Today in London striking history, 1834: huge London tailors strike begins

As we’ve seen in previous posts, the tailors working in London had a long tradition of organisation and struggle in their own interests.

The ‘Knights of the Needle’ had, by the 1820s, an organisation that could be fairly described as ‘all but a military system’. But it was weak due to its division into two classes, called Flints and Dungs – “the Flints have upwards of thirty houses of call, and the Dungs about nine or ten; the Flints work by day, the Dungs by day or piece. Great animosity formerly existed between them, the Dungs generally working for less wages, but of late years there has not been much difference in the wages… and at some of the latest strikes both parties have usually made common cause.” (Francis Place)

In 1824 Place, himself a tailor of long-standing, estimated a proportion of one ‘Dung’ to three ‘Flints’; but the ‘Dungs’ ‘work a great many hours, and their families assist them.’ The upsurge in tailors’ union activity, after the repeal of the Combination Acts, led to the founding of a Grand National Union of Tailors in November 1832. It was a general union, containing skilled & unskilled tailors and tailoresses. It affiliated to Robert Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Trade Union.

By the early 1830s the tide of the cheap and ready-made trade could be held back no longer. In 1834 the ‘Knights’ were finally degraded only after a tremendous conflict, when 20,000 were said to be on strike under the slogan of ‘equalisation’. But the 1834 strike was unsuccessful, which led to the collapse of the Union and reductions in wages.

The following account is a (slightly edited) article derived from the reports of Abel Hall, a spy sent into the Tailors union by John Stafford, Chief Clerk and magistrate at Bow Street Police Station. Stafford had a long history of controlling spies targeting radicals – he had been the man behind sending John Castle to infiltrate the Spenceans planning the Spa Fields demonstration/revolt, and handling George Edwards, who had orchestrated and blown the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820. Abel Hall had been a radical around the Cato Street Conspiracy, but was either always a spy or turned informer under questioning, becoming another of Stafford’s stooges spying on the radical milieu in the 1820s, at the Rotunda, as well as on the National Union of the Working Classes, and into the 1830s.
Just as in the 1830s, trade unionists were targeted by intelligence gatherers on behalf of the authorities, using the same methods as political groups – often by the same officers – more recent spycops of the Special Demonstration Squad and National Public Order Intelligence Unit have also targeted trade unionists were targeted using the same methods. [for instance, Mark Jenner, Peter Francis and Carlo Neri among others, all spied on trade unionists and left and campaigning groups].

For space reasons we have not included all the authors’ notes, but they can be read in the original article,  here

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THE LONDON TAILORS’ STRIKE OF 1834 AND THE COLLAPSE OF THE GRAND NATIONAL CONSOLIDATED TRADES’ UNION:
A POLICE SPY’S REPORT

by T. M. Parssinen and I. J. Prothero

The tailoring trade was typical of London industry in being unmechanised, organised mainly in small businesses, and characterised by homework. By the end of the eighteenth century there were a number of large employers in the West End producing high-quality, bespoke garments, but even these tended not to have a permanent labour force. Loss of working time was consequently a problem for tailors, both in waiting for work and travelling to get it, and in the seasonal character of the trade, with twice as much work from April to June as from August to October. Even in a prosperous year, a tailor could be out of work for five months. To meet these problems some public houses early in the eighteenth century became “houses of call”, where tailors who wanted work registered their names and waited, and masters applied when they needed men.

The demand for labour in the brisk period of the year kept up earnings and tailors were able to afford benefit clubs. These and the houses of call developed into trade unions. The seasonal nature of the work strengthened the unions’ position and put a premium on unified action. The societies could, and did, make high wage demands in April and then collect funds from their members for relief payments to be made during the later period of under-employment. Unemployment relief was very unusual among London trades, who on the whole tended to rely on “tramping” [wandering the country in search of work, relying on local tailors’ meeting places, often in known pubs], and is a measure of the tailors’ strength. Moreover, many of the top employers, in Westminster, were favourable to the men’s organisation, and granted requests for wage rises to keep a monopoly of the best men.

The shortage of labour created by the wars with France from 1793 further raised the tailors’ wages, to a peak in 1813 of 36/- per week for six twelve-hour days. They enforced the twelve-hour day to share out work. And so by the end of the wars the tailors were in a very strong position, with about twenty-five houses of call that had monopolies of the best workmen; for if any man was complained about three times by masters, he was excluded from the house. But each wartime rise was gained in the face of growing opposition from some masters, especially small ones, and so from the 1790’s the tailors’ organisation grew more secret and military, controlled by the “Town”, the powerful secret executive of five. The tailors had the strongest of all the London combinations, and it took the masters thirty years to break it down.

However, troubles developed even during this prosperity. The men’s insistence on a high standard of work and the heavy fines led to exclusion and bitterness, and the appearance from 1793 of an important number of excluded men, called “dungs” as opposed to the superior “flints”. The former were less skilled, often worked at lower rates and so undercut flints, and above all were often paid by the piece instead of by the day. Under piece-work it was harder to control the rate of work, and the result was often over-work, with the consequent shortage of work for others. The dungs developed some organisation of their own, and the demand for labour during the wars prevented this schism from being too serious, but this changed with the depression at the end of the wars. Thereafter all organisation among the dungs collapsed and they undercut the flints. The latter maintained the 1813 day-rate, but employment and therefore actual earnings were declining.

A more serious threat that developed during the war was the rapid increase in the number of units of production to meet the growing demand. This mainly took the form of small “chambermasters” working at home, but some new large businesses arose as a result of government contracts, and towards the end of the war they began to employ cheaper female labour, a practice long prevented by the men and bitterly resented now. These capitalist developments continued after the war, to the detriment of the men. Firms with contracts for government, army and police work employed cheap female and child labour. By the early 1820’s much of the trade was in the hands of “slop-shops”and “show-shops”, selling inferior and, in the case of the former, readymade articles. If they employed labour directly, it was cheap labour; and as the owners were often not tailors, they employed foremen, who sometimes ruled in a tyrannical way. But usually they did not have large premises and so gave orders to small masters, and because they could place orders they enforced competitive tendering.

The small masters or “sweaters” had to undercut one another. Many of them were chambermasters, working at home and employing no-one but their families. Many others employed women and children, paying them from 3/- to 8/- per week, often for a working day from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. And many others acted as middlemen and gave work to journeymen to be done at their own homes at low rates. Homework meant losing more time in travel and bearing the cost of firing for irons, candlelight and sewing trimmings, which in a proper workshop were borne by the employer. Such workmen might earn 3/6d to 4/- in a day, but sometimes 2/- or even 1/- for fourteen to sixteen hours’ labour. They were forced to use their wives’ and children’s labour to help them. Low earnings led workmen to compensate by overwork, which even further increased the competition. These journeymen and chambermasters lived in a state of unrelieved poverty, in which long periods without work alternated with periods of intensive work night and day.

The cheaper, ready-to-wear sector grew rapidly in relation to the bespoke side, and the flints inevitably suffered from competition and loss of work. Periods of unemployment reduced earnings, and even though the old day-rate of 6d per hour remained, this was in fact often only 5d through various devices. The depression of 1826 severely drained the flints’ unemployment funds. A strike in 1827 against female labour was beaten, the first that the tailors had lost in at least sixty years. The power of the flints was broken in the late 1820’s by schism, a further drain on funds, and the growth of show-shops, slop-shops and sweaters. Another unsuccessful strike in 1830 emphasised their loss of power.

In the early 1830’s the tailors’ weakness and the need for regrouping were obvious. Their chance seemed to come with the economic recovery of 1833. Efforts at union began at least as early as September, and in November the Grand Lodge of Operative Tailors of London was founded. The problems of the trade and the remedies were clear enough. Because of the weakness created by the hostility between flints and dungs, and even among the flints themselves, because of preference given to more senior members in obtaining work, all tailors must be united in one unexclusive association. Uniformity was impossible when there was so much home work, and so all work would have to be done on employers’ premises. This would also prevent poor women from doing work cheaply at their homes. Because some tailors had no work while others were working excessively, hours must be limited in order to share work and reduce unemployment. Piece-work led to overwork and lack of uniformity, so should be abolished. Distress should be reduced by raising the day-rate. These were the aims of the new union.

The reduction of hours would mean that earnings would actually be reduced for the top men, those paid at the full rate and working a full twelve-hour day. But the aim of the union was equalisation, and the need to end the great fluctuations in employment seemed far more important than possible maximum earnings. To outsiders, the insistence on day-work instead of piece-work seemed to mean that men would be paid the same however hard they worked. But in most of the old trades there was a well-established traditional rate of work, a “stint” that was well understood, and there was a stigma attached to slacking. The London tailors had their “Log”, the amount of work a skilled man could manage, so day-work did not mean a slower pace but the avoidance of over-work. Some older and inferior workmen would not be able to keep up with the Log, and the union accepted that they should be paid at a lower day-rate provided that a union committee gave its approval in each case.

The events of 1834 mark an important stage in the history and decline of the trade, and it must be emphasised that the character, objectives and actions of the union are wholly explicable in terms of the tailors’ experiences and past history, and need not be attributed to outside influences.

The significance of the strike was far wider than the tailoring trade. The tailors had been instrumental in organising the Consolidated Trades’ Union, which they had conceived as an agency for inter-union aid. Tailors’ delegates had attended the London Co-operative and Trade Union Congress in October 1833. The London Grand Lodge of Tailors called the meeting of delegates from town and country that met from 13 to 19 February and founded the Consolidated Union. Of the thirty delegates, five were London tailors, and one of them, MacDonald, was in the chair. The tailors’ committee submitted preliminary propositions, resolutions based on them, and regulations for the union, all of which were unanimously adopted. The tailor John Browne was made grand secretary of the new union. The bulk of the union’s membership came from London, and the two largest member-groups were the London tailors and cordwainers [shoemakers – another group of workers with a long tradition of fighting their bosses, and often known like tailors, for radical politics]. Tailors like George Petrie were active missionaries for the union, and of the twenty-eight towns that had lodges, eight had lodges of tailors and six of cordwainers.

The Consolidated Union must be related to several factors. First, 1834 was a year of economic recovery, when the position of labour was stronger and hopes of wage-rises were well-founded. Efforts to raise wages in good times were typical of the older artisan trades, from whom its membership was largely drawn. Second, joint action and help among such trades was traditional enough. Third, such action was always increased when a large or spectacular dispute arose and evoked widespread feelings of solidarity; in this case the Derby silk-weavers’ dispute, with the resultant enthusiasm and relief committees, provided an emotional focus for the union. Fourth, ideas of general union were particularly widespread in the early 1830s; and there were examples in the National Association for the Protection of Labour of 1830, and the Operative Builders’ Union of 1833, both of which had a federal structure that the GNCTU copied. Fifth, many of the leaders of the union came from the London United Trades’ Association, a group of producers’ co-operatives in which the tailors had been involved. This contribution helped strengthen the idea of co-operative production. Sixth, the union’s main support in London came from those declining and militant trades of tailors, shoemakers and silk-weavers. The four chief aims of the union are not surprising: mutual support over strikes; benefit payments (sick and superannuation); employment of out-of work members; and co-operative production during strikes.

The union grew rapidly after February. At the end of March the sentence on the six Dorchester labourers threatened the whole trade union movement; but its result was to reinforce trade-union solidarity,

Large demonstration in Islington to call for quashing of sentence on transported Dorchester labourers, April 1834

strengthen the Consolidated Union, and bring it radical support. At the head was the five-member Executive, clearly a copy of the “Town” of the London tailors. Below this were to be the District Committees composed of delegates from all the trades in an area belonging to the union. But in fact only two were formed, at London and Birmingham. Yet from the start the Executive was in a weak position, with the union still immature and the opposition strong from both the public and the employers. The Executive proved unequal to their task, even failed to keep records properly, and virtually abdicated leadership of the whole union to the London District Central Committee. This Committee, with sixty-three delegates from twenty-one trades, including builders’ representatives, was the active body. It organised the great demonstration on 21 April against the Dorchester labourers’ conviction, with help even from country delegates. The Committee was much more familiar and acceptable to the London trades than was the Executive.

The Executive, as well as others, felt a great respect for Robert Owen, a man who had given years and a fortune to efforts to end poverty, had devoted himself to industrial reorganisation in 1833, and in 1834 had supported the GNCTU and come out against the Dorchester labourers’ conviction. By March Browne was in correspondence with him. Owen’s “Institution of the Industrious Classes” in Charlotte Street was always available for use by trade unionists. His lectures were always well-attended, and he identified himself with industrial movements in the North. Moreover, a certain William Neal, an Owenite, helped Browne with letters, accounts, and circulars of the tailors’ union. At the tailors’ request, Neal drew up the documents for the February Congress, with the proviso that they should be approved by Owen, and thereafter wrote the initiation ceremony, general laws, petitions and letters of the Consolidated Union. The various addresses of the Executive suggest Owenite influence in their general tone, plans to open a general bank for the working classes, abolish money and replace great employers by Boards of Labour and Committees of Industry, and their offer to negotiate with the governments of Europe and America in order to establish a terrestrial paradise.

A further characteristic of the Consolidated and other unions was their reliance on Owenite periodicals, the fate of the earlier co-operative movement as well. Late in 1833 the tailors were encouraged and supported by the Man, run by the Owenites Lee and Petrie, and Crisis, originally owned by Owen and now edited by his associate James Smith. To these was added the Pioneer, edited by the Owenite James Morrison, which became the official organ of the Consolidated Union. Morrison and Smith strongly supported the trade-union movement of 1833-34, especially the moves to general union. They were especially aroused by Derby into hostility to employers and government, and advocacy of very far-reaching social changes, in which trade unions were to be the instruments. These “syndicalist” opinions steadily divided them from Owen, and this growing antipathy has been emphasised by most historians who have written about the Consolidated Union.

Robert Owen

While Morrison and Smith propounded an increasingly violent theory of class conflict, and sought to turn the union into the instrument whereby the “producers” would win a general strike against the “non-producers”, Owen refused to abandon his strategy of class reconciliation and non-violence. Yet at the same time, Morrison and Smith’s theories also tended to divide them from trade-union opinion. Few historians have emphasised this even more fundamental split between the Owenite spokesmen and the rank-and-file members. However penetrating the social analyses of Smith and Morrison, however acute their suggestions and blueprints for total social reorganisation, for most trade unionists they were as irrelevant as the utterances of the Executive. While a few leaders saw the union as an agency of social transformation, the ordinary members saw it as a way to broaden their financial base, and thus strengthen their position in individual strikes to improve wages and working conditions.

When the tailors went out on strike they expected, and were promised, financial support from the London Central Committee of the union. They themselves had been among the heaviest contributors to the Derby men.1 Instead they received denunciations from their supposed champions, who saw the tailors’ strike as an irresponsible deviation from their far-reaching plans for the union. Owen specifically advised against using the union as a support for local strikes:
“The attention of the unionists ought now to be withdrawn from all their little petty proceedings about strikes for wages, or, in plain English, at what weekly sum in money, continually varying in value, they shall sell themselves, their birthright, and their happiness, and the birthright and happiness of their posterity, to their masters and the non-producers”.

Smith and Morrison claimed that even if the tailors won, it would only make clothes more expensive and so improve their position unjustly at the expense of their brother unionists. They had in fact totally misunderstood the objectives of the strike, and persisted in seeing it solely as an attempt at higher wages, not realising that the claims resulted from clear understanding of developments in the trade and were really meant to bring about industrial reform. This very comprehensive attempt to remove the distress and abuses of the trade was regarded by Smith as destructive, while Morrison called it “unsocial”. Both condemned “partial strikes”, and Morrison did not believe that the tailors could win. He saw the only solution in a general strike. Even the Executive condemned individual strikes, claiming erroneously that “this association has not been formed to contend with the master producers of wealth and knowledge for some paltry advance in the artificial money-price in exchange for their labour, health, liberty, natural enjoyment, and life”.

In great contrast was the unequivocal support given the tailors by the leading radical periodicals, the True Sun and the Poor Man’s Guardian. They saw trade unions as organisations to defend the poor, and possible bases of support for radicalism. As such, they accepted them as they were, unlike Smith and Morrison, who wished to change them in accordance with their social theories. The real press champions of trade unionism in 1834 were the daily evening True Sun and Sunday Weekly True Sun, not the Crisis or Pioneer.

Abel Hall had ceased sending regular reports to John Stafford in October 1833, when political agitation waned. But in February 1834 Stafford asked him to resume his duties. Acting on these instructions, Hall joined the tailors’ union at No 2 Branch Lodge. The initiation ceremony of the tailors’ union combined ritual forms similar to those used by freemasons with elements of economic analysis and propaganda. The total strength of the London tailors’ union was variously estimated at 9-13,000. By May there were thirty-one lodges, most of which were located in the West End, where the better-paid men worked in bespoke shops. The branch lodges met every Thursday. Each had a president, vice-president, secretary and delegate. The last attended the weekly meeting of the Grand Committee and reported the proceedings to his branch lodge. Every Wednesday was the general meeting of all members, in Grand Lodge. Every Monday was a special meeting of the Grand Lodge for the initiation of new members.

Hall sent several reports in March. Further help for the striking Derby silk-weavers was agreed on, and £200 was sent to help them begin co-operative production. Meanwhile the efforts to strengthen the tailors’ organisation did not progress well. Hall reported: “Our Funds are very ‘Low’ and many are dissatisfied by the calls for so much subscription.” The tailors’ committee took the lead in encouraging the London Central Committee to call a public meeting on 24 March at Owen’s Institution about the Dorchester labourers. The main speakers were Owen and radicals like the parson Arthur Wade, the journalist William Carpenter, John Savage, and also some unionists like Duffey, James Morrison, and the coopers’ leader, Abraham. Twelve thousand packed in and agreed to send a petition to both Houses of Parliament, requesting a select committee of inquiry into the Consolidated Trades’ Union, and an address to the King, praying for mercy for the six Dorchester labourers. Some speakers, including Morrison and Abraham, called for simultaneous meetings, a general strike, and the convening of an anti-parliament. However, nothing came of these plans, and the tailors began to plan their own strike.

In spite of the weakness of the union and the depletion of their funds, the tailors hastily drafted a list of demands for presentation to their masters in April, the beginning of the brisk period in the trade. While Hall claims that the tailors had the full support of the London Central Committee for their strike such a categorical promise seems unlikely. When the strike began, the Consolidated Union was slow to help, while the cordwainers complained bitterly that it had been decided that they would strike first, and the tailors had pre-empted them. During the first two weeks of April the tailors, like unionists in other London trades, were still engaged in raising relief funds for the Derby strikers and petitioning the King on behalf of the Dorchester labourers, as well as planning their own strike. By the end of the month, the rank-and-file were clearly anxious for the strike to begin, whilst the leaders were trying to restrain them.

The London Central Committee seems to have agreed to support the tailors when the strike began with a fund raised by loans from other trade unionists in the Metropolis. In addition, the tailors tried to strengthen themselves during the strike by co-operative production of garments for sale by the union itself. This was a familiar tactic among the London trades, as the sale of goods lessened the drain on funds. But in the early 1830’s the tailors had also found that cooperative production was a partial solution to the problem of unemployment. There had been several tailors’ co-operative societies in these years that employed some of their members, and two had flourished as contributors to Robert Owen’s National Equitable Labour Exchange.

On 25 April, the tailors’ union issued a circular to all masters which set forth their demands. The True Sun of 4 June stated that 1,000 men were able to return to work when their employers agreed to the men’s demands, and that another 1,000 left London to seek work in the country. But most master tailors were adamant. On 29 April, they met at Willis’ Rooms, where they voted to reject the unionists’ demands and to recruit strike-breakers. At the tailors’ houses of call, the strikers were obliged to attend regular “call times” at intervals from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. This was to prevent any men from doing work secretly, as absentees were fined for non-attendance.

Once the strike began, the tailors were denounced by the entire press, with the exception of a few radical journals. The tailors’ action was inevitably seen as part of a general combination, and their leading part in the founding of the Consolidated Trades’ Union underscored this charge. The tailors were accused of tyranny and violence towards non-members and non-strikers, and of seeking equal wages for all, regardless of individual skill. It was alleged that their demands, if conceded, would raise the price of clothing enormously. The Times was particularly hostile to unions in general, and to the tailors especially. It rejoiced in the defeat of the Derby men, and supported the master tailors, urging them to defeat the strike by importing German workers. Brougham, the Lord Chancellor, also castigated unionists at the outset of the tailors’ strike. Rowland Detrosier, the London radical, responded to the tailors’ enemies, and the union issued “An Appeal to the Public on Behalf of the Journeymen Tailors of the Metropolis”, published in the True Sun of 12 May, which attempted to answer its opponents’ charges.

By the end of the first week of the strike, the tailors had acquired premises. They soon opened business there to sell directly to the public, and by the next week several hundred tailors were said to be employed in co-operative production. However, according to some newspaper reports, strike pay on 4 May for the second week was only 7/6d or 8/- instead of 10/-, which produced dissatisfaction. Some tailors went back to work in the City, although the West End remained solid. Perhaps because of this shortage of funds, on 5 May the Executive of the Consolidated Union ordered a levy of l/6d on all of its members to support the striking tailors. This was not, however, well supported.

Meanwhile Hall’s branch lodge moved from the Roebuck to the larger White Magpie, where the delegate was now Freestone instead of Taylor. By the end of the second week of May, the tailors were very much on the defensive. At a meeting of the union at Owen’s Institution they passed resolutions which were meant to answer the continuing attacks on them in the press. The tailors denied that the price of clothes would be much affected if their demands were met, and they were at pains to stress that the 6/- day-rate was only meant to apply to fully competent men; aged and inferior workmen would receive less. Contrary to the strikers’ expectations there was no pay at all for the third week of the strike, beginning 12 May. On Tuesday 13 May Hall’s branch lodge split, with one group, including Hall, joining a branch lodge at the Bell in Smithfield while the other group stayed at the Magpie.

The striking tailors agreed to negotiate with the masters beginning 14 May, presumably because of the weak and deteriorating condition of the union. A stumbling-block was that the masters preferred piecework and felt that under day-work they would not get a satisfactory rate of work. The union attempted to counter this in a circular issued on 16 May, in which they asserted that the union would enforce a fixed rate of work. Meanwhile these negotiations dragged on. The tailors continued to hope for financial support, but received only a pittance from the Central Committee. By 20 May, about a thousand tailors had seceded from the union and gone back to work on the masters’ terms. To add to their miseries, the tailors discovered that their funds had been embezzled, and their co-operative workshop robbed. By the end of the third week of May, the tailors apparently reached an agreement in their negotiations with the masters to return to work on the old terms on Monday 26 May. However, the Masters’ Committee seized the opportunity to crush the tailors’ union. On 27 May they met and voted by 532 to 8 to refuse to re-employ the men until they had signed the “document”, abjuring trade-union membership forever. This was unacceptable to many men. No doubt recourse to the document prolonged the strike, and introduced a new element into it. The document alarmed other trades, for it portended an assault on trade unionism generally. Hence the meetings of the London Central Committee at the Rotunda, beginning on 26 May, and a furious denunciation of the document by the Executive, printed in the Weekly True Sun on 25 May: “Let no man or woman from one end of the Kingdom to the other, sign this document.” In this new crisis, the idea of the general strike reappeared.

From the last week of May to 2 June, the tailors who remained on strike waited and hoped for relief from the Consolidated Union. On 2 June the Central Committee recommended that all trade union members in work contribute one day’s wages per week, and that all tailors in work contribute 1/- per day to the strikers. But this was not widely honoured, and the financial situation of the union continued to deteriorate. By 4 June only 5,000 of the original 9,000 tailors still remained out on strike. At a meeting on 9 June of all the London trades, Owen and the Executive of the Consolidated Union tried to rally support for the tailors, whose strike was now critical in the face of the militant anti-unionism taking hold among the masters in other trades. But this was too little, too late. Most of the original strikers had gone back to work, and those who remained out denounced their leaders for having mismanaged the strike. The strike dragged on, with minimal support from the Consolidated Union. On 22 June, the final blow was struck when the London Builders’ Union refused to assist the tailors, no doubt because the builders were preparing for their own coming struggle. The tailors responded by seceding from the Consolidated Union.

The tailors’ failure and their subsequent withdrawal from the Consolidated Trades’ Union gave it its “mortal wound”. The Operative Cordwainers, the second largest member union, angry with both the tailors and the Executive, withdrew at the end of June to conduct their own unsuccessful strike. The final demise of trade unionism in London came in August and September with the defeat of the builders and the break-up of their union. Although the Consolidated Union lingered on until August 1835, it was no more than a relic. Its power and its promise had been shattered by the tailors’ strike. As the union collapsed, Smith reflected that the tailors’ strike “proved to possess a more dissolving, decomposing virtue than any other chemical ingredient of which the Union is composed”.

After the 1834 strike, the tailoring trade continued to decline, with the spread of piecework, sweating, homework and cheap labour. The tailors played very little part in the trade-union activity of the rest of the decade, though they did play a leading part in Chartism. Some houses of call remained in the West End, and the “honourable” men there earned twice as much as the sweated men. In 1843-44 a final attempt was made to rally the tailors into union, based on the old houses of call. As in 1834 the aims were uniformity of rates, equalisation, and the end of homework. But its impact was limited, and 1843 marked the beginning of a rapid decline in the position of the honourable men in the West End. Though they remained somewhat better off than those further east, all were sinking to the appalling condition revealed by Mayhew and others in 1849-50.

William Cuffay

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One tailor involved in the 1834 tailors’ strike, who was sacked in the aftermath, was William Cuffay, descendant of African slaves, who had been born in St Kitts in the West Indies. Cuffay went on to become an active and leading London Chartist, heavily involved in the preparation for the great Chartist demonstration in April 1848, and then in the plans for an armed uprising that followed. Arrested at a late stage in these plots (again, due to penetration by spies acting for the police), Cuffay was transported to Australia for ‘levying war on the queen’.

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Abel Hall’s reports to his spymaster concerning the 1834 strike follow, reproduced as written, including Hall’s grammatical and spelling errors.

As Prothero and Parssinen comment “The present document is important and very unusual in consisting of a commentary on events at the rank-and-file level. It includes forty three of ninety-one pages of reports made in 1834 by a single police spy that are filed in the Public Record Office, Home Office papers, eighty-one of them in 64/15, six in 52/24, and four in 64/19. The HO 64/15 reports are not only on the tailors but include reports on various radical organisations. From the reports on the tailors we have selected only some which pertain to the strike, and especially to the relationship between the tailors and the Consolidated Trades’ Union. All these but two are from 64/15. The reports are not filed in chronological order, and many are undated, but most can be placed on the basis of internal evidence and the day of the week, which is almost always noted. The author is never given.

Scattered through the Home Office papers in various series, mainly 40, 52 and 64, is a large number of reports for the years 1830-33, forming a continuous series, in the same handwriting and with the same style and type of content. They mostly deal with the National Union of Working Classes, and are a major source for anyone studying that body. They contain a great deal of information, and indicate that the informant was known to and trusted by many of the leading radicals, and was a member of the committee. The reports are perceptive and accurate, and the spy is not an agent provocateur.

Usually the reports are unsigned, and when the name was given it has been erased. There were several spies in the NUWC, including Samuel Dean, Clements and the notorious Popay, who was exposed in 1833. It is often assumed that some of these reports are by Popay. But they cannot all be, as it is known that Popay was not employed at the time of the earlier reports, being appointed a policeman on 3 September 1831. The theory that the reports are not all by the same person is only compatible with the fact that they are in the same handwriting by regarding them not as the originals but as copies all made by the same clerk in the Bow Street Police Station. But this is only speculation, and it is much simpler to accept that they are originals in the informer’s hand, especially as on the back they often bear the name of the recipient, John Stafford, Chief Clerk at the Bow Street office. There is no evidence at all that any of the reports are by Popay, and it was never so alleged at the Select Committee investigation of his case.

There is other evidence to suggest that the reports are all by the same person. All through there is a special familiarity with radical groups in East London. Several times the informant indicates that he is closely acquainted with men, like Thomas Preston, who were members of Arthur Thistlewood’s group. Twice he recalls details of the Cato Street conspiracy, and in one report he says he first got to know Stafford at the time of that affair.3 One of the earliest reports is endorsed on the back “Information of Abel Hall 1£ per week”. In another report the informant says that his name is advertised in the Poor Man’s Guardian with Preston and others to attend a meeting in Islington; the names in the Guardian are Preston and Hall.1

Abel Hall is mentioned several times in reports of informers in Thistlewood’s conspiracy. He was present in the loft at Cato Street the night they assembled, but managed to escape as the soldiers and magistrates closed in. He was soon arrested, along with fourteen others. Stafford interviewed him, and found him disposed to tell all he knew. But Hall was not needed for the trial of Thistlewood and four others, as the prosecution had the testimony of Robert Adams, another conspirator who had a change of heart and was willing to testify against his erstwhile fellow plotters. Hall swore a deposition, outlining his activities on 8 May 1820.2 He, Thomas Preston and three others were later released, and Hall managed to retain the confidence of the London ultra-radicals. He apparently sent regular reports to Stafford throughout the 1820’s, but only a few of these were passed on to the Home Office and survive. Similarly not all his reports in the 1830’s were passed on.

There are reports on the Consolidated Union in 64/15 from two informers. One of these is known to be G. M. Ball, of the Gardeners’ Lodge. The other, from whose reports this document is drawn, is the same as the NUWC spy. The handwriting is the same. He reports on the same groups as before, including the NUWC. He is familiar with Thomas Preston; he is a tailor, as was Hall; and, in one of the reports not included in the document, the informant explains the tailors’ modified initiation procedure. In giving an example of the oath, he uses initials which are probably his own: “The Words ‘In the presence of Almighty God I A— H— Taylor do promise to keep &c’ is substituted as I have before stated.” And so we are confident as to the accuracy of the document, as Abel Hall was a trustworthy reporter.”

I

“Since I last wrote having been desired to attend to the “Trades Union” I found ‘from Neesom who is a Taylor and very active among them as well as from several others who belong to it that in the Taylors Lodges who are the most numerous they are very particular in who they admit in consequence of having discovered that Policemen in disguise and others who are known to be Spies have tried to be “Initiated” into their Lodges and they will not now admit anyone who is not recommended by two “Brothers” who become so after they have been initiated and who know the party to be only of the Trade he professes. [The irony of this note in a report itself written by an informer is both sad and telling.] The Trades Unions have been established for some Months both in London and the Country and have much increased in both by nearly all Trades joining them. There are Carpenters, Bricklayers, Painters, Coopers, Cabinet Makers, Taylors and others in great numbers whose object is to raise a fund to support all Trades who belong to them in a Strike for Wages, to oppose all tyrannical Masters who are insolent to or resist any of their Workmens commands, to form themselves in their separate trade into bodies who will also form their own plans as to not Working for any Master who employs any other but Union Men and to oppose all systems of tyranny. For this purpose they have established Lodges similar to Free Masons and are sworn to maintain their Rights. The Rotunda in Black Friars Road is the principle or Grand Lodge and there also the Delegates from all parts of London and the Country meet.

Monday evening last was and is Weekly the night for Taylors being initiated and I having been much persuaded by Neesom and Dove who proposed me went there w[h]ere there was during the evening at least three thousand Taylors met. On going in there are two persons sitting who take down the name of the person to be admitted and the two who propose him and he is then ordered into a Room adjoining the large theatre which is very closely kept out of view either to wait while others are being made or until about 100 is assembled to be made. 130 was in the number I was among and previous to entering you are given a piece of string to tie your Hat to the upper button hole of your Coat and you are to Blind your eyes with a Handkerchief. At three loud knocks at a door inside which is answered without A Question is asked who it is who is wishing to interrupt our Great Lodge and the Answer is given that 130 good Men and who are without wish to enter to be made Members of their Grand Lodge and we are led Blindfold into the large Theatre where after order is obtained by loud knockings on the Floor the President either reads or rehearses several passages from the Psalms the Creed and the Gospels, all of which are selected as bearing on the Equality of Man and his right to oppose tyranny. Several Verses of a Union Song is then sang by the Brothers previously present and we are addressed as strangers for us to say whether we are willing to solemnly swear on our oaths to keep the Unions Secrets and to maintain them at the risk our lives to which we answer yes, and after a long address is spoken as to the Slavery Working Men have for years endured by the tyranny of Governments of all ages and the Masters employing Workmen by their combining to extract from them and their families their labour and bread we are ordered to kneel down to place our right hand on our naked left breast and our left on a stool before us on which is part of a leaf of the bible, but which we do not see. At this moment by a given motion of the President (which he after we are sworn shows us) all the Brothers present about 1500 loudly clap their hands and stamp their right foot once which is very loud indeed. We are then ordered to untie our handkerchiefs which discovers the Gas nearly extinguished. The President and Vicepresident behind him standing on a table with White Surplices on and Red Sashes round them and each has a Bible in his hand. Just before them is a Black Ground Transparency well light and on which is painted the perfect Skeleton of a Man. The President then takes a Sword in his hand the point of which he directs your attention first to the Skull and then to the heart the Arms, Legs and Body and in a short address goes to prove that when a Man is in work and in full vigour he soon becomes a skeleton by being tyrannized over by his Governors and Masters who employ him who rob him of substance – themselves to live in luxury on his Vitals. Over the head or Skull is inscribed Beware of your latter end, to which he directs your attention by stating that such end will soon by yours if you do not by Uniting prevent it and that if you after you are sworn do anything to injure the Union or be a Traitor to it Death will surely be your reward. There are also 8 Brothers who have naked Swords in their hands and wear red Sashes and several others who carry large Wooden Axes and Battle Axes and who surround this Skeleton and the President with his Sword and Vice with his go round to each person saying and at the same time putting the edge to your neck and taking your left hand in his what are you, the answer is a Taylor, he then says you are willing to swear to protect the Unions to the risk of your life to which you answer I will. The right hand being still on your left breast you then return your left hand to the Paper and being again darkened by the Officers or Tilers who stand close to hear you the President order each to repeat after him the Oath, which is I most solemnly swear that to my life’s end I will protect and act upon and with the Laws and Brothers of the Trades Unions in any what that I will never reveal their Laws or secrets to any one, that I will never write or cause to be written or printed any of their proceedings or secrets, but will do all I can to discover any one who does and to assist in all my power every act they do So help my God. This being done we rise and are told we are now Brothers, that our Monthly Subscriptions would be One Shilling and that as the Union at Derby had been requested by the Masters to sign a Paper to return to their work on grounds derogatory to their principles and had nobly refused it was intended to further assist them by each member giving SI/- as well as getting what they could from non Members. I should state that on entrance to be initiated we pay Seven-pence. We were then told that to know any Member the Universal Sign was by placing the Right hand thumb and finger to the top on the left side of your waistcoat and carry it from thence across the body to the right thigh and if it was not answered by the same signal on the reverse side the Party so asked was no member. That every trade had its own signs to enter their lodges and that ours was on our approaching the door at which the first Tiler stood with a drawn Sword you are to use the right hand Sign and say slowly to him A. On getting to the second you use the same sign and say Z. You then are admitted to the Lodge where an open Bible is laid on the Table on which you are to place your right hand open from thence to your left breast and making an obesiance to the President and Vice you take your seat. He stated also that near 10,000 were already Members of our Union the Grand Lodge of which would meet on Wednesday night at Eight O’Clock and that Branch Lodges were held at most of the Houses of Call at the West End of Town and at the Sun in London in London Wall, the Kings Head in St. Pauls Chain, the Ship in Lime St. and at the Three Lords in the Minories for the City who all corresponded and acted with the Grand Lodge and after two more Union verses of a Song was sung to the tune of God save the King and the President had said The Grace of our Lord &c he stated that the Lodge was dissolved and we separated at Twelve O’Clock.

On Wednesday evening at 8 O’Clock I again attended and having passed the above signs entered the large theatre which at that time had about 1200 Taylors in it. The Floor was not in anyway decorated as above, but there was a table at which the Secretary to deliver Cards and receive Monies for them and Subscriptions. About | past Eight the President who is a Taylor named Woodford, the Vice and Brown the Warden of the Lodge having we proceeded to business the first of which was to place Woodford on the table with his Surplice and Sash has had al the Vice and to read the Minutes of the last Meeting which was done by Gutheridge who has acted as Secretary for sometime, but has resigned and from which it appears that a dispute having arisen sometime ago between him – Gutheridge, Duffey and Petrie it was referred to the General Committee who met on Friday night last to decide what steps to recommend. The Committee of all Trades are chosen from the body of the Union in their own Lodges and meet privately. Ours met on that night at the Blue Posts a house of call for Taylors in Brewer St. Golden Square and there decided that as Duffey had made charges against Gutheridge he should be suspended for three Months, but in Six weeks if he made an Apology he should be reinstated. Duffey, Gutherie and Petrie are the same persons who caused much confusion in the National Union, and this decision caused a very great confusion all the night by each of their partys proposing and reproposing Resolutions condemning each, so much so that no business was done, but I find that on Monday next Six Delegates from our trade upwards of Nine Thousand of whom belong to us are to go through England to Initiate members and Concentrate our Union and that other trades are doing the same. I find also that at several Shops at the West End the Men have struck to their Masters who would either “insult or not agree to our Union Plans” to regulate the work and the Men have thrown themselves on the Protection of the Union who have received them. The Confusion existed up to one O’Clock when the Lodge was dissolved, to meet again next Monday and Wednesday nights. I tried to get a copy of our Private Laws and the Laws of the Trades Unions generally, but the Secretary had none by him they being all sold and as I do not wish to be seen too forward I did not Press my wanting it, but will get them and send them as soon as possible. During the night 2812 Taylors met here and we separated at half past One. Thursday Feby. 27th. 1834.

II

On Wednesday evening I attended the Grand Lodge of the Taylor Trades Union at the Rotunda, at which about 1200 Taylors met. After the usual ceremony of opening the Lodge had been gone through George [sic; John] Brown the Grand Secretary read the minutes of the last Meeting which were confirmed. He then stated that as Lord Melbourne had not written an Answer to the Deputation who waited on him on last Sunday as he had promised to do he had been ordered to write his Lordship to know what the King had done as to the Six Convicts and that he had that day received a letter from Lord Howick which he read and which stated that his Majesty had not yet given any orders on the subject, at which a great deal of disapprobation was expressed, but he stated that the Central Committee of all the trades Unions was then sitting to determine on what we should next do in their case and that that would be made known to us at our Branch Lodges. Six of our Committee attended with Brown and stated that the Central Committee of all the Trades in London had agreed that our trade should from being the largest in number Strike First and that their Funds should assist us if we wanted them. The Plan is that as at this time of year our trade is mostly called into action we should strike about the middle of this Month – April of which notice is to be given to all the Branch Lodges. That all our Work is to be day work, that no man is to work more than 10 Hours p r day for which he is to be paid 8d pr hour, that from the first Monday in April to the last Saturday in July he is to be at his work from 7 in the Morning to 6 in the evening and the remaining 8 Months in the year from 8 to 5 leaving 1 hour for refreshment and not to work in any shop unless well ventilated and comfortable to his health. That no Master be allowed to pick his Men, but to go through the book which is to be one throughout the trade as the names stand1 and no Apprentice to be bound before he is 13 years of Age nor remain so after 18, and this is to extend 4 Miles from Covent Garden Market. The Bye Laws which he read are the same in substance and are in a stage of printing for us. As soon as I can get them I will send them. A Deputation from the Cordwainers waited on us to know what we meant to do as to the Six Convicts and they were told as I above state as to the Central Committee Sitting. Bills were Posted at the Rotunda as to the Second Meeting of the Unions to take place to day in Charlotte S* Rathbone Place on the Six Convicts, but from what we were requested by Brown and from what I learnt from him I shall attend my Branch Lodge – the Roebuck in Aldgate to night and Report to morrow. We are also requested to attend a Brothers Funeral on Sunday next at two O’Clock and to assemble in Finsbury Square. A letter from Bradford in Yorkshire was read wishing us to send a Delegate there to initiate which was referred to the Committee and this being the only business the Lodge was closed about Eleven O’Clock.- Thursday April 3rd 1833 [sic; 1834]

III

On Wednesday evening I attended the Grand Lodge of the Taylors Trades Union at the Rotunda, at which about 1200 Taylors attended and a great deal of anxiety prevailed as to when we should strike. The Lodge having been opened in the usual form about Nine O’Clock Brown the Head Secretary read the Minutes of the last Meeting which were confirmed and a letter which was that day brought to him by a special Delegate from Derby stating that their funds would be quite exhausted this week and that it would be impossible to hold out any longer unless they were further assisted as the Masters were assisted by the Government. The Central Committee had sent him back with £30 and we as well as all the Trades were particularly requested to pay our Derby Levy and to enter into Subscriptions at our Branch Lodges to assist and keep them up as on this their Strike would depend a great deal the fate of the Union. He stated also that the Committee had sent a Delegate with £30 to the Wives and Families of the Six Convicts and had also determined that a Levy of 2d should be immediately made on every Brother throughout all the Unions to place them above the taunts of a Tyrannical Government and that that sum would be quite sufficient. He also stated that the Central Committee of Trades were still deliberating what to do as to Petitioning the King or to get the Men back and all the Petitions left at Branch Lodges of all the Trades for signatures or anywhere else is ordered to be sent to the Hercules Pillars Lincolns Inn Fields by Saturday night as the Central Committee were to determine on Monday what the Unions should do. He read the new Articles 34 in numbers which are to be submitted to the Branch Lodges for inspection or amendments and stated that all the Branch Lodges were to send in the names addresses &c of all their Men by the 14th of April and again of their numbers and how many of the Lodges were houses of Call by the 22nd in order that they may be able to regulate when to Strike. The Articles are nearly the same as I stated of the Bye Laws. A good deal of disappointment and dissatisfaction manifested itself among the Brothers at the delay of the Committee as to the Strike and several expressed themselves largely on this, but they were told by Brown and some of the Committee that we were not yet in a fit state to Strike both for want of Funds and numbers for many had joined who had not paid either their Levy or Subscriptions, at this a desultory conversation and some confusion took place of no particular importance amid which Fisher the President closed the Lodge and we separated about half past Eleven.- Thursday April 10th 1834

Last night was our last at the Rotunda our initiations will be in future at the Union – Union S* Whitechapel, The Blue Po[s]ts Brewer S* Golden Square and the White Hart Windmill S* Haymarket.-

Tuesday Morning [22 April] Sir/ I was yesterday a good deal among the Taylors at the Branch Lodges in the City. The Kings head S* Pauls Church Yard, Bulls Head Jewin Crescent, Sun Londons Wall and the Ship in Lime Street. I found a great many about at these places and they all still seem very sanguine as to the Strike and wish it soon, but as yet from the causes I stated last week The Committee have not decided. Last night the Grand Initiation took place at the Peacock Houghton S* Clare Market at which I attended when 103 were sworn as Brothers. Nothing new was stated nor will the Committees proceedings by known till Wednesday or Thursday. I shall attend to it and report.-

V

Friday Morning [25 April] Sir/1 last night attended the Roebuck and found the Central-Committee have decided that a Special summons should be issued to all the Branch Lodges of the Trades Unions to meet to night, That every trade is to pay as a loan either 2s/6d or as much as he can afford, to be repaid to him again. I being a small Master shall take the lowest rate, and as we are to meet to night I shall not be able to see you. I send this by Brand and will thank you to send me as usual by him. The additional expence is 3s/-. They talk of a Strike on Monday and as I shall attend to night I will report by him to morrow – morning Mr [name cut out]

VI

On Friday evening I attended my Branch Lodge at the Roebuck – Duke S* Aldgate. As I have daily sent notes to Mr [name purposely obscured = Brand] stating that no positive determination was yet come to as to our strike, but when it did I would Report truly. On my attending at the same place on Thursday night, I found that no particular business would be done that night, but that the whole trade were especially summoned for Friday night, to hear the decision of the Committee. On my going there I found the greatest assemblage of Brothers I have ever seen there. Previous to Taylor the Delegate coming Campbell the landlord stated that as it was expected by the Committee that Government would object to Public Houses being either Lodges or Houses of Call1 as well as the Masters it was intended to take Large Buildings, Chapels or upper Parts of Houses for the Men to work in when we strike. About half past Nine Taylor came and stated that the Committee had decided that we should strike this Morning — that every man who had work to finish should go and do so at his shop, but not take another job either cut out or basted up unless on the principle of the Master agreeing to pay the Wages and abide by the Rules and Laws of the Union as to time and Comforts which I have before stated. That every Branch Lodge should meet again at Eight O’Clock on Sunday evening to hear how they got on. That every man should be employed by the General fund two days in the week at 6s/- p r day, and if not so employed liberty to do what work he could get on his own account and be allowed 10s/- pr week, but not to work for any Master struck against. That any Brother may work for another as he can afford to pay him. That all Brothers do pay to their Branch Lodges the most money they can afford as a Loan to be repaid to them in order to assist the funds, by the Work done by those unemployed. That as it was thought Equal Rights for all was our Motto no man would object to do all he could by assisting in this Loan and that no brother do enter his Lodge without giving his Christian [name] surname and place of Residence and his Card payed up to the end of March. He also stated having brought the proof sheet with him that the whole of the General and Bye Laws were in a last stage of being printed and would soon be ready for our use by purchasing and he hoped by Sunday. During the evening I went with a Brother named George Stokes downstairs and in the passage was a Soldier of the First Battalion of the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards with his Side Arms on. He came with a Porter and another the first of which is employed two doors from Howards Coffee House in Dukes Place. Stokes shew him his Card when he said I know that well I Glory and so does our Regiment in your proceedings on Monday. If we had been called out we should all have Grounded our Arms. He has a broad Scotch accent and was tipsy. I shall attend to morrow night and Report on Monday.- Saturday April 26th 1834

VII

25, Little Queen-street, April 25, 1834 SIR – By direction of the Friendly Society of Operative Tailors, I have to acquaint you, that in order to stay the ruinous effects which a destructive commercial competition has so long been inflicting upon them, they have resolved to introduce certain new Regulations of Labour into the Trade, which Regulations they intend should commence from Monday next; and I beg herewith to enclose you a copy of them.

As the demands there specified are of so reasonable a nature; and as, moreover, they are unquestionably calculated for the ultimate benefit of employers, as well as employed, the Society confidently hope that you will accede to them, and that henceforward a mutual confidence may be sustained between masters and men, and that their interests may be no longer separated, and opposed to each other.

It only remains for me to add, that your workmen, members of this Society, will cease to be employed by you, should you decline to act upon the new regulations; and further, I think it right to apprize you that, in that case, they will no longer consider it necessary to support your interest; but will immediately enter into the arrangements prepared by the Society for the employment of such Members for the benefit of the Society.

I am, sir, your most obedient humble servant,

JOHN BROWNE. Secretary to the Grand Lodge of Operative Tailors

REGULATION

No Brother shall be allowed to work more than ten hours per day from the third Monday in the month of April to the last Saturday in the month of July; nor more than eight hours per day the remaining eight months of the year; and for such labour the remuneration shall be 6s. per day for the ten hours labour, which is to be performed between the hours of seven o’clock in the morning, and six o’clock in the evening; and 5s. per day for the eight hours labour, to be performed between the hours of eight o’clock in the morning, and five o’clock in the evening, out of which time, in either case, he shall leave his employer’s premises one hour for refreshment. Nor shall any Brother work for an employer any where but on his (the employer’s) premises, which shall be healthy and convenient, or on any other terms than by the day or hour. And no Brother shall be allowed to solicit employment, or to work for less than the regular wages within four miles of Co vent Garden.

VIII

On Tuesday evening I attended my Branch Lodge N° 2 at the Roebuck in Duke S* Aldgate (I have attended there at the Regular Call-times since Monday Morning) and on going found that an order had been sent from the Committee that a special Meeting was to be held there at Six O’Clock but it was again determined that the Lodge Room was not sufficient for all of us and we again adjourned to the White Magpie. The Lodge was opened there about Eight and was filled to nearly suffocation and a long complaint was made by one party against the Secretary – Haynes — his own party supporting him, the result of which was that he wished if any complaint against him existed (none particular was stated) he would wish it to be sent to the Grand Committee and he would abide by their decision. A great deal of confusion and nearly rioting took place throughout this and it was at length agreed as he wished. From all I see or hear of the Complaint against him is that a party exists who wish their friend in his place and say of him that he neglects to mark those who do not answer to their names at call time. About Nine O’Clock Taylor the Delegate from the Committee came with his Report and read it. It was short and in substance stated that the Committee had heard of nearly 100 Masters who had ordered from different Lodges Men on our principles. That a Suggestion had been made a few days ago to the Central Committee of Trades Unions as to every Branch Lodge of all the Trades being made Taylors Clubs to be attended on their Lodge Meetings by one Delegate or more to act as Taylors taking orders and that they all have Clothes from no other persons but us thus keeping us as well employed as possible they subscribing according to what Garments they want, with this being sent to us we buy the Materials – make the Articles and after employing our men at our Wages we strike for the Profits to go to a Consolidated Fund for our support and for the support of any other trade that should strike. This the Central Committee have agreed to and it is to be made a law this week in all the Unions, they say that if our Masters hold out “this will defeat them for ever.” that Mr Detrosier has agreed to lecture at the Rotunda to night on the principles of Unions Gratuitiously for our benefit that one penny each is to be taken for admission, that none but Taylors be admitted and that all the Lodges – Taylors do meet at their Lodges at 7 O’Clock and go from thence to the Rotunda to be there at 8 in procession as near as possible. That as the plan of having Clubs was to be resorted to those men who had not been able to pay up their Loan of 4s/6d need not do so until they had work and then at 6d pr day, that already 1000 thousand [sic] Coal Whippers had stated that to be first they were ready anytime to give us an order for as many Jackets, that if any Master or deputy call at any Branch Lodge to compromise in any way not to answer them, but refer them to a Committee always sitting at the Albion in King S* High Holborn. This being the substance of his Report a Desultory conversation of no importance took place and the Lodge closed to attend to night to hear Rowland Detrosier at the Rotunda and the business of Grand Lodge about 12 O’Clock. Wednesday April 29*h [sic; 30th] 1834

IX

On Wednesday evening I attended at the Rotunda where the Grand Lodge of Taylors was held and at which as I stated yesterday Rowland Detrosier was to lecture on the Principles of Union. About 8 O’Clock the Large Theatre was very full and in about half past Hundreds of Taylors was seen coming from all parts of London in branches but not in procession. Detrosier came about this time and there was not less than 3000 – Taylors present, indeed the place was so full you could not without much pressure obtain a place. The Lodge was then opened in the usual form and he began a Lecture verbally on first the Principles of Union which he took from the reign of Edward the 3rd, and in which he went to prove that from that time it had been the Maxim of Kings first Princes next, Aristocrated Noblemen next, Religion next, Navy and Army next and thus led to Middle men called Masters who all formed one Aristocratic Body to live on the labour which was the Property of the Working Man. His lecture was a very clever illustration (in his way) of producing the most determined hatred towards Masters and in which he justified us in our strike and implored us to keep steady in our plans and we were sure to succeed in obtaining that which was our just rights. He then made a severe attack on the Times Newspaper for having in its leading Article in its Tuesdays Publication on us and designated the Writer as the most willing Prostitute to Power that ever existed. He then made a most furious attack on the Lord Chancellor for his speech as to trades Unions and stated that he had by the Union of the People been raised to his present situation and that since he had been in power had proved himself the most determined Profligate in Principle ever yet known. He strongly impressed on us not to put the least confidence in any professor of Principles, but to look to ourselves. He was listened to with very great attention and is to give Lectures weekly throughout the whole Trades Unions.- Thursday May 1st 1834.-

X

Friday Morning.-

[2 May] Sir/1 was yesterday among a great many Taylors and visited the Bulls Head in Jewin Crescent, I there found that “Nothing New” had been stated after I left the Rotunda. I went last night to the Roebuck to attend my call and all I could learn from Hayes the Secretary was, that the Committee were busy in collecting the different – Reports of the Newspapers as to our Strike in order to contradict them in the True Sun next Week. We are ordered to attend to night and Sunday night at the Roebuck to hear the Delegates Report from Committee, and thus we stand at Present. I shall attend and if anything occurs will Report it. I send this by Brand and will be thankful if you will send the money by him. Not that I immediately want it this morning, but I shall not be able to call on you this evening. I have paid since last Friday 4s/6d as a Loan to the Union and with Pamphlets, Entrance Monies and Subscriptions my charge this week is 8s/-.

XI

To THE GRAND National Consolidated Trades Union: Whereas our Brothers, the United Operative Tailors of the Metropolis, being forced into their present position by the many grevious attacks and encroachments of the Masters, and we being fully aware of the great danger and inconvenience of large masses of Men remaining in Idleness,
We do therefore require that all and every of the members of the Consolidated Trades Union, do forthwith contribute the sum of one Shilling and Sixpence as Levy, in three payments, for the purpose of giving employment to the members of the above Trade. The first payment to be made on or before the 9th day of May; the second payment to be made on or before the 16th of May; and the third payment on or before the 22nd of May, 1834: and further it is desired that all Secretary’s will see the said money transmitted to Mr. E. C. Douglas,1 213, High Holborn.

May 5th , 1834

By Order of the Executive Council

XII

Saturday 12 0’Clock [10 May] Sir/I have been from Nine to this moment at the Magpie, and have had to keep with many who are walking about. I find that No Money has been sent by the Committee except that last night Sixpenny Tickets were given by Freestone by order of the Committee to each Man for refreshments, and Hayes the Secretary has gone to the Committee for the Money. They are all still waiting and expect his arrival, but there is no certainty when they May get it.- Mr. Stafford.

XIII

Wednesday Morning [14 May] Sir/ I attended my Branch Lodge the Magpie last night and found there had been a Meeting of the Taylors at Owens Institution that day and that a Deputation from the Committee was to meet us there at Nine O’Clock, but up to Eleven no one came and though there was a great many waiting for their Money None came. Freestone kept us in suspense until that time and a great deal of discontent was manifested by the people waiting. We were at Length ordered to meet at the Bell in the Pig Market Smithfield at Nine this Morning, and the Hand and Shears-Cloth Fair. No Report was made, but it is expected the Committee will send one to us to morrow. Thus I cannot yet say how we stand, but will do so as soon as I can.

XIV

Thursday Morning.- [15 May] Sir/1 attended at the Bell in Smithfield yesterday Morning at Nine and found that the only Report known from Committee was that every thing was going on well, This did not give any satisfaction and after a long discussion among about 300 Men we deputed Barnsley and Brown to go to Committee to know more and I with several others was walking the Streets all day waiting their Return. I could not get away from them & about Nine last night they returned and stated that all they could learn was that we were still going on well and that the Committee had no doubt but that we should obtain our Strike by Saturday Week, and impressed on us all to particularly attend our Branch Lodges to night to hear their full Report and what has taken place between them and the Masters at their Meeting Yesterday. We then agreed that those Men who had been drawn from the Magpie should join the Bell this Morning and as soon as possible move as a Branch Lodge in a Body to either the White Horse Cripplegate or the White Swan Coleman Street being more Central for the City. We are I assure you in a deplorable state. The only money sent yesterday was that the Secretaries of each Lodge was ordered to give each Man on the funds a ticket by which he could get Sixpennyworth of refreshment at the Bar and Sixpence in Money and the Men expect the same to day, but there is no certainty in that. I must therefore Report to morrow.-

XV

The Committee of Operative Tailors,
25, LITTLE QUEEN STREET, HOLBORN,
Having received requests from various Masters, for a more explicit statement as to what security they would have, that a proper amount of Labour would be performed in the 10 hours, if they were to accede to us; we beg to say that it never was contemplated by us that an idle and inefficient Man should have this rate of wages, and for which purpose we had a regulation which we intended to have submitted to them, the Masters, for their concurrence, but being denied that friendly intercourse which we think should always exist between Master and Man, and in obedience to the above requests, we are now, or at any other time ready to shew a Statement of what Labour we were willing to perform in the 10 hours, to the whole of the Masters as a body or to any individual Master, that may think proper to demand the same, and for which purpose the Committee sit daily at 25, Little Queen-street, Holborn. SIGNED ON BEHALF OF THE COMMITTEE,
Stevenson, A. O’Connell, J. Elliott, May 16, 1834 R. Pryer.

XVI

Friday Morning [16 May] Sir/I attended at the Bell yesterday the whole of the 8 Call Times and was about with many of the Men all day expecting the Delegate to come with the Committee’s Report. He came at 5 O’Clock and stated that the Committee had been sitting all day on the Masters Proposals and was likely to continue so until late last night and that as he had to go to the different Trades Lodges to gather Money he could not attend last night but would come this Morning about Nine. I shall attend and either send you to day or bring what I have with me this evening.-

XVII

Tuesday Morning [20 May] Sir/I should have wrote you yesterday as to our funds and proceedings, but waited and am still without any real information on them. Up to Saturday night One O’Clock though numbers were waiting, No Money was sent and not until 10 on Sunday Morning with a promise that all would be paid on Monday Morning. The Men at the Bell in Smithfield received 3s/6d each — those at the Magpie ls/6d. I have attended since I saw you to my Lodge and up to the last night 11 O’Clock No Money came, but at 4 in the Afternoon Fawne the Delegate came with an order from Committee that each Lodge was to depute three Men to meet at the Rotunda this Morning at Nine to meet a deputation from Committee to hear and know what was to be done with the Men. It is not certain when we shall see them to day but I shall attend to it and send again to morrow. A great many I find has seceded from us and I have no doubt many more will.1 We are I assure you in a very dissatisfied state and until we are in some way settled I cannot send you a Report. Many Projects have been started among us but Nothing is as yet settled.

XVIII

The True Sun of last night has a long Article on our Trade and up to half past Eleven last night No Money was sent to the Lodge I belong, though it was promised at 5 O’Clock and many was waiting. They at last decided to meet again this Morning. As to the Men going to work to Morrow Morning, from all I can learn No real decision has as yet been come to. I expect to hear more to night.- Sunday May 25th 1834.

XIX

Sunday Morning [25 May] Sir/ I had just returned from attending the Bell when I received your Note. At that place as I have before stated a great deal of confusion existed and a Report had been made as to Browne’s resigning and absconding, but it is not true that he has Absconded. He has resigned in consequence of the Investigation Committee having found that he is deficient in the funds he has received and a further investigation is now proceeding in as to it, but from all I can learn No one knows the deficiency. It is said by some that £400. which was to be sent to Derby passed through his hands and has not been accounted for, but that has not been proved yet. He still says it has and it is still under investigation. As to the Robbery and Scramble for the Money the latter is not true. It is true that the Establishment was Robbed on Sunday last of 13 Coats (made) and Goods to the amount of £70. as well, and though the Committee applied to Hatton Garden they have not succeed [sic] in by their Officiers. In obtaining who did Rob the place, but from all I can learn two Men of the Committee named Walford and Stevenson are the only persons Suspected. As to the General Meeting; No such thing was intended last Night, but we are all ordered to attend our Lodges to Night at half past Seven. As to the Men going to work on Monday, it is not true that they have agreed to do so, but many have done so on the principle of 6d pr Hour and it still remains to be decided to night, What is to be done. I shall attend and Report to morrow.-

XX

Monday Morning. Sir/ I attended the Bell yesterday and found that about two O’Clock yesterday the Men received 3s/6d each with a promise of more to day. We met again last night and from all that I can find The Men generally are going back to their Shops at the Old day work system 6d the Hour very fast without the allowance of time, but it is expected that to morrow they will be ordered to Strike again for the time 10 Hours. All this depends on a Meeting of Delegates of all the Trades who are to meet at the Rotunda either to day or to morrow “to consult on our case”. Browne is still at his house N° 25 Great Queen S* and is to be met with at anytime. He says the Finance Committee are the Thieves and he is ready to meet them at any time to prove his Balance Sheet correct. This is still pending and as I shall attend to it I will Report.- Monday May 26th 1834

XXI

During Monday I attended my Branch Lodge, but found Nothing new occurred except that a great many Men had gone to work and a great many seceeded from us. We waited until \ past Nine for our Delegate to Report the Proceedings of the Rotunda Committee when he came and Reported to us that they had broke up in consequence of not agreeing to the plans which the Masters have proposed as to the Men signing a Document not to belong to any Union, and that the other Grand Committee had ordered that at each Lodge on Tuesday night the Lodges were to send One Man each to still form another Investigation Committee. No further Monies came that day as promised, but more was promised on tuesday and I learnt from the Delegate and Secretary that though they last week as well as the others in Committee waited on many trades to get money the whole collected was £70 which was divided among the 31 Lodges. On Tuesday I again attended when Nothing new occurred until evening except that very few attended their Calls and it was well known that a great many had gone to work on the Old System and a great many had signed the document. About Nine the Delegate came from Committee and the Lodge was opened when instead of about 180 there was but 42 present. He had no Money and stated that the Committee had expected some from other trades but it had not come and they had not one farthing even to pay themselves at present, but they expected some to day. He stated also that the Delegates had no Report to make as yet as to Brownes Accounts, but were still sitting and that Browne had tendered his Resignation to the Executive, but it was not received at present until his Accounts were presented by the Investigation Committee and they had appointed – Douglas in his place. That Browne himself was to be examined by Committee to day which he has agreed to and that we were requested to attend a special Lodge to night. He brought a Resolution with him for us to pass which had been passed at a General Meeting of all the Trades of Steel, Iron, farriers, Engineers and others who are in London which had that day sent a Deputation to our Committee stating that they were determined to support us if we kept up the Strike by Striking themselves. There is in their Union about 8400 in Town and the Country who include all the above branches (they have a Lodge at the Bell) and there is but 8 of those Trades in London who are not in Union. They say particularly an Engineer named Reynolds that if we are firm (he is one of the Principles) They shall Strike and in one week or two they will stop “All the Commerce and Trade in London and all the Bloody Towns in the Country for they can see that the Masters and the Government are determined to put down the Rights and Liberties of the People.” We passed the Resolution which was also read in other Lodges and agreed to meet in Lodge again to night.- Wednesday May 28th 1834.

XXII

During Wednesday I attended the Bell in Smithfield and the Sun in London Wall – two Branch Lodges where I found that Nothing had occurred more than fresh Reports of many more of the Men leaving us and going to work on the old system and of many signing the Masters Bond who had gone to work. About 8 in the evening our Delegate came to the Bell where not more than 20 met. He stated that he had no Report from Committee as they had heard of many of the Men having gone to Work they were still sitting on what was to be done and he expected they would be so all the week. He brought No Money, but thought he should be able to do so by Saturday. The Committee requests that all the names and residences of the Men who keep out be sent them in order to know our number by Saturday Morning. The Finance and Investigating Committees are still sitting examining Brownes Books and Papers and he is with them and from all I can find there is several who think he has been Guilty of some Embezzlement and several do not. It is expected they will sit until Saturday at least.- Thursday May 29th 1834

XXII

During Thursday and up to Five O’Clock on Friday evening I attended my Branch Lodge the Bell in Smithfield and several other Lodges – The White Magpie Skinner S* Bishopsgate – The Sun in London Wall – the Pauls Head Pauls S* Finsbury and The Three Tuns Smithfield, at all of which Places I found that a great many Men had gone to Work on the Old System of Working many of whom had signed the Masters Bond and others had got work where no Bond was necessary and have seceeded from us not having been able to get the Promised Money. I find this is the case also at the West end of Town. About the above time The Delagate came from the Committee to the Bell and stated that the disposal of the Funds expected to be received from other Trades to morrow (Saturday) was taken out of our Committees Hands and are to be placed in the Hands of the Executive, or the whole of the Trade Union Committee and that it was fully expected by to morrow night that each Man who still stood out would get the whole Money due to him. He stated also that the Executive had heard the Masters of all the Trades were to hold a Meeting at the London Tavern on Saturday evening that is those Masters who employ Men belonging to the Union “and as many more as they could persuade” to join them in forming a Union for the purpose of not employing any Unionist who would not sign a Bond to seceede from it – and a Security for his not doing so again. They the Executive have therefore ordered a Meeting of all the Delegates and Secretaries of all the Trades on Monday next to determine whether there shall be a General Strike of all the Trades in Union immediately, or what else is to be done, and on their decision depends whether we hold out any Longer.- Friday May 30*h 1834

XXIV

During Saturday and Sunday I attended My Branch Lodge – the Bell in Smithfield. All day on Saturday the Men were waiting for Money from the Committee, but none came. On Sunday Morning at Nine Griffin the Delegate came and stated that all he could get for them was 45 shillings and that he did not (with all the other Delegates from other Lodges) get until near Three O’Clock on Sunday Morning. This was not enough to pay the Landlord for what Beer and Bread and Cheese Knight the Secretary had been answerable for during the week for the Men and Griffin borrowed 8s/2d from the Lodge of Smiths held there. Thus the Men got no money at all, but were promised that as the Delegates of all the Trades were to meet to day at 2 O’Clock at the Rotunda they would have Money either to night or to morrow night. In the evening I was with Griffin Delegate of the Bell. Travers of the Sun London Wall Campion of the Pauls Head Finsbury and Freestone of the White Magpie Skinner Street all Delegates and from them I find that at their Lodges the Men are very dissatisfied at not getting their Money and are determined to day to leave and get Work where they can. They say also that they have no doubt but that the Delegates at their Meeting to day will decide that we must give way to the Masters, but it is not likely their decision will be known until Lodge night to morrow (Tuesday) night. Monday June 2nd 1834

XXV

During Monday I attended My Branch Lodge the Bell in Smithfield and we expected our Delegate Griffin to come to inform us as to the decision of the Trades Delegates, He came about half past Ten last night and stated that at present the Delegates deliberations was in our favour, but they had adjourned to this day and we were to have their Report through All the Branch Lodges to night. I shall attend and Report to morrow.- Tuesday June 3rd 1834

XXVI

On Tuesday evening I attended My Branch Lodge the Bell in Smithfield. (It was Lodge night with all the Lodges in our trade throughout London.) There were present 86 Men to hear the Delegates Report. About half past Nine he Griffin came and stated That the Committee of the Trades Delegates who had met at the Rotunda had decided that rather than we should fail in our Strike for want of funds Every Member of their Trades in the Union who are in Work should give One Days Wages pr week to support us which they calculate would be at least £6000 pr week, and that each Taylor at Work on Honourable terms should pay 1/- p r day to the Funds out of his Wages all of which monies shall be paid to the Executive Council for them to distribute to our Committee for the Men Weekly who still stand out and this they promise to do for Twelve Months. They also examined the Books of Browne the Secretary, the Finance and other Committees of our Trade [met] and passed a Resolution which is in the True Sun of last night which states that there is no truth in the Report so much circulated of Embezzlement of the Funds and that all the books and Papers have been proved to be correct. Our Committee instead of sending their Report to the Lodges last night have ordered a Meeting to be held of all our Trade who are out to day at two O’Clock at Owens Bazaar in Charlotte S* Fitzroy Square to hear the Report and sent a special order through the Lodges last night for our attendance and that No one would be admitted without the New Pass Words. To the first Tiler, “Yet.” To the second- “Firm.” I shall attend and Report to Morrow – Wednesday June 4th 1834

XXVII

On Wednesday at two O’Clock I attended a Meeting of Journeymen Taylors at Owens Bazaar N° 14 Charlotte S* Fitzroy Square. Called by the Taylors Committee to Report the Proceedings of the Delegates of All the Trades in Union in London who met at the Rotunda on Monday and Tuesday last to consider what was to be done in our case. By the above time about 3000 Men met and soon after the Committee with Browne our late Secretary having arrived – Jenkins was called to the Chair. He stated that at the Delegates Meeting on Monday all the other Trades in Union by their Delegates had agreed to propose to their Trades that in order to keep up our Funds and defeat the Masters Bond (knowing as they did that the Masters of all Trades were forming a Union to make all their Men sign a Bond similar to ours and which was to take place on the 10th of June) they proposed that All the other Trades in Union should give One days Wages support Weekly to us. This was for our decision as to accepting the offer to keep us out which was agreed to unanimously by us and they are to Report to our Com mittee on Saturday how such Proposition will be received by the Lodges of their Trades during this Week. A long and confused conversation took place by several of the Committee speaking on this subject some of whom thought it was useless to stand out any longer depending on such promises as this and one – Newby proposed that a special Lodge Meeting be called that night to know the opinions of the Men through the Lodges as to their seceeding at once or waiting the Delegates Report on Saturday, but Stevenson proposed a Resolution of the Committee That No Secession or difference do at present be allowed to exist in the Lodges, but that we do wait the Issue of Saturday, and if not favourable to us we should withdraw from the Consolidated Union – keep our Lodges still and do the best we could as a Body of ourselves and this was carried Unanimously. Another Resolution That we give no concession to Masters from our Original Bond was put and carried also. Another that the Men do still keep attendance on their Lodges particularly this Week, to still keep firm in order that if we fall We will fall Nobly. This was also carried and after a good deal of confusion by the disagreement of the Speakers in their opinions A Vote of thanks was voted to the Chairman and we separated at Five O’Clock. From what I found among the Men there and at several of the Lodges I have attended, Vety Great dissatisfaction and no great expectations exists as to our keeping out after next Saturday. A great many present will not wait longer than that time and many not till then. We have been so bouyed up with promises that it is no longer believed we can exist in longer keeping out. We have and still are decreasing fast in Number by Men going to work daily and from all I can see we cannot keep out but a few days longer having No Funds and scarcely any of the Promised Funds of the other Trades to support us. Browne tried to Vindicate the “Calumny” so much heaped on him, but was not allowed to speak much. He is not now charged with Embezzlement, but with being the cause of our Striking prematurely and saying he had the Sanction of the Consolidated Trades Unions in doing so whereas it had been proved he had not, for this he is much hated and blamed for our failure if we do fail. Thursday June 5th 1834

XXVIII

Since I wrote on Thursday last I have continued to attend to the proceedings of our Strike and should have wrote before, but as I then stated we were to wait until Saturday night or Sunday Morning to know what decision the other trades had come to as to their Delegates plan at the Rotunda Meeting, and what Monies was sent from them for our support. Our Committee (Taylors) sat nearly all day on Saturday and up to near 12 on Saturday night they had received No positive decision as to our being supported and all the Money received was £152. This they sent by the Delegates to their Lodges and which amounted to 2s/- each Man1 with a promise that they would have more on Sunday Morning and that each Lodge was to meet on that Morning at Nine O’Clock. They did meet and about Ten they each received Sixpence. At this the Greatest dissatisfaction prevailed and in all the Lodges the Men declared they would wait no longer and get work w[h]ere they could under any circumstances. They were also told that a General Meeting of the Trade would take place on Monday Morning at Owens Institution in Charlotte S* at 8 O’Clock, but in the evening this Meeting was put off to join the One at 5 O’Clock of all the Trades at the same place as Advertised by order of the Executive in Placards and in the Trades official Gazette which I sent on Friday. During Monday I visited with others many of the Lodges of our Trade and found in all of them that a great many of their Men had left in disgust and had gone to work. About Five O’Clock I attended at Charlotte S4 where about 2000 Members of different Trades met among whom was several Women (the smallest Meeting I have ever seen there and still less of Taylors.) About Six Goldspink one of the late National Union Committee was called to the Chair and Mr Owen read Six Resolutions the Executive had framed for the Meeting the substance of which was that as the Masters of all the Trades had determined to do away with Unions by not employing Men who would not sign their Bond the Unions seeing the distressed state Men with Families were in should pity those who did so and that a Meeting of Delegates of all Trades throuhout the Kingdom should be held in London on the Blank Day of Blank Month to deliberate how to supercede the Signing such Bond. Owen in a long speech proposed these and George Petrie who has just returned from the Country seconded them. Petrie has been several weeks in all parts of the Country Initiating Taylors (I stated when he went) and I find from him that “the Spirit of Union in the Country is very strong, but their Funds are very weak.” A Great deal of confusion existed in the Meeting by several Taylors charging the Executive with Misleading them and long before the Meeting broke up many left in disgust. Savage, Neesom, Stevenson, Lane and others addressed the Meeting on the necessity of still keeping in Union and all I could learn from our Committee was that they are to sit to day to settle what we can now do and as this is Lodge night through all our Trade in London they expect to decide and Report to all the Lodges. From this and from all I see daily I am certain that our Strike may now be called lost and those who propagated and have had the Management of it are blamed, Marked and will never again be depended on on this or any other occasion. Tuesday June 10th 1834

XXIX

On Tuesday evening I attended and was appointed Vice President of my Lodge of Taylors — the Bell in Smithfield. As I stated yesterday all the Lodges were summoned to meet, and in continuance of my Report yesterday as to the secessions of our Men instead of 182 who were Members of this Lodge 21 only attended. About Nine O’Clock Griffin our Delegate came from Committee and all he had to state was that they the Committee had ordered all the Lodges to decide two Motions. The first was “Whether The Taylors should secede from the Consolidated Union and form a Union of themselves,” and the second was whether we should still keep out until next Saturday and wait to see what the Trades would do for us. Both these were carried, but still the Men present were determined not to trust them any longer. Thus we remain depending on the Decision of Committee and from all I can see I shall not have to Report until after Saturday. I however shall attend and amid the confusion we are in I doubt not, but before this week ends our Strike will end.- Wednesday June ll«i 1833 [sic; 1834]

XXX

On Tuesday evening I attended my Lodge of Taylors at the Bell in Smithfield. In my Report yesterday I stated that Our Committee was to Report to our Lodges the Decision of the Executive as to supporting us in our Strike. Up to Ten O’Clock No one came, but at that time Brindley the Delegate of the Sun in London – Wall, Griffin the Delegate and Knight our Secretary came and stated to us that our Committees had not received that support from the Consolidated Union as they expected and advised that the City Lodges should form themselves into Districts of 100 each so as to be prepared to form 1000 to be at the command of the Committee to divide them either to Work in the City or the West end of Town. There was but 18 present and those amid the dissatisfied manner as to not being better supported created great confusion and the consideration of those propositions were adjourned to Thursday Night. Griffin our Delegate who was Foreman to Mr Stafford – the corner of long lane in Smithfield has now left our Strike and gone to work for Mr Solomans in the same Lane and proposed myself to be the Delegate of the Bell and recommended us all to go to work under any circumstances. I expect to have to attend Committee as his motion was agreed to as to me and when I do so I shall then be able to give a more faithful Report of our Proceedings than from the confused manner we are in than I have done.- Wednesday June 17th [sic; 18th] 1834

XXXI

In my Report on Saturday I stated that on Monday I would Report as to the Proceedings of the Union, but I have not since I stated in my Report last week received a Note from Griffin that I then stated I expected. I have not been able to see him to converse with him until last night and I find from him that the Whole Builders Union through their Secretary Wilcox had decided up to One O’Clock on Sunday Morning that they had No Funds to support our Trades Strike (Taylors) and that their Committee had decided that we had better get work in the best way we could. At several other Lodges of our Trade I find this is acted upon and not having One Farthing sent to them from the Executive last Saturday night many of the men at the Lodges are so exasperated that they are determined to revenge themselves on the Committee Men. As to our Trade Committee Griffin our Delegate says he has totally left them and instead of myself put Staples in his place, and that we are to know their as well as the intentions of the Union or Executive to night – Lodge Night. Tuesday June 24th 1834

XXXII

From all I have seen or heard since I wrote on Thursday as to the Consolidated Union and particularly as to our trade (Taylors) I do not see that I have any thing of any importance to state of it. We (Taylors) as I then stated had withdrawn from the Union and our Committee are still trying to form a Union of our own trade, but as yet Nothing has been positively done. There are now a few Men who remain at the Lodges we used to meet at in Union which are considered Houses of Call, but from all I can learn very few calls for Men come to those Houses and I account for it by knowing that five out of every six who struck have got work wherever they could under any circumstances and are determined not to join any Union again. Thus, though my Reports have lately part through illness been not so frequent as usual I am certain that what I now state is the truth and that as I first stated The Union would fall. New projects are in agitation in many places and opinions in the old Members of the Union, but from all I can see and I beg to again repeat it I do not at present see anything of importance to Report.

 

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Today in London diplomatic history, 1967: the Greek Embassy occupied protesting military coup

On 28 April 1967, one week after the Colonels’ coup in Greece (which was to lead to a 7-year rightwing military dictatorship in the country), the Greek Embassy in London was occupied, by about 60 people, in solidarity with the Greek working class and calling for resistance to the Greek junta.

Greek socialist Maria Styllou, one of the occupiers, describes the background to the coup:

“On 21 April 1967 a group of colonels launched a coup in Greece. They formed a military junta, with the backing of the monarchy and capitalists, which would last seven years.

This power grab was a last resort against a rising workers’ movement.

It meant victory for the ruling class. Ship owners, bankers, industrialists, and construction magnates all celebrated. It opened a period in which resistance was crushed and the ruling class were able to go on the offensive.

The day the junta began I was in Paris. Straight away there was an evening rally with a lot of people, not just students. The same thing happened in Italy, where there were many Greek students.

In London, in collaboration with the British revolutionary left, just a week into the dictatorship we occupied the Greek embassy.

By 1967 the ruling class was desperate for an alternative to workers taking power.

The Greek working class was on the march again, after its crushing defeat in the civil war of 1944-1949—when the British intervened, brutally putting down the left.

Throughout the 1950s the Greek ruling class had sought to modernise the government and develop Greek capitalism.

To this end the right wing National Radical Union (ERE) party was formed in 1955, aiming to defeat the resurgent left politically on behalf of the bosses.

They started out confident, but it quickly became clear it would not be so easy.

They encountered two problems.

The first was conflict within the ruling class, over strategies to deal with Cyprus as well as with the old mechanisms and institutions of the previous period, such as the army.

The second was the resistance which was becoming emboldened and increasingly confrontational.

From 1953, and particularly from 1956, there was an explosion of struggle. For a lot of people the hope that had seemed to be killed off by the end of the civil war was reborn.

These two factors led to an unexpected electoral success for the left. The United Democratic Left (EDA), largely an electoral front for the banned Communist Party, became the leading opposition party in the 1958 election, winning 24 percent of the vote.

The political crisis reached the point where MPs were resigning from parliament.

After 1958, the electoral success of the left brought a new enthusiasm that fuelled the workers’ struggles and their struggles for democracy.

It also brought the student movement back into the frontline.

The GSEE trade union federation grew to include 115 unions. And within schools the left began to take over the student unions.

The ruling class tried to stop these developments by preventing free elections in unions and launching a crackdown on democracy in schools and colleges.

But as the 1961 election loomed these attacks couldn’t match a resurgent movement.

The murder of left wing MP Georgios Lambrakis in 1963 sparked a second explosion of the movement. Prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis called and lost an election and was then forced to flee the country.

The right wingers of ERE were effectively destroyed electorally.

The small social democratic party Centre Union, led by Georgios Papandreou, went on to win the1964 election. Before then it had just 20 MPs.

The Centre Union hoped to fill the void left by the collapse of ERE at the same time as controlling the labour movement.

It leaned on the left in order to govern. And large sections of the left gave Papandreou the chance, hoping that supporting the centre would win some concessions and influence.

But ironically it was the efforts of the ruling class to regain control of the situation which pushed the left into the foreground. Right wingers attempted to force their way into Papandreou’s government.

The king vetoed Papandreou’s cabinet in July 1965. There was an explosion of anger and people rose up, transforming Greek politics for a decade.

For 70 days a mass movement, known as the “July Days”, raged in the streets. This forced the ruling class to realise the only way to halt the momentum of the movement was through Papandreou and his social democratic project.

Within the space of 70 days Papandreou moved a great distance—from defiance to arguing that protesters should avoid creating problems. The Centre Union put down strikes and demonstrations, and put a huge effort into getting people off the streets.

But two critical years passed with both ERE and Centre Union facing a problem that was not going away.

This opened the way for the army, the palace and their allies to gain confidence.

In early April 1967, the King asked ERE leader Panagiotis Kanellopoulos to form a government—even though ERE was not the largest party.

But after both main parties failed to find a way out of the political crisis, the dictatorship was formed a few weeks later.

The leadership of the EDA was caught napping. It had told people not to worry, promising there would be no coup.

1965 had been a crucial moment in the process. The right was in power but the working class was almost in open revolt. By pulling their own forces back the Left gave an opportunity to the other side to go on the counterattack…”

The occupiers of the London embassy were a mix of members of the libertarian Marxist organisation Solidarity, the peace direct actionist Committee of 100 (two groups whose membership crossed over in many cases), and London School of Economics Students.

According to Solidarity’s account of the occupation:

“There are strong ties of solidarity between the radical direct action movement in Britain and the movement in Greece. This tradition has grown out of a number of events, of which the occupation of the Greek Embassy on April 28, 1967 was only the most recent.

In April 1963 Pat Pottle, a former of the Committee of 100 and one of the main defendants at the Wethersfield Trial, was arrested with others and beaten up by the Greek police when he attended the Marathon March. The following month Gregory Lambrakis, a left-wing Greek MP with many friends in Britain was murdered. His murderers were closely associated with the Greek Royal Family and with reactionary ruling circles in Greece.

In July 1963 the ‘Save Greece Now Committee’, an ad hoc group, organised a series of mass protest demonstrations against the state visit of King Paul and Queen Frederika of Greece. The CND and the ‘League for Democracy in Greece’ (a Communist Party front organisation) quickly backed out of this committee when they realised it really meant business. Peter Moule and Terry Chandler were later both sent to prison for organising these mass demonstrations. There were a number of other arrests. Some of those arrested had half-bricks planted on them by police. This led to the famous Challenor affair. (The police station involved at that time – West End Central – is the one responsible for the Greek Embassy case. Already there are many similarities: police violence, perjury, conspiracy to pervert the course of ‘justice’. It remains to be seen whether the future course of events will carry the parallel still further.)

In the Autumn of 1963 the Committee of 100 organised a convoy which went across Europe to participate in a demonstration in Athens. They were finally stopped at gun point on the Greek border.

Following this sequence of events it was only logical that a group of people should come together at the news of the recent coup in Greece, with a view to effective counter-action.

Problems of Entrism

The Royal Hellenic Embassy in Upper Brook Street, Mayfair, was a difficult nut to crack. It is only some 30 yards from the American Embassy, on which there is a permanent and often substantial police guard. The Embassy is in a one-way street and there is nowhere nearby where a crowd could gather without attracting a lot of unwanted attention. The door of the Embassy is always locked and precautions have been re-doubled since the coup. To overcome these technical snags it was obvious that both secrecy and split-second timing would be necessary. Once occupation had been achieved it was going to be difficult to get basic information out. So there had to be a strong liaison group reaming outside. Plans were laid for diversionary activities to draw the police away from the immediate vicinity of the Embassy. The action also had to be carefully phased to fit with the newspaper and television deadlines. It also had to fit in with the Greek Orthodox Easter, traditionally a time for demonstrations in Greece.

To be able to organise a demonstration on this scale, with well over a hundred people ‘in the know’, without the Special Branch getting as much of a whiff of what was cooking, is a victory in itself. People have learned a great deal since the early 1960s. The entry party itself contained a very wide range of views indeed: everything from ultra-pacifist quaker to blood and thunder revolutionary – and everything in between. Many people who had been inactive for three years or more re-emerged to participate in this project. Action forged an unity which no amount of talk could have done.”

Pat Pottle, Michael Randle and two Greek LSE students, Maria and Felita, formed an advance party; approaching the embassy, to defuse suspicions of their intentions, they carried bunches of daffodils… One of the women asked to see the ambassador, but as the door of the embassy opened, a goods van pulled up, the doors opened and a large group jumped out and pushed past the caretaker into the building, running up the stairs [the moment is caught exactly in the image at the head of this post!]

“What the Butler Saw

Entry to the Embassy was obtained by a group of three carrying a large bunch of daffodils. They rang the bell and the butler opened the door. They presented him the flowers. While he was sniffing and admiring them, over 50 people who just happened to be around poured through the door. Others entered through the basement. The Greeks, in turn, should now learn to beware of people bearing gifts.

The butler and the other staff inside the Embassy were told not to worry (both in English and Greek). There would be no damage and no violence. They could stay or have the evening off. The front door was wedge shut. The demonstrators then spread out throughout the building. Public address equipment was set up on the first floor and bilingual meeting was started explaining why we were in the Embassy/ Others climbed onto the roof and hung a banner with the slogan ‘Save Greece Now’. Others occupied rooms and locked themselves inside, wedging the doors.”

The would-be occupiers were carrying a “large quantity of food etc., prepared for a prolonged stay”, according to police notes. Around 100-200 people were later said to be present by police though less than that got into the embassy.

The occupiers had in fact expected only the caretaker and his wife to be there, and had hoped to prevent them from leaving and alerting the police, giving the demonstrators time to telex out messages to Greek embassies throughout the world, urging them to declare themselves against the new fascist dictatorship. That weekend was a holiday in Greece, and there was hope that news of the occupation would spark resistance further afield. Three activists had flown down from Glasgow on the night for the ‘action’, which the organisers would not tell them fully about till we got to London) – as a result they were unprepared for it and acted only as ‘lookouts’ outside Embassy. The occupiers barricaded themselves on the first floor.

However, a number of other embassy staff were in the building, including an au pair, and allegedly the ambassador’s daughters (who the police said later hid under a table). One of the staff present escaped via a basement door, informing a copper stationed outside the US embassy just down the road. Within minutes there were police everywhere, smashing windows and bashing down doors to get into the building.

“Son of Challenor

The police panicked. They had been caught on the hop. An emergency radio call was sent out to all divisions and police cars from all over central London converged on Upper Brook Street. They filled the whole street, causing a considerable obstruction and interfering with spectators indulging in the normal execution of their duties. Superintendent Butler of the Murder Squad was put in charge. The police gained access through the basement of the embassy. They then had to break into, enter and empty each individual room of demonstrators.”

Several cameras carried by demonstrators were destroyed in the fighting. One copper had been slightly injured in the melee: “One policeman rushed headlong into an empty room and was promptly himself locked in it by one of the demonstrators who was outside. The prisoner had to smash the door down to get out.” The injury to his shoulder was thus very likely self-inflicted!

“The police were very violent. So were one or two of the Embassy staff. Terry Chandler was repeatedly punched by an attache while he was held by a policeman. (He was later charged with assault on a police officer!! Presumably if Terry had been killed he would posthumously have been charged with murder.) Ken Weller was punched in the stomach by one constable, because he had protested at the way the policeman had handled a girl. He was later dragged down stairs and repeatedly kicked in the testicles.”

The occupiers were carried out one by one after some fighting and general running amok:

“About 60 demonstrators entered the Embassy. But in the general confusion the number actually in police hands dwindled rapidly. Some simply walked away out of the Embassy stating they were plain clothes detectives…”

All the demonstrators in the building were arrested, and carted off in vans to West End Central police station. The hasty arrests backfired, however, as during the journey, Pat Pottle noticed that the back door of the meatwagon carrying him and several arrestees had not been completely closed, and when the van pulled up at the next traffic lights, he kicked the door open, and yelled ‘Everybody Out!’, and everyone in the van jumped out and legged it… A couple got nicked but fifteen got away! (The Met later denied that this escape took place!)

The rest of the occupiers spent the weekend in police custody, and were charged under Section 1 of the 1936 Public Order Act, with charges of Affray and Conspiracy to Trespass soon added.

“The original charges were ‘affray’ and insulting behaviour under section 5 of the Public Order Act. These charges were soon changed to ‘riot’ and ‘forcible entry’. The latter offence is covered by an Act which dates from 1381. It as the advantage (from the police point of view) of carrying no alternative sentence to imprisonment. The Marylebone magistrate refused to commit on this latter charge. He accepted the defence’s submission that the 1381 Act was anti-eviction legislation, aimed at stopping the illegal seizure of land and property belonging to soldiers away at the Crusades.”

42 people were charged – 30 men and 12 women. At first eleven (9 men and 2 women) were designated as the ‘Principals’ on the basis of being political activists, ‘well known agitators’: famous left-libertarian/peace-movement names here included Terry Chandler, Andy Anderson, Ron Bailey, Del Foley, Mike Randle, and Heather Russell. Police papers from the National Archives reveal police labelling most of these as “Political agitators and would join anything likely to cause disorder…  note disorders have occurred whenever these individuals have appeared in court.”

Items seized from the arrested included “holdalls, tools, provisions; transcript of broadcast; phone nos including venue of a ‘Solidarity meeting’ and that of Nicolas and Ruth Walter”… Among this was property of one Ken Weller, which they withheld from him: “2 screwdrivers, 1 torch, 2 batteries, 2 packets of tea and an ear phone wire and Weller said “They are my working tools. I am an electrician.”   

All but 4 refused to be finger-printed, which was then ordered; the 38 were remanded in custody. Terry Chandler was held longer in custody because he was said to be wanted on a charge of forging US currency…

On October 3rd 1967, all 23 LSE students arrested were given two-year conditional discharges; the following day, the rest were fined between £20 and  £100, apart from three with previous convictions – Terry Chandler, sentenced to 15 months inside, Del Foley, who got 6 months, and Michael Randle to 12 months.

The invasion of what in diplomatic terms constituted the sovereign territory of Greece caused much gnashing of teeth and frothing at the mouth by people not notably upset by a fascist-inspired military putsch. Labour Foreign Secretary George Brown called the occupation an ‘outrage’. Tory MPs called for more militarised protection of London embassies (code for calling for military intervention against radicals, hippies and other lowlives) There are a number of Foreign and Commonwealth Office papers revealing telling exchanges between the British and Greek governments. The Greek Ambassador can be read complaining that “such things did not happen even in Cuba and Albania” and suggesting that the UK Secretary of State issue statement deploring ‘hooligan acts” and demanding better protection for the embassy in case of future demos about the coup.

Solidarity saw the demo as having generally aroused positive responses:

“There was a huge response to the action. Every paper had front page headlines. The BBC led its news bulletin with the story. In Greece the Government-controlled press had long reports of how a ‘gang of hooligans’ had occupied the Embassy. There were demonstrations at Greek Embassies in Italy and Denmark. George Brown sent a grovelling letter of apology to the new regime. Repercussions spread. Instructions were issued to the police from the very highest authority to clamp down on leftwing activities. This led to arrests in Oxford and Luton. In both these cases the charges brought forward by the police were dismissed by the magistrates. Even Peggy Duff was so nauseated by the attitude of the Foreign Secretary that she resigned from the Labour Party in protest! (Other CND Labourites reacted differently. Francis Noel Baker, owner of estates in Greece, came out four square in support of the Colonels, describing them as ‘modest and sincere men.’

The League for Democracy in Greece reacted in a predictable way. It refused to allow a speaker on behalf of the 42 arrested to appeal for funds at one of the League’s meetings. It made no reference to the demonstration whatsoever at other meetings. It also attempted to exclude some of the Greeks who had participated in the demonstration from a broadly-based anti-fascist committee. These are the people who keep prattling on about ‘unity’!

There are several lessons to be gained from the seizure of the Embassy.

  • That many people, of quite diverse views, are prepared to work together on projects involving radical action.
  • That effective demonstrations can be organised without the knowledge of the police. Intelligent planning, good timing and reasonable determination can overcome most tactical problems.
  • that demonstrations can still have an impact, and that internationalism is not dead…

It would be a tragedy if he sacrifices of the 42 should be in vain. The big stick of the police must not be allowed to deter future action. We in this country can influence the course of events in Greece (the 1963 demonstrations brought about the fall of the Karamanlis government). It is most important that the campaign should continue. Those interested get together and plan future activities.”

As Maria Styllou recounts, the Greek military regime was to last 7 years before being overthrown in the face of rising resistance:

“After the coup, the junta moved quickly to crack down on the working class, increase the profitability of Greek capitalism and confirm the Greek state’s control of Cyprus.

The Greek ruling class reckoned that by controlling Cyprus it could be the primary force in the plans of US imperialism and its allies in the region towards Turkey.

Popular composer Mikis Theodorakis and others created the National Anti-dictatorship Front. New organizations also came out against the Junta. Some were inspired by Che Guevara, others by Mao Zedong or Leon Trotsky.

The revolutionary left, although small, would go on to spark the Polytechnic uprising in 1973.

This saw universities occupied across Athens in a roar of defiance to the junta, which would fall a year later. Tanks were sent onto campuses to crush opposition, killing student protesters.

In the same year the crew of a Greek navy ship mutinied against the junta.

This resistance forced factions within the junta to confront each other about how to deal with it, contributing to the regime’s downfall.

The final straw was the junta-backed coup in Cyprus on 15 July 1974, which resulted in Turkey invading the island and its eventual partition.”

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This post was largely sourced from archival documents about the occupation compiled on the Radical History of Northeast London blog

thanks to Liz Willis!

Today in educational history, 1985: 1000s of schoolkids strike across UK

As striking schoolchildren challenge inaction over climate change, we are reminded of a schoolkids action from us own youth…

On Thursday, April 25, 1985 there was a national strike of school-kids, and demos all around the country.

The Youth Training Scheme (YTS) was set up by the government in 1983 claiming to offer workplace training for 16-17-year-olds on a voluntary basis. However many employers took advantage of the scheme to use young people as full-time workers paying less than £30 per week, with no guarantee of a job at the end.

In 1985 the government threatened to make the scheme compulsory, and take unemployment benefits away from any young people refusing to participate: similar to today’s workfare schemes. At that time a majority of children left school at 16.

In protest, school students organised against the proposals. In February, a school in Greenwich, Southeast London, was flooded with police after pupils came out on strike and rallied in the playground. Three kids were arrested. At  Bitterne park School in Southampton, students barricaded themselves in the school buildings while others walked out. Schoolchildren in Scotland walked out in early April.

Around two weeks later on Thursday, April 25, 1985 there was a national strike. Some 250,000 kids were estimated to have been involved.

Across the country

Here are brief summaries of some of the protests for different areas of the UK, some of which is from Libcom, some derived from the 1980s London free radical paper Monochrome.

CARDIFF

Despite police harassment, over 3000 demonstrated. Three pupils were suspended from the Glan Ely High School, and 100 of their fellow pupils walked out in protest the next day.

LIVERPOOL

Perhaps the biggest walkout took place in Liverpool. Liverpool Council, run by the Trotskyist Militant group within the Labour Party, which played a key role in organising the protests, had encouraged the walkout. 30,000 children skipped school, and some 10,000 took to the streets.

LONDON

Thousands of pupils from different schools across the city walked out of classes and took to the streets.
In Pimlico, 500 kids fought mounted police who tried to force them back in the school.
In Greenwich, kids gathering in one school playground, were attacked by the cops, who occupied the school, nicking 3 pupils. Despite this, there was a huge rally in the middle of Greenwich with over 1000 school students in attendance – many more walked out across the borough.
In Holborn 4000 striking schoolkids marched through the streets.

SHEFFIELD

A few thousand kids from school across the city congregated in town, the word having gone round the city in the days before. Your past tense typist was a participant… As far as I can recall there was little mention of YTS in my school, it was mainly ‘let’s wag school, go into town and cause trouble’. It was just after the end of the miners strike, there was a consciousness of general rage and a desire to go mad… We head a running demo through the city centre, chased by a few police, shouting, barging in and out of shops and chucking bins and other street furniture about a lot.

Most of the kids from our school certainly weren’t influenced by Militant or the Labour Party Young Socialists… A small politico group was active in our school, including some young anarcho-wannabes, a couple of generally Labourite youth, not trots. More influential with us, shortly before the strike, had been the clandestine circulation of ‘The School-Stoppers handbook’, an edition produced by Sheffield Anarchists – a manual for sabotaging your school, which was critical of LPYS politics and encouraged pupils to disrupt and destroy the school by whatever means necessary… (Anarchists handing out the Handbook at a school in Bradford got beaten up and arrested by police in February ’85). Our vision was more anti-school than against YTS.

BRADFORD

Parents and kids were organising against racist headmaster Ray Honeyford at Drummond School  at this time, forcing the local authority to suspend him.

NORTHERN IRELAND

Over 2000 kids, Catholic and Protestant, marched through the city centre.

PLYMOUTH

Over 100 children walked out.

READING

Schoolkids held a rowdy demonstration and faced off against police, near Southlands Girls School in Whitely. 41 were arrested.

SCOTLAND

As a walkout had already taken place in Scotland about two weeks before, a demonstration of 2000 people was held on the Saturday.

STAFFORD

Significant numbers from multiple schools walked out, despite being a small town.

BRISTOL

“Castle Park, Broadmead, Bristol – A few Labour Party Young Socialist (LPYS) members stand around wondering if any kids will show up. Its quite warm for April and we’re wondering whether we brought too many placards. 3.35pm, a lone bobby circles nearby. 3.50pm, ‘School should’ve finished by now! Where are they?’ ‘They’ve got to get to the town centre, be patient will you!’ 4.pm kids suddenly spring up from every direction. A rally with speakers (forget who). Someone did take photos and I think the Evening Post came down too. There were not enough placards.”

Personal accounts

A few participants shared their recollections of the walkout in the School Students’ Strike 1985 Facebook group

One pupil from London recalled:

It was 1985 and I was 15. I was in a north London school; the teachers had been on strike I seem to remember a fair bit. We had been on half day school timetable for weeks in previous terms. The heroic miners struggle was still in the mines of many and we were Thatcher’s children set for a life of dole or YTS slave labour scheme. It seemed like everything was under attack. I was also heavily inspired by the black working class youth in South Africa who seemed scared of nobody. I knew I was a socialist as I was from a strong Labour party family but thought the Labour party was shit. I had been flirting with a nutty left group I used to meet on tube on way home. I knew more or less who were the other radical people in my year at school but that was it. I remember posters appearing flyposted on the school wall, certainly I knew of nobody within the school who had put the posters but everybody was alive with the fact that we were going to strike. Some of the more pushy kids were bigging it up how they were going to walk out. I was quieter, less brave I would say. I asked a few teachers, one which I thought was very left wing. They told me and others not to strike. Seemed odd to me as they had been striking why I couldn’t.
On the day of the strike it was mad. At the given hour we walk out. Hundreds marched out of the school. We were met by a few police vans. Some boys who were often in trouble were having a go at them and one got arrested for head butting a policeman.
Then it all seemed a bit all over the place and people headed towards where the demo was in various groups of friends. It was a good size demo and kids from everywhere including neighbouring schools. Nobody signed me up although I kept looking at all the left groups. I came to understand the LPYS [Labour Party Young Socialists] had organised it but was bit confused who was what on the demo.
It took till the following year and a Paul Weller concert to join up with the LPYS. Before I knew two Militants came round invited me to a meeting. Where I found Ruth Willams and other comrades. The next school year I was climbing into a school with a load of flyposters calling for the strike of 86-87. I didn’t do so well as I was chased out by a caretaker and dog, which bit a hole in arse of my trousers, luckerly my diary was in my back pocket, still have it today. I jumped over the fence and ran like hell – Great first solo political activity. Been active ever since….

Another participant recalled:

I can’t believe next year will be the 30th Anniversary of the strike.
It was the perfect storm, I think. Looking at David Sinclair photos of the strike in Liverpool brings back a lot of memories. It’s easy to forget what an incredible movement that was – it’s also easy to forget that we actually made the Tories back down over YTS.
Kinnock et al must have been devastated to see a spontaneous mass movement, such as the School Student Strike, have the success that it did. He was too busy referring to us all as ‘silly Billy’s’ I believe. [it was actually “dafties”]
I think that strike had an impact on the consciousness of young people at that time. It’s a pity that my kids are now so willing to accept low pay and poor working conditions as the norm now without challenging or fighting for something better.

 Other strikers at the time also recounted their memories:

I was 16 and at FE college, and my brother was 14 and at school. We stood outside schools with the rest of the LPYS with the leaflets and megaphones and got about 100 kids out on strike in Plymouth. Good times!

I was 14 years old and I remember a woman coming leafleting our school about the school students strike. 1985 against YTS conscription. My friends were a bit rowdy and disinterested but said ask [name redacted]..she’ll do it. And I did! Got most of my school out and we marched outside the town hall. Well when I say marched we tore up the square with banners and chants and just screaming. I remember the school had called a special assembly telling us not to go, didn’t stop us! Made me more determined to get people out! The wretches that stayed in school got to watch videos all afternoon as a reward..but I think we had much more fun! My first political act.

Aftermath

Following the strike, the government withdrew plans to take away non-participants’ benefits: a rare victory for the working class during the Thatcher years.

Unfortunately it wasn’t to last: three years later the scheme was made compulsory. And despite the role of Labour party activists in organising these protests, the next Labour government which took power in 1997 introduced new workfare programmes for the unemployed, which were built on by the later Conservative-LibDem coalition.

As in many cases where people take direct action, the protest had a transformative effect. As one participant recalled:

we held off the end of dole for 16 yr old by a couple of years, as it was introduced in the Fowler Review anyway in 1988, but that 1/2 day strike affected the rest of my life!

A few months after the April demos, there were pupils protests in London’s East End, at Daneford School in Bethnal Green in October, and a strike at nearby Morpeth School in January 1986. Both were sparked by racist attacks against pupils both inside and outside the schools. At Daneford protests led to a 200-strong picket of anti-racist teachers which was attacked by police. Bangladeshi students at Morpeth issued a leaflet demanding the expulsion of racists, launching a picket of the school on January 10th. On the following Monday, they met the head, but some 10 stayed out on strike…a Rebel School was set up at local community centre Oxford House. Some teachers reached an agreement over prevention of racist attacks and the strike ended on the 15th. Racist attacks did continue however

And schoolkids in the UK were to strike again…not least in 2003 against the Iraq war and in 2010 against education cuts.

There’s a Facebook page for the 1985 strike, with more pictures and reminiscences

In 2016 there was a commemoration/exhibition of the Liverpool strike; a booklet was produced from this.

Here’s a Guardian article on this a commemoration:

…and a BBC news report from back in the day

 

 

Today in London’s anti-fascist history, 1977: 1000s battle the National Front, Wood Green

On 23 April 1977, a twelve hundred-strong National Front march through Wood Green was opposed by some 3,000 anti-racists, including delegations from Haringey Labour Party, trade unionists, the Indian Workers’ Association, local West Indians, members of Rock Against Racism and the Socialist Workers Party. While Communists and churchmen addressed a rally at one end of Duckett’s Common, a contingent composed of more radical elements in the crowd broke away and subjected the NF column to a barrage of smoke bombs, eggs and rotten fruit. Eighty-one people were arrested, including seventy-four anti-fascists.

The following account of the Battle of Wood Green was taken from the pamphlet The Battle of Wood Green, published in 2002 by Haringey Trades Council and the London Socialist Historians Group to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the demonstration (Republished in 2017.)

We should say, we do not entirely agree with some of the analysis of the rise and decline of the NF, especially Ian Birchall’s conclusion at the end. The role of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism needs some questioning. And the account relies heavily on the ‘labour movement’ and left groups as the backbone of the movement that faced down the NF, while downplaying the  – harder to pin down – part played by a wider counter-cultural milieu, by feminists, black communities organising autonomously… All of which was important in events at Lewisham later in 1977, in Brick Lane and the wider East End through this whole period, and in Southall in 1979…

The immediate background lay in the experience of a right-wing Labour government caught in a climate of global recession. The Labour party won the two 1974 elections on the back of a left-moving popular mood, and its manifesto was the most radical in the party’s history. Tony Benn and Michael Foot joined the Labour cabinet, while TUC left-wingers, including Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, were brought into close contact with the government. But the hopes of transformation were squandered. Unemployment rose sharply. The government actually cut spending on public services, closing hospitals, and demoralising many of its most ardent supporters. Bitter struggles continued through the five years of Labour rule, but the overall result was to reduce the levels of militancy within society. Society shifted to the right, preparing the ground for the Tories’ victory in 1979.

The most important popular grievance against this Labour administration was the rise of unemployment under Wilson and then Callaghan. In January 1975, there were 678,000 people jobless. By the end of the year, this number had risen to 1,129,000. In September 1977, it stood as 1,609,000. The jobless rate was two times higher among blacks than whites. Such levels of unemployment had not been seen in Britain since the 1930s. Young workers were alienated from the system, and looked to more radical politics for a solution.

The National Front gained from the failure of the Labour government and the general disillusionment with the left. First set up in 1967, the NF grew in prominence though 1968. That year Enoch Powell gave his infamous and racist ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, calling for the repatriation of black workers. London dockers and Smithfield meat porters struck in support of his racism. Although out-manouevred in 1968 by Powell’s organisation within the Tory Party, the National Front was able to stand in ten constituencies in the 1970 election, reaching an average of 3.6 per cent of the vote. The NF grew under Heath’s government, and claimed 17,000 members in 1973, but only really took off under Labour. In 1976, the Front received 15,340 votes in Leicester. The following year, it achieved 19 per cent of the vote in Hackney South and Bethnal Green, and 200,000 votes nationally.

The leading cadre of the National Front were career fascists. The first chairman was A.K. Chesterton, a former ally of Oswald Mosley in the 1930s, who had been more recently the leader of the League of Empire Loyalists, a, imperialist entry-group within the Conservative Party. Many of the leading NF members had been active in the neo-nazi milieu o the 1950s: Andrew Fountaine in the National Labour Party, Colin Jordan in the National Socialist Movement, John Tyndall and Martin Webster in the Greater Britain Movement; and so on. These organisations were all small and all extremely violent. They acted as the open carrier of racist ideas in the inner cities. Partly as a result of NF activity, thirty-one black people were killed in racist murders between 1976 and 1981.

Racist anti-immigrant stories in the tabloid press assisted the Front’s growth. The anti-fascist newspaper Searchlight has estimated that the NF’s membership doubled between October 1972 and July 1973 following the arrival of refugees from Uganda. A similar impetus was provided in 1976 by the arrival of the Malawi Asians. The national press ran dozens of racist stories, with the Sun claiming that refugees were being put up in four-star hotels. The National Front recruited around 3000 new members. By winter 1976-7, the fascists could feel – with confidence – that their best time was to come.

But Labour’s declining hold over its core voters did not only benefit the far right. It also enabled the emergence of a radical left, which would not restrict itself to parliamentary opposition to fascism. The radicalisation of the 1960s was expressed in anti-Vietnam protests, ban the bomb, student struggles and by a growing willingness of younger workers to take militant forms of industrial action. This trend towards militancy was demonstrated in the 1972 strikes which broke Heath’s Tories. This process of radicalisation was to create many new political formations, and give a boost to the fortunes of existing revolutionaries. Tiny organisations including the International Socialists and the International Marxist Group mushroomed into sizeable organisations. The Labour and Communist Parties faced for the first time large forces to their left which were able to exploit the mood of popular anger.

As well as the socialist left, other forces were also involved in the conflict. Between 1948 and 1958, some 125,000 West Indians and 55,000 Indians and Pakistanis had come to Britain. The arrivals were British citizens. Many of whom had been educated to believe the myths which the British state had put out in its own defence. Yet on their arrival, Black and Asian people in Britain were received with contempt. Homes, hotels and pubs were barred to them. By the late 1970s, younger Blacks and Asians – the second generation – did not share their parents’ naïve sympathy with British democracy and the principles of British justice. Clashes between police and black youth at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival saw three hundred and twenty five police officers wounded, sixty people arrested and charged.

As 1976 continued, the clashes between the left and the NF grew ever more frequent. In February, 1500 anti-racists opposed a National Front march in Coventry. In April, two large marches confronted an NF demonstration through Manningham in Bradford, while in May there were large anti-racist marches in Birmingham, Portsmouth and Southall. In June, there were more protests in East London, Southall and Brixton. In Central London, 15,000 supported marches called by the two Indian Workers Associations in July. Four thousand people protested against the National Front and the National Party in Blackburn in September. In October, 250 people picketed the Front’s AGM, while a weekly confrontation began between NF paper-sellers and members of the International Socialists in Brick Lane. In November 25,000 joined a TUC march against racism, and another thousand demonstrated in support of Asian immigrants fleeing to Britain from Malawi.

The clashes spread into other spheres, including the music scene, which was still coming to terms with the angry nihilism of punk. In August 1976, Eric Clapton interrupted a gig to tell his audience ‘Vote for Enoch Powell, stop Britian becoming a Black colony, get the foreigners out…’ Following Clapton’s outburst, Red Saunders, Peter Bruno and David Widgery wrote to the press to launchRock Against Racism: “Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is Black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist… We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music. We urge support for Rock Against Racism. P.S. Who Shot the Sherriff Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!’

All the time, then, the pollical temperature was rising. The National Front was growing, but so were the size and confidence of the anti-NF opposition. The scene was set for a number of set-piece conflicts between left and right. The largest was to take place at Lewisham in August 1977, but the fist important battle came at Wood Green that April.

What happened at Turnpike Lane?
Narrative: Keith Flett

The National Front demonstration in Wood Green on Saturday 23rd April 1977 was totemic. The confrontation which took place between fascists and anti-Nazis on that day, together with events at Lewisham on 12th August 1977 led to the foundation of the Anti-Nazi League and the marginalisation of the National Front as a political force.

Wood Green is also remembered as the first of a number of set piece confrontations, but one where the police, who were later, of-ten in huge numbers, to frustrate attempts by Anti-Nazis to stop fas-cist marches, had not yet developed tactics to deal with physical force against fascists. Hence there was a highly effective counter-demonstration at Wood Green which partly broke up the National Front march.

This confrontation did not happen spontaneously, although there were elements of spontaneity about it. It required both detailed organisational planning and extensive political argument and mobilisation before 23rd April.

Beforehand: considerable planning went into building the counter-demonstration both in terms of tactics and support. The Trades Council and Labour Party members both supported physical confrontation, not automatically, but after debate and argument in meetings. There was a planning committee for the anti-fascist mobilisation some of whose members still live in the area. From discussion it seems clear that much of the work of building the protest was a familiar routine to them and, indeed, would be familiar to anyone organising a demonstration today. Leaf-lets were handed out on high streets to members of the public and Turkish and Greek cafes on Green Lanes and West Green Road were leafleted and visited several times to mobilise this section of the community.

Organisationally, testing of red smoke flares tool place on Tottenham Marsh and quantities of flour, eggs and fruit were prepared. Some activists have suggested that the preparation had a degree of gender specificity to it, which would be much less usual in the labour movement 25 years on. For example, women were responsible for flour and eggs, while men did the testing of the smoke flares. However, members of the planning committee recall that the main aim was not to perfect military tactics but simply to get as many people there as possible. It was the mass mobilisation of local people not clever tactics that would defeat the fascists. Indeed, it appears that some of the tactics discussed would not have worked in the first place. One idea was to sabotage the traffic lights at the junction of Green Lanes, Wood Green High Road and Turnpike Lane until it was pointed out that the police were unlikely to stop the fascist march because a traffic signal was stuck at red.

On the morning of the march preparations were made at the house of a local activist. Bags of flour and rotten eggs and tomatoes were assembled ready to be handed to people in the crowd to throw at the fascist marchers.

On the day: attempts were made to smash the windows of NF coaches as they took fascists to the assembly point on Duckett’s Common. Not unusual in itself, this does however highlight an important point about the march and opposition to it. In general, the National Front marchers were not local people and there was a general resentment, summed up in the pages of the Hornsey Journal the following week, that fascists should not be allowed to bring their message to an area where it was not wanted and had little local support. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the anti-fascists at Turnpike Lane were entirely drawn from the immediate local area. The National Front march was seen as a challenge across North London. One person who had been on the planning team for the counter-demonstration recalls that, following an anti-racist demonstration in Islington on that Saturday morning, numbers had taken the tube to Turnpike Lane to join the anti-NF protest. One respondent mentions NFers and anti-fascists both directing people at Turnpike Lane tube. Fascists were directing people to Duckett’s Common at Turnpike Lane tube station, but they were out-numbered by anti-fascists directing people to the counter-demonstration.

A large number of Haringey Councillors, mostly Labour, but even the odd Tory, appeared on Duckett’s Common with a large banner opposing fascism. A picture of the Councillors and the banner appeared the following week in the local paper The Hornsey Journal, whose front page headline read: “Forty years on, the fear of fascism fouls our streets”. An editorial comment questioned why the police had allowed such a provocative march. One of the Labour Councillors at the time, and an organiser of the counter-demonstration, was Jeremy Corbyn, then a trade union official, now a Labour MP [where is he now?!- ed]. It was not just Labour Councillors who were there. Discussions with Leyland Grant, the brother of the late Bernie Grant, MP for Tottenham, suggest that local activists from the Workers Revolutionary Party were also present. The WRP at this time was noted for usually not appear-ing on broad based protests, often preferring to call its own. In a sense to even suggest divisions at a local level, between Labour lefts, the far left and others is wrong. Political disagreements there certainly were, but many of the activists knew each other socially and were prepared to work together.

As soon as the NF march moved into Wood Green High Road, counter-demonstrators attacked and the march was split, with some NF supporters scattering. Memories of the use of flour and eggs are very common. As the NF moved into Wood Green High Road they were bombarded with flour, eggs, tomatoes and the shoes from racks outside the front of a shop on the High Road. Whether the shoes were later collected up by the shop owner, or whether they were left there deliberately in sympathy with the march is not known. Carol Sykes recalls carrying some balloons filled with paint or inky water, and some marine flares in a Sainsbury’s carrier bag, she notes “the old brown paper sort, not the plastic ones you get today”, and handing the bag over to someone at the corner of Wood Green High Road and Turnpike Lane. She then joined the main counter-demonstration.

The police then moved in behind the remainder of the march and tried to prevent counter-demonstrators from following. There were running scuffles as the police blocked the way of anti-fascist protesters. The police even stopped people walking along the pavement alongside the march. Remember, this was a busy North London shopping street at the height of Saturday shopping. John Robson recalls that “many of us were caught at the building works for the shopping city, where Boots now is. The police have let through the march, but we were kept from following.”

Robson argues that Tariq Ali led one group [the wrong way] down Alexandra Road back to Turnpike Lane and towards Hornsey and recalls telling him that the quickest way to Wood Green tube station was down Lymington Avenue. Robson says that “I got to the station for the passing of the march, but those who followed Ali never saw the march again as they got hopelessly lost”. Even so an account of the day published in the following week’s New Society does suggest that Tariq Ali did eventually man-age to lead a group of anti-fascists close to the NF meeting point. He is described as speaking “from a traffic-light junction box, with a loud-hailer.”

Some protesters were able, eventually, to follow the remains of the NF march to its destination. There were flights between fascists and anti-fascists in Broomfield Park and in Aldermans Hill, Palmers Green. Some of these may have been mobilised from Enfield and not been at the beginning of the march. A sizable number of anti-fascists did make it to near Arnos School in Wilmer Way where the NF held their rally. Significantly this was in Enfield, then Tory controlled, not Haringey. By this stage it was late afternoon.

Memory

Some people can’t remember anything that happened; others recall being there but that’s it. Nigel Fountain, who some participants recall being there, does not recall it himself, but has suggested a follow up volume on socialist amnesia. Tariq Ali has pointed out that this was a period of several years of such demonstrations and it is difficult if you participated in a number of them to be entirely sure whether you were at a specific event. This does suggest that this pamphlet has a very particular ‘take’ on events. Namely that most of the contributors were local participants, activists and leaders in 1977, and while they may have moved on politically and personally in the intervening 25 years, still either live in the area or have links with it. For them, 23rd April 1977 is not just a piece of political history but of personal history as well.

Sexism

One respondent felt that there was a clear, and sexist, division be-tween men and women on the counter-demo and hoped that we were not producing a hagiography [we’re not!]. Photos of the demo do in-deed suggest that the counter-demonstration was male dominated and this may have reflected the general profile of the left 25 years ago.

Fascists

Although we have not sought to discuss the events of 25th April 1977 with any fascists who were present on the NF march that day, the project has been widely publicised in North London and beyond. We had anticipated that one or two fascists, might at this distance have abandoned their dalliance with Nazism and have been prepared to come forward. However, none have. The only record we have therefore of the NF marchers is the New Society account published the week afterwards. This notes that “A striking feature of the NF supporters on Saturday was the number of teenage boys in the ranks”. Of the assembly of the fascist march on Duckett’s Common the report notes that “Groups of teenage lads wearing red roses on their denim jackets turned out of the Queen’s Head like guests at a skinhead wedding. Greasy-haired rockers with hunched leather shoulders, wore red roses. So did prim middle-aged couples, the wives in tweedy suits”. This last group, it may be suggested, were unprepared for what they were to meet as they turned into Wood Green High Road.

Hidden from History

Some felt that some of the things they did were personally or politically too embarrassing or awkward to appear in print even 25 years on. The Anti-Nazi League, for example, still exists and still has to mobilise regularly against Nazis. This pamphlet is a history of a local demonstration with some wider political implications, not a chapter in the history of the ANL. Such a history will need to be written one day, but not while the job of fighting fascism is on the agenda still.

Hence one activist, who was managing a socialist bookshop at the time, told us that he had been specifically asked not to go because of the danger of arrest and the implications this would have for the running of the bookshop. Others told us that they had been due to attend a delegate meeting of the International Socialists [now SWP] on the day and had been specifically told not to go, but had bunked off the meeting at lunch-time and gone to the demonstration. Another issue, perhaps the most puzzling to arise in the researching of this pamphlet is what route the fascist demonstration took when it left Wood Green tube station. The ‘common sense’ view amongst those that were there was that it continued straight on.

Down Green Lanes to the Cock at Palmers Green, took a left turn into Bowes Road and then turned right at the junction with Wilmer Way and the North Circular Road where the venue for the fascist rally was. However, for a variety of reasons – police blocking the way or a focus on the ambush at Turnpike Lane – very few anti-fascists made it past Wood Green tube to ac-company the Nazi march. One that did was Dave Morris, then a North London postman, later known as an anti-McDonalds activist and a member of Haringey Solidarity Group. A photo that he has of the march not only suggests that far more fascists were able to re-group after the Turnpike Lane ambush than previously supposed [certainly several hundred] but that the route was different. It appears that the march continued on past the Cock at the North Circular Road to Palmers Green triangle. Here Enfield Trades Council and some local Communist Party activists rallied in opposition to the fascists. The NF then continued down Powys Lane into Wilmer Way from the north, skirting the edge of Broomfield Park. At least one person who has contacted us has referred to fighting between fascists and anti—fascists in the park itself.

Even less well known is what happened at the fascist rally itself. A report in New Society [28 April 1977] by Gavin Weightman noted that “Two men in khaki anoraks came out of the school, one, a barrister, nursing a bloody nose. They had been allowed into the meeting as observers. Then they were turned on, called ‘commies’, kicked and punched. Some NF members out-side jeered and laughed when they saw blood”. We have obtained some rare testimony from one of the people involved in this incident which is printed below, together with details of a further previously unknown confrontation which took place after the end of the fascist meeting at Turnpike Lane tube.

Perceptions

One of the hardest tasks of the historian is to capture what it was actually like and how people saw things for the period we are covering. That we are looking at an event in relatively recent living memory does not necessarily make things much easier. However, while we may want to draw some political parallels and lessons from the events of 25 years ago, historically some things were different.

Wood Green was one moment in the rise of a fascist movement in 1970s Britain that culminated in 1979 and went into decline for a period thereafter. Yet the presence of fascists in North London had been felt for several years before 1977, they were an uncomfortable and unwanted part of the political landscape. The left of 1977 was much more engaged in fighting fascism than its counterpart 25 years later. Some of this is well captured in Nigel Fountain’s left-wing crime thriller novel Days Like These, published in 1985 which is set in North London and deals with the historic roots of British fascism. In 1977, unlike in 2002, socialists might well wonder if the people coming towards them in the street, or drinking at a nearby table in a pub were fascists. The threat of attack and confrontation never appeared far off, and did indeed, from time to time, actually happen. The shadow of fascism and fascists was ever present in the mind if not physically.

How the State reacted was different then too. Pictures of Wood Green show police shrinking back in the face of smoke bombs and missiles. They are pictured defending themselves with their helmets. There were no riot shields, visors or any of the semi-military equipment that later protesters were to find. But if the police were taken by surprise by the tactics of anti-fascists at Wood Green, so were the anti-fascists themselves. David Widgery in his book Beating Time estimates that even a year earlier protesters would not have attacked the fascist march. That they did was per-haps a semi-surprise to them as well, even though they had planned for it.

The testimony of these who were there, however, suggests that the National Front was now seen as a very serious threat to the left and that the violent tactics employed at Turnpike Lane were not only necessary but would need to be repeated.

How they saw it: memories and assessments from 23rd April 1977

From Beating Time, David Widgery et al, London 1987

P43: “The NF’s first big demonstration of 1977 was planned for April through a multi-cultural inner city suburb where long-standing Jewish and Irish citizens has been joined by post-war immigrants from the Caribbean, Cyprus, India and Pakistan – Wood Green. A loose alliance of political and ethnic groups including the local Labour and Communist parties united to oppose the Wood Green march. But there was considerable disagreement about tactics, with the leadership of the Labour Party and the Communist Party and the official ethnic bodies concentrating on pressure to get the march banned while they held a separate protest rally. The SWP led the argument for direct confrontation which was not, as a North London SWP organiser recalls, at all easy:

we were quite clearly the best organised. We always had the leaf-lets out first, we knew the terrain and we knew where we were going.

…while the worthies addressed a rather small audience in a local part the Front and their police protectors were faced with much more numerous better organised and determined opposition armed with smoke bombs, flares, bricks, bottles and planned ambushes. At Duckett’s Common where the pre-vious year the anti-NF forces would probably have been content to jeer there was a spontaneous move to block the road and physically attack the Front.

…A batch of dogged student lefties stoically chanting the NF is a Nazi Front were shocked into silence by the sight of a squad of black lads accurately hurling training shoes borrowed from Free-man, Hardy and Willis street display baskets. A smoke bomb bar-rage obliterated the honour guard’s spiked Union Jacks. For a moment the police line weakened and it looked as if they would not pass.”

John Robson, later trade union Chair of the London Underground Trains Council recalls that 25 years ago: “I was unemployed and re-member spending weeks prior to the march going around cafes and clubs in Green Lanes and West Green Road, delivering leaflets and post-ers. We visited hundreds of Greek and Turkish establishments and work-places to drum up support for the anti-Nazi counter-demonstration”.

Daniel Birchall, the son of a political activist, then aged six, recalls of the day that “I was taken off to Alan Watts’ house where everyone had gathered to put flour, tomatoes and eggs into brown paper bags. Some [people] were going to hide in the crowds and pretend to be passers-by rather than join the counter-demonstrations and then launch their attack on the NF from the sidelines. Some of the tomatoes and eggs might even have been rotten”.

Dave Morris, a member of Haringey Solidarity Group notes: “I was on the demo with some other anarchist colleagues. My memories are hazy but I recall being involved with a bit of a fracas in the High Road as police blocked public and protesters from walking down the pavement, alongside the march.

Somehow I got through, seemingly the only one who did at the time. For half an hour I walked alongside the fascist demonstration as it completely dominated the streets, protected by police who cleared away most of the public in general. It was eerie – chilling in fact. After getting increasingly funny looks from cops and marchers despite my innocent whistling and hum-ming and pretending to admire the cracks in the paving stones, I sloped off.

I resolved that I would help mobilise for, and take part in future efforts to physically confront and prevent fascist marches. I had tons of arguments with NF sympathisers where I worked as a postman in the Holloway sorting office. There was at the time a 100-strong NF postal workers branch in the main Islington sorting office, and fascism seemed to be a real and growing threat.

However, going to Lewisham later in the year was a real turning point for me – the fascist march there was successfully attacked and then shepherded away by cops to the middle of nowhere… then thousands of mainly black local residents, and many of the anti-fascists, tool over the streets in a show of force against the NF and the police that sent out an uncompromising message: ‘fascist activities will be crushed – the streets being to the people’.

The next day at work sympathy for the NF and overt racism seemed to have evaporated somewhat and gradually fell out of favour. Meanwhile postal workers all over London were taking solidarity action with the striking Asian women of Grunwicks, as company mail seemed to be continually getting diverted to New Zealand…”

David Bennie, one of the two anti-fascists mentioned in the New Society report has provided his diary entry for 23rd April 1977: “We walked to Turnpike Lane where the counter-demonstration was assembling in the presence of vast numbers of police. The rally had been banned but the local council yet was being attended by the vice mayor, the local Labour candidate Ted Knight [a fine battling leftist on Lambeth Council] and even a representative of the Tory opposition on Haringey Council. We met up with Steve and watched the Front march form up a hundred yards away, with plenty of verbal exchange between the two sides. It seemed incredible to me that the police could allow such an obviously explosive confrontation to occur.

The march started off and we were aiming to intercept. Soon I had lost Robin but managed to maintain contact with Steve. A little way along Wood Green High Road the march was attacked. Red smoke bombs filled the air and a battle was soon underway. Everything that could be thrown was thrown at the fascists in an attempt to stop the march. Police Horses appeared on the pavement, if shoppers got in the way that was their hard luck. I crossed the road to give myself more freedom of action. I picked up a policeman’s helmet and used it as my first missile of the day. I grabbed a Front flag, intending to throw it at them but others wanted to burn it. If they had man-aged to set it on fire I would have thrown it, the bastards should have been stopped. We didn’t stop the march but it was harassed every inch of the way.

Police horses separated the two groups some distance from the school where the Front was assembling and then a violent hailstorm dispersed the remnants of the counter-demo. We found ourselves walking past the school and I suggested that we try and go inside. The stewards at the ground’s entrance seemed amused at the idea and let us in. At this point Steve said we were crazy and left. There was some dispute at the door about whether to admit us but we finally got in and I heard a couple of minutes of the meeting. “If they’re black, send them back.” The atmosphere was one of rabid anti-intellectualism, clearly thought was a sign of weakness. Then somebody said, “they’re commies” and we were recognised as anti-fascists, which I thought was obvious anyway.

The mood was ugly so we made to leave but they weren’t able to re-strain themselves, we were jostled and pushed out. Robin, a yard behind me, received a number of blows and kicks until blood was coming from his nose. Some of this happened outside but police stood around nearby, ignoring it. As we left a guy writing for New Society interviewed us about what had happened.

We caught the tube at Arnos Grove but when it stopped at Turnpike Lane we heard shouts of “everybody off the train”. Soon the whole plat-form echoed to the chant of “The National Front is a Nazi Front, SMASH the National Front”. It seems that a few fascists had attacked a comrade with a bottle. I saw one large guy, barely able to stand, with blood running from his face and understood that two others were hurt. The fascists’ compartment was besieged; we were not prepared to let the train leave until the thugs were arrested for assault. Robin recognised one of them as one of our denouncers in the hall. They stood there, umbrellas in hand, trying to repulse us, with crazed looks on their faces, like bit part players from A Clockwork Orange until the police took them away. It was a marvellous experience of revolutionary solidarity against our most dangerous enemies.

It had been quite a day. I’d never been through a demonstration like it and left it determined that the National Front must be opposed with absolute ruthlessness wherever it dares to appear. Any illusions I may have had about non-violent means of opposing them were destroyed in that school”.

Conclusion
Ian Birchall

Early in 1977 a Guardian journalist, Martin Walker, published a book on The National Front (Fontana). Walker had no sympathy for the  NF, but was impressed by its achievements, and believed that the NF could grow electorally, and even ‘conceivably explode into power’. The perspective was not wholly unrealistic; economic crisis, unemployment, cuts and a deeply unpopular Labour Government offered the NF unprecedented opportunities. If the left had failed, the NF might well have entered the political mainstream, as its sister parties did in several European countries.

At Ducketts Common the NF had been wounded, but not incapacitated – a very dangerous situation. The summer of 1977 was marked by Nazi violence; in July racists fire-bombed a West Indian youth club in South East London [This was the Moonshot Club in New Cross – past tense note]; there was a wave of attacks on socialists in Leeds. The police often gave the impression of backing up the racists; in June Lewisham police launched a dawn raid, arresting around sixty black youth. Within police ranks the operation was called ‘Police Nigger Hunt’.

But after Ducketts Common the labour movement was responding to the challenge. The following week journalists on the Hackney Gazette struck for three days against the publication of an NF advertisement. The editor of the print union SOGAT journal told an anti‑racist conference: ‘If I see a disease-ridden rat crawl up from a sewer I don’t get down on my hands and knees and hold a discussion with it; I put the boot in.’ Most important of all, the summer saw a series of mass pickets at the Grunwicks factory in North London, where strikers – mainly Asian women – were demanding union rights. They got massive support from across the labour movement – the tide was now flowing towards working-class unity.

The NF faced a major problem. Though it aimed for electoral ‘respectability’, it was not simply another electoral party, but a fascist organisation. It proposed to make its voters into activists who could one day challenge the power of the working-class organisations. However, if every demonstration were to be confronted on the streets, then only the most thuggish and bone‑headed would continue to march.

In an attempt to reassert their control of the streets, the NF called a demonstration in Lewisham on 13 August. Despite ill-concealed support from the police and the foot-dragging of the ‘official’ left, they were confronted by a broad alliance such as had appeared at Ducketts Common – but bigger and more militant. In the words of Socialist Worker (20 August 1977) there were ‘black people and trade unionists, old and young, 14-year-olds and veterans of cable street, Rastafarians and Millwall supporters, Labour Party members and revolutionary socialists…’ The result: ‘The Nazis remained in the back-streets, cowering behind massive police lines, until they were finally forced to abandon their march before it was half completed.’

The NF did not roll over and die. In September racists made an arson attack on headquarters of the SWP – but resort to individual terrorism is a sign of weakness. If the first two confrontations of 1977 were high drama, the third was farce. The NF planned a march through Hyde, Manchester on 8 October. Tameside Council, fearing a rerun of Ducketts Common and Lewisham, banned it. NF leader Martin Webster staged a one-man protest – accompanied by 3000 police. And following what The Times called ‘a pact between the police and the National Front’, a handful of Nazis marched through Levenshulme. But though the location was secret, anti-racists pursued them across Greater Manchester, with help and encouragement from the local population. The whole shambles involved 9500 police and two helicopters, at a cost of £250,000.

Now the NF were on the defensive. In November the Anti-Nazi League was launched, involving leading Labour Party figures like Neil Kinnock and Peter Hain. If its most spectacular achievements were the big carnivals, organised with Rock Against Racism, it also won widespread trade‑union support, and created innumerable local groups which painted out Nazi graffiti and picketed every pub and school where the Nazis tried to meet.

The deep divisions within the NF, which had been glossed over in the period of success, now became increasingly visible. Margaret Thatcher made her notorious speech warning that British people might be ‘swamped’ by other cultures. Doubtless she drew back to the Tories some voters who preferred Cliff Richard, Trevor Bailey and pies and mash to Bob Marley, Viv Richards and kebabs. But the NF had already lost momentum; Thatcher was merely picking up the pieces.

In the 1979 General Election the NF got 191,267 votes (0.6%), as against  114,415 (0.4%) in October 1974, though they contested three times as many seats in 1979. They held on to their core vote, but completely failed to make the leap into the mainstream that so many had feared. In  Haringey the NF vote fell sharply as against 1974 – in Tottenham 8.3% to 2.9%, and in Wood Green 8.0% to 2.8%. By the early 1980s the NF had vanished from the scene. There were no fascist gangs to attack the striking miners or Wapping printworkers.

Racism survived, but primarily in the form of the institutionalised racism of the police. In Haringey it was the death of Cynthia Jarrett during a police raid that provoked the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985, and since then it is police racism, not that of the extreme right, which has been the main problem in Haringey, though the Nazis have attempted to regroup in the East End and Cheshunt.

Fascism will not disappear until the destruction of what it feeds on, the inequality, poverty, unemployment and poor housing and public services engendered by decaying capitalism. As the recent success of the British National Party in certain Northern towns shows, the threat endures. The lesson of Ducketts Common and 1977 – that Nazis must be confronted politically and physically wherever they appear – remains valid.

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Ian Birchall’s conclusion deserves a bit of scrutiny. As a former leading member of the SWP, (until he rightly resigned in 2013 in the wake of the rape allegations against ‘Comrade Delta’), his view follows the SWP line through most of the 80s – that the threat from organised fascism was low and thus anti-fascist organising was a ‘distraction’ from more important struggles. The SWP maintained this line until 1992, when all of a sudden the view was reversed, and the Anti-Nazi League was revived. Ironically the Birchall’s final line was written as this about turn was being performed.

Fascism didn’t disappear from the streets in the way he describes. Although fighting state racism was vital in the 1980s, for many communities targeted by Nazis, self-defence against street violence from British Movement, NF and BNP members remained necessary. That the police could always be expected to protect the fascists wherever they gathered, and to arrest anyone who fought back (especially if they were black) illustrated where the sympathies of many of the boys in blue lay. Anti-fascists whether black or white had few illusions that state racism was any less of a problem than bonehead racism –a continuous thread of influence, association and common cause could be drawn from the Nazis on the march through the rightwing of the Conservative Party to big business and elements within the state.

In contrast Anti-Fascist Action evolved from the section of the left and anarchist scenes that continued to physically opposed fascism and recognise the threat nazi organisation posed to black communities, workers’ struggles, trade unions and the left… AFA was not without its own issues (as we hope to discuss later in another post), but its presence on the streets helped to keep the myriad fascist sects from gaining much traction…

Read a more detailed and more nuanced view of the Anti-Nazi League in the late 70s-early 80s from a former ANL activist, as well as a summing up of the organisation’s 1990 ‘revival’…

This excellent critique of the ANL in both of its incarnations is worth paying attention to. The first ANL evolved in response to a real threat, and contained many committed activists, but foundered in the inability of the SWP leadership to cope with the realities of the daily struggle against racist violence, and its pursuit of high profile celebrity events… The revived version in the 1990s was a dilettante farce from the start, able to gather hundreds of students but generally standing on the sidelines when any serious confrontation had to be faced. ‘Here come the lollipops’ was a popular bitter remark at this time, inspired by the round ANL placards…

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Its worth remembering the street battles of the 1970s and 80s in the UK, as we see another of the periodic waves of rightwing organising on the rise. Brexit and austerity has helped fuel the swivel-eyed fires among reactionaries of all classes – the Brexit project itself is clearly partly born from the rosy-eyed imperial nostalgery of dislocated white working class, still eyeing ‘darkies’ and now eastern Europeans with an empty hate – handily supplying ground troops for the second of the UK ruling class which thinks richer pickings are to be had from operating outside the EU. The latter may benefit from Brexit – little will trickle down to the disgruntled UKIP voters or crap hooligans of the DFLA.

Join your local anti-fascist group – but keep your eyes on the rich too…

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

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Today in radical history, 1549: several days of resistance to enclosure begin in Ruislip

1549 saw rioting, sabotage and protest against the increasing pace of enclosure of common land across England by landowners, culminating in Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk.

In April, this movement spread to Ruislip, then in the county of Middlesex.

At Ruislip, in April, one Thomas Strete had made himself unpopular, soon after he came into possession of the lease of former priory lands, by enclosing several pastures. According to the depositions, approximately 16-18 acres of ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ and ‘Churchefelde’ had been sown with oats, beans and tares.

This had taken place in March 1549. The ‘honest & substunciall inhabitantes’ of Ruislip petitioned Strete a number of times, asking him to allow the fields to be used according to custom. Strete replied ‘that if they coulde not lyve with oute their Comen there then they might avoide the towne & dwell ells where so they sholde not lyve upon that that he payed his rent for’.

From 14-23 April, the tenants of Ruislip asserted the common rights they had in the enclosed lands, based on custom and tradition. A group of more than sixteen people assembled to pull down the new hedge enclosing ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ on Palm Sunday (14 April).

John Parker, the labourer who opened the gate, was as a result badly assaulted by one of Strete’s servants, so that ‘he was not able to earn his lyving a good space after’. On the following Tuesday (16 April), Parker was beaten up again, so that the same servant ‘tooke suche acorage in mysusing his force upon suche pore wretches that he made his bost openly in the Churcheyarde there before a grete parte of the parishe … that if he had meft with any of the Churles or knaves of the said parish of Ruyslipe he wolde have served them lykewise’.

Fuelled by these assaults and by the goading by Thomas Strete’s servants, the situation escalated on Good Friday (April 19th), when a crowd returned to destroy the gate to this field, and remove its lock and chain.

When John Ferne, a labourer, complained to John Wheler ‘that his cowe lacked meate & his stover was spent’, the two men resolved to put their kine to pasture in ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ the following day, and, on 20 April, thirteen of the tenants took their cattle to the field. [‘Stover’ refers generally to winter fodder for cattle.] Ferne alleged that the field was now common land.

When Strete’s servants’ attempts to impound the tenants’ cattle, the crowd fought them off (actions similar to those which occurred elsewhere during the 1549 revolts, notably at Landbeach, Cambridgeshire).

After a short period of quiet over Easter Saturday and Sunday, the rioters again gathered on 22 April (Easter Monday), taking a great iron hammer to the locked gate. Protesters repeated this ‘whole ritual’ on two other ‘closes’, at ‘Churchefelde’ and ‘Cogmores’ the same day.

This action was again based on collective community assumptions and agreements on land use. Since ‘Churchefelde’ had been parcel of Wyndmyllfelde ‘tyme oute of mynde of than’, it was held that it should also have lain fallow in 1549, and not been elcnsoed and sown with crops. The defendants claimed that it was customary for certain fields to lie fallow every year, in accordance with the season of tillage adopted there (Wyndmyllfelde, Churchefelde and Cogmores should have lain fallow from Michaelmas 1548 until Michaelmas 1549). During fallow years, the tenants of the manor, the freeholders and copyholders of the parish and all other inhabitants in the parish who dwelt in any freehold or copyhold held of the manor had the right to pasture their livestock in the fallow fields by means of their tenancies. This ‘prescripsion usage & custome’ had been lawfully found before the escheator of the Shire of Middlesex and set down in writing by ‘a certen order’ taken before the king’s commissioners, allegedly in John Smith’s possession in 1549. Strete denied that an order had been made and, even if it had, he and his lessees would not have been ‘therby bounden’. The defendants refer to ‘the comen ffilde at Ryseslyp’ called Wyndmyllfelde’, whilst Strete alleged that Wyndmyllfelde formed part of the demesne lands.

Although one of Strete’s servants was allegedly assaulted at Wyndmyllfelde on 23 April, the protests were largely peaceful, and the tenants were careful to ensure that their action remained within circumscribed bounds. Rather than descending on the pasture in a disorderly crowd, they took turns to lead their cattle into ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ in an orderly fashion. According to reports, they showed a strange reverence for Strete’s corn, keeping their cattle to the unsown part of the ground, to avoid reprisals.

However, Strete alleged that the inhabitants’ cattle had destroyed the corn (elsewhere, anti-enclosure rioters had not been so careful: Sir Thomas Wroth’s grass was deliberate trampled during disorders at Enfield the same year).

Ironically, Strete’s livestock appear to have caused as much damage to the crop as the tenants’ cattle. Several of his hogs, sheep, mares, colts and horses had been seen in the corn at various thues. James Osmond saw Strete’s shepherd drive 300 sheep out of the corn and into the fold ‘at folding tyme’; according to William Gayler, the inhabitants had opened the foldcourse. The protestors are also accused of having shorn the sheep for their wool, perhaps as a symbol of Strete’s covetousness and commodity. Similar grievances arose from large-scale sheep-farming in Norfolk.

The protest had a strong sense of morality and justice about it, which may have been linked to church teachings – much of the action, and the exchange of news behind it, centred on the parish church – the focal point of the community during Easter. For example, John Parker opened the gate to Wyndmyllfelde on his way home from church on Palm Sunday; John Feme and John Wheler resolved to act on their way home from church on Good Friday; and William Gayler (Strete’s servant) delivered his threatening proclamation in the churchyard, so that it reached a wide audience.

John Parker thought nothing of opening the gate to ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ because it barred a common way through the fields which ‘oughte to be open to all the Kinges liege people’; the same gate was destroyed a second time after Strete had it locked up. Similarly, only three of the five great arable fields belonging to the manor of Ruislip (‘Wyndmyllfelde’ and the two fields known as Cogmores) were targeted in April 1549, on the grounds that Strete had wrongfully enclosed these fields and kept them in severalty in a year when they should have lain fallow, as common. Poverty and desperation gave further weight to the protestors’ cause and provided the main justification for direct action. The protestors lamented in exaggerated rhetoric that, having just come through ‘suche an harde wynter’, their ‘stover was spent and wasted’, and they had no pasture in which to put so much as a cow each in order to sustain their families. It was this sheer desperation which drove the protestors to resist Strete’s servants in ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ on 20 April. Fearing that Strete’s men had come to impound their cattle, and that the cattle would be starved to death (as Strete had threatened), the protestors withstood them ‘forasmuche as they thoughte themselves undone’ if their cattle were destroyed. As a lessee, Strete may have been targeted due to a tenuous commitment to the local community, which allowed him to put speculative interest and private profit ahead of the communal good. Strete is certainly portrayed as the villain of the piece. He was insensitive to the inhabitants’ plight… he encapsulates the spiritual and material means by which ‘the rich intended the destruction of ‘the poor commons’ in 1549. In enclosing and sowing part of ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ in March 1549, ‘for his owne onely lucre & proffit’, Strete intended both the ‘breaking & intempcion’ of its customary usage and the ‘undoing’ of the poor inhabitants of the manor, who were excluded from the field where they had formerly had common. This direct challenge to manorial custom, held ‘tyme oute of mynde of man’, threatened to erode the very foundations upon which this local community had been constructed. Furthermore, the defendants skilfully employed the rhetoric of depopulation to show that Strete’s behaviour endangered the community in a far more literal sense, causing the poor inhabitants of the parish to fear that they would be forced ‘to forsake their lyvinges & dwellinges’.

Ruislip had a radical tradition, dating back at least to 1381, when rebelling peasants attacked a local manor houses to destroy hated records of the feudal dues owed to the landowners.

And disorder carried on here, though not always with an economic grievance. In 1576, a group of artisans, “with unknown malefactors to the number of 100, assembled themselves unlawfully and played a certain unlawful game, called football, by reason of which unlawful; game there arose amongst them great affrays.”

But trouble over enclosures was to be a sore point here for centuries. In May 1834, nine trustees of the Ruislip ‘poors field’, 60 acres of pasture set aside for poor cottagers under the Ruislip enclosure award in 1804, were prevented from enforcing the strict regulation of the common pasture ‘in consequence of a riotous assemblage of persons’… Almost all those subsequently convicted at the Uxbridge Petty Sessions were Ruislip inhabitants and several had legal rights to the field.

 

Sources: ‘Commotion Time: The English Risings of 1549’, Amanda Claire Jones.

Paul Carter: ‘Enclosure Resistance in Middlesex 1656 – 1889: A Study of Common Right Assertion’ (PHD thesis)

 

Today in London policing history, 2009: RampART social centre raided

As previously recounted on this blog, RampART social centre was a squatted activist space in East London.

The RampART collective were active during the G20 protests in London in 2009, the building serving as an information point meeting spaces and crashpad for people coming from out of town to protest against the G20.

On 2nd April, the day after the main demo/kettling/mini-riot in the City of London, Rampart was raided by police. This was generally done whenever there was a large-scale protest: social centres, squats and activist meeting places were raided, harassed, kept under surveillance. Though especially true of protests associated with the 21st century anti-capitalist campaigns against the ruling class ‘summit meetings’, if you look back in history, police have always targeted such spaces, going back to Reclaim the Streets, Stop the City, the anarchist and socialist clubs of the late nineteenth century… as far even as the Rotunda in the 1830s

During the raid, despite the occupants offering to cooperate with their search, the police fired a taser, assaulted five to six people, delivering punches and kicks to the head, throwing people down the stairs and into walls.

It was suspected that they didn’t have a proper warrant for the raid (they left the ramparters with a document that appeared incomplete.

This raid coincided with a very similar one on the Earl Street anti-G20 convergence space, which happened at almost the exactly the same time, with similar tactics and police violence.

A short timeline of the raid: 

“11.00 am

Police started searching anyone entering or leaving RampART under section 60.

11:15 am

A member of the RampART collective was searched on his way into the building and refused to give details. He was told repeatedly that he would be arrested if he didn’t give them the information.

12:15 pm

We could see that the police were escalating their presence (more of them, different uniforms, forming lines), and so one of us went outside to confer with them and to be amenable to their interest in Rampart. He told them that if they produced a warrant we would let them in through the front door, but he was ignored.

12:30 pm

The police raided the building, smashing in the door from the roof and the front door on the ground floor. We were raided by riot police (wearing black, padded uniforms, balaclavas, helmets and carrying riot shields and taser guns). The total police force at RampART seemed to be about 40-60 men and women.

Ground floor

The riot cops smashed the door and rushed in. Those of us in the hallway and stairs put up our hands and called out that we were not resisting. Alan was pushed down the stairs, (not far as he was only a few steps up) and then pushed to the wall before the hall doorway, with hands still up and saying “no one is resisting”. He then witnessed a tall young guy with long hair pushed hard down the stairs from the top of the halfway flight. He hit his head quite hard on the hardboard that was leaning against the wall adjacent to the front doorway. Alan called out for the police to take it easy (the young guy had given no resistance whatsoever). The riot cop in front of Alan then whacked him on head with his fist, not particularly hard, but hard enough to knock his spectacles off his head. He told the police officer that he would comply, that no one was resisting here. The riot cop on his other side then tried to knee him in the groin twice, but did not succeed, whilst Alan repeated the thing about non-resistance and his glasses. Still standing there, the riot cop to his left grabbed the back of Alan’s head and forced it forward, whilst the one in front tried to knee him in the face, all still with his right arm extended upwards holding his glasses.

The riot cop holding the back of his head then threw Alan through the main hall doorway and then again down onto the ground. Another guy with dreads who was standing in the main hall was thrown to the ground right next to Alan. Alan kept asking the riot cop arresting him to take his glasses to put them somewhere safe, but he seemed a bit confused by his behaviour and instead kneeled on his upper back and then the back of his neck. He lost grip of his glasses and was cuffed.

First floor

Police kicked in the door to Ben’s room and fired a taser gun at him. He dove out of the way. Two cops jumped on him, punched him in the face, kneed him in the back and kicked in the back of his head twice, all the while constantly shouting and screaming that he was “an anarchist cunt.” He was taken to the next door room where there were other people. An officer from the oracle unit num “hf 915” looked at them all and singled Ben out for arrest for criminal violence and damage.

Second floor

There were seven people on the second floor, five in one room and two others in another room. The room with five people was near the stairs to the roof. People were seated around a table having coffee. The police smashed down the door and a cop stormed in pointing a taser gun at us and screaming “get down!”, “get down!” Peter witnessed a cop punch Paolo on the left side of his face.

G asked “What is this for?” A police officer replied “For yesterday” (April 1 G20 protests) and then explained we were not under arrest but just detained. D was told that they were looking for “people involved in the incidents at Bishopsgate the day before” and that they had “intelligence” that they were in the building in Rampart Street.

At one point, D heard a cop radio that there were two women in the room. One female officer turned up and attended to one of the women. The other woman was guarded by a man but later searched by the woman.

All floors

Everyone was hand cuffed with a mix of plastic strap cuffs and actual handcuffs. The police asked for our details. We were detained for about 1.5 hours. It was scary and humiliating. The police “banter” throughout was derogatory. At one point, D caught snatches of a conversation in which they were implying that they were pleased that a demonstrator had died during the protests the previous day. We were filmed and photographed front and back, with attention to our footwear.

2.00 pm

Police leave RampART after arresting three to four people, all of whom were released 10-12 hours afterwards. Police confiscated their clothes. It appears as though no charges were laid as a result of this raid.

RampART was evicted later that year.

Here’s an account of policing of the G20

 

Today in radical history, 1649: the ‘Diggers’ take over common land, St George’s Hill

“In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another..

…we begin to Digge upon George-Hill, to eate our Bread together by righteous labour, and sweat of our browes, It was shewed us by Vision in Dreams, and out of Dreams, That that should be the Place we should begin upon; And though that Earth in view of Flesh, be very barren, yet we should trust the Spirit for a blessing. And that not only this Common, or Heath should be taken in and Manured by the People, but all the Commons and waste Ground in England, and in the whole World, shall be taken in by the People in righteousness, not owning any Propriety; but taking the Earth to be a Common Treasury, as it was first made for all.”
(The True Levellers Standard Advanced, 1649)

On April 1st 1649, a small group of men and women moved onto wasteland at St George’s Hill, near Weybridge, in the parish of Walton-on-Thames in north Surrey, and began to dig over the land and plant vegetables.

This followed a brief prelude when on a Sunday, (either a few days before, or on April 1st itself) several soldiers had invaded the parish church at Walton, startling the congregation by announcing that the Sabbath, tithes, ministers, magistrates and the bible were all abolished. To disrupt the pious sermons of the parish was shocking; just as outrageous to religion was to disrupt the Sabbath by digging the land. The group carrying out such actions knew they were flaunting their questioning of conventional religious practice, as well as challenging the ‘common’ assumptions about use of land. Pun intended.

On April 2nd, several other people arrived to join them, and they continued to dig and pant for several weeks. Although in number they amounted to 30-40 people, they confidently predicted that they would soon be joined by 5000 more…

Based on their proclamations and Gerard Winstanley’s writings, the ethos of the group can be said to be a roughly egalitarian agrarian communism: they advocated the taking over of waste lands of the manors, by the poor, to be worked collectively, to grow food and raise animals, to feed all, for need, not profit.

The enclosure of common land – fencing off open fields, waste and woodland, for more intensive pasturing of sheep or more intensive agriculture, by landowners or their tenants – had become a major grievance in English rural society. Lords of the Manors, newer aspiring farmers seeking profits and speculators were enriching themselves by shutting out people who had traditionally used common land to graze animals, collect wood and other fuel, and gather foodstuffs. The loss of this access was catastrophic for many in rural communities, especially the poorest, for whom these customary rights formed a part of their precarious subsistence.

Revolt and protest against enclosure had been increasing for a hundred years, but social and economic change had strengthened the pressure to enclose and ‘improve’. The economic upheavals that contributed to and were then reinforced by the English Civil War laid even more pressure in the rural poor.

Hand in hand with desperation, the civil war was a product of, and also unleashed a further flood of, a spread of new rebellious ideas about religion, social order, and the rights or liberties of wider and wider sections of society. Everything came into question, as a broad alliance of religious non-conformists, rising classes seeking more power, and opponents of arbitrary royal rule rebelled against the monarchy. The floodgates opened, censorship collapsed, crowds began bringing radical politics into the streets as well as the print shops.

Opposition to the aristocratic and mercantile control of the land, fundamental to daily existence, was bound to come into question too. Royal lands previously enclosed but under parliamentary control were thrown open or raided by crowds for food. And as the civil war came to an end, the radical ideas that had emerged, often among the soldier-citizens of the New Model Army, found themselves expressed as ground-breaking thought and action on how land should be controlled, worked- and for whose benefit.

The group who took over St George’s Hill called themselves ‘True Levellers’, but we’re derogatively nick-named ‘Diggers’ – both names referencing both the current Leveller movement for political change, and previous social movements which had challenged enclosure of common land, in the ‘Midlands Revolt’ of 1607. Their adoption of the Leveller moniker upset the leadership of the Leveller group in London, who made it clear in several publications that they were not for the expropriation of anyone’s property, and not fully for the full emancipation of the social classes the ‘diggers’ were addressing and to some extent representing. In effect, that they weren’t up for ‘levelling’ at all… However, the Levellers we’re not united on the question of land; some of the agitator petitions had called for reversal of enclosures, and in other Leveller tracts more sympathetic mentions are made of opening up the commons. The pro-Leveller newspaper, the Moderate, printed the ‘True Levellers’ manifesto in full and uncritically. Later, after their political defeat by Cromwell, the Levellers were to stress resistance to enclosures more fully in their programs.

They may have chosen their local common and waste to dig on, but the site was perfectly placed to make the news and arouse both support and hostility. Close to London; close also to Windsor Great Forest, where hundreds of people had raided the king’s deer since the beginning of the civil war. Close to the routes from the capital to Portsmouth, where news travelled fast. Near to Kingston, a radical centre in religion and politics for several years before and after, with a long puritan tradition and a recent stronghold of the New Model Army in their fight against parliamentary moderates in 1647…

From the beginning of their project, however, thy encountered the violent opposition of some local residents. Over the first few weeks of the colony’s life, they were raided and attacked by mobs, sometimes numbering over 100, who burned houses they had built, stole and destroyed their tools, forcibly dragged some of the ‘diggers’ to Walton Church where they were assaulted and abused.

The local landowners, led by Francis Drake, lord of the Manor of Walton, John Platt, lord of the Manor of Cobham, and Sit Anthony Vincent, lord of the Manor of Stoke d’Abernon, co-ordinated attacks on the ‘diggers’.

News of the commune spread quickly: by April 14th, only two weeks after they had launched their experiment, the leaders of the Levellers in London issued a manifesto, in which, despite not mentioning the St George’s Hill events, saw them refuting any links to those who would ‘level all men’s estates’. Opponents of the Levellers were clearly seizing the chance of associating them with the communists in Surrey to attempt to scare people into backing off from supporting them. It shows the limit of the Leveller programme, and their organisational weakness at the time, that they feared the association and took steps to distance themselves from the ‘True Levellers’.

Later in April, one or more of the ‘diggers’ again invaded the church at Walton, filling the pulpit with briars and thorns to prevent the parson from preaching…

Despite the attacks, the St George’s Hill commune continued. Their activities had brought them to national prominence – on April 16th the group were discussed in the Council of State, after Henry Sanders of Walton informed the Council of their actions.

“On Sunday night last there was one Everard, once of the army but was cashiered, who termeth himself a prophet, one Stewer (Star) and Coulton and two more, all living in Cobham, came to St George’s Hill in Surrey and began to dig on that side of the hill next to Campe Close, and sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans. On Monday following they were there again, being increased in their number and on the next day, being Tuesday, they fired the heath and burned at least 40 rood of heath, which is a very great prejudice to the Towne. On Friday last they came again, between twenty and thirty, and wrought all day at digging. They did then intend to have two or three ploughs at work, but they had not furnished themselves with seed-corn, which they did on Saturday at Kingston. They invite all to come and help them, and promise them meat, drink and clothes. They do threaten to pull down and level al park pales, and lay open, and intend to plant there very shortly. They give out they will be four or five thousand within ten days, and threaten the neighbouring people there, that they will make them all come to the hills and work; and forewarn them suffering their cattle to come near the plantation; if they do, they will cut their legs off. It is feared they have some design in hand.”

The Council (whose president, John Bradshaw, might have been thought biased – he owned the old manor house of Walton) wrote to General Fairfax, commander of the New Model Army, suggesting he took action against the group, on the grounds that

“although the pretence of their being there by them avowed may seeme very ridiculous yet that conflux of people may bee a beginning whence things of a greater and more dangerous consequence may grow to a disturbance of the peace and quiet of the commonwealth.”

Ie – this example might spread…

The Council also ordered the Justices of the Peace in Surrey

“… to send for the contrivers or promoters of those riotous meetings and to proceed against them…”

Two troops of mounted soldiers were ordered to Kingston, to investigate and put down any trouble. Their captain, Gladman, reported three days later to Fairfax that Gerard Winstanley and William Everard had agreed to come to London to explain their actions to the General. Gladman himself seems to have visited the commune at this time, and thought the Council was over-reacting.

On Friday 20th April, Everard and Winstanley appeared before Fairfax, refusing to remove their hats as assign they had no respect for social rank. Everard declared that since the Norman Conquest, England had lived under a tyranny more ruthless than the Israelites endured in captivity in Egypt; but that God had revealed to the poor that their deliverance was at hand, and that they would soon be free to enjoy the fruits of the Earth. Everard reported that he had had a vision, in which he had been commanded to “arise and dig and plant the earth and receive the fruits thereof.” The two men denied that they had any intention of seizing anyone else’s property and destroying enclosures, but were only claiming the commons, the rightful possessions of the poor. These they would work collectively, seeking to relieve the distressed. They did, however, give voice to their hope that the poor throughout the land would follow their example and take over common land, and named Hounslow, Hampstead Heath and Newmarket as places where they felt groups would shortly follow their lead. And though they refuted allegations that they were out to seize the lands of the wealthy, they did confidently assert that they believed soon that people would give up their property voluntarily, joining with them in community. Everard declared that they would not use force even in self-defence.

On the same day as this interview with Fairfax, April 20th, the group issued a manifesto, The True Levellers Standard Advanced, or the State of Community opened and presented to the Sons of Men.

The True Levellers’ ideas

The True Levellers Standard presents the True Levellers’ political and social program very much through what seem like a religious and mystical prism; as did many of the tracts and pamphlets of the civil war years. The Christian heritage of all the radicals was a common launching point; in the preaching and writings of the 1640s and 50s the texts of the bible are opened up to a flowering of a thousand interpretations, many of with them carrying subversive and ground-breaking thoughts…

The pamphlet takes the biblical idea of the Earth as God’s gift to all, equally, and turns it into social commentary, echoing John Ball in the Peasants Revolt, who had preached ‘When Adam delved and Eve Span, Who was then the gentleman?’ – God had intended no man to be lord over others. Greedy men had, by force and violence, set themselves up as lords over their fellows and over the earth.

“And hereupon, The Earth (which was made to be a Common Treasury of relief for all, both Beasts and Men) was hedged in to In-closures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made Servants and Slaves: And that Earth that is within this Creation made a Common Store-house for all, is bought and sold, and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured, as if he were a respector of persons, delighting int he comfortable Livelihoods of some, and rejoycing in the miserable povertie and straits of others. From the beginning it was not so.” (The True Levellers Standard Advanced)

Private property is described as the original sin: “For it is shewed us, That so long as we, That so long as we, or any other, doth own the Earth to be the peculier Interest of Lords and Landlords, and not common to others as well as them, we own the Curse, and holds the Creation under bondage; and so long as we or any other doth own Landlords and Tennants, for one to call the Land his, or another to hire it of him, or for one to give hire, and for another to work for hire; this is to dishonour the work of Creation; as if the righteous Creator should have respect to persons, and therefore made the Earth for some, and not for all: And so long as we, or any other maintain this Civil Propriety, we consent still to hold the Creation down under that bondage it groans under, and so we should hinder the work of Restoration, and sin against Light that is given into us, and so through fear of the flesh man, lose our peace.

And that this Civil Propriety is the Curse, is manifest thus, Those that Buy and Sell Land, and are landlords, have got it either by Oppression, or Murther, or Theft; and all landlords lives in the breach of the Seventh and Eighth Commandements, Thous shalt not steal, nor kill”

… while Christ and the early Christians had shared their goods and labour: ”It is shewed us, That all the Prophecies, Visions, and Revelations of Scriptures, of Prophets, and Apostles, concerning the calling of the Jews, the Restauration of Israel; and making of that People, the Inheritors of the whole Earth; doth all seat themselves in this Work of making the Earth a Common Treasury; as you may read… And when the Son of man, was gone from the Apostles, his Spirit descended upon the Apostles and Brethren, as they were waiting at Jerusalem; and Rich men sold their Possessions, and gave part to the Poor; and no man said, That ought that he possessed was his own, for they had all things Common, Act. 4.32”

But the time was coming when equal and free enjoyment of the earth would be restored, when the mastery of the landlords would be set down.

In seeing their actions on the commons as the beginning of that restoration of the earth as a Common Treasury, the ‘diggers’ also hail the Millennium – the impending return of Jesus, prophesied in the Book of Revelations, when earthly authority would be set down and a thousand-year rule of the saints begin. Almost all the civil war radicals thought the Millennium almost upon them; things began to get dangerous for the powers that be when, like the millenarians of the middle ages, the sects started to see themselves as the instruments who would bring the change about…

“But when once the Earth becomes a Common Treasury again, as it must, for all the Prophesies of Scriptures and Reason are Circled here in this Community, and mankind must have the Law of Righteousness once more writ in his heart, and all must be made of one heart, and one mind. Then this Enmity in all Lands will cease, for none shall dare to seek a Dominion over others, neither shall any dare to kill another, nor desire more of the Earth then another; for he that will rule over, imprison, oppresse, and kill his fellow Creatures, under what pretence soever, is a destroyer of the Creation, and an actor of the Curse, and walks contrary to the rule of righteousnesse: (Do, as you would have others do to you; and love your Enemies, not in words, but in actions).”

War and force developed, and continued to exist, only to defend private property:

“… wherefore is it that there is such Wars and rumours of Wars in the Nations of the Earth? and wherefore are men so mad to destroy one another? But only to uphold Civil propriety of Honor, Dominion and Riches one over another, which is the curse the Creation groans under, waiting for deliverance.”

In response to force, the True Levellers Standard Advanced firmly states the group’s position as one of passive resistance, of Pacifism and healing the divide with collective labour:

“And we shall not do this by force of Arms, we abhorre it, For that is the work of the Midianites, to kill one another; But by obeying the Lord of Hosts, who hath Revealed himself in us, and to us, by labouring the Earth in righteousness together, to eate our bread with the sweat of our brows, neither giving hire, nor taking hire, but working together, and eating together, as one man, or as one house of Israel restored from Bondage; and so by the power of Reason, the Law of righteousness in us, we endeavour to lift up the Creation from that bondage of Civil Propriety, which it groans under.”

Oppression is analysed as being not only down to some men raising themselves up to command others, but the rest accepting this, seeing themselves as unworthy and lesser… The rulers and the ruled both collude to allow the inequality to continue; in revolt against this, he asserts a social duty NOT to work for the rich: “This Declares likewise to all Laborers, or such as are called Poor people, that they shall not dare to work for Hire, for any Landlord, or for any that is lifted up above others; for by their labours, they have lifted up Tyrants and Tyranny; and by denying to labor for Hire, they shall pull them down again. He that works for another, either for Wages, or to pay him Rent, works unrighteously, and still lifts up the Curse; but they that are resolved to work and eat together, making the Earth a Common Treasury, doth joyn hands with Christ, to lift up the Creation from Bondage, and restores all things from the Curse.”

The ‘Standard’ strikingly references the sufferings of the civil war, the promises of liberty made by parliamentary leaders to enlist support from the common folk – promises broken:

“O thou Powers of England, though thou hast promised to make this People a Free People, yet thou hast so handled the matter, through thy self-seeking humour, That thou has wrapped us up more in bondage, and oppression lies heavier upon us; not only bringing thy fellow Creatures, the Commoners, to a morsel of Bread, but by confounding all sorts of people by thy Government, of doing and undoing.

First, Thou hast made the people to take a Covenant and Oaths to endeavour a Reformation, and to bring in Liberty every man in his place; and yet while a man is in pursuing of that Covenant, he is imprisoned and oppressed by thy Officers, Courts, and Justices, so called.

Thou hast made Ordinances to cast down Oppressing, Popish, Episcopal, Self-willed and Prerogative Laws; yet we see, That Self-wil and Prerogative power, is the great standing Law, that rules all in action, and others in words.

Thou hast made many promises and protestations to make the Land a Free Nation: And yet at this very day, the same people, to whom thou hast made such Protestatins of Liberty, are oppressed by thy Courts, Sizes, Sessions, by thy Justices and Clarks of the Peace, so called, Bayliffs, Committees, are imprisoned, and forced to spend that bread, that should save their lives from Famine.

And all this, Because they stand to maintain an universal Liberty and Freedom, which not only is our Birthright, which our Maker gave us, but which thou hast promised to restore unto us, from under the former oppressing Powers that are gone before, and which likewise we have bought with our Money, in Taxes, Free-quarter, and Bloud-shed; all which Sums thou hast received at our hands, and yet thou hast not given us our bargain…”

(It’s worth comparing this to the pressure for social change post World War 1 and WW2 – the narrative of collective suffering, the hardships gone through deserving a new social contract: ‘we haven’t gone through all of this for nothing’…)

The belief that the time of righteousness was almost upon them must have seemed justified. Momentous change was already afoot… only two months before, the king had been tried, executed and monarchy abolished. The struggle between the army leaders and rank and file soldiers & their political allies was coming to a head; mutinies we’re breaking out in the New Model Army. The sense of possibility, of boundaries being broken, of the social order of the world being turned upside down was electric.

General Fairfax thought the ‘True Levellers’ largely harmless, considering Everard slightly mad. Many others in power and influence were no so sure, as many of the newsbooks and papers of that month illustrate.

While some dismissed them as “a distracted crack-brained people” (A Perfect Summary of an Exact Diary of some passages of Parliament, April 16-23 1649), others feared their example would indeed lead others into following them. Mercurius Pragmaticus warned “What this fanaticall insurrection may grow into cannot be conceived for Mahomet had as small and despicable a beginning whose damnable infections have spread themselves many hundreds years since over the face of half the Universe.”

In the following week, a crowd drove the ‘diggers’ from St George’s Hill, but they soon returned and resumed their planting.

Around this time, William Everard left the group… Although Winstanley is much better known as leader of the’ Diggers’, because his writings expressed their ideas clearly and have survived. Everard was early on reckoned as the spokesman. Like the overwhelming majority of the radicals of the time, it seems likely that he had fought in the New Model Army – a man of that name appears as a scout in 1643 and another William Everard as an Agitator in 1647. Arrested after the mutiny at Corkbush Field, near Ware, in November 1647 (together with William Thompson, later shot attempting to travel to the Wellingborough digger commune, and other mutineers), he had been cashiered out of the Army. Thereafter he may have considered himself a prophet or preacher – if this is the same person as a man called Everard, staying with the radical John Pordage in Berkshire, in 1649, who later was ‘seen in London in a frantic posture’ and ‘committed by authority to Bridewell’. It may be the same man as the digger, who Fairfax in 1649 thought ‘a madman’.

Everard was later said to have left the St George’s Hill commune in April 1649 to join the mutiny against Cromwell at Burford, but this may be a confusion with a Robert Everard, who was present (and who also published radical pamphlets between 1649 and 1652); although William Thompson, arrested with Everard after Ware, was involved in the Burford events, leading some of the mutineers.

The thousands the True Levellers hoped would shortly follow their example, however, did not materialise. There were some expressions of solidarity. In May, A Declaration of the Wel-Afected in the County of Buckinghamshire (echoing some of their argument and language) asserted that the ‘middle sort’ of the County had been labouring under oppression, championed the ‘diggers’ and denounced anyone interfering with the “community in God’s way”. (An earlier tract from this county, A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, had possibly influenced, and certainly chimed with, the ideas of Winstanley and his group.

Fairfax passed by St George’s Hill on May 29th, and met with the diggers again, and although he told them off, seems to have been satisfied they were pacifists posing no threat to order.

However, the local worthies of Walton and Cobham were surer about the threat to their private property, and again and again they led attacks on the little commune, repeatedly smashing houses, destroying plants and tools, and harassing and arresting diggers. In response, the diggers issued a second manifesto, written in late May, A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, in which they announced they would cut and fell trees on the common to sustain themselves while they were waiting for crops to grow. The wood on the common belongs to the poor, they said, and they warned the lords to stop carrying off this wood.

In early June, the ‘Digger’ community was attacked by soldiers hired by the local landowners, commanded by a Captain Stravie, who wounded a man and a boy working on the land and burned a house. Two days later, four diggers were attacked on the common by several men, who beat them brutally, mortally injuring one. The thugs also smashed the diggers’ cart.

In July, an action was brought against the ‘diggers’ for trespass on the land owned by Francis Drake, and they were called to appear at Kingston Court. Indicted were Gerard Winstanley, Henry Barton, Thomas Star, William Everard, John Palmer, Jacob Hall, William Combes, Adam Knight, Thomas Edcer, Richard Goodgreene, Henry Bickerstaffe, Richard Mudley, William Boggeral and Edward Longhurst, all described as ‘labourers of Walton-on-Thames, and accused of ‘by force of arms at Cobham riotously and illicitly assembled themselves… to the disturbance of the public peace and that the aforesaid did dig up land to the loss of the Parish of Walton and its inhabitants.”

Their plea to be allowed to speak in their own defence (as they couldn’t afford, and on principle were opposed to, hiring a lawyer) was refused, and a hostile jury found them guilty. They were fined ten pounds per person for trespassing and a penny each for costs, but couldn’t pay this, and so two days later bailiffs raided the settlement and carried off some of their goods and four cows (though these were subsequently rescued by ‘strangers’. Henry Bickerstaffe was also imprisoned for three days.

At some point, John Platt of Cobham, one of their main opponents, pledged to join the group and bring in his property in common, if Winstanley could show to his satisfaction that justify their actions in scripture; however, this was either a trick or Platt was unconvinced, as his backing for attacks on the commune continued.

In August, Winstanley was arrested again for trespass, and fined four pounds. Bailiffs again unsuccessfully tried to drive off the diggers’ cattle, though they were pastured on a neighbour’s land. More attacks sponsored by the landowners took place – five diggers were assaulted, arrested and spent five weeks in prison. On November 27-28, a group of local men and soldiers were ordered by the lords of the manor to again destroy the houses the group had built and carry off their belongings. Not all the men carrying this out were happy to be the tools of the landlords – one soldier gave some money to the diggers.

Still the communists continued to return to St George’s Hill and replant crops of wheat and rye, and build little houses, declaring that only starvation could deter them from their mission of making “a common treasury” of the earth.

The church also entered the struggle against the True Levellers. Surrey ministers preached to their congregations that they should not give any food or lodgings to the communists; they were denounced as atheist, libertines, polygamists and ranters.

At some point, the St George’s Hill commune sent out a delegation to travel around and urge the poor in other areas to follow the group’s example and to collect financial aid for the beleaguered experiment. This delegation, consisting of at least two of the original group, travelled through Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Berkshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire, visiting more than thirty towns and villages, carrying a letter signed by Winstanley and twenty-five others, declaring that they would continue their struggle but appealing for funds, as their crops had been destroyed.

These ambassadors were arrested in Wellingborough in Northamptonshire; perhaps because here their message inspired a second digger revolt. In March 1650, poor inhabitants of the town began to dig collectively on a “common and waste-ground called Bareshank”. [a piece of land on the left-hand side of the road coming from Wellingborough (from the Park Farm Industrial Estate past the “Mad Mile”) at the junction where it meets the Sywell to Little Harrowden Road.] They managed to secure the support of several freeholders and local farmers, but faced similar repression as the Surrey commune.
On April 15, 1650, the Council of State ordered Mr Pentlow, a justice of the peace for Northamptonshire to proceed against ‘the Levellers in those parts’ and to have them tried at the next Quarter Session. Nine of the Wellingborough Diggers – Richard Smith, John Avery, Thomas Fardin, Richard Pendred, James Pitman, Roger Tuis, Joseph Hichcock, John Pye and Edward Turner – were arrested and imprisoned in Northampton jail and although no charges could be proved against them the justice refused to release them.

Captain William Thompson, a leader of the failed 1649 “Banbury mutiny” of Levellers (most of whom were killed in the churchyard whilst trying to escape) was apparently killed – in a skirmish on his way to join the Digger community in Wellingborough – by soldiers loyal to Oliver Cromwell in May 1649.

Another digger collective also started up at ‘Coxhall’ in Kent; the location of which is uncertain (it as been suggested it was northwest of Dover; or was Cox Heath near Linton, Cock Hill near Maidstone or even Coggeshall in Essex, the latter being a radical hotspot). Its worth noting that in 1653, a pamphlet was published in Kent, anonymously, called No Age like unto this Age, which according to Christopher Hill showed digger influence.

It’s though that the travelling delegation visited areas where the diggers had contacts or thought they would meet a sympathetic audience. There may well have been digger groups or attempted communes at Iver (the origin of the Light Shining in Buckinghamshire pamphlet), Barnet in Hertfordshire, Enfield in Middlesex, Dunstable (Bedfordshire), Bosworth (Leicestershire), and other unknown locations in Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire. Many of these are listed as being visited by the digger ambassadors, as was Hounslow, where another colony was definitely planned. Hounslow Heath and Enfield Chase were regular venues for anti-enclosure struggles; it’s likely some of those resisting landlord encroachment onto common land were also involved in digger-like actions.

Enclosure battles at Enfield also inspired local resident William Covell to write a pamphlet, known under two alternative titles, A Declaration unto the Parliament, Council of State and Army, and The Method of a Commonwealth, suggesting a radical new approach to land use, which bore some resemblance to the diggers’ program.

It’s worth noting that both Covell and the Diggers did not take their starting point as the re-opening of enclosed common land with a resumption or preservation of common rights as then understood. Common rights as evolved under several centuries of tradition were a complex web of custom, class relations and toleration. Although they had been created by struggle between landowners and local residents, they were rarely simple. Rights could be bought and sold, and ‘commoners’ with defined interests in manorial waste or fields could be wealthy themselves, sharing some but not all interests of the poor whose access was a matter of tradition. Commoners in one manor could be enclosers or encroachers on the common there or elsewhere; some supported enclosure with promise of compensation; some opposed from their own point of view or from feelings of social conscience or desires to maintain social peace.

In contrast to this, Winstanley proposed common land be collectivised for need, by those in most need, and worked and controlled from below. In this can possibly be seen their class awareness that commoners and poor did not share the same interests. Rights of well-to-do commoners would go out of the window with the ‘rights’ of the lords of the manors. The common good would determine land use. This in itself was a threat not only to the landowners but the wealthier tenants and the church, and to many ‘commoners’ as well. It also may have unsettled some poorer residents who feared their own slender rights were under question: these last may have been easy to whip up against the diggers by the richer locals, ‘Look these people will take away the little you have!’ (say the ones already taking it away with the other hand…)

The communists moved from St. George’s Hill to nearby Cobham Heath early in 1650.

In February 1650, the Council of State again ordered army intervention, bidding Fairfax to address complaints of woods being ‘despoiled’ by arresting the offenders, to prevent the diggers encouraging “the looser and disordered sort of people to the greater boldness in other designs…”

By April 1650, the St George’s Hill commune was in effect defeated and the second experiment at Cobham also followed shortly. A week before Easter Parson Platt attacked a man and a woman working on the heath; a week later he returned with several men and set fire to houses and dug up the corn. Eleven acres of corn and a dozen houses were destroyed; a twenty four hour a day watch was put on Cobham heath to prevent any resumption of digging.  The diggers were threatened with death if they returned. A ‘Humble Request to the ministers of both universities and to all lawyers in every Inns-a-Court’ complaining of Platt’s actions, but without result.

This marked the end of the active communist phase of the True Levellers, though Gerard Winstanley continued to write and set out radical egalitarian ideas.

Subsequent centuries

Land and access to it remained a central issue for English radicals. Enclosure gained pace, and agricultural improvement brought in new farming methods, displacing thousands from rural existence. The profits of enclosure partly funded the Industrial Revolution… all these factors led to a massive influx into cities and a transformation from a mostly rural to a mostly urban industrial society. But the grievance of dispossession remained a bitter memory, and a yearning to regain or take control of land remained part of radical traditions: giving birth to the ideas of Thomas Spence, among others, whose agrarian communism echoed Winstanley. Whether through emigration to more open societies where land was plentiful (eg the US), resettlement projects like the Chartist Land Plan, nationalisation movements such the Land and Labour League… the feeling that land ownership, land use and control was crucial to creating a more equitable society was at the heart of social programs.

But Winstanley’s and the True Levellers’ program remained revolutionary – most of the plans and proposals for use of land developed by radials in the hundreds of years following 1649 had nowhere like as ground-breaking implications. Their ideas for the sharing of land, both in use and in its produce, for need not for profit, are still revolutionary today.

In the last century, food production has become more and more divorced from urban life, as capitalism and mass production have altered how people farm, distribute and consume agricultural produce. Land ownership remains largely the province of the wealthy, much of UK open land and farmland is still in the hands of the aristocracy, though huge transnational corporations or utility companies and quangos also now won large stretches…

The True Levellers’ words remain as true as ever: “The common People are filled with good words from Pulpits and Councel Tables, but no good Deeds; For they wait and wait for good, and for deliverances, but none comes; While they wait for liberty, behold greater bondage comes insteed of it, and burdens, oppressions…”

We’re still hounded and bounded by “taskmasters, from Sessions, Lawyers, Bayliffs of Hundreds, Committees, Impropriators, Clerks of Peace, and Courts of Justice, so called, does whip the People by old Popish weather-beaten Laws, that were excommunicate long age by Covenants, Oaths, and Ordinances; but as yet are not cast out, but rather taken in again, to be standing pricks in our eys, and thorns in our side… Professors do rest upon the bare observation of Forms and Customs, and pretend to the Spirit, and yet persecutes, grudges, and hates the power of the Spirit; and as it was then, so it is now: All places stink with the abomination of Self-seeking Teachers and Rulers. For do not I see that everyone Preacheth for money, Counsels for money, and fights for money to maintain particular Interests? And none of these three, that pretend to give liberty to the Creation, do give liberty to the Creation; neither can they, for they are enemies to universal liberty; So that the earth stinks with their Hypocrisie, Covetousness, Envie, sottish Ignorance, and Pride.”

But as they wrote, our time is coming…

“Take notice, That England is not a Free People, till the Poor that have no Land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the Commons, and so live as Comfortably as the Landlords that live in their Inclosures. For the People have not laid out their Monies, and shed their Bloud, that their Landlords, the Norman power, should still have its liberty and freedom to rule in Tyranny in his Lords, landlords, Judges, Justices, Bayliffs, and State Servants; but that the Oppressed might be set Free, Prison doors opened, and the Poor peoples hearts comforted by an universal Consent of making the Earth a Common Treasury, that they may live together as one House of Israel, united in brotherly love into one Spirit; and having a comfortable livelihood in the Community of one Earth their Mother.”

Here’s a version of ‘The Diggers’ Song’ or ‘You Noble Diggers All’, words composed by Winstanley, sung by Chumbawamba.

1999 Commemoration

In 1999, 300 people, under the banner of campaign group The Land is Ours, re-occupied part of St George’s Hill as a commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the launch of the Diggers’ Commune…

More on this action here

And some film of the march/occupation

The Land Is Ours were attempting to kickstart a new movement to discuss land use and ownership and encourage action for social change on control of land… As well as the diggers re-occupation they carried out some other brilliant actions… check out The Land is Ours

Also worth getting in touch with:

The Land Justice Network, a non-hierarchical network of groups and individuals including academics, farmers, housing activists, architects, ramblers, coders, musicians, planners, artists, land workers and bird watchers.

We recognise that present land use and ownership are the result of policies and decisions that have little basis in social justice or in considerations of the common good.

We work together to raise awareness of land as a common issue underpinning many struggles and injustices, and to turn this awareness into action that will challenge and change the status quo.

We are committed to working together using all tools available – including policy writing, direct action, land occupation, running workshops and events, sharing our skills and creating beautiful and compelling videos, pamphlets, films, infographics, flyers, songs, art and zines.

Join us to build a diverse and inclusive modern day land reform movement!

https://www.landjustice.uk/

Read more past tense writings on resistance to enclosures in the London area here

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On 31st March 2019 (yesterday), a few of us visited the Diggers memorial stone in Weybridge, erected in 1999, and St Mary’s parish church in Walton on Thames, where the diggers proclaimed the abolition of ministers, magistrates, tithes and the Sabbath in April 1649… We were remembering 1649, but also in memory of Brendan Boal, a major mover in the 1999 Commemoration, who died in October 2018.

Theres some pix here from yesterday…

RIP Brendan. Cigars got smoked.

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

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