Today in London entertainment history, 1907: striking performers & artistes launch the ‘Music Hall War’

The ‘Music Hall War’ of 1907 saw music hall employees, stage artistes and London theatre proprietors walk out on strike against changes in conditions imposed by music hall and theatre proprietors. The strike was sparked by changes to pay, the scrapping of perks, and an increase in working hours, and a dispute about increased matinée performances.

The strike officially began on 22 January 1907 at the Holborn Empire in London. It lasted for two weeks, winning support from popular entertainers of the day including Marie Dainton, Marie Lloyd, Arthur Roberts, Joe Elvin and Gus Elen, all of whom took an  active part in picketing outside both London and provincial theatres.

The strikes ended two weeks later and resulted in a rise in pay and better working conditions for both stage workers and artistes.

Music hall entertainment evolved in the London taverns and coffee houses of 18th century, where performers were hired to sing whilst the audience socialised. By the 1830s many publicans set aside specific rooms for punters to play music or sing together; some of these groups met to rehearse during the week, then put on a Saturday evening show at the end of the working week. Sometimes such gatherings were known as a ‘free and easy’. These meetings became popular and increased in number to two or three times a week. Gradually ‘music halls’ grew out of these back rooms, and theatres were purpose-built to house the growing popularity of Music hall entertainment. The audiences consisted of mainly working class people; the performers overwhelmingly arose from the same class. While the old ‘free and easy’ groups had initially been generally male, and this was reflected in early audiences, impresario Charles Morton actively invited women into his music hall, believing that they had a “civilising influence on the men”. The surge in popularity further attracted female performers and by the 1860s, it had become common place for women to appear on the music hall stage.

By 1875 there were 375 music halls in London, and a further 384 in the rest of England. As the number of venues increased and their popularity rocketed, other avenues for profit-making opened up – for instance, Music-hall proprietors enlisted a catering workforce who would supply food and alcohol to the punters. To capitalise on the increasing public demand, some entertainers frequently appeared at several halls each night, especially in London, where travel between halls was relatively quick and easy. As a result, leading performers became popular, not only in London, but in the English provinces.

Music halls adopted a design based on contemporary theatres – which included fixed seating in the stalls. These improvements proved expensive and managers had to abide by the strict safety regulations which were introduced for theatres in the late 19th century. The mounting overheads, including building costs and the performers fees, music hall proprietors were forced to sell shares to raise cash – many formed syndicates with wealthy investors.

In 1898 Oswald Stoll had become the Managing Director of Moss Empires, a theatre chain led by Edward Moss. Moss Empires had bought up many of the English music halls and came to dominate the business. Stoll became notorious among his employees for implementing a strict working atmosphere. He paid them a little wage and erected signs backstage prohibiting performers and stagehands from using coarse language.

By the start of the 1900s music hall artistes had been in several unofficial disputes with theatre managers over the poor working conditions, low pay, lack of perks, and a dramatic increase in the number of matinée performances. By 1903 audience numbers had fallen, in part due to the banning of alcohol in auditoriums and the introduction of the more popular variety show format, favoured by Stoll.

Until the turn of the century, most music hall entertainers had enjoyed relatively flexible working arrangements with music hall owners. By the Edwardian era, however, terms and conditions were increasingly formal, preventing entertainers from working at other local theatres, for example.

The Variety Artistes Federation had been founded in 2006, and quickly amassed a membership of nearly 4,000 performers. In the same year the Federation initiated a brief strike on behalf of its members.
This was not the first attempt to organise a trade union for music hall performers: in 1873, a short-lived Music Hall Protection Society had been founded, and in 1884, the Music Hall Artists Association had briefly existed, founded in response to managers’ imposition of a maximum salary and wage reductions. In the latter case the association had lapsed after management’s offensive was broken, partly by divisions among managers, some of whom broken agreed wage levels to hire music hall stars.

In the late 1890s a 5000-strong Music Hall Artistes Railway Association had also campaigned to secure cheaper rail travel for artistes from the railway companies. This Association had united with the Grand Order of Water Rats and several other smaller music-hall friendly societies in 1906 to form the Variety Artistes Federation.

The 1907 dispute began when in addition to the single matinée (afternoon) performance included in most performers’ contracts, music hall owners began to demand additional shows – adding up to four matinées a week to the workload, in some cases, for no extra pay. A memorandum distributed by the VAF on its founding summed up the artistes’ resentment of this practice:

“Notwithstanding the vast increase in the popularity of music entertainments (due, sin some measure, your memorialist submit, to the work of the artists themselves), and the great addition to the number of variety theatres, the position of the artist has suffered great deterioration.

Whereas a few years ago artists were called upon to give only six or seven performances per week, they are now required under the two-houses-per-night system to play twice that number (and in some cases, unfortunately, matinees in addition), but except in a very few instances they have had to give these twelve, thirteen, fourteen or fifteen performances for the same salary they received for six or seven hithertoo. To these altered conditions they have submitted in the interests of the proprietors; but now the provisions of the barring clause are being so rigourously enforced as to inflict a great additional hardship and heavy financial loss on artists who are out or work by preventing them from accepting contracts when engagements are offered.”

(For the  issues caused by the barring clause see the strikers’ demands, below).

In December 1906, Walter Gibbons, proprietor of a chain of music halls, attempted to transfer the entire staff working at the Brixton Hippodrome to the Brixton Empress and vice versa, in response to a licensing dispute with the London County Council. Resenting this diktat, the VAF picketed both theatres; Gibbons tried to beat this by hiring non-VAF artists. A fortnight of chaos followed. Although Gibbon eventually backed down, the VAF decided now was the time to escalate the dispute across a number of venues.

A mass meeting of VAF artists, members of the Amalgamated Musicians Union and the National Association of Theatrical Employees at the Surrey Theatre on 20th January 1907 agreed demands and launched a strike.

On 21 January, workers at the Holborn Empire joined the strike action, and theatrical workers at other venues followed suit and initiated widespread strikes across London. The strike eventually spread to 22 London variety theatres, involving some 2,000 of the Variety Artistes Federation’s membership on picket lines at one time or another.

Picket lines were organised into shifts outside theatres by workers and artistes. The news reached provincial theatres and managers attempted to convince their artistes to sign a contract promising never to join a trade union.

The disputes were funded by the few more famous and wealthy performers, including Marie Lloyd, Arthur Roberts, Gus Elen – as well as by the Edwardian labour movement. Labour leaders including Ben Tillett and Keir Hardy spoke out in support of the strike.

Lloyd frequently performed on picket lines for free and took part in fundraising – playing a well-publicised benefit gig, dubbed ‘A Night With the Stars’, at the Scala Theatre on February 11th. Generally she donated her entire fee to the strike fund. Lloyd explained her support for the strike: “We the stars can dictate our own terms. We are fighting not for ourselves, but for the poorer members of the profession, earning thirty shillings to £3 a week. For this they have to do double turns, and now matinées have been added as well. These poor things have been compelled to submit to unfair terms of employment, and I mean to back up the federation in whatever steps are taken.”

The strikers’ set out their list of demands, as follows:

  1. That at all halls working two shows a night, all matinees shall be paid for at the rate of one-twelfth salary for each matinee. In one-show-a-night halls, all matinees over one per week to be paid for at the rate of one seventh salary.
  2. That no artiste or artistes shall be transferred from one hall to another without his, her, or their consent.
  3. That “time” shall not be varied after Monday in each week without the artistes consent.
  4. That all disputes shell be referred to a Board of Arbitration, such board to consist of two nominees of ________________ the undersigned, and two nominees of the Variety Artistes Federation Executive Committee, and an independent chairman, to be nominated by the above four nominees.
  5. That a “barring clause” of one mile and three months in London, and five miles and five months in the provinces, be adopted.
  6. No commission to be stopped where artistes are booked direct.
  7. No bias or prejudice to be shown to any artiste who has taken part in this movement.
  8. This agreement to refer to all existing and future contracts, and to become operative on _____________ 1907.
  9. That the V.A.F. form of contract be adopted as soon as supplied.

The causes and grievances lying behind these demands were legion:

  1. That at all halls working two shows a night, all matinees shall be paid for at the rate of one-twelfth salary for each matinee. In one-show-a-night halls, all matinees over one per week to be paid for at the rate of one seventh salary.

In the years leading up to the strike a number of music hall managers, in a bid to increase their revenues, had decided to stage two performances every evening instead of one. The first typically beginning around 6:45 and the second at around 9:00PM. As the overall lengths of these performances had to be shortened to fit two shows into one evening admission prices were reduced, but doubling up on attendances led to greatly increased receipts overall. When this system was implemented the majority of performers were told that they would have to give two performances per evening instead of one, but without any increase in salary. Of course, the length of their individual turns was reduced but with earlier start and later finish times they were made to remain in the theatre much longer. Thus the artistes were expected to contribute more to each evenings performances without any corresponding increase in payment. Even so, most accepted this with minimal complaint. However, the unfairness did not end there.

In the music halls at that time it was customary for performers who were engaged for a full week of evening performances to give one afternoon matinee performance free. When the performers were engaged for twice the number of evening performances, even without their salaries being increased, they were expected to give twice the number of free matinee performances as well, ie. two per week instead of one. This further increased the burden placed upon them with still no increase in payment. Some managers went even further, writing into contracts “matinees as required”, and at holiday periods performers might be expected to give matinee performances daily – for no pay.

This demand by the V.A.F. therefore was for nothing more than a return to the original status quo. Where performers were contracted to perform one show a night they would give one matinee free as before, and additional ones would be paid pro rata. Where they were contracted for two shows a night, each matinee would be paid at what amounted to half their nightly salary, so for two matinees they would be paid one evenings salary which effectively amounted to the same thing.

  1. That no artiste or artistes shall be transferred from one hall to another without his, her, or their consent.

Music Hall artistes were generally contracted to the manager rather than the hall, and as many managers controlled more than one hall they would expect to shift their performers around as and when they saw fit. If a performer was transferred to another hall in the same locality that might present little hardship, but a performer might just as easily be moved to a hall across London or somewhere in the provinces. This might make it impossible for that performer to fulfill other engagements he or she may have entered into with another manager (and which he/she could easily have kept whilst working at the original location), thus leading to a loss in earnings. Furthermore, artistes could be transferred to halls in different parts of the country from week to week thus accumulating considerable travelling expenses for which they were not compensated.

This clause therefore sought to protect the artistes from these types of hardships by ensuring that they would only be transferred to other venues by mutual agreement.

  1. That “time” shall not be varied after Monday in each week without the artistes consent.

Managers would sometimes manipulate the timing of certain acts to force out artistes whose services were no longer required. For example, a particular performer may have two concurrent engagements for twenty minute ‘turns’ at different halls, timed to appear on stage at one venue at say 8:00PM and the other at say 10:00PM. If the manager of one hall decided he no longer required that act he could not dismiss it without paying up the remainder of the contract. So instead he would deliberately change the timing of that turn so that it clashed with the artistes other commitment. This would force the artiste to be the one to break the contract since he/she could not be in two places at once, and the manager would not then be liable to pay compensation.

This clause in the V.A.F.’s demands was intended to give some measure of protection to artistes against this form of constructive dismissal. It was hardly unreasonable to ask that artistes be informed on Monday at what hours they were required to perform for the remainder of that week, and would afford them some measure of security to accept other bookings.

  1. That all disputes shell be referred to a Board of Arbitration, such board to consist of two nominees of {space for signatory} the undersigned, and two nominees of the Variety Artistes Federation Executive Committee, and an independent chairman, to be nominated by the above four nominees.

In all disputes between managers and artistes the managers themselves had always been the sole arbiters. The artistes had had little choice in most cases other than to bow to the managers will, however unfair that may sometimes have been.

The purpose of this clause therefore, was to ensure that future disputes would be settled fairly, according to the facts.

  1. That a “barring clause” of one mile and three months in London, and five miles and five months in the provinces, be adopted.

It was common practice for music hall performers contracts to include a clause barring them from performing at another hall within a certain distance to the one at which they were contracting to appear. This was not unreasonable since engagements were usually arranged in advance. If an artiste was then to appear at another nearby hall before actually commencing a given engagement the local populace would already have seen his or her act. This reduced the novelty of that artiste’s performance and lessened his/her drawing power, potentially reducing attendances at the second hall.

What was unfair about this restriction however was that it commonly took no account of time, but simply came in to effect from the moment the contract was signed. Some engagements might be arranged a whole year or more in advance however, and it was unfair to prevent an artiste from earning a living within a particular area for so long a period of time. Furthermore, an artiste may have signed a number of such future engagements, thus adding to the areas in which he/she is barred from appearing in the short term.

The purpose of this clause was simply to limit the time and distance over which this barring clause applied in an effort to be fair to both parties. Since halls were more numerous in London, and the population more densely packed so that they drew their patrons from a smaller area, the restriction was less here than in the provinces.

  1. No commission to be stopped where artistes are booked direct.

Oftentimes, artistes would be booked through a theatrical agent, in which case the agent would be paid a commission consisting of a percentage of their salary. This commission was recompense to the agent for their time and effort in finding work for the artiste. When no agent was involved however, it was common practice for the theatre managers to stop the customary agents commission (5%) from the artistes salary which they would then keep instead!

This clause then was intended to end a practice which was unique to the music halls and which the artistes considered to be little less than extortion.

  1. No bias or prejudice to be shown to any artiste who has taken part in this movement.

This clause was simply to protect any performers who had taken leading roles in the strike from reprisals by the managers.

  1. This agreement to refer to all existing and future contracts, and to become operative on {space for date} 1907.

This clause was to the date, when agreed, from which the these new terms and conditions were to come into effect.

  1. That the V.A.F. form of contract be adopted as soon as supplied.

The V.A.F. were to supply the managers with a new form of contract document encompassing these terms and conditions which the managers were then to use for future contracts.

The strike was not limited to the artistes alone. The orchestra musicians also took part, their main grievance being with their low pay. They asked for a minimum salary and payment for matinees based on one full evenings salary for one show a night houses, and half an evenings salary for two show a night houses.

The National Association of Theatrical (Stage) Employees, which represented the music-hall stage hands, also joined in the strike. In some ways their members had most to strike about. They had been particularly hard hit in those houses which had changed to two shows a night. Two shows meant a longer evening, more scene and lighting adjustments etc. All of which meant more work for everyone from the dressers and make-up artists to the scene changers and lighting men. Poorly paid already, they had been expected to work even harder for the same money. Their demands were simple, just a decent living wage – fair pay for honest work.

Some music-hall managers either recognised the justice of the strikers claims or felt the pressure and quickly came to terms. Others resisted more strongly, attempting to keep the halls open by bringing former performers out of retirement and booking unknowns. The striking artistes picketed these halls distributing leaflets declaring ‘Music Hall War!’; the managers responded distributing leaflets of their own defending their position. But by and large the public supported the strikers, especially when they had such popular favourites as Marie Lloyd and Marie Dainton on their side.

When the music hall owners responded by engaging lesser known acts and bringing others out of retirement, the union picketed theatres. On one occasion, Lloyd recognised one of those trying to enter and shouted, “Let her through girls, she’ll close the music-hall faster than we can.”

The strike lasted for almost two weeks.

Gradually the managers were worn down and forced to come to the negotiating table to settle the dispute with fairer pay and better conditions.

In due course, the dispute was referred to arbitration – the suggestion apparently coming from the author Somerset Maugham – and Sir George Askwith, conciliation officer at the Board of Trade, was appointed to try to find a resolution. A ruling was agreed, and on February 12th theatres re-opened as the strike was settled.

After 23 formal meetings and numerous less formal ones, the resulting settlement produced a national code, a model contract and a procedure for settling disputes. In effect, the performers won more money, plus a guaranteed minimum wage and maximum working week for musicians.

Askwith conducted a hearing taking evidence from the Music Hall owners and representatives of the Unions. However, although his February ‘Interim Award’ ended the strike, it took months for the final award to be settled. In June 1907, the first Askwith Award – a 32 page document – was published, attempting to clarify the appropriate “rules, regulations and rates that are applicable to variety theatres in Great Britain and Ireland.” The Award guaranteed musicians in London 30/- per week as minimum pay although drummers only received 28/-.

But it was only 12 years later in 1919 that many of the contracts agreed were actually made mandatory across the music halls a a whole.

Although the strike ended well, the music hall owners exacted small revenges on Marie Lloyd. For instance, five years later, when the first music hall royal command performance for the music hall was held, vengeful managers excluded the greatest star of the music halls from their line-up.

Grievances and disputes in the music halls continued, however, as this extract from the 1907 Trades Union Congress Annual Report reveals:

  • Mr. J. O’Gorman (Variety Artistes Federation) took the opportunity of thanking the Trade Unionists for the help they gave the members of his society during the late strike, especially Mr Isaac Mitchell. He went on to explain the growing evil of the matinee custom, which compelled variety artistes to give a lot of extra performances for nothing. They went to arbitration, and they got an award: but he was sorry to say that, with one exception, the music-hall proprietors were trying to evade it. He hoped the Trades Unionists of the country would continue to support them if they were driven further.

But over time conditions did improve. The music hall artistes had shown that they now had a voice, and the V.A.F. would continue the fight to protect the rights of its members for many years to come. It began its own regular weekly publication, “The Performer”, which was founded by ‘Uncle Fred’ who had been a journalist before becoming a renowned ventriloquist. It would remain the main association for members of the Music Hall and Variety profession until 1957 when it amalgamated with British Actors Equity (formed 1930).

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Today in London striking history, 1988: 5500 Lambeth Council workers strike against cuts

On January 18th 1988, 5,500 Lambeth Council workers, members of NALGO, went on a one-day strike against cuts in Lambeth. [NALGO, the National Association of Local Government Officers, the local authority workers’ trade union, merged to form part of Unison in 1993.]

Here we reprint an account by one of them, written some years after the event. An interesting snapshot of life working for ‘loony left’ Lambeth Council in 1987. [Topical note: Spot the cameo by John Bercow, now the speaker of the House of Commons, then a tory Lambeth Councillor…]

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Lambeth Council 1987/1988: Eggs, Chips and Strikes
Neil Transpontine

I moved to Brixton in early 1987, and started working for Lambeth Council in the libraries. The pay wasn’t great but as I was squatting on Tulse Hill Estate (Greenleaf Close) I wasn’t paying any rent so money wasn’t a problem. The Council itself admitted that there were at least 1200 squatters in Council properties in this period (South London Press,15/2/88 – henceforth referred to as the SLP), so I certainly wasn’t alone.

It was a time of crisis in the local state, with the Conservative central government setting strict limits of what Councils could spend. One group of Lambeth Labour Councillors (led by Ted Knight) had already been disqualified from office for attempting to defy this. Their successors, led by Linda Bellos, were in the contradictory position of publicly decrying the cuts while implementing them.

The atmosphere at work was marked by almost total disengagement from the employers, something I was made aware of in my first week. Like most library workers I joined NALGO, the main union for ‘white collar workers’, who were then enforcing a ‘work to rule’. This involved people refusing to cover for vacant posts by working for more than two hours on a service point. So if a library assistant was asked to work a shift on the front desk for longer or without the usual number of colleagues on duty, they would refuse to work it and the library would have to close.  ‘Absenteeism’ was rife, so it was common for the usual number of staff not to be on duty – as a result, closures were quite frequent.

There was also some solidarity action going on in support of the historic strike at Rupert Murdoch’s News International (publishers of the Sun and the Times). This was then in full swing following the management relocating production from Fleet Street to Wapping in order to break the power of printworkers. I had been down to some of the regular mass pickets of the Wapping plant, sometimes featuring violent clashes and police charges. In the library, workers refused to handle News International papers – normally all the papers would be put out for people to read.  I went to my first union branch meeting at Brixton Town Hall in February where there was a speaker from Wapping. It was informally agreed that the boycott would continue though no vote was taken in an attempt to avoid legal action by Murdoch’s lawyers.

In terms of the Council, matters reached a head late in 1987 when the national Government announced the following year’s funding for local authorities. For Lambeth, a spending limit of £152m was set for 1988/89, compared with £210m in the previous year. The Council responded by planning cuts and putting forward controversial plans for a compulsory redeployment scheme. This was to involve cutting jobs by freezing recruitment when posts became vacant and then moving people from other jobs to cover them. Basically people would have been forced to change jobs within the Council and made redundant if they refused.

At a NALGO mass meeting just before Christmas (17/12/87) around 400 people agreed to stage a one day strike to coincide with the Council’s budget setting in the New Year. The union meeting was held at the Brixton Academy, the first time I had been in the place where over the next few years I was to see Public Enemy, Sonic Youth and Fatboy Slim, to name but a few.

On January 18th 1988 the Council’s Policy and Resources Committee met to vote through a package of cuts. The NALGO strike went ahead despite Council Leader Linda Bellos writing to workers telling us the strike was a waste of time since the Council had no choice but to make cuts; the deputy Tory group leader (Cllr.  John Bercow) called for us to be sacked: ‘In the current financial crisis these people should be deemed to have dismissed themselves if they strike’ (‘Sack the strikers’, South London Press 15.1.88).  Yes – that John Bercow, later MP and at the time of writing the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Despite these threats and entreaties, ‘Nearly all 5,500 NALGO members stayed away from work’ (SLP 19.1.88); many Council services were closed. A few of us from the libraries drove to one of the outlying branches that was still open (Herne Hill), walked in and persuaded enough people to walk out to close it down. [Typist’s note: this is the Herne Hill Carnegie Library, later occupied against closure in 2016]

In the evening there was a picket of the Council meeting in the Town Hall. We blocked the entrance and delayed some of the Councillors getting into the meeting (despite being ordered not to by union officers), then we moved into the public gallery where we did our best to disrupt the meeting. The Evening Standard reported our efforts with the memorable headline “Egg and Chips fly in £40m cuts Scramble” (19.1.1988): ‘Town hall chief officers feared that the demonstration could get so noisy and chaotic that they took the unprecedented step of issuing placards to members to enable them to carry on the debate in sign language. The placards carried such phrases as ‘I move the amendment’ and ‘I second it’… there were angry scenes after the policy and resources committee meeting at the town hall in Brixton when protestors scuffled with Labour members who had voted in favour of the cuts… Sheaves of agenda papers, eggs and a bag of chips were thrown from the first floor public gallery which overlooks the chamber. Then the town hall fire alarm was let off an the building had to be abandoned’.

By the end of the week, one group of workers – the 70 Lambeth motor mechanics – were on all out strike in a cuts related dispute. Mechanics at the Shakespeare Road depot refused to cover for a vacant cleaner post and were sent home without pay. An indefinite strike was called there and at the Kennington Lane depot.

The strikers, who were members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union picketed the Town Hall and Housing Office on the 21st January 1988, and many NALGO members refused to cross the picket lines. Union officers persuaded the strikers to call off these pickets in return for a promise of support which never really came to much. Pickets of the depots continued though, and when I went down I saw them successfully turn away Post Office vans, BP tankers and other vehicles. There was a still a widespread sense amongst workers that you didn’t cross a picket line. Lambeth Labour bosses responded by using private garages to repair dustcarts and other vehicles during the strike – a move denounced by strikers as amounting to ‘Rupert Murdoch’ tactics (SLP 16/2/1988).

The strike continued for several weeks until most of its demands had been at least partially met – including filling the cleaners post and paying the mechanics extra ‘flexibility payments’ for doing any work outside of their job descriptions. Pressure on the Council had been increased when 30 people with disabilities staged an occupation of the social services HQ. Their transport had been affected by the strike but rather than attack the strikers they demanded that the Council should settle with the dispute.

Short term occupations of Council buildings were a feature of this period. On January 29th, Brixton squatters occupied the office of the Council leader, Linda Bellos. The police arrived to chuck people out, though unfortunately for Bellos she was standing behind the door and took the full force when police pushed it open. A couple of weeks later, it was the turn of Council gardeners to occupy her office following the announcement of 80 planned redundancies.

There were further disputes through 1988 involving different groups of Lambeth Council workers. 100 housing workers had their pay stopped when they refused to operate the new Housing Computer System because of concerns about its implications for staffing and pay. Then in the summer, Environmental Health workers went on strike for several weeks after they had turned up at work to find that management had reorganised their office without talking to them first. In August 1988 a NALGO branch meeting narrowly agreed (by about 140 to 120 votes) to an all out indefinite strike to demand a guarantee from the Council that there would be no compulsory redundancies or redeployment. By this time I was a shop steward and was part of the strike committee set up to build support for the strike. In the event when it went ahead from 5th September it only lasted for a few days and only a minority of workers took part.

Another one day strike by 2,000 NALGO members in October 1988 was in opposition to the government’s plans to transfer the management of Council estates to Housing Action Trusts. Two Brixton housing estates, Loughborough and Angell Town, were scheduled to be in the first wave of this initiative and there was anger and opposition from tenants who saw only higher rents behind the government’s rhetoric of freedom from local authority control. When civil servants turned up to promote the plans on the Loughborough Estate they were heckled and booed by 200 tenants (SLP 30.9.88). There were also big meetings on other estates, including on Tulse Hill Estate.

Lambeth gardeners occupy Council offices

While all this was going on, there were other significant strikes in South London and across the country – making a mockery of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s triumphalist claim in January that the nation was cured of ‘the British Disease’ of striking.

In the health service the concern was low pay and the threat of cuts.  1988 started with people occupying a disused ward at St James Hospital in Wandsworth, protesting against cuts and threats to close London’s largest general hospital (SLP 3.1.88). On February 3rd there was a national day of action by health workers. A march called by London hospital strike committees was blocked by police in Whitehall with four arrests. Later we blocked the traffic on Westminster Bridge. Two weeks later there was a further day of action in London in which 12,000 hospital workers took part. The day ended up with several hundred marching to the town hall in Brixton for a rally. Another day of action on 14th March saw London bus crews, dockers, miners and others taking unofficial action in support of NHS workers. Some of us from Lambeth marched to join the pickets outside the Maudsley Hospital and Kings. Nurses at the Maudsley went on indefinite strike in September – a very rare move for nurses.

Brixton DHSS staff were also among the most militant in London. There had been a long all out strike there in 1980 after two workers were sacked for union activities. Some of the Brixton militants were involved later in the 1980s with Workhouse, a national rank and file group for civil servants in the Civil and Public Servants Association union (I went to a benefit disco for them at the Asian Community Action Group on Brixton Road).  [They’d also supported/taken part in the 1987-88 civil servants strike]. In August 1988 Brixton dole workers walked out on strike with other London offices against a threat to move jobs out of London. Ultimately the Brixton office was to close, making way for the famous Cool Tan squat on Coldharbour Lane in the 1990s. South London postal workers were also active in the national post strike in September 1988, with workers at the Streatham sorting office staging their own strike later in the month after two workers were suspended (SLP 30.9.88).

Further afield there was a major national ferry strike at the end of January 1988, as seafarers walked out in support of colleagues sacked for striking at the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. The National Union of Seamen called off the strike in February when the courts ruled it illegal, but workers for P&O Ferries remained on strike in their own dispute over jobs and pay cuts for over a year. A P&O striker came to a NALGO meeting in August 1988 and that summer there were collections for them outside Brixton tube station.

Another front was a kind of culture war around sexual politics, with conservative forces pushing anti-gay and abortion politics. The movement against the anti-gay ‘Clause 27’ (later known as ‘Section 28’) was in full swing -.a clause of the Local Government Bill that banned Councils from ‘promoting’ homosexuality. On 9th January 1988 there was arrests on a big demonstration which saw people blockading the entrance to Downing Street and sitting down in Whitehall (I recall somebody trying to set alight to a union jack on the cenotaph – it was made of some kind of flameproof plastic!) and clashing with mounted police in the park next to the Imperial War Museum. In the same period there were also demonstrations against the Alton Bill, which sought to reduce the time limit for abortions. A Lambeth Against Alton group met regularly at the Town Hall from October 1987.

The movement against the poll tax was also in its early days. While not due to be introduced in England until 1990, planning had started to implement it – and to resist it. At the 1988 Lambeth Country Show in Brockwell Park people queued up to have their photos taken with their head in the ‘poll tax refuser’ stocks.

A few of us put out several editions of a bulletin ‘Lambeth Worker’ , with news about what was going on across the Council, as well as stickers. Publication of the bulletin was eased by the fact that one of us worked in Union Place Community Resource Centre, a Council-funded design and  print shop run by a workers co-operative. All kinds of radical literature came out of there, some of it printed semi-commercially, some of it on the side by the staff. Union Place was on Vassall Road next to the Union Tavern at the junction with Camberwell New Road.  It had survived an attempted fascist arson attack for which a local National Front activist (and Southwark Council dust cart driver) was jailed in 1980, but ultimately succumbed to cuts – the building has been replaced by housing.

In ‘Lambeth Worker’ we argued for unifying the different struggles: ‘Some people say that there’s no point in fighting because the Council hasn’t got any money, but they’re wrong. Nurses are in a similar situation, employed by almost bankrupt health authorities, yet they realise that by taking national action they can force the government to cough up more money. If we link up our struggle with other people acing cuts such as Council workers in other boroughs and health workers, we can all benefit from forcing the state into retreat’ (Lambeth Worker, no. 1, 1988). [Check out Lambeth Worker, no 1, here and a later issue here

The reality within Lambeth was that groups of workers tended to be picked off one by one. The unions divided the workforce, with office workers mainly in NALGO, and manual workers split between NUPE, AEU, GMB and UCATT. But even within NALGO workers in different sections found themselves isolated. Many Union officers were embroiled in the internecine warfare within the Labour Party, making deals with the various factions cooked up in The Social Club, a cheap bar in the Town Hall, and other smoky rooms. The endless calls for one day strikes became increasingly routinised, with little serious effort to mobilise for action. Many workers ignored them and waited for the promised final catastrophe that never arrived. Instead of the big bang of mass redeployment or redundancies, the outcome was the slow lingering death of Council services from a thousand cuts, continuing in Lambeth and many other places for years to come.

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Much more could be written on this period in Lambeth… some of it is vaguely in preparation…

If you liked this post… check out the author’s excellent blog transpontine

Today in radical history, 1658: Agitator, conspirator – Edward Sexby dies of a fever in the Tower of London

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?

(Langston Hughes, Harlem)

“Shall we that would not endure a king 19 attempting tyranny, shall we suffer a professed tyrant? We that resisted the lion assailing us, shall we submit to the wolf tearing us?” (Killing No Murder, 1657)

The English Revolution of 1640-60 threw up ideas, dreams, programs, and actions in a turbulent ferment, like few eras before or since in this island’s history… Social, political and religious boundaries were pushed outward and in some cases broken, long-held mores dissolved, the tight bonds of social control and hierarchical respect shattered.

Some of this was temporary, of only affected a few; other changes took decades to make themselves obvious, some flames were lit that were quickly extinguished, but bore sparks that still float in the charged air centuries later… Some dreams have been achieved. Others still dance at the edge of our collective consciousness…

Thousands of individuals participated in radical social challenge to the existing order. Many we know the names of; for more we know nothing at all. Commemorating any individual from this era is to some extent illustrating a glimpse into the lives of many who remain anonymous.

Edward Sexby died of a fever, while a prisoner in the Tower of London, on 13th January 1658. Sexby was a former army agitator and Leveller sympathiser, who had been a sometime ally and officer under Oliver Cromwell, but had become disillusioned with the supreme power Cromwell had amassed, after the dissolution of Parliament by force in 1653. He had been arrested for plotting the assassination of the ‘Protector’ and distributing propaganda justifying the killing of such tyrants.

Sexby was born around 1616, and apprenticed to Edward Price of the Grocers Company in 1632. It is suggested that his father Marcus was a ‘gentleman’, though how well-off is not known. Though Edward Hide, Earl of Clarendon, who later met with Sexby, labelled him ‘illiterate’, and dismissed him as someone who spoke words he didn’t understand, this appears to be a snobbish libel. Sexby certainly read Latin and understood French and Spanish; quoted Machiavelli; he was not unlearned.

As an apprentice Sexby was exposed to both the harsh exploitation of work, and the collective cauldron of apprentice politics. Like many others, a baptism in apprenticeship led him into the radical upsurge of the English Civil War.

When the War finally broke out after its long simmering, Sexby joined Oliver Cromwell’s troop and fought in General Fairfax’s regiment of horse throughout the first Civil War.

He emerged as one of the leaders, or at least one of the more vocal spokesmen, of the New Model Army agitators, around 1647. (He is thought also to have been in contact with Leveller writer, theorist and activist John Lilburne early that year – Lilburne, then imprisoned in the Tower of London, related how he had been in touch with a trooper close to Cromwell, generally believed to be Sexby).

The parliamentarian side in the Civil war had always been an uneasy alliance, divided by class interests, religious differences and visions of what the war was actually being fought for. Moderate parliamentarians from the aristocracy and rich merchant classes may have chafed against the absolute rule of the king and the economic and religious stranglehold of his regime, which frustrated their ambitions; to defeat him they had to ally themselves with and enlist the fighting support of thousands from the lowers classes.

The moderate Parliamentarians wanted religious freedom, yes, but really only for mild presbyterianism, not the myriad sects and radical questioning of the independent churches; not the millenarianism of the puritans or the repressed desires of the mass of people, who had experienced a century of enclosures, upheaval in town and countryside, and for who hunger and poverty were the norm… To defeat the king, Parliament had to open the gates to this flood of ideas and aspirations, but most MPs never intended that all of these desires should be satisfied.

Even before the outbreak of war, the collapse of censorship and the relaxation of the tyranny of the episcopacy saw an explosion of religious expression, of social and political demands and proposals, a torrent of possibilities. This could not be put back in the box, and quite quickly in the course of the war, these tensions drove splits into the parliamentary alliance. The creation of the New Model Army, in effect a puritan fighting force, as much a theatre for religious and political debate as a military unit, scared many nominally on the same side, and as the war went on, the potential for things to get out of hand increased. Without the New Model the war may well not have been won – for some MPs the unleashing of the swirling radical forces and the arising of an armed wing of the independent sects was almost too high a price.

Victory in the Civil War was bound to bring these tensions to a head. Thousands of soldiers had not been paid for months or years; there were threats to close down the freedom of worship that had largely prevailed since 1640; many soldiers had come to the conclusion that they were fighting for the gains of others, and feared they would  see no beneficial change at all for themselves and their families.

The Agitators were elected representatives of the rank and file of the New Model Army; they first appeared in petitions in March 1647, where soldiers asked General Fairfax and his officers for large arrears of pay owed them to be paid. These petitions made clear that the rank and file had few differences of opinion with their own officers over the resolution of this problem, and asked for their grievances to be laid before Parliament. Initially two representatives from each troop in the New Model Army were to take the petition to Parliament – this was soon scaled back to two reps per regiment. Eight cavalry regiments then stationed near London appointed ‘commissioners’ to ‘agitate on behalf of heir several regiments’ – these sixteen men signed a document, which Sexby, William Allen and Thomas Shepherd took to Westminster on 29th April 1647. This document was published a few days later as The Apologie of the Common Soldiers of Sir Thomas Fairfax’s Army. It listed six complaints – action of arrears of pay; provision for windows, orphans and the disabled; a guarantee against impressment for army service outside the kingdom; vindication of the office of the Army (which they asserted was being tarnished by being described as ‘enemies of state’); an act of indemnity, and justice for the ‘meanest subject’.

When this petition was put before Parliament, Sexby, Shepherd and Allen were called to be examined by Parliament. There they defended themselves robustly, asserting that the document was the work of all the men, not just themselves, but that no mutinous intent or plot had been involved. This defence enraged the moderate parliamentarians– Denzil Holles MP, a leading moderate, later wrote that if one of the the had been hanged immediately after this appearance, as a warning to the Army, much that happened alter could have been averted (However Sexby and his companions’ statements regarding the collective nature of the soldiers’ protest, which can largely shown to be true, illustrates Holles’ misreading of the political situation in the Army). Holles himself was to become a chief target of the Army’s growing suspicion and distrust of the moderate MPs, soon to be exposed as intriguing with the defeated king Charles to push back against any further social change and the power of the Army.

Sexby spent much of the next few months working to facilitate self-organisation and representation in the New Model Army, organising an appeal to the officers for money to allow the Army to set up its own printing press, to enable the soldiers to better put their case out publicly; he himself was paid for a number of journeys from regiment to regiment, carrying messages, spreading money around to various agitators. It seems that the senior officers in the Army thought supplying money and other resources to the Agitators would both keep them under the leadership’s control, and allow them to be used as a weapon against the vacillating Parliamentarians. This was a dangerous line to tread, and though it would reap some gains for the Army ‘Grandees’, such an alliance was bound to founder on the widely different interests and growing political divide between many of the rank and file and their commanders. At this time Oliver Cromwell was rising slowly but surely towards the position he would reach, first as effective head of the Army (although other officers were nominally above him), directing it as a weapon for achieving the aims of the puritan wing of the revolution, while attempting to restrict the more radical elements who were pressing for a widening of the vote, some addressing of social inequality, or, even more worryingly, broader democratic demands, and beyond that, the germs of what was later called communism. Cromwell was widely trusted by diverse strands of opinion in what can loosely be called the English Revolutionary ‘movement’  – from middle class puritan non-conformists who aspired towards their own religious freedom and economic liberty, to fifth monarchist ‘old testament’ insurgents, to levellers… He had the knack of appearing all things to all men, which was useful in the coalition that was the parliamentary side; he had fought with many of these men side by side through the war and won their respect. They considered him one of them. But he was a more shrewdly calculating pragmatist, and would jettison all of them if their ideologies threatened the puritan settlement he would build…

Army Agitators had seized control of king Charles in the summer of 1647, and the subsequent attempt of Holles’ Presbyterian faction to seize power led to the Army marching on London in August. Sexby, quartered at Hammersmith, along with the other Agitators, was heavily involved in the growing co-operation between the army radicals and the civilian levellers; visiting Leveller leader John Lilburne in the Tower of London, while still sitting on the Army Council. Around this time Lilburne complained that some of the original agitators had been bought off by the Army Grandees, and many regiments in fact elected new agents to replace them, who were not paid by the Army leaders. Sexby, however, despite being one of the original agitators, remained influential in the radical dealings all year, and had become very well known at this time as a man of some importance in this period of ferment.

He was a notable speaker in the Putney Debates in October-November 1647, where the Army leadership, Agitators and some civilian Levellers discussed and argued the future of the English Revolution. He was link between the civilian and military radicals, as well as introducing some of the other rank and file soldiers into the debate. Sexby is know to have made five contributions to the debate  – though others may have not been recorded under his name. He argued with Cromwell over the latter’s recent negotiations with the king and with parliament, saying the general’s reputation had suffered within the Army as a result. He also intervened in the debate about the right of those who had fought in the war to ‘a share in the kingdom’ – a say in the political settlement that would follow. Sexby asserted that if the common soldiers did not win the right to take part in decision-making, then for what had they been fighting: “Do not you think it were a sad and miserable condition that we have fought all this time for nothing? All here both great and small do think we fought for something.”

Like Colonel Thomas Rainborough, Sexby said that the electoral franchise should not be limited to men of property:

“I think there are as many that have not estates that in honesty have as much right in the freedom of their choice [ie the right to vote for an MP to represent them] as any that have great estates.”

Cromwell criticised Sexby for the vehemence of his speech, accusing him of ‘self-will’. Sexby apologised for the forthrightness of his manor but not the sentiment…

On Monday 1st November, the third day of the debate, Sexby spoke out again on the subject of the issue of the monarchy and the king. Where Cromwell cautioned against radical acts that could lose the Army support, Sexby thought that the time had come to dispose of monarchs: “we have gone about to heal Babylon when she would not [be healed]. We have gone about to wash a blackamoor, to wash him white, which he will not.” Meaning that the king would not change, become pliable and accept social change, but would continue to plot to restore himself to supreme power.

Despite winning some concessions at Putney, the radicals were quickly out-manoeuvered by the grandees, the Generals paying off many agitators and dispatching bland assurances to most regiments. As a result, few joined the brief mutiny at Ware which followed the debates, and it was swiftly faced down.

Sexby seems to have played no part in the mutiny, and remained in London meeting with Levellers and others rather than fighting in the Second Civil War, which  broke out in 1648. The Army leadership was caught between a revived rising climate of dissent in parts of the Army, and the plots hatched between king and elements of parliament on the other hand, and had to tread a narrow path…Victory in the Second Civil War, though inevitably gave them confidence to move against the Parliamentary moderates, and Cromwell deliberately cosied up again to the Levellers and the remnants of the agitators’ organisation, to bolster support for the political struggle to come. Sexby played a part here, acting as messenger between Cromwell and Lilburne. This alliance was shaky and mistrustful, and only lasted as long as Cromwell needed radial support for the purge of Parliament and to launch a trial of the king.

But around this time Sexby began to gravitate away from the radical milieu and towards the orbit of Cromwell. To be fair, many among the agitators, levellers and ‘grandee’s tended to see themselves as on the same side, or at least sharing a common set of principles – up to a point. The levellers and agitators certainly saw Cromwell as a comrade for a long time, and the arguments within the Army and around it as being disagreements in policy within a movement they all saw as having greater beliefs in common than their differences. How much of this was genuinely felt on Cromwell and other grandees part, and how much he cynically exploited when needed, is still debated. He certainly played to the radicals when it was politically expedient, and then shafted the Levellers and the Army rank and file when their support was no longer vital.

Cromwell must have taken note of Sexby, at Putney if not before, and marked him as a capable organiser who was worth winning to his side. Generous commissions were pushed Sexby’s way to win his support, as Cromwell and his allies ensured the purge of parliament (in effect a military coup), the execution of the king and the inauguration of the Commonwealth  – a republic, but with no further concessions to the Levellers or the demands of the Army rank and file. Sexby played no part in the doomed Leveller agitations of 1649 or the mutinies of that year, but was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, acted an intelligence officer and governor of Portland in Dorset, and given command of a regiment which fought in under General Monck in Scotland and prepared to embark for Ireland. However, in 1651, he was forced out of this command due to infighting within Monck’s army. Cromwell’s Council of State employed him in an intelligence post, in which role he played a part attempting to foment a republican uprising in Bordeaux in France – this included drawing up a proposed program for the insurgents that was based on what looked very like the Agitators’ Agreement of the People (definitely not what Cromwell had in mind, I would guess – Sexby was still playing a cunning game which may have involved skullduggery against his boss…). This plan for a Bordeaux republic failed however, partly foundering on Cromwell’s ambivalence towards the project; and another proposal of Sexby’s, for England to ally with Spain in a war on France, was also blocked by Cromwell. Sexby returned to England in 1653. He continued to work for Cromwell for another year, but was obviously disillusioned by the whole affair.

By 1654 Sexby was plotting against Cromwell. Whether he had gradually come to doubt the ‘Lord Protector’, or had subsumed his earlier radical views in his own self interest, but finally come to a point of ‘no further’, or was consumed with bitterness over Cromwell’s failure to back his French adventures – it’s not certain. Maybe a mix of all the above… Sexby had followed Cromwell when other old Leveller/agitator comrades had gone to jail or into exile, or even been shot for mutiny (Sexby had introduced Robert Lockyer to the company at the Putney Debates). Either way, in February 1655, Sexby was implicated in a petition uncovered by Cromwell’s intelligence service, calling for reforms to be added to a new constitution. A number of military figures were also said to be involved, linked to what Cromwell’s spy chief Thurloe called ‘the vile Levelling party’. Sexby fled to the west country and then to the Netherlands (Fellow conspirator Leveller John Wildman ended up in the Tower).

In a bizarre twist, typical of the sad reversal of the times, on the run in Holland, Sexby soon met and began to co-operate with Cromwell’s other enemies – exiled royalists. On the principle that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, Sexby met with various Royalists, representatives of the would-be king Charles II, and involved himself in a series of plots, which were mainly aimed at offing Cromwell, without whom the Commonwealth would fall apart. The royalists guessed this would de-stabilise the hated republic – Sexby’s motives are less clear. A combination of the genuinely held radical sentiments that he undoubtedly still retained, a sense of personal betrayal and disillusionment… Sexby was by all accounts suffering from severe mood swings at this point, angry, bitter, cynical… How long he had been suppressing these emotions while working for Cromwell but keeping it hidden, is anyone’s guess…

Sexby, his new royalist allies and what other Levellers and republicans would work with them launched a series of assassination plots aimed at the protector. Sexby’s republican principles he put to one side, even attempting to enlist the Spanish commander in the Netherlands in the plans. The royalists he dealt with were wary of him, however, sensing that his alliance with them was shaky and based on little real common ground, and that his personal grievances against ‘Old Noll’ were in danger of unbalancing his judgment.

The schemes to knock off Cromwell varied from plans to shoot him as he rode to Parliament, or to Hampton Court, where he spent most weekends, or to ride in Hyde park – to a plan to blow up Whitehall palace. Sexby’s agent on the ground for much of this conspiring was Miles Sindercombe, an old republican soldier, a leader of the mutinies in 1649 who had managed to escape punishment. He had met Sexby in the Netherlands and then returned in secret to England. The plans kept foundering on small changes of plan by the Protector, or when those charged to do the actual shooting bottled out, or had second thoughts. Sindercombe was caught in January 1657, after the Whitehall plot was revealed to Thurloe by John Toope, a plotter who had a change of heart. Sindercombe gave up nothing under questioning, was convicted of high treason, sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, but poisoned himself in the Tower the night before his execution.

Sexby is generally thought to have written, or co-written Killing No Murder, a pamphlet justifiying the assassination of tyrants and the Protector in especial, which was clandestinely distributed around London in May 1657. Though it emerged under the name of William Allen (Sexby’s old agitator confederate), and after the Restoration one of Sexby’s royalist confederates from this time, Colonel Silius Titus, (another ex-civil war parliamentarian officer) claimed to be the author (thus snaffling a juicy pension from Charles II), clues in the text suggest Sexby at least hand a hand in it. Later commentators rubbished this, because of Clarendon’s jibe that Sexby was illiterate – however this was, as related above, snobbish cobblers. I would guess that it was written by more than one writer – perhaps two or more texts jammed together. There are tips to royalism in it that may come from Titus, but other sections that read like an ex-leveller agitator. What partisan of Charles II would state that government only comes from the people? – but then what leveller would suggest they’d rather have Charles I back than Cromwell in power?

Can we get a handle on what drove Sexby at heart? He clearly burned with anger, and fought for what he saw as justice for the common soldiery (and by implication a wider ‘class’ from which much of it came); in 1653 as much as in 1647 he can be seen trying to widen the political power of disenfranchised strata. But he was obviously extremely pragmatic, a realist and a practical organiser. When tensions within the Leveller/Grandee alliance came to a head, more than once he stepped aside or withdrew from direct conflict. At some times he can be seen attacking Cromwell and the Grandees, at others he clearly suppressed doubts and accepted pay, rank and promotion instead of holding out for what (by then) were looking like lost causes. How did he feel about the defeat of the mutinies of 1649, the lost chance for the revolution to press on into deep social change to the benefit of the people he had spoken out out for at Putney?

If he did write or part-write Killing No Murder, does this offer clues to his thinking at this time? The pamphlet sparkle with sarcastic bitterness, with what seems like some personal barbs against Cromwell and the civil war veterans who still supported him, “from one that was once one amongst you: and will be so again when you dare be so as you were” – which could fit Titus, Allen or Sexby, though the tone suggests the latter two more…

The text upbraids Cromwell for setting up as a dictator, and blasts others, clearly meaning the writer/s’ old army comrades, for backing the ‘Lord Protector’. On the on hand it asserts that government can only legitimately come from the will of the people, or from God, and if not they have no right to govern. It links Cromwell to the tyrants of the Greek classical era, who often arose as supposed champions of the common people against aristocracy but ended as dictators. The feeling of betrayal, of denouncing someone who was once trusted and admired, runs through it like a strand of barbed wire: “ourselves, that have fought, however unfortunately, for our liberties under this tyrant; and in the end, cozened by his oaths and tears, have purchased nothing but our slavery with the price of our blood.”

And it goes to great length to reason out that a ruler who seizes power, puts themself above the law, (which the writer/s identify as the only thing that binds communities together in justice), then they out themselves outside the law, and are fair game to the assassin: “First, therefore, a usurper that by only force possesses himself of government, and by force only keeps it, is yet in the state of war with every man, says the learned Grotius; and therefore everything is lawful against him that is lawful against an open enemy, whom every private man has a right to kill.”

It is a duty to kill the tyrant, who not only usurps power from the commonwealth, but by people’s obedience to his rule, corrupts them as well… Consent to tyranny turns those who give it into contemptible figures – again, a sharp jab at those who had swallowed radical principles they had fought for. However, you can’t help feeling that if Sexby had a hand in this text, he is angry first of all with himself, as of course he had done exactly that, followed Cromwell, for five years after the repression of the radicals… Sometimes the darkest fear and hatred comes from your resentment towards your own actions you regret…

Large numbers of copies Killing No Murder were smuggled into England, being scattered in the streets on several occasions; many more were seized by the authorities. For, as with much of the republican plots of this era and the restoration years, the conspiracies were penetrated by Thurloe’s spies, both in England and on the continent, and most of their discussions and plans were soon well known to the authorities.

“Expect another sheet or two of paper of this subject if I escape the tyrant’s hands”… Sexby did not escape the tyrant’s hands. The spies and betrayals, the bitter double-dealing of the times, was to be the death of Sexby. In summer 1657 he came to England in disguise, still trying to stir up a successful plot against Cromwell. He had some contact with his old comrade John Wildman, recently released from the Tower, but this may have been a serious mistake, as Sexby was arrested on 24th July as he was embarking back to Holland, ‘in a very mean habit, with an overgrown beard’ – possibly betrayed by Wildman, whose information against him may have been the price of his liberty. (Though nothing was ever proved, Wildman was a sharp opportunist, happy to act as a double agent, playing both sides against he middle for his own gain.)

Conveyed to the Tower, Sexby was questioned, including a short interview with Cromwell, which must have been a fun meeting… While being held in the Tower of London he allegedly confessed that he had written Killing No Murder, co-operated with ‘Charles Stuart’s’ partisans, and had backed up Sindercombe’s plots, but refused to divulge any more information or name any more of his cohorts. The confession may have been coerced out of him or invented, but just as likely Sexby really did own up to his own part in actions he felt were justified.

Sexby became ill in the Tower, and died there in January 1658. The government’s official organ, Mercurius Politicus, said he had become ‘stark mad’. Though they would say that, wouldn’t they, it is also possible that the hopes and disappointments of Sexby’s life over the previous fifteen years had left him angry and depressed. Many others of his civil war comrades retreated into quietist religion, individual subversive libertinism or utopian dreams, (that is if they weren’t in prison or exile) in response to the dashing of the beautiful visions that had animated them, or betrayed the ‘Good Old Cause’ for their own advancement, seizing opportunities to profit by their adhering to the right side, at least until the Restoration (when many were jailed and regicides were executed). Sexby remained a man of action, whether in radical agitation, swallowing his doubts to work for the Protectorate, or plotting to bring it down. His death is just one of many sad personal ends to the postponed paradise the English Revolution promised.

Killing No Murder can be read for free here

The original pamphlet is online at:

http://www.christiebooks.com/ChristieBooksWP/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/KillingNoMurderSexby.pdf

Mercurius Politicus blog about civil war publishing and more is also well worth checking out

For more on the radicals of the English Revolution and the circles Sexby moved in, you could do worse than read

The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the Engilsh Revolution, Christopher Hill

The Levellers and the English Revolution, HN Brailsford

Forlorn Hope, Soldier Radicals of the 17th Century, Antonia Southern.

Freeborn John, (biography of John Lilburne), Pauline Gregg.

The Experience of Defeat, Christopher Hill, (This has some interesting writings on how individuals who experienced the English Revolution reacted to its betrayal and collapse… Worth a read for anyone who participates in social struggles…)

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

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Today in London anti-war history, 1919: Strike of conscientious objectors in Wandsworth Prison gets them released

Wandsworth Prison, in South London, was built in 1851. During World War 1, it had been divided into two institutions, one a civil prison housing conscientious objectors, and the other a military wing for the detention of army defaulters from the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand armies. Each of these prisons had its own Governor and administration. In theory they were quite separate, but in fact the military section overflowed into a part of the civil prison. Sometimes the two factions of alleged delinquents came into contact. This was stopped when the conchies, appalled at the brutal treatment meted out to the soldiers, made protest demonstrations. This reached a climax when R.M. Fox and others raised a vigorous protest when a youth was chased naked along a corridor by prison guards armed with ticks with which they proceeded to beat the young soldier. But the windows of the civil cells overlooked by the military parade ground, and from there much abuse was hurled at the guards, and much incitement to revolt aimed at the soldiers.

The stirring of unrest among the Conscientious objectors in Wandsworth began in the early months of 1918. In February, Conscientious objectors refused to wash military uniforms as part of their prison work. They would not wear them: was it considered they should wash them? The Governor conceded the point.

By June 1918, the noise created in the establishment of deathly silence was such that it upset the subservient faction of the inmates, and harassed the warders. That month a work and discipline strike was planned, but it was betrayed beforehand by one of the conchies who did not believe in making a disturbance.

The nine ringleaders of the alleged plot were brought before the Visiting Magistrates and sentenced to forty-two days No 1 punishment. That meant seven weeks in solitary confinement with three days on and three days off bread and water, in unheated basement cells with no furniture, except bedboard, stool and sanitary bucket. Among the nine were Guy Aldred, Frederick Sellars, Ralph Morris and R.M. Fox.

[Guy Aldred (1886-1963) was a long-time anarchist-communist. Born in Clerkenwell, London, he first became a boy-preacher, then a freethinker and secularist speaker, rapidly progressing to socialist politics. An eccentric individual all his life, he adopted an anarchist and anti-parliamentarian stance before WW1, but for decades was famous for standing in elections, as a tactic for spreading propaganda. A noted public speaker, he saw himself very much in the tradition of nineteenth century freethinkers and radical publishers like Richard Carlile. During WW1 he refused to submit to conscription, and was imprisoned in labour camps and various prisons several times, but continued his anti-war campaigning inside and outside jail. After the war he moved to Glasgow, and lived there for the rest of his life, continuing to issue anarchist propaganda.
Richard Fox, known as Dick, was a founder and leading member of the North London Herald League, one of the main groups in London to oppose WW1 from a socialist perspective. The NLHL was formed initially as part of a nation-wide support and distribution network for the leading leftwing paper, the Daily Herald. It united socialists, anarchists and communists of varying ideological backgrounds, and organised constant anti-war propaganda and public meetings throughout the conflict. Its members were also involved in every conceivable theatre of struggle – resisting conscription, helping to smuggle draft-dodgers out of the country, strikes, and much more. Before the war Fox had been an engineer and a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain; from 1913 he was a member of the syndicalist union, the Industrial Workers of the World’s British section, and had edited its paper Industrial Worker. He was arrested in 1916, forced to go before a Tribunal when he refused to obey orders, and went to prison.
Fox was released in 1919, and became a writer and journalist. He eventually moved to Dublin where he died in 1969.]

When the nine had been on bread and water for three days, the Governor sent for them and told them he was transferring them to Brixton Prison…

Brixton at this time held remand prisoners, convicted men on short sentences (as it does today) as well as political detainees and some conscientious objectors. At this time, several IRA men (1918 being the early days of the Irish War of independence) were held there; they were not subject to the usual rules of silence or locked in their cells. Another inmate was Tchitcherin, a Russian socialist soon to be appointed the Soviet representative in Britain. When the Wandsworth rebels were transferred to Brixton Prison, they made it clear to the Governor there that they would do no ‘punitive work’, but agreed to work in the kitchens so long as they were allowed to speak and had minimal supervision. To save face, the Chief Warder made an agreement to deliver the required allotment of mailbags in each man’s cell each day, though Aldred and the others made it clear they would not sew them… A blind eye was turned. The nine also managed to force some concessions regarding the conditions in which they received visits.

Working in the kitchen, exempted from the silence rule, the nine held political discussions; RM Fox recalls Aldred standing behind a table, making some political point, illustrating it by prodding the air vigorously with a bread knife! They also held clandestine study sessions, and Aldred wrote and smuggled out articles for The Spur (via sympathetic prison warders?!?)

While the men were in Brixton (in August 1917), the sentences on Aldred, Frederick Sellar and Ralph Morris ended, but instead of being released, they were transferred to Blackdown Barracks, given orders, which they were bound to refuse, and court-martialled again. As a result they received further sen­tences of two years hard labour.

The first of these prisoners to return to Wandsworth from Brixton, on September 4th 1918, was Guy Aldred, with another two years added to his (two-year) sentence. He had openly stated at his court-martial note here and in the columns of his paper The Spur that he would neither work nor take orders while subject to this illegal imprisonment. He later maintained, not in self-defence, but as a matter of fact, that he was not the leader, but there is no doubt that his attitude would stir up the latent unrest, which had not been entirely inactive while he was away.

As the trouble got worse, sometime in October the Governor gathered the twenty most obstreperous men into his office and offered a truce. All punishments wiped out, several concessions granted, if the men would co-operate in running the prison properly. Aldred was among the twenty. It is not recorded who was their spokesman, but the reaction was unanimous. Their liberty was not up for bargaining. They were not objecting to the conditions of imprisonment but to the fact of imprisonment. So the peace bid failed.

The Governor retaliated by confining the worst offenders, including Aldred, to their cells, canceling all visits, all letters and library books. Cell ‘furniture’ (bedboard and stool) were removed during the day.

By this time the men were on strike. The demands were for the release of the locked-up men, the resumption of letters, visitors and books, and one hour (increased to two hours, on second thoughts) of free talking every day. These demands seem to have been met, with the exception of the release of the locked-up men. They, it was said, would stay permanently under lock and key.

R.M. Fox returned to Brixton at that time. He had been kept in Brixton till the expiry of his two-year sentence, then on November 10th, the eve of the Armistice, he was released and taken back to the headquarters of his Army unit – which he was deemed to have joined – stationed at Mill Hill military barracks, not to be dismissed from the Army, as prescribed in the Regulations, but to face his fourth court-martial.

The guard room at Mill Hill Barracks was packed with very drunk soldiers. They had been celebrating victory over the Germans and smashing up the West End. Now they were confined to barracks, and they were celebrating. They sang the old war-time songs beloved of all soldiers: ‘Take me back to Dear old Blighty’, ‘If the sergeant drinks your rum, never mind!’, and the parody on a hymn, ‘Wash me in the water that you washed your dirty daughter, and I shall be whiter that the whitewash in your wall.’

A few days later Fox faced his fourth court martial. Fox was an engineer by trade, an author by profession, and a socialist by conviction. He had delivered many an anti-war speech at open-air meetings before hostile audiences. He took this opportunity to harangue the officers of the court, since they had probably never listened to an open-air meeting:

“Gentlemen, you think you are trying me. You are in error. It is you who are on trial. The havoc you have wrought in the past years is there to condemn you. It is not German militarism, nor English militarism, which is responsible for this. It is Militarism, without qualification, and the militarists are only the agents for the capitalists who coin money out of blood. I stand as spokesmen for that rising body of men and women who are about to condemn you. The war was a war of greed and plunder. Profiteers have plundered the people unmercifully since the war began…Thousands of honest poor people have been murdered and maimed to swell the moneybags of the vultures who made the war …. Thousands of working men, sick to death of the horror, greed and hypocrisy of their present rulers are taking control of the world into their own hands….”

He could have saved his breath. The sentence of the court was automatic, as the members of the court were automatons, programmed to a War Office response. Two years’ Hard Labour. A few days later Fox and five others were taken by an escort of ten soldiers to Wandsworth Prison.

The sergeant in charge halted his men outside a West End tearoom and proposed that they all meet again therein two hours’ time. Fox looked up some friends and had tea and a chat. At the end of two hours, more or less, the prisoners had all assembled. Presently the sergeant arrived, but no escort. In some alarm the sergeant asked the prisoners to help find them. So, after an organised search of nearby pubs they were all together, the escort very merry, and some very unsteady. When they arrived at the gates of Wandsworth they were really being escorted by the prisoners.

Wandsworth, according to Fox, was like a cold damp scullery. ‘My heart sank when I saw the grim entrance to Wandsworth again, and heard the key grate once more in the lock. A little band of pacifist women, led by Clara Cole, greeted us at the prison gate, where they were tireless in their demonstrations.’

[Clara Gilbert Cole (1868-1956) was a suffragist before World War 1. During the war she became an ardent pacifist, founding a League against War and Conscription. She was jailed for six months in 1916 with Rosa Hobhouse for distributing thousands of anti-war leaflets in Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. Later she was associated with Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation, another of the main London anti-war groups. Becoming involved in the post-war unemployed movement, she was nicked again in 1922 on an unemployed action in Camberwell, South London. She gravitated towards anarchism, with which she identified until her death.

Another of those women was Lady Clare Anneseley.  [Lady Clare Annesley (1893-1980), pacifist and socialist, was daughter of the 5th Earl Annesley, but became a member of the Independent Labour Party. When the war broke out she was heavily involved in the No Conscription Fellowship. She later stood as a Labour Party candidate in the 1920s and ‘30s. But she became interested in the Social Credit movement in the early 1930s, and its possible that she also flirted with fascism at this time…? I cannot be sure of this however.]

Both were active in keeping a constant vigil outside Wandsworth, carrying placards in support of the C.O. s inside, and laying themselves open to much public abuse. Both Clara Cole and Lady Clare Annesley were associated with Guy Aldred in his opposition to the Second War, though in a quieter role. During the First War they also organised concerts of popular songs and music outside the walls of Wandsworth. Inmates were forbidden to listen. Seven men who gathered under a landing window to listen to one such Christmas Eve concert were seen, and promptly sentenced to one day on bread and water to see them over the Christmas celebrations.

Fox found that the prison was completely out of hand. Now that the Armistice was signed, long pent‑up feelings demanded an outlet. One body of prisoners, who were known as the ‘All‑Out Strikers’, had declared that they intended to disregard all prison rules. Those men were in permanent lock‑up. They kept up a constant din all day, rattling their mugs along the doors of their cells and shouting abuse at the warders. Guy Aldred probably took part in this uproar, though it was quite out of character. He would rather have been reading or writing, or speaking. The din told on his nerves, and he was not the only sufferer. Only about a third of the C.O.s were in revolt. The others just wanted to finish their time and get out. They complained to the Governor that they could not read the extra book the concession had granted them, because of the din. The old lags – according to Fox there were still some in the prison – did not know what to make of it all. Jail had never been like this.

In the evenings the locked‑up men held concerts, with songs and recitations echoing through the spy‑holes, and Guy Aldred had his chance: he lectured. On at least one occasion the warders tried to drown his words by rattling on trays. On December 4th the Governor ordered the ‘All-Out Strikers’ to be taken down to the basement cells. R.M. Fox was not among them at that time: he was with them a few weeks later, so we can use his description:

“Those basement cells were appalling. They were half underground dungeons. Not only were they gloomy, but everything in them was coated with an unbelievable filth. Grimy cobwebs hung in the corners, the dirt of years was plastered on the small barred window through which I could just seethe feet of men on exercise at ground level. Even the can of drinking water was festooned with dirt and grime. It was as if I had been thrust in among old forgotten lumber to die…

The “All‑Out Strikers” occupied similar basement cells. Nearly opposite my cell was a Scottish lad, Jack Hodgson, who had been down in this horrible dungeon for months. He was not allowed out for exercise for he refused to obey the prison rules. He was nothing but a bag of bones, with a pale, hollow cheeked face, and an indomitable spirit. I heard his thin treble voice singing revolutionary songs far into the night. His voice cut across the brooding silence of that terrible time.”

The furniture consisted of a bed‑board, three blankets, a backless stool, a fixed table‑bench, and a sanitary bucket, sometimes left for two days unemptied. Twice a week a convict barber came around and as each man in turn sat on his stool drew a torturously blunt old ‘cut-throat’ razor over his face. There were no washing facilities and no exercise. There was no heating – and this was mid-winter. The light should have been supplied from the gas jet, which shone through a frosted glass panel from the corridor. This was not lit on the first night, and as a protest the men smashed the glass panels, an action for which they were awarded one day on bread and water. The broken panels made a good opening for speaking to each other, and by that means the prisoners agreed to reject the punishment by throwing the bread back into the corridor. The light was then restored, but withdrawn again when the unwisdom of giving desperate men access to a gaslight was realised. Thereafter the ‘Basement Men’ spent their days in gloom and their nights in darkness for many weeks.

As a protest against the treatment of the Basement Men, the other conchies on strike decided to hold a meeting in the exercise yard on a Sunday, when most of the warders were off duty. It was arranged that four men, Beacham, Knight, Spiller and Fox would speak in turn from a parapet: others would follow as each was dragged off. So, instead of marching round in the prescribed manner, they gathered in a group round the speakers. There was no interference, and the meeting proceeded. There were only two warders on yard duty, and they probably felt the situation was beyond them, especially as these were not ordinary convicts, and the warders themselves were not quite immune from the radical tendencies that were gathering strength outside. From that meeting a Prisoners’ Committee of five members was elected. This reported to the prisoners in the exercise yard. A proposal of cell-furniture smashing was rejected, and a policy of ‘massive deputation’ was adopted. If a grievance was not dealt with to their satisfaction, they would march to the centre of the prison and squat there till agreement was reached between them and the Governor.

Next morning fifty men made application to see the Governor. He accepted only five. The Chairman of the Visiting Magistrates was present. The magistrates had arrived to hear charges against the basement strikers. Fox read out a resolution passed at the meeting condemning the incarceration of the Basement Men, and demanding their release. The Governor said those complaints had no personal bearing on the men making the complaints, and were therefore invalid. He would run the prison as he thought fit. Fox was permitted to speak to the magistrates, and did so with the satisfactory result that they took no action on the charges made, and so no further punishments were handed out.

Concerts were held in the evenings, both above ground and at basement level. The men above recited or sang from their windows, standing on their stools. Fox describes one such entertainment in which there were twenty items of song and recitation, ending with the ‘Red Flag’. Prisoners from an opposite wing climbed on their stools to listen and applaud. So did the soldiers, some of whom joined in the singing of rebel songs. And so did the inhabitants of the nearby houses. They did not applaud or join in, but they listened, leaning on their elbows on the window sills.

The basement men held lectures. The most popular were delivered by Guy Aldred. Speaking through the still unrepaired corridor window, with his bed-board to act as sounding-board, he delivered on different occasions lectures on Karl Marx, Michael Bakunin, Jesus, Womens’ Freedom, the Revolutionary Tradition in English Literature and Richard Carlile. On several occasions off-duty warders gathered at the foot of the stairs to listen.

Wandsworth COs also produced an underground journal, the ‘Old Lags Hansard’. According to inmate Harold Blake, “this periodical was written by hand in block characters on sheets of toilet paper, and sewn together with thread; and on account of the labour involved, only one copy of each issue was published. However, it went the rounds passing from hand to hand, and finally when it had fulfilled its purpose, it was contrived that it should fall into the hands of Mr Walker, the Chief Warder. The vastly amusing part about the whole business was that the last page always con­tained the announcement ‘Look out for the next number, to be published on date x, and in spite of all the efforts of the authorities to trace its origin, we were not disappointed. Once indeed it was a day late, as they made the declared date a search day; but the editor presented his apologies in his editorial to the effect that he was a day late in publishing ‘owing to an official raid on our offices.’ [i.e. his cell!]

COs interned in several work camps and prisons circulated such samizdat journals.

News seeped into Wandsworth that a ‘Hunger-strike policy’ was being advocated in several other prisons. It was proposed that this should start with a wholesale refusal of work or eating on New Years Day. R.M. Fox was one of those who disagreed with the hunger-strike policy. There were those who were opposed to the whole campaign of objection. One such, named Leonard J. Simms, acquiring a plentiful supply of coarse brown toilet paper, wrote and circulated an attack on the ‘Basement Oligarchy’, whose influence and noise kept the prison in a state of uproar. The Chief Warder did not help in the direction of calm and order when he jeered at several of the acquiescent men, calling them cowards who were prepared to accept all the concessions gained by the strikers, but were not prepared to participate in their protests. This led to a spate of cell smashing. One person, being particularly incensed at this accusation, reacted so violently that he was put into a straitjacket.

There had been hunger strikes for varying periods from the beginning of December. There is no way of knowing how many fell in with the Prisoners’ Committee resolution to fast on New Years Day, but fourteen of those who did continued the strike, declaring that it would be maintained till they were released, which they were, on January 7th.

Amongst them were Aldred and Thomas Ellison. [Thomas Ellison had been called up to the 7th London Regiment on April 27th, 1916 and on June 9th was charged at Sutton Mandeville Camp near Salisbury with refusing to put on military clothing. At his court-martial on June 14th, he refused to call witnesses, instead making a speech that was reported in The Spur. He was sentenced to six months’ hard labour, later reduced to 112 days, and sent to Winchester prison on June 19th. In early November Ellison was ordered to Wakefield work camp. On December 27th a letter ordered him to report to the London Regiment. He was arrested in Crewe and taken to Sutton Mandeville, then to Dartmouth (the 7th having moved to South Devon), where he was court-martialled on January 17th and sentenced to two years. He was taken to Exeter Prison on the 26th, spending five months there before his release (in June 1919?).]

However, the releases on January 7th didn’t end the strikes, as not all the strikers got out.

Five who resumed the hunger strike after a break were not included in the release, nor were the non-strikers, that is, those who were non-Participants in the All-Out Strike Campaign. These were men incensed at the jeers of the Chief Warder. Some of them were forcibly fed.

The releases of January 7th were also not final. It was in terms of the Cat and Mouse Act. They were out on licence for twenty-eight days, due to report back on the 6th of February.

The London Star, giving a description of the upheaval in Wandsworth, made it a matter for fun and ridicule at the expense of the C.O.s, implying that they were having as great time at the expense of the taxpayer – having a very happy time altogether. Thomas Henry Ellison replied… in the inaccurate and insulting screed in the columns of The Spur for February 1919: “The article gave no indication of the stern aspect of prison life as known to those who have served from two to three years imprisonment with hard labour – the most rigorous punishment known to English law. It is true that there is a humorous side to prison life. If there were not, most of us would have been transferred to an asylum long before now. Nevertheless there is a tragic side, which the Star did not touch upon. It did not give the number of C.O.s who have been driven insane. It did not tell of the hours of silent torture in which they braved the world, braved it unfalteringly, with soul undaunted by the invective of the Prussianised press, and its lovely bride and supporter, the misled mob.”

Aldred’s physical condition was poor, as must have been expected… The Daily Herald had expressed concern over Aldred’s health the previous August when he had face his fourth court-martial: “We are informed that Aldred’s state of health is such that another term of imprisonment would be highly dangerous; but, indeed, this endless torture would break the health of the strongest man… We call upon the Labour Movement to do something about these outrages.” Now the paper returned to the subject, and the Daily News, West London Observer, and Forward [a news-sheet produced by the Independent Labour Party] also mentioned Guy Aldred’s temporary release, and the effect the long dungeon confinement had had. The editor of the Merthyr Pioneer [a South Wales socialist paper, again run by the ILP.] declared that the sufferings imposed on Aldred and his fellows were not mob violence, but legal crimes. The Glasgow Anarchists in a manifesto demanding the release of all C.O.s, concluded: “The condition of Guy Aldred is one of mental relapse. An active mental worker, a journalist by profession, the bare prison wall with its blank suggestion is fast bringing about in him a serious condition of mind.”

The ferment had not abated in Wandsworth during Aldred’s absence. It had perhaps got even worse. The non-strikers had taken to disobedience. They laughed and talked in the mornings as they were marched to the work shed, and they sang on the way back at 4pm. If any one of them was reprimanded for talking at work they all burst into song. It was not just defiance and protest. Those men were being subjected without a break to a double term of what was considered the harshest sentence allowed by British law. Some of the laughter, coming from half-empty stomachs and torn nerves, was the release of hysteria.

On February 17th, 1919, some of the military prisoners confined on the civil side of the prison attacked their warders. The Prison Report issued later stated: “There can be no doubt that the conduct of the disorderly section of the Conscientious Objectors and their direct incitements to their fellow-prisoners to set the prison authorities at defiance, was one of the main causes of this outbreak.”

Now it was the warders turn to hold a meeting. They reached the conclusion that their lives were in danger, and petitioned the Home Office for support and protection. The result was that the Governor and the Chief Warder (the one who loved to provoke inoffensive prisoners) were each given a month’s leave of absence. The Governor’s place was taken by a Major Blake, who was a noted disciplinarian. He has served in several penal institutions, including Borstal, as a time when the rod was used more frequently than the psychiatrist. The cowardly conchies gave him a rough ride, and a month later an enquiry was held into his conduct. He had overlooked the fact that conchies were more articulate, less over-awed by authority, skilled in exposures, and righteously indignant. The common criminal or Borstal Boy was beaten before he started, by his self-estimation of subservience and fear.

The enquiry into the Major’s misconduct was held in Wandsworth Prison on 15th, 19th and 22nd March 1919. The Report was issued as a White paper on May 7th, and was available to the public at two-pence a copy. Among other interesting observations, it said:

“By this time (the arrival of the major) all attempts to enforce discipline in the prison among the disorderly section of the Conscientious Objectors had been abandoned.

While the promoters of the disorder in the prison belonged exclusively to the prisoners classed as conscientious objectors, it is right to point out that there is a considerable number of conscientious objectors who have from the first refused to take part in the disturbance, and have used their utmost effort to prevent it.

The truth is that the prisoners in Wandsworth Prison classed as conscientious objectors belong to schools of thought which are widely separated. They may be divided into three classes: the first consisting of those who have a sincere objection to any form of military service, the second those who falsely pretend to hold religious views in order to escape from its perils, and the third composed of men who profess anarchical doctrines, who deny the validity of the law and the right of the State to trench upon individual freedom. It was to the last class that the disorder in the prison was mainly due.”

When he first arrived at the prison entrance, the major was led by the new Chief Warder into the main hall. There they encountered a ‘gang of men’ drawn up and singing and making an awful noise such as the major had never heard in any prison of his experience. The Major called out ‘Silence!’ Somebody shouted out ‘Get your hair cut!’ (a popular catch-phrase at the time). Somebody else made an offensive and disgusting noise with his mouth and voices from the back called ‘Who is this bloody swine?’ and ‘Listen to the bloody swine!’

The Major said at the enquiry that the most impertinent person in the crowd of prisoners was a man who said nothing, but kept up an aggravating grinning and giggling. This was blatant dumb insolence. He ordered the warders to take that man to the basement and ‘Iron him if necessary.’ So the poor fellow was dragged to the basement and fastened into the cruel figure-of-eight irons, which were not normally used in those enlightened times.

This was the first man to be punished by the Major, and the sad thing is that this was Ralph Frederick Harris, who, the previous June, had humbly petitioned the Home Office to protect him from the outrageous conchies. Now his deliverer had arrived, perhaps at last in reply to his petition – and not before time, for things had worsened. Doubtless the Home Secretary had mentioned the petition and its author. What the Major crassly mistook for grins and giggles were knowing smiles of welcome. But understanding did not shine from the Major’s face. He thought the fellow a fool.

The tour of inspection proceeded to the workshop. About 450 men were sitting quietly getting on with their work. About 100 of them were conscientious objectors. ‘I was nor particularly interested in the conscientious objectors,’ said the Major at the Enquiry. The officer in charge had just said “all correct, Sir’, when through the opposite door burst a gang of men singing The Red Flag. The flabbergasted Major had never seen anything like it in his life. Recalcitrant old lag, yes, obstreperous borstal boys, certainly, but never a revolutionary tableau complete with vocal chorus in his own prison. He was outraged.

He ordered the warders to drive the mutinous swine back to their cells. He thought the leader was the notorious Guy Aldred, and called him a Bolshevik, with a few adjectival garnishes. Guy was, at that time, holding meetings not far from Wandsworth… [on Clapham Common]. The conchie favoured with the Major’s abuse was R.M. Fox.

‘It is right’, read the Enquiry Report, ‘to observe in connection with the last named man (that is, Guy Aldred), that he had been previously convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment for seditious libel, and in connection with a paper which propagates anarchical doctrines.’

The Enquiry also considered complaints of physical ill treatment made by the prisoners. In one case, the doctor was reported as saying to a man-handled convict that it ‘served him right’. The best the report could offer in the ay of whitewash was that the reason the major had transgressed on all counts was that he had failed to exercise reasonable restraint in his judgments.

The rowdy songsters were hustled back to their cells that first day, but some must have escaped the net, for that evening the Prisoner’ Committee held a meeting in a secluded corner of the Prison. Victor Beacham was speaker and chairman.

[North London Herald League (NLHL) member and speaker Victor Beacham, a glass blower, had been an anarchist and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World before the War, as well as being one of the earliest members of the NLHL. Like Fox he was jailed after taking an ‘absolutist’ position – refusing to co-operate in any way with the war effort. After the War, Beacham joined the Communist Party and became a trade union official in the Painters’ Union. He left the CP in 1929 and joined the Labour Party. He died in 1961, aged 72.]

They considered tactics to defeat the Major. Next morning at exercise it was discovered that all those who had taken part in the secret meeting had been confined to their cells indefinitely.

Leonard S. Simons, the man who had published the toilet paper manifesto denouncing the ‘Basement Oligarchy’, demanded that action should be taken on behalf of the locked-in comrades. A warder of the new regime seized him and dragged him inside. Fox called for an immediate return to the cells as protest. Two men stepped out of the silent parading circle and joined him. The rest did not hear.

Next morning the three of them were marched, one at a time, into the Governor’s office. Fox was first. The Governor banged the table and roared that Fox was guilty of mutiny, and that he had a good mind to order him a flogging. But he changed the good mind to a better one and ordered two days bread and water instead. The other two were awarded the same.

Everything was taken out of Fox’s cell – bedboard, blankets, stool and table – and he was left standing in an echoing emptiness. Next morning he was given a tin mug of water and a hunk of bread. He heard through the whispered information of the landing cleaner that the other two were handing back their bread, so he did likewise. He did the same the next morning, but on the third morning he fell ravenously on the prison breakfast, and was told, when he had finished, that his friends along the landing had decided to continue their fast. Fox then resumed his fast. If he had not broken it, he may have been released after three more days, under the Cat and Mouse Act, as his companions were, along with nine others who had been on a prolonged hunger strike.

The Major’s response to Fox’s resumption of the strike was to have him taken down to the basement, which Fox described as damp, dark, filthy, and crawling with insects. Evidently he had a mattress, for he says the insects crawled over it. After four days Fox and others on hunger strike were taken into the exercise yard, supported by warders and marched around. A few were barely able to stand, but were dragged along.

Then they were forced into what a jolly warder called a ‘Feeding Queue’. He also expressed the hope that they all had their life insurances fully paid up. At the head of the queue was a barber’s chair. Into this each man was placed in turn, his arms held behind him by two warders. Into his mouth a wooden gag was forced – the same gag for everybody. This gag had a hole in the middle through which was passed a tube, all the way into the stomach. Fox, in his autobiographical work Smoky Crusade wrote:

‘I had all the sensations of suffocation. Every choking breath I took drew the rubber tube further in. I felt it right down in the pit of my stomach. A funnel, as if for oil, was put over the tube and liquid food poured in. I choked again when the tube was withdrawn, and staggered, dazed and sick, back to my cell.

‘Each morning we had a roll-call of hunger-strikers from cell to cell, and we heard, day by day, the voices we knew growing fainter and fainter.’

On the eleventh day it was whispered that the conduct of the new Governor was to be the subject of a Home Office Enquiry, to be held in the prison.

Colonel Wedgewood had raised the matter of the inhuman treatment of C.O.s in Wandsworth in the House of Commons. [Colonel Wedgewood: a longtime Liberal MP, (grandson of the ceramics pioneer Josiah Wedgewood), who, though he volunteered to serve in WW1, supported the rights of conscientious objectors and raised questions in Parliament complaining about their ill-treatment. In 1919 he defected to the Labour Party, becoming a minister in the first Labour government. Apart from the COs, he was well-known for supporting unpopular causes, including the treatment of refugees, including some political exiles, and Indian independence.]

The Major had only been on a temporary assignment to Wandsworth, and probably left there after the Enquiry. He did not leave the Prison Service though, for in 1926 he was the subject of another Enquiry. He had revealed to the press the personal confidences of a condemned murderer.

The hunger strikers gave up their strike after the Enquiry. Guy Aldred arrived back in Wandsworth in the middle of the proceedings. He commenced his strike, as he had said he would, and determined to continue it indefinitely. But the authorities had had enough of hunger strikes, and of Guy Aldred. After four days they released him. Fox had to wait a few more weeks, but on April 19th he was also set free.

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More information can be found in Smokey Crusade, RM Fox’s autobiography; Don’t Be a Soldier, The Radical Antiwar Movement in North London 19141919, by Ken Weller; ‘Come Dungeons Dark’, The Life and Times of Guy Aldred, Glasgow Anarchist, by John Taylor Caldwell, (from which this text is lifted.)
See also this on Clara Cole

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An entry in the
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