This week in North Kentish festive history: ‘Youling’ ritual took place, Keston and Wickham

Until the 1800s, for centuries, the youth of the North Kentish villages of Wickham and Keston (now suburbs of south London) used to hold an annual ritual, something of a mashup between a fertility rite, a hippy tree festival and riotous blackmail…

The festival would take place during Rogation, several days of prayer and fasting, when farmers would also often have their crops blessed by a priest. (Rogation was also associated with ‘gang-days or beating the bounds).

The young men taking part would expect free drinks or cash from the owner of the orchard thus ‘blessed’. If they didn’t get it they would curse them and their trees. The youths blessing the apple trees is also clearly a pisstake or appropriation of the priest’s role, slightly blasphemous in itself…!

Much of the Rogation-tide activity was fertility-related, with it taking place in late Spring.

Edward Hasted reported: “There is an odd custom used in these parts, about Keston and Wickham, in Rogation Week; at which time a number of young men meet together for the purpose, and with a most hideous noise run into the orchards, and incircling each tree, pronounce these words:

“Stand fast root: bear well top,
God send us a youling sop,
Every twig apple big.
Every bough apple enow.”

For which incantation the confused rabble expect a gratuity in money or drink, which is no less welcome: but if they are disappointed of both, they with great solemnity anathematise the owners and trees with altogether as significant a curse. “It seems highly probable that this custom has arisen from the ancient one of the perambulation among the heathens, when they made prayers to the gods for the use and blessing of the fruits coming up, with thanksgiving for those of the preceding year: and as the heathens supplicated Eolus, god of the winds, for his favourable blasts, so in this custom they still retain his name with a very small variation; this ceremony is called Youling, and the word is often used in their invocations.”

(Edward Hasted, The history and topographical survey of the county of Kent, second edition, volume 2, Canterbury 1797)

This custom seems to have been popular across several counties of Southern England, and was also known as ‘apple howling’. It seems likely that the name came from yowling or howling, and not a along-remembered roman hangover from ‘Eolus’… but who knows…?

The ‘expecting free drinks from landowners and threatening curses if they didn’t get it’ part has strong echoes of the mischief night/trick or treat style pranking tradition, which often has manifested with a sly class twist. This sometimes produces a licensed day a year where invading the homes or property of the wealthy is tolerated, and a limited blackmail of the rich by the poor is allowed (where cops would get called the rest of the time!). This in itself is part of a long tradition of temporary reversal, something between a genuine threat of class conflict, and a pressure relief valve to maintain social peace by letting off some pressure from the constant tension of class antagonisms.

Earlier reversal festivals like the Roman Saturnalia and the Feast of Holy Innocents were more controlled, restricted; in later centuries class antagonism came more and more to the fore.  The European Catholic Carnival tradition gradually evolved a subversive and satirical fringe, with a powerful culture of critique of authority,

Mischief Night is generally celebrated in the UK/US at the end of October/early November, though the Youling festival being in May chimes with places like Germany, where May 1st was traditionally Mischief Night…

To some extent Youling seems to have been another of those traditions that grew up around feast days which an expression of licence, a certain amount of tolerated disorder; the Shrove Tuesday apprentice holidays were usually the most unruly in England, but Mayday (just a few days before Rogation Week) was also a popular festival with some elements of riot, as was St Johns Eve at Midsummer.

Youling seems to also contain an element of Mumming – traditional English folk plays, performed by troupes of amateur actors, traditionally all male, known as mummers or guisers (also rhymerspace-eggers,
soulerstipteererswrenboys, and galoshins). Most mumming plays feature a hero, often Saint George, King George, or Prince George (but Robin Hood in the Cotswolds and Galoshin in Scotland), and a baddy, (known as the Turkish Knight in southern England, or Slasher elsewhere) – these two fight, one gets killed, and a quack Doctor who comes to restore the dead man to life. Other characters include: Old Father Christmas, who introduces some plays, the Fool and Beelzebub or Little Devil Doubt (who demands money from the audience).

Mumming was often performed in the street but more usually during visits to houses and pubs, or at festivals, often at Christmas, Easter or on Plough Monday, more rarely on Hallowe’en or All Souls’ Day. The collection of money is crucial, in which the practice may be compared with other customs such as those of Halloween, Bonfire Night, wassailing, pace egging and first-footing at new year.

The word mummer  is likely to be associated with Early New High German mummer (“disguised person”) and vermummen (“to wrap up, to disguise, to mask ones faces”)… Mumming groups often disguised themselves, wearing masks or face-obscuring hats, or blackening or painting their faces. In 1418 a law was passed forbidding “mumming, plays, interludes or any other disguisings with any feigned beards, painted visors, deformed or coloured visages in any wise, upon pain of imprisonment”. Some mummers and guisers, however, have no facial disguise at all.

Mumming was, basically, it seems, a way of raising money – the play was often toured round the big houses by poorer folk. Most Southern English versions end with the entrance of “Little Johnny Jack his wife and family on his back”. Johnny, traditionally played by the youngest mummer in the group, first asks for food and then more urgently for money. Johnny Jack’s wife and family were either dolls in a model house or sometimes a picture.

Mumming spread from the British Isles to a number of former British colonies, notably the Caribbean and the US.

In the US, early migrant traditions in the English speaking colonies merged the custom of ‘mumming’, Mischief Night, Saturnalia’s masked charivari, but also evolved some lovely elements of pure class extortion. In Boston, Massachusetts, in the late eighteenth century, ‘Anticks’, lower class mummers, “a set of the lowest blackguards… disguised in filthy clothes and offtimes with masked faces, went from house to house in large companies” and pretty much forced their way into the houses of the richer sort, performing part of the traditional mummers’ play, with insults and menaces:

“The only way to get rid of them was to give them money, and listen patiently to a foolish dialogue… it happened not infrequently that the house would be filled with another gang when these had departed. there was no refusing admittance. Custom had licensed these vagabonds to enter even by force any place they chose…” (Samuel Breck, quoted by Hal Rammel)

In 1702, one ‘John Smith’ (his real name, surely) was up in court in Philadelphia, charged with “being maskt or disguised in women’s apparel, stalking openly through the streets of this city from house to house on or about the 26th [of December]”, as part of a traditional mumming ritual. [Note the date: within a few days of our New Year, the old Feast of Fools, Saturnalia, all reversal festivals].

Other scattered records of this Philly tradition all record attempts to repress it by the authorities, although it survives in an official, co-opted form as a New Year Mummers Parade).

Something of this survives in Trick or Treat, and has crossed the Atlantic back to take hold in England in the last thirty years; but think back to the peasants turning the tables on the Teutonic Knights, or the edgier carnival practices. Again, licenced it may have been, thinly veiling the class antagonism; but by the 1830s it had been stamped out in Boston. But a Land of Cokaygne could be created, not just by dancing and drinking, but by inverting class relations – if only for a while…


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s satirical history: the traditional date of mock elections for the Mayor of Garratt

In the eighteenth century, Garratt was a tiny village in the fields between Wandsworth and Tooting, now part of South West London. It had little political significance whatsoever and certainly no parliamentary representative.  But from the 1740s to the 1800s mock elections for the fictional office of “Mayor of Garratt” attracted huge crowds to this tiny (now vanished) South London hamlet.

Garratt Green and its Leather Bottle Inn were the centre of a huge rowdy satirical pisstake of the election process of the times. Elections normally coincided with actual parliamentary elections and, at first, two Mayors were elected each time.

Eighteenth-century elections were noisy, chaotic and often violent.  Only a tiny percentage of the population, the property-owning upper class and small numbers of the middle classes were eligible to vote. Many areas had no representation in Parliament, while many rotten boroughs with little or no residents elected MPs. There was huge pressure for reform of this farcical system, especially from the rising middle class, who were pushing for political clout to go with their increasing economic power.

Despite lacking the vote, huge crowds would often gather at election platforms, to cheer or jeer, fight, drink and generally take the piss…

Popular candidates were often feted and pulled around the streets in procession… Not so favoured would-be MPs might be pelted with mud or dung and chased out of town!

The whole electoral process overflowed with riot, drunkenness, theatre and an element of farce, which all classes appreciated and took part in. Elections were the subject (and were themselves riddled with) satire; this found its most extreme expression in the bizarre annual ritual of the election of the Mayor of Garratt, where the world turned upside down for a day to allow comic speeches, vulgar banter and political impersonation.

In its heyday up to 80,000 people assembled to take part in or enjoy the fun.

The first recorded election was in 1747. There are disputed views as to how the event originated… According to a 1754 account by a leading local Quaker, the first Mayor had been elected in about 1690 by some watermen who were “spending a merry day at the Leather Bottle”. A 1781 description of the election, however, claimed the elections had begun about 30 years earlier as a result of successful local opposition to the illegal enclosures on Wandsworth Common, the leader of this opposition becoming known as the Mayor of Garratt.

“The inhabitants of the hamlet of Garrat, situated between Wandsworth and Tooting, in Surrey, had certain rights in a small common, which had been encroached upon; they therefore met in conclave, elected a president, resisted, and obtained their rights. As this happened at the time of a general election, it was determined that their president, or mayor, should hold office during parliament, and be re-elected with a new one. It was impossible that the ridiculous pomposity of the whole affair should not be felt and joked upon. When, therefore, party-spirit ran high, its effervescence was parodied by ‘the storm in a tea-pot’ of a Garrat election.”

This fits with the date of the first recorded election, though there doesn’t seem to be any surviving evidence of a 1740s campaign against enclosures. Garratt elections thereafter were held to coincide and mock the national General Elections.

The fame of the Garratt elections was spread by Samuel Foote’s farce, The Mayor of Garret (1764), and from 1768 candidates often came from London and its surroundings rather than just the Wandsworth area.

The candidates were always poor tradesmen, usually with a drink problem and sometimes with a physical deformity. The main qualification was a quick wit. They assumed such titles as Lord Twankum (a cobbler and gravedigger), Squire Blowmedown (John Willis, a waterman of Wandsworth) and Sir Trincalo Boreas (a fishmonger), Squire Gubbins (James Simmonds, keeper of a public-house known as the ‘Gubbins’ Head,’ in Blackman Street, Borough).

A somewhat large and curious collection of handbills and broadsides, were printed during these elections. In 1747 the campaign of Squire Blowmedown was endorsed in ‘a letter sent from an elector of the borough of Garrat to another,’ and dated from St. James’s Market, in which we are assured that ‘the greatest stranger must look upon himself as void of reason, entirely barren of wisdom, extinct of humanity, and unworthy the esteem of men of sense and veracity, should he neglect any opportunity to testify how ardent his wishes are that this Phaenix may be unanimously chosen.’ For, ‘as our worthy candidate judiciously observes, if drinking largely, heading a mob majestically, huzzaing eloquently, and feeding voraciously, be merits in any degree worthy the esteem of the good people of this land, a Garrat, I must ingeniously confess, is too mean an apartment for such a worthy; for Envy herself must confess, if the above qualifications are of any efficacy, the universal voice of the whole realm of Great Britain would not be equivalent to his wondrous deserts.’

The candidates first walked or rode in procession from Southwark, and then paraded in Wandsworth, sometimes in carts shaped like boats.

“’None but those who have seen a London mob on any great holiday,’ says Sir Richard Philips, ‘can form a just idea of these elections. On several occasions a hundred thousand persons, half of them in carts, in hackney coaches, and on horse and ass-back, covered the various roads from London, and choked up all the approaches to the place of election. At the two last elections, I was told that the road within a mile of Wands-worth was so blocked up by vehicles, that none could move backward or forward during many hours; and that the candidates, dressed like chimney-sweepers on May-day, or in the mock fashion of the period, were brought up to the hustings in the carriages of peers, drawn by six horses, the owners themselves condescending to become their drivers.”

In 1747, the “clerk and recorder” from a nonexistent town hall announced an election contested between Squire Blowmedown and Squire Gubbins (in fact a waterman and pubkeeper, respectively). Both candidates issued handbills full of their own merits and deriding those of their opponent, in the style of political leaflets of the day. These two candidates fought the next election in 1754, again abusing each other and their supporters in their handbills.

In 1761 the number of candidates rose to nine; in addition to Gubbins and Blowmedown, there were Sir John Crambo, Kit Noisy (waterman), Lord Lapstone (shoemaker), Lord Paxford, Lord Twankum (cobbler), Lord Wedge and Beau Silvester. The candidates promised prosperity if they were elected and foreseeing disaster if their opponents should be favoured instead. Beau Silvester cannily stood on a platform of resisting extra tax on ale and giving orders to increase the number of local pubs.

From the 1760s the elections were associated with radical politics, and the hero of the bourgeois reform party and darling of the “London mob”, John Wilkes, and his supporters wrote some of the candidates’ addresses. The candidates usually stressed their patriotism and loyalty to the King, while protesting economic hardships and the lack of liberty for the labouring classes.

Gradually the Mayoral election became more and more seditious, especially in the turbulence of the increasingly radical and rebellious 1790s.

In 1763 candidates Lord Twankum, Kit Noisy and Sir John Crambo mocked each other in electoral contest. In 1768 there were seven candidates; Lord Twankum, Sir Christopher Dashem, Sir George Comefirst, Sir William Airey, Sir William Bellows, one “Batt from the Workhouse”, and Sir John Harper – the last being elected. Lady Twankum promised a huge party to entertain the populace. The 1775 election introduced Sir William Blaize, “Nephew to the late Lord Twankum” and Sir Christopher Dashem.

In 1781 there were “scaffoldings and booths erected in Wandsworth at every open space; these were filled with spectators to the topmost rows, and boys climbed to the topmost poles, flags and colours were hung across the road, and the place was crowded by a dense population full of activity and noise”. The candidates then rode in procession along Garratt Lane, accompanied by the Clerk, the Recorder and the Master of Horse, who in 1781 rode at the head of the ‘Garratt Cavalry’, a troop of 40 boys mounted on ponies. At the hustings, on Garratt Green, each candidate had to swear an oath (their right hand resting on the sign of the mob – a brickbat!), “handed down to us by the grand Volgee, by order of the great Chin Kaw Chipo, first Emperor of the Moon”.

This oath was too rude to be repeated by Victorian folk historians; it scrutinised voters’ property qualifications (the test to see if you had enough property to be eligible to vote) in the language of sexual innuendo:

That you have admitted peaceably and quietly, into possession of a freehold thatched tenement, either black, brown or coral, in hedge or ditch, against gate or stile, under furze or fen, on any common or common field, or enclosure, in the high road, or any of the lanes, in barn, stable, hovel, or any other place within the manor of Garratt; and, that you did (Bona fide) keep (ad rem) possession of that said thatched tenement (durante bene placito) without any let, hindrance, or molestation whatever; or without any ejectment or forcibly turning out of the same; and that you did then and there and in the said tenement, discharge and duty pay and amply satisfy all legal demands of the tax that was at that time due on the said premises; and lastly, did quit and leave the said premises in sound, wholesome and good tenable repair as when you took possession and did enter therein. So help you…

The huge crowds, said in 1781 to be 20,000, but at other times to have been as many as 100,000, blocked the streets for hours. Pub landlords donated funds to provide the candidates’ lavish costumes, and were well-rewarded: on one occasion the pubs ran dry and only water was left, selling at 2d per glass. Local and later London publicans also sponsored candidates and supported the event, to boost their own profits.

In 1781 there were nine candidates:

“About three o’clock the candidates proceeded with their several equipages towards the hustings; his Lordship [Lord Viscount Swallowtail, a basketmaker] was elegantly seated in a wicker cage, which was mounted on a cart and driven by a servant in a laced livery. The next in order was Sir John Harper [in reality James Anderson, a breeches-maker & inkle-weaver] who rode uncovered in a phaeton drawn by six horses, and was dressed in white and silver, with a blue ribband round his shoulder; this worthy knight recruited his spirits every furlong by a glass of Geneva [gin] … After him came Sir William Blaize [a blacksmith] mounted on a cart-horse, with a pack-saddle and halter, and paper ears reaching to the ground. Sir Christopher Dashwood [a waterman] rode triumphantly in a boat drawn by four horses and filled with many emblematical devices.”

Also standing were Sir Buggy Bates (chimney-sweep), Sir John Gnawpost, Sir Thomas Nameless, Sir Thomas Tubbs (waterman) and Jeffrey Dunstan. In the counter-claim of ther candidates handbills, Swallowtail and Buggy Bates were accused by their rivals of holding government contracts, of baskets and soot, respectively. The press of carriages, wagons and horses prevented several candidates reaching the hustings, but Dunstan, “proceeding without noise or ostentation’, arrived at the Green on his own and proceeded to address the electors until interrupted by the hustings platform collapsing. ‘The other candidates then not appearing, and a message being received from Sir John [Harper] that he was too drunk to attend, [Dunstan] was declared duly elected”.

In fact both Harper and Dunstan were elected.

Dunstan, the most celebrated of the Mayors, was a second-hand wig seller in the West End. He was a foundling who took his name from the parish of St Dunstans-in-the-East in the City of London, where, in 1759, he was discovered on the step of the churchwarden’s house. He was brought up in the workhouse, had knock-knees and a disproportionately large head, and only grew to a height of 4 feet … He had “a countenance and manner marked by irresistible humour, and he never appeared without a train of boys and curious persons whom he entertained by his sallies of wit, shrewd sayings and smart repartees”. Dunstan’s lively sallies made him popular with the crowd, who twice more returned him to office. He became a close friend of controversial populist MP John Wilkes. A man fond of his drink, Dunstan became too outspoken against the establishment and in 1793, at the height of the French Revolution, he was tried, convicted and imprisoned for seditious expressions. Dunstan remained Mayor until 1796 and died the following year, allegedly as the result of a drinking spree.

Dunstan’s successor was Henry Dinsdale (Sir Harry Dimsdale), described as “a deformed dwarf, little better than an idiot, who used to sell muffins in the streets about St Anne’s Soho”. He lived in a small attic near Seven Dials (a notoriously poor and rowdy area north of Covent Garden). He was almost as deformed as Dunstan, “but by no means so great a humorist. The most was made of his appearance, by dressing him in an ill-proportioned tawdry court suit, with an enormous cocked hat.

In 1804, he stood as the Emperor Anti-Napoleon, addressing his subjects as the ‘Emperor of Garratt’. This being the same year the French revolutionary hero Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French, this was a nice raspberry – possibly aimed at the radicals who had previously supported Napoleon, as Dinsdale was championed by the more reactionary elements, where Dunstan had been a figurehead for the radicals),

Dinsdale died in about 1810. “He was ‘the last’ of the grotesque mayors, for no candidates started after his death, the publicans did not as before sub-scribe toward the expenses of the day, and the great saturnalia died a natural death.”

The Garratt election seems to have declined in popularity from the 1790s, losing both its patronage by the aristos and its support from political radicals. There were several reasons for this. In its heyday, the whole grand show had been a spectacle for people of all backgrounds: many of the better-off to come and enjoy the rough and tumble of lower-class rowdiness: and even sponsored the candidates. The wealthier classes were attracted to the rowdiness and the edginess of mingling with the plebeians at Garratt or the many local popular fairs; at least while there seemed to be no political implications to the gatherings (although middle class and even aristocratic reformers wrote speeches and used the Mayoralty to further the cause of reform).

Like many carnivals, festivals, fairs Garratt had become a letting of steam, a release for social and political tensions in a relatively harmless satirical free for all. This wasn’t unusual for the times, according to long-established codes, even a certain level of violence and direct action could be acceptable, as in bread riots, when crowds forcibly redistributed bread at times of high prices. This has been labeled a “moral economy” by some radical historians, who identify the prevailing paternalistic social system as allowing for a certain amount of ritualistic rebelliousness – to keep food prices reasonable for example, or curb anti-social, adulterous or marginal behaviour – as long as it stayed within traditional and expected boundaries. Exceed these limits and the powers that be would crush you: as striking and rioting silkweavers and coalheavers found out in the 1760s.

As the 18th Century went on however, not only did pressure for reform from below grow, but the authorities fear of “the Mob” and plebeian rebelliousness increased. The riots of the 1760s in

support of Wilkes’ campaign against corruption in Parliament, increasing economic violence, and above all, the shattering events of the Gordon Riots in 1780, when rioting crowds virtually took over the city and drove the rich into flight, terrified the upper class. Any occasion for crowds to come together became a potential riot situation. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, and the violent social upheaval it created, inspired many radicals in England – and further alarmed those in power.

Certainly from 1793, the year of the height of the radical violence of the Revolution, the Garratt elections were frowned upon (Dunstan was jailed for sedition in ‘93). Through 1794-5, radical reformers like the London Corresponding Society (as well as many similar societies in other cities) were holding mass rallies and pressing for changes in political structures – and often this was linked to economic actions by the growing working class, as well as rioting in times of hardship (especially during the long war with France 1792-1815). Popular protest was increasingly vocal and repression increasingly violent. In this context Garratt was less of a harmless show and took on a more threatening aspect.

Hand in hand with this of course, a moral trend was developing which was aimed at driving society, especially the poor, away from rowdiness and drunken troublemaking, and towards hard work, sobriety, respectability. This found its expression in the mass growth of Christian sects like the Methodists, but also in the springing up of repressive middle class societies such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and many local campaigns which were set up to press for the banning of Fairs and closing other local trouble spots.  Between 1768 and 1855 most of the large London Fairs, as well as many further afield, which were traditionally held once a year, and often became rowdy, bawdy riotous free for alls, were restricted or banned. Morally Fairs and other licentious gatherings were a danger to the working classes because they distracted them from the true path of hard work, religion and sacrifice; the cost of policing and repressing the riots that erupted was also falling more and more on the ratepayers who controlled the local Vestries. Even the very open spaces where such events were held were disappearing, as London spread into the surrounding fields, profitable developments replaced commons and Greens where such events could be held; to the relief of the gentry who often identified un-landscaped open spaces as immoral in themselves, requiring fencing, landscaping and ordering if they were to remain unbuilt on – an ordered park was held to have a civilizing effect on the disorderly poor in its own right.

Not only were the authorities keen to get rid of fairs, mass gatherings etc where the plebs’ baser passions could break out, but reformers and radicals themselves also more and more internalised the drive for a respectable, sober, orderly and educated movement for change. Artisan radicals increasingly saw such unruly traditions as embarrassments to their properly directed political efforts to improve their lot.

This movement developed into the powerful London artisan radical scene, which produced the London Corresponding Society, Owenism, the Cooperative Movement and the Chartism. Although these were strong and important manifestations of the self-organised working class, you can’t help feeling that leaving behind wild outbreaks of carnival and satire like the Garratt Elections, something was lost…

Interestingly many radical artisans and working men did in fact use the structure or name of a ‘Parliament’, in the Working Men’s Institutes and Radical Clubs, to describe their debating societies and political discussions. This seems to have been more of a gesture towards respectability and legitimacy, not questioning or mocking the institution of the Election but affirming it and seeking to extend it into their own political experience.

What with repression and changes in working class culture, there were no more Mayor of Garratt elections after 1804, apart from an unsuccessful attempt to revive the custom in 1826:

“After a lapse of thirty-four years, when the whim and vulgarity of a Garrat election was only remembered by a few, and recorded by Foote’s drama, the general election of 1826 seems to have induced a desire to resuscitate the custom. A placard was prepared to forward the interests of a certain ‘Sir John Paul Pry,’ who was to come forward with Sir Hugh Allsides (ono Callendar. beadle of All Saints’ Church, Wandsworth), and Sir Robert Needall (Robert Young, surveyor of roads), described as a ‘friend to the ladies who attend Wandsworth Fair.’ The placard, which may be read in Hone’s Every-Day Book, displays ‘a plentiful lack of wit.’ The project of revival failed; and Garrat has had no parliamentary representative ‘out-of-doors ‘ since the worthy muffin-seller was gathered to his fathers at the close of the last century.”

The year after this failed attempt to bring the Garratt election back, there was however, a mock election held in the Kings Bench Prison 


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

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Today in Thames history, 1973: Canvey islanders sail ‘Oil armada’ to parliament

In 1973 a campaign began in order to stop 2 oil refineries being built on Canvey Island. It was to last 14 years.

Secretary of State for Environment, Geoffrey Rippon, had given the all clear for a second oil refinery to be built on the Island by Occidental Petroleum, over-ruling his own inspector’s initial decision.

In response, the Canvey Islanders built a grassroots campaign, “a peoples’ organisation and non-political. It was successfully conducted, with George Whatley at its head, at a time when there was no computer or mobile phone technology – so no emails, Facebook, twitter etc. Photocopiers were also few and far between, so printers like Roneos were relied on. The protest group had to continually think of ways of keeping their protest as high profile as possible in the media. This involved amongst other things going on marches in London.”

From the start, the opposition took the offensive against the oil company, choosing to discredit their corporate image. Their aim was to delay the start of building the oil refineries so long that it would cost the companies a lot of money; this was successful, in that the campaign delayed the start of building so long that it became no longer a viable proposition, especially as they were unable to get planning permission for expansion after they would have started building the refineries. But the campaign also had to fight the government establishment and bureaucracy.

Part of the deal that they built the new road off the Island ‘Canvey Way’. Land down Northwick was sold for the refinery and Northwick Road itself was widened to make way for tankers.  But Canvey Islanders would have none of it.

Canvey Island residents managed to benefit from the first ever risk analysis of a proposed refinery project. This officially recorded that Canvey people were 5 times more at risk of lung disease than coal miners. After that, the planning fight “was turned on its head. It was no longer the case that residents or an individual had to prove that a company’s activities were dangerous, rather that the company had to prove that it activities were safe before planning could be granted. Therefore Canvey’s residents were instrumental in the change to Societal Risk Analysis Reports which became the first chapter in today’s Health and Safety Regulations.”

A short chronology of the battle against the Castle Point Refinery

A 14 Year Battle – Part 1 (Janet Walden)

1965 – 2 million ton refinery on 232 acres. E.N.I. (Later United Refineries). Public Inquiry. Opposed by Essex County Council, Benfleet Urban District Council, Southend Council and numerous other objectors including the Refinery Resistance Group. Canvey UDC supported application after being flown to Italy by oil company to view their refineries. Inspector found against application but was over-ruled by Secretary of State, Richard Crossman, after taking decision to the Cabinet (see Crossman Diaries) E.N.I. allowed application to lapse probably as 2 million tons not big enough. Laid road to site and marked out tank positions.

1970 – 6 million ton refinery 325 acres. Occidental. November Public Inquiry. Opposed by Benfleet and Canvey U.D.C. and Thurrock Council and numerous other objectors including Refinery Resistance Group. Essex C.C. supported application with conditions. Inspector found for the application which was approved by Secretary of State Peter Walker.

1971 – 4 million ton refinery on 541 acres. E.N.I. (U.R.L.) Public Inquiry. Opposed by all the local authorities, residents’ associations and Refinery Resistance Group. Inspector found against application and was supported by Sec. of State Peter Walker who said that ‘ a site in a more easterly position would receive sympathetic consideration’.

1973 – 4 million ton refinery on 314 acres. U.R.L. (E.N.I. and Murphy Oil). Public Inquiry. Opposed by all local authorities, residents and Refinery Resistance Group. Inspector found against application but was over-ruled by the Sec. of State Geoffrey Rippon. Massive protest.

June – Occidental started work.


June – Flixborough explosion – Chemical cyclohexane stored on Canvey

September –Anthony Crossland announced inquiry into possible revocation of U.R.L. planning permission.


February – Inquiry into revocation. Castle Point District Council (formerly Benfleet and Canvey U.D.C.) and Essex C.C. support revocation together with other objectors and Refinery Resistance Group.

March – Occidental announces review of their refinery – all work ceased.


February – Inquiry into refusal of Castle Point D.C. to determine detail of U.R.L. refinery.

March – U.R.L. inspectors revocation report issued. Inspector recommends revocation. Sec. of State Peter Shore  announces examination of North Thameside Petro-Chemical industry before he will decide on revocation.

June – Sec. of State will not determine U.R.L. detail plans until Health and Safety Executive has reported.

 November – U.R.L. obtain judgement in the High Court stating that their 1965 planning permission is still valid – Essex C.C. who fought the case are not going to appeal.


Thousands of Canvey and district residents took part in demonstrations against the refinery. At one of the protests, on 5th May 1973, a huge crowd  – 5,000 protestors – assembled at the local Council offices, and took part in a “funeral” procession. Young children wore gas masks, adults smog masks and black

Canvey oil protest 27 Aug 1973

armbands. Members of Canvey, Benfleet and Rayleigh Councils were among the protestors. They surged up Long Road, at times eight abreast, sing­ing and chanting their opin­ions of Mr. Rippon. Among the placards read: “JACK the RIPPON, the ENVIRONMENT BUTCHER” and “R.I.P. – P.O.N.” At one stage during the march oil tankers going to a local depot passed the demo and were met with a storm of boos. Marching to the refinery site, they planted white crosses and laid coffins there. Musician Norman Smith sounded The Last Post.

On the following Monday (May 7th) Canvey “housewives” travelled to London to demonstrate. They were met at Westmin­ster by Sir Bernard Braine, Conservative MP. for South East Essex, and met the Min­ister’s Personal Private Sec­retary. A letter was handed in at No. 10 Downing Street asking Prime Minister Ted Heath to reverse Mr. Rippon’s de­cision and renew faith “in the rights of the people”. It was “a plea from the fright­ened people” implacably op­posed to the refinery.

On Saturday 19 May 1973 700 Canvey Islanders organised an “oil-mada”, hundreds travelling by ship, boarding the boat at Tilbury, with banners and posters and ‘graveyard’ crosses, sailing up the Thames, to put hand a protest letter to the prime minister at 10 Downing Street. Geoffrey Rippon also agreed to speak with a deputation from the protest groups, (this was after Canvey Council gave the protestors an outright ‘no’ to proposed talks three weeks prior). “there was more than one boat involved this armada being just one of many protests the people of Canvey embarked upon.” (Ken Burgess)

Canvey oil protest 19 June 1973

Following this protestors stormed the ENI Building in London on 19 June. Before Occidental looked to build a refinery on Canvey in the 1970s, ENI Italian refining (United Refineries Ltd) had looked to build a refinery on Canvey where the West Canvey Marsh RSPB nature reserve is today. ENI aimed to build the refinery in 1964 and gained permission in 1965 but it did not come to fruition. It was expected to be completed by 1967, but pollution and vicinity to houses in case of emergency was a great pressure on the plans for the refinery. It would also appear United Refineries submitted an application to build around 1971-73 at the time of the refinery protests as Occidental were also taking an interest.

45 Members of Canvey Oil Refineries Action Committee stormed the building in Park Lane in a ‘secret’ demonstration, keeping the target secret all those taking part were aboard the coach. An Action Group spokesman explained: “About forty-five took part. They were a family group. Mr A Abbott Anderson, of E.N.I. said in the past that the people of Canvey were welcome and we took him at his word (“We barged into a board room meeting and took them by surprise.”) After discussion with him we withdrew”. Police were called to the scene.

Eventually demands changed and fewer installations were needed. Occidental had spent £65 million, of which £10 million went on the longest jetty in Europe at a mile in length. It was never used. The United Refineries’ land was also left unused.

An account of the fight from one of its main activists:

“Canvey people fight and win. (George Whately)

This was a massive David and Goliath fight, a clash of the Titans, with the ordinary people of Canvey Island on one side and the might of 2 oil companies, Occidental an American oil company and URL a subsidiary of ENI an Italian state owned oil company plus the might of the establishment.

Up till then no oil company had been beaten. There was no Health and Safety, there was no MOT on shipping (shipping flew flags of convenience), there was little or no information on Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) in a background of national economic interest where oil companies were bringing foreign investment to the Thames-side energy industries. Taking the impact to the local community into consideration and to be an environmentalist were considered anti-establishment.

Canvey oil protest march 14 May 1973

2000 acres of Canvey Island’s approximate 4200 acres would have been taken over by the 2 foreign oil companies and the existing energy companies. On Canvey and in its vicinity there were already:

Fisons – a chemical plant, Mobil – an oil refinery, Shell – an oil refinery, London and Coastal – an oil storage depot, British Gas – a liquid natural gas processing and storage plant with in ground and above ground storage facilities and ammunition loaded off and on at Chapman’s Point and then the threat of 2 more oil refineries Occidental and United Refineries Limited.

There was and still is one access and egress point on Canvey Island that is Waterside roundabout. There was then and still is today no fit for purpose evacuation plan.

The oil refinery fight was a fight by the people for the people that started with 4 people in my kitchen.

That day I was going to work totally oblivious of what was going on around me, wrapped up in my own world of bringing up a family. As I waited for the bus I saw a great number of white wooden stakes planted in the ground on the site of URL. I was shocked to find out it was the site for an oil refinery and a public enquiry was going on in Benfleet that day.

I took the afternoon off work and attended the inquiry where I met 2 men standing over a large map of Canvey Island with nearly half the map showing where the site of the oil refineries were going to be.

I asked them “What is the dark area?” They stated “That is where we are going to build our oil refineries, he is from Occidental and I’m from URL”. I stated “You can’t put oil refineries there, I live there”. They said “go away little man you can’t and you won’t stop us”. Those were the first shots fired in the Oil Refinery War. Subsequently planning permission was granted by the government to Occidental and URL to build 2 oil refineries.

As apathy is the biggest killer for any protester or campaigner, bad publicity is the one weapon the big corporate companies can’t fight as they will spend millions of pounds protecting their corporate image.

I was fortunate enough to be trusted by the people of Canvey Island to lead the publicity war against the 2 oil companies.

A spear is a powerful weapon. I was the point of the spear in the oil war, the strength of the spear was the ordinary people driving it forward. Without the ordinary people standing firm the fight would have been lost. It was like being a bundle of twigs bound together in one cause. One twig can be snapped very easily but if you bind a bundle of twigs together no matter how powerful you are you will never break them.

The Canvey Island Resistance Group was the most successful environmental group in Europe. The ordinary people stood alone and took on the power of the establishment and the power of the energy world and won against impossible odds.

There were many public meetings that galvanised the people into opposing the oil refineries plus there were many peaceful demonstrations and marches to publicise the plight of the people of Canvey Island, it was an all-out fight by the people for the people.

At first the full council was not listening to the people and would not let them speak to them at a council meeting, so the people invaded the public gallery and locked the council in the council chamber until they were heard. The police and the fire brigade had to release the councillors.

There was the ‘Cross for Canvey’ march where thousands carried white crosses and planted them on the proposed oil refinery site.

Open top buses went to London full of people to protest at 10 Downing Street and Westminster delivering a petition.

There was an ‘Armada’ of boats taken up the Thames to Westminster to coincide with the lobbying of Members of Parliament.

Road tankers used to come out of the Texaco depot 2 or 3 at a time making it very difficult to get past them in rush hour. Letters of complaint were ignored so very early one Saturday morning people used their own cars and blockaded the tankers which had been sent out in convoy. After that protest road tankers never went out in convoy again.

After the petition was presented to 10 Downing Street it was decided to do a referendum because a referendum is more powerful than a petition. We used sealed sweet jars with a slot cut in the top and went door to door giving the voting population a chance to say yes or no to the oil refineries. Needless to say the count was 98% did not want the oil refineries. This also gave the Oil Refinery Resistance group a mandate to speak on behalf of the people on this issue.

Sir Bernard Braine led many delegations of the committee to 2 hour meetings with the Secretary of State and other ministers during the fight. He along with others also gave evidence at a number of hard fought public enquiries and meeting with the newly formed Health and Safety Executive. He gave the longest speech in the House of Commons by an MP on the issue.

There were countless radio and television interviews I participated in. Two in particular, namely the ‘Today’ program and ‘Panorama’ type programmes also after the 6 o’clock TV news programs.

Canvey oil protest 7 May 1973

The Flixborough disaster was a turning point in the oil fight campaign. At Flixborough there was a ‘Nypro’ plant using Cyclohexane. This plant exploded killing 28 people due to an ‘unconfined vapour cloud explosion’. At the time I exposed on the ‘Today’ program that at one of the storage depots on Canvey Island 5 times the amount of Cyclohexane was being stored as well as a whole witches’ brew of other volatile fuels.

After a lot of pressure was put on the government the Health and Safety Executive was born. The first 2 studies undertaken by this group of scientists into high risk fire industry and the societal risks they impose was the Canvey 1 and the Canvey 2 reports. These reports took 2 years each to complete and cost £400,000 each. These reports are no the corner stone of societal risk and planning law.

During this time there were a number of notable incidents such as a gas road tanker which crashed near a holiday camp in Spain, an ammunition ship which rammed Canvey sea wall, a petroleum  fire incident at Langley in Slough, a terrorist bomb which exploded on a tank at a depot on Canvey, a large spill of high octane fuel at the Texaco depot at Canvey, a gas ship collision in Tokyo harbour, shipping collisions on the Thames and many other incidents. The publicity of these and other incidents were used to gain a number of public enquiries where the peoples’ voice could be heard.

The oil companies employed top legal eagles and the ordinary people took on top barristers at these enquiries which took many weeks. You don’t often score points off these very big QCs, when you do it’s memorable. For example I can remember a man by the name of Bill Deal. He was a fireman union representative being cross examined by a QC. The QC said to Mr Deal “You have told the enquiry it takes 20 minutes to get a foam tender from Basildon to Canvey. Are you a fire officer, do you have this qualification or that qualification?” Bill replied” No,sir”. The QC then said “So how can you tell this enquiry that it takes 20 minutes to get a foam-tender from Basildon to Canvey?” “Quite easily sir”, replied Bill, “I drive the tender”. (I have never forgotten that).

During this time the Richard Crossman diaries (he was Secretary of State for the Environment) were being published in the Times on Sunday. What they exposed was that there was a deal done between the British Government and the Italian government so that BP could build a refinery in Italy as foreign investment and ENI subsidiary URL could build a refinery in the UK as foreign investment. This was a done deal before the inquiry was convened. I tried to use this information at the public inquiry but the QC stated that it wasn’t admissible and it was upheld by the inspector. I left the inquiry stating that I had been gagged. I phoned Sir Bernard Braine at the House of Commons and he said he would raise he matter that day at Prime Ministers question time in Parliament. As I only had a limited amount of annual leave which I used to attend these inquiries, I went back to work at the Bank of England. The next day I got a call at 10 o’clock to attend the Establishments with immediate effect. Apparently Sir Bernard Braine raised the matter at question time to the Prime Minister who in turn questioned the Secretary of State who then stated that my evidence was admissible. They knew I worked at the Bank of England and so they contacted the Governor to give me leave with immediate effect so that I could attend the inquiry.

When I entered the inquiry the QC for the oil companies was in full flight doing his summing up. The Inspector stopped the proceedings and called me into chambers. The inspector said my evidence was now admissible and therefore I was not being gagged and he would take it as written evidence. I challenged him stating that “Is this a public inquiry or not? He was taken aback. I then said that there are hundreds of people I represent and they deserve to be heard in what I have to say in my evidence otherwise I’m still being gagged. He agreed to let me give my evidence in full. We went back to the inquiry and the Inspector told the QC of his decision. The QC could either finish and then they would hear my evidence or he could hear my evidence and then finish his summing up. The QC chose the latter and as my evidence took over 4 hours we went into an evening session. Then the QC finished his summing up and in doing so stated that he and the company he represented objected to me being able to present my proof of evidence. I challenged the QC saying’ you a QC deny me my judicial rights?’ The Inspector intervened telling the QC he was the one who ruled the inquiry not him. (The QC is now a judge. If I ever go up before him I’ll be going down for a long stretch). During the campaign I know I upset a lot of powerful people, but to me the truth had to be heard.

The Occidental Oil Company put up 9 professional public relations officers to combat one spokesman, me, for the Oil Refinery Resistance Group. As I told them when we clashed, you are professionals and I do it part time and weekends.

Canvey oil protest 11 Oct 1973 – councillors locked in their offices by protestors

My favourite incident was when we took 2 coach loads of protesters to the Occidental Offices in London. When we got off the coach to meet the president of Occidental and their PRO man we surrounded them with 4 crying women. Men can’t talk to crying women. At the same time some bright spark in their office decided to put 2 fingers in a ‘V’ sign under a copy machine and then run off loads of copies and throw them out of the window. As they cascaded down I grabbed one and making sure I had the attention of the press photographers I cast it in front of the president and said ‘that’s your answer to the people of Canvey. Needless to say the president stated it was not true and he would sack whoever did it. Their corporate image never recovered from that incident as it went global.

There were lots of stories like this during the campaign and those who stood there and were counted have their own memories.

Both oil companies were held up for long enough for the building of oil refineries to become a non-viable proposition. Ironically when the half constructed refinery was being dismantled for scrap, the taking down of the chimney was going to be done by world famous steeple jack Fred Dibnah with all the local dignitaries watching. After all the years of hard work there was no room at the inn for the Oil Refinery Resistance Group, they were refused an invitation by the council to the celebration.

The day before this celebration, the prepared chimney fell down on its own with no one watching. Eventually the dog leg jetty was also stripped of its wealth.

It’s the first and only time that oil companies were beaten in Europe. That was by ordinary people saying ‘NO’. URL company died that day and Occidental Oil Refinery site RIP – Rust in Peace.

Yes I went on to stop Calor Gas processing and storing liquid natural gas at a later date, but that’s another story. Of all the Thames-side terminals that were in existence at the start of the Oil Refinery Campaign only 2 are left, namely Calor on the old British Gas site and Oikos which is on the old London and Coastal Oil Wharf site.

Canvey is a safer place than it was, but people still need to be vigilant.”

This was largely sourced from this great Canvey island history site, which has loads more and great photos

The abandoned site


Dr Feelgood guitar skeeter and general Canvey legend at an anti-refinery demo, from 1973.
Canvey, the surreal landscape of the refinery-dominated Essex delta forms the backdrop to the Feelgoods’ and Wilko’s music and lyrics.
Riffing on methane: The Essex Delta, Gas and Oil, Rhythm and Blues  is really worth a read…

and catch Julien Temple’s magic film on the band, Oil City Confidential



This was not the last Thames protest armada either: there were at least three docklands armadas in the 1980s to protest against highhanded redevelopment of the Isle of Dogs in the interests of capital and business, ignoring the local people and the destruction of their jobs.

During the campaigning of the eighties against the London Docklands Development Corporation, representatives of both the Joint Docklands Action Group (JDAG) and Docklands Community Poster Project (DCPP) would attend the different meetings of the federated tenant and action groups around the Docklands area, as well as inviting representatives to their own meetings. A comment was made at one such event, that it was time to take another petition to parliament to challenge the imposition of the government appointed Docklands Development Corporation, which had effectively removed powers from the democratically elected local authorities.

Another delegate pointed out that since both Docklands and parliament were both situated on the river, that made it a potential route for delivery of the petition. Someone else spoke up to say that he was a lighterman in Wapping, and owned a barge – perhaps an appropriate means of transport for this journey? There was a further proposal that this barge could be decorated. The idea was taken up by JDAG and taken around the meetings of other Dockland groups, and in this way grew from a petition to a major event. People wanted to go from each Docklands location, so the hiring of pleasure cruisers was planned. These could also be decorated. And what would all these people do when they arrived at parliament? The Greater London Council (GLC) were approached. They provided funding for the event, plus use of Jubilee Gardens close to the pier opposite parliament where the pleasure boats could discharge their passengers.

Jean Lowe from JDAG together with Stewart Luck of the North Southwark Community Development Group undertook the organisation, while the DCPP co-ordinated East London arts groups and provided imagery, design and publicity. The main barge was decorated with a 24’ x 12’ banner with an image that was to become the emblem of the community fight back. This was a dragon in the shape of the river as it runs through Docklands, the dragon of myth and legend, a force of the underworld, and the power of repressed emotion. The symbol caught the imagination of local groups and a wealth of ephemera was generated – T shirts, mugs, letter headings, badges, balloons, posters and more banners.

The Basement Arts Workshop printed local area banners for the barge and pleasure boats. However first the barge had to be prepared. This was co-ordinated by Graham Downes of Cultural Partnerships, who worked with a host of young people to paint the barge, hoist the banners, ensure their safety on the voyage and provide tannoy and music. A thousand people took to the river. They sailed to parliament broadcasting their message and heralded by music and songs. It was a moving moment to hear the Armada’s progression up river, cheered on by crowds identifiable by their banners and balloons in the blue and red that had come to symbolise the Docklands fight back. At Jubilee Gardens more music, dancing and banners welcomed those who disembarked at an event that combined arts festival with political rally.

Ken Livingstone welcomed all, and members of the Labour shadow cabinet were asked to address how they would address the issues affecting the people of Docklands from day one of coming to power. Each politician was presented with a copy of the People’s Charter for Docklands, reminding them of their pledge.

This was not the end. There were three People’s Armadas to Parliament between the years of 1984 and 1986. Poems and songs were written about the issues and at a later Armada, Cultural Partnership co-ordinated an enormous barge of musicians, whose contributions filled the air on both sides of the river. They were also pyrotechnics experts, and at another Armada the flotilla of boats circled at North Woolwich by the LDDC offices to the sound of cannon fire. These were events that brought lumps to the throat and tears to the eye. Thousands of people, old and young, who would not have otherwise taken part in political campaigning, took part in this, then continued in an unprecedented involvement. The politicians continued to speak in support of the Docklands communities. Miners leading the strike of 1984/5 held meetings with the Docklands groups, and launched a campaign entitled ‘Don’t let the Mines go the same way as the Docks’. They were so impressed with the Docklands dragon, that they created their own ‘pit dragon’ as a massive carnival costume worn by young people, and attended the Armada celebrations. Though events such as this could not on their own enable the major shift in political focus that only a change in government would bring, much was achieved on the way. The Armadas also marked a shift from activism to pro-activism in the Docklands political campaigning that became a hallmark of this time, and would be further developed through such campaigns as the People’s Plan for the Royal Docks. They also marked a moment for the artists where their cultural interventions had moved from the margins to the centre of the agenda of resistance.

The above was nicked from here

Today in London’s anti-enclosure history, 1751: a crowd force entry into Richmond Park

On May 16th 1751, a group of local residents climbed over the wall into Richmond Park, to carry out the traditional ‘Beating the bounds’ ceremony – an annual walk around the borders of a parish. This act was an act of defiance of the enclosure of the park and the restriction of rights of access; one incident in a hundred-year long history of the public’s exclusion from this huge open space. Within seven years rights of access had been restored…


King Charles I was fond of creating vast new hunting parks (his father James I had passed stringent game Laws preventing poor folk from hunting game animals on royal hunting land, (Charles II was to renew them in 1671). In the 1630s, Charles I oversaw the creation of Richmond Park.

Previous kings had already established a royal hunting ground in this area, by the 16th century this was known as Shene Chase; this was conveniently close to Shene Palace, re-built by king Henry VII at Richmond, and a favourite residence of the Tudor and Stuart rulers. Charles enclosed land which the crown already owned, but also appropriated some waste land, as well as common land from several local parishes – Richmond, Petersham, Kingston, Mortlake, Ham, Putney and Roehampton – together with two local farms, Hill Farm and Hartleton Farm. He also ‘persuaded’ local landowners to sell him more land – almost half the new park had previously belonged to someone else… many of whose families had lived there for generations, and provided a livelihood for many more, whose rights or interests in the land were not reflected by any ‘legal’ ownership rights. Others living and making a living in the area Charles wanted to enclose were crown tenants, who could and apparently were leant on, to give up their tenancies…

The king’s actions created a great deal of local resentment. Access to some traditional common rights for many of the local poor were almost certainly lost when the park was enclosed.

Even for those landowners forced to sell, the king’s price may have been high and fairly attractive, but several were apparently not happy to relinquish the land. In the end, though, who was going to say no to the king? Most acquiesced in the sale, but a stubborn minority held out. Charles responded by building a brick wall to separate out the park; many dissenters reluctantly gave in after this, as the wall would have in most cases cut them off from their lands inside.

Even the king’s most ardent supporters thought this kind of land grab was tactically a bad move. Laud, Bishop of London (later an Archbishop), and Lord Cottington, Chancellor of the Exchequer, both advised against such high-handed actions; not just because, as one advised him, that such behaviour was creating anger likely to bring about rebellion (Which of course it did), but because the expense of building a brick wall around the entire new park was huge. Cottington and Laud actively opposed the enclosure, trying to persuade Charles to drop the whole idea; without success.

Resistance having eventually been worn down, by 1635 there is evidence of Charles signing an agreement with several freeholders, copyholders and other inhabitants of Richmond, Kingston, Petersham, Ham, Mortlake and Wimbledon, to buy their lands for £4000. This amounted to 483 acres belonging to the manor of Ham and 265 acres belonging to the manor of Petersham.

It’s possible the king didn’t actually pay for all the lands he acquired. In Mortlake some locals who refused to sell had their land compulsorily purchased anyway; in retaliation they cut down all young trees and bushes on the land in question – over half of the land in Mortlake. The only recompense they seem to have received was an abolition of Ship Money [the tax Charles imposed nationally to raise money for the navy, a major grievance in the build up to the ‘great rebellion’ of the 1640s] for a year in the late 1630s.
The grievances created by the king’s high-handed actions burned locally for over 100 years.

There is some possibility too of canny politicking: the local poor’s right to access to the land for woodcutting & other fuels, was maintained. Unlike elsewhere, disgruntled well-to-do commoners or even landowners would be less likely to call on violent support from the poor if the latter’s own traditional usages were unaffected. Two rights of way were also apparently left open.

When Charlie lost his head, Richmond Park, like other royal property, was confiscated by the Commonwealth. Much royal property thus seized was sold off in the 1650s; however, Parliament granted the recently enclosed Richmond Park to the City of London, to keep the rich merchants on their side and providing cash too possibly (other lands were sold off, eg Hyde Park was flogged off to a private owner who proceeded to charge entrance fees). But with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the park was enclosed again.

In the 18th century, Richmond Park was farmed out to rich politicians & royals, successively appointed ‘Park Ranger’, a nominal post (implying no actual work done) which however guaranteed a large income for them (around £6,500 a year, a huge sum then) and for the crown.

Robert Lord Walpole, son of the Prime Minister Robert Walpole, was appointed Ranger in 1740. His father, the Prime Minister, though, was widely regarded as effectively holding the position, making all the decisions, with his son as a mere figurehead. The elder Walpole spent a fair amount of money doing the park up, but to improve his enjoyment of the space, he restricted the rights of access that king Charles had left in place, removing a number of the ladders and closing some gates. He also had lodges set up at the remaining gates, with keepers, who had orders to admit, during the day, only “respectable persons” on foot, and carriages with the correct ticket. It is said that some ladders were replaced by mantraps, vicious devices usually aimed at injuring and trapping poachers; (I have not yet found evidence of this, though.)

The Park had, from a royal hunting ground, gradually become a resort of the nobility and royalty, for cavorting, riding, taking the air; the absence of plebs making the place look untidy was an obvious selling point for these nobs. But since the woods and fields there were full of deer, rabbits and hares, poaching in the park was a way of life, locally, especially as such good meat was expensive for the lower orders. Neighbouring Wimbledon Common being a notorious haunt of poachers, deer-stealers & other robbers. Between 1723 and 1725 there was a mini-war between deer-stealers & gamekeepers in Richmond Park, involving arson of keepers’ houses, and ‘diverse outrages and disorders’. At least two poachers were executed. John Huntridge, landlord of the Halfway House Inn on the wall of the Park, near Robin Hood Gate, was charged with harbouring deerstealers, but he was acquitted, to popular acclaim. Walpole had backed the case against Huntridge, and the landlord’s acquittal was widely seen not only as a local matter but as one in the eye for the rotten system of patronage and legal extortion Walpole and his class exercised though their control of public offices (like the Park Rangership).

The next Ranger of Richmond Park was Princess Amelia, favourite daughter of king George II, and a particularly hedonistic and self-centred royal with a strong sense of her entitlement to pretty much whatever she wanted. This included the desire to enjoy Richmond Park without the chance of ever coming across anyone of a lower social class than herself (ie almost everyone). Under her Rangership, the simmering local hostility broke into the open.

Shortly after taking up her appointment, in 1751, Amelia reduced access to the park even further, closing it completely to all except personal friends, and a few others; prospective visitors were required to obtain special permits, which weren’t easy to get hold of. She also blocked an old road from Kingston to Shene that had served as a footpath, and ignored legal warrants requiring the erection of stiles and ladders near Richmond Gate.

Local people reacted first of all by petitioning the Lord Chancellor (who, ironically, had supposedly himself been refused entrance!); but their petition was knocked back.

On Ascension Day 1751, the traditional annual “Beating of the Parish Bounds” ceremony, led by a Richmond clergyman, took place [I wonder if this local cleric was Thomas Wakefield, later a supporter of John Lewis’ campaigns to open up the Park?]. Ascension Day fell that year on 16 May – just over six weeks after Amelia had taken office as Ranger. Whereas in previous years, the Beating the Bounds’ party had been granted permission to enter the Park, this year they were refused. However, access was eventually obtained, albeit “with difficulty”. In fact, they entered by climbing over the wall, having either knocked down part of the wall, or taken advantage of an already damaged section. A publication later that year included an illustration of the incident, (see above) in which three of the Princess’ men can be seen sitting astride the wall, watching as a crowd clamber through a breach in the wall near Sheen Common. It is not known whether that the participants broke down the wall, but the walls were not always kept in a good state of repair, as a report in 1754 by the Deputy Ranger noted. It is possible, therefore, that the ‘trespassers’ simply exploited an existing defect. There is no legal record of anyone being prosecuted over this invasion of the park.

It is also uncertain quite how this Ascension Day incident – which clearly acquired a certain notoriety – related to Amelia’s closure of the Park. It may have been the trigger which led her to step up restrictions on access, or it may have been the first protest against actions which she had already taken at the very start of her Rangership.

The ‘Breaking the bounds’ incident was in effect an assertion of old rights of access to the old commons. It seems this ceremony had been allowed in previous years, but had been uncontroversial while some limited access was granted.

Further break-ins apparently followed the Ascension Day ‘trespass’. however. This incident was the effective beginning of a campaign of agitation and legal challenge through the 1750s.

The princess’ restrictions on access to the Park caused much inconvenience and resentment in the neighbouring parishes. Some political and legal opposition was launched in response: this included a  number of petitions, “memorials” (ie formal memoranda or addresses), press notices and pamphlets. The 28 July, 1752 edition of the Post Boy contained a memorial to the Princess from the owners of estates in the parishes adjoining the Park, asking for rights of roads and highways, stiles or ladders at the gates, supplies of gravel (sometimes dug in the park) to maintain high roads in the neighbourhood, access to water and watercourses, and to furze and underwood for burning as fuel. They also suggested doors in the wall for parish officers to perambulate the bounds. This and other petitions were ignored, however.

Failure to win concessions by publicity and campaigning led to legal action.  A trial took place in 1754, arising out of an incident where a group of gentlemen had apparently asked for admission to the Park from Deborah Burgess, then Deputy Ranger. As ordered by Princess Amelia, Shaw had refused admission, which sparked the case of Symonds v Shaw, which was heard on 12 & 13 November 1754 by Sir Dudley Ryder, Lord Chief Justice, Mr Justice Denison and Mr Justice Foster, sitting with a jury.  The attempt to enter the park had clearly been intended to provoke refusal as part of carefully planned strategy, as £1,095 had been collected by the inhabitants of East Sheen for the costs of the legal action.

The trial appears to have been a shambles. The prosecution called 27 witnesses, who gave evidence of rights of way for vehicles and pedestrians. No fewer than 37 witnesses were then called by the defence; these included many noblemen, Lord Palmerston among them. The inhabitants’ case was however dismissed.

John Lewis (1713-1792), who lived in Richmond, and owned a brewery near the Thames close to where Terrace Gardens now are, now took up the struggle. A stroppy character. It’s not known if he attended the 1754 trial, but he was clearly aware of it, and decided that a more focussed line of attack was needed.

In 1755 Lewis went with a friend to Sheen Gate and waited until a carriage approached. The carriage’s driver produced a ticket to the gatekeeper, Martha Gray, and was allowed by her to enter the Park. Lewis then tried to walk in through the gate before it could be closed. Gilbert Wakefield, (brother of Thomas Wakefield, the minister at Richmond Parish Church), recorded the brief exchange that followed:

MG: Where is your ticket?
JL: What occasion for a ticket? Anyone may pass through here.
MG: No – not without a ticket.
JL: Yes, they may; and I will.
MG: You shan’t.
JL: I will.

Martha Gray then pushed Lewis, who allowed the gate to be shut against him.

Lewis then brought an action against the keeper (in reality aimed at princess Amelia). The case of Rex v Gray was born. Lewis cleverly based his case on a narrow legal issue: Charles I’s concession of rights of way for pedestrians only, in contrast to the 1754 case, which had sought unrestricted access for walkers and carriages, and his case was not clouded by the mass of evidence which seems to have led to the dismissal of the earlier claim.

Another local controversy may have inspired Lewis’ when he made his legal challenge in 1755. The year before, Timothy Bennett, a shoemaker of Hampton Wick, had successfully challenged a similar situation in nearby Bushy Park (which lies just over the river from Richmond). The Earl of Halifax had erected a wall round Bushy Park in about 1734, resulting in local people having to undertake a much longer walk between Kingston and Hampton, where they had previously been able to cut through the park. In 1754, Bennett, then in his late 70s, made representations to Lord Halifax, who restored the rights of way without any court action being necessary. [In Sandy Lane, Bushy Park, a memorial was erected in 1900 to Timothy Bennett. A footpath is also named “Cobbler’s Way” in his memory.]

Lewis’s case over Richmond Park initially came on for hearing at the Summer Assizes in August 1757. However it was nearly scuppered by the appearance of a pamphlet which attacked Amelia and asserted the public rights of access to the Park – a “Tract in the National Interest”, published anonymously. This reminded reminded readers that “The right of the people to a free passage through Richmond Park was a privilege they always enjoyed until the late Sir Robert Walpole audaciously divested them of it” and that the signs of the existence of ancient highways were there for all to see who were not deliberately blind.

The judge, the new Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, considered the pamphlet a libel, and its distribution sub judice and thus in contempt of court. He halted the trial and ordered those concerned with writing, publishing and distributing the pamphlet to be found. Lewis and his co-prosecutor, Shepheard, who were in court, were strongly suspected of being involved in the publication of the tract… However, in August, 1757, Lewis swore an Affidavit, denying being concerned in “printing or publishing the Pamphlett”. He also denied “dispersing any Copys” of it, and stated that he disapproved “of the printing or publishing any Matters which may have any undue influence on the minds of witnesses or the Jury”. However, he did not make any reference to the actual authorship of the pamphlet, leading Mansfield and many others to suspect he may have written it, if not more... Lewis was however not included in charges brought against some of those alleged to have been concerned with the publication of the offending pamphlet.

Lord Mansfield decided that the outcome of that trial would not have a bearing on the hearing of R v Gray, so he ordered that the substantive case involving the rights of access to the Park should be resumed at the next Assizes.

The case against Martha Gray eventually resumed at the Surrey Assizes, sitting at Kingston, on 3 April 1758. The court consisted of Sir Thomas Denison, Sir Michael Foster – who had been on the bench for the 1754 trial – and a jury.

After all the evidence was heard, the judges came down clearly in Lewis’s favour. He was asked by the court whether he wished to have gates made in the wall or step-ladders to go over it. Lewis decided that a door, which would have to be kept closed when not in use, so as to prevent the escape of deer, would give the impression that access was not freely available; and he also feared that, in time, a door might have a bolt fixed to it. So he opted for the erection of ladder stiles.

On 12 May 1758 ladder stiles and gates were affixed to Sheen Gate and Ham Gate; these were opened to the public on 16 May, when a “vast concourse of people from all the neighbouring villages climbed over the ladder stiles into the Park”. This re-opening occurred (by coincidence?) exactly seven years to the day after the Ascension Day trespass in 1751.

However, outraged at her defeat in court, princess Amelia ordered the rungs on the ladders to be widely spaced apart, so as to prevent people from using them. Lewis, however, went back to court over this, and Amelia was ordered to amend them so old people and children could use them.

Although people were supposed to keep strictly to the paths, it was reported that many simply started to wander the whole park, some reputedly declaring it to now be theirs ‘in common’. Initially carriages were still only let in with tickets. Another court case in 1760, attempting to open up the park for carriages was again lost; allegedly however, large-scale forgery of these tickets resulted.

Princess Amelia, clearly unable to stomach the invasion of a private playground by the hoi polloi, and unwilling to share the space, lost interest in the Park, and resigned the Rangership in 1761 (in return, according to Horace Walpole, for an annuity of £1,200).

John Lewis became a local celebrity. His portrait was painted by T. Stewart, a pupil of Sir Joshua Reynolds. The picture currently hangs in the Reference Library at the Old Town Hall, Richmond. An engraving was later made by Robert Field, a copy of which was said in the 18th century to hang in many homes in the area. On the engraving were the words of Rev. Thomas Wakefield: “Be it remembered that by the steady perseverance of John Lewis, brewer, at Richmond, Surry” [sic] “the right of a free passage through Richmond Park was recovered and established by the laws of his country (notwithstanding very strongly opposed) after being upwards of twenty years withheld from the people”.

But Lewis’ legal campaigns had left him pretty skint, and since his means of livelihood was lost when his brewing business was wrecked when the Thames flooded, he faced great poverty later in life. Local vicar Thomas Wakefield, another supporter of the campaign to open up the park, organised locals in the setting up of a small annual grant to help Lewis out, on which Lewis survived for some years, in recognition of the huge part he’d played in regaining popular access to the Park. A further effort to secure money for him was being made at the time of his death in 1792. Lewis was buried at St Mary Magdalene, the parish church of Richmond. The horizontal gravestone can be seen outside the church’s South side. The inscription, now in a poor state, reads:

“Here lie the remains of Mr John Lewis Late of this parish who died The 22 of October 1792 Aged 79 years”

It’s worth noting that despite Lewis’ achievement in legally confirming the right to cross the Park, this really only reclaimed pre-existing rights of way. The “right to roam” freely did not come about for another century at least. Public access continued to be restricted during the first half of the 19th century: although pedestrians could enter freely, they were largely confined to the roads and the defined footpaths. However, he had established the principle of public access, following failed attempts by others.

The enactment in 1872 of the Royal Parks and Gardens Regulations Act marked a new official approach to public access, (though in Richmond Park, a more relaxed attitude had prevailed from around 1850).

Ironically, it’s not impossible that king Charles I’s enclosure of the park, the outright bullying used to acquire the land and wall it off, is what has in fact preserved a massive tract of open space for what is in effect public use for us today. If Charles had not been so determined to over-ride the ‘rights’ of smaller landowners, their descendants would in all likelihood have developed their own parts of it, piecemeal, although it’s not impossible that parts could have survived here and there (as did Petersham Common and Ham Common, later). For instance – William Murray, Earl Dysart, was one of the major landowners ‘persuaded’ to sell lands to the king in the 1630s; much of his manor of Petersham was included in the New Park (in fact after petitioning the king in 1639, he was granted a perpetual title to Petersham, as partial recompense). His nineteenth century descendants were therefore still in possession of common land here – which they attempted to enclose, in the face of stiff local resistance at Ham.


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

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Today in London traffic history, 1995: Reclaim the Streets block Camden High Street to party against car culture

“A street part is in full swing. 1000s of people have reclaimed a major road and declared it a ‘street now open’. Music laughter and song have replaced the roar of engines. Road rage becomes road rave, as tarmac grey is smothered by the living colour of a festival…
Single issue? Just against the car? For all of the mainstream media’s attempt to define it as such, for those involved it expresses much more… A festival of resistance!’ (Reclaim The Streets leaflet 1998)

The current Extinction Rebellion protests around the planetary climate change crisis have galvanised huge numbers, as well as sparking vital discussions about tactics, participation and decision-making.

How it reminds some of us of our own youth… specifically the previous great wave of eco-action from the 1990s. Of course the ‘historical’ anti-roads movements, Reclaim the Streets etc are not separate from today’s movement – there are continuous threads through Earth First!, Climate Camp, Rising Tide and so on that have carried on through the intervening years. But in many ways Reclaim the Streets represented the last high profile mass environmental movement before XR. Some examination of RTS, its development, actions and significance, could be interesting when compared to XR, and discussion of its successes and failures could contribute to today’s debate and decisions…

This is as much a personal account as a history, and may well miss out much others would have covered. I’ve nicked/quoted other people’s work where it made sense… If it’s a bit rambly its because I have rushed to write it, but maybe we’ll update and tidy it and hope to include it in a longer piece about J18 and other things…

From the start it should be said that it is written from the perspective of someone who did have some involvement (for a while only) in Reclaim the Streets but (partly for reasons of time, work, family and other pressures) is not significantly involved in Extinction Rebellion, though I have been on some of their actions. Critiques of them here may well be influenced by lack of full knowledge; just as critiques of RTS may be coloured by way too much hindsight…

NB: This post has been slightly edited after some discussions and critiques from from ex-RTS folk who read the first published version… But its very much a personal take.


It was 25 years ago today…

On 14 May 1995, two old cars deliberately crashed into each other, in the five-way intersection  in Camden High Street, the heart of one of north London’s busiest trendy shopping areas. Both drivers, in a seeming paroxysm of road rage, jumped out and started to abuse each other. This was much to the annoyance and disbelief of onlooking drivers, now in a traffic jam because of the altercation. The two drivers got so irate they proceeded to smash up each other’s cars with sledge hammers. The street was blocked: usually rammed with cars, the high street was suddenly-traffic free. A crowd poured into the street, sound systems powered by electricity generated by the constant pedalling of bicycles began to pound out dance music, and the road becomes a party venue. There were about 300 people present (though some onlookers joined in)…

“Every car entering the intersection was gridlocked. Shoppers and market goers joined the party, which lasted five hours. The smashed cars became the focus for all to vent car-anger on; they were attacked throughout the party. The police merely directed traffic. What else could they do?”

The cars were second-hand bangers bought to be trashed and used as barricades; the brainchild of Reclaim the Streets. The Camden street party launched RTS’s classic period of huge street parties, taking over larger and higher profile spaces, and inspiring similar groups which sprang up all around the world.

As someone wrote at the time:

“Thus arises the modus operandi of occupying urban zones with spontaneous and illegal celebrations that appropriate the public space for a number of hours. Food is given away, toys are brought along for children and banners are arranged which proclaim the changes that have been brought about in the space: ‘BREATHE’, ‘CAR FREE’, ‘RECLAIM THE STREETS!’ Camden Town, an area of London largely dedicated to the commercialization of ‘alternative’ culture, is turned into a place of free leisure. This piece of the urban landscape temporarily changes its function in a carnivalesque inversion of social order. The absence of authority, the system where everything is free: the street becomes a place to play, eat, drink and dance – without money and without permission. If the car has become a symbol and celebration is a medium, this ‘form’ is more utopian than the conventional rally because it refers to other possible forms of organization. The interruption of motorized traffic represents an act of collective civil disobedience against the city’s traffic norms. On top of the aim of anti-road movement to prevent the construction of new motorways, RTS proposes a temporary blockade of those that already exist, trying to sketch out the vision of a city without cars.”


Reclaim the Streets (RTS) had originally been founded in 1991, and as a small collective carried out small-scale ecologist actions: painting cycle lanes on the roads during the night and picketing an automobile industry fair. It declared itself: ‘FOR walking, cycling and cheap, or free, public transport, and AGAINST cars, roads and the system that pushes them.’ On a spring day in 1992 the group brang traffic in part of London to a halt with a small illegal party in the street. The police evicted them, but warned: ‘Protest is gonna get bigger: the car culture is growing constantly! This is just the first stage.’ A few months after this event, the group disbanded.

RTS was then reborn, three years later, in the heat of a large anti-roads movement which had been evolving and increasing in profile and activity across the UK in the early 1990s; but RTS also absorbed huge wodges of ideas and spirit from the diverse movement that came together to oppose the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill; behind that, lay a mass of rave culture, squatting, traveller scenes, party crews, sound systems and various eco-protest groups.

Two huge protests in particular had raised the profile of the anti-roads movement  – the Twyford Down camp and direct action against the construction of the M3 motorway link, the “No M11 Link” campaign occurred in North East London’s suburbs of Leytonstone and Wanstead. Twyford focussed on protecting rural beauty spots and saw alliances between travellers and self-styled ‘tribes’ like the Dongas. The M11 in contrast was urban, in defence both pf thousands of trees being torn down for the M11 link road, as well as the loss of hundreds of homes. Resistance to the M11 involved constant direct-action resistance for 18 months, culminating in the eviction in December 1994 of the squatted street at Claremont Road.

ALARM U.K. (Alliance Against Road Building) recounted in its newsletter, “The government was taken aback that a protest against the M11, a motorway being built in an unfashionable part of East London, resulted in the longest campaign of direct action against a road in British history. Pictures were flashed around the world of masses of people old and young, conventional and alternative, taking on bulldozers in an awe-inspiring defense of homes, urban spaces and communities.”

Here a working-class community, in alliance with an influx of activists, many young but already seasoned in the anti-roads/anti-CJB scenes, not defending green spaces, homes and community.

The campaign against the M11 kicked off when the Old Chestnut Tree of George Green, Wanstead, to the community’s surprise, was to be removed. The residents, angered by being misled by the government, found themselves pushing down fences built to keep them from defending the tree. During the next year, houses were squatted and work constantly disrupted. But it became obvious in the summer of 1994 that Claremont Road, a strip of houses in the path of the motorway, was to be the main focus of the campaign. A community formed around these houses that included local residents, squatters and activists from around the country. The campaign strategy was to “dig in” and make it as difficult as possible for the authorities to remove protesters. It took four days in November, 1994, to evict everyone.

The street was painted and filled with psychedelic sculptures, and barricades. Above them the nets, tree houses, aerial walkways and towers went up; inside the houses bunkers and lock-ons and tunnels were hidden in tons of rubble.

After Claremont Road was lost, much of its energy and cheeky spirit went into Reclaim the Streets (RTS), which had already existed, but was revived to step up the campaigning from specific roads to opposition to roads in general and “car culture’. RTS aimed to move the debate beyond anti-road protest, to highlight the social and environmental costs of the car and the political and economic forces behind it and to demonstrate the possibilities of what can be done when people re-occupy their streets and turn them to alternative uses.

RTS’ advocated  “direct action, but not just as a tactic. [We advocate] a society in which people take responsibility for their own actions, and don’t just leave it to the politicians.” This wasn’t just about pressuring an existing establishment into action – it was about everyone taking action in our own collective interests.

Reclaim the Streets’ events were organised very much along the lines of how raves had been planned and attracted participants over the past 6 or 7 years: people were invited to gather at an underground station and, once there, a small group lead them to the final destination, which had been kept secret. The RTS parties explicitly politicised the rave, although the oppositional culture of raves had been bothering the authorities for a while. Parties were based around sound systems, rhythms of techno and acid house, although the older free festival scene that had evolved from the 1970s also had something of an influence. But the RTS parties also wanted to “create situations that are fitting for a better world”.

How street parties were seen by RTS was later summed up thus
“A street part is in full swing. 1000s of people have reclaimed a major road and declared it a ‘street now open’. Music laughter and song have replaced the roar of engines. Road rage becomes road rave, as tarmac grey is smothered by the living colour of a festival…
Single issue? Just against the car? For all of the mainstream media’s attempt to define it as such, for those involved it expresses much more.
The Street party, itself reclaimed from the inanities of royal jubilees and state ‘celebrations’, is just one recent initiative in a vibrant history of struggle, both to defend and to take back collective space. From the Peasants’ Revolt to the resistance to the enclosures, from the land occupations of the Diggers to the post-war squatters, on to the recent free festivals, peace camps, land squats and anti-roads movement. Everywhere, extra-ordinary people have continually asserted not only the need to liberate the commons but the ability to think and organise for themselves.
For the city, the streets are the commons, but in the hands of industry and power brokers the streets have become mere conduits for commerce and consumption – the economic hero of which is, of course, the car. A symbol and a symptom of the social and ecological nightmare that state and capitalism create, the car which promises individual freedom ends up guaranteeing noise, destruction and pollution for all. For Reclaim the Streets, the car is a focus – the insanity of its system clearly visible – that leads to questioning both the myth of ‘the market’ and its corporate and institutional enforcers.
With a metal river on one side and endless windows of consumerism on the other, the streets’ true purpose: social interaction, becomes an uneconomic diversion. In its place the corporate-controlled one way media of newspapers, radio and television become ‘the community’. Their interpretation out reality. In this sense the streets are the alternative and subversive form of the mass media. Where authentic communication, immediate and reciprocal, takes place.
To ‘reclaim the streets’ is to act in defence of and for common ground. To tear down the fence of enclosure that profit-making demands. And the Street Party – far from being juts anti-car – is an explosion of our suppressed potential, a celebration of our diversity and a chorus of voices in solidarity.

A festival of resistance!’ {RTS leaflet 1998.}

Upper Street

After Camden had hit the news with a bang, the second Reclaim the Streets party was held on Sunday, July 23, at the Angel intersection in Islington, North London. It was a huge success, with over 2,000-3000 demonstrators participating. Crowds met a mile or so away, and were then led to the party location, while other activists blocked the road with tripods constructed from scaffolding, placed in the middle of the road: tripods that could be dismantled only if the person who is at the top of them comes down. Two tons of sand were piled in the road to make a children’s play area, (reversing the famous slogan of May 1968, ‘underneath the paving stones, the beach’. On this occasion, the beach spreads out on top of the asphalt)… banners went up to stop more traffic, stalls were erected and a huge tank rolled in with a sound system pumping. The party had begun before the police arrived. The Highbury Islington street party coincided with a week of hot weather and a smog alert. In only two months, the number of people who took part in the first street event increased tenfold.

John Jordan, one of the co-founders of RTS, talked of how the street celebration seeks to prefigure an ‘imagined world… a vision in which the streets of the city could be a system that prioritised people above profit and ecology above the economy’the ‘perfect propaganda for the possible’. (In Upper Street Louis Armstrong’s song What a Wonderful World sounded out through the loudspeakers.)

The experience of being during the party is different from life away from it: ordinary norms disappear and people express themselves by dancing, playing music or making artistic interventions on any available surface. The economic system of the celebration is abundance and generosity. It is about thinking of the emergence of a world where things are free and where there is a celebrating community, a world of shared goods and freed space. Earth First magazine Do or Die suggested that ‘inherent within its praxis – its mix of desire, spontaneity and organisation – lie some of the foundations on which to build a participatory politics for a liberated, ecological society.’

A week later, RTS saw a prime opportunity for another action, visiting Greenwich, SE London, where parents and children with asthma are going to the High Court to force the Greenwich Council to close its main through road at times of high pollution. (At this time if I recall right, central Greenwich was calculated to be suffering the worst traffic pollution in London, possibly the UK). On Friday, August 4, RTS closed Greenwich down, blocking the major arterial in morning peak-hour traffic for two hours with scaffolding tripods. Pedestrians joined in and the local coffee shop delivered free coffee, tea and biscuits to the demonstrators. Even many of the drivers held up in the traffic jam that day came out in favour of the action.

The M41

The following year RTS returned with a bang. 1996 was proclaimed (by the car industry) “Year of the Car”. RTS made that into the Year We Squatted a Motorway

July that year saw RTS mount what was probably their most ambitious and gloriously subversive action – squatting a stretch of motorway. The short M41 link in Shepherds Bush  – the shortest motorway in England – was turned into a party zone for an afternoon and evening. The sight of thousands of people running onto an empty motorway shut off by large tripods is an image that stays with you… Thirty foot ‘pantomime dames’ glided through the party throwing confetti. Food stalls gave away free stew and sandwiches; graffiti artists added colour to the tarmac; poets ranted from the railings; acoustic bands played and strolling players performed. Some 7,000 turned up… At the height of the festivities, beneath the tall panto dame figures dressed in huge farthingale Marie Antoinette skirts, people were at work with jackhammers, hacking in time to the techno, to mask the sound to the officers standing inches away, digging up the surface of the road until large craters littered the fast lane… to plant seedlings from the gardens smashed by the bulldozers at Claremont Road.

Liverpool Dockers 96-97

After dockers in Liverpool were locked out after refusing to work for a lower rate than they were prepared to accept, a long-running dispute evolved, involving 500 dockers. This became a major cause celebre in Liverpool and across the UK, with mass solidarity, international support…
Reclaim the Streets in London were approached by London supporters of the dockers, and launched a 3-day protest/party/occupation in September 1996 to mark the first anniversary of the dispute. Hundreds of activists attended and joined dockers on the picket line, and occupied a dock office block, as well s cutting the fence around Seaforth Dock and invading the facility…

heres’ an RTS leaflet on the dockers’s struggle

And an interview with Chris Knight, who linked up the two groups

As one ex-RTS activist put it: “Linking the ecological direst action movement to workers in struggle was simply a necessary step towards transition, as it still is…”  

April 12th 1997

Following the Liverpool actions, RTS and the Dockers collaborated on a demo/action/party in April 1997 to coincide with the run-up to the general election – variously known at the March for Social Justice, Reclaim the Future, the ‘Festival of Resistance’ and Never Mind The Ballots…

On 12th April 1997, some 20,000 people took part in the March for Social Justice, called by the 500 sacked Liverpool Dockers and their families, jointly with the Hillingdon Hospital and Magnet strikers. The gathering at Trafalgar Square was big but most of the Dockers, other strikers and their families left soon after the rally (mainly because of their long journeys home). The numbers were beginning to drop when a van containing the sound system managed to enter the square – the music and the huge street party then began. The dancing went on for hours,  but by late afternoon, the cordon had successfully reduced the numbers in the square and riot police – some on horseback – stormed in to clear the area battering us out of the Square and over the bridges, with lots of extreme prejudice.

IN November 1997 RTS squatted an empty petrol station in Islington

By 1998 RTS had evolved into something not just about cars and roads, but about taking back everything:

“We are basically about taking back public space from the enclosed private arena. At its simplest it is an attack on cars as a principle agent of enclosure. It’s about reclaiming the streets as pubic inclusive space from the private exclusive use of the car. But we believe in this as a broader principle, taking back those things which have been enclosed within capitalist circulation and returning them to collective use as a commons.” (RTS leaflet 1998)

In May 1998 RTS held a party in Birmingham, then hosting a G8 summit. Here’s a report

And some Video footage

Think global, act local

After Birmingham, 1998, RTS decided to put on simultaneous ‘local’ street parties in different areas of London; after much of the usual debate, this came down to two, one in the north. One down south, on June 6th – to coincide with hundreds of RTS parties going on around the world… The North London party met at Kings Cross and then went on a long march to Tottenham, where the party took place. In South London, we settled on Brixton, where a majority of south London RTS folk lived anyway. Unlike at other actions, there was no plan B and instead of meeting in one place and moving to another, we double-bluffed the cops, amassing in front of the Ritzy cinema and taking over the street in front of us when our four old bangers of cars smashed into each other. This remains one of my favourite RTS parties, because it took over the street I actually lived in, in my manor; a great feeling.
See Neil Transpontine’s account of the Brixton party

A report on the June 1998 North London party

here’s some film of this North London street party

There were some problems with these parties:  notably differences between Brixton and the North London party – the former was rooted in people who lived here, the North London less so – not even opening discussions with local activist groups in that area. Also it seemed less happy in its conclusions somehow, some people involved with it got upset by accusations of anti-social behaviour from some locals and had to go back, hand out an apology leaflet and tidy up…

London RTS had several discussion over the summer of 1998 about where to go next. There were two main strands of thought. 1, that the ever larger RTS group in the capital could break up somewhat into more local groups but employ similar ideas, tactics, spirit in local actions around more local and daily targets. There was a suggestion that not only had the police begin to get the measure of large parties but that it was old news, becoming less effective, and making a ‘spectacle’ of itself, in the situationist sense – rather than addressing where capital and eco-change could really be fought over – in people’s daily lives where they lived, worked, played. Others countered this with the idea that large parties/actions had been successful so far and what was needed was a harder bigger target, linked much more to international capitalism and finance, rather than concentrating on car use, general eco-protest…
It was the second group that won the argument, in the short term at least, which was to usher in June 18th, probably the highest profile of all the RTS events; it also launched in many ways the UK arm of the ‘anti-capitalist movement’, a distinct development from both the RTS/90s eco-scene and the anarchists who had enthusiastically embraced it (not all did by any means).

J18 1999

A product of the 98 discussions, the J18 day of action in June 1999 came out of the growing merger of anarchists and RTS ideas, but also linked more and more to ‘anti-capitalism’ and the antiglobal summit movement. Plans for a spectacular day of action in the City of London had been under discussion since mid-98, and more and more older anarchos who remembered events like Stop the City were putting their oar in. [we hope to post some of the history of Stop the City soon on this blog]

On June 18, 1999, thousands of demonstrators converged at the Liverpool Street train station. Organisers distributed masks in four different colours and the participants broke up into four different marches in order to divide and confuse police; a spontaneous fifth march emerged, as well as a Critical Mass composed of hundreds of bicyclists. The marches converged on the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE), where they hung banners, set off a fire hydrant to symbolise the liberation of the river beneath London’s streets, adorned the walls with graffiti, disabled surveillance cameras, and set up sound systems for DJs and punk bands to perform. A raucous afternoon of dancing, exuberance, and street fighting followed, during which participants bricked up the front of the LIFFE building, broke in and trashed its ground floor, and nearly succeeded in destroying the London Stock Exchange itself. In response, police attacked the general public with tear gas and horse charges and ran over one demonstrator with a riot van,
breaking her leg.

There’s some reflections of June 18th, published after the event.

The events of June 18, 1999 set the stage for the historic demonstrations against the summit of the World Trade Organization in Seattle later that year.

(RTS and others put an event, ‘N30’ to coincide with Seattle)

After J18, RTS did partially fragment; many older/founder activists splintered off into other activities, other burned out for a bit. But larger numbers went into other eco-related direct action groups like UK Earth First!, into a growing network carrying out anti-genetically modified crop actions… In London, some parts of RTS remained involved in large spectacular anti-capitalist events, most notably the annual Mayday protests which ran from 2000 on, and were best attended in the early 2000s. Other faces got involved in RTS itself in London…

Links to reports on early 2000s Mayday actions in London

From RTS, Maydays, the anti-capitalist scene evolved other projects – social centres eg the London Action Resource Centre & others around the UK… the WOMBLES, Dissent  and the Disobedience network against the Iraq war

Mad hippies… middle class wankers…

When RTS burst onto the scene there it led to a mix of opinion on the older ‘class struggle’ anarchist scenes (the milieu past tense emerged from and was then immersed in) and the left… Many had had some involvement in the anti-CJA campaigns, many had been squatters, ravers since the late 90s, and embraced the mad frolics with a will… Others were very po-faced and dismissed it all as hippy nonsense. Not serious and working class enough. Within much of the CJA, anti-roads scenes, there had been an extremely diverse mix of views, politically ranging from class struggle anarchism, through pacifist, Green Party, to hippy ‘lifestylism’ (and on the fringe, frankly to some dodgy conspiracy theory types).  Lots of the class struggle anarcho wing had spent years in their youths ‘growing out’ of pacifism, learning that the police were prepared to kick in heads and trusting neither in the state or in politicians of any stripe. We’d seen and felt the truncheons and experienced the left in power, as well as getting tired of what we saw as drongo drop out laziness and anti-social selfishness which infected many squats and projects, and the kind or moralising politics that had pervaded pacifism, CND etc. The naivety of some of the 90s scenes (some of it down to youth but not all by any means) was frustrating, and there were some among us who said it was all middle class hippy wankers. It wasn’t, though there were a number of middle class hippy wankers, and a lot of ‘what are you doing to save the Earth’ moralising which gets right up yer nostrils. But some of us were really up ourselves in many ways, convinced of our politically advanced ideas, dismissive… RTS though had such energy that it pulled us in, especially as many of the ‘community-activist’ projects we had built in the wake of anti-poll tax movement were in reality struggling to survive. The M41 and RTS alliance with the dockers convinced many suspicious minds that there was some real potential here (arrogant as that sounds now). There was also a sense of a kind of (funny) desperation to be where the action was… As well as a gradual disintegration of anarcho-snobbery into a respect and appreciation. (Of course lots of anarchos had also been involved early on too) But in the end, an influx of anarchists and other types into RTS synthesised something new – for a while. This helped spark new directions – for instance discussions and memories about the story of Stop the City from some of those who had taken part helped create J18 in 1999.

Others remained critical, including some on what you could call the post-situ or left communist scenes, which had a close relation in practice to anarchists while always holding up lots of issues. Some of this was acid and niggly, other points were interesting and useful. An interesting critique of RTS and anti-summit movement/anti-capitalism: You Make Plans we make History

RTS’s critics from the post-situ or ‘ultraleft’ scenes did have some interesting points about activism, and what they saw as the difference between ‘protest’ and ‘struggle’. The latter comes out of people’s needs, own experience and desires, they reckoned; the former they saw as something disconnected, artificially set up and directed at something outside of ourselves. If struggle was suggested as effective in addressing social & economic conditions that hold us down directly, protest is shown almost as diversion, complaint, remote from ourselves, addressing ‘issues’ and demanding someone else do something about them. Now there’s a kernel of truth here – this tension does exist, and there are a growing number of professional and academic activists institutionalising campaigning, creating niches and leadership roles for themselves. ‘Activism’ as a construct IS a separation of sorts, splitting off those who protest about issues from those who don’t, creating a spectacular conception of yourself as a fighter, whether or not it’s about what you yourself need or desire… there was a tendency to see yourself as a hero if the planet. There was also a dynamic of organisers and attendees, to some extent, a kind of vanguard that us older more anarchic types thought too elitist, leadershippy. Some of it was necessary – if 7000 people know all the details of the secret party location it’s gonna get blown – but also, when RTS became a big weekly meeting with interminable wrangling and debating, breaking into small groups and reporting back,  a certain amount of behind the scenes ‘get it done’ undemocratic sorting does become vital… else nowt happens. However; there was a tyranny of the capable, and a kind of showing up to the party by others who wanted to consume RTS – sometimes. RTS did fight against that, and had some conceptions of his to get around it, which didn’t entirely get realised… None of these problems are anything like unique to that group: but there were a lot of arguments around it, at the time (I do remember a lot of us who turn up being bemused in Liverpool in September 1996 by how we were expected to turn up somewhere without knowing what was going to happen, a bit like soldiers being given sealed orders… sparking a long and rancourous debate the night before the big action. In retrospect some of what we said was a bit naïve, but the point that it felt not self-organised…)

But it’s more complex than all that, and I’m not completely convinced of the absolute difference between ‘protest’ and ‘struggle’. The possibilities of breaking down separation are myriad…

Another common objection to RTS, and the wider eco-movements, was to do with their class composition. This was in fact linked to the previous point about protest – ‘struggle’ was what the working class did, and it was implied (though not strictly said) that ‘protest’ was a middle class construct… Again this discussion is in fact very interesting and I cannot do it justice here (hopefully we’ll return to it). The implication is that RTS’s ways of organising was intimately derived from the class background of those who created and ran it. Well yes, as with almost everything, and yes, this did produce contradictions and shortcomings, but analysing them at all is not simple or as one dimensional as all that…
Alot of people involved in RTS through its various incarnations were middle class, yes – though as one ex-RTSer pointed out “At least 3 of us were dissident ruling class, and we thought we put our resources to good use”. Not all though by any means: “Some of us were actual proles, or really, refugee proles from nasty racist working class Lancashire or Belfast”…and it did evolve and change. Alot. Unlike a fair number on the class struggle anarchist scene most people in RTS didn’t pretend to be “eh up mate” types, more working class than they were…

More importantly though, RTS’s conception of capitalism was not fundamentally based on a class analysis, or, I would hazard, any kind of deep analysis at all. This did leave itself open sometimes to a certain wishy-washyness as to what the group actually saw capital AS. Analysis wasn’t the strong point of RTS, and the wider scene it arose from/helped create, which had a multi-farious mishmash of definitions of capitalism, a lot of which was contradictory and sketchy. This led not only to a lot of endless arguments in meetings, especially in the periods where large numbers were coming along to the weekly meeting, but also to a reluctance or inability to agree on what, in fact, unified us. The lack of analysis was not in itself fatal to RTS’s existence; but the lack of a conception of class and how capital is based on class interests carried over into some of the scenes RTS influenced and evolved into.

An ex-RTSer wrote in response to the first version of this post, that ‘Your portrayal of RTS as middle class is both wrong and irrelevant… the class composition of RTS members is irrelevant given that our actions were clearly directed towards transition grounded in replicable autonomy and solidarity.’

But Class is there. it exists, it underpins everything about capitalism and how it was born and sustains itself. It may not now look like 1880s class or 1930s class or even 1970s class, but class divisions are fundamental and can’t be ignored, and you can’t take on a world social and economic system without understand what it is based on. Class is not the ONLY dynamic that is crucial to understand – but to ignore it has consequences. Yes we want to abolish class divisions – in the day to day now as well as ideally in some utopic future – but they just can’t be wished out of existence, least of all in the movements we create in opposition… Both RTS and Extinction Rebellion, in my view, have suffered from this lack of understanding… and it impacts on their actions as much as their ideas.

Class – and money – did carry some weight in how decision-making was made in London RTS and the scenes that it evolved into. Because the parties and actions cost money (partly because gear kept getting seized by cops), cash was also needed, and the presence of people from moneyed backgrounds meant that it was available – in a way that was slightly disconcerting for some of us who were not used to money just appearing for stuff (more accustomed of raising cash through benefits, painfully…) But the power dynamics of having people with money central to the actions and funding them does lead to unequal power relations in those active groups. ot the only cause of power imbalance – but it was there.

Luckily there were/are a legion of serious thinkers on hand to tell RTS where it all fell down! …Joke. (Partly.) In fact the eventual partial merger of parts of RTS with class struggly anarchists, autonomists and other ‘proper’ political tendencies created more analysis, but not that much more, and did water down the fun bits…
It was pointed out that ‘middle class people mostly organised the parties but mostly working class people got arrested.’ (when the police attacked them usually, near the end). True (see below), though not particularly intentionally, more in naivety and lack of forethought, or for lack of how to adequately deal with police attack and how to end the events.
People within RTS milieu did rise to become career professionals, trading on their activism to achieve entry into cultural fashionability; there was some criticism of this from some of who were very suspicious of such things as filming demos (due to being burned by police taking control of footage after events like the anti-poll tax riot and others, and journalists/film crews happily collaborating with this). This did lead to uneasy times in RTS as people didn’t all get it.

Some have said that RTS was actually ineffective, in that it did not achieve its stated aims. Apart from taking over a few streets for a few days it didn’t break ‘car culture’… The effect of RTS wax compared unfavourably to the 2000 fuel protests – as was pointed out, that movement had an infinitely huger effect, paralysing road traffic, if only for a short while. It also had lots of contradictions, class alliances and political dubiousnesses, but did produce a crisis and cleared the streets of cars… Again, though, it didn’t last, and things returned to normal (though I haven’t seen any discussions on longer term developments among those that carried the blockades out…)

… and more recently, there’s the French Yellow Vests – a sustained movement much more combative, taking on the state in a way RTS never managed and dwarfing XR’s impact … (Again, the politics are very mixed, but when are they not?)

No RTS did not fundamentally alter capitalism, car use, help turn the world green… Some struggles on very limited territory can win outright, others achieve partial victories; others seem to fail of splutter out. Few know what effect they have in the end, as influences mutate, ideas mingle and merge, individuals and groups wend their ways and diverge… RTS had many limits.

RTS left a long legacy in the UK and wider activist scenes, with the group in London carrying on for several years, taking part in the mayday organising, as well as lots of those who passed through it setting off into many other campaigns, projects, etc, the anti-Afghan/Iraq war movements, Occupy, social centres and anti-G8 etc summit protests… you name it.

I don’t know if anyone has really discussed it anywhere, but it would be interesting to talk about the development of RTS into the anti-capitalist movement and wider points about these movements, and of protest movements generally. While J18 was fun and high profile, and thousands of activists turning up to surround and attempt to disrupt summits of the G8 and other meetings of the rich and famous felt for many and looked very confrontational and challenging – it represents a specific interpretation of how capital is organised and where it exists, is controlled, can be challenged etc. Concentrating on central points, the obvious target of world leaders and economic movers. But capital is a world system  – that pervades down to the very marrow of every aspect of our lives; to some extent challenging it is not about the world leaders, but in the everyday. RTS in its origins recognised this and at its best was moving towards the idea of taking over our lives from within where we live them. To me J18 and the anti-summit movements diverted away from that; this was at the heart of our discussions in Summer 1998, and without wanting to say ‘we went the wrong way’, I do think now (and said then) that this may have been broadly a narrowing of RTS’ vision. To radically alter the world you have to organically build from the edges where you are, till the centres collapse because you have already taken over everything. J18 itself kind of did work this way, though the anti-capitalist movement obsession with summits seemed to me to want to build everyday rebellion outward from the middle by attacking what they saw as the centres of power. Does capital even have a centre?
There’s a partial critique of the anti-capitalist movement’s focus on attacking summits in Where is the Festival: Notes on summits and counter-summits

Extinction and evolution

Extinction Rebellion have in some ways reproduced elements of RTS’ approach, but differ in other ways. The main similarities are obvious – taking over streets and public space, the initial concentration on climate change, the emphasis on people taking action. However, there are major points of departure, some positive, some worth examining critically.

RTS took space as a one-off, usually, where XR at least in the last actions in April 2019 tried to keep up the pressure by remaining in the streets of central London for as long as they feasibly could. This is more resonant of the Occupy movements of post-2008 radical protest, and has both its strengths and its weakness implicit in it, in that it does seem to pile on more sustained involvement by extending the action, but also begins inevitably to become separated out from those not involved, an end in itself. This is a problem with almost everything you can do where protest is concerned, and is difficult to avoid. RTS did celebrate the very fact of taking over space ourselves as very much the point, the action being the destination, as well as the road, a moment of liberation by the very nature of occupying space. XR actions, like Occupy, achieve this by default, as taking over space in defiance of the usual day to day creates its own dynamic. What comes out of such actions on the future may be radically different from what they set out to do, more subversive and challenging even. Both RTS and XR actions at their best, like all moments of struggle, produce consequences primarily in the people involved in them, whether or not the ‘campaign’ itself wins what it fights for. The difference – so far – is that RTS was/became conscious of this. Whether XR will remains to be seen.

Their Morals and Ours

XR’s call for people was primarily to occupy the streets in order to get themselves arrested to put pressure on government to act, although this has now come under fierce discussion. RTS neither saw putting pressure on politicians to act on our behalf or mass arrests as the aim. Although there were often arrests at RTS parties, often in the earlier days near the end of the event as the organisers made an attempt to wrap events up (this was a point that was initially criticised by those of us experienced in legal defence work from poll tax days and the Legal Defence & Monitoring Group, that RTS at first took little account of this side of the day. This did evolve positively over the group’s lifetime). Arrests in themselves though as an aim is a debatable tactic, which has been used for many years, most notably in the peace movement – a kind of shaming and publicity-seeking tactic, where the sheer numbers arrested and speeches in court etc become the point of the action. (eg early Committee of 100 actions)

Clearly people carefully considering things with experience of arrest, police, and courts have made something of this approach – the Ploughshares anti-missile saboteurs who break into bases, do millions of quid’s worth of damage to planes and weaponry then give themselves up, for instance. Personally I would say its better for people to remain out of prisons and be able to carry on their activities, and concealing your identity and escaping to fight another day is better than handing yourself in – but their choice, However, Extinction Rebellion are leaning on people to get themselves arrested, and concentrating lots of their propaganda on young folk, kids, teens, some of whom are not yet ready for what arrest and conviction can mean. The kind of moral pressure to ‘get nicked for the planet’, does depend on XR’s insistence that the police are basically OK and will be nice, and can be won over to the side of the ‘people’ by being nice to them. It does reflect the wilful ignorance of the social role of the police and their function in relation to protest – to control and if necessary repress, with violence when required. Dancing to a sound system in Marble Arch by some officers does not negate the institutional violence of the boys and girls in blue, as many of us have learned painfully from an early age.

RTS may in its beginnings have been naïve about legal defence and arrests – XR are being much more irresponsible. In many ways some of the main organisers have inherited the worst aspects of the wider green/eco movements – moral blackmail, class blindness to the realities of the social order, a concentration on one issue without managing to observe how it is vitally and necessarily linked to the whole social and economic structure, and naivety towards the enforcers and controllers of those structures. They have now thankfully withdrawn their terrible advice to people being arrested as to how to survive prison, after a massive outcry from those who have experienced pokey that it was dangerously downplaying the pressure of going down and encouraging illusions in the friendliness of screws. But liberal illusions in the police, prison, the authorities and the social system remain.

Morals, individual blame are no basis for any movement. There’s too much of this in pro-environmental politics, and a hierarchy of greenier-than-thou-ness and finger-pointing at people for not doing enough. When this emphasis on the responsibility of the individual goes along with calls for the state to take action, it’s just bizarre. The closeness of ‘it’s your fault’ to ‘let’s all take it on ourselves to change it’ involves leaving moralising behind to move towards something else – a sense of common interests. Now not all people in social movements have the same interests, when it comes down to class, background, race, and any number of levels of power relations. Lots of people are saying that XR are all middle class white privileged folk and the movement’s attitude to colour, migration etc has been shoddy at best. Some anarchists and others also said very much the same about RTS in the early days, and like many protest movements (those that don’t initially come from BME origins) it remained pretty white, though class was much more nuanced. Another interesting point a woman involved in RTS from the start made at a discussion recently was how in the early days RTS London had a near equal make-female balance, but noted his this changed over the years as actions became more confrontational and overtly ‘anti-capitalist’, becoming more boysy and macho…

Neither morality or hyper-activist ego rankings or dominance by the white moderately well-to-do is anything like unique to either XR or RTS, though. Anarchist scenes, the left, for instance, remain ultimately run on visible or invisible hierarchies and overwhelmingly white. It was funny in hindsight that so many anarchists dissing RTS for not being class struggly enough were being slightly truth-economical about how proley their background was. Either way, there was also a snideness about how working class is seen, and how struggle is hard and serious. In the midst of parties you could also hear people complaining that some people were just partying and not either fighting the police on the edges or seriously talking politics. I know, I was sometimes one of them. The arrogance of youth.

All of these issues within XR are of course being furiously debated and is evolving, and only a daft haporth would expect the movement to be either homogenous in its ideas or to stick to some of these shibboleths: XR and the people involved will change and adapt in response to reality and experience.

Illusions in the bourgeois state’s potential to reverse climate change without the dismantling of capitalism as a world-exploiting system are, of course, nothing new, and XR are far from unique in that. But it remains true, that the wider ecological movement is divided by those who think you can have some nice democratic non-ecocidal market economy, and those who recognise the reality: reversal of the climate cataclysm can only mean overthrowing the classes that profit from it and organising our lives worldwide for the needs of all – people and planet – not for the profit of a smaller and smaller minority and the consumer comfort of a slightly larger group. It’s the exploitation of the earth, its resources, its animals and if the vast majority of US that is destroying the climate, and that has to be fundamentally altered. Green capitalism and green politicians are just pot plants on the deck of the titanic.

XR’s potential is obvious but whether it will fizzle out, outgrow the liberal illusions of some its leading voices, is yet to be seen – and fought for from within, I guess. Some people will learn re the police, as people tend to do when faced with the blunt end of a truncheon: this discussion is already being had. (Some won’t learn, class background, white privilege and the blindness of ideology being what they are.) Although it’s also hard to know where such movements GO when they don’t quickly achieve their aim, many involved go off and take their spirit and experience into a myriad of other activities – as the thousands who passed through RTS groups and parties did.

One point relevant to both RTS and XR – in common with activists the world over – is the separation of the high points of parties, actions, occupations, from a daily life that is other, or rather the actions are the other. Some of us within RTS at one point argued for a dissolving of the group as such, but trying to employ the tactics, sense of fun and occupation, to our daily lives, to break down how ‘activism’ and ‘activists’ become separate from ‘our daily lives’, work, raising kids, etc, and from ‘ordinary people’ (ie non-activists). This in itself was naïve, like a lot of activists who develop a critique of activism, we really meant moving on to another kind of activism, an artificial change, if well-intentioned. Looking back (as someone who used to be a full-time activist but now isn’t an activist, really) this was groping towards what I still think is a useful path – breaking down walls between different parts of your own self and between people involve in politics and those who aren’t, in order to radically alter the whole separation and alienation of people from their own desires and needs. It’s questionable I suppose whether that can be done in isolation or as an ideological shift. And perhaps you can’t ‘abolish activism to create communism’ in that way anyway, or not as a small group. It’s the kind of shift that might happen in the context of massive upheavals and struggles. Ironically, climate-chaos inspired social breakdown might provide an opportunity for that, though to make an ideology of that possibility as some eco-activists do is repulsive and anti-human.

There’s a partial archive of links and pix on RTS parties (not by any means complete)

Watch Reclaim the Streets the movie:




Today in London riotous history, 1768: the ‘Massacre of St George’s Fields’

The turbulent career of John Wilkes, demagogue, rakish hellraiser, sometime reformer (and eventual pillar of the establishment), through the 1760s and 1770s, seems to connect the eras of eighteenth century political libertarianism and opportunistic opposition to government corruption with the more collective movement for political reform.

Wilkes served as a figurehead for a collection of varied and almost contradictory political and social urges – the national pressure for reform of the electoral franchise, the struggle for ‘liberty’ of the subject, the teeming resentments of the artisans and apprentices against their ‘betters’… His skill in enlisting disparate elements in his personal cause was matched only by his own seeming lack of principles, and his unwillingness to push forward to the full social conclusions of his rhetoric…

Wilkes had many allies in the City of London, among powerful merchants who combined genuine opposition to the corrupt political establishment with an eye for their own advancement. He tapped into widespread desires across the country for electoral reform, among a middle class frustrated by their exclusion from political representation.

But he could also excite a rowdy mob… Several times in the years from 1763 to 1772 his supporters thronged the city of London and terrified the ruling elite.

After Wilkes, writing in The North Briton magazine (issue number 45), in 1763, criticised a speech by King George III praising the Treaty of Paris (ending the Seven Years’ War)  he was charged with libel, in effect, accusing the King of lying. This got him locked up in the Tower of London for a while. However, Wilkes challenged the warrant for his arrest and the seizure of the paper, and won the case. His courtroom speeches kick-started the cry of “Wilkes and Liberty!”, which became a popular slogan for freedom of speech and resistance to the establishment. Later in 1763, Wilkes reprinted the issue, which was again seized by the government.

The ensuing uproar caused Wilkes to be flee across the English Channel to France; he was tried and found guilty in absentia of obscene libel and seditious libel, and was declared an outlaw on 19 January 1764.

Wilkes returned from exile in February 1768, a move which was to spark a huge agitation across the capital. Wilkes petitioned for a royal pardon, an appeal that went unanswered, but he was left free by the authorities. Despite still technically being an outlaw, he attempted without success to win election to the House of Commons in Westminster; when that failed, he stood for election in Middlesex in late March. Accompanied by a great crowd from London, Wilkes attended the hustings in Brentford, and was duly elected as MP for Middlesex. This result, a slap in the face for the government, caused outbreaks of wild celebrating among elements of the ‘London Mobility’, who rejoiced in the streets, harassing householders (especially the well-to-do) into lighting up their houses ‘for Wilkes and Liberty’ (smashing windows of those who refused). Despite Wilkes appealing for calm, demonstrations and riots followed for nearly two months.

The government were split as to how to deal with the situation, though ‘indignant that a criminal should I open daylight thrust himself upon the country as a candidate, his crime unexpurgated’. Wilkes then announced he would surrender himself as an outlaw to the Court of the King’s Bench, which he did on 20th April. He was initially released on bail, then committed a week later to imprisonment at the Kings Bench Prison, on the edge of St George’s Fields in Southwark, which sparked a renewal of the rioting. The Prison was surrounded daily by crowds, crying ‘Wilkes and Liberty’, ‘assembling riotously, ‘breaking, spoiling, demolishing, burning and destroying sundry wooden posts’ belonging to the prison gates and fence. On May 8th, “a numerous Mob assembled about the Kings Bench Prison exclaiming against he confinement of Mr. Wilkes, and threatened to unroof the Marshal’s house”. Wilkes made a speech from a window and persuaded the crowd to disperse, though they gathered again on the following day, demolishing the prison lobby. The 9th May also saw several riots and protests by striking workers.

May 10th however was to bring fiercer disturbances still. Being the day Parliament was due to open, the government feared that the crowds would get out of hand again, and ordered a troop of Horse and 100 Foot Guards to the Prison. Having received information that “great numbers of young persons, who appear to be apprentices and journeymen, have assembled themselves together in large bodies in different parts of this City… for several evenings last past”, the Mayor of London ordered master tradesmen to keep their journeymen and apprentices off the streets. However, from 10 in the morning, crowds gathered in St George’s Fields from all over London, estimated around 15-20,000 people were present. Various rumours were doing the rounds – that Wilkes would be released to take his seat in Parliament, that he would be removed for trial; that an attempt would be made to break into the Kings Bench and set him and the other prisoners free…

St George’s Fields in he 18th century

Sometime around 11 o’clock, the Southwark magistrates, sitting in their Rotation office in St Margaret’s Hill, received word from the Prison Marshal that the crowds were getting unruly. Magistrate Samuel Gillam and three other justices arrived at the Fields to find that demonstrators had broken through the ranks of the soldiers, who were lined up by the railings surround the prison. Someone had pasted up a poster bearing a poem:

“Venal judges and Ministers combine,
Wilkes and English Liberty to confine
Yet in true English hearts secure their fame is
Nor are such crowded levies in St James
While thus in prison Envy dooms their stay
Here’ o grateful Britons, your daily homage pay

Philo Libertalis no. 45.”

 Justice Gillam ordered the paper torn down, which stirred the crowd up; there were reportedly shouts of ‘Give us the paper!” and ‘Wilkes and Liberty for ever!’, ‘Damn the king, damn the Government, damn the Justices!’, ‘This is the most glorious opportunity for a Revolution that ever offered!’ (which will never catch on as a demo chant). Someone even, allegedly and perceptively, shouted ‘No Wilkes, No King!’

Justice Gillam read the Riot Act, which ordered crowds to disperse or force could legitimately be used against them… in response Gillam was jeered and pelted with a volley of stones, one of which, supposedly thrown by ‘a man in red’, injured him in the face. He ordered the soldiers to pursue his assailant; Captain Murray and three grenadiers chased the man, lost him, and then shot dead William Allen, the son of a publican, in nearby Blackman Street, taking him for the men they were chasing.

The death of William Allen

Meanwhile the Riot Act was read a second time, and the foot soldiers and Horse guards were ordered to fire into the crowd, which they did, killing at least five or six people and injuring 15 more. Some of these were aid to be bystanders or passers by.

A list was later drawn up, listing eleven people killed or wounded-

William Allen (as mentioned above)
William Redburn, weaver, shot through the thigh, died in the London hospital;
William Bridgeman, shot through the breast as he was fitting a haycart… died instantly;
Mary Jeffs, who was selling oranges, died instantly;
Mr Boddington, baker of Coventry, shot through the thighbone, died in St Thomas’s hospital;
Mr Lawley, a farrier, shot in the groin, died on the 12th May;
Margaret Walters, of the Mint, pregnant, died on the 12th May;
Mary Green, shot through the right-arm bone;
Mr Nichols, shot through the flesh of his breast;
Mrs Egremont, shot through her garment under her arm…

Two men were also stabbed with bayonets.

One of the constables guarding the prison was disgusted with the soldiers, who has said had aggravated the situation by their presence, then “fired a random. A great number of them loaded three times, and seemed to enjoy their fire; I thought it a great cruelty.”

The Justices spent all day trying to get the crowds dispersed from St George’s Fields, but in the evening, “some hundreds of disorderly persons detached themselves from the Mob in the Fields” and marched to attack the houses of two of the Southwark magistrates, Edward Russell and Richard Capel, in revenge for the shootings. At Russell’s house, at the foot of London Bridge, saw the crowd break in and smash windows, stove in the front door, and steal a large twenty-gallon cask of spirits, which they drank. Russell home arrived to read the Riot Act; meanwhile Capel drove rioters off from his home in Bermondsey Street, before marching off with soldiers to join Russell and arrest some of the crowd.

There had been trouble in other parts of the capital… A crowd gathering in Palace Yard had rioted outside the House of Lords, shouting for Wilkes and that they were hungry and ‘it was as well to be hanged as starved!’ Another mob had attacked the Mansion House (the home and seat of power of the Lord Mayor)…

The day also saw demonstrations, sabotage and rioting by some of the numerous groups of workers attempting to win wage rises or protect/improve their working conditions  – an explosion of workplace struggle was taking place at this time, overlapping with, sometimes feeding into or taking inspiration from, the Wilkesite movement (though sometimes rejecting it)… eg on the 10th sailors took part in a mass demo at Parliament demanding a wage rise, while in the East End, Dingley’s mechanical saw mill was torn down by sawyers whose livelihood it threatened

The events of the 10th quickly became a cause celebre, nicknamed the ‘Massacre of St George’s Fields’, and William Allen’s death especially was widely condemned. A hastily conducted inquest concluded the two soldiers who had shot him were guilty of ‘wilful murder’, and their commander, Alexander Murray, of aiding and abetting murder. Warrants for their arrest were issued, and one for Justice Gillam soon followed, for ordering the shooting. In the end all four were acquitted, however.

Thirty four people were arrested in connection with the events of the 10th, on charges of riotous assembly, unlawful assembly invading the Justices’ houses, obstructing the Justices, and similar offences, but the government may have decided in the circumstances to tread lightly, as most were discharged without trial, and only three fined or jailed (compare this to some of the much heavier sentences for silkweavers and coalheavers arising from their strikes)… The shootings reflected badly on them, particularly as Wilkes was a few weeks later able to publish a letter from Lord Weymouth to magistrates ordering them to make more use of troops in putting down riots, enabling him to present the firing on the crowd at St George’s Fields as part of a concerted plan by a brutal and tyrannical government to repress the ‘rights of true Englishmen’.

William Allen’s death in particular aroused sympathy and outrage among Wilkes’ supporters and in the population more generally.

Distressed at the loss of his son, William’s father began a private prosecution of the three soldiers accused of his death. At this time, the majority of prosecutions were initiated and paid for by the victim and could be costly. Donald Macleane, the man who fired the musket, was tried for wilful murder at Guildford Assizes in August 1768. He was acquitted and his accomplices, Maclauray and Murray, were discharged. This only fuelled the suspicions of Wilkes’ supporters of the authorities and the government.

William Allen the elder then decided to petition the House of Commons. On the 25 April 1771 John Glynn MP, a friend and supporter of Wilkes, begged leave to bring up the petition. While the petition was the appeal of a grieving father, a greater concern was the threat of what appeared to be an increasingly oppressive government led by the king’s ministers. They had supported Macleane’s defence and through ‘oppressive and collusive acts’ had ‘entirely defeated [Mr Allen] in his pursuit of justice’. The Secretary at War, Viscount Barrington, had also commended the soldiers and rewarded Macleane. Mr Allen hoped that by petitioning parliament ‘his great and unspeakable loss should be confined to himself, and not be made a precedent, for bringing destruction and slavery upon his fellow subjects.’

The petition prompted a debate on the floor of the House of Commons. The prime minister, Lord North, opposed it being brought up, while Edmund Burke, a critic of North’s ministry, suggested the setting up of a parliamentary inquiry to look into the matter. Sir George Savile MP also spoke in favour of the petition ‘with great energy’ as it ‘came with greater propriety from a father, as he complained of the loss of a son, for which loss he was prevented by power from paying his last duty.’ A division was called by the Speaker and members voted on whether or not to accept the petition. It was decided by 158 votes to 33 that the petition should not be brought up.

The text of the petition was published shortly after being put to Parliament in the Annual Register, a publication edited by one of its supporters. It was accompanied by a letter from Mr Allen, which expressed his disappointment while thanking the MPs who supported his cause.

The death of William Allen played into the hands of critics of the King and his ministers at a time of crisis and boosted popular support for John Wilkes. He was buried in Newington Churchyard, Southwark and a large monument was erected in memory of ‘An Englishman of unspotted life and amiable disposition […] murdered […] on the pretence of supporting the Civil Power, which he never insulted, but had through life obeyed and respected.’

Wilkes himself shortly had his outlawry reversed, but was almost immediately jailed for 22 months for the various earlier charges that had got him outlawed. There followed a bewildering series of successive elections for Middlesex, as he was disqualified, re-elected, declared ineligible, a supporter elected instead… all accompanied by rioting and fights between his supporters and heavies hired by pro-government candidates.

On his release Wilkes was elected an alderman of the City of London, and gradually built up his support there, eventually convincing Parliament to allow him to take his seat as an MP. He did speak in favour of political reform and an extension of the franchise, even to ‘The meanest mechanic, the poorest peasant and day labourer’. His attempts to encourage legislation along reformist lines was however, defeated by the power of the political class allied against him.

Historians have questioned the extent to which Wilkes was ever truly committed to the programme he laid out in his March address. Some have concluded that his speeches amounted to little more than grandstanding…

Eventually he would rise to command soldiers repressing the 1780 Gordon Rioters, shooting down those who would have been his ardent supporters ten years before, and become Lord Mayor of London.

But the forces who backed him would remain in play, and as he faded into comfortable accommodation with the status quo that once excluded him, new social movements would arise to assert the demands Wilkes and his supporters had articulated, and take them even further…


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

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Today in London fashion history, 1768: hatters strike for a wage rise

“This day the hatters struck, and refused to work till their wages are raised…”
(Annual Register, 9th May 1768)

This is an interesting snapshot, exposing a glimpse of a struggle; little is then heard of the hatters strike. We know it went on for at least five weeks though, as on 21st June, John Dyer, hatmaker of Southwark, swore that ‘on Thursday last, a gang of Hatters, to the number of thirty, came to his house in the Maze in the Parish of St Olave’s, Southwark, about one o’clock at noon, in a riotous manner, and insisting this informant turn off the men he then at work, which he refused; and, upon such refusal, the gang of Hatters threatened to pull his house down and take this Informant thereout. And this informant saith they would have begun to execute such threats if it had not been for one Mr Phillips who accidentally was at this Informant’s house and did prevail on them to omit it. And this Informant saith there was one Thomas Fitzhugh present aiding and assisting among ye said mob, and came and asked this Informant, and came and asked this Informant whether he would turn off his men which refused; and upon that the said Fitzhugh declared, if he would not, ”damn them who would not have you out(meaning this Informant) and the house down.’ Thomas Fitzhugh was later charged with a breach of the peace and a misdemeanour at the Surrey Sessions, and bailed to appear on 21st July… there is no other record of what happened to him… or of the outcome of the strike. Did they win a wage rise?

The hatmakers appeared to have used the common tactic, where work was organised in small workshops, of marching from workshop to workshop to ensure the workers were paid the going rate, or the rate they were trying to win… This generally involved some intimidation of the masters, and on occasion, any of the workers who were working at less than the rate…

Interestingly,  this is a very early use of the term ‘strike’ by a non-sailors to mean a work stoppage… since the origin of the term is said to have come from the sailors’ strike of the same year, 1768, when they showed their refusal to work by ‘striking’ the sails (cutting the ropes to drop them to the deck).

Hatters are mentioned in reports of the Wilkite riots of 1768-71, as being prominent among Wilkes’ supporters. 1768 was a year of turbulent political rioting, in support of Wilkes’ vague program of reform and liberty, and protests and strikes by numerous groups of London workers… these two intertwined and merged, and sometimes diverged… The trades disputes inspired others, spreading like a wildfire…

On the same day as the hatters struck,  9th May, there were demonstrations by a ‘body of watermen’, complaining of their working conditions to the Lord Mayor, and a protest, probably pro-Wilkes, both at the Mansion House, in the City. The next day. 10th May, was to be even more uproarious, with the Massacre of St George’s Fields, on the hatters’ door step, and across town in Limehouse, Dingley’s sawmill pulled down by angry out of work sawyers.

The Annual Register entry doesn’t specify the location of the hatters’ dispute, but given the later reports about intimidation, it was almost certainly based in Southwark or Bermondsey, London’s main areas of hatmaking for centuries. Hats were manufactured ‘to a greater extent in London than anywhere else’… at least 50 years after the 1768 strike, there were 3500 hatters, pretty much localised to Southwark.

From at least the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the Parish of St Olave’s, Bermondsey, was once the centre of hat-making in London and was called the “Hatters’ Paradise.” There were many hatters, or felt-makers, who had premises on Bermondsey Street; they had, at least in the 1590s, a willingness to riot in defence of each other.

In 1770, there was a strike of journeymen hat-dyers in Southwark, again accused of forming a mob to enforce wage rates: ‘at all shops they came to they obliged the men to strike in order to have their wages raised’.

Around 1800, the ‘Maze’, Tooley Street, the northern end of Bermondsey Street, and other streets in the  immediate vicinity, formed the grand centre of the hat-manufacture in London; but in the following decades, the hatmaking scene shifted farther westward. By the 1840s this meant the hat-making trade was mostly concentrated between Borough High Street and Blackfriars Road (though some hatters remained in Bermondsey). Note the name Hatfields, a street west of Blackfriars Road where many hat manufacturing companies were based in the 19th century. It forms the boundary between Southwark and Lambeth.

Being a fashion trade, subject to extreme variations in demand, hat makers could be busy or idle depending on the season, which made it difficult to earn a consistent living. Changes in fashion could mean new hat styles, which could mean having to quickly learn new skills, working with new materials, new techniques… Very much like the Spitalfields silkweavers at this time, and later the East End tailoring trades, haymaking was very much dependent on its proximity to the well-to-do customers in the City and Westminster.

A lot of workers were “out workers”, collecting materials from a ‘master’, carrying out the work at home, and then delivering the finished goods for payment.

The job was unpleasant and dangerous. An important chemical during the shaping of the hats was dilute sulphuric acid, a highly poisonous substance – hence the saying ‘as mad as a hatter’.

Hatters had been active in wage disputes in Southwark in 1763 – a Hatters Society organizing hatters had possibly formed in 1759, later existing as the union of silk hatters.

In 1777, master hatmakers complained to the House of Commons that the journeymen of the trade had entered into a combination, which they called a Congress, passed bylaws, prevented the hiring of apprentices, and threatened strikes to raise wages.

This union exercised what was described as a ‘despotic power’ in the trade in the 1840s; it was involved in inter-trade political organising, and sent money in support of a hatters’ strike in Lancashire in 1840.


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

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Today in London parklife, 1576: locals attack fences enclosing common land, Osterley Park

Osterley Park, West London, used to be the grounds of a large country house, built here for Sir Thomas Gresham in the late 16th century.Gresham was a merchant and financier who acted on behalf of King Edward VI, queens Mary I and Elizabeth I, the founder of the Royal Exchange in the City of London.

There were attempts to enclose land in the Heston and Isleworth area from as early as the 12th century, when Richard Duke of Cornwall enclosed land in Isleworth (only for Londoners to throw down the fences in 1264). Until the fifteenth century, and for some time afterwards, the arable lands in Heston and Isleworth lay mainly in open fields, though there were always some enclosed lands. In the 16th century some lands were thrown open for common grazing between Michaelmas and February. The earliest large enclosures may have been of the meadow and pasture lands round Syon Abbey in the 15th century: the abbey’s park north of the London Road may have also lain partly on former arable. In the later 16th century several people tried to enclose different bits of land. This, as elsewhere, represented a threat to the livelihoods of many of the local poor, who used common land for grazing animals, collecting fuel to burn during the winter, and also gathering some food stuffs.

Osterley Park was enclosed by Thomas Gresham under a licence granted to him in 1565 to ‘impark’ 600 acres. The trespasses that followed (see below) demonstrate that this was not very popular with the locals. Gresham included up to 140 acres of tilled lands in the park, though all of this was probably already enclosed, if not also used as pasture. Some at least had probably been enclosed assart (land converted from forest to arable use) from the beginning. Most of the land which Gresham ‘imparked’ was previously known as Osterley farm, which he already owned – some 200 acres stretching westwards from the house in Osterley Lane nearly to Heston village.

Queen Elizabeth I stayed with Sir Thomas Gresham at Osterley House, in early May 1576 (though elsewhere said to be the 10th-12th, this isn’t totally consistent with the accounts given in the letters written afterwards, see below, which suggest the enclosure riot took place overnight May 6th-7th). Queen Elizabeth was said to be impressed with Sir Thomas’s new posh gaff – however, her stay there was not uneventful.

During her visit, there was a protest by local people against his enclosure of common land. A crowd of villagers from Heston and Norwood gathered, and some women tore up the palings round his park and ‘diabolically and maliciously burnt’ them. It’s unclear whether the protest was deliberately timed to disrupt the queen’s visit, or was merely a coincidence. In any case, she was ‘greatly disquieted’ by the protest.

Good Queen Bess ordered that some of the rioters must be punished.

On May 22, the Privy Council wrote to Justice Southcote and the Recorder of London (William Fleetwood): ‘advertising them that where certain persons are committed to the Marshalsea, whose names are Joan Ayre, Mary Harris, George Lenton and George Bennet, for burning Sir Thomas Gresham’s park pale at that time when the Queen’s Majesty was there, wherewith her Highness was very much offended, and commanded that the offenders should be searched out and punished according to their offence. They are therefore required to take some pains therein and to appoint some time and place to have the prisoners brought before them, and severally to examine them and to induce them by all means they can to open the truth, and for their better instructions therein Sir Thomas Gresham will instruct them for that purpose, and Mr Attorney is appointed also to join with them if he conveniently may, or at least to send them such examinations as he hath heretofore taken in that matter’.

The Council also wrote to the Attorney-General [Gilbert Gerard] on June 18, ‘on May 6 [sic] at about 10 p.m. Joan Eyer wife of Nicholas Eyer of Heston husbandman and Mary Harris of Heston spinster broke into a park enclosed with pales and posts for the preservation of deer and other animals of Sir Thomas Gresham (the Queen with her Privy Council and many others in attendance on her being in ‘Osterley Park House’ within the park) and tore up and threw down posts and pales of the park. These posts and pales the said Joan and Mary on May 7 at 2-3 a.m. maliciously, diabolically and wickedly burnt, to the very great disquiet and disturbance of the Queen and her attendants. Also a True Bill that Joan, Mary, and about 20 other men and women, at the command and instigation of George Lenton tailor and Nicholas Hewes husbandman, all of Heston, on May 7 with staves, two-pronged forks, spades and axes at Osterley Park (the Queen being at Osterley House), broke down the enclosure. Adjourned to June 19.’

There are no extant records from July 19th however, and no indication of what happened to George Lenton, Nicholas Hewes, Joan Eyre and Mary Harris after they were sent to the Marshalsea Prison.

In the meantime, it seems the locals had got together a petition against Gresham regarding the enclosures, according to another letter from the Privy Council:

July 19, St James’s, Privy Council to five gentlemen, ‘with a petition exhibited to the Queen’s Majesty in the behalf of certain poor men complaining to receive wrong by an enclosure made by Sir Thomas Gresham of certain common ground, parcel of his Park’. The Queen has referred the matter to the Council, who now refer it to them to confer with both parties and to enquire into what rights were and are held over the common by the lord, the tenant and the cottager, and to examine ‘what detriment the poor men do receive by the means of this enclosure, what cattle they might keep afore, and what they may keep now’, and to give their opinions how ‘this controversy may be most reasonably compounded to the satisfaction of all parties’.

The queen’s outrage is consistent with her attitude (in common with all the Tudor monarchs) that poor folk should keep their place and be punished for questioning their betters; however, it would have doubtless been given extra spice both by her close proximity to the violent events, and by her own memory of the enclosure rebellions of 1548-9, which threatened the social order considerably when she was a young woman.

Enclosures were beginning to form a major issue in the mid-late 16th century. The destruction of much of the effective welfare system with the dissolution of the monasteries, was being compounded by the increasing rural upheaval, the acquisition of land by new and greedy classes, who saw profits from enclosure of open land into larger farms, often to enable larger flocks of sheep. As more people were driven to the social margins, more of the land available for subsistence was being fenced off; a vicious spiral that would only speed up over the next 200 years.

There were further troubles at Osterley Park over enclosure in 1614, when several women cut down trees belonging to Sir William Reade, who had inherited he house.

Two other attempts to enclose common land in the Heston area about 1600 seem to have been defeated by a group of tenants led by Sir Gideon Awnsham. Complaints were also made in 1634 about recent enclosures of the common lands.

Whether because of local resistance, or other factors, agriculture in Heston was relatively little affected by enclosures for centuries; and the open fields, in spite of enclosures on their edges, remained largely untouched until 1818.

There was a long rebel tradition locally; quite apart from the resistance to enclosure. Heston folk were involved in riots during the 1381 peasants Revolt.

And in 1830 several farmers in Heston received threatening letters during the Swing Rebellion.

And the locals are still not taking the theft of space lying down: only last year, residents of nearby Isleworth defeated the attempt by the aristocratic Duke of Northumberland to destroy their allotments to build flats… Keeping up the old traditions of fighting to keep some land out of the hands of the wealthy!

Today – and yet not today – in London festive history: the first UK Workers May Day held, 1890

In the late nineteenth century a new layer of meaning was added to May Day, as the first of May became associated with the international workers movement.

For the early workers’ movement internationally a key demand was for a reduction in the length of the working day. The 1884 Chicago congress of the Federation of Organized and Labor Unions (which later become the American Federation of Labor) declared that from May 1st 1886, it would impose an eight-hour working day in the United States by industrial action. Unlike most strikes which respond to particular events, this date was set several years in advance.

It is unlikely to have been a purely arbitrary date – but why the first of May? In parts of the United States May 1st was known as Moving Day, the date when leases expired and when new terms and conditions of work were set for building tradesmen and others who worked outdoors. This would make it an obvious date for setting new hours of work. Of course the notion of May 1st as effectively the start of a new year might itself be related to older seasonal traditions. It is also quite possible that for some within the workers’ movement at the time the date had a symbolic value as a time of renewal, related to these traditions. Immigrants to the USA brought with them various May Day customs from their home countries. For instance a Maypole was famously set up at Merrymount in New England by Thomas Morton in the 1620s.

There does also seem to have been a precedent for radical movements to regard May 1st as significant. We have already seen that the Levellers’ ‘Agreement of the People’ was published on 1 May 1650. The proposed French Revolutionary Calendar renamed the month Floreal, with the opening day envisaged as a celebration of love and nature. The utopian socialist Robert Owen announced in 1833 that the New Moral World should begin on 1 May 1834 – Owenite ideas certainly had their influence in the US so this may have been a factor.

Whatever the factors involved in choosing the date, the events of Saturday 1 May 1886 and the succeeding days are well documented. The eight hour day strike went ahead in parts of the USA, and by May 3 1886 perhaps 750,000 workers had struck or demonstrated. In Chicago police killed two people when they opened fire on Monday 3 May during clashes outside the McCormack Reaper Works, where workers had been on strike since February. The following day a policeman was killed by a bomb thrown at a protest meeting in Haymarket square in the city. Eight anarchists who had been in the forefront of the 8-hour-day agitation in Chicago were convicted of murder, of whom seven were sentenced to death.

There was an international outcry against the trial and the sentences. In London those who spoke out included William Morris, Annie Besant, George Bernard Shaw, Peter Kropotkin, Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, Ford Madox Brown, Walter Crane, E. Nesbit, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling.

Nevertheless, four of the accused were hanged. The deaths in Chicago had a powerful impact across the world, not least on Jim Connell who was inspired to write ‘The Red Flag’ anthem in 1889 on a train to New Cross, after attending a meeting about the Chicago martyrs.

The movement for a shorter working day did not die with those who became known as the Chicago Martyrs. In December 1888 the American Federation of Labour called for a national day of demonstrations and strikes on 1 May 1890, and this call was echoed in July 1889 by the international socialist conference in Paris.

In London, May Day 1890 was marked by a huge demonstration in Hyde Park, a venue that was to become the focus for May Day protests for many years to come.

From the start, though, there was a division over whether to mark the day on May 1st it, or at the nearest weekend. Most of the socialist parties and trade unions in Europe and the US were going ahead for May 1st, and many UK socialists and trade unionists were in favour of holding a demonstration on Mayday, feeling it would be more powerful for workers to stop work, and to be in step with their comrades internationally. A meeting in late March 1890, organised by the Labour Electoral Association, attended by delegates of 50 trade unions, discussed the proposal for “a general public demonstration in favour of the legislative enactment of an Eight Hours Day.” This meeting voted, after some debate, for May Day; a resolution was passed that “where the workmen’s organisations were strong enough, all men should leave work, except such as were certain of being dismissed altogether if they did so; and that where they were not strong enough, there should be a meeting in the evening and a petition should be signed.”

However, nine days later, another, larger, meeting, with 94 attending, again under the auspices of the Labour Electoral Association, reversed this decision, and voted instead to hold a demo on Sunday 4th May, beginning in Hyde Park.

Despite their reservations, many socialists fell into line behind this, including the Bloomsbury Socialist Society (dominated by Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling), who had previously pushed hard for May Day. Others, like the radical newspaper, the People’s Press, blamed the hidebound conservatism of some of the older craft-based trade unions for bottling it:
“It is unfortunate that this year the English workers could not see their way clearly to falling in line with their continental brethren on 1st May, for which the ‘apathy and abstention’ of the older and richer unions were held responsible.”

A May Day Central Committee was set up, representing the federated radical clubs, trades unions, and various socialist groups and societies. But even when May 4th was agreed on, there were divisions, with the London Trades Council (suspicious of the Marxist links of some on the Committee, and not yet committed to a legally legislated 8-Hour Day) insisting on separate speaking platforms, and on marching separately.

While the Mayday Central Committee was committed to the statutory enactment of the eight-hour day, the London Trades Council in 1890 would go no further than to declare itself in ‘favour of the principle of reducing hours of labour, leaving the precise method to the future’. It was dominated by an older generation of trade unionists who were nervous about supporting even the Sunday demonstration. However, as one of the old guard of trade unionists, George Howell, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green, put it, “Goaded by the attacks of the Socialists and New Trade Unionists, the London Trades Council found itself obliged to participate in May Day celebrations in favour of ‘solidarity of labour’, Eight Hours and other idealist proposals”. Tom Mann, a leading socialist and New Unionist, succeeded in getting round the majority’s opposition to a legal, eight-hour day by proposing that the London Trades Council hold a separate demonstration on May 4th. Hence the Trades Council made its own separate arrangements, including marching to Hyde Park by a different route from the Central Committee’s procession and having seven separate platforms for its speakers in the Park.

Meanwhile, support from the two main socialist organisations was also sketchy… the Social Democratic Federation dithered as to whether to take part. SDF leader, the strange tory-Marxist HM Hyndman, was bitterly sectarian towards anything not originated by himself, and particularly opposed to anything that had been resolved by the 1889 Paris socialist Congress He also held a grudge against Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling, who had split from the SDF due to his jingoistic and dictatorial behaviour). In the end, Hyndman arranged with the London Trades Council for the Federation to speak from two of its seven platforms in Hyde Park.

Meanwhile, the smaller, more puristic Socialist League, as usual a bundle of contradictions, enthusiastically supported May Day as an international Day of working class solidarity – but disparaged the issue of an 8-Hour Day as of lesser importance, and a mere ‘palliative measure’ distracting from the fight for a socialist society. The League also stuck to the letter of the international resolution and declared they would support only an event on May 1st itself.

May 1st 1890 actually fell on a Thursday: the Socialist League and London anarchists marked the day by holding a meeting at Clerkenwell Green (still a venue for a mayday march today!), which attracted a few thousand people. It also attracted the hostility of the police, who hated the socialists, and harassed and attacked both a contingent of Soho socialists & French anarchists, marching to Clerkenwell Green, and women strikers from a Clerkenwell envelope factory, also on their way to the Green. (Polie violence against socialist open air meetings was a regular occurrence at the time, and they would continue to target Mayday events in later years).

The main demonstration took place on the following Sunday – May 4th – and saw contingents heading towards Hyde Park from all over London. Reports credited the demo with attracting over 300,000 people.

There were, as detailed above, two demonstrations even on the 4th, with the Trades Council, supported by several unions (including the dockers), marching up Grosvenor Place to Hyde Park, while another demo began at the Embankment and marched through Holborn and Oxford Street…

The following description from the South London Press of the attendance of the North Camberwell Radical Club and Institute provides an insight into how local groups organised themselves for the march:

“A goodly contingent went from this club to take part in the monster eight-hours demonstration. The procession was headed by the club’s excellent band, which discoursed some well-chosen music on the way. A large banner followed, bearing the device in front, ‘The Proletariat Unite’, and on the reverse side the legend, ‘Eight hours’ work, eight hours’ pay; Eight hours’ rest, eight bob a day’. Mr Oodshorn devised and executed the banner, which was very effective. Mr J. Harrison (chairman of the club) headed those who marched in front, and Mr. H.J. Begg accompanied the contingent until it took its place in the general ranks. Two breaks followed the pedestrians – one full of ladies, and one containing those of the sterner sex who were not equal to a four-hours march on a warm day. Messrs. Benstroke and J.Sage (chairman of the Political Council) acted as marshalls. The breaks, which added greatly to the effectiveness of the procession, were under the charge of Mr A. Boreham (chairman of the Entertainment Sub-Committee). The contingent arrived in the park in time to hear some good speaking from No.7 Platform, and afterwards Mrs Besant’s stirring speech from the Socialists’ platform. The whole affair was excellently managed, and good humour and good order prevailed throughout'”(South London Press, 10 May 1890).

The various speaking platforms spread out around the park, centred on the famous Reformers Tree. Platform 1 featured Miss Robertson of the Women’s Trade Union League, WM Thompson, Radical candidate for Deptford, and John Turner of the Shop Assistants Union. From Platform 2, Robert Bontine Cunningham-Grahame, the Liberal but socialist MP for North West Lanarkshire, Irish land League leader Michael Davitt, and George Lansbury (then an SDF member but later Labour MP and leader) spoke. Platform 3, organised by the Gasworkers Union, hosted several of their members, as well as Eleanor Marx, German Socialist leader Eduard Bernstein, and others. Platform 4, with Bloomsbury socialist Edward Aveling as MC, included Russian anarchist Sergius Stepniak, French Marxist Paul Lafargue, and the representatives of various radical clubs as speakers. Platform 5, was also run by the Gasworkers Union, and their leader Will Thorne, the SDF’s John Burns, and several women trade unionists spoke. George Bernard Shaw and others spoke from platform 6. Finally platform 7 included representatives of various small trade unions.

Friedrich Engels reported on the demo in a letter to the German socialist August Bebel:

“The demonstration here on 4th May was nothing short of overwhelming, and even the entire bourgeois press had to admit it. I was on Platform 4 (a huge dray cart) and could catch sight of only a part – a fifth or an eighth – of the throng, but it was head upon head, as far as the eye could reach. 250 or 300,000 people, of whom over three-quarters were workers demonstrating. Aveling, Lafargue and Stepniak spoke from my platform – I was but an onlooker… Stepniak, and also Ede [Eduard Bernstein] on the platform where Tussy [Eleanor Marx] was, had a brilliant reception. The seven platforms were 150 yards apart, the last some 150 yards from our end of the Park, thus over 1200 yards long and our meeting (that for the introduction of the 8-Hour day by international legislation) was at least 4 to 500 yards wide and all tightly packed, and on each side the 6 platforms of the Trades Council and the two of the Social Democratic Federation, though not even half as well attended by the public as ours. All in all, the most gigantic meeting that has ever been held here…”

From the numbers of banners, contemporaries assessed the May 4th demo as being hugely strengthened by members of supporters of ‘new unionism’, the recently born organisations, mainly born among poorly paid ‘low skilled’ workers. This wave had begun in the East End of London with the matchwomens’ strike in 1888, followed by the gasworkers and dockers’ strikes of the following year, all of which had inspired a flush of strikes and unionisation among industries generally ignored by the longer-established, craft unions. Based as they were in the skilled workforce, almost exclusively male, conservative in their outlook and tied to political parties, the craft unions observed new unionism with suspicion. The London Trades Council, created by the older unions, was slow, ponderous and cautious, and not keen to associate with some of the radical elements who were emerging.

The London Trades Council’s attempt at separate organisation didn’t go well. The Leicester Daily Mercury’s correspondent gave the following assessment:

“The fact is that the Trades Council were beaten by their very numbers. They marched into the park in straggling detachment, and all interest in the demonstration had died away and the crowd had gone before the last detachment arrived, weary and forlorn, at ten minutes to six. Thus the Eight Hours Bill party gained a triumphant victory. They showed their full strength, and their opponents, the numerically stronger, never even looked imposing. They occupied the ground first and engaged the interest of the crowd. They had excellent and well-known speakers, whereas their opponents confined themselves to working men orators. Last, but not least, they had a clear and definite proposition to make.

The only Trades Council platform which drew a large crowd was the main one, at which Tom Mann and Ben Tillett of the Dockers’ Union spoke. This was surrounded by dockers, barge-builders, ropemakers and railwaymen. Mann, though he was a well-known advocate of the legal eight-hour day, loyally spoke to the Trades Council motion.

The Central Committee’s organisation coped better with the huge number of demonstrators. At 4.00 p.m. a bugle sounded, and their speakers, standing on the seven wagons serving as platforms, began.”

However as The Times correspondent noted: “Procession after procession came streaming into the park, bands played through speeches and it was a medley of sounds.”

The biggest crowd gathered around platform five, the Gas Workers’ Union’s platform, to hear John Burns, then at the height of his radical reputation, who gave a fiery speech, which included very blunt criticism of the older generation of trade union leaders on the TUC and London Trades Council. He said that he and the men on that platform ‘had done more for unionism in the last twelve months and had formed more trade unions in that time than all the Broadhursts and Shiptons put together. Burns said that although the gas workers “had got an eight hours day by voluntary effort and by combination”, they knew that “directly trade declined and the boom was past” the employers would take such gains away unless they were protected by an act of parliament.

While the main theme on the Central Committee’s platforms was the eight- hour day, it was not the sole one. On their second platform Thomas Sutherest, then Radical prospective parliamentary candidate for Doncaster, gave a vigorous speech against sweated labour. Michael Davitt, the great Irish Nationalist advocate of land nationalisation, also spoke from that platform, urging not only that “the land should belong to the people” but also that, “It rested with the people themselves to send to Parliament men from their own ranks who were really representatives of labour, and the working classes would never achieve any satisfactory reform until they realised and acted upon this fact”.

While the massive London demonstration of May 4th, 1890, received international attention, there were others elsewhere in Britain. These were held in places with marked SDF, Socialist League or New Union activity or a blend of these. Within England, the largest May Day demonstrations appear to have been in Northampton and Leeds.

In Northampton, in spite of pouring rain, there was a large procession headed by a temperance hand. The Times reported that:

Nearly 10,000 working men assembled in the market square, representing almost every branch of labour in the town and district, including about 2,000 agricultural labourers from adjacent villages.

In Leeds some 6,000 workers marched in procession, with a band playing the Marseillaise. At their head was a banner of the Leeds Jewish Tailors, Pressers and Machinists, and those in the march included 1,100 Jewish tailors, 900 slipper makers and 800 gas workers, followed by contingents of dyers, maltsters, teamsters and general labourers. There were also sizeable demonstrations in Bristol and Plymouth.

In Scotland the largest demonstration was in Aberdeen on Saturday, May 17th. Some 6,000 trade unionists took part in the procession and between 10,000 and 20,000 heard H.H. Champion speak at the open-air meeting. In Edinburgh, in spite of the opposition of the trades council to a demonstration, between 400 and 600 people turned out to hear Keir Hardie and other speakers on Sunday, May 4th.

The question of whether to go for a working day or not was more than one of caution and practicality however, and Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s assessment of the argument concludes that the decision to plump for the weekend actually did damage the prospects for May Day as a festival of working class resistance in Britain (in contrast to some countries on the continent where it became a huge part of workers’ cultural tradition):

“The crucial matter at issue was whether the workers should be asked to demonstrate in working time, that is to go on strike, for in 1890 the First of May fell on a Thursday. Basically, cautious parties and strong established trade unions – unless they deliberately wanted to be or found themselves engaged in industrial action, as was the plan of the American Federation of Labor – did not see why they should stick their own and their members’ necks out for the sake of a symbolic gesture. They therefore tended to opt for a demonstration on the first Sunday in May and not on the first day of the month. This was and remained the British option, which was why the first great May Day took place on 4 May. However, it was also the preference of the German party, although there, unlike Britain, in practice it was the First of May that prevailed. In fact, the question was to be formally discussed at the Brussels International Socialist Congress of 1891, with the British and Germans opposing the French and Austrians on this point, and being outvoted. Once again this issue, like so many other aspects of May Day, was the accidental by¬product of the international choice of the date. The original resolution made no reference at all to stopping work. The problem arose simply because the first May Day fell on a weekday, as everybody planning the demonstration immediately and necessarily discovered.

Caution dictated otherwise. But what actually made May Day was precisely the choice of symbol over practical reason. It was the act of symbolically stopping work which turned May Day into more than just another demonstration, or even another commemorative occasion. It was in the countries or cities where parties, even against hesitant unions, insisted on the symbolic strike that May Day really became a central part of working-class life and of labour identity, as it never really did in Britain, in spite of its brilliant start. For refraining from work on a working day was both an assertion of working-class power – in fact, the quintessential assertion of this power – and the essence of freedom, namely not being forced to labour in the sweat of one’s brow, but choosing what to do in the company of family and friends. It was thus both a gesture of class assertion and class struggle and a holiday: a sort of trailer for the good life to come after the emancipation of labour. And, of course, in the circumstances of 1890 it was also a celebration of victory, a winner’s lap of honour round the stadium. Seen in this light May Day carried with it a rich cargo of emotion and hope.” (Birth of a Holiday: The First of May Eric Hobsbawm)

Two weeks after the events of May Day 1890, this article was published in the Socialist League’s newspaper, Commonweal, written by William Morris, artist, designer and communist. It pretty much expresses the League’s disapproval of not observing May 1st itself, bit spends more time expounding their view of the 8-hour agitation as a waste of time, a mere sop to ‘slaves’. This was their theoretical approach to most campaigns for immediate daily improvements in working people’s lives (though many League members in practice also took part in such work). Their purist disdain for everyday struggles was only one of the reasons the SL never really took off; within a couple of years the organisation had dwindled to nothing.

The ‘weekend’ Maydays continued to be held in Hyde Park for a number of years through the 1890s, moving to Crystal Palace in 1900…


Some more on the history of May Day:

Peter Linebaugh: The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day

Some of the history of Maydays in South London (from which some of the above article was nicked.

Other bits were lifted from Hayes Peoples History

Other useful reading on this:
Eleanor Marx, Volume Two, By Yvonne Kapp

Edward Aveling’s account of the organising of the 1890 May Day


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

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