Today in London striking history, 1965: Foyles bookshop strikers go back to work

In May 1965, the staff of Foyle’s went on strike for a month to demand payment of a living wage and the recognition of their right to join a union, and reinstatement of a dismissed employee and improvement in wages.

As a result of talks which took place between the parties, agreement was reached on a number of points and work was resumed on 25th May. Subsequently, however, there was disagreement over wage negotiations and this resulted in a further strike.

Below we reprint an interview we found with the Foyle’s worker whose sacking sparked the strike.

Sebastian Harding – How did you begin at Foyles?

Marius Webb – I was born in London. My father was English, from Battersea, and he was working for Battersea Council when war broke out. My mother had come to the United Kingdom from New Zealand via Australia. After the war, they decided that London was appalling and they should get out, so they came to Australia. But I left when I was twenty-one and came back by ship to Europe.

My first experience of London was the grim reality of staying with my aunt and uncle in Balham. One day, I saw an advertisement in the paper for a job at Foyles that paid £10 a week. During my University year I had a part in establishing a small bookshop in Melbourne called ‘The Paperback’ and I had also studied English at University so had a good knowledge of literature. I passed the interview and was told I could begin work on the following Monday.

I remember the first week at Foyles very well. The policy was that all new staff went directly into the mailroom. You sat around this enormous table and opened all the mail that came in. Someone would come up from transport area with a huge sack full of mail and dump it on the table. There were a couple of stout old ladies who managed the room and they would sort the mail out. Christina (Christina Foyle, owner of the Foyles business from 1963) was an avid stamp collector and, equipped with a paper knife, you had to open the invoices in a particular way so that the stamp was saved.

Bucket loads of money orders was what came in most most frequently. Talk about having a cash cow! We were at the fag end of the British Empire and people all over the world were members of the Foyles book club. They would send off monthly for a new book sent with a money order. Foyles also ran a book club which did reprints of famous books from the twenties and thirties. This was a considerable part of their business and so the mailing room was quite an operation.
It was good for someone new because you could speak to the people opening mail on either side of you. The mail room was the fulcrum of the whole place with approximately twenty people working there at one time.

Sebastian Harding – Can you describe Charing Cross Rd in the sixties?

Marius Webb – I loved it. I had come from Melbourne which was a recently planned city where every road was straight but London still had that ancient air. I loved Charing Cross Rd because it had such a distinct character. Everything south of Tottenham Court Rd station was just full of little bookshops and music shops, and I guess most of that has gone now. It had so much character and interest. Some of the smaller bookshops were unique and, of course, there was the proximity of the theatre where you could get in for nine pence in the Gods. London felt like a really creative force.

Sebastian Harding – Many have fond memories of the eccentricities of Foyles, did that affect working there?

Marius Webb – They did not trust staff with money so there were a number of queuing systems. The customer would queue up first to a till where a staff member gave them a note of the cost of their book. The customer would take a written piece of paper over to the till where they paid. This was incredibly naïve as it meant staff could steal quite easily and many of my colleagues did.

For instance, if their friend came in wanting to buy a book they would write down one shilling for a book worth a pound. Their friend would take it to the cash till, pay the shilling and then come back to their friend who would stamp their receipt and no one would be any the wiser!

I remember people would go up to the Art department, help themselves to a few books and then go down and sell them to the second hand department. Took them ages to work that one out! Many staff knew about regular shoplifters but there was an attitude of, “Oh that’s too bad.” I remember I once saw an old lady behind a stack. When I came round to see what was going on I saw she was sweeping a whole heap of books into a suitcase!

Sebastian Harding – Do you remember the interior of the store?

Marius Webb – None of the rooms in the building were large because it had been cobbled together from a group of buildings that had once served a whole series of other purposes. The ground floor had much higher ceilings and the ‘New Releases’ area of the store felt like a Victorian salon with cornices from an earlier life. I remember the windows were quite splendid which meant they were great for displaying books.

Sebastian Harding – Can you remember the people who ran the store?

Marius Webb – Christina Foyle’s husband, Ronald Batty, was the manager and he was quite formidable. I did not realise at first that he was married to her but he was a hands-on military sort of chap. He would sweep in and out, ordering the old ladies around and calling people out from the mail table and giving them orders to go to one of the departments. He was the General Manager, the Human Resources Manager, Chief Personnel Officer. Everything went through him as far as staff were concerned. There was an Australian called Mr Green who was in charge of new releases. He was very fancy but ultimately quite sad – he was gay and had obviously come to London to get away from Australia – very efficient but not very strong-willed.

Sebastian Harding – What began the chain of events that led to your dismissal and the strike?

Marius Webb – In my second week working at the store, I was assigned to the ground floor ‘New Releases.’ It was a terrific area to be in. I got to know authors like Len Deighton (writer of The Ipcress File), who would come in to see how their books were selling. One of the things that struck me from the outset were some of the more Victorian ways of the organisation. I remember arriving for my shift, running up the marble stairs and there would be two or three old ladies on their knees scrubbing the stairs by hand with rags. Coming from Australia, I was just appalled but that was actually quite typical of the London of those days –  the remnant of the old working class being kept in their place.

The other thing that I remember was having a surprise at the end of the second week when we got paid. We were paid nine pounds ten whereas the advertisement I had answered said quite clearly £10 a week. Dropping ten shillings does not sound like much, but when you are only getting paid ten pounds it is quite a lot. It did immediately make me question what sort of employer advertises a wage and then does not pay it. I was used to Australia where we had minimum wage and an eight hour day – these were things we accepted as normal.

As time passed, the style of management at Foyles became abundantly clear. The first thing that happened was an incident with a fellow from Sweden with whom I had worked with in the mail room. He had his own small art bookshop and had come to London to better his English and make some contacts. In the second or third week, I ran into him and he was wearing a dust coat and pushing a trolley and told me he had been put in the transport department, after originally applying to work in the Art Department.

I said “That doesn’t sound right. Go and talk to Mr Batty as it sounds like some sort of mistake.” Later that day, I saw him again and he had just been sacked. He explained the situation to Mr Batty and he was told: “Well you’re working in the Mail department and if you don’t like it you’re sacked.” I thought“Crikey! This is very strange.” This was a guy who wanted to make connections between Foyles and his own successful bookstore in Sweden, and there there was a good possibility it would have been beneficial to both parties. That chap’s dismissal was one of quite a few sackings that happened over my first month of working there, most workers did not have any comeback and it just became endemic.

I was getting increasingly concerned at the number of people getting dismissed and I mentioned it to my uncle. He was a draughtsman and the draughtsman’s union was one of the toughest. He told me I needed to speak to the Shop Workers’ Union (USDAW) which I had no knowledge of.

I met one of the organisers and he said, “You are entitled to this amount but they can still pay you what they like.” He told me to be careful that my employers did not hear I had been speaking to the union, as previous Foyles employees had lost their jobs as a result of this. He told me I could join up, but to have any influence I would need a lot of people to join.

A number of us became friends and every so often we would go to the Pillars of Hercules for drinks after work. One evening, I brought the subject up and we all agreed that the way we were being treated was not up to scratch and that we should  join the union together. There were about three or four of us at the start and we agreed to keep mum, but before long we had about twenty.

We needed to have union meetings and I was appointed to lead them even though I had not a clue how to run a meeting, and it was after one of these that I was ratted. One fellow who was a bit of a goody-goody and quite close to Mrs Foyle had been invited to a meeting. He was generally pro-management and, of course, he passed on the word to Mr Batty. Not long after that, I was called into Mr Batty’s office and told I had not been satisfactory and I had been late for work.

I rang the union and this guy told me to get my arse up to the offices real quick. They had an offset printer and we created some very simple leaflets and posters. We got down to Foyles the following morning so we could give out these leaflets to people as they arrived for work.

All the people coming into work were all my friends, so even if they were not members of the union, when they found out what had happened they decided to join the strike. The twenty people who were already part of the union joined me outside immediately and it was not long before we had fifty to sixty people. The union cranked out more leaflets and we were soon handing them out to every customer trying to enter the building. This had a devastating effect on business because 50% of customers said,“Oh in that case, I’m not coming in,” and this escalated very quickly. Then, because we had the placards in the street, someone phoned the newspapers and within an hour or two the Evening Standard had us on the front page.

The story was even reported in Australia and my auntie kept all the clippings from the local newspapers because she thought it was fantastic. For the first few days, there was a huge amount of media attention because Foyles was a well known institution so it was a good hook to hang the story on and the strike was led by young people. There was a lot of unexpected support from the customers, the authors and the publishers.

Sebastian Harding – What was the outcome?

Marius Webb – The strike actually lasted for just three days. At first the shop’s owners ignored it and tried to solve it themselves. At the end of the second day, Christina Foyle walked around the shop and apparently offered people £5 to stay and work the following day, but some people were so offended by this they came out to join the strike just to spite her. By the third day, the management realised they were in deep trouble because they saw from the tills what was happening.

They immediately convened a Foyles conference with the union, as well as further talks about the rates of pay and the conditions that people were working under. We were all quite pleased and back at work by the end of the third day, and I was put into a new department.

After four or five days, it became transparent that nothing had changed. They refused to change anything and so we had a meeting with the unions where they let us know they were not getting very far with their own negotiations. We decided that we needed to go on strike again and this second strike ended up lasting for six weeks. We had no idea it would last this long! This was about 50% of the workforce, around 100 people. The fact we stayed outside the shop, continually leafleting meant that eventually they had to resolve the issue. It was not hugely satisfactory, but we did get pay rises and a bit of respite from the continual sackings.

I remember there was one worker in the transport department who was a real cockney. He started out against the strike, then joined the union and by the time I left he wanted to be the union boss!

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today and tomorrow in London’s radical history, 1659: locals fight with soldiers in anti-enclosure struggle, Enfield Chase

Enfield Chase was an ancient royal hunting ground some nine miles outside London to the north. Its many acres comprised arable and grazing land as well as a deer park and over the years legal agreements with tenants of the royal estate had granted rights of common such as grazing and wood collecting, which were of great importance to the local economy in an area with a very high rate of poverty, not that such rights benefited the very poor, who were unlikely to be commoners paying rents and taxes.

The chase was surrounded by villages and hamlets; Edmonton and Tottenham were close by and the largest was Enfield. There were also estates, manors and farms as well as large mansions and lodges. Small rural communities existed at South Mimms, Hadley, Potters Bar and along the road from Southgate to Cockfosters. Barnet provided the nearest significant town although London was only a day away.

By 1154 what had been known as the Park of Enfield or Enfield Wood had been converted into a hunting ground, or chase. It appears it was not known as Enfield Chase until the early 14th century. The royal land comprised the majority of the forest, though aristocratic families owned some areas and maintained hunting lodges on the Chase.

Royal forests were the creation of successive Norman kings, whose obsession with hunting trumped virtually all other imperatives where land use was concerned. Vast areas were declared royal forest, meaning wholly different laws applied and usual rights and uses were banned. Land owned by others, not just the king, could be designated thus.

As with many rural areas, from the 16th century, landowners began to enclose land, fencing off woods and fields, and excluding local residents from using its resources.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, much of the open land, commons or woods in England and Wales was enclosed for development, usually by rich landowners or sold off for house building. In many of the commons, local people had traditionally benefitted from customary rights of use, mostly grazing of animals & wood for fuel, but also often sowing of small plots on the fringes of commons for market gardens or feeding themselves.

But despite its name, common land was rarely if ever, land held ‘in common’: it was almost always land owned by the Lord of the Manor, on which over time other local people had come to exercise some rights. But these rights often had no legal weight, they were part of an unwritten social contract, of custom and tradition, allowances granted by landowners, often in the face of earlier individual or collective struggles.

As time went on the ‘commoners’, those with acknowledged customary rights, could become wealthy individuals themselves. Thus later struggles sometimes developed into struggles between different local rich or well-to-do persons. Gradually, as capitalism developed, slowly replacing a society of complex vertical social obligations & custom with one based entirely on profit, the impetus was on for landowners to replace traditional land use with intensive agriculture. This demanded the clearing of woodland & the exclusion of the poor from the commons.

Those deprived not only lost traditional ways of making a living, or in many cases ways of topping up incomes as labourers or craftspeople; they were experiencing the change in class relations at first hand, losing everything bar the ability to sell their labour… “In an increasingly legalistic age, an unwritten agreement counted for little in the face of the new law …”

But on Enfield Chase, as elsewhere, this process was not simply imposed on a docile population. Poor labouring people fought for centuries to resist enclosure, both legally through petitioning and court cases, and by direct action. Enclosure quarrels in Enfield provoked a petition in 1575 and riots in 1549, 1589, 1603, 1649 and 1659.

In 1589 forty women, wives of local farm workers, were named on a charge of riotously throwing to the ground the fence round the close of a certain Alice Hayes at ‘Joan Potters’ in the south of the parish. The Enfield women were particularly lively in defending their rights, possibly because the district was much affected by enclosures for the royal Chase.

A mob of women assembled again in 1603, at White Webbs, near the Chase, to maintain their right to gather fire-wood there. According to Vincent Skinner, a Middlesex justice, the women thought that wood should either be burnt in the King’s House or given to the poor, but not carried out of Enfield Town. As in other areas in the Stuart and Tudor period, authorities were not always unsympathetic to anti-enclosure protests, and local magistrates made an agreement to hear the women’s cause and to some extent supported their cause in subsequent petitions.

Such expressions of local feeling were not infrequent. In 1611 when enclosing a further one hundred and twenty acres the King gave an assurance to the Commoners that he would not enclose any more land.

Enclosures of manorial waste, either to extend property or for building, were common.

The upheaval that accompanied the English Revolution had a huge impact on land ownership and pressures for changes in land use. Increased demand for productivity for food production at a time of disruption and hardship due to the civil war led to more enclosures. And the seizure or land owned by defeated and exiled supporters of the royalist side opened up opportunities for those victorious opponents – as had happened during the 16th century reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries, political and religious change helped make some smart operators rich. While radicals like the levellers and diggers may have objected to enclosure from the point of view of the poor who it dispossessed, others of the parliamentary party were enthusiastic ‘modernisers’. To some extent the pre-civil war Stuart regime had in some ways been more conservative regarding land exploitation and common rights and often, when pushed by protest, tried to keep a lid on large-scale enclosure, in the interests of social peace. This meant the regime did sometimes reverse or rule against enclosures by large landowners (but didn’t prevent the Stuart kings from also enclosing land in their OWN interests, as Charles I did with Richmond Park in 1637, or maintaining the strict controls on royal parks and hunting grounds, eg the Game Laws – this was an issue on Enfield Chase).

The Civil War had in part been launched by what could (loosely) be described as the rising bourgeoisie, chafing against restrictions on their ambitious expansion and restraints on their ability to exploit resources. The parliamentary victory gave some vent to these interests; increased enclosure was part of the immediate result. But as the struggles on Enfield Chase illustrate, the upheaval of war also opened up land as the property of defeated royalists was confiscated, and also produced large numbers of soldiers and parliamentary supporters, some of whom with the financial means to buy up land that thus came on to the market, and to begin transforming it to make it more ‘productive’.

If the alliances on the parliamentary side in the War had produced a temporary unity of different class interests and widely divergent political outlooks, this had never been an easy marriage, and tensions had erupted throughout whole conflict, accelerating in the mid-late 1640s with the political struggles of the Levellers and New Model Army agitators, the religious ferment which produced hundreds of independent sects, the social upheaval that gave birth to radical critiques like the ranters, as well as to puritan new testament activists (like the Fifth Monarchists). By 1649-50 class interests and political viewpoints were widely diverging among former allies… and so you find very different attitudes to enclosure developing among people who had been comrades fighting side by side 5-6 years earlier.

As well as the former Army radicals and parliamentary republicans dabbling with buying land and fencing it off, famously the political and social upheaval also produced a radically opposed vision of how land, especially common land, should be used. The True Levellers or ‘Diggers’ perceived the increasing phenomenon of enclosure as an acceleration of a process that began with the expropriation of what had once been a shared resource, a violent theft by the ancestors of the landowning classes of their time, reinforced by all the power of feudal hierarchies, law, religion…

The original ‘Diggers’, broadly communist in outlook, formed around the political activist and theorist Gerrard Winstanley, and in April 1650 occupied common land at St George’s Hill, Weybridge, Surrey, to grow food collectively, with a ideology of sharing the earth’s resources, rejecting ownership of common land and social hierarchies in general. Inspired by this, other ‘digger’ colonies also appeared elsewhere, mainly in across South-east England. This scared and enraged local hierarchies in the neighbourhoods where they appeared, as such communities, although very small, were often formed from the very poor, the people being dispossessed by enclosures, and represented a threat to social order and local tradition, especially as the civil war had opened up large-scale social upheaval and questioning of long-held views; even a small group refusing to continue to observe the social order could spread, inspire, and threaten the status quo. The gentry in Surrey and elsewhere employed soldiers or ex-soldiers, hired thugs, or whipped up hatred of local labourers, to destroy their projects and evict them. Presenting such communities as an enemy and a threat even to others of the lower orders may have been easier to achieve, because the diggers’ vision, as expressed by Winstanley at least, did not simply envision a widening of common rights and access to the resources of common land, but a collective tilling of it, a breaking with tradition and custom to embrace a new relationship to land altogether. ‘Common rights’ would be swept away along with land ownership; the commoners in areas where diggers began to assert this could feel this as a threat to their own slender customary access to the commons, as dangerous as the threat from the lord of the manor’s greedy eye on possible profits from fencing off the land.

The ‘Digger’ movement was reflected in events in Enfield: in 1650, shortly after more anti-enclosure riots on the Chase in 1649, the Diggers were said to have a Colony in the area.

Digger groups apparently were active in both Barnet and Enfield. Some Diggers at Enfield were reputedly from squatting families who had come to the Chase during the war and just after. Squatting had been increasing in forests and on marginal and common land in many areas, for decades, where people could occupy it, as enclosures had increased and access to some areas was restricted. This process had accelerated with the disruption and famine linked to the Civil War; the demobilisation of thousands of former soldiers as the conflict came to an end left large groups of poor men and their families looking for ways to subsist. (It might be interesting to compare this to squatting post-World War 2).

Squatters may even have been tacitly supported by Parliament, both as a safety valve, allowing some cultivation and subsistence as an alternative to the possibility of mass protest – but also in the hope of disrupting traditionalist opponents of the new regime. Some of those with common rights, looking to tradition and custom, ‘how things had always been’, were also inclined to support for the defeated royalist cause, whose proponents still plotted and agitated against the new republic, both in exile, and clandestinely in rural areas. Discontent provided them with potential foot-soldiers; opposition to enclosure was a useful movement to exploit. Squatters’ occupation of common land could disrupt traditional local custom and social relations, so perhaps were seen as useful in generally undermining the existing accepted rights of access, etc.

Anti-enclosure rioting certainly occurred while Diggers were active in the Enfield area, although whether Diggers were involved with the disturbances is unclear. Fifteen men, including a furrier, cordwainer, weaver, butcher and group of labourers, were indicted for the 1649 disturbances. These men were possibly recently discharged soldiers, as they all had access to firearms; they were said to come from among the poorest of the local residents.

In May 1659, a major anti enclosure riot took place on Enfield Chase. Commoners tore down barns, burned fences on land that had been sold to speculators, and led their cattle into corn. This led to a pitched battle with militia.

The immediate cause of this enclosure struggle in 1659 was a scheme drawn up by Parliamentary commissioners, based surveys of the Chase conducted in the 1650. The surveys had been ordered by Parliament to lay down who legally held rights of proprietorship and rights of common. The commissioners’ results were used to allot ownership and codify customary rights, but deprived local inhabitants of many of their “privileges and advantages.” An outcry of protests from the Inhabitants erupted, who claimed that large areas of the Chase were being quietly taken over by ‘Intruders’, outsiders, who had blocked and turned long-used rights of way, had laid out impassable new paths, and were digging and despoiling even the small part of the waste which was allotted to the Inhabitants, who had recently suffered much destruction from a huge fire on the Chase.

Many of the ‘intruders’ were great officers in the Army: they included Adjutant General John Nelthorpe, Colonel Joyce (who had played a prominent part in capturing king Charles during the Civil War), and Colonel Webbe, who was in fact the Surveyor General – a handy post to hold if you were on the make in land speculation yourself… They had bought up ‘debentures’ – a kind of IOU issued to soldiers to show how much pay they were owed. Often (not just during the Civil War) army pay was months or even years in arrears. The Civil War parliament, stretched for cash, and facing army mutinies in the late 1640s, allowed debentures to be used as a down-payment on purchases of land (often land confiscated from royalists). This killed several birds with one stone – defusing rank ‘n’ file discontent, cutting its debts, rewarding its supporters at the expense of political opponents, as well as buying off ambitious officers. Poor soldiers were selling debentures at prices between one shilling and sixpence to two shillings and sixpence in the pound – money in the hand to hungry folk offering greater immediate value than the land on offer.

According to JM Patrick’s account of the events of 1659: “The troubles began about May, 1659, “several of the Inhabitants destroyed some of the new enclosures erected by these intruders, and drove in cattle upon the standing grain, “to the great loss and damage of the purchasers.” In their view the trespass was lawful, “the pretended purchasers having no title.” The Intruders complained to the Council of State, who ordered local justices to protect the Intruders and to make use of two troops of horse which were sent to aid them if needed.

According to the Inhabitants, when the troops arrived in Enfield, they were given strong beer and money by the Intruders. The soldiers then fell upon some of the Inhabitants, slashed several of them and their servants, and even attacked poor labouring men who passed that way. Naturally the victims fought back. The Intruders then made legal complaints about the injuries suffered by their side. At first the Inhabitants refused to give evidence against their neighbours; threats forced them to give some evidence, but they refused to maintain it on oath. As a result of the declarations of the Intruders, several of the Inhabitants were bound over. When the jury could not find a bill because of insufficient evidence, justice Hobert, one of the Trustees of the Chase, forced them back. They found an indictment against some men who had nothing to do with the riot but who had previously said that they would put their sheep and cattle into the new enclosures to test their title. The other accused persons were acquitted.

The Inhabitants’ triumph was short; for “there was a design by some of the said justices, who were purchasers and trustees and men concerned therein and judges in the cause upon the Bench, to find a bill against those persons to take off the courage of the proprietors and commoners from their claims to the common, that they might the better force the proprietors’ common from them in the said Chase!” To aid this design, the Intruders protested to Whitehall that the slow proceedings against the first offenders were encouraging others to imitate their misdeeds. Accordingly the Council of State urged the Justices to take speedier action.

Meanwhile the Inhabitants laid countercharges against the Intruders and their agents, and an indictment was found against several of them. A warrant was issued to apprehend three of the enclosers, but justice Hobert, who was “a great agent and stickler against the said proprietors and a great offender in the destruction of wood in the said Chase, called to see the warrant and had and did then tear the same in pieces.” The Inhabitants were thus left without legal remedies; they could not even look for their cattle in the Chase because of threatened violence.

The threat became actual. Soldiers hired by the Intruders shot several sheep and ate them, killed valuable cattle and challenged the commoners to fight. On July 10, some drunken soldiers shot at Inhabitants who were walking on the common. On the next day, a number of the Inhabitants, according to their own account of the fray, armed themselves with cudgels, mattocks and forks, and challenged the authority of the soldiers. Seventeen soldiers and their commander marched against them, fired, killed one man and wounded others. The Inhabitants then turned upon the soldiers, captured nine or ten, and took them before justice Rich. After examining their confessions and the testimony of witnesses, he sent them to Newgate prison. They admitted that they were hired for sixpence a day more than their ordinary pay and that they had no authority from their chief cornmanders. Such was the Inhabitants’ story.

In the Intruders’ accounts of the fray, the behaviour of the “country people” at Enfield was cited as a horrid example of.the depravity of human nature. Thirty soldiers, under proper orders and leadership, had been sent to oust the trespassing cattle in a peaceful manner. They were attacked by about a hundred and sixty country fellows; ten of their number fought for almost an hour and finally yielded, “being so mightily overpowered… So that, this bloody conflict being ended, a guard was put upon the prisoners till they had cleared the field of the dead bodies, which is said to be two men and one woman of the countrymen’s side, besides many wounded; and one soldier, the Sergeant, was carried off… in a dying condition.” “Out of his favour to these inhuman fellows,” Justice Rich sent the other nine prisoners to Newgate, “with their wounds bleeding.” 16 The Inhabitants then fell upon the enclosures, set fire to the hedges, burnt up the stackwood, destroyed a barn and demolished houses. Their example, it was said, might well “inflame the whole nation.”

A brief account, written from the Intruders’ point of view, appeared in the government organ, Mercurius Politicus. Clearly the Intruders were too well entrenched and too influential in the Law Courts, Parliament, Council of State, and Army, for humble yeomen, tenant farmers and other commoners to be able to resist them by “legal” means. The resistance of the Inhabitants was suppressed. On July 16, the House of Commons issued orders concerning the riot. These were read in the churches on the following day.  Now assured of their predominance, the Intruders trampled upon the rights of the small proprietors and commoners. They or their hirelings wounded some of the inhabitants of Edmonton and killed a mare in the Chase, “at the insolency of which soldiers and purchasers of Enfield Chase without title, the country stands amazed.” But amazement was all; some troops of horse, sent by Parliament, restored order.

There were no further disturbances. In August, 1659, the much enduring Inhabitants suffered twenty-three deaths in a severe outbreak of the plague. With the Restoration, the Chase was given to the Duke of Albemarle, but the enclosures remained. Subsequently, almost the entire Chase was converted to tillage.

The small yeomen, tenant farmers and others who had traditional rights over the Chase probably had the better legal and moral case. The unscrupulous behaviour of the Intruders seems to prove this. Nevertheless, the Inhabitants were undoubtedly ‘unprogressive’: their small property rights stood in the way of the efficient development of the productive resources of the Chase.

The encroaching moneyed interests had the resources and the drive to exploit and develop the Chase; the locals with rights of woodcutting and pasturage on the Chase, had neither the power, resources or inspiration to take full advantage of its productivity.”

This was a fundamentally different vision of how land should be used; as a whole the enclosure process formed a fork in the road. Capitalist development in agriculture would undeniably lead to greater food production, wool production, increases in imports, to massive profits; this produced vast increases in wealth for the owners of the land and onward to vast funds which financed both the industrial revolution and to the British Imperial project. This process also inevitably meant the exclusion of millions from access to rural resources, to the reduction of independent or semi-independent commoners to the status of day labourers, to a massive influx of the rural dispossessed into the cities to look for alternative ways to support themselves.

“A peculiar feature of the enclosure troubles at Enfield was that while the Inhabitants protested loudly against the Intruders, they seem to have made no effort to eject some poor families who settled upon the Chase. Possibly the squatters’ encroachment was abetted by the Intruders in their desire to weaken the claims of their opponents. Certainly the toleration extended to this group differs from the eagerness with which persons with rights of common joined local lords of manors to eject the Diggers from common land which they had occupied in 1649. Perhaps the Inhabitants of Enfield were too much exhausted by the agrarian conflict, the fire and the plague to take any effective action.

Shortly after the Restoration, the residents of Enfield, including tenant farmers, prepared a petition complaining that two or three hundred families had settled on the Chase during the late unhappy times; they were destroying the timber and, if not restrained, would become chargeable to the parish. Therefore the petitioners asked leave to bring in a bill to Parliament to enclose their common fields and to establish a fund for employing the poor. The economic transition from the common fields to private ownership was thus to be greatly furthered; but details about what, if anything, was done at this time are lacking.

The scheme for employing the poor was possibly inspired by William Covell, a preacher and landowner at Enfield. He was the author of a compromise solution for the agrarian troubles there: workers’ co-operatives were to be established and financed by wealthy benefactors in order to use the resources of the Chase not primarily for profits, but to satisfy the needs of the community and to raise its general standard of living. Though his plans were never carried out, they are significant in the history of radical social thought; they have interesting parallels in some of the ideas of the Diggers; and they exemplify an aspect of Puritan utopianism.” (Patrick)

The events of 1659 were far from the last battles over enclosure on Enfield Chase. With the restoration of Charles II in 1660 common rights were restored, although violence was still present on the Chase during the 1660s. In November 1660 the farms which had been set up during the English republic were subjected to a campaign of hedge breaking; several of those ‘Intruders’ targeted by the 1659 rioters complained their new properties were attacked.

The commoners themselves were looking to re-establish a flexible ‘customary’ use of the chase as can be seen in several examples. In the early 1660s Robert White beat a gamekeeper who was attempting to impound his sheep. No doubt White felt aggrieved at such actions now that the chase had supposedly been spared systematic enclosure. Presumably White felt that the chase was now there for the benefit of himself and other locals. Also during the 1660s commoners continued to use the Chase as a fuel reserve. William Fairweather and his son were caught chipping trees and had their tools confiscated. It was of course to no avail and it was reported that they were soon back at work. John Clerke, an Edmonton smith, was caught cutting trees. When told to stop by the woodward he disregarded the order and simply continued. In 1669 Richard Garret, Nicholas Thompson and Robert James were all warned by the underkeeper to stop lopping trees on the Chase. They struck the underkeeper and continued with their work.

No sooner had the common rights at Enfield Chase been restored by Charles II than the fate of the common fields were immediately put in doubt. Lord Rainton and other large local landowners in the parish petitioned for enclosure of the Enfield common fields in 1660. Although unsuccessful in this attempt Rainton was influential as a local large landowner as well as being the MP for Middlesex between 1681-85. His local authority allowed him to make several enclosures on the Chase sometime alter the restoration to the annoyance of the commoners. In 1672 commoners drove their sheep in Rainton’s enclosures destroying ten acres of wheat and oats, and a further ten acres of grass. One of the commoners, a Mr Joseph Collet, threatened to open all Rainton’s enclosures notwithstanding ‘all Mr Raintons injunctions and all his perjured witnesses’ The following year Rainton found himself involved in legal action against some of his more powerful neighbours, including the Duke of Albemarle who had taken offence at Rainton’s enclosing activities.

Over the following decades, between 1660 and 1700, about 100 squatter cottages were reported on Enfield Chase: the increasing dispossessed and disenfranchised poor, being driven out by enclosure, who had nowhere else to go, making a living from marginal land.

In 1676 John Hale, the clerk of Enfield manor court, complained to Charles II that people from South Mimms, Enfield, Edmonton and Hadley were “an abundance of loose, idle and disorderly persons … and make great havock and wast of your majesty’s best timber and underwood on Enfield Chase.”

Enclosure continued to occupy the minds of local people here. In 1689 the Enfield vestry resolved that ‘We, whose names are hereby subscribed inhabitants of the parish of Enfield, do hereby promise and agree to stand by each other, in the behalf of ourselves and the rest of the parishioners, in endeavouring to restore our rights and privileges on Enfield Chase. And that the charge that we, or any of us, shall be at about the recovery and setting of the same, shall be defrayed out of the parish stocks’.

There were 21 signatures attached to the resolution. This was perhaps the way in which many instances of enclosure resistance were initiated.

In 1691 the Enfield vestry agreed to Sir John Battle enclosing his common field land upon payment of £60 to the parish funds. Local people strongly disagreed with the acquiescence of the vestry who had not represented the wider community in agreeing to such a deal. The commoners would now lose winter grazing rights due to the deal struck by the vestry. This was unacceptable and the commoners had destroyed the enclosures by 1703, thus re-opening the land to common usage and prompting Battle to appeal to the vestry to enforce their earlier agreement.

In November 1703 the commoners of Monken Hadley opened a voluntary subscription to the threat of losing their common rights on Enfield Chase with each attaching their name. Petitions of course consciously brought commoners together to fight as a group. This involved setting out demands and targeting their audience.

Once organised commoners could exert pressure on their more powerful neighbours which could include influential landlords; thus in 1718 landlords petitioned against Major General Pepper, who had leased the Chase, and had enclosed 30 acres of waste to the detriment of their tenants who had right of common there. Pepper became a hated figure of landlords, farmers and commoners alike in north-east Middlesex, due to his enclosing and oppressive tendencies. When Popper asked for a commission of local gentlemen to help him to stop wood being stolen from the Chase not one person would come forward.

Like previous owners, the lords Cottington, Rainton and Palmer, Pepper found himself struggling to enclose, and keep enclosed, land previously used by generations of Middlesex commoners.

In the 1720s General Pepper was shot at, in what seems to have been an assassination attempt, or at least a heavy warning; he had been engaged in a long often fruitless war with poachers and ‘woodstealers’ who were generally supported by a large section of the local population, and had had a number arrested and jailed – some were eventually hanged.

In 1783, only a small common, a rough lot and a small wood remained unenclosed; even these disappeared when an enclosure act was passed in 1801. At first, efforts to improve the gravelly clay soil of the Chase had little success, for much capital had to be expended to clear, drain and marl it. Obviously the Inhabitants could not have afforded to develop it properly for themselves.

Despite the centuries of resistance, between 1777 and 1801, what remained of Enfield Chase was finally enclosed.

Enclosure didn’t mark the end of struggles here however…

Charles Lamb witnessed the firing of several barns and haystacks at Enfield in December 1830, in the wake of the Captain Swing riots and commented that ‘it was never good times in England since the poor began to speculate upon their condition. Formerly they jogged on with as little reflection as horses. The whistling ploughman went check by jowl with his brother that neighed. Now the biped carries a box of phosphorus in his leather breeches, and in the dead of night the half-illuminated beast steals his magic potion into a cleft in the barn, and half the country is grinning with new fires’.

After Swing there were further threatening letters at Enfield, into 1831. It’s worth noting that when the crop failed in 1830, Irish migrant labourers rioted at nearby Barnet,

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

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Today in London riotous history, 1871: 1000s demolish enclosure fences on Wanstead Flats

Wanstead Flats is the southernmost portion of Epping Forest in Wanstead, East London. Epping Forest itself is a  a remnant of the once extensive Forest of Essex, also encompassing Waltham Forest and Hainault Forest.

On July 8th 1871, thousands of locals and people from the wider East End gathered to protest at the enclosure of the Flats, and destroyed the fences that had been put up around the land.

Historically the Flats were part of the royal forest – however, the proximity of this space to villages led people to turn out cattle and other animals to graze upon the unenclosed land. Over the centuries, this custom became tradition and was eventually recognised and granted as a right of common pasture. (Certain landowners and occupiers still have this right, granted them as part of the Epping Forest Act 1878, and cattle grazed freely until 1996 when the BSE crisis forced their removal).

Parts of Epping Forest were enclosed as parkland with large houses, which evolved from medieval manor houses. The most significant of these are Wanstead Park, dating from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, and the eighteenth-century Copped Hall.
As part of the Royal Forest of Essex, Epping Forest was one of sixty forests across England where Forest Law gave the Crown the right to hunt game across largely privately owned land.  Hunting across forest landscapes was an important demonstration of Royal and aristocratic power and a necessary practice for war.  Forest Laws recognised the earlier tradition of shared ‘common’ rights for forest dwellers to graze livestock and to cut firewood and turf.

Changing Royal interests and the rise of a professional army during the Georgian period saw Royal participation in hunting and the power of Forest Law dramatically decline. Parliamentary scrutiny of Royal finances following the Restoration saw the Royal Forest hunting rights across private land, known as Forestal Rights, begin to be sold.

From 1817, a series of Parliamentary Bills unsuccessfully pressed for the disafforestation of Epping Forest.  In 1851, following the sale of Forestal Rights, 3,000 acres of nearby Hainault Forest, another fragment of the Forest of Essex, was felled within six weeks. Six years later, the Commissioners sold half of the Royal Forestal Rights at Epping Forest, encouraging the illegal enclosure of some 4,000 acres of Epping Forest by 1865.

Local people’s long use of Wanstead Flats, and its general reputation common land, led to a strong attachment to the land there. This led to resistance when attempts were made to enclose or build on parts of the land.

There was deep resentment when Lord Mornington enclosed 34 acres in 1851-2.
In the 1850s Isaac Lake was a tenant farmer of Lord Wellesley on Aldersbrook part of the Flats. Wellseley, (Lord Mornington, nephew of the famous Duke of Wellington), the Lord of the Manor of Aldersbrook, ordered Lake to enclose 34 acres of land on the Flats.

Wellesley’s plan was to build a permanent cattle market on the Flats (to replace the huge open air cattle market which was held on this area of the Flats every spring until the mid 19th century… Cattle would be driven from East Anglia and other parts of England to supply the growing London market for meat. The cattle were bought and sold in “The Rabbits” pub on Romford Road (at the corner of Rabbits Road – the building is now a pharmacy).
The enclosure provoked a local outcry: one local farmer apparently drove his cattle onto the enclosed land, breaking down the fences, and was prosecuted.

The plan to build the market failed, and the market was built in Caledonian Road, Islington, instead. Lord Mornington died in ‘humble lodgings’ in 1857, so perhaps the scheme was a desperate attempt to restore dwindling family finances…

However, the 34 acres seem to have been fenced off and built on, despite an attempt by residents of Cann Hall and other commoners attempting to block him in the courts. This seems to have involved support from Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, of the quaker brewing family, who was later to take an active part in fighting other enclosures in Epping Forest…

The most famous episode in local defence of the Flats took place in July 1871, after Earl Cowley, cousin and heir of Lord Mornington, enclosed 20 acres of wasteland, (the last piece of unenclosed land in the Manor of Aldersbrook).

Fences were erected from Bushwood to Ridley Road by Earl Cowley’s agents.
But there was an angry response. An advertisement with the headlines “Save The Forest” encouraged working people to “Attend by Thousands” an open air meeting on Wanstead Flats on Saturday, July 8th 1871 to “Protest against the Enclosures”. The meeting took place, not initially on Wanstead Flats, where the Essex Volunteers were undertaking a review, but in the grounds of a building then called West Ham Hall.

So many people attended, estimated at 30,000 – so many that the meeting was by popular acclaim adjourned to Wanstead Flats after all, with some thousands of people making their way there. The meeting would end with crowds pulling down the enclosure fences.

Here follow some contemporary accounts of the demonstration and direct action:

“THE recent destruction of the fences surrounding one of the obnoxious enclosures on Wanstead Flats may have been an act of great imprudence, but it serves to illustrate the angry spirit with which the East Londoners are beginning to regard the continual encroachments which are rapidly depriving them of the broad open spaces to the free use of which they have been accustomed for so many generations. Perhaps there is no portion of the Metropolitan suburbs so largely frequented during holiday-time as are the yet unenclosed portions of Epping Forest lying nearest to the overcrowded districts of Whitechapel and Bethnal Green. On a fine Sunday evening thousands of working men, attended by their sweethearts or wives and families, may be seen proceeding along the Mile End Road in the direction of Wanstead Flats, a large open space, perfectly level and covered with verdure, close to the Forest Gate Station of the Great Eastern Railway. The distance from London is not great, the Flats being within five miles of the Royal Exchange, a circumstance adding considerably to the value of this portion of Epping Forest as a popular open-air resort. But it is on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons during the fine days of summer, that the Flats present their most interesting appearance, for on these occasions they form the playground of immense numbers of children from the myriad courts and lanes of Spitalfields, Shoreditch, and other densely populated districts in East London. No sight can be mare touching than that of the crowds of poorly attired little ones, some of them mere toddlers, who have dragged their limbs hither, regardless of hat stony pavements and dusty roads that they might have a few hours’ romping on the soft grass or load themselves with bundles of buttercups and daisies. It is no exaggeration to say that but for Wanstead Flats, and other open spaces near East London, the late terrible visitation of cholera, which decimated so many artisan families, would have been far more destructive in its results. But the pure, fresh air of Wanstead Flats did much to counteract the unwholesome influences of the fever-reeking atmosphere which still, despite every effort on the part of the sanitary authorities, too often pervades the humble homes of the East London labouring poor. But the Flats are apparently doomed. Earl Cowley’s enclosure is by no means the first of its kind; there, have been several others such as that, the fences of which have just been destroyed. Before Mr. Gladstone promised to take up the question of Epping Forest, the Crown rights over Wanstead Flats had been sold for 12,000l. by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. Nothing but the rights of the commoners remain, and these have been disregarded because there were none sufficiently wealthy to defend them. But the Corporation of the City of London having recently, through their purchases of land for their cemetery at Ilford, become possessed of the rights of common an Wanstead Flats, have announced their determination to defend the same at whatever coat. This is the first time that the system of enclosure has experienced any real check. Should the Corporation gain the day, the free use of Wanstead Flats will have become secured to the East Londoners; but the conflict will be a long and costly one, for the encroachers instinctively scent the danger which awaits them, that they may not only be prevented from making further enclosures, but, also be compelled to give up some of the land of which they have been too easily allowed to acquire possession. (The Weekly Graphic, 15 July 1871)

“A meeting to protest against this filching of the forest was held, on Wanstead Flats last Saturday. The people v. lords of manors; the people v. Chancellors of the Exchequer who decline to protect them: the people’s rights against all would confiscate them – formed the key-note of every speech. Let it be understood at once that as far as the proceedings at the meeting proper were concerned there was no violence. The powerful force of policemen, both horse and foot, which had been sent down to guard Lord Cowley’s obnoxious fence had nothing to do; and a large majority of the gallant fellows whiled away the calm summer evening by foot-races, jumpings, and athletic sports upon land which is still common. Others were placed on duty within the various doubtful inclosures, and others, again, hovered round the public meetings, of which there were several held upon the Flats.

WANSTEAD FLATS, it may be explained is the title of the portion of Epping Forest which is nearest to London, and is but a stones throw from the Forest-gate station of the Eastern Counties Railway, and some quarter of an hour’s walk from as crowded and busy thoroughfares as there are in the metropolis. The meeting of Saturday had been announced beforehand, and the possibility of lord Cowley’s new fence being removed “by resolution” had been not obscurely hinted at. A review of volunteers had been announced to take place on Wanstead Flats at the hour at which the chair was to be taken, so placards were issued that “in consequence of this, Lord Cowley’s last inclosure would be discussed in a field adjoining West Ham Hall, the residence of Mr. Tanner. This was not far from the Flats, but it was too far for the meeting. An amendment was moved the moment Sir Antonio Brady took the chair. Mr. Wingfield Baker M.P., advised and pleaded in vain.

“To the flats!”

“They’re oar own.”

“Wy should we be pravented meeting there?”

“Wot is there to be afraid of?

“Whose fault is it we have to meet at all?”

“Wot about Berkhampstead?” [This refers to the then recent and highly publicised case of Lord Brownlow’s attempt to enclose Berkhamstead Common, which had ended with his fences being removed by night, after the enclosure was contested legally].

“Where’s Lord Brownlow’s palings now?” – came from scores of lusty voices and when the amendment was put “that this meeting do adjourn,” a perfect forest of hands was held up in its favour.” 

“The committee under whose auspices the meeting had been convened were seated in a large waggon which had been fitted up with tables and chairs, and two or three other vehicles of a like character stood around, all crowded, and all without horses. What so fitting as that they should be dragged on to the Flats by the enthusiastic crowd? There was plenty of superfluous energy about, and a dozen willing fellows had harnessed themselves, and waggons, committee, chairs, tables, and paraphernalia were out of the field and jogging along the road at a steady trot in far less time than it has taken to read these lines. At the meeting there was plenty of good vigorous oratory; but it is not necessary to follow the speakers very closely. Resolutions were passed that an address shall be presented to her Majesty; that the Government shall be urged to pass a short bill this session to effectually prevent further inclosures; that thanks shall be rendered to the Corporation of the City of London ; and that copies of these resolutions shall be sent to the Prime Minister, to the chancellor of the Exchequer (loud and prolonged groaning followed every mention of Mr. Lowe’s name), and to every member of Parliament whose constituents are immediately interested in the preservation of the forest What was specially significant was the tact and temper displayed by the speakers and the plain influence of those qualities over the crowd. Strong as the police force was, it would have availed but little against the stalwart fellows who had just drawn in heavy waggons laden with heavy gentlemen over roads and turf, and had enjoyed the gentle exercise that proceeding gave then. A little swaying to and fro, a slight pressure in one direction – nay, a passive yielding to circumstances such as governs innocent spirit-rappers and table-turners who have a predisposition to believe – and the nearest paling would have fallen like a house of cards. But from first to last those present were adjured to give their enemies to handle against them. So the great demonstration began, continued, and ended peacefully. Earl Cowley’s fence remained intact when the meeting separated, and the extra police force were dispersed after nothing more stirring than a few hours pleasant pastime in country air.” (the Penny Illustrated Paper, 15th July 1871)

The Committee who had called the meeting were alarmed by the strength of the feeling. Fearful of the increasingly vocal calls for destruction of the fences on the Flats, they had tried to persuade the crowd not to march on the Flats… But the demonstrators were having none of it. As soon as the first speaker began, there was a storm of hissing, and shouts of ‘to the Flats’, followed by the manhandling of the carts, from which the gentleman leaders were speaking, up Chestnut Avenue and onto the Flats.

The official meeting on the Flats agreed to petition the Queen over the forest enclosures, then the leaders left, as did the large police detachment sent to guard the fences. Everything seemed to have passed off peacefully, but later that evening the mood changed. Very quickly, hundreds of yards of fence were reduced to matchwood:

“THE DESTRUCTION OF FENCES happened later in the evening. Close to nine o’clock an incident occurred which changed the whole aspect of affairs, and the fence around the inclosure at the side of the Flats near the Foresters’ Arms, and quite close to whore the meeting had been held, was destroyed in the twinkling of an eye. A man, while seated on a rail of the fence, was asked by a comrade to go home; he demurred, and his friend pulled at him to make him get down; the rail shook and in a moment half a dozen hands brought it to the ground. A dozen hands laid hold of the next; it gave way; in a minute there were fifty persons pulling energetically, then a hundred, then hundreds. The sound of the breaking up of the railing – for they were smashed into fragments as they were got from the posts – sounded like a continuation of the file-firing of the volunteers, and hundreds of people rushed up from all parts of the Flats and from the side roads and public-houses. In five minutes the fence around the inclosure was almost wholly destroyed.

A solitary constable galloped along the Ilford road after the police, and brought back at full speed fifteen or twenty mounted men, who rode on to the Flats. As no one was to be seen engaged in any overt act they could do nothing. In a few minutes the foot-police rushed back at the double, and were unmercifully “chaffed” by the crowd, who recommended them to take care of the fragments of the railings. In a moment a small body of working men, at a remote part of the inclosure, essayed to destroy a few rails still standing. The mounted officers leaped their horses over the remains of the fence and rode straight it the destroyers, who fled precipitately. One young man was apparently ridden down by an inspector, and while on the ground a body of the foot police laid hold of him. The crowd turned back, and, saying “they mustn’t have him!” attempted to rescue him. This movement was soon put a stop to by the very energetic efforts of the small body of horseman, who charged about on all sides. The prisoner was handcuffed and marched off, the crowd following him with the intention of rescuing him in this narrow road; the police frustrated this by suddenly drawing a line across the road and charging the mob coming along. In the melee that ensued some minutes were occupied, which gave time to a party of police to hurry the prisoner along the Ilford road and effectually secure him. In addition to the man then made prisoner, the police captured a boy, whom they also carried off in custody…” (the Penny Illustrated Paper, 15th July 1871)

The man arrested was a Whitechapel cabinetmaker named Henry Rennie. A pitched battle then took place, as the crowd tried unsuccessfully to rescue him. He was later prosecuted, and he was fined 5/- (25p – a fair sum for a working man then), which was paid for him by one of the Forest Gate organisers of the meeting.

“The police were utterly taken by surprise by what occurred. They were expecting something of the kind with regard to Lord Cowley’s fence at the other end of the fence adjacent to the Ilford Cemetery, and had a pretty strong force in reserve there. On Sunday they remained on guard. On Monday, also, they held their ground, it having been rumoured that some persons had determined to try the right of way by passing through Lord Cowley’s inclosure. the leaders, however, were not on the spot, and the rain, descending, dispersed the people who had gathered in expectation of another demonstration.” (the Penny Illustrated paper, 15th July 1871)

Police on Wanstead Flats, July 8th 1871

The demonstration attracted nationwide news coverage, much of it highly critical of the government. A few days later the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, came to view the Flats, after which his administration rushed through the first of a series of acts on Epping Forest, prohibiting further enclosures while a Commission investigated.

In the following month the Corporation of London, concerned at the pace of enclosures in Epping Forest, started proceedings against all the Lords of local manors who had enclosed land.

However, the campaign was just getting going. A pressure group called the Forest Fund, was established in Forest Gate, with local residents such as Charles Tanner, owner of West Ham Hall, forming a key part of the committee. The secretary was William George Smith, a County Court Clerk who lived in Odessa Road, Cann Hall. Smith played a major role in the popular campaign for Epping Forest, working tirelessly over the next few years, organising petitions to parliament from east London vestries (the main units of local government before Councils) and lobbying MPs and voters during elections.

In 1872 the Forest Fund organised a second demonstration on Wanstead Flats, timed to coincide with a further parliamentary debate on the future of Epping Forest. By this time the City of London Corporation had entered the fray, using their rights as Epping Forest commoners to bring legal action against the Lords of the Manor in the forest to stop enclosures. In doing so the City was seizing an opportunity to win popular support among Londoners. London’s government was increasingly seen as outdated for a modern city, and the City of London represented for many an undemocratic and unaccountable elite.

Election poster from 1874, with enclosures as the leading issue

From 1875, the Corporation of London negotiated purchase of land from all the manors of Epping Forest; and enclosed land was reopened for all, including Wanstead Flats. The events at Wanstead and the previous action of Tom Willingale at Baldwins Hill had prompted this – we will return to Tom Willingale in November…

A combination of the Corporation’s legal action and parliamentary action by radical London MPs finally led to the Epping Forest Act passed 140 years ago. But it was direct action by East Londoners that was the crucial spur…

One reason why the Flats attracted so much support was their popularity with Eastenders for recreation. The East End having a huge working class population with few gardens and a shortage of open space, Wanstead Flats and Epping Forest were often crowded with people looking to escape the crowded dirty city for a few hours. Festivals and fairs were often held there, as Arthur Morrison recalled:

“WHIT MONDAY ON WANSTEAD FLATS

There is no other fair like Whit Monday’s on Wanstead Flats. Here is a square mile or more of open land where you may howl at large; here is no danger of losing yourself as in Epping Forest; the public-houses are always with you; shows, shies, swings, merry-go-rounds, fried fish stalls, donkeys are packed closer than on Hampstead Heath; the ladies’ tormentors are larger, and their contents smell worse than at any other fair. Also, you may be drunk and disorderly without being locked up – for the stations won’t hold everybody – and when all else has palled, you may set fire to the turf.” (Arthur Morrison, Tales of Mean Streets, 1895.)

Twenty years after the direct action which saved the Flats were also the venue for a ‘free speech fight’, as anarchists holding open air public meetings there were targeted by police and local press.

In 1946-7, the Flats were also threatened, as plans to build on them to house thousands of eastenders displaced by WW2 bombing were drawn up. Protests against the plans forced them to be shelved (we will come back to this later this year…

… and Take Back Wanstead Flats campaigned against the temporary building of police operations bases for the run-up to and duration of the 2012 Olympics… photos here

Today in London riotous history, 1691: the occupants of the Alsatia sanctuary battle the sheriffs.

Was ever such impudence suffer’d in a Government? Ireland‘s Conquer’d: Wales Subdu’d: Scotland United: But there are some few spots of ground in London, just in the face of the Government, unconquer’d yet, that hold in Rebellion still. Methinks ’tis strange, that places so near the Kings Palace should be no parts of his Dominions: ‘Tis a shame to the Societies of the law to Countenance such Practices: Should any place be shut against the Kings Writ or Posse Comitatus?
(Thomas Shadwell, 
The Squire of Alsatia, 1688.)

Though now a sterile emptiness of offices, the area around the old Carmelite monastery at Whitefriars (originally located where Northcliffe House is now) was in medieval times a Liberty, an area of old outside the jurisdiction of City authorities.  Originally because it was church property, crimes were subject to church law, not civil law. A felon escaping to a Liberty ‘by ancient usage’ could claim sanctuary from the temporal authorities for forty days… After that in the main, they would have to give away their goods and be banished. Some crimes were excluded from right of sanctuary, (eg treason, menacing the safety of the crown, sacrilege… Burglary, highway robbery and some other crimes were later exempted too.)

As a result the area (as with other Liberties) grew to be a to some extent a refuge from prosecution, and later, a ‘rookery’, a no-go area of runaways, criminals, debtors and the rebellious poor, who defended themselves and each other against arrest and interference by the authorities. It was a jumble of winding streets and crowded rooms, becoming known as Alsatia, named after the no-mans land of Alsace, on the French-German border.

Claims were still made for sanctuary here long after the right had been abolished in law. Attempts to build decent houses on the site were frustrated, partly as it was still beyond the Lord Mayor’s and the City’s jurisdiction. Some respectable citizens still lived there, even aristocrats.  But most houses gradually became subdivided into tenements and overcrowded garrets.

The authorities would make occasional raids, but even when they did manage to force there way into the rookery, the inhabitants would often flee to other slums in Southwark, or the Mint, and return when the heat had died down; or else resist they would the incursion of the law by force.

Gradually Alsatia became inhabited by debtors, insolvents, criminals, refugees from the law: “a large proportion were knaves and libertines, and were followed to their asylum by women more abandoned than themselves. The civil power was unable to keep order in a district swarming with such inhabitants… Though the immunities legally belonging to the place extended only to cases of debt, cheats, false witnesses, forgers, and highwaymen found their way there. For amidst a rabble so desperate no peace officer’s life was in safety. At the cry of “Rescue” bullies with swords and cudgels and termagant hags with spits and broomsticks, poured forth in hundreds; and the intruder was fortunate if he escaped back to Fleet Street, hustled, stripped and pumped upon. Even the warrant of the Chief Justice of England could not be executed without the help of a company of musketeers.”

A number of neighbouring shops had back doors or cellar gates into Whitefriars, which allowed shelterers to escape into the area, if chased by bailiffs or creditors. In 1581 the widow Pandley was accused of having “a backdoor into the white fryers, and for receiving of lewd persons, both men and women, to eate and drinke in her cellar…” The famous Mitre tavern in Fleet Street (later at the site Hoare’s Bank) had a door which led into Ram Alley, “by means whereof such persons as do frequent the house upon search made after them are conveyed out of the way.” The Inner Temple, immediately adjacent to Whitefriars, was used by rogues to escape; it also had its own right of sanctuary. Sometimes even the lawyers fought off the sherriff’s men or debtors, as they jealously guarded their own rights.

Ram Alley (later Hare Place or Hare Court, parallel to Mitre Court, down from the footway to Serjeants Inn into the temple) had the longest record of infamy. In 1603, the neighbouring Inns of Court were “greatly grieved and exceedingly disquieted by the many beggars, vagabonds and sundry idle and lewd persons who daily pass out of all parts of the City into the Temple garden [through Ram Alley] and there have stayed and kept all the whole day as their place of refuge and sanctuary” making the place “a common and most noisome lestal” (dunghill).

A gateway in the eastern wall, standing in the centre of Kings Bench Walk was the main doorway from one to the other, an ancient wooden gate. This was temporarily closed on occasion, as when there were brawls in the rookery. The Alsatians, when faced with a posse in strength, or a file of musketeers, found other ways of legging it into the Temple, such as a broken wall in the kitchen garden, a door in the wall of the Kings Bench office, which was a frequent point of fighting between Temple lawyers and the slum-dwellers. It was often barred and bolted against the Alsatians, and repeatedly broken down. When the Temple finally ordered the Whitefriars Gate bricked up in July 1691, a desperate battle followed, as workmen paid to brick up door were attacked repeatedly by Alsatia’s inhabitants, who pulled down the bricks. A Sheriff and his posse waded in, but the riotous rookery crew fought them off; managing to grab part of the Sheriff’s chain of office, and killing one of the posse in the fray”

“1st July 1691: The benchers of the Inner Temple, having given orders for bricking up their little gate leading into Whitefryars, and their workmen being at work thereon, the Alsatians came and pull’d it down as they built it up: whereupon the sherifs were desired to keep the peace, and accordingly came, the 4th, with their officers; but the Alsatians fell upon them, and knockt several of them down, and shott many guns amongst them, wounded several, two of which are since dead; a Dutch soldier passing by was shott thro’ the neck, and a woman into the mouth; sir Francis Child himself, one of the sherifs, was knockt down, and part of his gold chain taken away. The fray lasted several hours, but at last the Alsatians were reduced by the help of a body of the kings guards; divers of the Alsatians were seized and sent to prison. (Narcissus Luttrell’s A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs from September 1678 to April 1714. Vol. 2, pp.259-260.)

The battle led to a mass raid by the authorities; seventy of the inhabitants were rounded up, and the supposed leader of the Alsatia Mob, ‘Captain’ Francis or Winter absconded, only to be captured nearly a couple of years later and tried for murder. He was convicted and hanged in Fleet Street in 1693.

27th April 1693: The sessions is now, where capt. Winter who headed the mob about 2 years since in White Fryars against the sheriffs of London, where 2 or 3 persons were killed, was found guilty of murder, and 2 persons swore at that time he proclaimed king James. (Luttrell, Vol. 3, p.86.)

Read the Ordinary of Newgate’s account of Captain Winter and his death.

Other more secret routes to and from Alsatia were blocked up after complaints from respectable neighbours; one example being a shop and house in Falcon Street, off Fleet Street, belonging to one Davies, a tailor: through which came “a disorderly crowd of outlawed persons which dare not show themselves abroad in the streets.”

In 1696, a tailor who tried to seize a debtor who had taken refuge in Alsatia, was grabbed by locals, tarred and feathered, then tied to the Strand maypole. There were more battles with the lawyers in 1697, but shortly after the authorities decided they’d had enough, and the Sheriff’s men cleared the rookery for good. Parliament also passed an act to tighten up the law in relation to chasing down of debtors

Its inhabitants no doubt dispersed to other rookeries and slums, maybe to Chick Lane, Turnmill Street or Saffron Hill…

Read loads more on Alsatia and other debtors’ sanctuaries

Today in London healthcare history, 1978: Bethnal Green Hospital staff launch Work-in

The Bethnal Green Hospital in East London served the local population as a community hospital valued for its continuity of care and accessibility to local residents. Hospital staff at Bethnal Green were told in October 1977 that the local Area Health Authority wanted to reduce services at the hospital to just care of the elderly. A campaign was mounted to safeguard its future.

In the early-mid 1970s, with pressures on the NHS mounting as life expectancy became longer, but global economic meltdown having a sharp effect on resources, successive UK governments made decisions which would have a long term effect on hospital building and closures. This would have a particular impact in London, considered to have a disproportionately high number of acute hospital services compare to the rest of the country, especially the north of England. The Labour government elected in 1974 adopted a policy of relocation of resources from the southeast to the north of Britain; in NHS terms this was focused through the Resource Allocation Working Party, set up in July 1975.

In reality, however, RAWP represented not a massive increase in resources to other regions of the UK – in the context of the recession, it meant merely that these areas were being cut slightly less severely than in London.

And cuts in London were to become very harsh.

The Bethnal Green Infirmary in London’s East End opened in 1900, built on land purchased from the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews.  The 4.5 acre site had previously contained a chapel – the Episcopal Jews’ Chapel – and had been known as Palestine Place.  The clock from the demolished Chapel was installed on the tower of the administration block.

The three-storey red brick building was designed to accommodate 669 patients and was intended mainly for the chronically ill (by 1901 it had 619 in-patients) and this remained so until WW1.

In 1915 civilian in-patients were moved to St George-in-the-East Hospital or to the workhouse in Waterloo Road and the military authorities took over the building for wounded soldiers – it became the Bethnal Green Military Hospital under the London District Command.  It had 709 beds for wounded and sick servicemen.  During this time a pathology laboratory was installed.

Only in 1920 did all the patients and staff return.  A wider range of services were added, including an Orthopaedic Clinic, established at the request of the Ministry of Pensions, to provide treatment for ex-servicemen with damaged joints. By 1929 Casualty and X-ray Departments and admission wards had been opened and an operating theatre was being constructed.  There was also a VD clinic (which closed in 1952).

The LCC took control of the administration in 1930, when the Hospital had 650 beds, of which 551 were occupied.

During WW2 the Hospital suffered minor bomb damage. In 1948 it joined the NHS as the Bethnal Green Hospital and came under the control of the Central Group of the North East Metropolitan Region.  By this time it had considerably fewer beds, just over 300.

In 1953 there were 313 beds, with an average occupancy of 260.

A geriatric unit was established in 1954.  In the same year the Group Pathology Laboratory was sited here and served the Central Group hospitals – Mile End Hospital, St Leonard’s Hospital, East End Maternity Hospital, St Matthew’s Hospital, Mildmay Mission Hospital, the London Jewish Hospital and the Metropolitan Hospital(all of which have now also closed).

During the 1960s a new dental hospital, a pathology institute and a School of Nursing and Midwifery were established.  In 1966 the Postgraduate Medical Education Centre opened.  In the same year the Central Group was dissolved and the Hospital joined the East London Group.

The Obstetrics Department closed in 1972.  In yet another NHS reorganisation in 1974, during the first wave of cutbacks in the NHS, the Hospital passed to the control of Tower Hamlets District, under the auspices of the City & East London Area Health Authority.  In the same year the Gynaecology department closed.

From 1977 the role of the Hospital changed from acute to geriatric care, with 167 acute beds closing and being replaced by 120 geriatric beds for the patients transferred from St Matthew’s Hospital.

When plans to heavily cut the hospital services were announced in 1977, a campaign to defend them and try to overturn the decision was launched. The hospital was still working to capacity, and its patients would have nowhere to go if its facilities were withdrawn, except to extend already over-long waiting lists.

As socialist doctor David Widgery noted, the cuts took “no account of social deprivation or incidence of disease in awarding resources, relying simply on out-of-date mortality rates. The result is a geographical interpretation rather than a class one, generating the lunacy of designating areas like Tower Hamlets, hackney and Brent as possessing more than their fare share of resources, which are therefore deemed suitable for siphoning off to East Anglia.” Widgery, a junior casualty officer in the hospital, was elected hair of the Save Bethnal Green Hospital Campaign.

A Tower Hamlets Action Committee was established with over 700 people attending the first meeting held on 24th November 1977. The campaign included support from GPs, regular picketing of the hospital, huge meetings and strikes and stoppages across East London…

On the 28th January 1978 over 500 attended a march from Weavers Field to the London Hospital to protest at the closures.

In March it was agreed that a regular picketing of the hospital should take place to highlight the plight of the hospital

On the 16th March 1978 at another huge meeting Bethnal Green Hospital was declared unanimously a “protected hospital”

A planned march against hospital closures in East London arranged by Plaistow Hospital campaign on 18th March was banned by the police due to events at the anti-fascist protest in Lewisham in August 1977.

10th March a 2 hour stoppage was staged in five East London hospital’s in opposition to the health cuts

30th March 1978: East London Hospital unions called strike action in nine hospitals for between six and twenty four hours, the Royal London and Mile End hospitals stop all routine work for 24 hours. Strikes had spread to local brewery workers, posties and printers. 800 campaigners marched to the Health Authority headquarters to protest.

102 East End GPs had signed a letter objecting to the cuts.

Meanwhile, the staff decided to ‘occupy’ the hospital.

On 1st July 1978 at 8pm, the time of the official closure, the hospital staff, applauded by a large crowd of local people and filmed by the News at Ten (ITV) put up a notice announcing the occupation of the casualty unit at Bethnal Green hospital. Detailed arrangements are made with medical staff, GP’s , the Emergency Bed Service (EBS) to guarantee admissions and safety. The first hospital casualty work-in in history began, with patients arriving at 8:02.

The only people to move out of the hospital were the administrators. Doctors, nurses and other staff continued to perform their duties, GP’s continued to refer patients, locals continued to attend the casualty department and ambulance drivers continued to respond to emergency calls.

While patients remained at the hospital, the health authority had a duty to pay staff salaries – and so the occupation took effect.

On the 30th July managers arrived at the hospital threatening staff with legal action, nursing staff instruct under threat of dismissal to move, medical staff who refuse to do so were “harangued” and threatened. The Bethnal Green Hospital work-in was called off on 30th July 1978 having treated over one thousand local patients.

An account of the campaign written shortly after the smashing of the occupation:

“The Green is a medium sized general hospital in a part of East London with notoriouly high incidence of illness and a community health service which is only now emerging from decades of neglect. It has about 280 in-patient beds and sees nearly 48,000 cases each year in its casualty and outpatient clinics.

It is no medical derelict; from the specialist hip replacement unit, its patients’ kitchens, reputed to be the best in East London to its excellent postgraduate Medical Centre it’s a busy working hospital with high medical standards and unusually good relations with general practitioners.

But, Enter The Cuts. The Tower Hamlets District not only have the national nil-growth ceiling now strictly enforced by the cash limit which was introduced as part of the IMF’s loan terms. It also has the RAWP (Regional Allocation Working Party) tax to pay.

RAWP is a classical social-democratic cock-up; designed to level up the regionally uneven levels of medical spending noted by socialist critics in the 1960s. Now in the 1970s it has become a formula for rationalising cuts. RAWP shifts still more money out of the Thames regions, long overdue fireproofing and internally financed pay increases for junior doctors further reduce the Tower Hamlets District coffers already ravaged by the rocketing supply costs, especially of drugs.

It’s a national story but East London is feeling the full impact first and hardest. The Tower Hamlets Health District are attempting to ‘save’ £2 million or 300 beds (beds aren’t strictly the things with mattresses on but a unit of medical currency). This abolishes at a stroke, 1 in every 3 acute bed in the district although last winter the existing beds were frequently chock-a-bloc.

The scheme was to smother the Green quietly, under the guise of a conversion, labelled temporary but likely to be permanent, to an all geriatric ghetto. This would achieve the rquired acute beds cut without involving the other better organised hospitals and care.

But the plan blew up in their face and the battle to save the Green has achieved the widest working class action against the cuts so far in London this year.

An increasingly vicious management succeeded in smashing the 24-hour casualty work-in which had run throughout July on 1 August by withdrawing staff and threatening senior medical staff involved with legal action. But it has proved a Pyrrhic victory and at the Council, the Community Health Council, the hospital and general unions against them and the East London public in angry mood.

There is now no chance of conversion to the all-geriatric unit unless at least some of the demands of the Campaign – retention of medical beds, open X-ray services, the Postgraduate Centre, a 9-5 Casualty Station – are met.

What is important to realise is the very slender basis from which the campaign was nursed. The Green has an unhappy trade union past and was clearly seen by management as a push over, especially since the all-geriatric future gave the impression that jobs would be safe.

For months a tiny committee of staff who wanted to make a stand, and local people, did careful groundwork, sat through visiting know-alls who would monopolise a meeting and not be seen again, petitioned GPs, tried to change the pessimistic mood inside the hospital. Only two years ago when the Metropolitan, a Hackney hospital opened in 1886, was closed, its secretary said, ‘The staff have been incredibly loyal and have steadfastly refused to strike and now it is us who face the chop’. The Green could easily have had the same obituary.

Carefully argued critiques of the plans were put into the complicated ritual of paper shifting called ‘consultation’ but at the same time Green campaigners knocked, wrote, and implored the entire local trade union movement to rise to the issue.

After two highly successful public meetings, the biggest the York Hall could recall, the Campaign called its first two hours stoppage on 10 March and in much trepidation. Myrna Shaw, NALGO shop steward remembers:

‘We stepped out of this hospital yesterday to give two hours to the community and in the true spirit of the East End we found the community waiting for us.

‘Anyone who could not be stirred by the sight must be dead. There were the massed banners of the trades councils and the trade unions. The Ambulance men were there and the Tenants’ Associations. St. Bartholomew’s turned up and St. Leonards, St. Mathew’s and St. Clement’s.

‘We picked up contingents from Mile End Hospital and The London on the way. Hospital chaplains marched – so did doctors, nurses, social workers, town hall staff, GLC staff, people from the breweries, local industries and teachers. Apologies to anyone left out.

‘If you lost your place in the procession it was hard to find anyone you knew when you went back. Best of all our own staff marched – from every Department in the Hospital’.

Behind that unity lay careful groundwork. 103 local GPs had been canvassed and stated that the closure was ‘a disastrous mistake’. The local community nurses stated ‘it would be difficult for us to cope with a large increase in our work load even if our staffing levels were increased’.

The social workers stated ‘The hospital has greatly enhanced the service we are able to give, its loss would greatly diminish it’. But the 1974 re-organisation scheme has established a pattern of medical autocracy which is virtually impossible to dent with reason and damned hard to affect with force.

After a three month reprieve which was clearly designed to defuse rather than encourage the supporters, instructions were issued for closure of the Casualty, the first step in the change of use, on 1 August at 8.00 p.m.

Once a closure date had been stated, down to the hour the phoney war was over. A Joint Trade Union Co-ordinating Committee elected by the East London Health Shop Stewards had been arguing out the implications of the Green’s closure for the general patterns of cuts in East London and tightening up its own organisation and communications.

When it called strike action, even at notice of days rather than weeks, the response was splendid. The day before the attempted closure nine local hospitals stopped simultaneous, St Barts and The London were solid for 24 hours, and many industrial supporters came out spontaneously too. 300 locals were outside the hospital gates as 8.00 p.m. arrived and at 8.01 a sign went up ‘Casualty OPEN under staff control’. Within minutes, long planned agreements with the ambulance and emergency bed service unions went into action.

Over the next few weeks, the Casualty, which the administration still insisted was closed, saw and treated more patients than in the same month the previous year. And the pickets outside the hospital now really had something to defend. The six point motion moved by Mrs Henrietta Cox of NUPE had done its work in each respect:

The staff of Bethnal Green Hospital declare that the Casualty Department will stay open. We declare we have no confidence in the DMT. We resolve to elect a committee representing all the staff to make sure casualty runs as usual. We call on ambulance staff, the BBS and local GPs to support us. We call on workers in other London hospitals to take any action necessary to support us. We call on our unions to organise supportative action. We ask the people of East London to support us!

It took the management a full month to break the Casualty work in. After early attempts to withdraw staff and victimise the other hospitals and ambulance men who defied their official instruction that the Green was closed, direct and legal pressure was put on the rebel consultants and nursing staff forcibly transferred within the district.

It is important to realise that a work-in is not a universal panacea. Its remarkable success at the EGA depends on the special cases of consultants in the very specialised women-treating-women field, for which no real equivalent alternative can be offered. But in most hospitals, consultants can be only too easily bought off with promises of new, perhaps better, facilities in other hospitals in the districts.

And such is the independent power of the consultant in the NHS structure that medical work simply cannot continue without their approval, even though they are are only on the premises for a small part of the time. Management, too, are learning from the EGA, especially in finding ways to pressurise nursing staff who are most vulnerable to hospital discipline.

The Bethnal Green work-in could never have worked without the very remarkable devotion of a consultant physician John Thomason and the hospital’s casualty officer, Kutty Divakaran.

But the Health Authority still hold the trump card: the ability to transfer staff. Short of running an alternative private health service, paid for by collection, within the hospital there was little to do but protest when an ‘Invisible Hounslow’ took place.

There was further strike and public protest on the day of the final forced closure. But the battle has now moved into a second phase, to prevent the conversion to the all-geriatric dumping ground so many staff and locals oppose because its notorious effect on morale and nursing and medical standards by insisting the remaining medical, postgraduate, X-ray, ECG and outpatient services stay put.

This time round it will be that much more simple to convince the Community Health Council, the Council and the statutory bodies who found the initial package plausible, of the real intent of the management; quite savage cuts in a area which is crying out for more resources. And to prevent the destruction of an excellent community-based hospital with no planned alternative.

Already there are ‘lessons’ galore. DMPs all over the country are finding increasing resistance to their attempts to enforce cuts. Not only are older community hospitals like St Nicks and The Green (which do need change but, with imagination, could find an important inner city role) being forced into closure, but completed new hospitals are unstaffed, and long promised and long needed facilities, such at Hemel Hempstead are postponed. 30 threatened hospitals joined a torchlit vigil on the 30th Birthday of the NHS in London alone.

Despite the BMA and Ennals, medical staff and unions are finding common cause and using sophisticated types of industrial action to force their case – at a time when the rest of the labour movement has its fists firmly in the pocket. Occupations live, it seems, in the NHS, if they have been forgotten in Clydeside. For the Bethnal Green battle and that of the EGA and Hounslow before it, will have to be repeated all over Britain as we descend further, further down the course established by Ennals, who is to British hospitals what Henry the Eighth was to British monasteries.

Here in East London the particular emotional significance of the hospital, and the genuine gratitude felt to the NHS, has given the campaign a moral pungency and unity which have done something to revive the flagging fortunes of East London labour whose greatest days seemed all to be in the Museum. With the steadfastness of the young Bengalis in Brick Lane, the limbering up of the docks unofficial committee and the fightback on the hospital cuts, the sleeping lion of East London labour is stirring.

If hospital workers just plead for passive support, it’s simply a case of wishing them well. But once the hospital unions take strike action or mount a work-in, the question becomes active. We are doing something, what are you going to do? Suddenly the all powerful authorities can look extremely isolated.

As for the politics of the situation, the weakness of the Communist Party is quite startling. Even ten years ago they would have delivered a formidable industrial punch but now their support is well-meaning, inexperienced and a bit airy fairy.

The left of the Labour Party, especially ousted councillors, have been excellent but must face the fact that it is a Labour minister, Roland Moyle who gave the Green the Ministerial Kick in the teeth. Even Mikardo, who has taken up The Green like the fighter he is, may oppose cuts in his constituency but voted for the package nationally. On the ground it has been independent trade union activists, local socialist feminist groups and the SWP who have run the campaign.

The lack of response from the hospital unions at a London level or nationally has been truly scandalous. Reviewing the annual conferences this year, it’s clear that the bureaucracy considers cuts were last year’s thing. It seems even possible that NUPE and the DHSS have an agreement, off the record, to let certain hospitals go without a fight.

Fisher has made not one visit to a hospital where his members are putting their necks on the block against the very cuts that he used to establish his own credibility as a campaigning union leader. The informal networks, Hospital Worker, and now the excellent Fightback co-ordinating committee based on the shell of Hounslow Hospital have been worth 100 times more than another Alan Fisher TV appearance.

The success of the cuts is not just a financial saving and a worse service. It is a code word for a social counter-revolution, a crueller, harsher Britain. The hospital service planned for us will consist of highly centralised (and incidentally absurdly expensive) units run more and more like factories to achieve maximum efficiency in ‘through-put’ and a few sub-hospitals for geriatrics and sub-normality practicing third world third-class custodial medicine. The sick who fall between those two stools will have to trust its luck to something called the community’ which is itself busy being destroyed.

It is this Dismal New World every cuts battles faces head on. And because of the degree to which the Labour Party has become the agent of financial capitalist orthodoxy, that even the most minor closure has to be fought up to cabinet level. The battle against the cuts, like the battle for the right to work, are part of a bigger battle to reshape the priorities of modern Britain. If it seems at times unrewarding, it is where real socialists should be building.

(taken from International Socialism, June 1977)

In the end, the surgical beds closed in 1978 and the remaining medical beds in 1979.

The Bethnal Green work-in may have been defeated in the most immediate terms. However, as the first occupation of a casualty ward, it received a huge amount of publicity, and encouraged a succession of hospital occupations and work-ins, from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson work-in onwards.

In 1990 the Hospital closed entirely.  Patients and staff were transferred to the newly opened Bancroft Unit for the Care of the Elderly at the Royal London Hospital (Mile End).

Here’s a short film on the later campaign to keep the rest of the Bethnal Green Hospital open, dating from 1984

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

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