Today in London industrial history, 1769: The Bold Defiance attack looms of silkweavers working below the agreed rate, Spitalfields.

Pretty much everyone has heard of the Luddites, although many people still have a misconception about the reasons why they destroyed machinery. The weavers of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Leicestershire smashed machine looms not because they were blindly opposed to progress, or afraid of new technology, but because the introduction of machinery was undermining the livelihoods of themselves and their communities. They viewed new technology through the eyes of artisans accustomed to a certain amount of autonomy: from being well-paid workers working mainly under their own terms, often in their own homes, they were being reduced to poverty, and clearly saw that mechanisation was transforming them into wage slaves, increasingly forced into factories. Their challenge to new technology was based on both desperation and self-interest: machine-weaving was benefitting the masters and increasing their profits, at the workers’ expense, but machines could be used to improve the lives of those who created the wealth, if their use was controlled by the workers themselves.

It’s all about who’s making the decisions, and in whose interests… A question of control, how new technological developments change our work, strengthening us or those who live off our labour; a question that remains alive and crucial today.

Less well known than the Luddites, though, another group of workers also fought the imposing of machinery and the factory system against their interests – the silk weavers of Spitalfields, in London’s East End. Four decades before the Luddite uprisings, the silkweavers’ long battle against mechanisation came to a head in violent struggles. Like the Luddites, their campaign was volatile and violent, and  was viciously repressed by the authorities. But their struggles were more complex and contradictory, in that sometimes they were battling their employers and sometimes co-operating with them; to some extent they won more concessions than their northern counterparts, holding off mechanisation for a century, and maintaining some control over their wages and conditions, at least for a while.

Spitalfields is one of the oldest inhabited parts of London’s East End, and one of the earliest to be built up as the fringes of the City of London spread outward. Described as City’s “first industrial suburb”, from the Middle Ages, Spitalfields, (together with neighbouring areas Bishopsgate and Shoreditch), was well known for industry, which was able to establish here outside the overcrowded City; but also for poverty, disorder and crime. Outside the City walls, outside the jurisdiction of City authorities, the poor, criminals, and outcast and rebellious clustered here.

From medieval times the area’s major employer has been the clothing trade; but breweries have also been major employers since 17th century, and later residents formed a pool of cheap labour for the industries of the City and East End: especially in the docks, clothing, building, and furniture trades. Small workshops came to dominate employment here.

The relationship between the affluent City of London and the often poverty and misery-stricken residents over its eastern border in Spitalfields has dominated the area’s history. More than half the poor in Spitalfields worked for masters who resided in the City in 1816; today the local clothing trade depends on orders from West End fashion shops… The same old social and economic relations continue…

For similar reasons as those that led to the growth of industry and slums here, the area has always been home to large communities of migrants. Many foreigners in the middle ages could not legally live or work inside City walls (due to restrictions enforced by the authorities or the guilds), leading many to settle outside the City’s jurisdiction. Successive waves of migrants have made their homes here, and dominated the life of the area: usually, though not always, the poorest incomers, sometimes competing for the jobs of the native population, at other times deliberately hired to control wages in existing trades… Huguenot silkweavers, the Irish who were set to work undercutting them, Jewish refugees from late nineteenth-century pogroms in east Europe, and the Bengalis who have settled in the area since the 1950s…

For centuries Silk Weaving was the dominant industry in Spitalfields and neighbouring areas like Bishopsgate, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, spreading as far as Mile End to the east, and around parts of Clerkenwell further west.

Silkweavers were incorporated as a London City Company in 1629. But many foreigners or weavers from northern England or other areas were not allowed to join the Company, and had problems working or selling their work as they weren’t members…

Silk production demanded much preparation before actual weaving began: throwing, where silk that has been reeled into skeins, is cleaned, twisted and wound onto bobbins, employed thousands in London already by the 1660s, though later throwing was dispersed to other towns.

In the early years weaving in Spitalfields was a cottage industry, with many independent workers labouring at home. This quickly developed into a situation with a smaller number of masters, who employed journeymen and a legally recognised number of apprentices to do the work. Numbers of workers, and training, in the Weavers Company were regulated by law and in the Company courts; later wages came to be a matter of dispute and the courts had to deal with this too.

Masters often sub-contracted out work to homeworkers, so that by the end of the 18th Century, many silkweavers were employed in their own homes, using patterns and silk provided by masters, and paid weekly. Later still there developed middlemen or factors, who bought woven silks at lowest prices and sold them to wholesale dealers. This led to lower wages for the weavers themselves.

A twentieth century account described the organisation of weaving in the area, based on reports from the previous century:

“The manufacturer procures his thrown ‘organzine’ and ‘tram’ either from the throwster or from the silk importers, and selects the silk necessary to execute any particular order. The weaver goes to the house or shop of his employer and receives a sufficient quantity of the material, which he takes home to his own dwelling and weaves at his own looms or sometimes at looms supplied by the manufacturer, being paid at a certain rate per ell. In a report to the Poor Law Commissioners in 1837 Dr. Kay thus describes the methods of work of a weaver and his family:-

A weaver has generally two looms, one for his wife and another for himself, and as his family increases the children are set to work at six or seven years of age to quill silk; at nine or ten years to pick silk; and at the age of twelve or thirteen (according to the size of the child) he is put to the loom to weave. A child very soon learns to weave a plain silk fabric, so as to become a proficient in that branch; a weaver has thus not unfrequently four looms on which members of his own family are employed…”

“The houses occupied by the weavers are constructed for the special convenience of their trade, having in the upper stories wide, lattice-like windows which run across almost the whole frontage of the house. These ‘lights’ are absolutely necessary in order to throw a strong light on every part of the looms, which are usually placed directly under them. Many of the roofs present a strange appearance, having ingenious bird-traps of various kinds and large birdcages, the weavers having long been famed for their skill in snaring song-birds. They used largely to supply the home market with linnets, goldfinches, chaffinches, greenfinches, and other song birds which they caught by trained ‘call-birds’ and other devices in the fields of north and east London.”

The wide high windows that shed enough light for their work can still be seen everywhere on older buildings around Spitalfields.

Although skilled, and often reasonably well-paid, the weavers could be periodically reduced to poverty; partly this was caused by depressions in cloth trade (one of the earliest recorded being that of 1620-40). “On the occurrence of a commercial crisis the loss of work occurs first among the least skilful operatives, who are discharged from work.” This, and other issues, could lead to outbreaks of rebelliousness: sometimes aimed at their bosses and betters, and sometimes at migrant workers seen as lowering wages or taking work away from ‘natives’.

For two hundred years, through the 17th and 18th centuries, the Silk Weavers of the East End conducted a long-running battle with their employers over wage levels, working conditions and increasing mechanisation in the industry. One early method of struggle was the ‘right of search’: a power won over centuries by journeymen weavers, and eventually backed by law, to search out and in some cases destroy weaving work done by ‘outsiders’, usually those working below the agreed wage rates, or by weavers who hadn’t gone through proper apprenticeships, by foreigners etc. Silkweavers used it, however, at several points from 1616 to 1675, to block the introduction of the engine loom with its multiple shuttles.

The journeymen weavers also had a history of support for radical groups, from the Leveller democrats of the English Civil War. through the 1760s populist demagogue John Wilkes, to the ‘physical force’ wing of the Chartist movement of the 1830s. This support arose partly from obvious causes – the weavers’ precarious position and sometimes uneven employment were always likely to draw a sizable number towards radical politics. But radical activists, like leveller leader John Lilburne, also camapaigned and agitated on behelf of the silkweavers, and populists like Wilkes easily tapped into their grievances… Their fierce collectivity in their own interests extended, for some, to a wider class consciousness; but also made them vulnerable to exploitation by manipulation by bosses and demagogues.

Through the later 17th to the late 18th century, the silkweavers regularly combined to fight for better conditions, often attacking masters employing machine looms, which they saw as leading to reduction of wages and dilution of their skills. At other times, the journeymen and masters united tactically to press for parliament to pass protectionist laws that kept prices for their finished goods high…

But by the 1760s tensions between masters and workers had grown to eruption point. Dissatisfaction over pay among journeymen silkweavers was increasing; and 7,072 looms were out of employment, with a slump in the trade partly caused by smuggling (carried on to a greater extent than ever). In 1762, the journeymen wrote a Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases). They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. Increasingly masters were turning to machine looms, and hiring the untrained, sometimes women and children, to operate them, in order to bypass the journeyman and traditional apprentices and their complex structure of pay and conditions.

As a result of the rejection of the Book, two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials,  and went on strike. There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides.

Tactics included threatening letters to employers, stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, involving the army, secret subversive groups of weavers, (known as ‘cutters’ for their tactic of slashing silk on offending masters’ looms), and ended in murder and execution. Some of these tactics had long roots in local history and tradition – others could have been imported with irish migrants from the Whiteboy movement in Ireland.

In 1763 thousands of weavers took part in wage riots & machine smashings, armed with cutlasses and disguised, destroying looms: “in riotous manner [they] broke open the house of one of their masters, destroyed his looms, and cut a great quantity of silk to pieces, after which they placed his effigy in a cart, with a halter about his neck, an executioner on one side, and a coffin on the other; and after drawing it through the streets they hanged it on a gibbet, then burnt it to ashes and afterwards dispersed.” [From the “Gentleman’s Magazine”, November 1763]

The military occupied parts of Spitalfields in response.

Riots and demonstrations continued in 1764-5… As a result of these riots, an Act was passed in 1765 declaring it to be felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture: this was to be used with devastating effect four years later.

In 1767 wage disputes broke out again: masters who had reduced piece rates had silk cut from their looms. At a hearing in the Weavers Court, in November that year, a case was heard, in which a number of journeymen demanded the 1762 prices from their Book be agreed. The Court agreed that some masters had caused trouble by reducing wages and ruled that they should abide by the Book. However this had little effect, and trouble carried on sporadically.

Trouble was also breaking out between groups of workers: single loom weavers and engine looms weavers were now at loggerheads. On 30 November 1767, “a body of weavers, armed with rusty swords, pistols and other offensive weapons, assembled at a house on Saffron-hill, with an intent to destroy the work of an eminent weaver without much mischief. Some of them were apprehended,  and being examined before the justices at Hicks-hall, it appeared that two classes of weavers were mutually combined to distress each other, namely the engine weavers and the narrow weavers. The men who were taken up were engine weavers, and they urged… that they only assembled in order to protect themselves from a party of the others who were expected to rise. As they had done no mischief, they were dismissed with a severe reprimand…”

The events of 1762-7 were, however, merely a curtain raiser, for the cataclysmic struggles of 1768-69. The ‘Cutters’ Riots’ saw a prolonged struggle, with bitter violence, rioting, intimidation of workers and threatening letters to employers, and hundreds of raids on factories and small workshops. Strikers in other trades joined in the mayhem: 1768. Crowds of weavers also forcibly set their own prices in the food markets, in defiance of high prices. It would end in shootouts in a pub, and executions.

In the Summer of 1769, some of the masters attempted to force a cut in rates of pay. In response, some journeymen banded together to organise resistance, forming secret clubs, including one allegedly called the Bold Defiance, (or Conquering and Bold Defiance, or the Defiance Sloop). This group met at the Dolphin Tavern in Cock Lane, (modern Boundary Street, in Bethnal Green).  The Bold Defiance started raising a fighting fund, as part of which they attempted to levy a tax on anyone who owned or worked a loom. Their methods of fund-raising bordered, shall we say, on extortion, expressed in the delivery to silk weaving masters of Captain Swing-style notes: “Mr Hill, you are desired to send the full donation of all your looms to the Dolphin in Cock Lane. This from the conquering and bold Defiance to be levied four shillings per loom.”

One major silk boss threatened by the cutters was Lewis Chauvet, whose factory stood in Crispin Street, Spitalfields. A leading manufacturer of silk handkerchiefs, who had already been involved in bitter battles against striking weavers in Dublin, Chauvet banned his workers from joining the weavers’ clubs or paying any levies, and organised a private guard on his looms. As a result, the cutters gathered in large numbers and tried to force Chauvet’s workers to pay up. Fights broke out and many people on both sides were badly hurt. Then, on the night of Thursday 17th August, the cutters assembled in gangs and went to the homes of Chauvet’s workers, cutting the silk out of more than fifty looms. Four nights later, on Monday 21st, they gathered in even greater numbers and cut the silk out of more than a hundred looms. Throughout the night the streets of Spitalfields resounded to the noise of pistols being fired in the air.

Chauvet’s response to this episode was to advertise a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. But for several weeks the people of Spitalfields remained silent, either for fear of the cutters, or because they did not wish to give evidence that might send a man to the gallows.

But on the 26th September, a minor master weaver, Thomas Poor, and his wife Mary, swore in front of a magistrate that their seven looms had been slashed by a group of cutters led by John Doyle and John Valline. However, before giving evidence they had inquire with Chauvet about receiving the reward – and Doyle had already been arrested, so they may have been prompted to name them… Certainly Doyle and Valline later protested their innocence.

On 30 September 1769, after a tip off from a master weaver who had had the squeeze put on him, magistrates, Bow St Runners and troops raided the Bold Defiance’ HQ at the Dolphin Tavern, finding the cutters assembled in an upstairs room, armed, and “receiving the contributions of terrified manufacturers.” A firefight started between the weavers and the soldiers and runners, which left two weavers (including a bystander) and a soldier dead; but the cutters escaped through the windows and over rooves. Four weavers who were drinking in the pub downstairs, and one found in bed upstairs were arrested, and held for a few weeks; though no-one was brought to court over the deaths.

But Valline and Doyle were convicted of the attack on the Poor’s looms and sentenced to death under the 1765 Act, despite very dubious identification evidence. They were hanged on the 6th December 1769, at corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road opposite the Salmon and Ball pub. Though Tyburn was the usual place of execution, the major silk manufacturers pressured the authorities to have them ‘scragged’ locally, to put the fear of god on the rebellious weavers. An organised attempt to free them was planned, and the men building the gallows were attacked with stones:

“There was an inconceivable number of people assembled, and many bricks, tiles, stones &c thrown while the gallows was fixing, and a great apprehension of a general tumult, notwithstanding the persuasion and endeavours of several gentlemen to appease the same. The unhappy sufferers were therefore obliged to be turned off before the usual time allowed on such occasions, which was about 11 o’clock; when, after hanging about fifty minutes they were cut down and delivered to their friends.”

Doyle and Valline were offed, proclaiming themselves not guilty of the silk cutting. After their execution the crowd tore down the gallows, rebuilt them in front of Chauvet’s factory/house here in Crispin Street, and 5,000 people gathered to smash the windows and burn his furniture.

Two weeks later on December 20th, more cutters were executed: William Eastman, William Horsford (or Horsfield) and John Carmichael. Horsfield had also been implicated by the Poors; Daniel Clarke, another silk pattern drawer and small employer, was paid by Chauvet to give evidence against Eastman, who he claimed had cut silk on Clarke’s looms. Clarke had previously tried to undercut agreed wage rates, and had it seems testified before against insurgent weavers, in his native Dublin. Clarke had originally told friends that he couldn’t identify the men who’d cut his silk, but after contact with Chauvet miraculously his memory changed. It’s possible Eastman was a cutters’ leader Chauvet wanted out of the way; Clarke also named one Philip Gosset, locally suggested to be the chairman of one of the cutters’ committees (Gosset, however, was never caught). Contradictory evidence, protests, a weavers’ march on Parliament to ask for pardon, all fell on deaf ears: the authorities were determined to make examples of the accused. This time, though, afraid of the local reaction after the riots that followed the deaths of Doyle and Valline, they were executed at Tyburn.

Although the repression quietened things down for a year or so, these hangings still had a twist to come. On 16th April 1771, the informer, Daniel Clarke was spotted walking through Spitalfields streets, and chased by a crowd of mainly women and boys, including the widow of William Horsford. He was finally caught, and dunked in the Hare Street Pond, a flooded gravel pit in Bethnal Green; the crowd stoned and abused him, and after they let him out of the pond he collapsed and died.

In Spitalfields this was widely seen as community justice – but the official ‘justices’ had to squash another open challenge to law and order. Two more weavers, Henry Stroud – William Eastman’s brother in law –  and Robert Campbell were hanged on July 8th for Clarke’s ‘murder’; once again, local punishment was deemed necessary to overawe the uppity weavers, and they were stretched in Hare Street. Horsford’s widow, Anstis, was also charged with murder, but wasn’t executed (possibly she was acquitted, I’ve had trouble following the case reports!). Witnesses had to be bribed to testify, and were attacked; Justice Wilmot, who arrested the two men, only just escaped the justice of an angry crowd, and a hundred soldiers had to be posted to ensure the hanging took place.

Although prices were fixed between masters and workers, nothing obliged the masters to keep to them. In 1773, further discontent broke out. Handbills circulated, addressed to weavers, coalheavers, porters and carmen (cartdrivers), to ‘Rise’ and petition the king. Silkweavers met at Moorfields on April 26th, incited by another handbill that read “Suffer yourselves no longer to be persecuted by a set of miscreants, whose way to Riches and power lays through your Families and by every attempt to starve and Enslave you…” Magistrates however met with them, and persuaded them to disperse, promising them a lasting deal.

This materialised in the form of the Spitalfields Acts. The first Act, in 1773, laid down that wages for journeymen weavers were to be set, and maintained, at a reasonable level by the local Magistrates, (in Middlesex) or the Lord Mayor or Aldermen (in the City). Employers who broke the agreed rate would be fined £50; journeymen who demanded more would also be punished, and silk weavers were prohibited from having more than two apprentices at one time. The Acts were renewed for 50 years, and ensured that some weavers, at least, had some security if income and protection for unscrupulous employers… The Acts’ abolition in the 1820s was a cause celebre for the laissez-faire capitalists of the days – and helped to drive silkweavers into catastrophic poverty and decimate the trade locally.

This post is a shortened version of ‘Bold  Defiance’, published as a pamphlet by past tense in 2012 and available from our website

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Today in London squatting history, 1978: mass eviction in Huntley Street, Bloomsbury.

In February 1977 5 blocks of 54 empty police flats, in Huntley Street, behind University College Hospital, which had lain empty for 4 years, were squatted; as an initiative of the Squatters Action Council. Getting in to the blocks (all amusingly named after the first five commissioners of the Metropolitan Police!), wasn’t hard, the front doors were unlocked… Soon 160 people were living here, including recent evictees from squats at Cleveland Street, Trentishoe Mansions & Cornwall Terrace. One block was allocated to women and children from a hostel for battered women; a ground floor flat became the office of the Squatters Action Council and later the London Squatters Union. 3 days after the flats were squatted, the Health Authority, who owned them, announced that they were to be used to house nurses and doctors from neighbouring University College Hospital.

In 1977 the many activists living in the flats were regularly woken early in the morning by motivated people going round knocking on doors to gather people to head up to the mass pickets at the Grunwicks strike in West London…

After the Health Authority obtained a Possession Order in July 1978, the flats were barricaded, a watch was set up around the clock on the roof. But the squats were infiltrated by two undercover cops, “Nigel and Mary”, posing as homeless… Now many of the squatters sussed to these two early on, but others went all liberal, saying there was no proof, they could be ok etc… “Nigel and Mary” managed to get themselves on the roof rota one morning, up turn the cops… well you can guess the rest.

On 16th August 1978, in London’s biggest mass eviction, the houses were evicted by the Special Patrol Group; in all 650 coppers led by ex-bomb squad supremo, & nemesis of the Angry Brigade, Roy Habershon. They sealed off the street & send in bulldozers. All 5 houses were cleared despite some resistance from the barricaded buildings. It turned out they had been tapping the phones, taking aerial surveillance pictures, and so on… 14 people were nicked, charged with ‘resisting the sheriff’ contrary to Section 10 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. 12 later got off, but Piers Corbyn and Jim Paton were found guilty… (Although Jim wasn’t even present at the eviction!) In solidarity with the evictions 150 Dutch squatters besieged the British Embassy in the Hague, & the British embassy in Stockholm was also picketed.

In fact the eviction was totally unnecessary – an agreement had been won the day before that all the squatters would be rehoused. Many were given flats on the nearby Hillview Estate, in Kings Cross, which was handed over to Shortlife Community Housing to manage…|

There’s a short video of the eviction here:


NB: Nothing can’t be sold… The poster reproduced at the top of this post, printed in support of the Untley Street squatters, is being sold on the internet  by a ‘rare books’ dealer in the US for $750… Betting the money will go to housing campaigns today…?

Today in London penal history, 1800: protest in Coldbath Fields prison.

“As he went through Coldbath Fields he saw
A solitary cell.
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
For improving his prisons in Hell.

He saw a turnkey tie a thief’s hand
With a cordial try and jerk.
Nimbly, quoth he, a man’s fingers move

When his heart is in his work.
He saw the same turnkey unfettering a man
With little expedition.
And he chuckled to think of his dear slave trade

And the long debates and delays that were made.
Concerning its abolition.”
(From The Devils Walk, Coleridge and Southey.)

Coldbath Fields Prison, also known as Clerkenwell Gaol, was built in 1794 and closed in 1877, and stood at the junction of Farringdon Road and Rosebery Avenue, in Clerkenwell, on the site of what is now Mount Pleasant Post office.

Originally intended to be a new Bridewell, to hold vagrants and put them to work, this was a Middlesex House of Correction, (though the City of London did put up some cash so that it could also make use of the prison); run by local magistrates and where mostly petty offenders served short sentences. Until 1850, the prison housed men, women and children; thereafter it was restricted to adult male offenders over the age of 17. By the 1850s it held 1450 inmates; Mayhew, visiting around that time, noted that half the inmates were there for non-payment of petty fines. Despite being designed by prison reformer John Howard, and intended to be more humanitarian prison than its predecessors it became notorious for its ‘Silent System’ regime, which banned all communication by word, gesture or sign. Any resistance to these rules was punished with the wearing of leg-irons, bread and water diets, solitary confinement and floggings. But the inmates resisted nonetheless; “A prison semaphore of winks, hand signs and tapping through the pipes emerged, its secret alphabet becoming one of the cultural inheritances of the London underworld.” The prison administration “resigned themselves to policing a silence that actually hummed with a secret language.”

Work was considered entirely as punishment, with no educational or useful effects, and for this purpose the treadmill was provided; prisoners marched aimlessly round the six huge treadmills in silence, 15 minutes on and 15 minutes off. “The treadmill was a huge revolving cylinder with steps on it like the slats of a paddle wheel. Prisoners mounted the steps of the wheel, making it turn with their feet while gripping a bar to keep themselves upright. While some wheels were geared to grind corn or raise water, most, including the one at Coldbath Fields did nothing more than ‘grind the air’.

Initially, there were severe miscalculations as to how far a con could trudge in a day; only after mass ill health was the distance reduced to a tenth of the original 12000 feet a day. Prisoners in Coldbath were prone to disease – it is thought the proximity to the foul Fleet sewer may have helped the Prison to have an abnormally high death rate… The gaol became known as the ‘English Bastille’, later the ‘Steel’.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century prison reformers combined genuine ‘reform’ with new forms of social control, including the rule of silence, separation of inmates, ‘improving’ work, increased religious observance and a growing professionalism for the prison workforce. The old prisons like the Fleet and Newgate had been too uncontrollable, and were clearly shown to be mere holding cells, with no attempt at moral improvement or rehabilitation… new prisons like Coldbath had a moral mission, to turn the dissolute and rebellious poor into individuals conditioned to capital’s aims… And to prevent bribery, fraternisation and corruption that had led to escapes, and an easy life for some…

Bentham’s panopticon may never have been built, but the penitentiaries of the 19th century aimed at total control total surveillance and moral bludgeoning.

Inevitably, though, resistance bloomed even in the new bastilles… Partly this was due to an influx of politicsed and rebellious inmates.

In August 1798, eleven mutineers from the great 1797 naval mutinies that had paralysed the Royal navy (and terrified the government for a while), including the rebel captain of the Sandwich, escaped from Coldbath Fields.

In 1798 16 men from the London Corresponding Society (LCS), including former military officer Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, were imprisoned in Coldbath Fields on charges of treason. They had been arrested for plotting to incite popular uprisings in Ireland and England in preparation for a French invasion. The harsh treatment meted out to the prisoners while awaiting trial attracted radical MP Francis Burdett’s support, and he demanded a House of Commons inquiry into their case. Burdett’s exposure of conditions there, became a cause celebre.

Many radicals were detained under repressive laws designed to keep down rising radical ideas at home, and sympathy to the French Revolution during the War… LCS leader Thomas Evans was held for nearly 3 years; another detainee was Colonel Despard, later hanged in 1803 for plotting a nationwide radical uprising. The LCS prisoners mounted a steady attack on the regime of solitary. An article in the society’s magazine described the regime as ‘an ingenious mode of intellectual torture.’ It asserted that ‘remorse is to the intellect what the rack is to the body.

“Burdett’s visits to the prison became highly publicized… He uncovered a litany of abuses and brought them to public notice through a speech in the House of Commons, subsequently printed as a pamphlet titled An Impartial Statement of the Inhuman Cruelties Discovered! in the Coldbath Fields Prison.12 Although the motivation for the pamphlet was the alleged ill treatment of the state prisoners, none of the cases it exposed appeared more shocking than the plight of Mary Rich, a fourteen-year-old girl held in the prison for a month after accusing a lawyer of attempted rape. A grim feature of the late eighteenth-century legal system made provision for witnesses in trials to be held in custody, while those actually being prosecuted could remain free until trial if they had sufficient wealth to provide for it. Mary’s appearance in court a month after being committed to the prison caused a sensation: deathly pale and drawn, her emaciated frame appeared crippled from starvation. Despite being seated in a chair, she was ‘scarcely able to hold herself upright’.13 When questioned on her condition, she feebly advised the jury that she had been fed only bread and water for the month and had been left with only scanty bed coverings. Her sickly frame was exposed to a frigid cell without glazed windows or a fireplace. Further, the pamphlet relayed her claim in court that, despite being exceedingly ill for more than four days, she had been denied access to a doctor.

The Impartial Statement catalogued further abuses: prisoners being beaten by turnkeys; some prisoners being chained in irons for several months at a time without provocation; others confined to shattering spells of solitary confinement for only minor infractions; prisoners being fleeced of money for the most basic of necessities; and still others, along with Mary, starved ‘to the point of death’. With Burdett’s intervention, the plight of Colonel Despard also gained significant public attention. Along with Burdett, Despard’s West Indian-born wife, Catherine, commenced a campaign to elicit public sympathy, complaining to the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland, that Despard had been treated ‘more like a common vagabond than a gentleman or State Prisoner’. One letter, read in the House of Commons and reported in the daily press, complained that he had been imprisoned ‘without either fire or candle, chair, table, knife, fork, a glazed window or even a book to read’. Despard was eventually moved to a room with a fire, though not before, Catherine claimed, ‘his feet were ulcerated by frost’. Burdett’s report on the prison conditions was presented to the House of Commons for recommendation, but failed by an overwhelming majority.

Nevertheless, Burdett’s and Catherine’s crusades against the prison quickly found a receptive public audience. Although the British populace had long been accustomed to allegations of abuse in old prisons such as Newgate, Coldbath Fields was one of the first prisons to arise in the outer London landscape as a testament to the aspirations of John Howard and other late eighteenth-century prison reformers. Here was a prison intended to embody Howard’s humanitarian convictions of protecting prisoners, not only from the squalor, disease and misery of old prisons such as Newgate, but also from the whims of governors and turnkeys and the ruthless prison economy. Instead, Burdett had exposed a site of neglect, barbarity and corruption.” (Christina Parolin)

In 1799, a Board of Visitors reported, having visited the prison, “the prisoners without fire, without candles, denied every kind of society, exposed to the cold and the rain, allowed to breathe the air out of their cells only for an hour, denied every comfort, every innocent amusement, excluded from all intercourse each other…”

In the following year, 1800, there were two rebellions inside the prison, in June and August, which were quelled by the Clerkenwell Volunteers (like most of the Volunteer Companies set up to defeat revolution in France and potential revolution at home). In the August mutiny, on the 14th, prisoners shouted “Murder” and that they were being starved. A crowd were said to have gathered outside in support of the rebels inside the prison (though we’re still looking for confirmation of this) – suggesting a planned revolt by radicals with outside connections…

The revolt, and the agitational effort of both Burdett and Catherine Despard in particular, did have an effect on the prison regime vis a vis political inmates.

“When Burdett took up the case of Despard—one of the first political prisoners to be housed in Coldbath Fields—he found that the former military officer was confined in one of the prison’s smallest cells, measuring a mere 7 ft (2 m) square, which, being set below ground level, flooded during rain. The window of the cell was unglazed so that he was obliged, during the rigours of a hard winter, to jump from his table to his bed, and from his bed to the ground, in order to produce such an increased circulation of his blood as should diffuse warmth through his half-frozen veins.

Despard’s wife, Catherine, reported that despite the desperate physical drill, his legs bore ulcers from the extreme cold of his cell. Combined with his ‘felon’s diet’ of bread and water, Coldbath Fields prison, she feared, had almost achieved prematurely what the hangman would later accomplish on the gallows.

Catherine’s unyielding pursuit of the government to intervene in Despard’s plight saw some eventual improvements in the conditions in which he was incarcerated. Despard’s allies were to be found across the political spectrum. Though Horatio Nelson attended his trial as a character witness, it did little to change the outcome of the final verdict. The intervention of John Reeves, former leader of a loyalist network centred on the Crown and Anchor tavern, and now a conservative magistrate, saw Despard’s prison conditions somewhat alleviated. Following Reeves’ intervention, Despard was moved to an upstairs room in the prison with a fire, was allowed books and papers, and Catherine was permitted to visit him in his cell. When Burdett presented Despard’s case to the House of Commons, the Attorney-General, John Scott, admitted that Despard had been moved to a better room because of his rank, along with other state prisoners from the LCS. Scott regretted the indulgence after it was reported that the men had made the room into a ‘Debating Society of the worst possible species’.68 He also maintained that Catherine was allowed to visit her husband and, with a thinly veiled threat, remarked that in ‘speaking of wives’, it was ‘no small degree of indulgence that the Government had not imprisoned some of them also’.

The relocation of Despard and the other LCS men to another area of the prison takes on greater significance when considering the spatial context of Coldbath Fields. Where Newgate’s architectural plans clearly allowed accommodation for state prisoners as a distinct category of prisoner, no such provision was made in the architectural design of Coldbath Fields. The absence of such specific accommodation could have prompted the Middlesex magistrates’ desperate defence in 1798 that the ‘prison was not fitly calculated to receive’ state prisoners. It is possible that in classifying state prisoners as ‘misdemeanours’, both the architects and the authorities no longer considered that such separate allocation of accommodation was necessary.

For radical prisoners, however, the repercussions were critical. As was the case with radical prisoners in Newgate throughout the period 1790–1820, separation from the remaining prison population was a crucial means of resisting the criminal identity inscribed by the prison space. Yet despite the omission of a dedicated ‘state side’ in the plans of Coldbath Fields, the historical record suggests that radical prisoners of the nineteenth century owed a great debt to the exertions of Catherine Despard; most reported being confined in larger, more comfortable cells and with access to their own yard.” (Parolin)

Future generations of radicals were locked up in Coldbath Fields: veteran of the LCS and 1798-1800 inmate Thomas Evans was again detained here with his son, Samuel Bamford and other reformers in the social and political crisis of the late 1810s (the Evans were interned under the Suspension Act); as were some of the lesser accused in the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820.

Carlile shopmen and other activists in the unstamped newspaper war were also jailed here; as were Chartists, during the movement’s most insurrectionary period, in 1839-40, some for “printing and publishing seditious or blasphemous libel, or for uttering seditious words, or for attending any seditious meetings, or for conspiring to cause such meetings to be held, or for any offence of a political nature”.

Later Chartists held here included Ernest Jones, an important late leader of the movement (and later a proto-socialist), arrested in the turbulent summer of 1848, as some Chartists plotted an insurrection, after the presenting of the petition in April had ended in anti-climax…

The prison closed in 1877. The site was transferred to the Post Office in 1889 and its buildings were gradually replaced. The last sections were demolished in 1929 for an extension of the Letter Office.

Much of this post has been nicked from the really excellent Radical Spaces: Venues of Popular Politics in London 1790 – C. 1845, by Christina Parolin.

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Today in London policing history, 1984: cops raid anarchist 121 Centre, Brixton, looking for guns…

121 Railton Road, Brixton, South London – through the 1980s and 90s one of London’s most active anarchist squatted spaces. Brixton anarchists had occupied 121 Railton Road in late 1980; some local anarchos had been using Sabaar, the Black radical bookshop that occupied the space from 1977, as a postal address. But 121’s history goes back to 1973, when local Black Panthers Olive Morris and Liz Obi squatted the flat above the launderette there…

When Sabaar moved to funded rented premises in Coldharbour Lane, quick off the mark the place was squatted for an anarchist centre. The run-down building on the corner of Chaucer Road was to become a legend, both locally and worldwide, as a  bookshop, meeting space, cafe, office for numberless subversive projects, late-night club, and much more. Many of the crew that squatted the building had been involved in local squatting and political activity before the birth of 121 (notably the occupation of Greater London Council-owned Kilner house, in Pegasus Place, Kennington Oval, in October 1980).

To list the groups that used 121 as a meeting space or office would take several blogposts… Just some of the most significant being Black Flag, the long-running anarchist paper; the Black Cross (linked to Black Flag for years), a support group for anarchist, and other class struggle prisoners; the Kate Sharpley Library, an archive of international anarchist material (which was moved out in 1984, as the building was threatened with eviction and by fascist attack: KSL moved over the road to St George Mansions and later out of London), South London branches of the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement; the London end of the Greenham Common women’s peace camp; South Wales Miners Support Group, during the ’84-’85 Strike; Brixton Squatters Aid and their newspaper Crowbar; the provocative South London Stress mag, which started as an underground bulletin among council workers…  Later in its life, 121 hosted Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax; radical womens mags Shocking Pink and Bad Attitude; the Fare Dodgers Liberation Front; anarcho freesheets Autognome and Contraflow; the list goes on.  As well as this the cheap evening meals, late night club in the basement, later the seminal Dead By Dawn rave nights and endless punk gigs… The bookshop was sometimes famously unpredictable in its opening hours, often falling prey to such varied excuses for its closed doors as sudden arrests for shoplifting, workers being off rioting here or abroad, and in especially hard winters, the place being too cold to sit in (of course there were also the odd folk s’posed to be doing the shift who just went to sleep on the bench by the front window without opening the shutters). The doorway became a graffiti board of complaint (“I came from Sweden and you were closed”), calls to revolt and general abuse.

In the mid-1980s the 121 was at its most active, part of a growing network of anarchists in London involved in squatting, the anti-capitalist Stop the City actions, solidarity with the striking miners, and numerous other movements and campaigns… This activity had not gone unnoticed by the boys in blue (another target of the 121ers, strongly involved in resistance to the violent policing of brixton, especially the frontline on Railton Road, which was viciously racist and anti-squatter… Local cops had recently supported Lambeth Council’s eviction of 6 squatted houses in Effra Parade, just round the corner, where several 121ers and friends lived. Special Branch carried out regular surveillance of the centre’s post throughout the 80s (a pretty boring job I would say…) In August 1984 this police attention climaxed in a raid on 121 and four local squats where some of the collective lived.

Let the collective tell the story:

“TUESDAY 14th August 1984: 7.00am. The political police were out in force, smashing down the doors of 4 squatted houses and the local anarchist bookshop at 121 Railton Rd Brixton … The police, over 50 of them, used Firearms Warrants (which need very high‑up approval) and covered our homes front and back as the heavies rushed in. BUT THEY FOUND NOTHING. The nearest they came to a firearm was an anti‑rape spraycan. The woman who owned it was arrested and later released without any charge, likewise no charge for ‘stealing tools’ (she is a carpenter and has her own tools). One person was arrested for having two small marijuana plants. Another just because ‘his name rang a bell’, he was later found to have skipped bail on a small charge. The cops stole his address books after arresting him. They did not even look for firearms, not a floorboard was lifted. The cops were more interested in finding out identities and anything political they could.

At the bookshop they spent three hours going through everything, at times we were not able to get inside as the bomb squad went through with sniffer dogs. Anything ‘bugs’, drugs or “firearms” could have been planted by them as we were not able to follow their search. “Have you found the Nuclear weapons yet?” asked one shop worker as the cops stomped in the basement And up to the roof

Even Ted Knight, Lambeth Council Leader and an old enemy of ours, had to admit “There has never been any suggestion that those people who run the bookshop have been involved in terrorism in any way … It is outrageous that their personal lives should have been interfered with in this way.”

Lambeth Council are in the process of taking us to Court to evict us after we have been in occupation for 3 and a half years. The case will probably be up late September or October.

WHY ALL THIS BARBARITY & BRUTALITY

  1. Because we don’t conform… we don’t want to wait 10 years for a shitty flat when hundreds lie empty. We’re not amused by Milton Keynes, the SAS, pin‑up girls, Lady Di or Dallas. We organise to help ourselves without being controlled by anyone.
  1. Because we bring out uncensored news and information, that you’d never see on television or in the press.
  1. Because we support the miners in their heroic class war against the rich scum who live off our backs.
  1. Because they need a scapegoat, And its easy to slander us as ‘criminals’, and the raid as not ‘political’ when a “Firearms” warrant is used. Its easy to attack people if they can be divided off, isolated from others be they blacks, gypsies, foreigners, anarchists… we threaten that process with our solidarity.
  1. Inspector Speed who was supervising the raids has said ‑ falsely ‑ in the past that we were a drink and gambling club.

Such police clearly want us out of Brixton.

Our only “crime” is to seek freedom. The police attack us because we produce papers have cafes, housing aid, jumble sales and benefits for local causes and the miners. Because we oppose authority, government, imposed power groups and the ruling class in every way we can.

Probably you don’t support our politics, but you cannot support police terror tactics either. It takes all sorts to make up a Community and we are here to stay. Police attacks are used first against ‘minority’ groups … Tomorrow it could be YOU who wakes up to see the Thatcheroid Daleks bursting into your bedroom with guns and axes!

We should also like to protest the continuing harassment of local black youth and squatters, as well as people collecting for the miners by the police. Maybe they are trying to provoke us so they can try out their latest riot gear, as they nearly did on THURSDAY 16th August 1984 in Railton Road, at 5 pm.

AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL! RESIST THE P0LICE STATE!”

And here’s an account of one of those nicked in the accompanying raids on a nearby squat:

“IF THEY COME IN THE MORNING

There I was, dreaming blissfully of being asleep in a big warm bed with my friend. CRASH…CRASH…THUMP….

Mmmm. people breaking down the door? A herd of elephants charging up the stair? I opened my eyes and closed them, quick! – Oh Fuck – policemen standing round the bed! My friend was poking me urgently in the ribs. – We’re being raided – I opened my eyes again…. They were still there. I thought of resisting, let them drag me naked and screaming into the street. Better not. We got up and struggled into clothes as hordes of pigs searched the house. They got my passport. Radioed in. Oh Shit – I’m on their list!

Kiss goodbye and dragged out. Not knowing the bloke upstairs is also nicked for having a skinny grass plant. Not knowing that 3 other squats and 121 Bookshop were also being stormed at he same time, using search warrants for firearms!

Brixton Police Station, cold and boredom, blood and shit on the walls and anarchist graffiti. Through the spyhole I see one of my neighbours being brought in. `How many have they got? I start worrying about all possible things I ever did against the law. Not much really.

Interview time. Tell us about 121 Bookshop. I keep complaining I haven’t been charged, they must be scouring the files for a frame-up. Sign here for the paint bombs and truncheon found in your house.  – not bloody likely-

2nd interview, Special Branch. What do you know about Class War? –Never heard of it – What about Direct Action? – Not a member, as you probably know – What demos do you go to? Jesus what is this? –

I refuse to answer more questions, realising they’ve got nothing on me. Complaining that I’m being interned for political reasons. I expect them to get heavy but they don’t. Seems like a cock-up?

3rd interview. Shit. We suspect you skipped a warrant under a false name after Stop the City, ‘threatening behaviour’. – Certainly not, No way, would I lie to you?

Here are the papers. Here is your photograph…Oh yes so it is, um, er…-

I’m carted off to the City. Another 20 hours of boredom. Cops come down to ask silly questions about the next Stop the City. – Are the Hells Angels coming? – I see you got the paint bombs ready already – Will the miners come down? … I don’t know nothing. They’re looking forward to it like it was The Big Match.

I have to stay overnight. Next day I trot out my excuses and get fined £40. Then off for breakfast with my friends.”

Surprisingly, no guns or bombs were found at 121, despite the unrestrained joy of the cop who, lifting the carpet on the ground floor, found a trap door. Aha, this must be the place where the weapons are stored… Down they go with a sniffer dog… Shit, no guns down here either…

It has been suggested that the cops’ “reliable informant” in this case was a South African squatter who claimed to be hyper-active, opening squats for people and “sorting out” muggers, but when he got nicked, 121 and addresses of other local anarchos got raided immediately after… “There was an attempt to run him down in Effra Parade and the driver departed London quickly…”” The suspicious character, gunning for the driver, later attacked a 121-er on the stairs of St George’s Residences, over the road from 121…

The myth goes that the uncovering of the basement by the police during the raid was an ironic gift to the 121, as he basement was put into use as the dancefloor of the 121 Club, dak, dingy and dangerously low ceilinged as it was, and only accessible via a steep and lethal wooden stair… nevertheless thousands partied there, from the Club, to Dead By Dawn speedcore nights, through punk gigs, to Queeruption and much more ( the memory of the Anarcho-dales male strip crew will never leave those who were there..!)

The raid had little impact otherwise. 121 would continue for another 15 years, to be evicted almost exactly 15 years later in August 1999… This time it was 150 armed police who swarmed on the bulding, early in the morning, to ensure the 121 was eradicated.

We know the police took an interest in 121; we know the mail was examined in Herne Hill sorting office before it was delivered to us. What we don’t yet know is – were any of the undercover police of the Special Demonstration Squad more heavily involved in spying on us? Several certainly visited the place now and then – John Dines, Jim Boyling, Andy Coles all dropped in. But we’re still wondering if any other old mates were narks in disguise… Watch this space…

An ex-121er

Today n London’s religious history, 1553: a riot at St Paul’s

The religious divisions of mid-16th century England may not have given birth to outright civil war, as happened in France, though there were a number of abortive rebellions pertly stimulated by religious aims. London was a centre of religious debate and dissent – always a hotchpotch and melting pot of religious ideas, simply because of its size and the different communities attracted here, and the opportunity to meet people, discuss ideas, evolve new theologies…

The rapid turnover of regimes and official religions under the Tudors – from Catholic orthodoxy, through the dissolution of the monasteries and mild reform, radical Protestantism, catholicism, to a milder Anglicanism – saw dissenters of various stripes burnt, imprisoned, or driven into exile.

Mid-16th century London had evolved many dissenting protestant congregations, nominally part off the one established church, which were variously tolerated, persecuted, encouraged, then repressed again… While many people held strong beliefs one way or the other, most were very likely content to adhere to whatever wouldn’t get them into trouble with the authorities. Though the bewildering theological roller-coaster caught out many who just couldn’t keep up with what was orthodoxy and what was heresy this month…

Opposing views sometimes led to violent clashes.

On August 13th 1553, a riot broke out outside St Pauls Cathedral, at ‘Pauls Cross,’ when worshippers objected to a preacher praying for the souls of the departed and defended the widely hated Bishop Bonner.

Catholic Queen Mary had recently succeeded to the throne and was in the first stages of rolling back the strict protestant regime of her predecessor Edward VI. The reformers who had dominated Edward’s reign were in a desperate rearguard action against reversal of their changes.

This incident is noticed in the public chronicles. Gilbert Bourne, the preacher, Queen Mary’s chaplain, offended the audience by speaking vehemently in the defence of Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, who was already known as a prosecutor of protestants and other ‘heretics’ and would garner an odious reputation over the next five years for burning numerous dissenters under Queen Mary’s catholic regime. Bourne also spoke out against against the protestant reformer bishop Ridley. A great crowd booed and abused Bourne, with cries of “Papist, Papist! Tear him down!” One of the crowd threw a dagger at Bourne, which struck one of the sideposts of the pulpit. “Maister Bradford, the celebrated Reformer, came forward to persuade the people to quietness, and by the help of that worthy man and of maister Rogers, (both of whom were afterwards sacrificed in cold blood by their religious adversaries,) Bourne was conveyed safely away into Paul’s School. Grafton’s Abridgement, 1566, and Stowe’s Summarie of the same date.”

The privy council, which was sitting at the Tower of London, took immediate alarm at this disturbance. On the 16th of August, Homfrey Palden was “committed to the counter for seditious wordes uttered by him againste the preacher Mr. Burne for his sermon at Paule’s crosse on Sunday last;” and the same day the celebrated Bradford and Veron, “two seditious preachers,” were committed to the Tower, as was “Theodore Basill, alias Thomas Beacon, another seditious preacher.”

Subsequent sermons in the following weeks saw preachers thought to be speaking on matters that would inflame their hearers protected by up to 200 armed guards. The next sermon was specifically on the subject of loyalty to the monarch’s religious decrees and to ‘the old faith’.

What is not clear is the composition of the crowd that kicked off against Bourne’s sermon. Were they radical protestants? Regular churchgoers to whom Bonner’s name in particular meant fear and loathing? John Rogers, and John Bradford, both leading radical protestants, had been a notable presence in the crowd – in fact he had intervened to try to calm the congregation down, enabling Bourne to escape unharmed. But the Queen and church conservatives interpreted this as them having a great deal of influence with the riotous crowd, whether or not they had stirred them up or not. Both were to be imprisoned and executed for heresy in 1555.

It’s not clear if the St Paul’s riot is the same incident described in a letter from the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor from August 1553, where he mentions that

“great scandal occurred, and outrages against religion were committed lately on the person of a priest who dared to say mass in a chapel here m London; some took the chalice, others the vestments; the ornaments on the altar were broken in pieces, and two or three hundred people assembled and made such riot that the mayor had been obliged to go in person to quell the tumult. He succeeded, and saved the person of the priest by taking him into custody. “

It is possible that the St Paul’s uproar was part of a series of disturbances…

Paul’s Cross, outside St Paul’s, was used for the dissemination of ideas by preachers backed by the authorities from the fourteenth century; but the spot was also known as a kind of speakers corner through medieval and early modern times. This had evolved partly from the ‘folkmoots’ – assemblies of citizens that had at one time represented a form of community self-government, but also had a history of use for agitation and articulating anger or discontent. Crowds were not only used to hearing ideas – religious, political, social – set out by speakers here, but also to reacting to them and taking part in the proceedings.

The uproar against Bourne was only part of series of sermons at Paul’s Cross, showing it was a venue for a debate in the to and fro of theology. (Some of which can be read here)

While repression of Protestantism was well underway, resistance continued, if clandestine… a dead cat which had been made to look like a priest saying mass was found on a cross in Cheapside, and at a sermon in April 1554, Bonner’s chaplain gave a sermon displaying the cat and ordering the culprit to come forward. In June, when the chaplain spoke again, he was shot at and a search was made of every house in the precinct of St Paul’s to find the culprit, but to no avail.

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Today in London anti-racist history: demo protesting police raids on Notting Hill’s Mangrove Restaurant, 1970.

“Mangrove, smell of hashish, swirling clouds of ashen smoke, weave in, around, away, palms like giant fingers, sounds of laughing, belly deep and penetrating, wise words and indiscretions, deep canary yellows, matted reds and browns, a tropical tapestry of colour, light and sounds.” ‘All Saints and Sinners’, Jenneba Sie Jalloh,

On August 9, 1970, a group of 150 (or 500, depending on your sources) protestors marched through the community toward Notting Hill, Notting Dale, and Harrow Road police stations to “expose the racist brutality that black people experience at the hands of the police.”

In this case, focused on the aggressive policing of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, a popular meeting place for black radicals. Police and protestors clashed during the march, and police arrested nineteen black protestors, charging them with assault, possession of an offensive weapon, and incitement to riot. The trial of those nicked was to become a celebrated victory against police racism and play an important part in the growth of black power movement in Britain.

One of the most important early centres of London’s West Indian Community was around Notting Hill. From the first days of afro-caribbean migration, the area had seen small numbers of migrants grow into a burgeoning community, despite hostility from some white locals, vigorously stirred up by fascist groups, which had climaxed in the white riots of August 1958 – which saw white crowds attack any black people they could get at – and the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane the following year.

Resistance to the racist violence from the embryonic community had been present from the first – collective self-defence had been organised against in 1958. This spirit was to grow and spread, as the main enemy of the Noting Hill black community became a racist police force.

Frank Crichlow’s restaurant The Mangrove, located at 8 All saints Road, Notting Hill, became a centre of this resistance. Crichlow had previously ran El Rio cafe at 127 Westbourne Park Road (where Christine Keeler met Lucky Gordon in the Profumo affair):

“A lot of West Indians came to the Rio and it got very popular. We opened all night. It was a coffee bar and it was kind of bohemian. We had people like Colin MacInnes, the famous writer. The Christine Keeler and Profumo affair came out of that scene.

Local whites used it and a lot of musicians used to be there as well. When the West End clubs finished they used to come and have a coffee and a meal at the Rio. It was a West Indian scene but it had a lot of mixture. It created a tremendous atmosphere until we found we were getting a lot of attention from the police.

Notting Hill police started to get a bit “busy” – framing people. You could tell it was happening. People started to come in to the cafe and tell their experiences.

One chap said he was in a nearby road and two police rushed up to him and said, “We just saw you trying car doors”. “You must be joking,” he said. “No,” they said, “We saw you trying car doors”. They arrested him and he went to court and was found guilty. He still laughs when he talks about it. He still can’t believe it. It didn’t ruin him. But some people were freaked out by that and couldn’t handle getting a conviction.

The police used the sus laws like that. It was quite common. You would be walking down the street and the next thing you would be in the police station being charged. A lot of black people got convictions that way. Some of them freaked out and they went back to the West Indies because of that.

What started to give the black community strength was places like the Rio. The Rio was a meeting place. People would work all week and at the weekend they would go to the cafes and meet and talk. It gave us the strength to keep going. But of course the Rio began to get attention from more and more police.

The basic reason was racism. A lot of officers in West London were fired up by people like [fascist leader] Oswald Mosley – the same thing is happening with the BNP now. White people who were in the race riots in 1958 and in their teens would then go and join the force and end up as police officers. There is no doubt in my mind about that. That is why I think Notting Hill has a heavy history between the black community and the police in the early days.” (Frank Crichlow)

Crichlow opened the Mangrove restaurant in March 1968, and it rapidly became a centre for the black community, attracting intellectuals, creatives and campaigners. Sammy Davis Junior, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops, CLR James, Vanessa Redgrave, Jimmy Hill and the cast of ‘The Avengers’ all visited…

“People would be waiting outside in cars until tables were free. The place was out of this world – in just a couple of months it was pop-u-lar. The place would be packed and we’d see the police peeping through the windows…” (Crichlow)

These peeping police, though, took a dim view of this hive of activity, as always treating any fomenting alternative culture with suspicion. Any space where black people gathered at that time could expect special attention from the boys in blue. A concerted campaign of harassment at the Mangrove followed. Between January 1969 and July 1970, police raided the restaurant on 12 occasions, claiming the venue was a haven of drug use… though drugs were never found, and Frank Crichlow vocally discouraged drug consumption there.

“What started the demonstration were the raids on the Mangrove restaurant that I opened in 1969. In the first year we had seven raids. The police used to say they had information that there was cannabis in the club. We would say, “Where did you get that information from?” and they would say they didn’t have to disclose their source – end of story.

The significant thing about this was that they never found any drugs, because there was none. They used to raid the restaurant at half past ten or eleven – always on a Friday night when it was packed. They would search and everybody would leave their food, we couldn’t ask them to pay. So what the police were doing was destroying the restaurant. They didn’t want us to have too much respectability.” (Frank Critchlow)

The growing hassle of the Mangrove was a concentrated sample of the violence and repression police were visiting on west Indian community in Notting Hill and elsewhere. In response the community and allies took to the streets to protest on 9 August 1970. A demonstration was organised by a small group from The Action Committee for the Defence of the Mangrove. This included Frank Crichlow and barrister Anthony Mohipp, secretary of the Black Improvement Organisation, and several leading members of the UK’s newly-born Black Panther Party.

“It was sparked by all these raids. We called a demonstration and 500 people came out. We made speeches and marched off to the police station that was carrying out the raids.

We went to Notting Hill. R S Webb was outside the police station shouting. Then we said we were going over to Harrow Road police station. The police went in very heavy and about 26 people got arrested on small charges. Reggie Maudling was the home secretary at the time and he made a mistake. After the demonstration he said he wanted an enquiry into who had organised it. After he got the results he said “arrest the organisers” and nine of us were arrested.

That day we nearly had a race riot. I was charged with affray, carrying an offensive weapon, threatening behaviour and inciting members of the public to riot. We were looking at a lot of jail.” (Critchlow)

Nineteen people were arrested. Ten defendants’ charges were soon dropped, but support swelled for the other nine accused: Barbara Beese, Rupert Boyce, Frank Critchlow, Rhodan Gordon, Darcus Howe (who worked at the Mangrove), Anthony Innis, Althea Lecointe Jones, Rothwell Kentish and Godfrey Millett. The charges ranged from making an affray, incitement to riot, assaulting a policeman, to having an offensive weapon. C. L. R. James summoned the remaining protestors the day after the arrest and urged them to continue their fight, emphasising the seriousness of the charges against their comrades.

The Mangrove Nine trial began in October 1971. It became a political struggle. Pickets were organised outside the trail at the Old Bailey, and literature handed out to raise public awareness of the case.

Arguments focused on the ongoing police persecution experienced by the black community in Notting Hill. Police witnesses who justified their targeting of the Mangrove with descriptions of it as a “haunt of criminals, prostitutes and ponces” only corroborated the Nine’s detailing of police prejudice.

Darcus Howe and Althea Jones-Lecointe defended themselves. The other seven employed a radical civil rights lawyer to ensure there would be no friction between Jones-LeCointe and Howe’s defense and their own. Jones-LeCointe and Howe argued for an all black jury under the Magna Carta’s ‘jury of my peers’ clause. They cited trial precedents in which, for example, Welsh miners faced an all-Welsh jury. This demand also echoed calls by the Black Panthers in the United States, under an interpretation of the 14th Amendment, for all-black juries. Judge Edward Clarke, known for his distaste for political radicalism, dismissed the possibility of an all-black jury out of hand, but the Nine had already succeeded in elevating the trial to a national spectacle.

The defendants were prepared for the judge’s rejection of this demand. Howe and Lecointe-Jones’s next tactic was to vet potential jurors politically, asking them what they understood by terms “black power” and which newspapers they read. Again the judge intervened to stop this line of questioning. Nonetheless, the defence dismissed a total of 63 jurors, each defendant using their right to dismiss seven potential jurors. In so doing they ensured that two of the 12 jurors were black and, perhaps more importantly, stamped their authority on the proceedings.

Police witnesses justified their actions by labelling the Mangrove restaurant “a haunt of criminals, prostitutes and ponces”. The turning point came as Howe exposed problems with the police testimony and a police officer was ordered to leave the courtroom when he was seen signalling to other prosecution witnesses as they gave evidence.

In Jones-Lecointe’s closing speech she referred in detail to the police persecution experienced by the black community in Notting Hill.

On the last day of trial testimony, police turned over a leaflet called “Battle for Freedom at Old Bailey” to the judge, who believed the leaflet might be in contempt of the court. Constable Roger Buckley had apprehended the leaflet while on duty in the Notting Dale neighborhood on December 11, 1971. The leaflet charged that a biased judge and jury had colluded to skew the proceedings of the case against the Mangrove Nine, claiming that “the case has been a systematic exposure of police lies, the way in which the prosecution, having no evidence, tries to play on the prejudices of the jury, of the way in which the judge plays the part of chief prosecutor, attacking and obstructing the defence.” After a four-month investigation, the officer P. J. Palmes concluded that the police lacked sufficient evidence to identify the authors of the leaflet, “which in any event might be ill-advised at this stage as likely to exacerbate racial feelings.” This led Judge Clarke to drop the contempt of court charge.

A majority of the Mangrove jury were workers, and though only two of the 11 were black, it is known that the jury divided along class lines, with the middle class members inclined to believe the police and favouring conviction. It seems that some of the workers knew better and simply decided the police were liars. Eventually they compromised on the basis of agreement on acquittal on the most serious charges.

Five were acquitted of all charges. All the serious charges resulted in acquittal, and only some minor charges were upheld.

The Mangrove Trial caused a sensation at the time. Even the judge had come out and acknowledged in his summing up racism as a motive of police actions – though he tried to mitigate this by accusing the protestors as also being racist. This outraged the government and legal establishment who tried to get this comment struck out of the record…

The trial also helped to coalesce the emerging black power movement in the UK. The recently formed Black Panther Party was involved in the Mangrove protests (Notting Hill being one of its activist  centres), several of the Party’s leading lights were among the defendants, and the publicity and sense of possibilities that the trial threw up helped attract attention to the movement… Something on which here.

The Mangrove thrived despite continued harassment for two decades, until Notting Hill’s gentrification got seriously underway:
“Through the 1980s the premises were regularly raided, as All Saints became known as the frontline. In the 1987 police ‘swamp’ of the area, as part of the inner-city crime crackdown Operation Trident, the Mangrove was raided again and this time Frank Crichlow was charged with possession of heroin. To the Wise brothers, the accompanying installation of surveillance cameras and the closure of squatted ‘abandoned commercial property’ marked the start of Notting Hill gentrification: “Within days a house in McGregor Road was to fetch £300,000. The very centre of Carnival revolt in the 80s had finally fallen and the light had gone out on the last remaining shambles of an urban trouble spot.”

Lee Jasper recalls dealing with a mas band sequin crisis as the 1987 riot began: “The police were attempting to close down, fit up and destroy Mangrove and indeed the whole of Carnival. We’re on the verge of a major civil disturbance and people would be coming in and saying I don’t have any red sequins.”

In the last Mangrove trial Frank Crichlow was once more cleared of trumped up drugs charges. After that the police raided the Mangrove some more, causing further clashes on All Saints and the last big Carnival riot in 1989.

According to the Evening Standard: ‘5,000 police, almost 600 in full riot gear with shields, and some police on horseback, fought running battles with pockets of revellers after trouble was sparked in the All Saints Road area. Within seconds they had to retreat under a hail of bottles and flower pots. Uniformed officers battled in vain to contain the trouble, drafting in riot police who sealed off a section of Lancaster Road. But they came under attack from two directions as youths in All Saints Road and Westbourne Park Road began hurling missiles.’

As ‘The Mangrove: 21 Years of Resistance’ banner came down in 1991, 6-8 All Saints Road reopened as the Portobello Dining Rooms. Rastafarians were succeeded by trustafarians and the street name started to appear in more restaurant reviews than crime reports. However, then came the mid 90s crack cocaine drug crime revival. Frank Crichlow was subsequently awarded £50,000 damages.

In the run-up to the 1995 Carnival, Ma’s Café at 6-8 All Saints Road (formerly the Mangrove, the Portobello Dining Rooms and Nice, since Manor, Ruby & Sequoia, the Hurlingham and Rum Kitchen) was the scene of a scuffle involving Hugh Grant, in which the actor was ridiculed over the Divine Brown affair. An onlooker said: “He was okay but he had a bit of blood on him. I don’t think he’ll be back.”

After the demise of the Mangrove restaurant, the frontline spirit was maintained by the Mangrove Community Association office over the road until 2002, Daddy Vigo’s People’s Sound reggae record shop at number 11, the Portobello Music Shop at 13, Nation Records and the Carnival sound-systems. Following a series of Rolex robberies and ‘aristocrats on crack’ reports, Annabel Heseltine wrote in the Standard of ‘Crack, Guns and Fear’ Notting Hell juxtaposed with trustafarian Heaven W11 ‘Cool Britannia’ on All Saints: “Opposite Philsen’s Phil-Inn Station – a café frequented by local hip-swinging Rastas – young media types are strolling into Mas Café… A bakery selling walnut loaves and bagels generates a warm aroma in the direction of Tom Dixon’s gallery…” (nicked from the Underground Map)

There are some great pix of the Mangrove demo and trial here

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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