallowing in his blood. On the 11th of June I was taken up by a constable on suspicion of picking a gentleman’s pocket. After I was fully committed, the constable came and said as I was committed he would charge me with pulling down my Lord Mansfield’s house.

GUILTY ( Death .)

Tried by the Second Middlesex Jury before Mr. RECORDER.” (Old Bailey Records)

Others charged after the attack included Sarah Collogan, who got a year after being found wearing a gown previously owned by the judge’s neice; Elizabeth Timmings, tried for possessing five china dishes from his lordship’s tableware, and Elizabeth Grant, found in possession of a copper pot and plate-warmer (these two were acquitted).

Kent, and Gray were hanged in Bloomsbury Square, on July 22nd in sight of the ruins of the house. Holland was ‘respited’ on 21st July, and her sentience was reduced to two years imprisonment in 1781.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London rebellious history, 1855: Rioting in Hyde Park, against the ‘Sunday Trading Bill’,

Hyde Park became royal property when king Henry VIII confiscated it from the Church in the 1530s. It has remained royal property ever since (bar a short period in the English Revolution when it was sold off). The park was opened to the public in the 17th century, and became a favourite playground of the rich, who liked to parade there in their coaches.

But although the park was a place of leisure for the powerful, the poor were largely excluded (except when people snuck in to rob the rich on occasions)… As central London was built up, open space gradually vanished.

By the 1850s, Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square were the only two major open spaces in central London, and both were the scenes of conflict as the state tried to stop people meeting in them. A serious of confrontations in the Square culminated in Bloody Sunday 1887, when several people were killed by police during a mass illegal demonstration. In Hyde Park, the key battles took place in the 1850s and 1860s.

1855, round one: 
In June 1855, Hyde Park was the scene of mass defiance of the authorities. The spark was Lord Grosvenor’s Sunday Trading Bill, which sought to stop shopping and other activities on the Sabbath, and would have mainly affected the poor. There was also resentment at the Crimean war and at the hypocrisy of the aristocracy who wanted to parade up and down Hyde Park on Sundays while stopping others from enjoying themselves. It was not surprising therefore that the Park became the centre of opposition to the Bill. The first protest took place on Sunday June 25th, and among those present was Karl Marx, then in London, who wrote a report of the events for the German newspaper Neue Oder Zeitung:

“There has been a rapid succession of measures of religious coercion. The first measure was the Beer Bill, which shut down all places of public entertainment on Sundays, except between 6 and 10 pm. Then came the Sunday Trading Bill. In both cases there is a conspiracy of the Church with monopoly capital, but in both cases these are religious penal laws against the lower classes to set the consciences of the privileged classes at rest. The Beer Bill was as far from hitting the aristocratic clubs as the Sunday Trading Bill is from hitting the Sunday occupations of genteel society. The workers get their wages late on Saturday; they are the only ones for whom shops open on Sundays. They are the only ones compelled to make their purchases, small as they are, on Sundays. The new bill is therefore directed against them alone.

This was the occasion yesterday of a mass demonstration in Hyde Park. We were spectators from beginning to end and do not think we are exaggerating in saying that the English Revolution began Yesterday in Hyde Park (sorry Karl, we’re still trying!).

Lord Robert Grosvenor, who fathered the Sunday Trading Bill, when reproached on the score of this measure being directed solely against the poor and not against the rich classes, retorted that “the aristocracy was largely refraining from employing its servants and horses on Sundays.” The last few days of past week the following poster, put out by the Chartists and affixed to all the walls of London, announced in huge letters:

“New Sunday Bill prohibiting newspapers, shaving, smoking, eating and drinking and all kinds of recreation and nourishment, both corporal and spiritual, which the poor people still enjoy at the present time. An open-air meeting of artisans, workers and `the lower orders’ generally of the capital will take place in Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon to see how religiously the aristocracy is observing the Sabbath and how anxious it is not to employ its servants and horses on that day, as Lord Robert Grosvenor said in his speech. The meeting is called for three o’clock on the right bank of the Serpentine, on the side towards Kensington Gardens.”

It should be borne in mind, of course that what Longchamps means to the Parisians, the road along the Serpentine in Hyde Park means to English high society – the place where of an afternoon, particularly on Sunday, they parade their magnificent horses and carriages with all their trappings, followed by swarms of lackeys. It will be realised from the above placard that the struggle against clericalism assumes the same character in England as every other serious struggle there- the character of a class struggle waged by the poor against the rich, the people against the aristocracy, the “lower orders” against their “betters”.

“we are treated like slaves”

At 3 o’clock approximately 50,000 people had gathered at the spot announced on the right bank of the Serpentine in Hyde Park’s immense meadows. Gradually the assembled multitude swelled to a total of at least 200,000 due to additions from the other bank. Milling groups of people could be seen shoved about from place to place. The police, who were present in force, were obviously endeavouring to deprive the organisers of the meeting a place to stand upon. Finally a rather large crowd made a firm stand and Bligh the Chartist constituted himself chairman on a small eminence in the midst of the throng. No sooner had he begun his harangue than Police inspector Banks at the head of forty truncheon swinging constables explained to him that the Park was the private property of the Crown and that no meeting might be held in it… meanwhile Finlen, a member of the Chartist executive, rushed to a tree some distance away followed by a crowd who in a twinkle formed so close and compact a circle around him that the police abandoned their attempt to get at him. “Six days a week,” he said, “we are treated like slaves and now Parliament wants to rob us of the bit of freedom we still have on the seventh”.

Suddenly shouts could be heard on all sides: “Let’s go to the road, to the carriages!” The heaping of insults upon horse riders and occupants of carriages had meanwhile already begun. The constables, who constantly received reinforcements from the city, drove the promenading pedestrians off the carriage road. They thus helped to bring it about that either side of it was lined deep with people.

“A music that could drive one mad”

The spectators consisted of about two-thirds workers and one-third members of the middle class, all with women and children. The procession of elegant ladies and gentlemen in their high coaches-and-four with liveried lackeys in front and behind, did not this time pass by in review- but played the role of involuntary actors who were made to run the gauntlet. A Babel of jeering, taunting, discordant ejaculations, in which no language is as rich as English, soon bore down upon them from both sides. As it was an improvised concert, instruments were lacking. The chorus therefore had only its own organs at its disposal and was compelled to confine itself to vocal music. And what a devils’ concert it was: a cacophony of grunting, hissing, whistling, squeaking, snarling, growling, croaking, shrieking, groaning, rattling, howling, gnashing sounds! A music that could drive one mad and move a stone.

Meanwhile the metropolitan electric telegraph had informed all police stations that a riot was about to break out in Hyde Park and the police were ordered to the theatre of military operations. Soon one detachment of them after another marched at short intervals through the double file of people, each received with the popular ditty: “Where are the geese? Ask the police!”. This was a hint at a notorious theft of geese recently committed by a constable in Clerkenwell.

The spectacle lasted three hours. Only English lungs could perform such a feat. During the performance opinions such as “this is only the beginning!” “That is the first step!” “We hate them!” and the like were voiced by the various groups. Shortly before the end the demonstration increased in violence. Canes were raised in menace at the carriages and through the welter of discordant noises could be heard the cry of “you rascals!”.

Most of the London papers carry today only a brief account of the events in Hyde Park. No leading articles as yet, except in Lord Palmerston’s Morning Post- it claims that “a spectacle, both disgraceful and dangerous in the extreme has taken place in Hyde Park, an open violation of law and decency- an illegal interference by physical force in the free action of the legislature.” It urges that “this scene must not be allowed to-be repeated the following Sunday, as was threatened.””

1855: round two
: A week later another protest took place in the Park, in defiance of a ban on meetings there. Faced with such protests, Lord Grosvenor eventually withdrew his proposals. Marx describes what happened on July 1st:

“Even according to the account given in the police bulletin at half past two already 150,000 people of every age and social estate surged up and down the park and gradually the throng swelled to such dimensions as were gigantic and enormous even for London… once again the crowd lined both sides of the drive along the Serpentine, only this time the lines were denser and deeper than the previous Sunday. However, high society did not put in an appearance. High society had given wide berth to the place of combat and by its absence had acknowledged vox populi to be sovereign.

It got to be four o’clock and it looked as if the demonstration for lack of nutrition was going to simmer down to harmless Sunday amusements, but the police reckoned differently. Were they going to withdraw amidst general laughter, casting melancholy farewell glances at their own big-lettered placards – posted up on the portals of the park? Eight-hundred constables had been strategically distributed. Big squads were stationed in neighbouring localities to serve as reinforcements. In brief, the police had drawn up a plan of campaign which was “of a far more vigorous description,” according to the Times “than any of which we have yet had notice in the Crimea.” The police were in need of bloody heads and arrests in order not to fall from the sublime to the ridiculous without some intermediate link.

[Orders were issued] allegedly for the protection of passing carriages and riders. But as both carriages and riders stayed away and there was therefore nothing to protect, they began to single some individuals out of the crowd and have them arrested on false pretences, on the pretext that they were pickpockets. When this experiment was repeated more and more often and the pretext no longer sounded plausible, the crowd raised one big cry. At once the constabulary rushed from ambush, whipped their truncheons out of their pockets, began to beat up people’s heads until the blood ran profusely, yanked individuals here and there out of the vast multitude (a total of 104 were thus arrested) and dragged them to the improvised blockhouses.

Only a small strip of land separates the left side of the drive from the Serpentine. Here an officer of the police and his detail manoeuvred the spectators to the very brink of the lake, threatening to give them a cold water bath. To escape the clubbing one of the crowd swam across the Serpentine to the opposite shore, but a policeman followed him in a boat, caught him in a boat and brought him back triumphantly.

During the demonstration several attempts were made again to hold separate meetings in various places. At one of them an anonymous speaker harangued his audience about as follows: “Men of Old England! Awake! Rise from your slumbers, or be forever fallen! Oppose it every succeeding Sunday, as you have done today… Don’t fear to demand your rights and privileges, but throw off the shackles of oligarchical oppression and misrule. His lordship wants to drive us to church and make us religious by act of Parliament; but it won’t do. Who are we and who are they? Look at the present war; is it not carried on at the expense and the sacrifice of blood of the producing classes? And what do the non-producing classes do? they bungle it”. The speaker as well as the meeting were stopped, of course by the police.”

The following extracts are from the report of the parliamentary enquiry “into the alleged disturbance of the public peace in Hyde Park on Sunday, July 1st, 1855; and the conduct of the Metropolitan Police in connexion with the same”:

“It was observed that many of the most disorderly characters were collected in front of the rails on the south side of the Drive near the Receiving House… to clear the crowd back to some distance from the railings [orders were given] to the police to clear the road and the rails, and to use their staves… the police advanced with their truncheons drawn along the carriage road of the Drive, clearing it of people. Some of whom, not readily yielding or quitting the road, were pushed, struck, and roughly handled. The policemen also passed along the Drive, striking on the rails, and brandishing their staves over the heads of the crowd there, and in some instances striking at them, in order to compel them to . These proceedings produced or increased irritation and ill feeling on the part of the people assembled; offensive expressions were used to annoy the police, some stones were thrown at them, and frequent collisions took place.

About six o’clock in the evening a large mass of people set out from Hyde Park towards Grosvenor Gate and Pink Street, with cries of “Now to Lord Robert Grosvenor’s.” Soon afterwards a crowd was collected before Lord Robert Grosvenor’s house in Park Street. No actual violence, beyond throwing a stone at Lord Robert Grosvenor’s messenger, was committed by them; but their number and clamour were alarming. The crowd yelled and groaned, calling “Chuck him out,” and using other expressions of hostility to Lord Robert Grosvenor, and their aspect and proceedings were sufficiently menacing to excite the fears of the inmates of the house, though some of the cries were of a jocular character.

The police rushed forward with their staves drawn. Though there was no serious resistance, some of them, whilst dispersing and pursuing the crowd, used their staves, and otherwise acted with violence, inflicting severe injuries on several persons who were not shown to have been guilty of any violence, but who refused to move off when requested so to do, or who, being inoffensively there, ran or stood still when the police came up the street.”

Hyde Park remained an arena of (often violent) mass demonstrations and struggle. In 1862, there was fighting between radical sympathisers of Italian nationalist Garibaldi and  mostly Irish catholics who saw Garibaldi as having attacked the Pope… 1866/7 saw riots there during the Reform agitation… There were mass suffragette demos before World War 1, unemployed riots (1932), anti-fascist rallies in the 1930s, hippie gatherings for the legalisation of cannabis (1967), and the 1994 anti-Criminal Justice Bill demo and rave which became a massive riot…

Much more on Hyde Park can be read in The Battle for Hyde Park: Ruffians Radicals and Ravers, 1855-1994 (from which this is an excerpt). Available to buy from here

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London squatting history, 2006: ‘The Square’ Social Centre resists eviction.

‘The Square’ Social Centre, in the old University College London School of Slavonic Studies in the North West corner of Russell Square, Bloomsbury, flourished for several months from the winter of 2005 through to the following Summer. “When the Square was first occupied… everyone was overcome with excitement. The building was a dream – from its central position to its glorious fascia; from its large ground floor rooms to the labyrinthine former bar of a student’s union in the basement.” The Square was constantly teeming for the next few months, with packed out benefit gigs, parties, meetings, an info shop, offices and organising space for radical anti-authoritarian groups, as well as a friendly drop-in and coffee shop.

“The first months were immensely exciting. Every day, while the café was open, people would wander in, stunned and enquiring as to the present status of the building. As the situation was explained their eyes widened as they considered new horizons. In fact, all of our eyes were wide, then. Even the 40-person meetings, where people talked and talked in circles about politics, action, organisation and so on were just about bearable – and the discussions in little groups in the evenings were something else, magical conspiracies mapping our future.”

There were many and varied events, including meetings/reports back on the student riots in France, the London Zine Symposium, with stalls, talks, walks and bands; a Mayday Weekend, with talks and discussions on ‘The Future of Anarchism’, an excellent meeting with films and speakers from campaigners against deaths in custody and mobilisations for anti-war and anti-deportation demos and a remarkably successful meeting on ‘Radical Academics in the Neoliberal University’ which packed 100 people into the 80-capacity meeting room.

“What really occurred at the Square, though, was a community – a virtual community ordinarily spread all over London, all over the South East, but finding at the Square a physical space to come together. The building became a focal point for all sorts of groups, organised or otherwise, who – holding their meetings in the same building, rather than the pub – had a rare contact with each other, creating many friendships and challenging many assumptions. This hive of activity was also a space which proved extremely stimulating for those few kids who came in search of politics rather than a cheap party. It was frequented by members of anti-fascist group Antifa, Aufheben, the Anarchist Federation, the WOMBLES, the Industrial Workers of the World, a whole mess of punks and even the occasional insurrectionist. One could always find an interesting conversation.”

The Square faced an attempt to evict it, on Friday, June 23rd 2006. A call out was made to resist the eviction and to hold a Festival of Resistance, involving autonomous groups, social centres activists, live bands, DJs and participants from The Square.

On Friday, 23rd June, around 60-70 people followed the call for solidarity and to resist the eviction from the early morning. The building was festooned with an array of flags and banners, and the mood was light but determined. Apart from a couple of officers from Camden Council that eventually turned up, made some telephone calls and then left, no other form of ‘authority’ showed up or attempted eviction.

On Saturday 24th, around 400 people attended the concert in support of The Square, which featured live music in two stages and a couple of sound systems in the basement. A talk and film screening about repression in Mexico also took place in the evening, organised by Z.A.P.

Despite the June 23rd resistance initially forcing the bailiffs to back off, “on Sunday [25th], around 30 people including most of those who had had a sustained relationship with the space, came together to decide the term of the resistance that had begun on Friday. This gathering eventually came up with a dissolution communique of The Square Occupied Social Centre, which informs that “the space has now been passed on to a handful of residents who wished to remain and a few people who wanted to continue to run the place as a political and cultural venue”.

Many of the core group that had run the space were suffering slightly from “exhaustion – physical, emotional and political. People were just tired, and wanted a summer in the sun, not barricaded into a building. Others felt the social centre had drawn to its natural conclusion given the limits that had been placed upon it, and wanted summer for reflection and reformulation of the project. Still others were concerned that the symbolic weekend of resistance, which burnt so brightly, would be diluted by days and weeks of events for events’ sake.”

There had also been many of the usual tensions and difficulties familiar to any group running a squatted centre in these (possibly any?) times: the never-ending meetings attempting to hammer out a consensus, and the old chestnut of many users not clearing up after themselves (leaving it to the core collective), among them. Some among the main organisers felt, at the end, that a clearer initial definition of the space’s ideas aims and politics (rather than the open invitation to anyone to get involved) might have helped to both reduce some tedious debates about what the place was for, and keep out some of the assorted nutters and wishywashy ditherers who often consume much time and energy in such centres… Eternal questions, for those of us who’ve also been involved in keeping similar spaces going. Sometimes the high energy adrenaline-fuelled temporary spaces like the Square are more inspiring BECAUSE they don’t last very long. Squatted, or rented, or even bought, social or political centres, that survive for years can be dogged by a loss of inspiration, by boredom, when the business of keeping a physical space together can take the focus away from the reasons the place was founded. Long-term spaces do have their uses though…

All in all though the legacy of the Square was generally very positive, inspiring squatted spaces in London and elsewhere since. As the organisers said in their dissolution communique:

“This building has been sustenance for us, a place to socialise with like-minded people, a place in which to play, to party and conspire. That it was ending – for all of its flaws and tensions – made a lot of us take stock of what was being lost: and it was more than we had thought.

Something has passed from central London into our hearts. The red and black will not fly over Russell Square much longer but we carry them in exile…”

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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This month in London riotous history: weeks of unrest over food prices, 1595

In June 1595, 1,000s of apprentices took part in a series of riots on Tower Hill in London, culminating in an abortive plan for insurrection. The rioters were mostly very poor, protesting about the appalling social conditions of 1590s London. Their grievances included the scarcity and rising cost of food, the greed of the mayor and of other wealthy citizens. But as the month went on, the repression of the protests and mistreatment of participants became a grievance that escalated the movement…

The 1590s were a decade of social and political crisis. Food prices rocketed, partly due to scarcity; four successive harvests failed between 1594 and 1597. Inflation led to high prices; wages fell up to 22 percent from the previous decade, and real wages are thought to have been at their lowest for centuries before or after.

Taxes were heavy, and many of the poor struggled to pay them (in 1593, people were said be ‘selling their pots and pans to pay tax’) there was constant threat of invasion from Spain and war in Ireland… Acute hunger in the countryside led large numbers of rural dwellers to flock into London in the hope of finding work or at least relief; but employment in the capital plummeted. The economy was stagnating.

In London, the pressure of food shortages and high prices for staple foodstuffs led to discontent, and to protests. Flour prices in the capital increased by 190 percent between 1593 and 1597, other food underwent similar increases.

In June 1595, the crisis provoked food riots in the City of London, the first since the 1520s. There were 12 riots or large scale crowd protests between 6th and 29th June, in London and Southwark. Seditious libels were circulate attacking the authority of the Lord mayor, Sir John Spencer, know as ‘Rich’ Spencer, for his great wealth.

In the first riot of June 6, apprentices numbering two to three hundred rescued a silkweaver who had been committed to Bedlam after protesting outside the Lord Mayor’s house.

On 12th June, there was a riot over the price of fish: This appears to have been sparked when apprentices sent to buy fish at Billingsgate market found all the fish had been bought up already by ‘fishwives’ (market stall holders in effect). The apprentices seized the fish and sold it at the rate already agreed by the mayor. (The implication being the fishwives were preparing to sell the fish at a dearer price).

On 13 June, a riot over price of butter took place in Southwark, the part of the City south of the river Thames, and known for lawlessness and rebellion. 300 apprentices assembled in Southwark, took over the market and enforced the sale of butter at 3d. per und where the sellers had been charging 5d. They also issued a proclamation that butter be bought and sold openly in the markets not old to private houses or inns.

In both these cases it is stressed in contemporary accounts the discipline of the crowds concerned, and that their actions were agreed to or at least accepted by magistrates. The riots have been suggested as examples of the ‘moral economy’ described by some historians, identifying a common vision of accepted prices, practices and relationships, which to some extent united some people from all classes in the pre-capitalist era. Inflating prices was viewed as immoral, breaking agreed levels of subsistence, especially on food staples, and collective action, even if it broke the law, was widely condoned, even among some in authority. A part of this was the aim of maintaining social peace, but there was also an element of upper class paternalism, an ideal of vertical social relations, but characterised by the responsibility of those in power to treat the lower orders benevolently to some extent. This was increasingly being threatened by evolving interests out to increase profits.

On 15th June, crowds attempted to rescue jailed comrades: “At this day certain prentices being committed to the Counter [the city Prison] by the constable for some misdemeanours, divers other prentices congregated themselves and came to the Counter and said they would have them forth again, using very hard speeches against the Lord Mayor; but the gates being shut against them and they not prevailing, they tarried not long but departed away.

The same day, not long after the said assembly of prentices at the Counter, a serving man that had a prentice to his brother dwelling in Cheapside, which prentice had complained of his master’s hard usage towards him to his said brother, the serving man hereupon coming to the master and quarrelling with him about the misuse of his brother, in multiplying of words the serving man brake the master’s head; and by this brawl the people gathering together and much hurley burley following, Sir Richard Martin hearing thereof came forth into the street, apprehended the serving man, and by the constable sent him to the Counter. As he was in carrying thither the prentices that formerly had resorted to the Counter and would have taken thence the prentices as aforesaid, did meet with this serving man, rescued him from the constable, and brought him back to Cheapside. Whereupon Sir Richard Martin, hearing of this disorder, came forth suddenly with such company as he had of his own servants and presently apprehended the serving man again, reprehended the prentices for their so great disorder, took six of the principal offenders, and so by the constable sent the serving man and the six prentices to the Counter, and caused irons to be laid upon them all. About an hour after when all things were quiet, saving only some dregs of people remaining in the streets gazing and expecting for novelties, as in such matters always it happeneth, the Lord Mayor, hearing of the broil and business which Sir Richard Martin had appeased and not knowing thereof, comes into Cheapside, accompanied with Sir John Hart, where finding all things in quiet, Sir John Hart, accompanied with Sir Richard Martin, went again to the Counter, charging the keeper thereof to look well to his prisoners and to see irons laid upon them all and to be safely kept, and so they returned to their houses.

The Lord Mayor likewise, after he had sent Sir Richard Martin and Sir John Hart to take order for the safe keeping of the prentices in the Counter, also presently returned towards his house, and about London Wall a prentice meeting him would not put off his cap unto him, whereupon the Lord Mayor sent him also by his officers to the Counter, which was done quietly and without opposition of any.”

Clearly, the troubles were beginning to move beyond moral economy and into dangerous subversion. And the spirit of unrest was being spread to the army – always a dodgy moment for the powers that be:

About the 16 or 17 of June, “certain prentices and certain soldiers or masterless men met together in “Powles”, [St Pauls] and there had conference, wherein the soldiers said to the prentices, “You know not your own strength”; and then the prentices asked the soldiers if they would assist them, and the soldiers answered that they would within an hour after be ready to aid them and be their leaders, and that they would play an Irish trick with the Lord Mayor, who should not have his head upon his shoulders within one hour after. At which time they spake of farther meeting together.”

The tensions did not die down yet.

On the 27 of June, “certaine young men apprentices and other, were punished by whipping, setting on the Pillory, &c. for taking 500 pounds of butter from the market women in Southwarke after the rate of 3 pence the pound, whereas the sellers price was 5. pence the pound. [the shepherds] caught the bakers up and took from them about four or five dozen cakes, for which they paid them the usual price, however, giving them a hundred walnuts and three baskets of grapes.”

The public whipping and pillorying of some of these rioters instigated a further riot that day – the pillories were torn down, and a gallows was erected in front of the house of the Lord mayor.

On the evening of 29 June, a crowd of at least 1000 apprentices marched on Tower Hill. According to reports they planned to ransack gunmakers shops and then rob the rich and take over the City: ‘to robbe, steale, pill and spoil the welthy and well disposed inhabitaunts of the saide cytye, and to take the sworde of aucthorytye from the magistrats and governours lawfully authorised’.

The crowd was said to have included shoemakers, girdlers, silk-weavers, husbandmen, apprentices, discharged soldiers and vagrants; they carried “halberds, bills, goones, daggs, manie pikes, pollaxes, swords, daggers, staves and such lyke.”

When City officers, the Watch from Tower Street ward, arrived to try to pacify or disperse them, the crowd stoned them, displaying a banner, “hartened unto by the sounding of a Trumpet… the Trumpeter having been a souldier.” Others tore down the pillories in Cheapside, the City’s main drag,

Even more seriously for the City authorities, it seems that the rioters won some support from the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir Michael Blount and his garrison. When the Mayor arrived with sheriffs to make arrests and read a proclamation ordering the rioters to disperse, Blount objected to the carrying of the Mayor’s sword of justice before him, and about 10 of his garrison not only refused to help repress the crowd, but weighed in against the sheriffs, and “assaulted an beat the sword-bearer and the mayor’s servants.”

The riot on Tower Hill was the largest uprising in the City of London in nearly 80 years, and was unusual in its direct criticism of the elite.

The Lord mayor of London was so worried about the protests and especially the plot of 29th June, that he appealed to queen Elizabeth. In response she issued a royal proclamation “for apprehending such vagrants and rioters. In which her majesty signified her will to have a provost-marshal with sufficient authority to apprehend all such as should not be readily reformed and corrected by the ordinary officers of justice, and them without delay to execute them upon the gallows by order of martial law. And accordingly Sir Thomas Wilford was appointed provost-marshal, who patrolled the city with a numerous attendance on horseback, armed with pistols, apprehended many of the rioters, carried them before the justices appointed for their examination, and after condemnation, executed five of them on Tower-hill.”

Five apprentices appear to have been hanged on Tower Hill on July 24th.

In his order of execution, the Mayor directed each inhabitant of the ward “that they keepe within their houses all their men servants and apprentices to morrow from three of the clock in the morning untill eight at night, and the same householders be . . . all that time ready at their door . . . with a weapon in their hande.”

The mayor also requested that the Privy Council suppress stage plays, which they claimed had incited “the late stirr & mutinous attempt of the fiew apprentices and other servants… the casue of the increase of crime within the City.”

Some of the price-enforcing apprentices, though initially punished for the misdemeanors of riot and sedition, were retroactively charged in 1597 with treason, following the reasoning that the popular attempt to regulate prices constituted an attempt to alter the laws of the realm by force.

The hunger thousands were experiencing didn’t end in 1595, and nor did attempts to remedy the situation by force. In 1596, there was an abortive attempt to launch an uprising in Oxfordshire at Enslow Hill, which seems to have arisen from anger at enclosures locally, but inspired by the food riots in London and elsewhere. He plotters had aimed to link up with the London apprentices, who were clearly seen as up for continuing the fight. However, the plotters, who had allegedly intended to murder local enclosing landowners, attracted too little support, dispersed when it was obvious there were not enough of them, and were easily rounded up when one of them stupidly confessed to his employer.

The council from its treatment of the rebels considered the Enslow rebellion threatening although in reality it never got started. Five ringleaders were taken to London, interrogated, imprisoned for six months, tortured and then sentenced to death for making war against the Queen. In June two were hanged, drawn and quartered the fate of the rest is unknown.

The rioting of the 1590s did die down, possibly in the face of the threat of massive repression. But although the bad harvests, the constant war and heavy taxation had produced a time of crisis, as England entered the 17th century, increasing enclosures and dislocation were to continue to pile pressure on the poor, and economic and social transformation would produce uprising and resistance on a scale that would dwarf the events of 1595…

Sources: (A New and Accurate History and Survey of London, Westminster, Southwark, and Places Adjacent… Edward and Charles Dilly 1766)

The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London, Ian W. Archer

The London Apprentice Riots of the 1590s and the Fiction of Thomas Deloney, Mihoko Suzuki

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Today in London housing history, 1986: Pullens Estate squatters resist eviction, Walworth.

The Pullens Estate, in Walworth, South London, was built over a 15-year period from 1886, by builder James Pullen. Origially 684 flats in four storey mansion blocks, with workshops attached to the rear of the residential blocks, in rear yards.

The first block of 16 flats was built on Penton Place without the required consent of the Metropolitan Board of Works but Pullen managed to schmooze local officials and continued building until 1901 – ten years more than he’d been granted permission for.

When the philanthropist Charles Booth was surveying London for his poverty map in 1899 he described meeting Mr Pullen at work: ‘Old Mr Pullen in a top hat and fustian suit was on a scaffolding superintending’. Booth stated that demand for the ‘well built’ flats was high and they were ‘Occupied before the paper is dry on the walls’ often by police officers from Whitehall and Lambeth districts. The rent was ‘eight shillings for three rooms, kitchen and scullery, plus 6 pence a week charged for cleaning the stairs and gas’. Each had to make a deposit of 24 shillings which was an effectual bar to any poor tenants.

The full estate, which originally extended southwards as far as Manor Place, comprised 684 dwellings in 12 blocks. Attached to the rear of the dwellings, arranged round four yards, were 106 workshops. The estate’s shops were located at the entrances to the workshop yards.

By 1973, the estate was still owned by the family company that had originally built it. But many of the flats were in a poor state, having built for largely single people and with few amenities. Southwark Council proposed to compulsorily purchase the estate with the aim of demolishing it, in order to build a vast new council estate, but this went against the wishes of most of the tenants, who had built a community and didn’t want to see it broken up. In 1977, the council bought the Pullens and by 1983 had demolished blocks on Crampton Street, Amelia Street and Thrush Street (accidentally creating open space at Pullens Green in the process).

Continued plans in the 1980s to knock down the rest of the estate, were met by a tenants campaign to save and renovate the blocks, including putting in hot water and bathrooms, which many flats still lacked. Tenants who wanted hot water and a bathroom had to pay themselves or apply for a statutory improvement grant. The whole future of the estate lay on doubt for many years.

As a number of flats lay empty, partly due to disrepair, they began to be squatted; this was generally encouraged by the remaining tenants, to prevent the estate falling into complete decay. By 1983 squatters were established in many of the “voids” on the Pullens. Many of the ground floor flats on the estate in particular had lain empty, and a number had been fire by dossers; tenants preferred squatters who generally committed to doing the places up, renewing plumbing wiring etc. An alliance of tenants and squatters evolved.

The workshops in the adjacent yards had also become to host radical projects, a process that both stimulated and was boosted by the squatting on the estate. Women In Print, a women’s print collective ran from a space in Iliffe Yard, (as did as Seeing Red women’s poster making collective in the 1970s-early 80s). In 1982, like nearby print shop Union Place in Camberwell and the Advisory Service for Squatters in Islington, Women In Print were firebombed by fascists.

The squatted Pullens Centre in Crampton Street then hosted Cafe Bouche, and had become a community centre for both squatters and tenants.

The annual Pullens free festival was held on the vacant land at Pullens Green. This rocking alternative gathering, self-organised by residents, was often hassled by cops, ending in arrests more than once… the festival came to an end in the 1990s, and most of the Green, born from demolition, has since been built on, (adding insult to injury, part of it is now lying under the Walworth copshop!)

The large-scale squatting of the estate and the alliance of tenants and squatters frustrated the council’s long-term plans to demolish the whole of the Pullens. Southwark had become the most heavily squatted borough in London, largely due to the poor quality of the housing stock and the incompetence of the council. More than 60 per cent of empty council property in Walworth was squatted by the mid-1980s. A local squatters network, SNOW (Squatters Network of Walworth), highly organised, not only publicised empties and supported squatters against eviction, but built solidarity across the area. However, a massive crackdown/eviction campaign was underway across the borough.

An attempt at a mass eviction in November 1985 was seen off as squatters barricaded the stairwells.

But by June 1986 a plan to clear 800 squats from Southwark estates was underway. The council claimed they were intending to house people from the housing waiting list in the flats after they were evicted, and had pressured the squatters to move, and put their names on the list, with promises of rehousing. Since many squatters were already on the list, but as single homeless had small chance of actually getting allocated anywhere, this tactic didn’t wash.

On June 10th 1986, the Council tried to hold a mass eviction of 30 squats on the Pullens, with bailiffs backed up by squads of riot police, who arrived at 6am, breaking down doors with sledgehammers.

According to one supportive tenant, “The first family they threw out was a Vietnamese family who had no idea what was going on…”

But the council’s forces were outnumbered by resistance from 300 squatters, tenants and supporters – including from other areas of London. Cops and bailiffs were splattered with flour, paint and water bombs; “about 100 of us were blocking doors, jeering, stabbing tyres. It was SLOW, heavy barricades! Rain stopped & band struck up merrily again. More paint splatters the pigs… Van Burgh removal lorries, council, TV, thugs, scabs and wall to wall FILTH.”

The struggle in the streets and stairwells went on all day. The residents were aided by the architecture of the mansion blocks, with narrow doors to each stairwell, easily barricaded; the layout of each flat was an aid to barricading. “It took too long. Each door had to be smashed to bits, by 12 noon, they still had five flats to evict…

The flat roofs of the blocks were also easily accessible from the stairs, which helped with bombarding the forces of eviction from above (materials for the purpose had been stored on the roofs for a number of weeks in advance).

The tactic of painting out the numbers of the flats at the bottom of the stairwells also confused the bailiffs no end!)

It took an hour for the first flat to be evicted… Other flats were heavily barricaded with barbed wire, boards, steel and a concrete block. In the meantime, the convoy of council vans parked in Amelia St were forced to move onto Crampton Street after several of their tyres were let down by unscrupulous persons…

“WE WANT PETROL” we shouted as the sound system blared out ‘Anarchy in the UK’ from the barricaded flat. (They got in nevertheless, by sheer brute force, though at the next flat they had to give up… There were solid concrete blocks preventing the scum from entering!)

Bailiffs, council thugs and piggies all lined up and then pissed off as we jeered and cheered from the sidestreet. We all went back to the Pullens Centre for coffee and a meeting. Many squatters had crashed out after being up all night, but the place was packed and downstairs was full to the ceiling with evicted possessions and furniture. Outside the streets were littered with people’s furniture…”

In the end 16 flats were actually evicted on the 10th, but 19 were re-squatted the same day:

“A few squatters got up and talked at the meeting, explaining that no-one would be affected by PIO orders [allowing instant eviction without a court order if the flat had been allocated to a tenant before it was squatted] if the flats were re-taken by 2.30 pm, and proposing that people who wanted to re-squat with them put down their names and numbers… and volunteers and tools would be gathered…. We got down to business with a list and a crowbar and set out to re-squat.

It was all too easy, with few cops about, and in ten minutes we’d ripped the boardup crews best efforts off half –a-dozen squats. One was immediately re-squatted, but there was no sign of the other evictees. Then we started carrying furniture back in to squats. Phew what a job! [The steep and narrow stairwells made access with anything bulky a nightmare at Pullens at the best of times.- ed] Then we found a woman ready to move back in and set out to put a new door on her flat – No easy proposition as the old one was in little bits, the door frame badly damaged and the promised tools hadn’t arrived. But the magic of the Pullens worked again… that is to say a couple of years back the Pullens tenants had invited squatters to move into empty flats and half the squatters had become legal tenants in this way. We only had to knock on a few doors and we had all the tools we needed. In fact we spent the whole afternoon working on that one door… What with finding a door, cutting it to size, repairing the frame, fitting a lock, etc, etc… But all the flats were re-squatted by the deadline, at least symbolically, by sticking something in the doorway with a legal notice on it…”

The eviction cost £10,000 plus a claimed £8000 in damage and, er, alleged, theft of tools from contractors vans. And given the mass re-squat, was pretty futile.

The same day as this battle took place, around 22 flats were also evicted on the nearby Rockingham estate off New Kent Road, with no resistance and in under an hour. An attempt was made to re-squat these flats too that night, but 5 were immediately repossessed next morning “with bailiffs and council spouting PIOs…” In the end just 8 of the re-squats on Rockingham were held on to.

8 people were arrested during the Pullens resistance, on charges of obstructing bailiffs, assaulting police, damaging vehicles and police uniforms, and nicking council documents…

In the aftermath of the battle of Pullens, Southwark Council was forced to admit that clearing the estate of squatters was a waste of time. Many Pullens squatters eventually were granted tenancies [this also happened elsewhere on other nearby run-down estates, like the Kinglake), and a rolling program of improvement to the flats was begun (ironically several Pullens squatters were employed to carry out some of the work installing hot water and bathrooms).

Pullens squatters had managed to defend themselves because of a fairly unique situation, including widespread support from tenants, partly due to massive discontent with council disrepair, and general counter-cultural ethos to the estate. This ethos continued for many years, and an element of it remains today. A couple of years after the 1986 evictions, Fareshares Food Co-operative moved to the squatted empty shop at no 56, with volunteer workers providing cheap wholefoods an vegetables at cost price. In 1991, the disused rear of the shop was opened up as 56a Infoshop, social centre, archive, meeting and organising space. Both projects continue to this day (with the addition of a free self-help bike workshop), though many of the flats on the Pullens have since been sold off and now go for wodgy prices, as the once slummy Walworth/Elephant area is gradually repackaged as trendy and fit for the middle class… No doubt many of the newer Pullens residents would be horrified by the estate’s past – or even worse, thrilled but in a disgusting de-politicised hipster way. Urgh.

Fareshares and 56a continue the counter culture tradition on this unique council estate, despite the pressures of these times – privatisation of council housing, gentrification and speculation, community atomisation… The community created in the Pullens that turned out in its own defence in June 1986 and refused to be moved on, is less and less evident in London these days, though many such semi-autonomous zones evolved during the 1970s and 80s and gave birth to some inspiring and interesting ways of life. Squatting of course, in 1986 a huge part of urban London life, has now been largely outlawed and survives as a marginal relic, where 30 years ago it was a normal way to house yourself. This has taken place for a number of reasons, including a cultural change in the way people work/don’t work, a turn to property values as a driver of economics in the capital, the destruction of economies elsewhere in the UK and wider… a change in the way people grow up and what they want out of life. And much more. To those of us who lived through some of those earlier times, the dismantling of the lovely self-made cultures like the Pullens feels like a serious loss; an opportunity to alter the way we all live that got reversed. It’s worth noting that many London estates are now under attack from gentrification, demolition, re-shaping for a wealthier class of people and in private hands… Many of them have also evolved over many decades; a diverse and cosmopolitan culture also now threatened with being usurped by a bourgeois inanity. Resistance is building however…

Some things survive…

Thanks to the lovely 56a archive for information gleaned – there is loads more material there on London’s experience of squatting, housing, gentrification, development, etc, as well as numerous zines, mags, books and so much more.
Fareshares is great still too (not paying £16 for fancy-schmancy olive oil though, that seems a bit against the spirit of the place!). And the bike workshop is brill…

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Today in London transport history, 1891: The first London bus strike starts.

A history of the first strike by London transport workers in 1891, which was over pay and conditions and largely successful. The article also contains some information about developments in bus workers’ unions around the same period.

The first person to try and organise the London tram and bus workers into a union, was a young barrister called Thomas Sutherst.

He managed, with considerable help from the London Trades Council to organise between two and three thousand tram workers, into The London County Tramway & Omnibus Employees union founded in 1889.

London had some 8-9,000 bus and tram workers in 1891, the three main London Tram and Bus companies running services in the Capital were the London Road Car Company, Tillings and the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), the later the LGOC was by far the largest .

However, the LGOC was a notoriously bad employer, with employees sacked for “The slightest cause of complaint” crews were even expected to contribute to a fund to cover accidents, repairs and fines levied for any misdemeanours.

London bus and tram drivers wages in 1891 were 7 shillings a day and conductor 4 shillings 6 pence, this was comparatively low compared to other manual workers. They also worked long hours, between fourteen to sixteen hours a day with as little as ten minutes for lunch.

However, it was the introduction of new ticket machines that sparked the first ever London bus and tram strike in July 1891. The issue being the ability of the conductors to keep a percentage of the fares to subsidise their meagre earnings.

Two mass meetings were called by the union, both starting after midnight, to enable crews to meet their shift obligations.

Over 3,000 bus and tram workers attended the first mass meeting at Fulham Town Hall in first week of June 1891 and a second meeting the following day at the Great Assembly Hall, Mile End Road.

The Trade Unionist magazine of 6th June 1891 reported the Fulham Town Hall meeting and included the following remarks

“Great excitement prevailed during the whole meeting and speakers were frequently interrupted with snatches of song, Brakes and private buses conveyed the men to their different districts of London in broad daylight”.

The London County Tramway & Omnibus Employees, union demands included:

  • 12 hour day
  • One clear day off every fortnight
  • A weeks notice of dismissal
  • Abolition of stoppages for accidentals
  • Daily wage of 8 shillings a day for drivers, 6 shillings for conductors and 5 shillings for horse keepers & washers

When their demands were not met, the first London bus and tram strike commenced at midnight on Sunday 7th June 1891.

The strike seemed to have secure generally high level of support from the public, media and the vast majority of bus and trams crews answered the strike call. Some men remained at work, but their efforts to take the buses and trams out were frustrated by the “angry mobs” of strikers.

The strike soon spread to bus crews in other companies, the London Road Car Company, who came out on strike in sympathy and demanding the 12 hour day.

London’s other bus and tram company Tillings, was unaffected by strike and continued to run a normal service, having agreed to the unions terms earlier.

One area of surprising support for the strikers came from the “entrepreneurs” who organised “Pirate buses”, far from undermining the strike, they actually maintained the strike by paying large donations to the strikers to keep the strike going, thereby pocketing large profits, while providing only a limited service.

On the second day of the strike the bus and tram unions President, Thomas Sutherst met the LGOC and LRRC directors to discuss the strikers demands, they agreed a 12 hour day but no significant movement on pay.

The London bus and tram workers continued the strike for the rest of the week finally securing the following agreement.

  • 12 hour day
  • Drivers 6 shillings 6 pence a day (after one year)
  • Conductors 5 shillings a day (after one year)
  • Horse keepers and washers 5 shillings 6 pence

As well as Thomas Sutherst, George Shipton Secretary of the London Trades Council “worked day and night addressing meetings and organising pickets” collected nearly £1,000 for the strikers

The “Great Bus strike” was called off on Saturday 13th June 1891, after one week on strike, final agreement was reached on the 18th June 1891, however the return to work had not gone smoothly, some activists had been victimised and despite Sutherst assertion at Fulham Town hall that their would be no resumption of work until every union member reinstated, this failed to materialise and despite the efforts of even the Lord Mayor.

While the strike was not totally effective in secure all its demands, importantly the union had won the right to a 12 hour day as well as putting down a marker for future generations of bus and tram workers.

After the strike had concluded The London Trades Council agreed to pay £10 towards Fred Hammill costs while he organised the busmen’s union in the Capital.

One interesting aspect of the strike was the attempt by a group of strikers to establish a London Co-operative Omnibus company to rival the private enterprise giants.

They even purchased an omnibus to the front they attached a broom symbolising how they were determined to sweep the LGOC and LRCC away.

Thomas Sutherst the unions President called for the “municipilisation” by the Council and arguing that the council should buy the whole tram lines and rolling stock, as had happened in Huddersfield (The first municipal tram system opened in January 1883)

The demise of Sutherst, London County Tramway & Omnibus Employee union was the result of the general, onslaught by the employees after the original flame of “New Unionism” that had spilt out the London Dock Strike of 1899. But “in its short life it was a useful one and it was responsible for considerable improvement in working conditions of bus and tram crews”

Later a Bus, Tram, Motor Workers Union merged with the London Cab Drivers Union (the later established in 1894) to form the London & Provincial Union of Licenced Vehicle Workers (LPU) established in 1913 but also known as the “Red Button Union” because of the colour of their union badge. The L PU was strongly influenced by syndicalism, and distinguished itself from the start as a highly political union, supporting nationalisation of transport and opposing world war, while supporting the Russian revolution of 1917. The LPU was prominent in the August 1911 London strike wave that hit the capital as well as the 1915 Tram strike.

While the union was now dominated by tram workers it maintained a separate London cab owners section under the leadership of branch secretary Blundy .

The LPU’s Journal was entitled the “Licensed Vehicle Trades Record”, edited by George Sanders and produced fortnightly and cost 1d.

The other union to have membership amongst London Tram workers was the Manchester based Amalgamated Association of Tramway & Vehicle Workers (AAT) established in 1889.

The AAT tram union (which had members in West London at Chiswick, Hanwell and Fulwell) secured a larger base in London when it merged with the small London Tramways Employees Association in 1910. The AAT was known as the “Blue Button Union” again because of the colour of its union badge.

See the article by John Grigg on the April 1909 Fullwell Tram strike led by Jack Burns

In late 1919 early 1920 The LPU (109,425 members) and AAT (56,979 members) merged in to form the United Vehicle Workers.

The United Vehicle Workers union became part of the Transport & General Workers Union on its establishment on January 1st 1922.

This article was taken from the Hayes People’s History website and can be found here

 

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history, 1957: St Pancras councillors block government Civil Defence plans.

In 1957, leftwing Labour councillors who had taken control over St Pancras Borough council, North London (now part of the London borough of Camden) refused to co-operate with the Conservative government over measures for civil defence – routine preparations for local measures to be taken in the event of a (then presumed to be nuclear) war. Led by longtime communist John Lawrence, the council opposed civil defence on the grounds that nuclear war was not survivable and thus the preparations were a waste of time and money.

Tensions between the US and the Soviet Union had produced a hysterical arms race, with nuclear weaponry being stockpiled and deployed on a massive scale around the world. The potential of the rival camps’ destructive arsenals threatened casualties on a scale which would dwarf the death toll of World War 2. Opposition to nuclear armament was just really beginning in the mid-1950s, but was given a boost by the development of the hydrogen bomb in the late 1950s. A general sense began to develop that a nuclear war would be largely unsurvivable, especially for people living in large cities which would be heavily targeted by missiles from ‘the other side’.

St Pancras as a borough was generally run by Labour, although the Conservatives gained power between 1949-53 and again 1959-62. In the mid-1950s, the Labour council became dominated by a leftwing group, led by John Lawrence, who had previously been a member of the Communist Party and then of several small Trotskyist groups, and remained a committed leftwinger with some sympathies towards the Soviet Union. His political career was to follow many and diverse turns and oscillations, but he was to achieve national notoriety in 1956-58 as he led the council in the adoption of leftwing policies, as well as staging high profile stunts which attracted media controversy…

Lawrence had been elected a Labour councillor in 1952, and was elected leader of the majority Labour group in 1956. From the start the group took a leftwing stand that alarmed not only the conservatives and rightwing press, but also the ‘moderate’ elements of the Labour Party. Under Lawrence’s leadership the Labour controlled administration fought the Conservative government’s legislation of 1955-56 which ordered the restoration to the private sector of any remaining housing requisitioned by councils for the homeless during and after World War 2 and imposed a means test for rent subsidies. The council defied this, cut rents for all council tenants, and refused to apply the means test to subsidies. As a delegate at the 1957 Labour Party conference, Lawrence spoke passionately against the 1957 Rent Act which decontrolled the private sector. Lawrence also negotiated a hundred per cent trade union membership agreement for municipal employees, and slashed the mayor’s allowance, confiscated the mayor’s council car and told him to travel to functions by bus.

The next action by St Pancras Labour Group to hit the headlines was the decision at a council meeting on 1 May 1957 to repudiate the local authority’s statutory obligation to organise Civil Defence.

Since 1948, local councils had been under a duty to organise for the provision of civil defence in the event of an attack. With the huge destructive power of the hydrogen bomb, many in local councils had begun to wonder what the point of civil defence was, as there would be very little left to defend after a nuclear exchange. Training a Civil Defence Corps in emergency procedures and basic first aid techniques was both a waste of money and a conscious attempt to deceive the civilian population as to the horrific consequences and chances of living through a nuclear attack.

Labour-controlled Coventry City Council had refused to implement Civil Defence (CD) for these reasons in 1954, though they backed down in the face of councillors being threatened with being personally surcharged for the cost of the  government stepping in to administer CD in the borough.

That same year, growing apprehension about resolutions calling for St Pancras Borough Council to follow the example of Coventry had been passed by the general management committees of both the North and South St Pancras Labour parties. But because a majority of the then Labour Group was opposed to this, the decision had never been carried out.

In 1956, St Pancras councillors together with local trade unionists and some churchmen, organised a conference around the issue of the H-Bomb. Even under the most conservative under-estimates, all of St Pancras was likely to be completely flattened in the event of a nuclear strike on central London. The conference resolved to refuse to put on a ‘Civil Defence Week’ planned nationally by the Home Office. John Lawrence articulated the general feeling: the exercise would be ‘a complete waste of time and money’; fellow councillor Clive Jenkins: ‘in the sort of world we are going to be living in after a nuclear attack, there won’t be many people left to rescue’. The conference was rapidly followed by a decision to abandon all Civil Defence in the borough completely. While opting out of the CD Week was one thing, refusing to organise any CD at all put the councillors beyond the law. At the debate on the issue, the Town Clerk issued a formal warning that the resolution was effectively illegal.

However, the councillors quoted the government’s own White Paper, ‘Defence: Outline of Future Policy’, just recently published in Spring 1957, which openly admitted that ‘It must be frankly recognised that there is at present no means of adequate protection for the people of this country against the consequences of an attack with nuclear weapons’ (while insisting that measures should be taken ‘to minimise the effect of a nuclear attack’). The widely ridiculed contradictions in this White paper provided St Pancras councillors with ammunition for their decision, which they hoped would lead the way for other local authorities to follow suit and discredit Civil Defence, with the longer term aim of forcing a rethink on nuclear weapons…

The national press seized on the story immediately. Meanwhile a lengthy correspondence between Home Office officials and the council failed to bring the two any closer, as government insistence on the necessity of CD as the hope for holding the framework of society together in the event of a nuclear strike met with scepticism and determination from councillors. A second debate in the Council re-affirmed the resolution. The councillors moved on from non-cooperation with CD to a critique of government defence policy as a whole:

‘When you state that the only means of preventing war is by a race to create thermo-nuclear deterrents we must register a profound disagreement. The last two major wars were each preceded by a fierce competition in arms manufacture accompanied by protestations on all sides that the object was simply to deter aggression and prevent war. Thus were people deceived, and millions of dead in all countries bear witness to the futility of such a policy. As public representatives of the people we have no tight to believe, or cause others to believe, that an arms race in this nuclear age would have any other result – except that the scale of mass slaughter and suffering will be even greater.’

The letter went on to argue that British aggression in Egypt over Suez the year before had brought the world close to the brink of another war, and that the British government’s agreement to stationing Us missiles in the UK meant the whole country would be targeted by The Soviet Union in the event of conflict with the US… The council argued for a separate neutral defence stance and an abandonment of any involvement in nuclear proliferation.

There was local opposition to the Labour group’s stand, from both Conservative councillors, and from the civil defence volunteers on the ground, (who coincidentally were led to a tory councillor). Bit attempts by the tory group to overturn the decision and restore Civil Defence failed at another debate in May 1957.

At the end of May, the Home Secretary responded to the St Pancras decision, as it had in Coventry, by appointing a commissioner to take over the organisation of Civil Defence. This led to protests from the Labour Group, who had announced that they were going to convert the Civil Defence headquarters in Camden High Street into flats in order to provide housing for the homeless; they hoped to leave the commissioner with no office to move into. The government then requisitioned the building under emergency powers left over from the war.

On 4 June, when the commissioner was due to arrive, the Labour Group held a demonstration outside the building, and John Lawrence chained himself to the gates in an attempt to prevent the commissioner entering the premises. Anti-nuclear campaigner and local resident & councillor Peggy Duff, who was ill with jaundice at the time, recalls that she was dragged out of bed by a telephone call asking her to organise press coverage of the event:

‘So I arrived in the High Street to find a small group of John’s supporters, including several councillors, parading up and down outside the CD HQ with suitable banners: “Ban the Bomb”, “Destroy the Bomb or it will Destroy You”, “Stop the Tests”. It was, of course, 1957, and the British tests at Christmas Island were imminent. After some time a policeman arrived and plodded up and down the street beside the paraders. Now and again a very disapproving member of the WVS, who shared the building with Civil Defence, pushed her way through the gate. Then, when the copper was standing, half asleep, some way up the road, John produced a rather large and ostentatious padlock and chain and attached himself to the bars of the gate. For a time nothing happened. Nobody noticed. Shoppers hurried by and never turned to look. The policemen went on plodding up and down. Buses passed to and fro. No press arrived. There was the leader of the council chained to the CD gates – and nobody had turned to look. I had a horrible feeling that nobody ever would.

‘Then at last the policeman as he passed saw that something was amiss. He stopped. He stared. “Why, sir”, he said, “who did that to you?” “Nobody”, said John. “I did it myself.” “But why did you do that, sir?” the simple copper asked. “I did it as a protest against nuclear weapons”, John simply replied. The policemen hurried off to telephone a higher authority. Shoppers continued to pass by, unconcerned. Then, at last, a press photographer. Then another. Then a police car with more important, peak-capped coppers. Then gradually a crowd, at last.

‘Lawrence shouted to the crowd: “We want these premises for housing, not for useless Civil Defence purposes. There is no defence against the H-bomb. There are 6,000 people on our housing list and we want to provide homes for four families to live here.” The police, however, produced a large pair of bolt-cutters and released Lawrence from his chains. They forced the crowd to disperse and took the names of the demonstrators, though no arrests were made. Eventually the police car drove off, unwittingly bearing a “Ban the Bomb” placard which had been stuck behind its back number plate.’

On 14 June the Labour Group held a public meeting to explain its case against Civil Defence. First the audience watched a 20-minute film, Shadow of Hiroshima, which revealed what had happened to those who had survived the nuclear attack on the Japanese city in 1945. The meeting was chaired by Councillor Jack Redman who, evidently undaunted by the prospect of travelling on a 68 bus, had recently succeeded Alfred Hurst as mayor. Introducing John Lawrence, who was the main speaker, Redman stated: ‘I have never met a young councillor with so much pluck, so much guts and so much fighting spirit. It is a pleasure to serve under him’.

Lawrence spoke for an hour justifying the council’s stand. He told the meeting: ‘Normally the borough council is a very homely body of people, a very practical body of people who spend most of their time cleaning your dustbins, getting rid of your bugs and building your houses. Now we are asked to carry out the government’s essential defence policy and we say that is a complete waste of ratepayers’ money.’ He continued: ’Our Civil Defence Corps consists of wardens with whistles and one telephone box. It is clear that if an H-bomb dropped here, most of London would be destroyed. Even if you can patch up a broken leg, the amount of radioactivity floating around the area is such that people will go on dying for years and no CD Corps will be able to stop that. CD is a deception of the people and we want no part of it.’

The North London Press reported: ‘Councillor Lawrence pointed out, in answer to a question, that CD in the past had cost the council just under £2,000. The government had paid the rest of the cost – about £5,000. “The bill will be at least £7,000”, he said. “It might be very much more.” He paused, chuckled, and said: “But we haven’t paid it yet.” A voice at the front of the hall: “What happens if you don’t pay?” Councillor Lawrence: “If we don’t pay it, the government comes and takes it out of us somehow. But as we haven’t got much which can be taken from us, presumably we will go to the Scrubs or Pentonville. What I want to know is – if we don’t pay, will you back us up?” There were cries of “Yes” and for more than two minutes the audience cheered their approval of this suggestion. Said Councillor Lawrence: “That’s all I wanted to know”.’

However, the hope of the group around Lawrence that the protest would arouse widespread support in the Labour party and trade union movement was soon dashed. Labour was widely divided on the issue of defence, as it has remained, and even leftwing leaders in the end preferred to not rock the boat on defence in the interests of party unity.

Lawrence’s colourful career in pursuit of socialism in one borough climaxed in the spring of 1958. Lawrence declared 1 May a holiday in St Pancras, and gave council workers the day off. Early that May day morning, he ran down the Union Jack and raised the Red Flag over the Town Hall. At lunchtime he was arrested by the police when he refused to close a trades council public meeting at which he was speaking which was under attack by local fascists who were enraged at the new emblem of socialist St Pancras.

The Red Flag incident sparked a small social panic. It became a cause célèbre, broadcast across the media, and Lawrence became briefly a national figure of renown or notoriety, according to your political persuasion. But it represented a turning point. The Labour Party apparatus which had been monitoring Lawrence now moved decisively against him. The right wing finally organised, and some on the left backed away from supporting him. In late May, after he had survived an attempt to expel him by the St Pancras South constituency, Lawrence was suspended from membership by Labour’s national executive, and was subsequently removed as leader of the council. Despite a vigorous campaign and production of a pamphlet, The St Pancras Story, his expulsion was upheld at the Labour Party conference that autumn.

The Red Flag incident finally resulted in Lawrence being expelled from the Labour Party and, on 17th October 1958, applied to join the Communist Party with around ten of his supporters, stating that he had been seriously considering joining the CP for three or four years.

In 1959, together with 22 other councillors who had supported the decision not to pass on to tenants the increases required under the 1957 Rent Act, he was surcharged £200 by the District Auditor.

However, this issue was to erupt again locally very shortly. In January 1960, the tenants of St Pancras implemented a mass withholding of rent increases imposed by St Pancras Council, now controlled by the Conservatives. This was met by firm action from the Council, who immediately issued notices to quit. On 28 June, eviction notices were granted in the Bloomsbury County Court against three tenants.

On 21 September 1960, the day before the evictions were scheduled, 500 tenants demonstrated outside the Town Hall where the Housing Committee was meeting. They were told to move along and then charged by mounted police and protesters forcibly dispersed. John Lawrence, who had been heavily involved in the Rent Strike, was jailed for three months arising from charges coming out of the melee.

Lawrence’s mercurial political wanderings were to take him back out of the Communist party in 1964, and eventually to become a syndicalist. He died in 2002. A good short account of his life is here

And here’s a longer account

And here’s a more detailed account of Lawrence’s expulsion from Labour over the red flag incident.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter