Today in London healthcare herstory, 1985: occupation of South London hospital for Women violently evicted.

The South London Women’s Hospital Occupation 1984-1985

Rosanne Rabinowitz
[Originally written around 2003]

What does it take to occupy a hospital, to engage in direct action in a workplace that deals with peoples’ lives rather than products? In the first hospital work-ins, people were understandably afraid of putting patients at risk, and aware that someone might not want to have a baby or an operation in the middle of an industrial dispute. It was an unprecedented step, but staff and service users had come to a point where they felt they had to take drastic action or say goodbye to their jobs and healthcare.

A background of cuts and closures provoked this first wave of occupations in the 1970s, often undertaken by people who were not activists. In the early 1970s both the private and private sector were restructured in response to IMF directives. The restructuring was also a move to curtail the improved wages and defences (‘restrictive’ work practices) that workers built up through the years. This took the form of further centralisation, deskilling, redundancies, productivity deals, speed-ups, casualisation and tougher discipline.

Since this restructuring often involved closures, people began occupying workplaces instead of simply going on strike. Some of these actions developed beyond sit-ins to work-ins, which involved continuing production. Briants Colour Printing and Upper Clyde Shipbuilders were among the first work-ins. UCS became a rallying point due to the size and its location in area of militancy and close ties between the workplace and the community. Shop stewards seized control of the yards and controlled the gates on a rota. Those sacked were kept in jobs by rest of workforce who now controlled production. The fact they were already sitting on top of a lot of capital and unfinished work made this possible.

Over 1000 occupations & work-ins took place in 1972. However, in some situations self-management can turn into self-abuse. A cartoon of the time said it all: “Brothers and sisters! If the bosses won’t exploit us, we’ll have to do it ourselves!”

However, work-ins also included community outreach and political organising. For example, at Plessey’s River Don steelworks redundant workers devoted themselves to campaign work rather than completing orders for the plant’s liquidator.

From private to public…

A twist in the tail came when hospital work-ins and occupations extended this tactic to the public sector. In the face of such closures, a strike presents problems unless it takes the form of sympathetic action in other hospitals or workplaces. However, by providing a service that management was trying to cut, workers strived to create a rallying point.

Usually, hospital workers contemplating a work-in discussed it with present or prospective patients. This is more of a possibility in smaller, long-stay hospitals.

As long as patients are in a hospital, the Secretary of State is legally bound under the Health Services Act to ensure that they receive treatment and to pay all the hospital workers; nurses, doctors, technicians, cleaners… So by keeping patients in the facility, hospital occupiers were able to keep the hospital open and functioning.

However, there is the problem of insurance. Insurance rules stipulate that management must be present on the premises and be legally liable and responsible. This could include area health authority representatives or on-site administrators. During the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital work-in, the on-site management consisted of the hospital secretary.

The employees in a hospital work-in usually acquire more power, but this occurs alongside a functioning administration. Some hospitals did refuse entry to most of management and allowed only a token management force that would not be able to obstruct the work-in.

In order to keep a hospital occupied, you need physicians willing to admit patients and treat them. Some physicians did remain in service in accordance with their concept of professional ethics – if there are patients, they will care for them. But they generally stayed away from political aspects of a campaign.

Two hospital earlier work-ins have particular relevance to what took place at the South London Women’s Hospital: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital (EGA) and Hounslow Hospital.

The first: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital (EGA)

Founded by the UK’s first officially practising woman doctor, the EGA aimed to train women doctors and provide treatment for women by women. Closure of the hospital, located on London’s Euston Road, had been contemplated since 1959 on grounds that a woman-only hospital was an anachronism of the Victorian era. The authorities  considered demand limited to small groups of orthodox Muslim & Jewish women who objected to treatment by male doctors for religious reasons. There was also a drive within the NHS to ‘rationalise’ and to close down small hospitals.

However, they hadn’t reckoned with a growing women’s movement that made medical care for women by women a central issue. Debate had also grown about the very nature of women’s healthcare, as seen in publications like Our Bodies Ourselves.

Throughout the 1960s Health Authority ‘ran down’ the EGA by not doing repairs, replacing equipment or hiring new staff. Bed space had declined from 300 to 150. A malfunctioning lift in 1976 brought patients down to 46 and closed off the operating theatre. The hospital faced a succession of closure threats. Demonstrations and a petition signed by 23,000 women forced the nursing council to back down from closure in 1974. However, the EGA maternity hospital had been closed down, and this had angered staff members. They formed an action committee that represented different sections, but it was dominated by the consultants.

EGA was a good place for trying the occupation tactic in a hospital setting – its unique historical legacy as a women’s hospital created ground for support and unity. The women doctors at EGA also tended to be progressive – for example, one had received her medical training as an anti-fascist volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. This committee’s main tactics involved lobbying, petitioning and writing letters.

The rest of the staff got involved after actual closure was announced in 1976. This included the big health unions: the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE), COHSE (representing nursing staff), and ASTMS (paramedical staff). In July 1976 health workers protested against health service cuts and the EGA closure in particular: 700 workers staged a ‘day of action’ and marched to the House of Commons. Others took action in their hospitals, forcing four London hospitals to restrict admissions to emergencies. Some occupied health authority offices. Rank-and-file groups took on a major role organising these actions. Future New Labour health minister Frank Dobson was then leader of Camden council and voiced support. Wonder what he’d say to an occupation on his patch now?

However, health secretary David Ennals claimed that the EGA was ‘small, ageing… can never be developed to fulfill functions of a modern, acute hospital and suggested the EGA become a unit at the Whittington Hospital in Highgate.

The Action Committee replied that the EGA’s present location allowed it to function as a specialised national facility and a centre fulfilling local needs. As a small hospital maintained “a friendly, unthreatening atmosphere, necessary for a hospital interested in educational, preventative and outreach work relevant to the specific health needs of women.” The committee also pointed out that residents in the nearby Somerstown estate were pressing for their own health centre; facilities for women at the EGA could take pressure off the Somerstown health centre. Increasingly Somerstown residents and EGA campaigners worked together.

When Ennals asked the Area Health Authority to close in-patient services at the EGA, staff held an emergency meeting vowing to sit-in or work-in if necessary. The work-in had been urged by community activists (not staff members) on the EGA campaign committee, but was rejected as impractical in a hospital setting. But as closure loomed, the staff and community seized on a work-in as their last chance. It began a few days before the actual closing date with official support from the unions.

In November 100 nurses and 78 ancillary staff began the occupation. Pictures taken outside the EGA on that day show pickets in front of the hospital with a banner declaring: “This hospital is under workers’ control.”

Meetings of all the staff made major decisions, with committees set up by general meetings to do the actual organising. These included the Joint Shop Stewards Committee, the Medical Committee and the Action Committee; the latter made up of elected representatives of all sections of staff, and linked union members and consultants.

The Save the EGA campaign committee consisted of supporters outside the hospital. Though set up by Camden Trades Council, it became autonomous and drew in people from other hospitals, local residents, people involved in childcare and housing campaigns – such as the nearby Huntley St squat – and activists from the women’s movement. One shop steward participated in campaign meetings, and the campaign sent a representative to other groups. This committee main support for working in came from the campaign committee.

Ambulance drivers and workers in referral agencies such as the Emergency Bed Service were vital in opposing management attempts to stop the flow of patients into the hospital – workers notified drivers that the hospital remained open and asked them to bring patients.

More than defence

Work-ins are essentially defensive. They aim to keep the premises in repair, maintain morale and keep equipment and patients in the hospital. They are not set up to implement ‘workers’ control’ or transform social relationships within the hospital. But staff usually do gain more influence as a group, and ancillary workers and nurses develop stronger organisation.

In order to involve more people in the campaign, activists usually need to progress beyond defense to demand extensions or improvements in the public resource. Direct action to preserve a service or facility inspires debate on the role the facility plays in a community, the needs it fulfills and the needs it must be developed to meet.

In the case of the EGA, this expansion took place in the context of the women’s movement, defining the EGA as a women’s hospital and a national and local health facility. This resulted in pushing for a well-woman’s clinic that takes a community-oriented approach to health and act as an information centre as well as medical facility. According to Rachael Langdon of the EGA Well-woman’s Support Group:

“The dissatisfaction experienced by women in health care will not be overcome alone by seeing a doctor of one’s own sex or only by the existence of a women’s hospital. The issues are wider and preventative health is not merely a matter of individual effort. This is where the importance of alternative and women’s movement health groups lies… A well-woman clinic and a women’s hospital which could develop an exchange of ideas and knowledge with alternative and women’s health groups would be a step forward for women’s health.”

Campaigners demanded that the EGA be upgraded to a ‘centre for innovation and research’ in women’s health matters and a resource in the community. Campaigners and workers sponsored well-attended discussions relating to women’s health issues such as menopause and contraception, which often drew over 200 people. Sometimes the discussion between doctors and radical feminists set on challenging the medical establishment got lively.

More closure threats arrived in 1978; in May, a large demonstration in front of the hospital stopped traffic on Euston Road. In 1979 campaigners won the battle to keep the EGA open as a gynaecological hospital. However, the old building closed in 2008 and EGA now operates as a specialised maternity wing within the UCH hospital.[NB: This unit remained open as a separate building in Huntley Street until 2008, when it was moved into the new University College Hospital building just down the road. Your past tense typist’s daughter was among the last people born in the second EGA.]

Both the EGA and later the South London Women’s Hospital campaigners had ongoing debates over whether they should plead as a special case, or defend their hospital as part of an across-the-board opposition to health service cuts.

For example, people in the EGA campaign group believed that campaign should ‘feel free’ to split from the staff action committee if it didn’t not take a direct line against the cuts; they felt the campaign should take the initiative, which hospital workers could follow or not follow. They believed the campaign was responsible to those who used services, which expressed itself in total opposition to the cuts and transcended the interests of workers in saving their particular hospital.

Hounslow Hospital

In contrast to the EGA, West London’s Hounslow Hospital did not have the advantages of national reputation, special support from the women’s movement or supportive consultants. It was a small facility for geriatric and long-stay patients, considered a home as well as a place for treatment. Situated in an industrial area, girdled by two motorways and Heathrow Airport, Hounslow faced more repression and practical disadvantages.

The authorities had backed down from closure threats to EGA at least three times and did not attempt to break the work-in, outside of morale erosion and running down facilities. Hounslow workers faced constant threats and intimidation, a forcible smashing of the work-in.

With less support from doctors, Hounslow staff including nurses, porters and cleaners and took the main initiative and challenged the traditional hospital hierarchy. The work-in only lasted six months, but the community occupation of the hospital that followed lasted two years. Lines were drawn clearly, and there was no special pleading.

The response to proposals for possible closure in 1975 started with admin staff and friends, plus local volunteer and charity organizations, who wrote letters and circulated petitions – usually hand-written sheets passed around the neighbours. Senior nursing staff took an interest, opening communication with ancillaries and porters, and these involved workers from ‘outside’ in the campaign. Activists from the West Middlesex District General Hospital looked into plans and discovered a whole series of cuts planned for the region.

Hounslow’s closure was announced in January 1977, set for August; the work-in started in March. Management tried to transfer staff, and threatened those who refused with sanctions & sacking. They met with GPs, warned them against admitting patients to Hounslow and threatened them with sanctions.

When the August closure date arrived, staff organised a march through Hounslow and a party for the patients. As they pushed past the closure date there was a lot of fear. Workers had no idea if they would get paid; the authorities tried to claim that the AHA did not have to maintain staff and facilities though the law said otherwise.

Comparison and clampdown

The EGA had on-site consultants who could admit patients; Hounslow had none and depended on GPs. They had to tout for more admissions, though August is traditionally a slow time. The authorities tried to turn patients away and cut off the phones. The EGA had been treated as a freak case, but Hounslow indicated a trend of resistance to health service rationalisation. If a small weakly-organised hospital became such a focus for community resistance, they saw obstacles to imposing any cuts and rationalisation. The Hounslow work-in had also gone further to challenge the hierarchical relationships of the hospital. Consultants weren’t around much, and the process of campaigning had broken down traditional boundaries. The campaign and the staff had effectively taken over control of admissions. As one Hounslow Hospital worker put it: “With consultants no longer in control of admissions, the hierarchical system of privilege in the NHS was smashed.”

When threats didn’t succeed, a district team of officers took forcible action on October 26, 1977. If the authorities had to continue funding as long as patients were present, they got around that by forcibly removing the patients. Aided by the private ambulance service (public ambulance staff refused to take part), police administrators, top nursing officers and consultants moved on the hospital. They cut the phonelines, thwarting the emergency phone tree. The raiders pulled 21 patients out of their beds and took them to the private ambulances. Pictures show the scale of destruction – wrecked beds and furniture, the floor strewn with food, torn mattresses, sheets, personal articles. According to a nurse: “Old ladies had to queue up for an hour, crying all the time, as we remonstrated with the AHA people to cover them against the cold.”

The raid provoked a public outcry and led indirectly to the downfall of Hounslow’s Labour leader. A week later 2000 striking hospital workers picketed the Ealing, Hammersmith and Hounslow AHA to protest the raid and demand reopening. The AHA had to censure their own officials and called for a public enquiry, which was turned down by David Ennals. The district administrator later admitted that losing the 66 beds had badly affected geriatric care in the area.

Complete control

Once the hospital was shut, campaigners moved in and took complete control of the building. They had little idea what to do with it now that the patients gone and wards wrecked. Eventually they cleaned it up and used it as a local centre. Some of the original staff continued to be involved with the occupation. With the end of the occupation two years later, five were left.

However, the occupation itself drew in new people and took on a life of its own. Following the raid Hounslow had become a national issue. Nurses, porters and food service workers traveled to hospitals and meetings throughout the UK, discussing their experiences and asking for support. They initiated a national campaign against NHS cuts, called Fightback, based at Hounslow and involving people from the EGA, St Nicholas, Plaistow and Bethnal Green work-ins.

The Fightback production team occupied the matron’s office, the West London Fire Brigades Union used the assistant matron’s office as their headquarters, Maple Ward became a ‘conference hall’ used by local groups. The National Union of Journalists used hospital facilities during a strike.

The occupation became very intense, given the strong emotions provoked by the raid, the length of time the occupation carried on and the variety of groups taking part. Women whose world was defined by husband, family and job found themselves making speeches and going out every night, confronting their husbands to go on tour or to stay overnight at the hospital on night picket. Seven marriages broke up in the course of events, and many new relationships started.

After a year of occupation, AHA backed down on the eviction threats and conceded to negotiations on the occupation committee’s demand that Hounslow Hospital be reopened as an upgraded diversified community hospital, based on plans that had been developed during the occupation. The occupation committee did not negotiate as a special case. The opening of a community hospital meant little if cuts are made elsewhere. These negotiations broke down when management did not give firm dates to provide plans, or guarantee commitment of funds.

However, the committee ended the occupation in November 1978, claiming that ‘no positive political gain’ would come from an eviction. They thought the demands of maintaining a 24-hour picket were draining resources from other kinds of campaigning, and diverting attention from cuts in other areas. They claimed some victories in dislocating the programme of cuts and put forward detailed plans for an expanded community hospital. In its statement, the committee said that work began on redesigning facilities in the new community hospital/health centre after the occupation ended.

In 1976-78 work-ins or occupations took place in at least ten hospitals. About five work-ins were waged over an extended period of time to oppose closure, and the rest were shorter actions to oppose under-staffing and back up other staff demands. There were also sit-ins in administration and health authority offices, including an eight-week occupation at Aberdare Hospital, and in one nursery school and an ambulance station. Occupied hospitals included Plaistow Maternity Hospital, two wards at South Middlesex and one at Bethnal Green, where local people assisted the work-in by occupying the wards that had already been closed.

Some participants pointed out that union officials definitely got in the way during work-ins, hindering rather than helping in open-ended struggles where people need to keep things going and maintain morale. Union officials think in terms of ending it all and negotiating the terms. According to one participant, union officials that came into Hounslow when the work-in was made official “caused more havoc than management.”

South London Women’s Hospital: don’t be so kinky

Many of the occupations of the late ’70s had achieved short-term goals; and some work-ins were defeated due to lack of support from consultants. However, use of the tactics trailed off by the early ’80s. Until…

The Wandsworth Health Authority announced in 1983 that it will close the South London Hospital for Women’s (SLHW). This hospital had some similarities to the EGA and similar issues came up in defending it. However, this time around the authorities couldn’t say that a hospital where women receive treatment by female physicians was a remnant of the Victorian age. Instead, Wandsworth argued in terms of rationalising and budgets.

Staff initiated a work-in late spring 1984, which only lasted a couple of months. Fewer consultants were admitting patients, then the consultants were all offered positions elsewhere and they jumped ship.

But nurses and other staff wanted to fight on. Together with local activists they organised a “lie-in” in July 1984, following the exit of the last patient. The outpatients’ department (housed in an adjoining building) was due to shut later, in spring 1985.

I found out about the campaign to save the hospital when I went to the well-woman clinic and found a stack of leaflets there. This might have been when the work-in was still going on.

A good 200-300 women came to take part in the lie-in. We slept in the wards and maintained a mass picket to stop the authorities from removing equipment. All the large wards were filled. The top wards were kept empty as an example of what the fully-equipped wards could be like.

In the absence of patients, the occupation aimed to keep all the equipment on site in readiness for re-opening. Though a relatively small hospital, SLHW was a large rambling Victorian building with many entrances and exists. We maintained a picket at the main front door, locking the other doors in the main building, and also kept a picket at the gate in the car park.

There was still a lot of coming and going in relation to the outpatients as well as security guards still stationed at the front.

All kinds of women took part in this event – local pensioners, hospital staff, nurses, anarcha-punky girls. It was also racially and culturally mixed. I met a few women who said that they’d been born in that hospital. There was a fun atmosphere, with lots of people sitting outside on picket. It was a warm summer night, so people also relaxed in the garden.

Unfortunately, the next day a few snotty social worker types scolded girls for fooling about on the water-beds when the press was due to arrive. “Don’t be so kinky,” one of them said.

Of course, when no attempt was made to evict us the next day, we had to decide how to continue the occupation and how to organise it. First, what to do about the security guards. During the first few nights of the ‘lie-in’ they were doing rounds throughout the building while we were sleeping, walking around and shining their torches and speaking on their walky-talkies (this was the 80s, remember). We had some tense negotiations about this, but eventually they agreed to stay in their office on the bottom floor.

Numbers were still high for the first couple of weeks, but as you might expect they started to dwindle. It became a strain to maintain the picket. After the third week or so the health authority informed us that they wouldn’t be evicting us while the outpatient facility was still going. Obviously, the authority knew it would be easy for us to get back into the building if part of it remained open to the public. The health authority insisted that the security guards remain downstairs, but as they’d been keeping to their area it wasn’t a problem. Not a bad gig for them really, with the pickets keeping an eye on things they didn’t have much work.

Since the days of the EGA the women’s movement had diversified and grown. Women came from the Greenham Common peace camp to support the occupation. One lot got annoying when they told us we should have non-violence training. It seemed to be imposing their way of organising on us. At the same time, a bunch came from Blue Gate who were more down-to-earth. By this time, each gate at Greenham had their developed its own character and politics.

There had been a lot of Labour lefty influence in the beginning, which might have reflected elements of the campaign before I got involved. We were living in the days of the GLC, after all. We got visited by GLC Women’s Committee chair Valerie Wise, who gave speeches in front of the hospital. She kept saying: ‘My name is Valerie Wise, and I’m here to talk about the GLC.’ Some of the women there were chuffed by this, though her constant self-promotion made me sick. In fact, I was having some doubts about staying on if we’d be hearing a lot of this.

Then I went on holiday for about ten days. Just after I returned, I was in bed recovering from an all-night train and ferry experience. Then I received a phone call that emergency pickets were needed at the hospital. Already? I’d meant to give it a few days before going down again, but my caller said it was very important so I turned up.

A bunch of new people were on picket, and I found out someone was having a baby upstairs with a midwife in attendance. When the baby was born, celebrations ensued and then the TV bods turned up. The baby was a little girl called Scarlet.

A whole new bunch of women infused the campaign. Some had just moved to London, and they made themselves at home in the wards with the private rooms. This inspired a general movement to occupy the wards upstairs, and use the big lower wards as communal and social areas. With the involvement of new and full-time occupiers we entered a new phase.

Taking a tip from the Hounslow experience – among our local supporters was a nurse who had been active in earlier health service struggles – we made the hospital into a campaign centre and a kind of social centre a well. We invited other groups to use the space, and held activities like jumble sales, tea dances and public meetings. We had a big picnic in the garden with performers – among these was Vi Subversa, singer from the anarcho-punk band the Poison Girls. The first jumble sale was massive, with bags & bags of stuff that made us a good £500 and costumed the entire occupation group too.

A radical nurses’ group had been active for some time; an Asian women’s health group also met there and did acupuncture. Some of these activities kicked off quickly, other things took a while to get going.

The occupation went through several reorganisations, but we made decisions at general meetings throughout. When a lot was happening we had general meetings every evening, but this wasn’t always necessary. We set up groups involved with particular tasks _ publicity & propaganda, coordination, outreach & campaigning, looking after the building.

Since we were entering a phase with a definite long-term commitment, everyone eventually moved into the private rooms in the upstairs wards and left the big wards for communal purposes, meetings and events,  And just like the gates at Greenham, each ward took on its own character.

The top floor ward in the main building became known as called Cloud Nine. It was favoured by the spaciest Greenham girls, mostly from Green Gate. Most of these women were great, but some of us got impatient with a few who came to the hospital to chill out (or warm up, during the winter) and didn’t take part in the picket and other activities. From their point of view, they came from the rigours of Greenham to have a rest somewhere warm – with outpatients still open, the central heating and hot water remained still on. Greenham was their main commitment. Yet the long-term occupiers of Clapham felt that maintaining a viable picket was crucial in keeping the building open, and everyone should help with that. It didn’t help when some of our guests seemed to regard the picket as an answering service.

Preston House was a separate annexe reached through a tunnel or a separate front door _ this took the overspill from Cloud Nine. One of the wards – I forget the name – was populated mainly by local campaigners who’d been there at the beginning, including a contingent of nurses.

Chubb Ward, where I stayed, seemed to be popular with young urban-oriented activists.

Coudray was on the ground floor. This turned out to house mainly straight women with babies, though there were lesbian mothers as well in Chubb and other wards. Quite a few of the Coudray women and children were the offspring of a woman called Antonia, who had been involved with squatted street Freston Road or Frestonia.

There were a lot of new relationships going on, amid a high interest in feminist & lesbian politics. With all this going on, sometimes we got inward-looking. However, there were plenty of occasions when we ventured out of the building. We went to most health authority meetings, usually to ask awkward questions and be disruptive. Just after the eviction we went to one meeting and got so enraged at the attempts to ignore the issues brought up by the eviction, we ended up storming the platform and throwing chairs at the authority bods. If there’d been a dominance of polite Labour leftism in the early phases, as time went on the occupation became more militant and radical.

Other hospital occupations had also sprung up, including a work-in at a geriatric hospital in Bradford and occupied A & E at St Andrews Hospital at Bromley-by-Bow. We came out to support these actions. We also supported a picket at Barking Hospital, where an anti-casualisation struggle had been going on for over a year.

During the miners strike of 1984-5 we made contact with Women Against Pit Closures and some of them came to visit the hospital, including women from Rhodesia in Nottinghamshire and from Dinnington in South Yorkshire .

On one hand, we were reaching out to other movements and resistance, but we also faced issues in how we worked within the occupation. Because the building was warm and comfortable and any woman could stay there, it drew many who were fairly vulnerable. So while we defended health service provision, we often found ourselves providing the kind of support that should be coming from these very same services. Women had different attitudes towards this. Some didn’t want to take this on and wanted to concentrate on the political campaigning. Others felt they had enough on their plate and couldn’t take on caring for others even if they wanted to. And then some women got very involved in the ‘caring’ of the campaign and those who didn’t participate were evading their responsibilities.

There were also arguments around sharing childcare. And since this was the ’80s, rows over identity politics broke out. So it wasn’t all fun and parties and solidarity. Certainly, morale was very low about a month before the eviction. Let’s face it, there was a lot of bitching… petty arguments over which ward got the TV, that kind of thing.

We were also worried about how vulnerable women would fare if the place gets stormed by the cops. Most left when they realised that things were going to get hot.

In the case of one woman with mental health issues who wouldn’t or couldn’t leave, her sister came to take her and had her sectioned, fearing she’d fare worse if she waited around and let the cops do it. We resolved to keep tabs on the woman’s care and visit her in hospital. Debates raged over whether this was a positive or thoroughly despicable outcome

It didn’t help that others came along and used the occupation as a hotel: for example, one lot of American women’s studies students kept asking ‘How often do they change the sheets here?’

Meanwhile, the date of the outpatients closure drew closer and eviction became a real threat again. After we publicised the situation, once again new women turned up and they were ready to kick bailiff ass! Rallying from a depressing period, the occupation became vital again.

As soon as the outpatients closed, we took control of the whole building. We went down to the lobby as a group and got the security guards to leave. There were some tense moments, but they left without much argument. Then we took over the phones, the switchboard and the communications network – this included some walky-talkies, which excited us immensely in the olden days before everyone had a mobile phones.

There had been many discussions about tactics. Some women did not want to do barricading and engage in any resistance, or were not in a position to do this. Though they withdrew from the building before the barricades went up, they still put themselves on the phone tree and took part in picketing and demonstrations.

One woman called Sharon insisted that she’d lie down in front of the cops and use her body as a barricade, though she opposed any other kind of barricade. We all thought that would be extremely dangerous, and tried to talk her out of it but she insisted even more and got very shrill and even abusive. At that point, we had to ask her to leave and eventually carried her out bodily. I mention this because it’s important to record the disagreements and fuck-ups.

We planned to barricade the entrances, leaving only the big front door with a movable barricade, a great heavy beam. Women would barricade themselves into particular wards, while a mobile group would turn fire hoses on the bailiffs and chuck sawdust and then go up to the roof of the main building. Another task of this group was to make sure women who wanted to leave got out when the bailiffs arrived.

One thing that sticks in my mind now is how we strived to organise so women could do whatever they were prepared to do and set their own limits as much as possible. For example, those who could not risk arrest volunteered for look-out shifts in a van nearby. There was never any sense that certain actions were more important than the others; we all pulled together.

Every afternoon we held rallies in front of the hospital, passing out leaflets, talking to people, speaking out and singing. Some of us hung out on the balcony over entrance, dressed in hospital uniforms and surgeon’s masks and sang songs like “what shall we do with the cops and bailiffs”. It was very fun and theatrical.

We were in a constant state of alert, and many false alarms came through on the walky talkies. I remember code names like “Merrydown” and “Spikeytop”.

Once we had a report that someone was digging up the electricity in the road, and we swarmed out (with our masks on, of course) to confront the folks alleged to be doing it – and it turned out to be ordinary road works. Most local people were very supportive and people from other hospitals turned up to help picket. A miner who we met in at the Bradford hospital occupation also turned up. He seemed embarrassed when he realised it was a woman-only occupation, but we sorted him out with a local miners’ support group.

However, I should mention we had harassment by homophobic schoolboys. This minor annoyance wasn’t enough to dent our enthusiasm.

The all-out barricading effort continued. We gathered loads of wood and hammering rang out throughout the building. While we were barricading the former outpatients building, we poured vegetable oil on the floor and added dried soybeans to make it all slippy-slidey for the bailiffs.

Since we were very security-conscious, we wore surgeon’s gloves and masks while performing these operations. One evening while we were barricading, a group of alternative video-makers were following us around. We were just about to use some cabinets and trolleys for barricades, then the video-makers insisted we wait for them to film the rows of trolleys to portray “all that is lost”.

I would love to get hold of those videos, but I don’t remember the names of the women who were on the team or the name of their group.

For safety, we all moved out of the private rooms upstairs and everyone slept in the big Nightingale ward again. After many desolate nights when only a few people held the fort, pickets involved over 30 women or so. They became very party-like. The mobile group, which I was in, slept in a room downstairs near the door, so we had the partying near us all night. But sleep? Did we need it? Not then, nah…

Meanwhile, the nurses’ station in the communal ward acquired extra curtains and became known as “the bridal chamber”. Lots of relationships started… ended and started in this period.

The eviction date came and went, and we were still there. We put on a party to celebrate (Sleaze Sisters, regulars at the Bell, did the DJing), and started to make plans again. We turned the first floor ward into a place to relax, painted a mural on one wall and gave each other massages; we disrupted another health authority meeting. Some of the groups that had been running events at the hospital returned to put them on again.

But three weeks later, the hospital was evicted on 27th March 1985 by 100 male cops and 50 female cops. By then our numbers had gone down from about100 to 30, but we still made a good stand. After the usual false alarms a phone call came through the switchboard with a tip-off. This one turned out to be true and the bailiffs arrived at 3.15am.

As planned, women barricaded themselves into wards, while the mobile group barricaded the last door and stairs.

Another group of women occupied the roof of Preston House. Meanwhile, a small crowd had gathered in front, summoned by our phone tree. I’ll mention at this point that we did get support outside the building from men. A local activist called Ernest was very prominent in this – later he took part in Wandsworth anti-Poll Tax organising and went to jail for non-payment. I remember him shouting at the cops: “why do you have to be so macho?”

Our group ran up to the top floor, turned on the waterworks at the cops and bailiffs though sadly the water pressure wasn’t up to much. We went to the roof and threw the last barricades in place and sat on the cover to block the ladder leading up to the roof. We heard women shouting and singing from the Preston House roof and the balconies. Smoke bombs and fireworks went off. Then the banging started below as cops and bailiffs hacked their way through the barricades. It took them about two hours to get to us up off the roof.

In the press a lot was made of the use of women coppers – it was called “the gentle touch”. Not that it matters much, but the policewomen played a subordinate role. Male coppers dragged us down from the roof. Whatever their gender, the cops were big on arm twisting and made a big show of starting to nick us: “Prepare to receive prisoners” then pushed us aside near the vans. However, they did cart off two women. There was lots of pushing and shoving and some fighting in an attempt to save the two women.

Later, we picketed Kennington Police station where the two women were held. They were released after two hours, though they’d been roughed up while in custody. We then picketed Cavendish Road police station where the cops were holding a press conference on the eviction.

After the picket, some of us were walking to a café near the hospital. As we went past cops hanging outside the hospital we saw them arrest one woman and we went to rescue her, which resulted in six of us getting arrested. A bunch of schoolgirls saw what happened and they were so angry about it they tried to help and got arrested too. They were taken to the police station, strip-searched and held for six or seven hours, and released with cautions. The active role of the school pupils in this melee makes me think of the 2003 anti-war school walkouts and more recent agitation over the education maintenance allowance.

Afterwards…

A clause in the hospital’s freehold stipulated that the building must be used for the benefit of women, and it was also a listed building. Wandsworth Council had tried a number of plans – one was to turn it into a hotel – but the clause got in the way. It was empty for over twenty years after the eviction.

The last plan was building a Tesco’s on the site, which is on the border of Lambeth and Wandworth, but within Lambeth jurisdiction. There’d been local opposition and an appeal against the permission was lodged, but it was turned down and the Tescos went ahead. The development included flats above the supermarket – I’m not sure if it is private or social housing – which might have something to with how the project got past the conditions.

We did make an attempt to continue a health-oriented action group. We managed to get a very small grant and a meeting place in a disused bunker in front of St Matthews Meeting Place in Brixton. We had a public meeting that was reasonably well-attended. But it is most memorable because it took place on the day a riot broke out in Brixton after Cherry Gross was shot (and permanently paralysed) during a police raid.

But this group fell apart. Perhaps, with the end of the occupation itself, the transforming element of the action was gone. Political and personal differences affected the group more, and it seemed time to move on…

However, I won’t end on a totally downbeat note. The eviction of the hospital led to an influx of women settling and getting active in the Brixton area. Much of this was around squatting and housing, and the growth of a new feminist and lesbian community inspired by that. A host of DIY and feminist projects sprang up. Culturally, this was important to women who’d been alienated from boy-dominated politics and the ‘official’ lesbian and feminist scene.

In retrospect, several things distinguished this occupation. The nine-month time span of the occupation allowed it to grow into an important point of contact between groups who might not have worked together otherwise.

In the EGA campaign there had been disagreement over whether to promote the hospital as a special case – a women’s hospital. Or to take it up in terms of opposing all cuts. Though it took some time to arrive at this point, at SLWH we included both the feminist dimension and a strong anti-cuts class struggle element. Our banners said ‘Stop these murderous cuts’. We stressed the women’s health angle as a central part of this opposition and organised events and workshops relating to this.

Another thing that strikes me is that we were able to arrive at consensus in our most heated discussions and everyone had opportunities to speak and express themselves. Given some of the excruciating, highly extended experiences of consensus decision-making I’ve been involved with since then, this seems incredible now. Or am I looking at this through a rose-coloured telescope?

We were ahead of our time with our planning for ‘diversity of tactics’ – allowing for more confrontational tactics alongside ‘fluffy’ ones. Back in the ’80s this wasn’t really done. So I’m proud that we made a break with the binary of pacifism vs ‘violence’. Within the diversity, we placed equal importance on the different tactics and didn’t elevate one above the other. In the early 2000s anti-capitalists planned actions with different blocks using their choice of tactics; several years later the particular blocs and tactics may have become stuck in a rut and lost their effectiveness. However, the core principle of tactical diversity is still a good one.

More recently, Greek health workers have occupied a hospital in response to austerity and health cuts. And with further cuts and privatisation going ahead here, this is a good time to look into this history and see what lessons can be applied now.

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This text originated in a talk at the South London Radical History Group in 2003. It was later updated and published in a past tense dossier on UK hospital occupations, Occupational Hazards. Which is still available to buy in paper form here, or can be downloaded as a PDF here

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London Brexit history, 1975: National Front march against EEC membership, Islington

This post won’t have the same resonance now, as Brexit Day has been postponed, but still… here goes…

In March 1975, the National Front marched through Islington, demonstrating against Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community (the EEC, now transformed into the European Union). This was in the middle of the first referendum on British membership, two years after the UK had joined in 1973.

Nice to know THAT’s a dead issue eh?!

Whatever twisted path Brexit takes over the next few months and years, there’s no doubt the whole project has fed off and strengthened the far right, extending in a bit always distinguishable spectrum from the dregs of the Tory party through UKIP to fascist grouplets, alt-right blog-warriors and football hooligans…

It’s instructive to look back a little to the last UK. referendum in Europe, the vote over continuing EEC membership in 1975.

The UK had joined the European Economic Community, popularly known as the Common Market, two years earlier. The drivers of the move then were Harold Wilson’s Labour government, in alliance with the leading tories (including new leader Margaret Thatcher, later scourge of Europe and hero to all Brexiteers – who during the 1975 campaign wore a fetching wooly jumper knitted with all the flags of the EEC!), largely supported by big business which demanded access to the euro markets… Opposed were the far right, as usual – but more vocally, most of the left outside of the Labour centre and leadership. Tony Benn and other prominent Labour leftwingers, and the Trotskyist left, all denounced the EEC as a capitalist project, while fascists, Enoch Powell and assorted imperialist-yearning wonkos denounced the UK’s membership as anti-British. Not dissimilar to 2016, though with relative strengths reversed: today’s Lexiteers are definitely the poor relation to the more rampant fash leavers.
Much of the press were also broadly pro-Europe then – the Daily Mail, Sun and Daily Express all heavily promoted a vote to remain; the Guardian, however, was a leading anti-EEC voice.

The National Front march through Islington wasn’t targeting the North London metropolitan elite back then – Islington in those days was yet to become a byword for trendy middle class leftyism. It was a working class area, run down and somewhat depressed: an area the NF were very active in, where they had a large branch in the south of the borough, had won some support and aimed at picking up more.

March 25th saw about 400 National Front supporters join the anti-EEC demo, beating drums and chanting, flanked by 2,000 cops. Although the EEC was nominally against Europe, the Fronters focussed on one of their other bugbears, chanting ‘we’re gonna get the reds’, throughout the march. Extra police had been drafted in amid fears of violence, after anti-fascist resistance to previous NF marches, most notoriously in Red Lion Square in Holborn, in June the year before, when Kevin Gately had been killed by police while blocking an NF march to Conway Hall.

Although 300 anti-fascist protesters gathered opposite Islington Town Hall, shouting at the march, there was no fighting. Islington’s Labour Council had refused to allow the National Front to hold a rally at the Town Hall. Police led the National Front march to Exmouth Market, a mile south of the Angel, where the fash held their rally in a deserted street…

The NF march took place in the context of the Front’s being excluded from the official anti-EEC campaign (and the resulting campaign funding). These tensions were to boil over on April 12th, when, furious at being denied a platform at an anti-EEC meeting in Conway Hall, NF demonstrators tried to derail the rally. The next morning’s Observer reported:
“Young supporters of the Front wrestled with speakers on the platform, the microphone was seized, leaflets rained down from the gallery and up to 200 National Front members, mainly young men, stood, clapped and stamped, shouting ‘Free speech for the National Front’.”

This was, however, largely an irrelevant sideshow to the main referendum, which eventually saw a two-thirds vote to remain within the EEC.

Interestingly, the second world war was invoked a lot in the 1975 campaign, but mainly in support of the pro-Euro vote – 30 years after the end of the war, the idea that the EEC was a guarantee for peace gained some traction. A substantial proportion of the voters remembered the war, and this may have jacked up the yes vote. Unlike 2016, when the war, Churchill and so on was repeatedly hauled into service on the leave side, igniting the ‘memories’ of millions who HADN’T lived through it but felt invigorated by ‘our’ glorious solo victory over Hitler into rejecting Jerry, cheese eating surrender monkeys and other jolly stereotypes; in favour of – well what, exactly? Dreams of an imperial past? A return to the early 70s – a whiter, shiter, less gay Britain where women knew their place?

Not to cheerlead for the EU… It really is a capitalist club, just a bigger one, more in tune with the realities of global trade and finance. Which has set its own vicious borders (like the killing waters of the Mediterranean) and has no issues with imposing financial constraints to choke Greece or their own populations.

But Brexit really is part of a worldwide slowburn insurgency by dark forces – nationalism, fascism, ideologies determined to roll back gains made over decades… As usual tunes played by wealthy and powerful, blaming migrants and othering widely to enlist desperate and powerless people into believing they’re part of something – empire, nation, volk – bollocks the lot of it. British people have to come to terms with the toxic legacy of empire, slavery and capitalism, before working out who and what we really are in the world. But many would rather blindfold themselves and sign up for racism and little Englandism. Many might be horrified at the idea of marching with the NF or Tommy Robinson but buy into a watery version of the same tripe.

Of course lots of people voted for other reasons – poverty, industrial decline, lack of faith in politicians, feeling ignored, resentment at the economic imbalance of the southeast as against the north, midlands etc… But there never was sovereignty for working class people, before the EU and won’t be after – except where people take it for themselves in their own lives. Leaving the EU won’t bring that – it’ll enrich only the UK capitalists or the corporate wolves they’re in with. Remaining, realistically, wouldn’t bring it either, since a more sophisticated set of wolves run the EU. However, it is likely that Brexit will only bring collapse and hardship to the communities that voted for it. To some extent, the chickens will come home. Not that the Farages, Rees-Moggs and co will suffer – they’ll still be trying to whip up Poundland Crusades while the companies they shifted to Europe for tax reasons continue to cash in. While funding or enabling alt-right and goose-steppers to purge the land of the unpatriotic.

The pro-EU liberal gobshites on the other hand, who want free movement because it drives down wages… bah!

Borders are all made-up nonsense. Ideally we’d like to see free movement for workers but chains on the ankles of the rich; capitalists on both sides want the opposite, or free movement for people like them or the workers who can be fucked off when no longer needed. They lie and lie and lie to buy our support and will do so until we strangle them with their own guts. Fascists are their stooges and will also have to be dealt with – physically as well as politically, in the tradition of AFA (see below). Until we get busy strangling, these shitheads will only continue to flourish.

Fun times ahead.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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The NF may have failed to make much headway in the referendum, but they remained active in Islington, and routinely sold their papers and hung out around Chapel Market, Angel’s street market. Anti-fascists fought a long war to remove them, as detailed below (account taken from Fighting Talk, magazine of Anti Fascist Action, issue 19, published in 1998).

Chapel Market is a typical London street market, a stone’s throw from the now very fashionable Angel, Islington. Twenty years ago it was the scene of regular violent clashes between fascists and anti-fascists, the outcome of which dictated the successful development of militant anti-fascist politics in the capital for the next decade.

In the mid-70s members of the Socialist Workers Party and the National Front both held paper sales at Chapel Market, often resulting in clashes. At this time the NF was the biggest fascist party, winning 119,000 votes in the 1977 GLC elections and attracting thousands on to their demonstrations.

Against this background hundreds of independent anti-fascist committees were set up around the country and the SWP launched the Anti Nazi League. Major confrontations against the NF at Wood Green and Lewisham in 1977 put militant anti-fascism in the national spotlight, and the SWP organised ‘squads’ in the ANL to carry out the physical side of the strategy. This lasted until Thatcher, playing the race card, won the 1979 general election which led to the NF’s decline and the disbanding of the squads; the SWP argued that the Tories were now the ‘real’ enemy’. Physical opposition to the fascists was no longer acceptable.

Islington NF was one of the strongest branches in the whole country at this time, based mainly in the south of the borough where the white working class felt abandoned by the Labour council. Attacks on the SWP paper sale continued as fascist violence increased, a result of the electoral collapse of the NF.
The Young NF paper Bulldog was now printing hit-lists of opponents and in early 1981 in Islington a radical community centre was firebombed and a left-wing bookshop attacked. Regardless of this, the ANL would provide no support for the anti-fascist activists trying to maintain their pitch and challenge the fascists.

Support was provided though, from the remnants of the SWP squads who refused to disband and independent anti-fascists who saw the dangers of letting the fascists organise unopposed. The conflict at Chapel Market had lasted over 5 years before it entered its final phase in 1981.

The defining moment came one Sunday in July 1981 when, after several weeks of clashes, the usual NF turnout was supplemented by a 50 strong mob brought up from Brick Lane (the other big NF paper sale). The fascists managed to get into the area without being spotted and launched an attack. The anti-fascists, taken by surprise, were quickly overrun and forced to leave a bit sharpish – suffering two quite bad injuries in the process, one lad getting stabbed. If the NF had given chase the outcome would have been even worse, but anyway, the damage was done and it was obviously time for a serious rethink.

A number of activists met to discuss the situation and felt that as the NF had obviously decided to try and remove anti-fascists from Chapel Market by force, if the anti-fascists didn’t respond decisively the NF, encouraged by their victory the week before, would keep coming until the situation became impossible and the NF would win. Offence being the best form of defence, a plan was hatched.

At this time Brent NF was. an active branch and the organiser and several activists had taken part in the latest attack at Chapel Market. An activist from the time takes up the story:
“We heard reports that Brent NF had started a paper sale in Kingsbury (north-west London) on Saturday mornings so we decided to have a look with a view to attacking them in reply for the attack at Chapel. Plenty of familiar faces showed up at the Kingsbury sale so we organised a team to travel up there the next week. The point was made, five of them ended up in hospital!”

This was something new for the fascists who were more familiar with being the ones doing the attacking, and the incident at Kingsbury gave warning that the anti-fascists were going on the offensive. Many phones must have rung that night because 100 NF turned up at Chapel Market the next day, including a heavily bandaged Brent NF organiser.

There were several more smaller clashes over the next few weeks as the NF tried to re-establish their paper sale and the anti-fascists maintained their opposition. While Chapel Market was the focal point for activity, there were other incidents in the surrounding area. In October a small group of fascists were spotted at a local anti-fascist benefit gig and ran off when confronted. Outside one of the anti-fascists tripped and was stabbed in the chest as he was getting up. The blade narrowly missed his heart and he only survived due to the presence of a nurse with the anti-fascists. A prominent local anti-fascist organiser had her house attacked and her son, not involved in politics, was beaten up in the street. This only confirmed that there were some `unpleasant’ elements in the NF who, unless they were confronted physically, would control the streets and therefore dominate politically.

The next major incident was in November 1981 when an anti-racist conference was held at Archway, not far from Chapel Market. Anticipating a fascist attack the anti-fascists kept a low profile inside the hall, and sure enough, right on cue (i.e. Sunday afternoon closing time) 30 fascists were escorted up the road by the police. Led by prominent Islington NF members they confidently marched up to the door, unaware of the anti-fascist presence inside. The door flew open, and as the NF let off smoke bombs a large group of determined anti-fascists appeared through the ‘mist’ and caused considerable damage to the fascists.

For the rest of the winter and into 1982 the anti-fascists mobilised every Sunday morning. The victory at the Archway had given the anti-fascists the advantage and the regular, well stewarded attendance every week showed the fascists there was a new level of commitment and organisation which they couldn’t match.

In August 1982 the third major clash took place. One Sunday the anti-fascists arrived to find twenty NF already occupying the sales pitch. As the anti-fascists crossed the road towards them, Ian Anderson (now leader of the National Democrats, then a rising ‘star’ in the NF) shouted, “Get ’em, lads!” which was promptly met with a firm right-hander that knocked him flying. Another activist takes up the story:
“The fascists took a heavy beating, and Anderson, who was on the ground being beaten with lumps of concrete and a shoe, managed to break free and ran out into the busy street. At this point three ‘likely lads’ got off a bus over the road and were studying the commotion with a keen interest. While we immediately recognised three late-comers who would be severely chastised later for oversleeping, Anderson could only see three ‘white youths’ who would surely come to his aid. Running through the traffic and waving his arms wildly he approached the ‘aryan warriors’ only to discover his mistake too late – suffering his second bad beating of the morning.”

Unusually there were no uniformed police at Chapel Market that Sunday. It subsequently turned out that the area was being watched by plain clothes police and 14 anti-fascists were arrested leaving the area. Anderson pointed three people out to the police who were charged with GBH. All three were acquitted, largely because the fascists had no independent witnesses. The NF had been annoying local people for years, and although they had clearly been attacked, no-one was prepared to help them.

After this clash word got back that the NF were recruiting a ‘hit squad’ to deal with this group of anti-fascists who had inflicted so much damage on them. Eddy Morrison, a well known (drunken) fascist from Leeds who was ‘notorious’ for glassing a student in a pub, was the person in charge of the ‘contract’. Nothing ever came of this, but it does illustrate the effect the confrontational strategy was having on the fascists. Morrison did get to meet anti-fascists in London a year or so afterwards when his National Action Party tried to hold a meeting in Kensington – and yes, they got battered!

The clashes at Kingsbury, Archway and Chapel Market broke the back of the NF paper sale in Islington. The fascists were unable to maintain their presence and by the end of 1982 the sale had collapsed. The last time the fascists were seen in the area was shortly after the ‘Anderson affair’ when a surveillance team spotted Paul Nash (another NF organiser – and victim of Kingsbury) looking round a corner with a pair of binoculars to see if there were any anti-fascists in the area! It had taken just over a year but the wheel had turned full circle and the NF were beaten. To make things worse, eight members of Camden & Islington NF were sent down for armed robberies at this time and the branch collapsed. This victory didn’t just have a local impact, the collapse of the branch had a domino effect across north London with the NF ceasing to have any organised presence in what had been a strong area for them.

However the story doesn’t end here, because in 1983 nazi skinheads started drinking in a pub called The Agricultural on the corner of Chapel Market. The landlord was a fascist sympathiser and soon fascist skins from all over the country, and even overseas, would gather here on Saturday nights. By coincidence Red Action, the main group involved in the battle for Chapel Market, drank in a pub two hundred yards down the road. A low key campaign of harassment was launched against the pub, but escalation was inevitable. The fascists regularly attacked people in nearby streets – black people, gays, and anyone else they didn’t like the look of; but never anti-fascists. Then, finally, a Red Action member was attacked outside the pub.

The following week a pub on route from the tube station to The Agricultural was taken over and steps taken to try and draw the fascists out into the open. Fascists were attacked on their way to ‘The Aggy’ in full view of their ‘comrades’ outside the pub, in the hope that this would entice them out from the comparative safety of the pub. The fascists wouldn’t have it, so the anti-fascists marched up to their pub where they were met with a rousing chorus of an old nazi hymn – which ended abruptly under a hail of bricks and bottles.
The fascists scuttled inside and barricaded the doors (inevitably leaving some poor unfortunates outside!) while the anti-fascists withdrew and waited up the road. As more fascists arrived they ventured out and a large scale battle ensued on Liverpool Road for fifteen minutes. You don’t get a hundred people brawling in the street for quarter of an hour without police intervention – they had obviously decided to let it happen.

A few weeks after this, in June 1984, a large group of fascists attacked a GLC ‘Jobs for a Change’ festival in Jubilee Gardens. Both stages were attacked before anti-fascists got organised and drove them off. Shortly afterwards fascists waiting for medical attention in nearby St. Thomas’ Hospital were attacked, and a large group of anti-fascists then travelled to Islington, anticipating that other fascists would regroup at The Agricultural. They did come, and they were attacked, including a German fascist, who having just been attacked in the street by an Irish anti-fascist, ran into the ‘The Aggy’ shouting “Get them, they’re not English!”. Again the pub suffered further damage. A more intense campaign of pressure on the establishment was then instigated, and within a few months the landlord gave up and shut the pub. Finally, Chapel Market had seen the back of the fascists.

The key point about the battle for Chapel Market was that after July 1981 the anti-fascists set the agenda. At a time when the main organisations on the Left had abandoned anti-fascism, despite the increase in race attacks and fascist violence, anti-fascists showed that by going on the offensive, rather than just reacting, it was possible to win.

Today in London’s riotous history, 1668: ‘Bawdy House Rioters’ attack brothels across the City

The Bawdy House Riots of 1668 saw crowds attack & pull down brothels, outwardly in a moral crusade; though of course moral causes were a good excuse for a bit of burning & looting. However the mob was also said to have been infected with Leveller ideas, & there was talk of “tearing down the Great Bawdy House at Westminster” (meaning Parliament).

In reality, as with many outbreaks of London rioting, from the Peasants Revolt to 2011, the Bawdy House Riots may have been the product of a mingling of many motives, carried out by several overlapping crowds, and subsequently had contradictory or disputed meanings applied to them by commentators anxious to impose their own fears and obsessions… A tendency repeated by numerous historians, still debating the causes and meaning of the riots 350 years later…

On 23 March 1668 a crowd of London apprentices, servants, and artisans, dressed in green aprons, attacked brothels (‘bawdy houses’) in Poplar—kicking off a bout of rioting that over five days would spread from the east end of the City to the west-end brothels.  On the second day, the crowd, now numbering as many as 40,000 people, organised itself into regiments, with their own captains, and proceeded to besiege brothels in East Smithfield, Moorfields, and Shoreditch.  King Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and Lieutenants of the city to suppress the riot, which resulted in the arrest of a number of participants.  But the crowd responded to the arrests on the third and fourth day by besieging the prisons and releasing their comrades.  On the final day, the attacks continued in Holborn before they were finally suppressed.  Among the rallying cries of the mob were “down with the Red Coats!”  “Reformation and Reducement!”  “We have been servants, but we will be masters now!”  They threatened both “that if the king did not give them liberty of conscience, that May-day must be a bloody day” and that “ere long they would come and pull White-hall down”.

Fears that the attacks on brothels had been a cover for a more revolutionary agenda were exacerbated by satirical pamphlets which appeared in the aftermath of the riots, that compared the events to the popular 1647 uprising led by Thomaso Aniello in Naples; many of the publications dwelt upon the popular perception of the growing connection between bawdy houses and the licentious court of Charles II.  In The Poor-Whores Petition. To the Most Splendid, Illustrious, Serene and Eminent Lady of Pleasure, the Countess of Castlemayne (25 March 1668), Charles II’s powerful mistress is addressed by common whores.  The famous bawds Damarose Page and Madam Creswell petition the grand whore for protection and in The Gracious Answer of the Most Illustrious Lady of Pleasure (24 April 1668), “Castlemaine” promises redress for the “barbarity of those Rude Apprentices, and the cruel Sufferings that the Sisterhood was exposed unto.”

15 of the suspected ringleaders of the uprising were arrested, and charged with high treason: four were subsequently convicted, and then horrifically punished – castrated, drawn and quartered—a punishment usually reserved for traitors and rebels.

Samuel Pepys mentions the rumours that the rioters had men among them who had fought in the civil war, and that some of them talked of attacking the royal palace, ‘the great bawdy house at Whitehall’:

“The Duke of York and all with him this morning were full of the talk of the ‘prentices, who are not yet [put] down, though the guards and militia of the town have been in armes all this night, and the night before; and the ‘prentices have made fools of them, sometimes by running from them and flinging stones at them. Some blood hath been spilt, but a great many houses pulled down; and, among others, the Duke of York was mighty merry at that of Damaris Page’s, the great bawd of the seamen; and the Duke of York complained merrily that he hath lost two tenants, by their houses being pulled down, who paid him for their wine licenses 15l. a year. But here it was said how these idle fellows have had the confidence to say that they did ill in contenting themselves in pulling down the little bawdyhouses, and did not go and pull down the great bawdy-house at White Hall. And some of them have the last night had a word among them, and it was “Reformation and Reducement.” This do make the courtiers ill at ease to see this spirit among people, though they think this matter will not come to much: but it speaks people’s minds; and then they do say that there are men of understanding among them, that have been of Cromwell’s army: but how true that is, I know not.”

As often occurred in London riots in the medieval and early modern centuries, London’s prisons were also attacked, including the Clerkenwell House of Detention…

The implications of the riots were very serious for the authorities – they revived the fears of civil war, a very recent trauma, the spectacle of the levellers, ranters and all the other sects and movements, that had challenged the status quo in the 1640s and ‘50s. The disturbances seemed a revival of overt challenge to the social hierarchy, recalling very directly the myriad ways in which the civil war had opened up questioning of society… When one group of rioters in 1668 broke open Finsbury Jail, in order to rescue some of their fellow rioters who had already been arrested for their involvement in the disturbances, they told the jailer: ‘We have been servants, but we will be masters now’ – a remark which had frightening levelling implications for the authorities.

Commentators of the time, and historians, since, have put forward a number of explanations for the events of 1668… as the product of the apprentices longstanding tradition of “carnivalesque insurrection” and “folkloric unrest”… as a more specific response to Charles II’s reassertion of the Act of Uniformity (restricting the rights of non-conformist churches) in the weeks leading up to the riots, arguing that the apprentices’ politicised resurrection of brothel bashing was aimed against religious policy… as reflecting the apprentices’ longstanding tendency to “define themselves in antagonism against demonised women”.

“For humble tradesmen and apprentices to rise up and instruct the king which laws he should or should not be enforcing, to the point of trying to enforce certain laws (those against brothels) themselves, was indeed a usurpation of the regal authority; the act, by its very nature, places the common man on a level with the king (even if only temporarily), and in this respect was political levelling. If the reading of the riots as an anti-court protest is correct, then the crowd was trying to hold the royal court accountable to the law, and the belief that the law applied to all, regardless of social status (even the king), was a fundamental Leveller principle. The idea embodied in the riots that ordinary people could exercise the power of the sword, use force themselves to impose justice or even to resist duly constituted authority, was indeed political levelling and a Levelling principle. As George Hickes put it in a sermon of 1682, in the context of challenging what he took to be the Whig belief that power lay radically in the people (another Leveller notion): ‘What a great sin it is for the subjects of any government upon any pretence whatsoever, to take up Arms without Authority from the lawfull Sovereign, be it in riots, tumults, or rebellions, or any other illegal meeting howsoever called; for God hath committed the power of the Sword to the lawfull Sovereign onely.’ “

However, while on the one hand the riots contained a powerful echo of the radical ends of the English Revolution, they also reflected both long held prejudices and newer concerns about sexuality and commerce…

The Bawdyhouse rioters possessed republican sympathies – yes, but as in the Civil War years, these were also often deeply Puritan views as well. This expressed itself not only in rebellion against a monarchy that had replaced the ‘Godly’ commonwealth, but also in moral revulsion against the ‘immoral’ persons within the society around them.

“In the 1660s the prostitute very quickly became not only a synecdoche for but the privileged emblem of a new economic and aesthetic order of things.  That a pervasive popular animosity towards both whores and the theatre coincides exactly with the rising celebrity of the actress among London elites, I want to suggest, reflects deep worries about the sexual and labouring identity not only of women, but also of young men from across the spectrum of low-status artisanal occupations… Just as privileged mercantilist and aristocratic sectors of the London population were coming to openly embrace the commercialism that both the theatre and the prostitute had historically embodied, the explicit nature of commercial articulations in the opening decades of the Restoration, by exposing the alienated and objectified condition of laborers more generally, sparked violent protest against this ascendant aesthetic and sexual economy.” (Katherine Romack, Striking the posture of a whore: The bawdy-house riots and anti-theatrical prejudice)

As Romack relates, the Restoration of the 1660s saw not just a concerted effort to re-establish the authority of the king and aristocracy over society (deeply weakened by more than 20 years of rebellion and war), but also to “divide the free-men of the city from their apprentice servants” (weakening one of the bonds that had helped to build the parliamentary coalition against king Charles I).At the same time, apprenticeship as an institution was being rapidly undermined by economic changes within and outside the London guild system. This not only made apprentices’ position within the world of work more precarious (compared to what had been a hard but reasonably stable relationship for centuries) – it also began to dissolve the power of the apprentices collectively, to weaken their power to gather, act as a crowd, affect political and social struggles.

For up to 200 years apprentices had been a central, if not dominant, feature of urban disturbances (often erupting around feast days, and sometimes highly ritualised). Since the late 16th century, many had also been influenced by puritan religious ideas.  By the mid-1660’s, apprentices were also beginning to feel that their futures in their trades were not as stable as previous generations could have expected; apprenticeship was becoming detached from a declining guild system, and established privileges and guarantees were being eroded. Apprenticeship was becoming more and more like servitude on starvation wages. Demarcation between the working poor and apprentices were blurring.

This may have been a factor that drove apprentices to riot both against what seemed like new immorality as well as aiming barbs at authority in general…

To some extent the Bawdy House Rioters were lumped together and described as ‘apprentices’, when many were not; the tendency to label them as apprentices has been seen as part of “a strategy through which the aspiring merchant class shed its republican tendencies”, and made common cause with the restored monarchy.

Katherine Romack sees the antagonism of the Bawdyhouse rioters toward “the mercenary sexual performances of London prostitutes and the growing tension between this class of adolescent males and the theatre” as “the product of a failure of traditional patriarchal ideologies of gender to keep pace with the radical acceleration of wage labour.  We can, from this perspective, read the riots as a failed expression of class-consciousness.  The “craft” of the common whore (her impersonations, imposture, and class transvestitism) elicited a hostile response from the rioters because she presented a challenge to traditional ideologies of youthful masculinity.  The sexually objectified female performer exposed, in short, the young men’s own subjection to the marketplace.  The most violent assault on the theatres and the brothels in this period came, most naturally, from those who intuited their own prostituted condition.” (Romack)

She suggests that as early as 1660, the apprentices were already beginning to understand that the old certainties of apprentice life and the expectation of job security were dissolving, or as he puts it, “patrimonial narratives that had traditionally ensured their subordination” were outdated, that “the prostitution endemic to commerce had pervaded all levels of culture from workshop to court”.

“Exacerbated by the ongoing deterioration of the guild system, the apprentices’ hostility towards prostitutes resulted from the failure of those fictions of servitude that had once rendered palatable their status sexually, in the patriarchal family unit, and on-stage. The violence of the authorities’ response to the apprentice riots of ’68, suggests that they had more to fear from the apprentices than a little festive brothel bashing, for it was precisely the disastrous effects of reification against which these youthful subordinate subjects rebelled.  Their cries of “we have been servants but we will be masters now!” as they ravaged the brothels in ’68 mark not only an implicit realisation but also a desperate denial of their own prostituted condition.  Tragically, however, the rioters fell victim to a fatal misrecognition: they became so caught up in the visual emblems of commodity fetishism (in its objects and proxies—in whores) that they lashed out at women, who were themselves equally subject to the workings of the market.  The young men failed, in short, to understand that commodity fetishism neither inheres in, nor originates from, its objects. Conflating the object of desire with its cause is also, ironically, the pornographic attitude to sexuality.”

According to this reading of the Riots, the apprentices’ hostility toward prostitutes did not arise primarily from a moral objection to sex, but from “a collective response against their increasing alienation and disenfranchisement”… Only rather than substantially attacking any of the economic class that was benefitting from the turbulent changes, much of the disorder was concentrated on targeting women on the margins. Puritan morality successfully diverting confused social anger and economic insecurity into collective male violence.

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in radical history, 2003: 1000s of schoolkids rebel against the Iraq War

The recent schoolkids’ strike in protest at inaction over climate change reminded us of this day of actions, from 16 years ago… so we thought we’d re-post this roundup of the inspiring actions of March 20th 2003.

Up the youth…!

Originally compiled by Endangered Phoenix in 2003… it is online elsewhere, though their site no longer exists, but we think it needs flagging up every so often. We have republished the list/comments in their entirety. Sometimes the present tense is used; we have left this as it was. However, we have added some clarification on locations of some actions where we could and tried to eliminate duplication where we could.

The actions of schoolkids in March 2003 throughout the world were perhaps the most interesting aspect of the opposition to the [US-led coalition war against Iraq]. Undoubtedly they failed to stop the war, surprise, surprise. They fizzled out as it became obvious that the war would just go on despite what was done in the streets. But their real failure is that though they were based in daily life – the refusal of school in a situation where they knew that kids in another part of the world were going to be killed – they didn’t go on to consciously develop an ongoing opposition to education in this society, which would have extended the movement into something beyond just the war. 

Here we have 4 sections on this movement:

  • A list of various actions, mainly by schoolkids against the war. We do not necessarily agree with everything said here, and in fact it’s a fairly eclectic collection – but it gives some idea of the enormity of this movement. This list is not meant to be definitive – probably some things are missed out.
  • An interview with a London schoolkid at the time of the war.
  • A personal account of someone’s experience in London, the day the war broke out.
  • A leaflet given out to various schoolkids in London at the start of the war.

ACTIONS AT THE START OF THE WAR, March 20th 2003

CENTRAL LONDON DEMONSTRATION

Throughout the day several thousand school and university students together with trade unionists and others demonstrated in Parliament Square in Whitehall. All streets and roads around Westminster and Whitehall were blocked throughout the day. Westminster Bridge was closed.

SCHOOLS

Teacher support: 65 teachers at Copland School in Wembley walked out for the last lesson

NUT at Arthur Terry school

NATFHE at Preston FE and Pendal FE colleges, Lancashire

NUT at Beeston Comprehensive, (Nottingham?).

NATFHE and AUT at Bristol City FE college

NUT at Neston High School, Neston Cheshire, and Wallasey High School (on the Wirral, Merseyside?)

NUT at Forest Hill School & Sydenham school, (South London) St. Paul’s Way School (possibly Mile End, East London)

NUT at Ducie High School/Oakwood High School (Manchester)

Up to a thousand school kids were holding a demonstration inside school grounds in St Dunstan’s School, Glastonbury – supported by the school authorities who even called the local media to come and film the event.

At least 100 students at St Boniface School in Plymouth face being suspended after a protest on the Hoe and in the city centre.

200-300 pupils at Helena Romanes School and Sixth Form Centre in Dunmow, Essex, staged a peaceful protest outside the school gates this morning

Pupils from Priory High School in Exeter, who joined a demonstration in the city centre said they had been given permission to take part by their parents.

School students from Parrs Wood school in Didsbury, Manchester joined the student march

There were actions in Glebelands School, Cranleigh, Surrey; Broadlands School, Keynsham, Bristol; QEHS School, Hexham, Northumberland

Hundreds of schoolkids walked out from Priory, West Exeter, St Peter’s school and others

500 kids walked out of lessons from Clyst Vale school, Devon and held a protest meeting outside that went on all day.

Queen Elizabeth Community Comprehensive Upper School, Crediton, Devon

Tiverton, Devon 200 schoolkids walked out from Ivybridge school, Devon and marched through the town

20 pupils at Cape Cornwall School in St Just, near Penzance, were suspended after joining a march on Wednesday.

Also reports of some actions in Taunton, Somerset; Minehead, Somerset; Kingsmead School, Wiveliscombe, Somerset; Wellington, Somerset; Morley, Leeds; Broadlands School, Keynsham, Bristol; by 126 students at Hazelwick School, Crawley

200 students at Farnborough FE college are occupying the canteen

Thomas Hardy School, Dorchester (despite threats from school board) The headmaster gave them the day off to protest

Mearns Castle High School, Glasgow walk out by 250 third year pupils against war in Iraq. Tried to converge on Eastwood council but were stopped.

Eskdale Middle School, Whitby, North Yorkshire, and Whitby Community College walking out at 3. 30pm.

Around 60 school student walked out of Anderson High School, Lerwick, Shetland, today, 20 March 2003 at 12 noon to protest against war in Iraq. The students marched to the town centre, and from there to the harbour where they picketed a Royal Navy minesweeper.

Pupils at Shenley Brook End School, Milton Keynes, staged their own spontaneous protest after morning break at 11 o’clock. Instead of going back to lessons pupils assembled in the “Street“ (as the school’s common area is called) where they remained for 10 minutes until the protest was broken up by teachers.

Pupils at Limavady in Northern Ireland walked out of lessons

Students from at least three schools in Bedford who had staged a walkout to synchronise with the demo

Brynteg School, Bridgend, South Wales held a successful demonstration, leaving lessons to march around the town.

80 students plus a dozen teachers from two local comprehensives and a college staged a march around Abingdon town centre

350 school and sixth form kids sat outside the front of their school in a quite leafy suburb in Surrey.

School children walk out of their classes and stop traffic in City Centre and Tyne Bridge in the morning.

Pupils from Oathall Community College, Haywards Heath, West Sussex blocked the A272. Students at three other local schools were locked in by staff.

Dozens of students in Wigan walked out, sparked by one student’s stand.

200 11-16 year old schoolkids walked out of Caldew school, Dalston, Cumbria, at morning break, and taking police by surprise, marched into the centre of the village chanting anti-war slogans. More than 500 – ie about half the school – walked out of William Howard School, Brampton, Cumbria, into town and held a minute’s silence. Both these actions were totally self-organised.

Students at John Barrow School, Barrow were forced to climb an 8 ft fence to get out of their school after the headmaster locked them in. They occupied the town hall and handcuffed themselves to the gates.

100-150 students from Clifton school demonstrated against the war in Rotherham town centre in the evening

200 school-students walked out of classes in York and occupied a roundabout in the centre.

30 students in Swindon walked out to join a march

300 12-15 year olds left 3 schools in Edinburgh and were blocked from reaching the American Consulate by police after attempting to occupy Edinburgh Castle.

Cardinal Newman School in Preston saw a walk-out

Pupils from Our Ladies and Girls’ Grammar Schools, Lancaster joined protests

Students in Plymouth walked out despite staff changing break times and locking doors to attempt to stop students joining protests.

In Nottinghamshire, more than 100 pupils walked out of lessons at West Bridgford School to stage a demonstration on a nearby playing field.

LONDON

There were actions or wallkouts in the following schools/areas:

Christ’s College 6th Form – Finchley, North London.

200 at Acland Burley School, Tufnell Park, North London. Hundreds of pupils from 3 North London 6th forms – William Ellis, Parliament Hill, Acland Burghley and La Sainte Union  – marched to Parliament.

200 from Stepney School, Mile End, East London.

Hundreds of staff and students at Tower Hamlets College marched to Mile End.

Walthamstow Central is blocked – walk outs by Kelmscott school, Walthamstow School for Girls and 2 6th form colleges. Over 400 school kids in Walthamstow blocked traffic.

400 students out at Fortismere School, Muswell Hill, N. London, marched up Muswell Hill Broadway and blocked traffic up to Highgate Tube. Also students from Alexandra Park school walked out.

Police were called to pen students in at Charles Edward Brook school in Lambeth after they started shouting anti-war slogans.

Pupils of Villiers High School in Southall, West London, organised protest and walked out of school. Up to 300 pupils took part and as a result many have been suspended.

Staff and students from schools in North East London – Northumberland Park, Gladesmore and William C. Harvey walked out.

Gunnersbury Catholic School in West London saw a spontaneous protest by 200 pupils, 50 of whom joined the protest at Parliament Square.

WALES

The following actions reported:

Swansea – Cwmtawe Comprehensive School, Pontardawe.

Newtown High School 1/2 hour protest – children have been threatened with two week suspension if they join the protest.

Llanidloes High School, walk out in face of opposition by senior staff.

Around 100 pupils walked out of Llandrindod Wells High School, In Powys, Wales and held a rally at the war memorial.

Mass walkouts in Gowerton, Llanelli and Bridgend each involved a hundred or more students.

12-15 Llanelli students were arrested.

In Olcfha school the gates were firmly shut in an attempt to stop a repeat of Wednesdays action (?). Instead the school students held a sit in and refused to attend lessons.

UNIVERSITIES

Queen Mary and Westfield, Uni of London, Tower Hamlets,  – students protest at Mile End, Stepney

Salford University, Manchester – The Crescent blocked twice.

At Manchester Metropolitan University, 80 staff and 150 students rallied and marched to Albert Square. 100s of students from Manchester Uni have walked out of lectures and blocked traffic on Oxford Road, a busy main road out of

Manchester AUT and UNISON at Manchester University walked out at 1pm to join the student rally.

Essex Uni students binned Daily Mail and Sun copies in the campus shop.

Students are striking today at Southampton Uni

At Stirling university about 1, 500 staff/students walked out of lectures, then 500 marched to Stirling centre.

North West London College sites at Willesden, Wembley, Kilburn, classes closed, staff walked out to a protest given paid time off, more than 1000 staff and students at Willesden, most walked out to Westminster

London Met Uni and City & Islington College walk-out in Highbury and Holloway Road, several hundred marched to Islington Town Hall.

Students in Oxford are planning to occupy the town centre.

Students at Keele Uni blocked the main entrance to the campus as lecturers arrived for work, before being dispersed by campus security. Students and staff later staged a protest today in which they went to their cars at midday and blew their car hours for five minutes.

Cambridge University students have blocked the traffic along with 400 people at the war memorial, and 50 students have occupied the army recruitment centre.

600 students walked out of Westminster Kingsway College to join central London protests.

Students including the Welfare Officer of Lampeter Uni, Wales joined a protest in the town centre.

More than 400 staff and students demonstrated outside the College of North East London against the war on Iraq.

Anti War University students at Swansea Uni invaded large lectures on Thursday morning and asked for a vote on the war before asking people to walk out and join them. They found in every lecture at least two thirds were against the war.

Staff and students at Bradford College walked out at midday yesterday to join protests at the outbreak of war. Around 25 lecturers in Natfhe and a hundred students marched from college sites into Bradford’s Centenary square.

Lecturers at Swansea University spent the morning leafleting against the war.

Lecturers in Neath College held a rally outside the college gates.

Barnsley College NATFHE members held a dinnertime protest rally.

At the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham up to 100 NATFHE members and students walked out of lectures at 12 Noon, including a group of students who had been given the go-ahead by their Women’s Studies lecturer and another lecturer led two-thirds of her Social Work students out.

Protest were also held by:

NATFHE at Handsworth College and East Birmingham College.

AUT at Exeter University.

NATFHE at Leeds Metropolitan Uni.

Fircroft College of Adult Education, NATFHE.

AUT, Bristol University lunchtime walk-out.

NATFHE, UNISON, Bristol University, University of the West of England.

UNISON Leicester uni.

Liverpool UNISON, AUT John Moore Uni.

AUT at Liverpool University.

NATFHE at Sheffield Uni, Sheffield Hallam.

NATFHE at Greenfield College & Goldsmith’s, Tower Hamlet’s College, Guildhall, UEL, East Ham College.

SOAS and UCL lecturers (AUT).

NATFHE at Southwark College.

JUST SOME OF THE TOWN CENTRE PROTESTS

Altogether around 500 assembled in Albert square in Manchester at lunchtime. 2000 people including uni students, school students, council workers and lecturers marched round Manchester city centre, closing major road junctions. A rally took place in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens, drawing over 5, 000 people.

Bristol

“School kids in Bristol demonstrated that they’re more sussed than the liberals and Vicars leading the Stop The War Coalition when they staged a number of wildcat anti-war strikes.

200 pupils at St.Katherine’s school at Pill, walked out of lessons and gathered on the school field for three hours to protest the attack on Iraq. They also blocked traffic on the road outside the school till police were called. Another 300 students, mainly from Cotham school, also took strike action and protested in the City Centre – no disciplinary action was taken. Pupils from St. Mary Redcliffe were only stopped from staging their own strike by teachers rushing to lock the school gates when they realised people were about to walk out – nevertheless a number of committed pupils ignored these rule-following idiots and clambered over the fences – one breaking his ankle in the process – at least he’s got something to show when people ask what he did to try and stop the war. Two local people have been locked up for an act of direct action, in which they disabled thirty vehicles which provide essential support to the US B52 bombers at Fairford Airbase. The usual round of anti-war graffiti and pacifist peace vigils have also taken place – but the spontaneous and inspiring actions of school students, unencumbered by party positions, surely points out the way to go if we wish to stop the war machine in its tracks.”

London

“In London, smaller local protests starting with school walk-outs in the morning converge into Parliament Square around noon and remain centred around that area into the evening. Schoolkids in a sit-down protest are punched or thrown aside in an attempt by cops to clear the streets – but some of these teenagers prove to be the most valiant in resisting the police. Later on, as the square fills with several thousand protesters, graffiti, and bonfires, breakaway marches head towards Victoria but are pushed back, and others block Westminster bridge. The square is surrounded by police.”

Newcastle.

“The first day of war in Iraq saw some of the largest and most militant activity that Newcastle has experienced in recent times. Events began at 8 am at the Haymarket. At 8.20 the crowd of 80-odd that had gathered moved into the road and blocked traffic for three quarters of an hour. Eventually, the crowd moved on. Some went to work but the schoolkids present weren’t finished yet. They marched to the Monument and spent half an hour chalking anti-war slogans all over the area. Then they got off and made straight for the Tyne Bridge. Stopping traffic on the Tyne bridge was child’s play. No coppers showed for ages. The group then marched back into Newcastle, this time accompanied by police vans the whole way. At lunchtime, it met up with the 1,000 strong main march and again stopped traffic at the Haymarket. A large group hung about until the end and then marched up to the Haymarket and again stopped traffic by sitting in the road. Then they tried to march onto the main road north out of Newcastle but were stopped by large numbers of police vans. They turned round and tried to march the other way, moving towards the civic centre but again were corralled by the cops. So, the crowd ran over the park by the church and sat in the road back where they’d just been; the cops didn’t have a clue what to do.

The Socialist Workers Party regional organiser then announced that the demo was over and everyone should go to the next one. After, some argued that loud hailers should not be allowed on marches. But it’s not really the loud hailers, but the fuckers using them. The way in which such a high level of solidarity, spontaneity and militancy was effectively killed by people who were meant to be supporters of the cause was nothing short of a disgrace. It remains to be seen whether the experiences of that night will encourage people to hold their nerve in the future or whether the shiteness in which it ended will put people off doing similar things again. It didn’t need to end that way, and we need to find ways of combating those who elect themselves to sell us out. Hopefully, the kids, who were the main inspiration of the days’ events, will learn to deal with this in the future, and won’t be put off by it.”

KIDS AGAINST THE WAR

School kids across the UK walked out of lessons to stage demonstrations against the start of the war with Iraq starting on Thursday March 20th. Hundreds joined crowds protesting at Westminster. School kids have been played a big part in many demonstrations across the UK while others have staged their own protests at their schools.In Carlisle, the police were called to a school after hundreds of pupils staged an anti-war demonstration. Around 200 11-to-16 year olds from the Caldew School in Dalston marched into the centre of the village chanting anti-war slogans. A demonstration in Edinburgh caused extensive disruption in the city centre. The demonstrators were mainly school-age youngsters who gathered near the Scottish Parliament and then split in to smaller groups which stopped traffic. Stirling University was closed due to protest action.

There were two separate demonstrations in Belfast with more than 1,000 students and schoolchildren mounting a sit-down protest, blocking the road outside Queen’s University.

In Nottinghamshire, more than 100 pupils walked out of lessons at West Bridgford School to stage a demonstration on a nearby playing field.

In Manchester, about 200 school students joined a big demonstration.

In Sheffield, two schoolchildren were arrested by police for alleged criminal damage during a demonstration.

They occupied Lancaster town hall, shut down the centre of Leamington Spa and took to the streets of Northern Ireland. Meanwhile a Manchester head teacher took up police tactics to intimidate pupils who protest against the war.

In Bristol, the centre of the city was gridlocked as thousands joined protesting students in blocking roads. Crowds pushed through police lines and the M32 was blockaded.

In Edinburgh, demos and student strikes started on the Monday before the war broke out. Protesters stormed the castle and Princes Street several times. Up to a thousand school kids were holding a demonstration inside school grounds in Glastonbury – supported by the school authorities who even called the local media to come and film the event.

Students rallied on campus in Keele, and in Leeds council workers joined students for a day of protest, and further actions took place in Aberdeen, Barnsley, while in Cardiff evening protests brought the city to a standstill, which were later attacked by police.

Around 200 school students staged a walk-out at George Stephenson school, Killingworth, near Newcastle. The students walked out at dinner time after the headteacher sent out a letter banning younger students from going outside school for their lunch. They made placards and marched out, to be confronted by mounted police.

Near the City of London, kids blocked a road, whilst over 400 schoolkids in Walthamstow were blocking traffic and causing mayhem; demos of mainly schoolkids all over the place. In Edinburgh, they stopped the city centre. In Lewisham, schoolkids had a walkout to demonstrate at the town hall. When many of them took a bus to join the protests in Central London they were violently stopped by the police. Most were forced to go back to school but some were detained.

From: from Mike Marqusee site, May 2003

On the morning following the launch of the US-UK war on Iraq, the headline in Dawn, the leading English language daily in Pakistan, proclaimed: “World condemns invasion, fears for civilians”. The story underneath itemised the protests lodged by the vast majority of the planet’s governments and the street demonstrations that greeted the outbreak of war in every continent. You could find similar headlines in newspapers everywhere – except in Britain and the USA.

As the war in Iraq has unfolded, the British media have focussed on the battle front, and largely ignored the parallel story of sustained and unprecedented global protest. In doing so, they’re misleading us about the real impact and consequences of the war.

Of course, for huge numbers in Asia and Africa, the war is an attack on Muslims and their outrage stems from their Muslim commitments. In the Arab world, the war has spurred a revival of long-dormant Arab nationalism – precisely the phenomenon most feared by the US oil elite. But the world-wide anger reaches far beyond Muslim or Arab ties. From Moscow to Seoul, Johannesburg to Buenos Aires, popular indignation with the US-British invasion has found expression in countless marches and rallies.

From the first day of the war up to the present moment, protests involving hundreds of thousand have been staged regularly in Germany, Italy and Spain. In Barcelona, every evening at 9pm, thousands open their windows and beat on saucepans to voice their protest. In Greece a general strike shut down banks, stores and government services. 15,000 marched to the US consulate in the northern port city of Thessaloniki. Cyprus was brought to a standstill by a 30 minute work stoppage – even the stock exchange was closed. Although Poland is one of the very few countries to have supplied even a token number of troops to the US-British operation, an opinion poll has showed that 69% of Poles are against the war. Dissident MPs brought anti-war banners into the Polish parliament (precipitating a scuffle with government officials). Students in Sarajevo, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, hurled eggs and red paint at the US embassy. Some protesters carried posters with a picture of Bush and the text: “Wanted – dead or alive. Preferably dead. Reward – peace.’”

It’s striking that so many protests have taken place in societies that might seem both remote from the conflict and preoccupied with their own pressing and desperate problems. But everywhere this war is perceived as a global question. Not surprisingly, the spectacle of an unchecked superpower imposing its will by force where and when it pleases makes people uneasy. In that large section of the world blighted by poverty and repression, many feel that their hopes for democracy and economic development depend on a peaceful and equitable world economic order and, with reason, do not believe that such an order can be built under the dictatorship of the USA. What they see in the war on Iraq is a contempt for their own right to determine their destinies and a disregard for the value of non-US, non-British human life.

Only two African governments can be found among the “coalition of the willing” – Eritrea and Ethiopia, both competing for US assistance. In Accra there have been demonstrations protesting the cautious ambivalence of the Ghanaian regime. Tens of thousands have opposed the war in the streets of all the major South African cities. Kenya – itself a victim of terrorist atrocities – has opposed the invasion. Hundreds of young people marched in the coastal town of Mombasa carrying placards and banners denouncing Bush and Blair. In Niger and Nigeria, there have been protests outside UIS and British embassies. In Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, there was a blanket ten minute work stoppage in solidarity with Iraq.

There have been huge and angry protests in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. 80,000 marched in Bangkok. In Pattani, an estimated 30,000 people prayed in the streets. “I think what Bush is doing is equal to Satan’s work. Why can’t he find a better way to stop a problem?” said Waetalee Waebuyi, a 21-year-old Thai student.

The war has highlighted how intertwined our destinies have become. In Kerala, in south west India, many communities are dependent on remittances from relatives working in the Gulf. Local fishermen have launched a boat named Iraq on “a voyage of peace” across the state’s intricate network of palm-fringed waterways. The vessel carries a banner reading: “Every bush will be ploughed some day.” “The war affects us immensely and we want to protest against it in a unique way so that people take note of it,” said one of the organisers. Across the state, expatriates who have returned to their villages after years of working in the Gulf have set up “anti-war corners” where artists display anti-war messages. These messages have been echoed in demonstrations of hundreds of thousands in Calcutta and Delhi.

The war has won support from only four of the 21 South and Central American governments. In Ecuador, 1,000 people massed outside the US embassy chanting “peace, yes – war, no”. There have been demonstrations outside US embassies in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil.

Of course, the war looks different depending on where you’re watching it. Television coverage outside Britain and the USA has shown civilian suffering in much greater detail. Far more airtime has been given to expressions of indignation by ordinary Iraqis – largely excised from our screens here.

But even in the USA, where war coverage is sanitised and the reality of death and destruction veiled, protest has continued. On 22 March, a quarter of a million demonstrated in New York City. There have been marches and rallies in cities and towns across the country. Non-violent direct action has proliferated – almost entirely unreported in the media. Trade union bodies representing 5 million US workers – one third of organised labour in the country – have come out against the war, as have most of the major religious denominations. Student activism has reached levels not seen sine the 1970s. The level of visible public dissent is greater than it was during most of the Vietnam War.

So the thousands of British schoolkids who walked out of their classes in protest against the war are very much part of a vast global movement. It’s a highly diverse movement with varying and sometimes conflicting ideologies. There’s certainly no single political mastermind behind it – it’s bubbled up from the grass roots.

The world-wide demonstration on 15th February were unprecedented in the history of our species: never before have so many people in so many different societies spoken with one voice on one day. These demonstrations did not stop the war, but they did herald the growth of a new internationalist consciousness among many millions spread across the globe. That consciousness places the value of human life first, and national loyalties some way behind. And despite the triumphalism of the war party, it has not receded with the advance of US troops on Baghdad. As a front-page article in the New York Times acknowledged, “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” That second super-power has only begun to flex its muscles.

——

KIRKBY TIMES NEWS WEBSITE – MARCH 03

“School Pupils walk out as War in Iraq begins

Kirkby times can report that were protests by School Pupils in Liverpool City Centre today Weds 20 March 2003. The Pupils walked out of lessons to protest at the news of the Iraq War starting off in earnest at around 2.45 am early this morning, early dawn in Iraq.

Pupils Block Roads

The pupils were said to number between 250 and 300 and the protests began at 1.00pm when it became apparent to Merseyside Police that large numbers of the protestors blocking roads at Mount Pleasant/Brownlow Hill were pupils aged between 12 to 15 according to Police spokesman Superintendent Alan Cooper who said on Radio Merseyside that “Officers noticed many protestors in uniform” and also said that they were “Obviously truanting” However, a lot of parents support their kids making a stand and will not agree with Supt Alan Cooper.

Police very unhappy at events

Some pupils from Calderstone School denied ‘truanting’ and said that the school has told pupils “those with notes could attend protests”, however, many pupils admitted to not having permission from the school and one pupil told the media that ‘they just walked out” and that they “wanted to do what they could to stop this war” Supt Cooper was at pains to present reasons that kids should not protest at Iraqi Children being murdered, one of the reasons kids should not be protesting, he claimed , was because “they could fall victim to unscrupulous characters who will subject them to be victims of crime” Er, what? Are you saying 300 kids are going to preyed on by perverts or something? Maybe Supt Cooper may be as well to just go after the unscrupulous characters which he admits are out there on his patch.

Headmaster tries to accuse political groups of ‘using’ kids

Brian Davies the Head Teacher of Calderstone School, one of the schools who took part in the protests, told the local radio that “Some of these children will be exploited for political ends by political groups”. One thing’s for sure, Tony Blair would use these Pupils, and is maybe using some of their older brothers as cannon fodder which may well be said to be ‘political exploitation’ of the very worse sort. Kirkby Times is sure pupils will be able to make there own minds up as to whether or not to take part in protests or join political groups. We should be glad our kids have an interest in such matters.

Civil Disobedience

Councillor Paul Klein of Liverpool Education Authority was sympathetic as to the reasons that the kids protested and walked out of lessons. He reminded people that every generation had its own things to stand up for and it was, in some ways, refreshing to hear someone in a position of authority show some compassion to these kids and an understanding as to why they have done what they done. The Police were not happy at all with these protests, but as we all know the Police are only happy if protesters behave like a herd of polite sheep. Now is not the time for polite protests, we’ve been down that road and it never worked. The only route left, as protesters and Police will soon discover, is Civil Disobedience. Many of us, who are going to London on Saturday, do so to cause as much noise etc as possible. The time for niceties is over. We cannot allow our Government to Kill children in our name.

To all the pupils involved in today’s protests, Kirkby Times salutes you.”

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AFRICA

* In South Africa, schoolkids led the protests in Cape Town and were joined by workers from factories. The US consulate has seen a continuous picket outside it since the war started, with at least 50 people always maintaining a presence.”

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CLASS STRUGGLE

Striking school children, some as young as 11 and 12, brought Brighton City Centre to a halt last Thursday in protest over the British and American invasion of Iraq. Taking to the streets with chants of “No War,” “One, two, three, four, Tony Blair is Bush’s whore,” and other brilliantly unprintable slogans, the students blocked roads in the city centre for nearly four hours, telling perturbed motorists to “Turn off your engines, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Cynical, disillusioned Brighton activists were spotted in the area, wandering in a haze of shock, awe and respect, gobsmacked by people half their age with twice as much energy and imagination. “I was just about to trade in my Palestinian scarf and trendy body jewellery for a thankless call centre job,” said one old, formerly disenchanted 23-year-old in a faded Che Guevara t-shirt. “But today has convinced me that the revolution may still be possible!”

Meanwhile, one group of school kids (pursued by rabid Socialist Worker’s Party paper-sellers) broke off from the main march and paid a visit to the local American Express building. The pledge of allegiance was not said, the star spangled banner was not played, but nonetheless, the American flag became the centre of attention for much of the crowd, who decided the old stars and stripes were in need of a drastic makeover. An upstanding, tax-paying, Daily Mail-reading bystander who was later quoted in the Argus, described the event as sickening and depraved, but a nearby American reckoned it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

Earlier in the day, in an important lesson on free speech, teachers and heads around the city locked many young pupils into their schools, desperate to keep them from expressing an opinion. Pupils at Blatchington Mill, Cardinal Newman, Dorothy Stringer, Varndean, and Patcham were threatened with suspension, expulsion, and extra citizenship classes (to teach them the real meaning of democracy and blind obedience) if they left school to participate in protests. In some cases, pupils even faced locked gates and the harrowing spectre of future visits from local blood-thristy pro-war Mps. But in a series of daring walk-outs and escapes, hundreds of locked-down school kids still managed to join the protests in the town centre.

SchNEWS were on the scene at Blatchington Mill when, at 11am, a brave group of around 50 students walked out of school past barely-opened iron gates and a grimly frowning headmaster. (Readers may remember Blatch’s open-minded head, one Mr. Neil Hunter, when he referred to pupils that had staged a spontaneous anti-war demo a few weeks ago as “mindless idiots.” Since the spontaneous walk-out, six Blatch kids have been excluded and the “always wanting to show both sides of the argument” Mr. Hunter has invited the local pro-war MP, Ivor Caplin, to come and spew pro-war propaganda at the school. After leaving Blatchington, the triumphant procession of Blatch kids met up with nearly 200 other excited and out-of-breath pupils who had just rushed out of Cardinal Newman. “We’ve just escaped, we’ve just escaped our school,” they panted. “They tried to lock us in!” Teachers had tried to lock gates and chase anti-war escapees through the school grounds, but many kids still managed to find a way out. As SchNEWS rounded a corner near Cardinal Newman school, the sight that awaited was grand indeed – 20-30 blue and grey-jumpered Newman kids pouring over an exterior stone wall after teachers had blocked all other routes of exit from the school.

Eventually the whole group of anti-war pupils made it safely and soundly down to the Old Steine for a day of protest and road-blocking. Many of the kids were still around at 5:30 the same afternoon, when nearly 5,000 people (probably Brighton’s biggest ever demo) converged on Churchill Square. Even in the evening, most of the chants and road sit-downs were led by school kids from all over the city.As one young protestor explained, “We did it because we wanted our voices to be heard. We were rebelling against the Government because we feel it is rebelling against us.”

* Kids in Therfield school Leatherhead who bunked off to go to an anti war demo where given lines by the Headmaster “I will not walk out of school.”

* Thousands of newly politicised school kids took part in anti-war demonstrations all across the UK last week. For more info from the school-uniformed frontlines in Manchester, London, and hundreds of other cities, check out http://www.indymedia.org.uk

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AUSTRALIA Sydney – March 03

“I was in the city yesterday, and witnessed the protests. While some of the protesters I spoke to were shy and not all that articulate (that’s why they’re still at school, to learn), those I spoke to understood well the arguments against the war on Iraq. Amongst these were a pair of siblings who had been adopted to Australia after their parents had been killed in the 1991 bombings of Baghdad, and two sisters who had come to Australia as Palestinian refugees. To say that these children do not know about war is simply patronising. I only wish I was as passionate and enthusiasm about opposing the war as they were. Maybe older Australians could learn a thing or two from them.We should not let the fact that there were small (very isolated I might add) incidences of violence detract from the rally. The main violence (sadly unreported by the corporate media) was from the police. I witnessed over 300 police decked out with revolvers and goggles (to protect from pepper spray) blocking the exit of a mere 500 high school students who were peacefully protesting John Howard’s office in Phillip Street, surrounding them from both sides (with two regiments of mounted police on horses) and arresting anyone attempting to leave. Amongst these were very young children, who were extremely frightened, with older siblings and parents were trapped on the other side and pleading with police to let them out, and a young diabetic who was needing to leave to get insulin. When I questioned police about why they were holding the crowd prisoner, none of them could answer. This made the young protesters scared and angry enough to try to force passage out.The other horrifying thing I witnessed was mounted police (6 or 7 of them) on mounted horses, charging straight over a group of demonstrators in an attempt to disperse them. I was absolutely ashamed for the police, especially after I saw a young girl of about 12 from a Middle Eastern background brutalised and arrested by 3 massive police, seemingly for doing nothing other than voicing her opposition to the war. As an Australian and an educator, I was absolutely horrified. It was a dark day for Australian democracy.”
Daniel

MARCH 2003 – MANCHESTER & NORTH

Two lots of protests took place in Liverpool City Centre. One was largely led by groups of schoolkids many still in uniform, blocked major city centre roads, causing havoc. The main protest took place at 5pm in Liverpool city center as around 1500 people people blocked many major roads in the city centre. Reports [1,|

2| 3]. In Hebden Bridge and Halifax the days events included school students demonstations, candle-lit vigils and shutting down two Esso filling stations.

On Wednesday day a demonstration arranged by school children in Manchester city centre turned into an impromptu reclaim the streets as around a thousand pupils ran circles around GMP for three and a half hours.

School children stormed Lancaster in anti-war protests. A peace camp was set up in centre of town, the Town Hall occupied and the ring road shut down. While earlier on Monday Whalley Range schoolchildren organised their own protest.

* * *

San Francisco protesters stage a ‘vomit in’

“Bay City News

Thursday, March 20, 2003

08:41 PST — In a unique form of opposition, some protesters at the Federal Building staged a “vomit in,” by heaving on the sidewalks and plaza areas in the back and front of the building to show that the war in Iraq made them sick, according to a spokesman.

Many of the approximately 300 protesters demonstrating at the building at 450 Golden Gate Ave. attempted to block building entrances.

Seven anti-war demonstrators were arrested at mid-morning as they sought to block a group of about 20 federal employees and other visitors seeking to enter the building, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Ron Rogers said.

Rogers said all seven were charged with creating a disturbance and two were additionally charged with resisting arrest.

Only the back entrance of the Federal Building on Turk Street was open this morning. People with business inside the building were required to wait outside and were allowed to pass through metal barricades at intervals. The seven arrests occurred during one of the intervals as federal police officers sought to lead visitors around the metal barricades into the building.

On the Larkin Street side of the building, demonstrators blocked the driveway that leads into a basement garage used by federal judges and other officials who work in the building.

Numerous officers from the Federal Protective Service and San Francisco Police Department, wearing helmets and other riot protection gear, formed lines around the building.”

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Switzerland, Thursday, March 20th, 2003

10:30 thousands of schoolkids start to assemble in Bern, whole schoolclasses are marching through the neighborhoods to join the others

11:30 chaos in the city. kids everywhere protesting the war. i spot some funny signs: piss on war [uuuhhh] frenchkiss not war [good one! but would “make love not war” be too sexual for todays youth?] or seid lieb [which i find quite cute, it translates as “be nice”]

13:30 after protesting in front of the us-embassy in bern, the kids need a big mac. huge lines at mcdonalds. a girl is complaining as she slurps her coca cola, she has never seen such a long line

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Capitalism-as-usual (no security) comes to Japan, and schoolkids turn violent

YOKOHAMA, Japan — By sixth grade, a growing generation of preteenage rebels has begun walking in and out of classrooms at will, mocking the authority of adults and even attacking teachers who try to restrain them.

Similar problems show up in higher grades too, with nearly half of all high schools reporting violence, higher dropout rates and problems like student prostitution.

“Up until now, Japan was a society in which children obeyed adults, but this relationship between children and adults is no longer workable, because the system was built around the idea that by doing well in school you should enter a good company, and having lifetime security,” said Naoki Ogi, an education expert. “Over the last 10 years, however, Japan hasn’t found a way out of its economic depression, and from the children’s viewpoint, the academic record-oriented system has collapsed. Moral values are collapsing, too.

“So children feel they have no one they can trust, no adult society they can look up to.”

(NYT 9/23/02)

Interview With A Schoolkid

The following is an interview with a 15 year old from North London about the 12 March (2003) Schools Walkout

How did you first hear about it?

By word of mouth – the schools are all close to each other and people know each other. It wasn’t particularly done on the internet.

Why that day?

Don’t know. I knew a week in advance, and it was clear from the beginning that the teachers must not find out. We were told to spread it around among our mates.

What about the rest of the country?

The organisers had some kind of network.

What happened on the day?

We went to school without our bags or anything. The walk out time was 9.30 for everybody, that is when it all happened. We had a supply teacher who didn’t know what was going on. We all just got up, the whole class, she tried blocking the door and saying ‘you will get in trouble’. So we all marched out, and everyone was there because it was the same time for everyone. Once we were outside the school we got everyone together and marched up to Parliament Hill School to pick up the people there, and on the way, La Santa Union. They were already waiting for us. Then we all marched down to Kentish Town where we all got on the tube.

How many people were you?

Out of our year…um… everyone. Apart from three or four people.

What was the reaction from people on the streets as you marched to the tube?

People seemed quite shocked. Looking at their watches because we should have been in school.

How did you feel?

Great! Cheering, banging on the escalators. Writing no war signs. It was amazing when we got on the tube. There was a bit of debate before we got on about our tickets – whether to bunk it or not.

How was that decision made?

We were all standing around outside talking about it then this guy who is quite big and loud stood up on this box and shouted for everyone’s attention. He said “how should we get on the tube, should we pay or not”. Everyone shouted out what they thought and it was clear that most people thought we shouldn’t pay – so he said that was what we are going to do.

We got to Embankment tube and more people had come by then – from more schools around London. It was amazing at Embankment tube – they have a line of ticket barriers and we were all standing there, looking around, thinking “Shit, what should be do?” and then we walked up to the barriers and said “shall we just jump it?” and we had about 600 people all jumping over the barriers at Embankment station. It was an amazing sight.

When we got out everybody was quite worked up. We marched to Parliament Square.

By that time people were taking notice. People that go on marches all the time. Organisers of marches, people with placards. They came when they heard what was going on.

How do you think they found out so quickly?

Through local news coverage.

How did you feel about that? What was your reaction?

I thought it was good. They realised what was going on even though it wasn’t organised by them. Everyone thought it was good.

Was there any sense of “this is our thing”?

NO – not at all!

So – we were at Parliament Square and shouting and getting people to beep their horns and we started talking about what to do. Some of us started talking to some older people (about 16 years old) and thought we should do a road block by Big Ben, in front of Parliament. Everybody was up for that. That was the bit where the police started to get a bit heavy. They weren’t being really bad though. And then we generally decided, by people shouting, that we should move to Whitehall. So everybody stood up at the same time and we went. There was a big dash to Whitehall, by Downing Street. Once we were there we spent quite a long time demonstrating, with placards etc. By this time there were about 1000 people there. Then loads of police arrived in vans.

What was the reaction to this?

There was a bit of panic. Some people left, but most people decided to stay. We were pushed up against the gates of Downing Street just because there was so many people. Then the police decided to push everyone away from Downing Street. They had crash barriers that they were using to push us back. They were quite obviously prepared. So everybody got pushed back and we decided to sit down. The police then really wanted to be people away. They were picking people up by whatever means possible and dragging them back to the other side of the street behind a big set of barriers. People being picked up by their throats, having hands twisted behind them, that wasn’t nice.

What was peoples reaction?

Mostly anger.

Did people fight back a bit?

A little bit, but mostly they were overpowered quite easily. They were angry though. It was weird because we were behind the barrier we stood and watched as one by one people were dragged off and put behind us. It was like watching a film.

Was anyone arrested?

Some people were cautioned, but I don’t think they wanted to arrest anyone.

So it was about 3.00 pm and generally everyone was quite pissed off by this point. It slowly dispersed. I went back with my mates on the tube.

How were you talking about it?

It was an excited atmosphere that we had managed to do something quite spontaneous. It was fun as well because so many people had turned up – you could go round to people and ask what school they were from. And we were all the same age.

Did you have any repercussion from your teachers?

The only one was my head of year being sarcastic and patronising saying “oh you feel really good now, you can give yourselves a pat on the back”. We haven’t got in trouble from any of the other teachers, but also no support. One week later everybody who went on the march had to say something in assembly of the whole school about why they went. Everybody said a little bit. It was meant as some sort of punishment, but we were all up for it. A chance to have our say. People said stuff about the police brutality. [The boy’s dad recons the assembly was the teachers supporting the kids].

How did the other kids react?

They all cheered and stuff.

Are there other plans now? Has this spurred you on?

There have been a lot of meetings and stuff. The school council has been turned into an anti-war thing.

Are discussions taking place anywhere else as well – amongst you lot?

Yes – there are Socialist Worker discussions organised. They spread the word for the walk-out too. The meetings are at Euston Square.

What sort of people go to that?

Quite a lot of people, a whole mix of people.

Is there a buzz? Has it changed the way you talk generally, with your mates or other people you come into contact with?

Oh definitely! Before it was like ‘what’s the point in talking about things like that, we can’t make a difference’, but now we feel that we CAN do that. Something can happen if we all talk to each other.

What sort of conversation are you having now?

People asking what is going to happen next. What should we do. What would happen if the war started. On that day what would happen. That we would walk out when war starts.

Have any of those conversations been about other stuff too – what you think about other stuff? Why there is this war for example. Has the conversation got broader?

Yeah – I think so. We can talk to each other more now.

Are there people who you weren’t friends with before who you talked to on the demo, who you now have a different relationship with?

Yeah – I met people who I knew years ago who I am now back in contact with. I am staying in contact with them to talk about what is happening. There is a general feeling that if we keep in contact then it is going to spread more. There is more sense of communication.

Do you think that this might turn into something more than an anti-war thing – or was it always more than that?

Definitely. It is about a number of things. Walking out of school was definitely the focus. We could easily have done it on a Saturday but coming out of school was more effective.

Do you think people realised that – that that is why they were doing it and why they were doing it on a Wednesday?

Yeah.

What do you think the point is, though?

I think the point is that you can easily punish one person for doing something wrong – but you can’t punish everyone and even though one person may have a good point – a group of people are going to be much more effective.

Do you think it is something about school and authority and being forced to be in school?

Yeah – what is authority if it doesn’t work.

Have you talked to people who didn’t go?

Yeah – the year 10s (14 &15 year olds) didn’t know about it – there was quite a big dividing line between the years. There was a major hype in year 11 about it and I don’t think that happened in the lower years. I don’t think it really changed anything for those who didn’t walk out.

Do you think that they would walk out with you if it happened again?

Definitely. Now they realise what can go on – what a group of people can do.

Have you been reading more leaflets? Have people been passing round bits of paper?

A little bit – but mostly talking.

Do you think this is about the war?

It partly is – but it is not the only thing. It is also about the police. Not just that they were they brutal last Wednesday, but that they are not helping with the crime. Kids from my school are getting mugged and threatened on an everyday basis. It is also about school. The teaching has reached the point now where is all just focused on the exams – it is not really about what you are learning, just about how to pass. How to get good grades.

Personal Account

The following is a personal report of the school kids actions from the Thursday, 20 March, the day war broke out.

I went down to Parliament Square about 10.00 am and there were mostly school kids there. About 500 school kids and maybe 50 adults. They were milling about in Parliament Square. Then suddenly they moved – fast – into the road on the north side of the square. “SIT DOWN, STOP THE WAR”. So we did. Loads of us, suddenly. The police take time to react and then start coming round with their lines, their discipline, their orders. When the crowd sense they are coming near – they move – FAST! They remind me of the starlings by Brighton West Pier. They are unified – in touch with each other – there is a group mood and a group mind. We run across Parliament Square to the south side and repeat the sit down. When it is time to move again the word goes round to go to Downing Street. We run – it is thrilling – to be running in a big crowd. The police helpless and confused. Foolishly grabbing out as we streamed past them. But I also saw anger on some police faces. The cars were furious and taxis were driving into people.

So we get to Downing Street. Hundreds of us. “SIT DOWN. STOP THE WAR”. When the police come – which takes them time with to get up from Parliament Square – we move again. First to the other side of the road, then the crowd splits – half up to towards Trafalgar Square and half of us back down to Parliament Square – running – exulted, pulsing with the trill of the big group, the power, the moment, keeping the cops on the run. (I noticed that I was taking a moment to decide which group to go with – which way to run – but the kids were just moving.)

When we get back down to Parliament Square there are lots more of us, people have been arriving all the time. Then there are blocks on all sides of the square all the time. Fluid, moving and constant. We were knocking over the crash barriers every time we ran onto the road and sometimes dragging them round into the road to help our block.

The police get really pissed of and the tension rises. They start being really nasty – sticking fingers into pressure points, pulling ears and hair. They knocked one girl unconscious. We were chanting “This is what democracy looks like” and also “peace, peace, peace” as they got rougher and rougher. To be in this situation and to look round and not see direct activists, or trots, but 15 year old Muslim girls, or young boys in school uniform – was amazing. This was not the usual run-of-the-mill demo!

One precious sight was the cops trying to push us back and people throwing stuff at them – rubbers, pencils, note books, pencil cases sailing over my head and pelting the cops. One cop was standing on the corner bit of a crash barrier and we tipped him off. Ha ha.

Later – when the adults arrived and the kids went home the whole tone changed. We were a disparate bunch of individuals and small groups. If some of us started running the whole mass would not automatically turn. We stuck to our own and did not trust the group to take risks together.

School herds them all together, homogenises them into the mass, troops them into assemblies and into the playground together, the whistle goes and they troop back in – so it is there, ready to backfire. Also – when you are that age – all that matters is being with the group – being with everyone and being where it is at. And – no-one told them the standard pattern of actions – wait in one space so the police can section 60 you. Stand behind the crash barriers, etc – they didn’t have no rules, especially as they had just broken out of their school (some had to climb the walls when the schools locked the gates) – they were going where they wanted. They had energy, power and unity and I felt really privileged to be there in that moment with them.”

* * * * * * * *

No Class Today – No Class Society Tomorrow
[a flier put out by Endangered Phoenix at the time].

School kids have been walking out of school and taking action all over the world in order to protest against the war. In London they went to Whitehall and did not just passively allow the police to tell them what to do,but fought back and tried to climb the gates into Downing Street.  In Oxford 500 school kids walked out and took over the town centre, forcing an Army recruitment stall off the streets, trapping soldiers in their van for half an hour, and blocked the roads. At Parliament Hill School the teachers locked the kids in to prevent them from going on the anti-war action.

They are not just protesting against this war, they are fed up with a world where such wars are possible, fed up with the authoritative, stifling, boring factory of school. Fed up with being the victims of muggings then blamed as anti-social.  In London 50,000 kids bunk off every day.  Now there are hundreds of new initiatives and partnerships designed to control this. The government is introducing an ‘anti-social behaviour’ white paper so parents of truant kids can be fined up to £8400.  They are trying to control an increasingly explosive situation.  The widening gap between wages (or dole money) and the cost of living means that young people are having to live with their parents for longer, threatening the autonomy young people have achieved in recent years. In Italy in the 70s students took over schools and universities and turned them into social centres, to create their own autonomous spaces.

Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education speaks of team spirit:  “Everyone in a school ­ teachers, pupils, parents, classroom assistants, technicians, administration, caretakers, catering staff ­ are part of a team and the school itself is likely to do best where the school is working well.”  What a great team it is!  Frequently kids kill themselves because they are bullied by their teachers or classmates.  No government has increased competition in the classroom more than New Labour.  Their obsession with tests and tables places more and more pressure on students.  Most kids sit at least 30 formal tests before they reach secondary school; some take as many as 43.  Even 7 year olds are assessed now!  How much longer do they think students will accept this?  A team based on competition is a strange thing.  Not surprising that another element is needed to get it working.  Clarke: “Teamwork is crucial.  But the grit in the oyster is leadership.”  This leadership is nothing more than a nice word for oppression.

School is there to prepares for future exploitation.  To accept low wages and bad conditions because we ‘failed’ at school.  The system is set so that 80% of people will get less than a ‘good mark’, thereby having their self-esteem knocked enough so they will be more resigned to their fate of exploited worker, parent, unemployed reserve workforce.  The discipline at school prepares us for obeying the orders of the bosses.  School learning is split into single subjects; everything is reduced to answers to be spat out in exams.  The division of subjects prepares us for the division of jobs ­people doing one boring job over and over again for years.  Human existence could be a fluid moving between activities, ideas, creativity…  the beauty of building, the dance of design, the poetry of pottery, the music of maths, the love of languages… (not so sure about the lyricism of that one…)

Schools are part of a world where creativity, spontaneity and individual expression only count if you can sell them or they help you work profitably.  This is why kids are fed up with knowledge they don’t really need, which is knowledge for their future bosses. Throughout history there is also a tradition of working class people organising their own education. In prisons, within social movements, organising their own discussion groups etc.  This continues to this day and what each person learns in moments of struggle is part of it.

When we act together in struggle we learn more than they could ever teach us.  It is in this act that we really find out what real cooperation can be.  We are not divided into specified roles, we can think for ourselves, disagree and discuss, act together, plan out practical things and work out how to do it together, get into contact with other groups, break down the separation into generations.  We learn languages to communicate with students struggling in other countries, we learn about technology to communication over the internet, we have to work out what we really think, because it matters for once.  We read other peoples words to help us understand the present, to inspire us and give us new ideas.  This reading feeds into our discussions and decisions ­ it is not cold and sterile as it is in school.  This is where we can learn what a better future society could look like.  When we see what is possible with each other it makes a mockery of their discipline.

NB: the old Endangered Phoenix website where this was initially compiled is now largely migrated to Dialectical Delinquents

See also “Kamikaze Kapitalism” (about the situation on the eve of the Iraqi war, end of February, 2003)

and

“Education, Stupefication, Commodification”

[Dialectical Delinquents text on education from 1998…]

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Past tense postscript:

As the into to the above list does mention – the Iraq War was not stopped, and the kids revolt did seem to stop as soon as it started, and did not appear to launch a social movement that questioned education and the whole integrated horror of capitalism… However, to nitpick a little – to call it a failure for this is not entirely reasonable: how do you judge failure? What proportion of people involved in the strikes, actions and walkouts went on to think, struggle, attempt to change things around them, in the years following, and to what effect? Difficult to know and to tell what long term effect being involved in such events can have. The memory of one bright explosion  – a moment of true liberation, for however long – can sustain you through all sorts of less glamorous projects. We would love to hear from anyone who was involved in he school walkouts as to what activity, thoughts, ‘political’ or social struggles they think their involvement led to, or didn’t, and why… All our failures are learning processes, and while it’s depressing to see things fizzle out, burn out, go down in flames, the spirit of human relations vs commodity relations flickers on.

Rebellion in schools is old as schools, though usually it focusses around immediate conditions, and often it is more individual than collective. There have been explosions of collective resistance, school strikes, movements of school pupils… An intro and links here

There’s a brief piece on 1985 schools strikes here, though it is not complete – it doesn’t mention Sheffield, where your past tense correspondent took part in a 500-600 or so strong demo/riot of kids from a number of the city’s schools on the same day (29 April), along with several classmates. From our perspective we were simply bunking off and causing trouble because it was fun and better than lessons, rather than having a political demand re YTS schemes of whatever… Though some of us had organised subversion in our school, as well as distributing the School Stoppers Handbook, which advocated sabotage and disruption of school on anarchist principles…

Linking to sites above does not imply full support for all their actions, words or opinions, (we have disagreements with everyone!)

Today in London riotous history, 1990: local anti-poll tax demo erupts, Brixton

Everyone knew it was going to go off…

As previously related, the introduction of the Poll Tax (officially disguised as the Community Charge.) in 1989-1990 enraged millions of people across the UK, as being a single flat-rate charge on everybody, based on the number of people living in a house rather than its estimated price, and not taking account of income or property ownership (as the rates system had), everyone would pay the same rate set by the local council, regardless of how rich they were or how much their property was worth. This gave the tory government fits of joy, as it would increase the burden of paying for Council services on the working class, and lightened the load for the better off, by thousands (millions in some cases).

Thatcher and co thought they would get away with this, after a decade in which they’d mashed up all working class opposition – steelworkers, miners, printers, etc. They were on a roll. The Poll Tax, they thought, would not only make them more supporters among the middle class, but also stick the knife into the leftwing Labour Councils they hated so much, forcing them to slash services, especially in inner cities… They clearly felt they would push the tax through whatever the opposition…

The introduction of the poll tax was widely unpopular from the outset, and increased when tax rates set by many local councils turned out to be much higher than initially predicted.

Huge campaigns sprang up against registering to pay, filling in forms, giving the local council any info etc., and then against payment. Thousands of local anti-poll tax groups or unions were set up. Opposition ranged from marches, occupations, resisting bailiffs seizing property for unpaid poll tax, to riots and filibustering the courts with endless arguments . Hundreds of people were jailed.

Community networks of members were set up to watch out for and resist bailiffs, and the operation became so successful that debt collecting firms in some areas went out of business. In Edinburgh local APTUs patrolled working class areas with cars and radios to watch for bailiffs, and in London some cab drivers fulfilled the same role. Bailiffs offices were often picketed and occupied, and in Scotland hundreds of people defended houses against the forced removal of goods by sheriffs.

The campaign for non-payment gained in strength through the early months of 1990, and eventually became the single most damaging reason for the government to continue with the poll tax. By August of 1990 one in five had yet to pay, with figures reaching up to 27% of people in London. 20 million people were summoned for non-payment. Many local authorities were faced with a crisis, and councils faced a deficit of £1.7 billion for the next year. Initial successes with non-payment campaigns led to several large demonstrations in cities across the country, including the famous disturbances that occurred in central London on March 31.

Here’s a first-hand account of the demonstration/mini-riot that took place in Brixton, South London, on 9th March 1990, written by a local anti-poll tax activist s few years later.

It’s worth bearing in mind that for two-three weeks every night seemed to bring news of another riot at another town hall; Hackney went up the night before Brixton, Southwark, Islington… the list went on…

Many people in Lambeth – still one of the Country’s poorest areas, with high unemployment and low pay –  simply wouldn’t be able to pay at all anyway; thousands swore blind they would never pay a penny.

Across the Borough about 20 odd anti-Poll Tax groups were set up. The ‘Leftwing’ Labour Council, made angry noises about refusing to co-operate with the Poll Tax; several councillors including leader of the Council Joan Twelves joined the all-Lambeth Anti-Poll Tax Federation, when it finally managed to lurch into existence after months of inter-trot/trot vs anarchist bickering. As happened all across the country, the divisions concerned fundamental differences in strategy and ways of organising: broadly speaking Labour campaigners thought you could fight through the Council and the TUC, the Socialist Workers Party was for stopping the Poll tax through workplace (ie council workers, ie NALGO) organisation, and that community or street groups were pointless; Militant was for building community groups but under their direct control and run top down by their activists; the anarchos and other non-aligned sensible types weren’t against trying to get NALGO members to strike against implementing the Tax (although sceptical of the likelihood of NALGO taking a strong position – from experience! Although in October 1989 Oval DSS workers struck for a week, in protest against being told to snoop on claimants for poll tax; this was part of a campaign of strikes across the UK) and had seen the shambles Left Councils like Lambeth made of fighting Central Government: we felt the best strategy was self-organised local groups run from the bottom by the local people themselves. As it happened the SWP flitted in and out of the anti-poll tax movement with all the attention span of a slightly dizzy gnat, depending on what other things were going on (“Non-registration is a damp squib, comrades, the Dockers Strike is the Big issue Now.”) Militant and the anarchists (who had been organising through 2 or 3 local Community Resistance groups in the Borough) fought constantly as the Milis tried to impose as much control over the campaign as they could. As 1990 dawned the moment when we would have to pay (or not) approached; the Council despite its soft left white noise was preparing to agree how much we would be charged… The tension rang in the air…

Here’s an account on burning poll tax bills in Brixton from around this time.

There were riots or angry demos at many if not most Town Halls around the country, in the space of a few weeks, as the local councils met to decide how much poll tax they’d be extorting from residents. Many of the protests in London ended in fighting with the cops. The night before the Lambeth demo Hackney had gone up, a huge battle spreading out from the Town Hall, with 60 arrests. You could go to a riot every night that week in London (many of us did!) There was an unreal atmosphere in the country, not like anything since. I guess like the riots of July ’81, people involved felt a sense of possibility, that the daily grind could be shaken and maybe overturned… It seemed believable to some of us that the strength of community resistance and the willingness to get stuck in were the start of a new era… We were naive maybe, but that’s how we felt.

There were about 3000 people at the rally outside the Town Hall. The council had tried to defuse the inevitable confrontation by letting quite a few protesters into the gallery to observe the ‘hard-left’ Labour councillors (currently running the Borough) faffing around, and several hundred in to watch proceedings on a large screen in the hall next door. (Watching a Lambeth Council meeting on TV is thought to have inspired the makers of Big Brother.) 100 pigs, many from other sties, were drafted in, as Scotland Yard’s public order monitoring unit T020 anticipated that there “could be trouble”… well duh.

Inside the council dithered, outside a large and vocal crowd sang songs, chanted, gossiped about where they’d been in the last few days… Southwark Town Hall… Hackney Town Hall… Islington Town Hall… A couple of lifesize effigies of Thatcher were hung from the bus stop in Acre Lane and burned to wild cheers. There was a band playing calypso (if I remember right!) and people were dancing on top of all the bus shelters (beats waiting for a number 37).

Speeches outside… blah blah same old lefty rhetoric mostly, till one of our local Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax group made a slightly inflammatory speech slagging off the Labour Party. Of course all the trotskyists whose existence was entirely parasitical off Labour started having a go at him.

Meanwhile 2 Special branch cops were wandering round in the crowd, recognised by someone present, whose house they’d raided previously! She spent much of the early evening following them round loudly announcing their identity to the crowd… Somehow they escaped a kicking, what were we thinking? (They showed up on other poll tax events that year.)

I can’t exactly remember how it kicked off… some pushing and shoving, people trying to pile into the tiny door to the Council chamber I think. The cops were on edge, not surprisingly, and started laying into people near the doors. So of course we started chucking stuff at them, many of us had brought a little something. Paint bombs first, then, bricks, bottles, bits of wood. The filth charged into the crowd and pushed us out of Acre Lane, into Brixton Road, there were quite a lot of us, 500 or so in one group. I think many people did go home at that point, and some got trapped the other side of police lines. There was some skirmishing in the high street, bobbies were hiding behind vans, then we marched through Electric Avenue, heading for the Cop Shop. There are not many feelings better than being in an angry crowd: running in to your mates, trying to swap jackets and stuff to fool their surveillance efforts, sharing drinks and fags and chanting… We didn’t quite get to the Cop Shop, they’d learned from ’85 (ie don’t let the mob besiege you in your own police station!) and made a stand at the corner, forcing us into Stockwell road. There was a running battle here, cops charging and retreating under a hail of missiles. We were joined by groups of kids from Stockwell Park Estate, some of them lobbed stuff down at the old bill from above. From somewhere a single panda car with 2 cops in it, driving right into the middle of the crowd at Stockwell Green, shouts of “turn it over!” and over it goes on to its side. With the cops in it. The looks on their faces – priceless.

There was a lull, people standing around laughing, I looked over and our Anti-Poll Tax group’s banner was hanging from the windows of the squat over the way. “Brixton/Clapham Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax” – you can say that again: here’s the community, and this is the resistance! (Later this image was used repeatedly on the telly.) The mounted cops came out and we melted out of Stockwell road. Some Trot or other was shouting “Lets march on Downing Street!” Yeah, lets not.

A couple of hundred of us got together and tried to go for the Town Hall again, but were beaten off. I think someone did start throwing petrol bombs at one point but they didn’t explode? Certainly there weren’t many mollies.

Word got out that the Council had set a budget but had postponed agreeing a rate of poll tax (they were still talking about something like £600 a head a year). So we get another crack at them in three weeks… Everyone ended up in the pubs. On a high.

27 people did get lifted on the night. And some in raids later I think. I seem to remember one or two did go down. Some “black community leaders” blamed all the trouble on “white outside agitators” AGAIN! Play another record that one’s scratched. Folk round here of course like everywhere were rabid about the poll tax, but as soon as many people saw a large mob of coppers they’d start pulling up the pavement. It was just part of the culture then.

A couple of weeks later, on March 27th, Lambeth Council met again to try and agree how high the Poll Tax was going to be.  Could Lambeth beat Haringey and set the highest in the country? For the thousand who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay it was academic, just a matter of civic pride. Another mini-riot broke out, it was in some ways a carbon copy of the one two and a half weeks earlier, but smaller: marching through the market again, pushing and shoving. Not as much fun. The night was overshadowed for some of us by the death of a local anarchist comrade, Leo Rosser, one of the old 121 Bookshop/Black Flag crew, a few days before, in terrible circumstances. Shame he never lived to see Trafalgar Square go up, a few days later…

Today in radical herstory, 1971: London’s first modern International Women’s Day

If these days it seems like there’s no limits to how far feminism can be re-packaged and sold as a glossy commodity, profiting all sorts of scumbags who give not a toss about women’s liberation… We should always remember that International Women’s Day, 8th March, has its origins in the struggle of women workers. 15,000 women garment workers, including many migrants, marched through New York City’s Lower East Side on 5th March 1908,  to rally at Union Square to demand economic and political rights. In May 1908, the Socialist Party of America declared that the last Sunday in February would be a National Women’s Day.

The first US National Women’s Day was celebrated on 28 February 1909. Over the next few years the international socialist movement adopted Internationals Women’s Day, fixing it on 8th March in 1913. The following year, on 8 March 1914, the East London Federation of Suffragettes organised a march from Bow in the East End to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage.

International Women’s Day was revived in the early 1970s as the second wave of feminism grew in strength…

The first modern Women’s Liberation march in London took place on 6 March 1971, (the nearest Saturday to the 8th) a “cold and snowy day”.  The march, organised by the Women’s National Coordinating Committee, was the largest International Women’s Day event since the Suffragette era, and made a big media splash.

4000-5000 people, including lots of children and some men, marched from Speakers Corner through the West End, calling at 10 Downing Street to hand a petition in to Prime Minister Edward Heath, calling for the government to meet the four demands agreed at the first two Womens Liberation Conferences held in Oxford (1970) and Skegness (1971): Equal Pay, Equal Educational and Job Opportunities, Free Contraception and Abortion on Demand, and Free 24 hour Nurseries.

The demo highlighted contemporary feminists’ major concerns: contraception and abortion; women’s treatment as sex objects; their invisible oppression as housewives.

The demo was planned playfully and creatively: there was co-ordinated dancing and music, and carried along with the many banners were a twelve foot Old Woman’s Shoe, a woman in a cage wearing a tiara, washing lines holding bras, bodices and corsets, while the Women’s Street Theatre Group acted out The First Period, featuring a massive sanitary towel. A cosmetics and slimming routine troupe who brought up the end of the march, directed by the late Buzz Goodbody of the Royal Shakespeare Company, danced along a wind up gramophone playing the 1950s hit “Keep Young and Beautiful/ It’s Your Duty to be Beautiful … If you Want to be Loved.”

You can watch videos and film reports of the march

here

and here

A film report:

 

Jill Tweedie reported on the march at the time for the Guardian:

“All demonstrations are fleshed-out polemics, happenings that have more to do with reinforcing solidarity within the ranks than luring spectators from pavement or box – conversions will come later, as fallout comes.

And so it was with the Women’s Lib demo on Saturday. I went unreasoningly fearful that me and my friend Ivy would be alone stomping down Regent Street, running the sneering gauntlet of Saturday shoppers. But there they were at Hyde Park Corner, all the lovely sisters, giggling and shivering and bawdy and prim, and I turned and turned again, gloating at the numbers before and behind, my motley frost-defying sex.

Because sex is all we really had in common. Odd to think, in the middle of Oxford Circus, that inside our over-coats, under our mufflers, coiled within our sweaters and vests is the same intricate reproductive system – fallopian tubes, uterii, vaginas, and breasts – and that that is why we’re here, on March 6, 1971, in the snow. When, since the beginning of time, have men ever marched because they shared a particular sexual apparatus? Ludicrous, shameful, ridiculous, perish the thought.

Goodness knows our outsides were various enough. Long and short and thin and fat, quiet, middle-aged ladies in careful make-up, bare-faced girls with voices loud as crows, Maoists, liberals, socialists, lesbians, students, professionals, manual workers, spinsters, wives, widows, mothers. One two three four we want a bloody damn sight more. Biology isn’t destiny. Equal pay now. Bed or wed, are you free to choose? I’m not just a delectable screwing machine. Capitalism breeds sexploitation. Freedom. There were even women so politically committed that the very sight of Downing Street submerged “24-hour Nurseries” with “Tories Out” and “Kill the Bill.”

And when we arrived at Trafalgar Square the demo arranged itself into a symbol so apt as to seem planned. One girl at the mike, four girl photographers, and a solid phalanx of great, grey, brawny men blocking the view of the women. Get out, shrieked the women, get away, get back, and the men, genuinely startled, got back.

Communicators themselves, they communicated the women’s case – men, men, men, grouped at the foot of a soaring phallus with Nelson, a man, at the top. “Look at you all,” said a girl to a male photographer. “if that doesn’t tell you something about equal job opportunities, I don’t know what will.” The photographer looked as superior as a man can in a howling blizzard. “I’d like to see you going into a shower room full of naked men after a Cup Final,” he said. “I’d like to see you going into a changing room full of naked models,” she said. ” Try and stop me.” he said. “Try and stop me,” she said.

In the crowd a tiny “Gay is Good” placard vied gamely with a huge Women’s Lib banner. “Here, it’s our demonstration,” said Women’s Lib testily. “It’s against oppression, isn’t ?” snapped Gay Lib. “I was chucked out of my job last week because I’m gay. We’re more oppressed than what you are, any day.” Women’s Lib raised her eyebrows in ladylike fashion and turned back to the platform.

A middle-aged woman in fur has been lured from a bus stop to join the march. “I’m a graphic designer and what do I read in a trade magazine last week? Some man complaining about how difficult it is to get a job at 45. Huh. I’ve had difficulties getting jobs all my life – the moment they hear your voice on the telephone they don’t want to know.”

Another woman, skin flushed with Panstik, had a hand-scrawled notice pinned to the front of her tweed coat. “I’ve come all the way from Sheffield, I can’t afford the fare but I must do something for the single woman. We don’t get paid nearly as much as men but still we’ve got to find rooms, pay the electricity, feed ourselves. It’s not fair, it’s just not fair.” Behind the pebble lenses, her huge eyes watered. Then the speeches were over, vast congratulatory relief filled the square. The demonstration had happened (miracle) and it had happened well (greater miracle). Girls stood in groups, stamping and chatting:

“There was only one thing. The weather. The trade unions had such a marvellous day and we had to go and get this.”

“Well, love, what did you expect? God is a man.”
(Jill Tweedie)

May Hobbs, who was organising women nightcleaners into a union, with the support of some Women’s  Liberation activists, also marched and spoke from the platform.

Some pictures of the march:

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Support International Women’s Day events in London 2019:

Global Women’s Strike

Million Women Rise

 

Today in London riotous history, 1617: apprentices celebrate Shrove Tuesday holiday

“On … Shrove Tuesday, the ‘prentices, or rather the unruly people of the suburbs, played their parts in divers places, as Finsbury Fields, about Wapping, by St Catherine’s, and in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, …  in pulling down of houses, and beating of guards that were set to keep rule…” (John Chamberlain)

The London apprentices for centuries had a reputation for their rowdiness, and willingness to cause trouble; for centuries they were famed for getting involved in political upheavals, of all dimensions. Their economic position sparked many grievances; their youth led to much boisterousness. They were also jealous of their traditions; and because their working lives were notoriously long and hard, they celebrated the public holidays drunkenly, loudly, and often riotously.

Apprentices occupied a strange position in medieval/early modern life: badly paid and badly treated, but for some there was the potential that they could rise to become masters. An apprenticeship to a guild member also meant the promise of job security, a limited welfare system within the guild, which out them above many with no trade or guild protection. Apprentices’ collective recognition of their ambiguous common position, and their youth, led to them gathering and sometimes together collectively. Up to a point they were allowed specific days off work, often feast days; their bonds of hard labour briefly loosened. This generally led to drinking, boisterousness and fighting. Nothing like today then.

Apprentices could rally collectively to radical causes that pushed at the restrictions of the tight social and economic structures which bound them to the will of those above them. But in many ways they also to some extent played the roles of both licensed rebels and community police, attacking both unpopular authority as well as unpopular scapegoats within communities/outsiders – foreigners, people working outside guild structures, prostitutes and other non-conforming women… a paradoxical crowd, contradictory and sometimes unpredictable.

Shrove Tuesday, the day in February or March immediately preceding Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), is a longstanding holiday, celebrated with carnival or Mardi Gras, a day of “fat eating” or “gorging” before the fasting period of Lent.

In England, Shrove Tuesday became a ritual apprentice holiday, and in the seventeenth century became a day noted for them to riot – often against very specific targets.

Before 1598 there are few records of any disturbances arising out of the Shrove Tuesday games (though riots at other feast days had been known, eg on ‘Evil Mayday’, 1517). In Tudor times riots and rebellions were more likely to erupt in the summer months. However, Lord mayors did often issue warnings to ‘prentices’ to stay indoors, and sometimes doubled the watch to patrol in case of trouble.

Playing football had become a tradition on Shrove Tuesday – a game that caused a headache for the authorities for centuries (which led to its repeated banning). By 1598 the ball games had started to develop into something wider and more socially threatening. There were, Hutton records, riots on 24 out of the 29 Shrove Tuesdays in the early Stuart period (1600s). The riots took place mainly it seems in the ‘northern suburbs’ of London – Shoreditch, Moorfields, Bishopsgate and Finsbury – but also increasingly to outlying areas in Middlesex and Westminster. The disturbances involved mostly apprentices, but also sometimes craftsmen and artisans.

Waterman and poet John Taylor described ‘ragged regiments’ – “youth armed with cudgels, stones, hammers, rules, trowels, and handsaws’ who ‘put playhouses to the sack, and bawdy-houses to the spoil” – they smashed glass, ripped off tiles, chimneys and shredded feather beds.” Often they were opposed by aged constables who were vastly outnumbered.

As ever the riots were not random but aimed at particular targets, in particular brothels and playhouses. Hutton records that between 1612-14 on Shrove Tuesday a Shoreditch brothel was attacked each year until it shut.

1617 saw a particularly violent Shrove Tuesday apprentice gathering. A new Drury Lane playhouse was destroyed and prisoners freed from Finsbury prison by the rioters. Several houses in Wapping were destroyed:

“On … Shrove Tuesday, the ‘prentices, or rather the unruly people of the suburbs, played their parts in divers places, as Finsbury Fields, about Wapping, by St Catherine’s, and in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, …  in pulling down of houses, and beating of guards that were set to keep rule, specially at a new playhouse, some time a cockpit, in Drury Lane, where the queen’s players used to play.  Though the fellows defended themselves as well as they could, and slew three of them with shot, and hurt divers, yet they entered the house and defaced it, cutting the players’ apparel into pieces, and all their furniture, and burnt their playbooks, and did what other mischief they could…  There be divers of them taken since and clapped up, and I make no question but we shall see some of them hanged next week, as it is more than time they were”. (a letter written by John Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton)

Ronald Hutton noted that the targets ‘fitted into a much older tradition of cleansing a community before Lent’. In other words the Shrove Tuesday crowd, in rioting, was seeking to destroy what it saw as the less moral parts of the early 17th century economy. As such, while some rioters and especially ringleaders were fined or jailed, attacks on ‘immoral’ targets could be tacitly supported or at least tolerated by the respectable, and even by some in authority – usually only up to a point, though. To some extent historians see this kind of rioting is as a form of moral ‘community policing’, along the lines of skimmingtons and rituals of humiliation aimed at outsiders, or people who transgressed sexual mores or broke the bounds of accepted social roles or behaviour… Festive riots could veer between attacks on social hierarchies and viciously repressive outbursts against foreigners and the marginalised. Sometimes both would be combined.

Why brothels and playhouses? Prostitutes were an obvious target for respectable disapproval: women acting outside the traditional family, selling sex to survive, were both seen as subversive of social mores, though also barely tolerated as a ‘necessary evil’. Apprentices with little ready money also resented women who might say no unless they had the cash; and there was always an element of men collectively putting women in their place, knowing that their betters would largely turn a blind eye. (Despite the profits that many of the well-to-do could earn by renting out houses they owned as brothels, in certain areas, eg Bankside… this included the church in former times, and in the seventeenth century remained a money-spinner for some on the make. Men of course.)

Playhouses were also hugely disapproved of by those in power and the rising protestant attack on popular culture took a dim view of theatres and those who worked in them, which would persist for centuries. (One accusation levelled at theatres was that it encouraged the riotousness of apprentices…) The apprentices’ assaults on them may have even more orchestrated by the respectable than against the bawdy-houses. Portrayals of apprentices in plays of the times is sometimes unfavourable as a result of this dynamic! However, apprentices’ other targets led audiences and some writers to express a grudging sympathy for them.

As Katherine Romack notes, theatres and brothels were associated in puritan minds:

“Theatre and prostitution had always been closely aligned in the early modern imagination:  each offered pleasurable performative simulation—eroticized illusion—for cash.  Like a brothel, Stephen Gosson observed in 1579, the Renaissance theatre arranged “comforts of melody, to tickle the ear; costly apparel, to flatter the sight; effeminate gesture, to ravish the sense; and wanton speech, to whet desire to inordinate lust” (qtd. in Lenz, 833).  In the theatre, “Ungodly people…assemble themselves […] to make their matches for all their lewd and ungodly practices,” or as John Stow, in his Survey of London (1598), had it: “Good citizen’s Children under Age, [are] inveigled and allured to privy and unmeet contracts” (qtd. in Lenz, 836; 833).

The Puritan antitheatricalists had—for all of their tendencies toward exaggeration and bombastic moralism—offered a highly prescient observation about the rise of reified culture when they insisted on the indistinguishable nature of the theatre and the brothel.  For each of these institutions vividly exposed the workings of the sexual and laboring marketplace.  Both theatre and prostitution in the early modern period, as Joseph Lenz remarks, “emblematize[d] all too vividly, the worldliness of trade, the mercenary nature of all commerce” (842-843).  David Hawkes has shown that the Puritan’s hostility to idols was, at least in part, a deeply ethical response to the rampant objectification that accompanied swiftly escalating commercialism…” (Striking the Posture of a Whore: The Bawdy House Riots and Anti-theatrical Prejudice, Katherine Romack, 2009)

The tradition of festive day rioting died out only slowly, and the mass playing of football on Shrove Tuesday continued on in some areas as a distant echo of earlier times… Often leading to rioting, up to the 19th century

Apprentice crowds were to play a huge part in the street fighting, rioting and political jostling of the English Civil war years, again taking part in events that reflected both radical ferment and support for traditional festivities (the latter taking some of them into the camp of the royalist sympathisers…)

But the end of civil war didn’t mean an end to apprentice riots or attacks on brothels. As we shall see on March 23rd

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Shrove Tuesday was the English equivalent of the continental Carnival; the Shrove Tuesday riots were a reflection of a centuries-long culture of festivity and debauchery that also often slipped in to riot and rebellion.

Carnival was the most important annual medieval festival, especially in Southern Europe, though it was long celebrated in Northern Europe as well.

The Carnival season began in late December or early January, building to a peak of formal events in February. Carnival featured feasting, drinking, dancing, street theatre, and was immediately followed by Lent: forty days of fasting and austerity, imposed according to Christian tradition and enforced by the Church. It was a clear influence and was in turn influenced by the Cokaygne myths of a land of permanent feasting and role reversal (though Cokaygne was also associated with St John’s Eve.)

Carnival was a mix of formal events, plays, processions, pageants, and informal behaviour. The formal events took place mostly in the last week, concentrated in the main squares or central areas of cities and towns, and more organised, usually by specific clubs, fraternities or craft guilds. These events most often included a procession with floats, people in fantastic costumes, singing; a play or theatrical performance; and some kind of competition: races, tournaments, jousts, or football (especially in England).

The informal behaviour that characterised the Carnival season, but built to a pitch in the closing week, saw heavy drinking, massive over-eating (especially of meat – latin carne, meat, probably giving its name to the whole festival – though also of pancakes, waffles, and much more), singing and dancing in the streets, the making of music, and the wearing of elaborate costumes and/or masks. Satire was common – in both formal and informal song and play; costume-wearing could also often involve dressing up as respectable figures – popes, cardinals, doctors, monks, lawyers, merchants – and then taking the piss out of them by over-acting the part.

But carne also means sex, and sex was everywhere in the Carnival, both in innuendo (for example many songs associated with this season were highly suggestive), in the theatrical and ritual games, and in reality – as with most parties, people were having it away all over. Carnival season was second only to early Summer as the peak time for getting knocked up, recent studies of Medieval birth patterns have concluded.

According to Peter Burke: “Carnival may be seen as a huge play in which the main streets and squares became stages, the city became a theatre without walls… there was no sharp distinction between actors and spectators…”

On top of the over-eating, a culture of mockery and mock ritual grew up around Carnival: often poking fun at the Church. Mock saints’ sermons, animals prepared for food portrayed as saints being martyred; there were also satirical rules enforcing carnival excess and decadence.

Carnival brotherhoods and organisations grew up, again taking the mick out of the real pillars of Middle Ages society. Powerful trade guilds were caricatured in societies of fools, incarnations of carnival gluttony, like the one in Holland led by a ‘crazy knight called Ghybbe’ (or Gib), armed with meat skewers, in pot and pan armour, riding donkeys backwards.

Some of those reported may have been slightly mythological, even allegorical, like the wonderful Dutch ‘Aernout brothers’, a fraternity of drifters and spongers, who had rules for scrounging and hymns of praise for kitchens and those who worked there. Some definitely were, like the French ‘grande confrerie des souls s’ouvrier’, the ‘great company of those fed up with working’, who appeared in a ‘lying tale’ of about 1540, in which they inhabit a castle of creamy Milanese cheese speckled with tiny diamonds,

battlements and windows of fresh butter, melted cheese and sugar. In the castle, taking a seat at the dining table, all portions would be the right size; pieces of meat would spring into the mouth, ready to eat birds and beasts grew in the orchards.

Lent is a lean time, involving fasting and hardship, but the excess cheer, sex and carousing of Carnival was not only opposed to Lent, but to “the everyday” the rest of the year, normal life, the usual order of society.

Partly, this explosive release of pent-up pressures was designed to allow that order to function without social tensions breaking out and tearing it apart. In Carnival, “the ruler of Culture was suspended; the exemplars to follow were the wild man, the fool…” But Carnival was not really total liberation – it was policed, controlled, in some places the festival had a specific police force, to keep things just on right side of dissolving.

Carnival and other holidays were first of all an end in themselves, a “time of ecstasy and liberation”, where the three themes of food, sex and violence merged together. But the over-eating, the pleasures of the flesh, and of a bit of rowdiness, insult and vandalism, often sublimated into ritual, banter, skimmingtons or charivari, mock battles or the violence of the English shrove Tuesday football match, also served a vital social function.

That the release that festivals allowed was at least partly a conscious creation is shown by debates over another similar Medieval feast day. The Feast of Fools was a religious affair, quite specific to monastic communities, in which the subdeacons and others in minor orders in certain churches took control of the ceremonies for a day, while the usual authorities were relegated to a subordinate position. Usually held either on Innocents Day (28th December), or on the eve of the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1st – in itself a significant detail, since the New Year has always been a time when the idea of making a change or a new start is powerful). [note: In England, the boy bishop was elected on December 6, the feast of Saint Nicholas, the patron of children. Interestingly the Feast of Fools occurred at one traditional New year, (the one we also use now), but another medieval New Year was often begun at March 25th – not a week from another ‘Fools Day’, April 1st. Turning life on its head socially seems to have been associated on one way and another the turning over of years or seasons…]

At evensong, when the verse from the Magnificat was sung – He hath put down the mighty – the choir and the minor orders would take the bit between their teeth. The verse, always a slogan of revolt, was repeated over and over again. A King of Fools, Lord of Misrule or Boy Bishop, (or King of the Bean, an Abbot of Unreason in Scotland, Abbe de la Malgouverne in France) was elected, to preside over the festivities. Grotesque parodies of Mass were celebrated: an ass would be led into the church with a rider facing its tail; braying took the place of the responses at the most solemn parts; censing was parodied with black puddings: the clergy turned their robes inside out, swapped garments with women or adopted animal disguises; gambling took place on the Altar; licence and uproar would spread beyond the church throughout the town or city.

“Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office. They dance in the choir, dressed as women, pandars or minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is saying mass. They play at dice there. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap through the church without shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres in shabby traps and carts; and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gestures and verses scurrilous and unchaste.” (Letter from the Theological Faculty of the University of Paris)

The Feast of Fools was prohibited by the Council of Basel in 1431, though it survived due to its popularity. In England it was abolished by Henry VIII, revived under Mary and then abolished again by Elizabeth. It survived longest in Germany as the Gregoriusfest.

“The ruling idea of the feast is the inversion of status, and the performance, invariably burlesque, by the inferior clergy of functions properly belonging to their betters…. Now I would point out that this inversion of status so characteristic of the Feast of Fools is equally characteristic of folk festivals. What is Dr. Frazer’s mock king but one of the meanest of the people chosen out to represent the real king as the priest victim of a divine sacrifice, and surrounded, for the period of the feast, in a naive attempt to outwit heaven, with all the paraphernalia of kingship?” (EK Chambers)

In the later Middle Ages, brotherhoods or guilds of fools grew up to organise the topsy-turvy festivities. (Which recalls the pisstaking Carnival guilds – maybe the same ‘fools’ were involved in both?)

On the one hand, these festivals are widely seen by historians today as a safety valve that allowed anger and rebellious feelings, bound to arise in a static, confined, hierarchical society with wide class divisions, to be diverted into ‘harmless fun’, as well as a “demonstration of the intolerable chaos caused by unrestrained guzzling and gourmandising”, so as to show how the status quo should be maintained: how hierarchy and order were right and necessary.

This licence to misbehave, a time of permitted freedom outside normal bounds of morality and order, was represented particularly by the anonymity of wearing masks and costumes; allowed people to disguise their identity, and thus get away with acting as they normally wouldn’t. This worked on a personal level, as well as for social criticism and protest. This could take the form of social comment against civil or church authorities, but also of repressive action or humiliation against the ‘immoral’ or ‘abnormal’ behaviour of neighbours (for example of women behaving ‘unnaturally’ – bossing around or beating men, being married to the ‘wrong’ people, speaking up for themselves etc – or of other individuals breaking social norms), or insults/attacks against personal enemies. Festive Misrule also easily slipped into scapegoating, of outsiders like Jews, foreigners, Gypsies; mass slaughter of animals was also ritualised or made part of the ‘festivities’.

These elements of Carnival and other festivals are seen by historians as necessary to defuse the knife-edge tensions that bubbled under the rest of the year. More than this, it is suggested that a temporary inversion of roles is a reminder or, even strengthens, everyday hierarchies that life must go back to, when Carnival has been tried and put to death. “The lifting of the normal taboos and restraints obviously serves to emphasise them.” (Max Gluckman)

Both the licence and the bread and circus distraction acted as communal solidarity, reinforcing vertical ties between classes and could be used against outsiders/non-conformists.

But while these festivals served to support the existing hierarchies and codes of behaviour, it is also true that authorities tried for centuries, long without great success, to suppress or tone down these proceedings. The main objections of the reformers were firstly that popular festis were unchristian, that they had pagan overtones; second that they unleashed unacceptable licence, encouraging mass misbehaviour, drunkenness, sex, gluttony, dancing, but also violence and cruelty; third, that it teemed with songs, plays and street performances that glorified rebels, thieves, and other lowlife – not just undermining the proper order of society. One edict in particular claimed that they were ‘rather the unlawful superstition of gentilite [paganism] than the pure and sincere religion of Christe’

Commentators also got worked up about festivals using up resources in days that should have lasted them months.

However the main reason licenced, ritualised freedom was seen as dangerous, and needed tighter control or abolition, was because it could easily slip into real thing. It was a fine line, allowing so much violence sex and disorder could come back to bite the authorities in the ass. Symbolic violence could easily become real violence, not only on a personal level, like settling scores (Carnival all over Europe was a time of increase for murders, fights, violent crime), but also, more worryingly for the upper classes, for collective violence, both social and repressive: riot, rebellion, but also pogrom, animal slaughter, attacks on foreigners.

Riot and rebellion was constantly breaking out from festivals, especially carnival. In Basel in 1376, a Shrove Tuesday riot became known as “evil Carnival”; in 1513, a peasants revolt broke out from the Bern Carnival; during London’s Evil Mayday of 1517, apprentices led a pogrom against foreigners; the Dijon Carnival of 1630 erupted into a riot, led by wine-growers; the Great Catalan revolt against Spanish rule (1640-59) started on Corpus Christi 1640; a mass riot in Madrid broke out on Palm Sunday 1766.

These are just a few examples: for instance virtually every May Day in the build-up to and during the English Civil War saw upheavals, demonstrations and riots.

Beyond the actual threat that crowds gathered for partying represented, the forms of traditional ritual which expressed licensed protest were routinely adapted for real attempts to change things. People saw things through eyes conditioned by experience, and adopted what they knew to express what they wanted or desired… Carnival and the other festivals of reversal meant different things to different people, depending on their background; they could be channelled to express desires, resentments, interests, outlooks. Their meanings also changed as society evolved.

Since its beginnings (as we discussed earlier) Christianity had produced critiques of gluttony and over consumption. But from the sixteenth century on, in a process of reform, repression and social control, Carnival and many other festivals around Europe were gradually abolished, as part of the general disciplining of the lower orders into more productive and less festive and rebellious forms of behaviour, which took place from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

The English Shrove Tuesday, never an official church holiday, was gradually reduced in status, its holiday functions relegated to after hours and the liberties allowed the apprentices restricted. The riotousness of Shrove Tuesdays of the early-mid seventeenth century London was not fully revived after the disruption of the Civil War or the Restoration, though unruly apprentices continued to be involved in riots and protests.

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London industrial history: uber-factory the Albion Mills burns down, 1791.

The Albion Mills

The Albion Mills, the first great factory in London, formerly stood on the east side of Blackfriars Road, on the approach to Blackfriars Bridge. They were steam-powered mills, established in 1786 by Matthew Boulton & James Watt, featuring one of the first uses of Watt’s steam engines to drive machinery, and were designed by pioneering engineer John Rennie (who later built nearby London Bridge). Grinding 10 bushels of wheat per hour, by 20 pairs of 150 horsepower millstones, the Mills were the ‘Industrial wonder’ of the time, quickly becoming a fashionable sight of the London scene… Erasmus Darwin called them “the most powerful machines in the world.”

But if the trendy middle and upper classes liked to drive to Blackfriars in their coaches and gawp at the new industrial age being born, other, harder eyes saw Albion Mills in different light. They were widely resented, especially by local millers and millworkers…

At one time the Thames bank at Lambeth was littered with windmills – eventually they were all put out of business by steam power. When the Albion opened London millers feared ruin.

Steam was one of the major driving forces of industrialisation and the growth of capitalism. The spectre of mechanisation, of labour being herded together in larger and larger factories, was beginning to bite. Already artisan and skilled trades were starting to decline, agricultural workers were being forced into cities to find work, dispossessed from the countryside by enclosure and farm machinery… Many of those who had not yet felt the hand of factory production driving down wages, deskilling, alienating and shortening the lifespan, could read the writing on the wall.

Mills & millers were often the focus of popular anger. Not only were they widely believed to practice forms of adulteration, adding all sorts of rubbish to flour to increase profits (Significantly in many folk and fairy tales the miller is often a greedy cheating baddie), but at times of high wheat prices and thus, (since bread was the main diet of the poor) widespread hunger, bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though they were often led by women. Rioters would often seize bread and force bakers to it at a price they thought fair, or a long-established price; this was the strongest example of the so-called ‘moral economy’ (discussed by EP Thompson and other radical historians) a set of economic and social practices based in a popular view of how certain basic needs ought to be fairly and cheaply available.

The idea of a moral economy was one that crossed class boundaries, a reflection of the paternalist society, where all knew their place, but all classes had responsibilities and there were certain given rights to survival. But this moral economy, such as it was, was bound up with pre-capitalist society – which were being superseded by the growth of capitalism, of social relations based solely on profit and wage labour…

“Dark Satanic Mills”

Cockney revolutionary visionary William Blake, an artisan himself (an engraver), felt and expressed the powerful mistrust of the growing changes. He lived in nearby Lambeth, and it’s thought that Albion Mills could have inspired his references to “dark Satanic mills”. The name Albion may have set Blake off, as Albion as a symbolic name for an idealised England, played an important part in his radical spiritual mythology. Blake was in the 1790s a political radical, like many artisans, inspired by the French Revolution; he also strongly opposed the rational mechanical Industrial Revolution and devised a mystical creative spirituality which set itself very much against industrialisation

Blake took the traditional mistrust of the symbolic figure of the Miller several steps further: in ‘Milton’ he described Satan as the “Miller of Eternity”, whose mills represent the cold inhuman power of intellect, grinding down and destroying the imagination.

“all sorts of base mixtures”

Dark rumours were spread locally about the Albion Works: “The millers, themselves best aware of what roguery might be practiced in their own trade, spread abroad reports that the flour was adulterated with all sorts of base mixtures.” (Robert Southey)

Powerful watermill owners had attempted to prevent Albion being opened: they had managed to deter venture capitalists in the City from investing in the building, but Watt and Boulton had found the money themselves. In 1791, after a shaky start, the Mills looked like they were hitting profitability…

“Success to the mills of ALBION but NO Albion Mills.”

On 2 March 1791 Albion Mills burned down. The cause was never officially discovered, but it was widely believed to be arson by local millers or millworkers, feeling their livelihood was under threat. It was reported that “the main cock of the water cistern was fastened, the hour of low tide was chosen” when the fire started…

The fire could have been accidental: there had been some concerns about safety, and mills were prone to fire, with sparks and friction caused by grinding, and all that dust, chaff and flour about…

“The fire broke out during the night, a strong breeze was blowing from the east, and the parched corn fell in a black shower above a league distant: even fragments of wood still burning fell above Westminster Bridge.”

The interior of the mills was totally destroyed in half an hour, the roof crashing in quickly. The fire could be seen for miles: burning grains and sparks blew all over the City and Westminster.

A huge crowd gathered and made no effort to save the Mills, but stood around watching in grim satisfaction! “The mob, who on all such occasions bestir themselves to extinguish a fire with that ready and disinterested activity which characterises the English, stood by now as willing spectators of the conflagration…” (Southey)

Later in the day locals & mill workers danced around the flames & “and before the engines had ceased to play upon the smoking ruins, ballads of rejoicing were printed and sung on the spot” (Southey). Millers waved placards which read “Success to the mills of ALBION but no Albion Mills.”

After a soldier and a constable got into a row, a fight broke out, leading to a mini-riot; but firemen turned their hoses on crowd (early water cannon!)

“…it was supposedly maliciously burnt, and it is certain the mob stood and enjoyed the conflagration… Palace Yard and part of St James Park were covered in half burnt grains..” (Horace Walpole)

A flood of speedily printed ballads, lampoons, prints and broadsheets celebrated the burning:

“And now the folks begin to shout,
Hear the rumours they did this and that.
But very few did sorrow show
That the Albion Mills were burnt so low.

Says one they had it in their power,
For to reduce the price of flour,
Instead of letting the bread raise,
But now the Mills are all in a blaze,

In lighters there was saved wheat,
But scorched and scarcely fit to eat.
Some Hundred Hogs served different ways
While Albion Mills were in a blaze.

Now God bless us one and all,
And send the price of bread may fall.
That the poor with plenty may abound,
Tho’ the Albion Mills burnt to the ground.”

(Extract from a popular song, published March 10th 1791)

“…maliciously burnt…?”

Was it arson? The Mills stood in Blackfriars, an area together with neighbouring Southwark long notorious for its rebellious poor and for artisan and early working class political organisation. Just as the Luddites, stockingers of the North & Midlands were soon to smash machinery that threatened their livelihoods, did workers displaced or fearing displacement by the Mills take matters into their own hands? 18th Century London workers undercut by the new industrial processes did destroy the machines taking their jobs… In Limehouse in 1768, Dingley’s mechanical Sawmill was burnt down by 500 sawyers put out of work.  Around the same time Spitalfields silkweavers were also fighting a heavy fight against mechanisation and wage cuts, smashing machinery and intimidating masters and workers undercutting the agreed rate.

It’s also possible that disgruntled small millowners were behind the burning. Although Albion had not entirely replaced local water-powered mills, it had caused disruptions in the price of wheat, which may have hit small mills’ profits.

Albion Mills remained a derelict burned out shell until 1809, when it was pulled down. Most of the Steam-powered flour mills subsequently built in London were much smaller. Whether or not it was arson, whether it was the millers or millworkers who burned it, the fire was long remembered and celebrated locally. Rightly or wrongly, in popular tradition, and maybe in the rhymes of Blake, the Mill stands as a symbol of the disruption and disaffection caused by industrialisation, but also of the powerful if ultimately defeated (thus far) resistance to the march of capitalism.

Some Sources/useful reading

  • William Blake, Milton, A Poem in Two Books (1804)
  • Broadsheet with a popular song celebrating the Burning of the Mills, Published March 1791, by C. Sheppard
  • Robert Southey, Excursion To Greenwich, in his Letters from England, 1802-3.
  • E.P. Thompson: Customs in Common, especially Chapter 4, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century.
  • George Rude, Wilkes and Liberty.
  • Icons
  • Lost Industry

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London secessionist history, 1970: ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence’ on the Isle of Dogs

What with all this Brexit stuff going on… Seems likely at some point that different parts of this so-called nation will be moving in different directions… We started thinking about unilateral declarations of independence… At least two we know of took place in London (neither of them being in Pimlico!) – on the Isle of Dogs in 1970 and ‘Frestonia’, the squatted section of Latimer Road, North Kensington, in 1977… we’ll come back to the latter later in the year…

On 1st March 1970, some residents of the Isle of Dogs, in East London’s docklands, blockaded the roads that led onto the Island, and announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Although theoretically inspired by the UDI not long before declared by the racist regime in white Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the isle of Dogs UDI was not a racist move – it was sparked by poverty, resentment at the lack of resources and infrastructure on the Island, and was seen as a propaganda action, to highlight the Islanders’ problems.

The anger and the resulting community organising that produced the ‘UDI’ had been developing since the war. Massive destruction of both industry and housing in the East End by German bombing during World War 2 left hundreds of thousands without housing; much of what remained was ageing, in poor condition, and overcrowded. Many East Enders were still living in homes that had been unfit to live in during Victorian times.

A major programme of house building was initiated, centred in cheaply and speedily built estates, which would rapidly transform the East End; large numbers of people were transplanted, both further out to the edges of East London, and within the East End itself. New estates were built on the Isle of Dogs; Eastenders were moved here from other areas, themselves being rebuilt.

But although ‘the Island’ in the late 1960s was busy with tens of thousands of men working in the docks and in factories along the river, sailors of all races in the pubs or streets – there was little else for the residents. Pubs – yes. But no secondary school, few shops, poor health care facilities… Long before the Limehouse Link and the DLR were built, it was separated by water and the docks: public transport was a single bus route to get you on and off the Island. What few amenities that existed were being put under increasing strain, as thousands of families from other parts of the newly created borough of Tower Hamlets, were moved into newly-built housing estates on the Island. Largely cut off from the rest of the borough, many on the Isle of Dogs felt ignored or forgotten. Every election, the Island dutifully returned its six Labour members to the Poplar Borough Council: members who, in the view of many Islanders, quickly forgot about their constituents as they were sucked into the Labour machine, bowing to the party, and taking their constituents for granted. Whip. Locals began to call the district ‘the forgotten Island’.

This began under the auspices of the old Borough of Poplar, but would worsen after the reorganisation of London’s boroughs in 1965, when Poplar and the island were merged in to the new larger borough of Tower Hamlets.

This feeling of abandonment and simmering anger boiled over in January 1959, when the Port of London Authority (PLA) decided to close the footbridge over Millwall Docks. The bridge had supposedly been erected as a temporary replacement for the road bridge destroyed in the war, and provided the quickest way to get between Cubitt Town and Millwall. Closing the bridge would’ve added a mile on the journey from home to work, forking out for extra bus fares… Islanders felt that they were being ignored … again.

The Bridge plan sparked the birth of a campaign: a 2000-name petition was collected, and the Millwall Residents’ Association (MRA) was formed, soon attracting hundreds of members. They managed to force the PLA to back down, but only the bridge was replaced by a raisable walkway (though the long-promised road link was not rebuilt). Poplar Council were accused of backing off from criticising the Port of London Authority.

When in 1960, the PLA and Poplar officials held a meeting presenting the proposal for the new walkway, 300 Islanders turned up to barracked them. One resident demanded ‘that for once the Councils show some guts’. Throughout 1960, Islanders packed the galleries at Council meetings, urging their councillors to ‘speak up for the residents’.

Enraged at the council’s vacillations over the Battle of the Bridge, at the next Council elections in 1962, an Island Tenants Association (ITA) contested and won all three seats, overturning Labour dominance on the Island.

Even when Labour won back the council seats, one of the councillors was to be a thorn in their side. This was Ted Johns, who had worked as a timber porter and wharf manager, and who was to one of the architects of the ‘UDI’.

Born in Poplar, Johns had only moved to the Island in the mid-1950s, when his previous home in the Bow Triangle was redeveloped out of existence. He inherited a radical family tradition: an ancestor had been notable in the Chartist movement, later family members had been active in the great Dockers’ Strike of 1889, and his father had fought against fascist Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Johns himself had been a national leader in the League of Labour Youth, and had helped found several campaigning Island groups.

Active in local politics, in 1965 Johns became a Labour councillor on Tower Hamlets Borough Council. However, he was frequently at odds with his own party:

“I was never popular on the Tower Hamlets council. I was always criticising. The local government had become complacent.”

Johns pressed for development and planning decisions that would preserve and enhance the quality of communal life for Island residents. He opposed additional housing estates, demanded preference for local residents when it came to new houses, and fought middle-class housing developments.  In the face of the clearly declining docks he proposed programmes to attract and retain industry.

When In the late 1960s, the Labour Council put up council rents, after having promised not to do so, Johns went on a personal rent-strike and his own council served an eviction order on him. For this he was also expelled from the Party.

Around this time, Ted met John Westfallen, a lighterman, who was living on the newly-built Samuda Estate, and had become involved in the estate’s tenants association. They became friends, and allies in the fight for improvements. Westfallen’s practical ability to get things done complemented Johns’ rebellious spirit.

From this friendship came the plan to block the bridge and the ‘declaration of independence’.

For two hours on 1st March 1970, they blocked West Ferry Rd on the west side of the Island, and the ‘Blue Bridge’ (the road bridge over the entrance to the West India Docks) on the east side. Not only did this make it impossible for road traffic to leave or enter the Island, at least one ship – the Swedish cargo ship Ursa – could not enter the docks to be unloaded because the Blue Bridge could not be raised. Despite repeated demands from the police, the barrier yielded just once … to let a hospital-bound vehicle through.

They called for better roads, more buses, better shops and a cut in rates. They announced to the press:

We have declared UDI and intend to set up our own council. We can govern ourselves much better than they seem to be doing. They have let the island go to the dogs.

John Westfallen, a fan of the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico (his in-laws had acted in the film), thought up some attention-grabbing elements to the action – he created and distributed ‘entry permits’ and joked about having proper Island passports. A second “Prime Minister”, stevedore Ray Paget of West Ferry Rd, manned the barricades on the west side of the Island.

A few days later, the activists set up a 30-strong ‘Citizen’s Council of the Isle of Dogs’ which met at the tenants’ hall on the Barkentine Estate. They demanded rent cuts, better transport, more schools and the election of the Island to borough status. The Citizens council threatened to withhold rates from Tower Hamlets Borough Council and the GLC and spend it for the specific benefit of the Island. ‘Chairman Johns’ fired off a warning letter to Prime Minister Harold Wilson and MP Anthony Greenwood (Minister for Housing and Local Government).

The Declaration was never meant to be serious – it was a publicity stunt, meant to grab attention for the neglect the islanders complained of. It certainly did that – the press jumped at the story.

“It …catapulted the Isle of Dogs on to the front pages of the national press and elevated Johns to the status of ‘president’. Indeed, the foreign media, flocking to his council flat…and treated him as if he were the head of state of a small independent nation.” Johns later claimed he had never really called himself President: “Actually, I never called myself the President, I think someone made that up. It was all a bit of a joke.”

Ted Johns was a natural showman, comfortable in front of the TV camera, able to push the buttons that would get the press going…  Though he joked during one of his many news conferences that he also had to pay attention to more mundane matters:

“There is a danger that I might get the sack as I have been off work all week to deal with the situation.”

On 3rd March, Ted Johns was even briefly interviewed via satellite link by famous US CBS reporter Walter Cronkite, as “President of the Republic of the Isle of Dogs”.

However, not everyone locally supported the actions of the ‘provisional government’.

Local shopkeeper David Jordan denounced Johns’ “dictatorship” and said he was getting 400 signatures an hour on an anti-UDI petition. A group of demonstrators collected signatures outside the Skeggs House flat where Johns had set up his ‘government’, with one protester declaring “he’s got no right to do it” and another “it’s just plain stupid”.  There were surreal moments, one woman signed the anti-UDI petition, sighing with whimsical regret “I thought I was going to be a queen.”.

Ted Johns put this division about the protest down to differences between the longer-established Islanders and the more recent incomers:

“It was a difference between the old and new Island East Enders,’ he argued later. ‘The old Islanders were secure in their little cocoon. Those of us that came in realised we were facing a great danger because we could see our roots had gone. We were really fighting to ensure the new roots we set down here became permanent.”

The protest was followed by a few others, Ted Johns and John Westfallen also met with Harold Wilson at 10 Downing St. The wave of publicity finally needled Tower Hamlets Council into announcing some investment and improvements on the Island, they they naturally claimed they had planned to do this all along, and that the UDI protest had nothing to do with it. Unsurprisingly the Island never got separate borough status, but things did start to change. Tower Hamlets Council announced a series of new housing projects for the Island; ILEA unveiled plans for new schools; and London Transport set to improving bus routes.

John Westfallen, who also spent many years providing facilities and clubs for Island kids, died unexpectedly in 1975. Ted Johns remained actively involved in local politics and community initiatives until his death in 2004.

However, worse was to come for the Islanders, in many ways of course. While the community struggles recounted above were taking place, the docks, at the centre of the working lives of most of the residents, were themselves in decline. Most of the docks closed in the 1970s. The dereliction this brought to the Island opened up opportunities for the developments of the 1980s, the glossy corporate take-over of Canary Wharf, the yuppie flats… Most of which offered nothing but an alien colonialism to the people already living there.

Ironically, John Westfallen’s son Tony has suggested that the UDI protest actually sparked this turn of events:

It is necessary to understand the importance of this meeting in concern to the whole of London. The importance comes from the fact that it was during this meeting, that the plans for the redevelopment of this area were hatched, this meeting was the “catalyst” for the development of what is now known as Canary Wharf.

The arguments put forward by John and Ted at this meeting were so well presented and thought through, that after the meeting Wilson discussed them with Lord Vestey, along with his friends at Taylor Woodrow, who – as we know now – planned the closing of the docks and started to invest millions.

Sadly, little of this investment was seen until after Johns’ death … the vast majority of government funded projects got buried in Whitehall government offices, or at the GLC, others became hijacked by local politicians, who made a lot of noise, but actually sold-out to their political masters.

But islanders would also resist the imposition of the new corporate Docklands…

Much of this post was shamelessly stolen from

The ‘Island History’ Blog

and East End History

There’s a news clip of some local reaction to the UDI – not all of it in favour…!

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Neglect and deprivation would also play a part in another area of London which declared independence in the 1970s – Frestonia. To which we will return later in the year…