Today in London’s radical history, 1614: Lewisham residents demonstrate against the enclosure of Sydenham Common

“Memorandum that in ye yeares of our Lord 1614 and 1615 we had many troubles and suites concerning our common of Westwood being in quantity about 500 acres of ground whereunto the Lord of his mercy gave a good issue in ye end. The occasion was this: Henry Newport of Lewsham, gentleman, and yeoman of ye boiling-house to King James, having lived long in our parish, in ye yeare 1605 begged this common of the King and made meanes to his Majesty for a lease of it at a yearely rent.” (Abraham Colfe)

The area on the slopes of the ridge of hills that runs across South London, from Norwood to Brockley, was, until the 18th century, largely still woodland, the remnants of the old Great North Wood. This wood, a natural oak forest that had once stretched from unbroken from Croydon to Camberwell, had broken up by the seventeenth Century, into smaller woods and commons, including Penge Wood, Gipsy Wood, Dulwich Wood, Forest Wood (or Forest Hill), and Westwood (also called Sydenham Common).

By the late 1700s many of these woods and Commons were often inhabited by the very poor, squatters with nowhere else to go, some driven by earlier enclosures and social/economic change into scratching a living from marginal land; others were social outcasts like romany travellers, (hence the local area name of Gipsy Hill), though there was also often a smattering of outlaws, robbers and rebels. Smugglers and their contacts used green lanes through Norwood and Peckham to bring contraband up from the south coast.

From the late fifteenth century, common lands began to be enclosed – fenced off, initially mainly for more intensive sheep farming, as wool was very lucrative – the English wool trade was a major driver of the national economy (and a huge factor in the historical development of capitalism). Later, intensive agriculture, economies of scale and technological innovation also pushed large-scale enclosure projects.

Enclosure lined the pockets of the already dominant landowning classes, but also helped enrich merchants and other traders, hungry for social advancement and power.

On top of demand for land for development and more intensive agriculture there was also pressure to clear ‘undesirables’ out; for some local worthies in rural or suburban parishes, this was a useful by-product of enclosures.

While the Lord of the Manor, the landowner, was often the initiator of enclosure, this was not always the case. Increasingly from the 16th century the buying and selling of land was followed by enclosure,

The mass upheavals caused by enclosures were not pushed though without resistance. Those who depended on the rights to collect wood, furze or peat for fuel, gather foodstuffs, or graze animals, fought attempts to shut them out of the land – because they had little choice, it was a matter of survival. Others with some ‘rights of common’ might be small-scale landowners themselves, who would lose out too, but had some chance of compensation.

The latter had more legal clout to challenge enclosure. But tactics were as varied as the complex interwoven web of rights and customs that enclosure sought to do away with – ranging from petitions, court cases, demonstrations, to sabotage and riot, the destruction of fences and ditches, driving of animals onto enclosed land… At crucial periods enclosure led to armed rebellions, as in several counties across the southeast, southwest and East Anglia in 1549, and in several midlands counties in 1607.

Many battles were won – many more lost.

One battle that was fought hard, and enclosure prevented for two centuries (though ultimately lost), was that over Sydenham Common, also was known in early medieval times as Westwood or Westwood Common.  The name Westwood derives from the area being the western part of the parish of Lewisham, and heavily wooded; in fact Westwood was a remainder of the old Great North Wood.

Sydenham or Westwood Common (very occasionally also referred to as Shenewood) covered the area between modern Sydenham and Forest Hill. Bounded in the Southwest by today’s Westwood Hill & Crystal Palace Park, in the Southeast it reached to Mayow Park and Sydenham Road; to the north to where Honor Oak Park and Forest Hill Road now lie. It consisted of open fields and woodland belonging to the Manor of Lewisham, who were in turn, from the middle ages, the Abbots of Ghent, the Priors of Shene (near Richmond) and then the Archbishops of Canterbury. For centuries the common was split between coppices of farmed timber and open tracts where locals and parishioners of Lewisham had ‘Common Rights’ to graze cattle & gather fuel.

Henry VIII acquired Westwood in 1531, as part of the manor of Lewisham, an acquisition ratified by an act of Parliament in 1531.In the Act there was a proviso that the exchange was not to be hurtful to any person concerning the “Commons, ” or any rights of use which any person might or ought to have therein. The Crown, however, thereafter considered that Westwood Common was a portion of the demesne lands of the manor (thus the king’s to dispose of as he saw fit).

The coppice system was gradually abandoned, to allow more mature woods to grow for use by the navy – crucial to the wars waged by successive Tudor monarchs (and most successfully to the officially tolerated piracy in the West Indies that gave birth to both the beginnings of Britain’s naval imperialism and to the Atlantic slave trade). These trees were felled wholesale in the late sixteenth century, leaving a stripped common, apart from two main wooded areas, Coleson’s Coppice and Coopers Wood.

This open land was a strong temptation to potential enclosers.

The battle against enclosure began in 1605-6, when Henry Newport, a gentleman living in Lewisham and a Yeoman of the King’s Household (a royal courtier) persuaded king James I to lease him 500-600 acres of ‘Westwood’, and applied to fence a large part off for ‘improvement’.

Many inhabitants of Lewisham were small farmers or husbandmen who relied heavily on the free pasture available on the common. At this time there were also large numbers of squatters on the common, encouraged by the lack of restrictions on grazing of animals. They supported themselves almost entirely by raising pigs, cows and sheep.

There was an outcry locally in response to the proposal. Abraham Colfe, the vicar of Lewisham, played a central role in organised opposition to Newport. A number of local inhabitants claimed that they had always had common of pasture for all manner of cattle without number and at all times [i.e. that the land was not half year land], and also common of estovers and shreddings of all trees growing on the said common. Their first petition noted the value of the Common to local poor inhabitants:

“The Humble Petition of the inhabitants of the Parrishe of Lewsham :— “Wherefore the poore inhabitants of Lewsham aforesaide doe most humbly praye the Right Honorable the Earl of Salisburye in respect of his greate wisdom and justice and because he is the high Stewarde of Lewsham aforesaide that he wilbe pleased to be enformed of the sayd Newporte’s unjust proceedings and to relieve the poore inhabitants of Lewsham aforesaid that being above 500 poore housholders with wives and manye children greately relieved by the sayde Common and would be utterly undone yf yt should be unjustly taken from them. So shall theese poore inhabitants be alwayes ready to praye God as nevertheles for his honours long life and happie dayes with much increase of honor. “

They produced, in proof, the recollections of the “oldest inhabitants:
“Stephen Batt of Croydon of the age of 98 yeares testifieth for the same Comon by the name of Westwood or Sheenewood in his knowledge 80 yeares agoe and never heard the contrary which testimony was five yeares before the same Acte was made [ie., 1525]. “John Heathe of the age of 90 yeares testifiethe for the same Comon for 75 yeares which was at the time of the Acte made that it was then in his knowledge a Comon and alwaies so was used and that he never harde the contrary. “Thomas Frenche of Bromley of the age of 80 yeares testifiethe for the same common for 70 yeares. Arnolde Kinge of Beckenham of the age of 78 yeares testifiethe for the same comon in his knowledge for 65 yeares.”

Henry Newport asked for a commission of enquiry to look into the matter, and Sir Thomas Walsingham, Sir Ralphe Boswell, Henry Heyman, surveyor, and Michael Berisfforde were appointed “for the surveying and finding of a parcel of waste grounde in Lewsham in the County of Kent called Westwood to be the King’s and therein especially to enquire whether it be the King’s own waste in demeane or whether it be the King’s waste but yet a comon withall and of what yearly valewe it is.”

This commission seems to have found that the land belonged to the king but was a common, with the rights that this implied; however their verdict may not have been reached unanimously:
“On the 25th April 1606 the Commissioners did sitt at Greenwich to enquire and after evidence given to the jurye and the greater parte of the same jury meaninge to give up their verdict that Westwood was the King’s waste and yet a comon, they were dissolved and lefte for that time, wherby that Commission was expired”.(Abraham Colfe)

 

A painting of Sydenham Common, dating from the eighteenth century.

 

Another hearing in 1607 into the intended enclosure was inconclusive:

“The case came again before the Court of Exchequer in 1607, “after dinner, on a Starre chamber day… and againe ye 9th November, 1608,” but Newport either dropped the case at that time, “or other error fell out in ye proceedings, so that he obtained not as yet his purpose.”  The matter was left in abeyance…

But Newport was not, in fact, prepared to give up; he and his allies spent the following six years on ‘secret inquisitions’, plotting carefully to claim the land: “Since which time the aforesaide Henrie Newporte going about to defeate the inhabitants of Lewsham aforesaide of their saide Comon hathe secretly made an inquisition in a remote place and altogether without the knowledge of the saide inhabitants by that meanes seeking to get some sinister testimony uppon recorde againste the inhabitants, and also to prevent them of geving their evidence unto the jury as detendaunts of their righte of Comon.”

In 1614 Newport obviously felt his planning had built a good case, as he, together with two more gentlemen of the king’s household – Robert Raynes, the king’s sergeant of the buckhounds, and Innocent Lanyer, of Greenwich, one of the King’s musicians – approached the king again; this time obtaining a 60-year lease for 347 acres of Westwood – the vast majority of the common.

Locals with an interest in the common remaining open was again quick to organise opposition. They lodged a complaint against Newport and his co-patentees. After some preliminary proceedings it was agreed that Mr. John Burnett, one of the principal parishioners, who amongst others claimed to have common rights in Westwood, should be entered in the proceedings as representing the parish. The trial took place on 14th October, 1614, before the Barons of the Exchequer, touching the ‘Common of Westwood of 500 acres of ground lying in the parish of Lewisham’, with a jury of the County of Kent; John Sherman, of Greenwich, was foreman of the jury, and Henry Dobbins and Henry Abbot, of Greenwich, and John Leech, “of Detford,” were members.

However this hearing went against those opposed to the proposals: the jury ignored their complaints and found in favour of Newport and his allies. It is possible that the jury, drawn from members of local parishes, might have been weighted against the protestors, (perhaps because some of them had links to the enclosers, as a later jury was specifically noted as being drawn from parishes further away).

In response Abraham Colfe led a march of 100 parishioners to Tottenham High Cross, to petition to the king, a few days after the hearing, on October 20th: “Whereupon neer 100 people young and old went through ye City of London and a little on this side of Topnam high-crosse petitioned King James who very graciously heard ye petition and ordered the Lords of his Privy Counsell should take a course that he might be no more troubled about it.”

King James, uninterested, or unwilling to associate himself with a ruling that could alienate either side, passed it to the Privy Council for them to make a decision.

Newport and his fellow courtiers “then began very much to vexe ye inhabitants.” They immediately ordered fences erected around the common, recognising that if he could enclose the land, appeals to reverse the decision were less likely to succeed (a lesson possibly learnt from other previous enclosure battles  – actual possession counted for almost everything). “Presently the patentees began to make ditches about the common and inclosed it and drave out and killed sundry of the cattell of the inhabitants.”

The fences were put up over the winter, a crucial time for common rights, as residents were used to free access to collect firewood or gorse to burn, their only means of heating their homes. Abraham Colfe got busy fund-raising for an appeal. He and others collected money among local freeholders to take the case to the privy council. More than £100 is recorded as being collected. Further sums included £70 from ‘the Mayor and Commonality of London’… an interesting indication that the opposition had some friends in power in the City of London. Another march to petition the king was mounted on 19th December.

Local residents around the common, meanwhile, were not simply willing to accept the loss of rights of fuel gathering, and many continued to enter the common to collect wood. Lanier and Newport’s hired men then attacked some women gathering wood, which provoked a riot.

As with many enclosure struggles, there were different wings to the opposition. Vicar and the local worthies trying to establish an appeal against Newport were keen to see any action confined to court hearings, petitions, and dignified protest at the outside. Others, whose livelihoods or winter warmth depended on their continued ability to use the common, were prepared to use stronger methods – they had little choice.  Some began tearing down the fences and filling in drainage ditches Newport had ordered to be dug. Every time the enclosers men’ put fences up again, crowds gathered to break them down. In response Lanier and Newport’s men drove off more cattle and burned furze (gorsebushes) which were used as fuel by the inhabitants.

Several petitions were entered in 1615 regarding these troubles… including one on 31st March from the inhabitants of Lewisham, concerning a riot that had taken place on 2nd March.

Papers of Colfe from this time include a note on the activities of Henry Benden, a servant of Mr. Lanier, who continued to drive off the cattle of the inhabitants and obstructed the cutting of furze for fuel:  “Henry Benden and other of the patentees’ servants still drove of the cattell and spoiled some of them to death and would not let the poore have furzes. Hereupon the 22nd day being Ash Wednesday, Henry Benden being at church, after service I gave him advise, and wished him not to molest the poore in such sort by driving and hurting their cattell and hindering them of furzes: for if he should be sent for by a pursevant and committed for his contempt I thought his master (namely Mr. Lanier) would not beare him out in it.”

Colfe also noted descriptions of an attack by “one Southwell alias Thomas Foxe on Charles Parker of Lewisham on 20 April, an attack by Anthony Witherings on Thomas Coomes and Henry Hunt of Lewisham while they waited to present their suit to the Privy Council at the Royal Court at the Royal Court at Greenwich, a description of an attack by Henry Benden, Mr. Henry Newport’s son and a brother of Mr. Robert Raynes on Thomas Muscrop of Beknam (Beckenham) and Edward Caustin after they had broken through the new hedges into Westwood, in search of sheep”. Colfe noted the numbers of sheep lost on a small slip of paper.

Colfe drafted several petitions: to the Earl of Salisbury (as high Steward of Lewisham), the Earl of Somerset, (the Lord High Chamberlain), and this one, to the Archbishop of Canterbury:
“To ye right reverend father in God the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury his Grace Primate and Metropolitan of all England and one of his Majesties most Hon. Privy Councell. The humble petition of his Majesties poor tenants ye inhabitants of Lewsham in Kent neare Greenwich:

Most humbly shew to your grace many hundreds of ye poore distressed inhabitants of Lewsham that whereas we have time out of mind quietly enjoyed a wast peece of ground of 500 acres called ye Comon of Westwood (as we can shew by auncient deeds since ye 5th or 9th yeare of King Henry ye 5th being 196 years past, by an Act of Parliament reserving ye commons of ye manor of Lewsham to ye inhabitants, by ye King’s owne records calling it Westwood lying open and common, and by witnesses for 80 yeares as long as man can remember) yet Robert Raynes, Innocent Lanier and Henry Newport three of his majesties servants obtained a grant and a lease for 60 yeares from his Majesty of ye said common upon a rent of 40 markes by ye yeare and ye last terme impleaded your poor suppliants in ye Court of Exchequer and gott a verditt and judgment and are now closing ye said common to ye utter undoing of above 500 poore people. And whereas they had possessed diverse of ye nobles and by them hade meanes to informe his majesty that only 2 or 3 had ye chief benefitt of ye common and not ye poore, we were inforced to goe above an 100 of us ye 19 of December with petition to ye King’s Majestie for his mercifull favore, who most graciously promised we should have justice and in ye end referred ye consideracon of our petition to ye Lords of his Privy Councell. We most humbly desire your grace when our petition shall come to be heard before you that your grace will afford us your gracious favour for our quiet enjoying of ye said common, it being as we do solemnly protest a chief stay and maintenance for pasture of cattail, furses and bushes for fyering to above 500 poore people, and we shall pray to God for your grace’s health, long life and eternall happiness…”

The Privy Council referred the matter to the Lord Chief Baron and Sir Edward Bromley, one of the Barons of the Court of Exchequer, to try to mediate between the parishioners and Newport and his friends. But the patentees demanded £1000 in compensation in the event of not being allowed to proceed with their enclosures, which the parishioners would not agree to. Seeing that there was no chance of agreement, in April 1615 the Privy Council ordered that there should be a new trial, with John Eaton, gentleman, of Lewisham, listed as defendant to represent the inhabitants. At the same time the Privy Council ordered that the patentees (Newport & Co.) being in possession should continue to hold the ground meanwhile, that the gates and ditches destroyed by the inhabitants should be repaired by them; on the other hand the enclosers were banned from burning or selling any of the furze growing in or upon the common nor “disturbe or interrupt the said inhabitants of the manor of Lewsham nor any other his Majesties liege people to the use of all such wayes as have hearetofore byn used in, through or by or over the said parcell of ground called Westwood” until the trial and further order taken.’”

The Justices of the Peace for the area were instructed to punish any offenders, pending a ruling.

Though this may have been intended to prevent violence by either side, by June the Lewisham residents found that no action was being taken by the J.P.s against the enclosers, despite locals’ cattle being found slaughtered in Westwood and the skins of dead sheep being hung provocatively from bushes to deter resistance. The Justices, being local landowners, may have had interests in the enclosure themselves, or been unwilling to offend rich or powerful neighbours with connections to the court. Meanwhile vicar Abraham Colfe was subject to attacks on his personality, portrayed as an instigator of rebellion against the king: a petition from Newport’s group complained that
“Whereas on October 20th 1614 Mr. Abraham Colfe Vicar of Lewisham led through the City of London one hundred of his parishioners to Tottenham High Crosse and there petitioned his Majesty against the privileges granted to our clients in the common of Westwood and made many and slanderous accusations against them thereby filling the ear of his most sacred Majesty with injurious regard of our clients. And whereas our clients are desirous to maintain the good esteem of their most dread sovereign and the peaceable occupation of the lands that have been granted them and which they have at much cost fenced etc. they desire to be confirmed in their possession.”

Colfe’s petition to the Archbishop of Canterbury (quoted earlier) responded to this denunciation:
“Further in particular your humble suppliant Abraham Colf, minister of Lewsham, sheweth to your grace that whereas Robt Raynes, Innocent Laniere and Henry Newport in a late petition to his Majesty have abused your said suppliant Abraham Colf, saying that he out of his seditious spirit stirred up ye people tumultuously to clamour ye King’s Majestie, without any just ground or colour; and further Innocent Lanier hath used sundry other defamations and slanderous speaches ; also that he {i.e., Colfe) hath publickely spoken against ye proceedings of his Majestie’s Court here as though he had called publike meetings in the church to make ye people curse them. That it would please your grace to relieve your said suppliant against ye impudent slanders, and he shalbe bound ever to pray, as he doth every day upon his knees to Almighty God for your grace’s safety and favour with God and men.”

The parishioners of Lewisham also signed the following petition:
“We ye inhabitants of ye parish of Lewsham in Kent whose names are under written hearing of the sundry defamations and uncharitable speaches given out in a petition to ye King’s Majesty against Abraham Colfe vicar of our parish and being desired by him to testify our knowledg of his behaviour among us doe solemnly protest before God and witnes that for a truth unto all those whom it may concerne, that the said Abraham Colfe having lived as a curate and vicar these 10 yeares among us hath not to our knowledg demeaned himself otherwise then becometh the minister of God’s word; for he hath bene very painfull in his calling, duly preaching once (and for ye great part of the summer twice every Sabath among vs) liberall to ye poore, given to hospitality and other good workes, in his life peaceable, not having had any one suit or controversy in law all this time against any of us; no way savouring of a factious or sedicious spirit neither in publick or private speaches or actions; but continually dehorting us during ye time of our distressed suit about our common both from reviling them in speaches that have sought to get away ye meanes of our living and from perfourming any outward act that might be either offensive to his Majestie or prejudiciall to ye lawes of ye realme. In witnes wherof we have willing- and freely subscribed our names…”

The enclosers apparently labelled the protesters rich individuals who would not themselves suffer from the enclosure. Which may have been partly true, in that not all opponents of enclosure were necessarily immediately affected, but was certainly not completely accurate, as the poorer residents taking direct action most certainly were impacted. But they didn’t count as anyone to be worried about…

In July another court hearing was held, but could not resolve the matter. The group who had leased the common may have been willing to give up the enclosure (possibly the resistance had got to them somewhat by this time), but demanded excessive compensation for giving up their holding.

By October 1615, however, the Privy Council had had enough. Clearly the trouble the enclosure had caused was too big a price to pay – social peace had to be restored. They appointed an independent jury, chosen out of Kent, amongst whom it was noted that there was no one belonging to the immediately neighbouring parishes to Lewisham, and a hearing was held on 16th October, again before the Barons of the Exchequer. This time the jury agreed that Westwood was an ancient common with all the attendant customal rights. As Colfe wrote with relief “they passed [a verdict] in the behalfe of the poore inhabitants’ although common rights extended to many more. Mr. Colfe:  “The Lord’s holy name for ever for his great tender mercies be blessed a verdict passed in the behalf of the poore inhabitants and on the 18th November following judgment was also granted and a copy both of the order and of that judgment taken out under the seale of the Exchequier Chamber which is kept by us.”

Part of the reason why the local vicar and some other landowners in Lewisham opposed the enclosure may have been the prospect of the destitute squatters evicted from the Common becoming a burden on the ratepayers of the parish, if they were deprived of their tenuous livings (this is an issue that is quoted in other enclosure disputes). Though a genuine feeling that people across classes should be able to enjoy the economic benefit available to Westwood was also shared by both the very poor and many of their ‘betters’. Many well-off local residents had economic interests in common land themselves, that they resented larger landlords attempting to trample on. Many of those with written or customary ‘common rights’ might themselves be well-to-do landowners or tradesmen.

There were many social tensions at work in the Sydenham events, as with almost all struggles around enclosure. It wasn’t a simple case of class against class. Some existing landowners and rising men with money and power saw the wealth enclosure could bring them; others of the same background felt either social obligations to the less well off, genuinely buying ideologically into their role as protectors of the poor, as part of a paternalist, vertically interdependent society opposed to the ruthless destruction of complex social ties and responsibilities.

Others thought that the upheavals enclosure brought could threaten stability, and maybe lead to rebellion. And not only were authorities afraid of the violent response that enclosures could provoke, but the enclosure process was at this time often opposed by a section of the establishment. In the early seventeenth century, the king and certain sections of the nobility often sought allies among the rural population, for its economic power struggles against the rising merchant & improving classes. Pressure could sometimes be put on the authorities, to stop or reverse enclosures.

Not for the last time in anti-enclosure struggles, a tension existed between the more legalistic approach of Abraham Colfe and the parish worthies, and the violent resistance of the local poor, whose livelihoods were directly threatened. In fact though both strands contributed to the defeat of the enclosure, for this time at least. It’s doubtful that a dual strategy was in any way agreed, but in practice the violence and the petitions showed the Privy Council the potential for disorder but with a moderate party to make a deal with, rather than be shown giving in to the resistance of the poor. But probably the victory might not have been won without both.

Enclosures were a very politically sensitive question at this time. The early seventeenth century brought mass open warfare against enclosing landowners: most famously in the midlands in 1607, where thousands of the landless poor fought the militia, destroying fences, and breaking open enclosures. Interestingly this was where the names of Levellers & Diggers were seemingly first adopted or used to describe these poor rebels. Later these names would assume political significance in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The revolt would have been fresh on the minds of the Privy Council when hearing cases over Sydenham, and they would have borne in mind that King James had given special orders to the Commission appointed to enquire into the cause of the 1607 riots, that care was to be taken that the poor received no injury by the encroachment of their richer neighbours.

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The extent of Sydenham Common shown on a modern map

 

The victory of Colfe and the parishioners of Lewisham seems to have prevented large-scale enclosure in Sydenham for a century and a half, until the 1750s, when trouble broke out over Coopers Wood, once accounted the southern corner of the common, which lay just south of modern Westwood Hill, between the railway line and Lawrie Park Avenue.

Cooper’s Wood had first been detached from the common & begun to be “illegally” enclosed around 1540, though the loss of common rights here was apparently disputed locally for 200 years. Gradually houses built on the edge of the wood acquired large front gardens, and more houses were built, encroaching onto the wood. But many locals had never accepted the shutting off of the wood. In 1754 “persons claiming right of common” several times threw down fences surrounding the Wood and asserted rights of access and gathered wood for fuel. One target of these agitators was George Thornton, landlord of the Greyhound Inn in Sydenham, a tenant of the western part of Coopers Wood; his fences were “thrown down and prostrated”.  (The Greyhound Inn is still there, at the junction of  Kirkdale and Westwood Hill).

A year later, in 1755, there was a legal case in the Exchequer Court involving the denial of common rights to collect wood in Colson’s Wood or Colson’s Coppice, the area to the north of the old Common. This is now an area bounded by Ewelme Rd, Horniman Gardens, Devonshire Road, and Dunoon rd. One John Anderson sued the owner Thomas Hodsdon, who had prevented him from exercising his common rights in the Coppice. The Hodsdon family had bought up many acres of Sydenham land since 1713 – they were wealthy wine merchants, with an eye on possible future development. Hodsdon’s cousin had leased 17 acres of land adjoining Coleson’s Coppice to a brickmaker, clearly intending to begin a house building program in the area. John Anderson was no poor cottager, though; he was a well-to-do merchant living in Sydenham Road, seemingly acting as the representative of a group of residents in a test case. Nothing seems to have come of the claim, though, as Colson’s Coppice continued to be sold as freehold land:  it had been detached from the Common for too long to be considered common land.

Forty years later a last ditch stand against enclosures on Sydenham Common took place in Colson’s Wood. Samuel Atkinson, a Tooley Street cheese merchant, (who is called by some the ‘Father of Forest Hill’) bought the estate, & between 1787 and 1789 created the present Honor Oak Road, a new route from Sydenham to Peckham Rye, (where there had only been a track before) as a first step to opening up the wood for building. In 1789 he had constructed a house for himself, and was selling plots on the new road for development.

Those who still maintained that the wood was common land didn’t take this lying down; but resistance to the enclosure of the Wood was to end violently. In October 1792, the Times reported the death of Michael Bradley, who had a cottage at the Bell Green end of Sydenham Road. He and others had set out to assert a right of way:

“It appears that this Bradley and others belonging to Sydenham Parish, went a few days since on a piece of land called Colson’s Wood, to ascertain their rights of commonage, which have been held upwards of 200 years. Mr Atkinson met the deceased and his associates, and asked them their business; they replied, there was a footway across, which right their fore-fathers had enjoyed and so would they. Atkinson said they should go no further – and the first man who did, he would shoot.”

Michael Bradley stepped forward and Atkinson then shot him; Bradley died a few days later.

“The Wednesday following, Atkinson purchased the right of this wood and pasturage, consisting of 52 acres, out of Chancery for £350 – and has since enclosed it. The Coroner’s Inquest sat on the body of Bradley on Friday and Saturday, the 19th and 20th of October, at Sydenham, and brought in their verdict, Manslaughter, against one Atkinson… The man was shot in the leg by a pistol, which fractured the bone, and a mortification ensued. The deceased has left a family and four children…”

Despite this verdict in the coroner’s court, Atkinson doesn’t seem to have been charged or convicted in connection with Bradley’s death. He continued to own the estate and develop it, though he may have become unpopular locally, and decided it wasn’t a good idea to remain living in the parish, since he let his house to tenants in 1793.

Although the case caused uproar, it seems to have marked almost the end of the two century-long year struggle for common rights here: the whole of what remained of Sydenham Common was enclosed finally by an Act in 1810, during the most intense period for enclosure of open space in Britain. By this time the economic importance of the common for subsistence had declined considerably, as London expanded into the surrounding rural areas, and suburban villas were replacing agriculture. The descendants of the marginalised cottagers who once had made a bare living off the common had flocked into London to try to make a living there.

Landowners in the parish were allocated all the remaining common land, with the power to enclose it. Even after two hundred years of building and clearance, there were still five hundred acres to be developed. The main beneficiary was William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, the largest landowner in Lewisham. (The family had been Lords of the Manor of Lewisham since the seventeenth century: Dartmouth Road and the Dartmouth Arms in Forest Hill are named after their title.)

The only remaining part of the old common which still remains a green space is Sydenham Wells Park, which had become a popular spa of sorts in the 18th century. Interestingly, this spa subsequently became disreputable and infamous. Large numbers of people came to drink the spring’s waters (apparently foul tasting but good for you!). Later the emphasis on the healthy aspects of the Wells declined, giving way to binge drinking: it became popular to mix the ‘waters’ with other liquids (brandy, mostly); rowdy behaviour was rife. There were complaints about the “rabble of Londoners” flocking here. The Wells were eventually closed down in the late 19th century.

One reason Sydenham Common was apparently targeted for enclosure was its annual popular fair, which was resented by the gentry & posher residents for the ‘lowlife’ it attracted. This is a regular theme with proposals to enclose in the 18th-19th centuries, not only for profit but control of open spaces, which often could be used for unruly gatherings of the poor, not only fairs and makeshift dwellings, but later for political rallies and demonstrations. In 1766 the Sydenham fair was moved to Kent House Fields. It was later suppressed in 1836, as were most of the old popular local fairs in the early nineteenth century.

However this wasn’t entirely the end of resistance to privatisation of space in the area. In 1867, wealthy silk warehouse owner Richard Beall tried to block off the upper end of Taylor’s Lane, off Sydenham Hill, to increase the privacy of his posh home, Longton Hall. This enraged locals who used this path, however, and channeling the spirit of Michael Bradley and the rioters who helped see off Henry Newport, unruly elements smashed the walls & fences he had built. At one point 100s turned up with axes & hammers… After several attempts & continued demolitions, Beall gave up, eventually going insane. Taylor’s Lane was permanently re-opened.

Nearby One Tree Hill also became the arena for an anti-enclosure battle in 1897… (During this struggle investigations turned up the fact that One Tree Hill had never in fact been a part of Sydenham Common, which initially kyboshed any claim for common rights – though the fight was eventually won anyway…)

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Read other past tense posts about enclosures

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Today in London’s dole history, 1985: Islington Unwaged Centre occupied to prevent its closure

On October 18th 1985, users of the Islington Unwaged Centre, on Holloway Road, North London, went into 24-hour occupation of their building, in response to threats by the centre’s funders to evict them after their funding was cut off. The centre had been founded in August 1982, after a year’s campaigning by the Islington Action group of the Unwaged.

What follows is a history of the unwaged workers’ group and the Unwaged Centre, documenting their efforts to establish and run a centre for the unemployed and their relationship to the Miners’ Strike and other struggles of the times.

This is a reprint of a pamphlet produced in 1987, by the Campaign for Real Life. We’ve re-typeset the text, otherwise it’s unchanged, except for some explanatory notes at the end, added by past tense.

The original author’s views have changed some since writing it; past tense don’t entirely agree with everything here either, but feel there’s some really good history here and its really worth putting it out there again.

Setting Up

In October 1980, workers from Islington’s welfare rights organisations, and one local unemployed man got together to try to set up an unemployed group. Unemployment was rising rapidly and the welfare workers felt that just telling the unemployed their rights was not enough – that something had to be done to extend these pathetic rights, and they recognised that this could best be done by the unemployed themselves.

Unemployed groups were forming in various parts of London, and someone from the Greenwich group, which was already active, was invited to speak at the inaugural meeting. The meeting was organised at the Co-op Hall and the dole office nearby was leafleted for two weeks before, with new people gradually joining in the leafleting.

About five new people turned up to the meeting, plus a guy from the NF [Note 1] who was quickly thrown out. It was decided to start meeting weekly, to try to get more people involved, and to try to get up a centre for, and run by the unemployed.

But despite the belief that unemployed people had to organise for themselves, it wasn’t until some months later that the group was angered into taking themselves seriously, and taking control of their dealings with the authorities. Up till then they’d sat back and watched the welfare workers deal with the council, trades council etc. -they seemed to know what they were doing, while the group had no experience and were intimidated, less by authority than by all the forms, codes, behind-the-scenes deals etc. Instead the group was just trying to keep going, believing that when they got the centre they could take control. They were leafleting, flyposting and meeting, new people were joining, and a few dropping out.

Then in April there was a meeting in the area organised by the South East Region TUC (SERTUC) to talk about unemployment and setting up a centre. Most of the group were there, sitting at the back, listening to how the bureaucrats were going to set up a centre, how they’d been doing lots of things for the unemployed, but the unemployed weren’t interested, and so on, until finally the group started shouting that they were organising for themselves. The union hacks weren’t interested and didn’t like their meeting being disrupted by plebs. The welfare workers said nothing.

The next meeting with SERTUC was on better terms – one of them among a conference of the London & South East Federation of Unemployed Groups. He was there to sell the TUC/government line on unemployed centres  – he failed [2]. Nearly every group there totally rejected the guidelines, the imposition of paid, workers, and political control. The SERTUC guy felt so rejected he was desperate for friends, and after a few kind words on the way out, he agreed to write some nice letters for IAGOU. This was June ’81. The conference had been set up by the Greenwich and Southwark groups and was attended by 16 militant groups. There was a feeling that things were just starting, that the movement was going to grow, and be a vehicle for real change. Brixton and St Pauls had exploded [3] – in many areas the cops were careful not to provoke more trouble, and people on the streets were becoming confident. Mass unemployment was something new, at least for white males, and included many who were looking for a lot more than a job. Unemployment and the riots seemed to be the crack in the system that people had been waiting for.

A week later there was a national conference in Leicester, with over 80 people from 25 unemployed groups, plus individuals and some union reps. Everyone was excited at going national, but the question of how to organise caused major arguments. Leicester and most of the other Midland groups were controlled by Socialist Organiser (a trot group in the Labour Party) [4] who had met a couple of weeks before to organise their position. The constitution they came up with was centralised – the conference would elect individuals onto a committee which would run the ‘union’. Their proposals were sent out a week before the conference, and IAGOU immediately prepared an alternative. They argued that electing individuals was absurd because they might get jobs or drop out, or their group might disband or conflict with them, leaving them outside the real movement. They wanted local groups to be the basis for organisation, and the structure to be kept as informal as possible to allow each group and individual as much input as they wanted. Instead of creating a committee to decide what should be done, IAGOU wanted a structure where each group could come up with ideas for struggle, and develop them with the others. And there was deep suspicion of giving an individual a position from which to speak ‘on behalf of’ the unemployed or to impose a political line, as S.O. seemed to want.

IAGOU took their proposed constitution to the conference and handed round. Most of the groups not controlled by S.O. called for the decision on the constitution to be postponed as they had not had time to discus the new proposals and had no mandate on them. IAGOU agreed, but when a compromise was put to them at lunch, they copped-out and withdrew their proposals. So a committee was elected, and before long the organisation was in the hands of a few people – or at least the name was, the organisation ceased to exist when everyone went home. Still, IAGOU came back inspired by the fact that the movement was national, whatever a particular organisation might do, or fail to do.

Meanwhile, conditions in the dole offices were getting intolerable. The rising number of unemployed was not matched by an increase in staff or facilities, meaning long queues, crowded dirty offices and stress on both sides of the counter. Added to this, the staff were taking action over a pay dispute, which closed down various dole and DHSS [5] offices. IAGOU supported the staff, practically organising the strike at one dole office, giving out union leaflets to explain the dispute to other claimants, but they also put forward their own demands for improving conditions, particularly at the Medina Road dole office.

On July 7th, IAGOU held a public meeting near the dole office, and the next day held a demo. They wrote their demands on a chalkboard outside the office, and painted slogans on the pavement where the queues ended – some of them quite a long way down the road. Then they went in, about 50 of them, but the office was already packed and it looked like everyone was demonstrating. A couple of them got up on the counter (this was before shatter-proof screens) and started shouting out their demands and calling for the manager. Both claimants and staff showed support, so eventually the manager agreed to meet a delegation. She was totally patronising and obstructive (not knowing that one of the delegation was an unemployed councillor) but gave in to some of the demands;

Some notices were put up in Urdu, Gujerati, Greek and Turkish. but this only lasted a few weeks.

– A toilet was made available to claimants, but only in emergencies (as defined by management)

– A slip was sent out with giros saying when to sign on next.

– An extra bench was put in, for two weeks.

– some replacement giros were handed out over the counter instead of being posted.

– a few more staff were taken on, but nothing like the 22 lacking according to their own calculations.

Another public meeting was held shortly after, followed by another demo about the continued delay in receiving giros. About 70 claimants took part. When somebody shouted out ‘What are we supposed to ‘do pawn our gold jewellery?’ the manager replied ‘well, you can pawn your furniture’ which did nothing to calm the situation. IAGOU demanded another meeting. At first this was refused, but then a date was set for July 24th. To avoid any ‘trouble’ Regional Management made the manager close the office for the whole day creating even more chaos and aggravation.

At the same time, IAGOU had been contacting unions and the council to try to ensure that claimants were not cut-off or evicted due to delays in payment caused by the strike, and were successful. They also went over Hackney [6], to demand emergency payments from the council, and the council agreed immediately, rather than have hundreds of angry claimants while the riots were in full swing. If you were willing to queue up twice you could get two payments, or more. While there, IAGOU helped a Hackney unemployed group get going.

With the end of the strike much of the chaos continued, and some improvements were taken away again by management, so IAGOU held another demo on August 24th, again at Medina Road. But eventually the chaos was reduced by the opening of another office nearby. and the introduction of monthly signing instead of two-weekly.

In this period of chaos, IAGOU brought out their first newsletter called U B Press [7]. It included articles explaining the situation and struggle at the dole offices (with ½ page by one of the workers), proposals for setting up a centre, a section from a book by Wal Hannington (unemployed leader of the ’20s) [8] on the occupation of an Islington library as an unemployed centre in 1920 [9], reports from the two conferences, and more. And all for only 2p!

There was also a benefit at which everyone had a good time and IAGOU made 70 quid. It was called Bop Against YOP, but unfortunately those affected by the Youth Opportunity Programme, 16-18 year olds, couldn’t get in as it was held in a pub that the cops kept their eye on.

On October 22nd Norman Tebbit, Secretary of State for Employment (as they say in Newspeak) visited Barnsbury dole office in South Islington. Informed of the visit by a mole, IAGOU organised a demo to welcome him, and sent out a press-release. When it arrived, Tebbit was jostled by a crowd of about 30, hit by an egg and chased into the building. “ … the egg was thrown from two feet away, hitting him on the crown of the head. It burst and the yoke (sic) dribbled down his neck onto his clothing.”(the Times) “A spokesman for the Department of Employment said, ‘he was not hurt.” (Morning Star) Because of the press release, it was attributed to IAGOU, which upset the SWP [10] because the egg was actually one of their members.

Relations with the SWP were not particularly good anyway. During the civil servants’ strike, IAGOU and the local SWP branch organised a joint meeting, except that the SWP had organised it as their branch meeting, at which they told IAGOU to disband and join the Right to Work Campaign – one of their front organisations, which they disbanded about a year later. Then IAGOU tried to discourage a bunch of local SWP students and lecturers from trying to occupy a Job Centre ‘as a stunt’. They went ahead, gave out a few leaflets, were ignored, and went to the café.

2) THE FIGHT FOR A CENTRE

One of the main aims of IAGOU from the start was the setting up of a centre for the unemployed. The most obvious way to do this seemed to be through Islington Council and the Greater London Council [11]. They were both willing to fund ‘community groups’, especially when they expected political support and good publicity in return. Also they had property to spare. But of course it wasn’t as easy as going along to the council and saying ‘we’re unemployed and we want a centre’. There were forms to fill in, bureaucracies to deal with, support to be lobbied for, internal politics to deal with and constant pressure to apply, to force action instead of just words.

Getting them to accept that the centre would be run and controlled by the users was at that time comparatively easy. To start with it was a lot cheaper for them not to have to pay for workers. Also at that time the only existing model for unemployed centres was the MSC [12]/TUC guidelines which were not particularly acceptable to any of the parties involved; the council were not keen on the lack of campaigning imposed, because they expected that any campaigning would be effectively pro-Labour, the unions were against the MSC rates of pay, and IAGOU were against these, and the control being in the hands of the various authorities. Both Islington Council and the GLC liked to appear radical, and anyway they would have control in the long term, through controlling the purse strings.

In May ‘81 the council agreed in principle to funding a centre, and IAGOU had to go away again and produce detailed plans and a budget, which was a bit hard without having a building to base their plans on. The council were not particularly helpful over this, but eventually IAGOU found an empty council-leased shop and decided it would be the centre. It was at 355 Holloway Road on one of Islington’s busiest roads for shopping and traffic, almost in the centre of the borough and close to Medina Road. It had been empty for some time since being used as a housing advice centre. The lay-out and conditions weren’t particularly good, but they were told money would be available for alterations and improvements.

In June the council’s Employment Committee agreed to give the group £4,000 to equip the centre, and by September Finance and Planning had approved the handing over of funding and the building ‘as soon as possible’. The Valuers, Architects and IAGOU drew up plans for the alterations and in November the Solicitors approved the group’s constitution, after long arguments and delays. In December the money for equipment was handed over, and it looked like the keys to the building would follow shortly. They didn’t.

In the new year, the majority of councillors either suddenly ‘saw the light’ at the same time, or else found a way to do what they had always really wanted, but without joining the Tories – they went over to the newly-formed SDP [13]. Overnight the Labour stronghold became the SDP’s first taste of power, without an election. Those who had been spouting the Labour line could now do openly what they had only done secretly or negatively before. Grants were axed, staff vacancies frozen, plans made to increase rents and sell off 750 homes. A worker in the housing department was victimised, and nearly all the council workers came out on strike. On February 9th the Employment Committee met for the first time under SDP rule. They agreed to fund the local Chamber of Commerce to the tune of £16,500, and refused the £7,000 previously promised for the centre, and so the centre itself. According to the council leader, ‘A centre for the unemployed in Islington would only encourage people to stay on the dole’. Most of IAGOU were at the meeting, and some had to be physically removed. That night the town was painted red, with demands and threats. The next full council meeting had striking workers, threatened tenants, IAGOU and others demonstrating outside at the start while inside the meeting had to be stopped at least once, due to screaming, chants of ‘Unwaged Fightback’ and rolls of bog paper flying from the public gallery.

As a (not very successful) publicity stunt a few of them went down to the first SDP national conference at Kensington Town Hall. Two of them got in with borrowed press cards and borrowed clothes, and were meant to let the others in through a side door. They couldn’t find a side door, but anyway they hung out a massive banner, which had been cleverly disguised as journalistic fat and shouted a few slogans and insults before being led out very politely. All the press were there, but only one of the local radio stations bothered to mention it.

Before the SDP had come along, IAGOU were already getting sick of waiting, and were making plans to occupy the centre instead. They told the Employment and Valuers Departments that they needed to look over the centre again to prepare the next year’s budget and other things. Both departments said it would be alright, but due to illness and holidays neither could send anyone along, so IAGOU would have to pick up the keys and go on their own.

So on a Friday there was a special planning meeting to sort out all details, the weekend was spent at the local resource centre printing leaflets and posters to publicise the occupation and Monday the shopping was done, bog paper, tea etc, and everything was set for Tuesday. But late on Monday the head of the Employment Department rang, saying ‘what happened at your meeting on Friday? We know you planned something for tomorrow, what is it? I need to inform the councillors’. Of course he was told it was none of his business and as they didn’t know how much he knew, the plans went ahead.

The key was picked up with no problem, and everyone was in place across the road in Sainsburys, a few cycling up and down the road and the rest in a cafe up the road, plus 12 from the Student Union were waiting at their college round the corner. But the building had been boarded up and a cop was standing outside. The worst thing was not knowing who had grassed – everyone was under suspicion so it was impossible to try again. One of the people at the planning meeting was involved in setting up another unemployed project mainly for basic training which was also after funding. He never came to another meeting.

Council elections were due at the start of May, and the Labour Party promised the keys to the centre ‘within 24 hours of getting re-elected’. This didn’t make IAGOU rush round campaigning for a Labour victory, but the campaigning they were already doing, along with all the other struggles going on, must at least have given the impression that things had been, and would be slightly better under Labour.

Anyway. Labour got back into power with only a few of the defectors keeping their seats. The next day the Labour leader said that IAGOU could the keys the day after they officially took office, a week later. Nothing happened. One problem was that shortly before the election the council sold off the lease on the property, but the new lessees were just speculators and gave the council a sublease. It was the freeholders, who the council had supposedly dealt with months before who kept being a pain. Meanwhile the council kept raising questions that had been dealt with before the SDP took over but after a lot of pressure the centre was finally handed over in August ‘82, over 3 months after the election, and over 11 months from the first promised date.

3) A CENTRE FINALLY

The idea that once the group had a centre as a base, they would be able to consolidate and really start moving was soon shown to be an illusion.

The centre was there, but it didn’t run itself. Whereas before they were running around without a base, now they found they couldn’t run around so much because they were stuck holding the base. The centre had to be open every weekday (the fact that for a while it wasn’t was later used as an excuse to close it) so people had to be there even when nothing was going on. Idiots who wandered in had to be treated sympathetically. Receipts had to be kept for every pen bought. And possibly most destructive, the building alterations had to be arranged.

The building was made up of two rooms, plus the toilet. The front room was long and thin, with a lot of space taken up by the entrance, which was a sort of glass passageway leading up to the door. This was intimidating and stopped a lot of light. The back room was square and housed the crèche, TV and cooking facilities. The back wall was damp and collapsing, and each time it rained the damp spread another inch across the floor.

The plan was to make the front straight, re-divide the rooms more evenly, close off the cooking area with a serving hatch, add a disabled toilet and a couple of room dividers, and generally do the place up. The effect would have been to make the place attractive, safe, and spacious enough for various things to go on at the same time.

First they had to work out what they wanted, then the architects and builders were brought in to draw up proper plans and estimates. The GLC then had to agree to fund the work and the council had to give planning permission. And once all that had been arranged, and it took a long time, the head landlords decided they didn’t like it, and wouldn’t allow it. It was discovered that they could be taken to court for being unreasonable, but this had to be done by the council as sub-lessees. The council thought about it for a couple of months, and then said they would do it if the GLC would cover any legal costs. The GLC thought about for a few months, and then said no. So after many months of hard work, the group were left with a damp, dingy intimidating building.

Still, it was there, and people dropped in, for advice, to watch films, to join the campaigns, the occasional workshop, the meetings or just for a chat or for-curiosity.

IAGOU had its meetings on Thursdays, and Wednesdays were Wageless Women day. Islington Wageless Women had been meeting for over a year, organising women’s events, campaigning against the cohabitation laws, for nurseries etc. a London & South East Wageless Women conference, exhibitions etc. and intervening in IAGOU and the rest of the movement, to struggle against sexism and illusions. In terms of theory Wageless Women were far more together than IAGOU, but when it came to practice they had greater problems. They didn’t want to be an ‘unemployed’ women’s group, but based their analysis and struggles on the role of women in the reproduction of capital – on the unwaged work that women are trained for from birth, and perform every day whether they also do waged work or not. Their basic demand was for a guaranteed minimum income for all, to allow women (and men) more choice over what work they do, and giving women independence without them having to take on waged work as well. They criticised IAGOU for basing their campaigns around the dole office, which excluded many unwaged people not signing on as unemployed. This was correct, but the problem then was where else to organise. IAGOU’s best struggles were waged at the dole office, because there were already large numbers of people there – something would have happened there anyway, without IAGOU. To have used the centre for organising all unwaged sectors of the proletariat would have required far greater organisation, publicity, imagination and resources than they had. Of course they could have tried harder, but while accepting the criticism, and making the Centre open to all the unwaged, IAGOU remained essentially an unemployed group.

The change of name from Islington Action Group on Unemployment to Islington Action Group of the Unwaged, which happened around the time the Centre opened, caused disagreements with various authorities. The change meant not only a change in who could be involved, extending outside the terms and analysis of the ‘Labour Movement’, but signified also a change in self-definition; instead of defining themselves in terms of jobs (ie not having one) they defined themselves in terms of resources (ie not having any). Of course the two are directly related, but the point was to try to change this – to end the poverty – while pointing out the historical (and so changeable) reasons for it. The poverty of the dole is a tool to enforce work – we work because ‘we have nothing to sell but our labour’, but to some extent we choose what conditions we will work under. Mass unemployment and benefit cuts restrict our choices – they restrict our ability to struggle over conditions through the need to keep, or get a job. So instead of joining the campaigns for jobs, where the unwaged were treated as the ‘reserve army’ of the labour movement, IAGOU struggled to improve their conditions as unwaged people, and so improve their (and others’) choices, alongside the struggles of the waged. But the struggle was meant to go beyond merely improving conditions, a constant struggle with more or less success according to conditions;- it was meant to strike at the basic poverty of our class, on which our exploitation is based. The resources of this world that we have created have been stolen from us, and we can only get the means to a decent survival by selling our labour power, to be used by the bosses and state to produce more riches and means to exploit us. This exploitation can not be dealt with by demanding more of it, but by attacking its roots and its myths. We now live in a world where the bosses can only continue to impose their role, to impose labour and poverty on us, through creating artificial shortages, through destroying part of the abundance we produce and leaving the means of production to rot. The abolition of labour is the task before us, the appropriation, by all, of our products and means of production, which no longer require our sacrifice.

4) CAMPAIGNING

The first major campaign run from the Centre was against the Specialist Claims Control Unit (SCCUM), one of the specialist fraud squads sent round different DHSS offices to intimidate claimants into signing off. They tend to pick on single parents (who they accuse of cohabiting), people with skills that ‘could be used off the cards’ or whoever’s name comes out of the hat. Like the SPG [14], their name gets changed regularly to put off resistance.

In October ‘82 the SCCUM were sent into Archway Tower, home of Highgate and Finsbury Park DHSS offices, and a large demonstration was there to meet them. As they arrived they were photographed, and their pictures and car numbers flyposted around the area, with advice on how to deal with them. This was also put on the front page of the local alternative paper. They have met similar resistance in most other places, and the ordinary DHSS staff will often walk out for the day when they come, and refuse to co-operate with them. Bethnal Green Claimants Union were so successful at disrupting their visit to the area, that one of the claimants was taken to court for ‘intimidation’, but was quickly found not guilty. Outside the court the SCCUM were further ‘intimidated’ by having a camera pointed at them, so they ran off down the road with the lens-cap! It’s interesting how such anti-social elements project their own obnoxious habits onto those at the receiving end – a primary symptom of paranoid schizophrenia. A claimant was once being harassed for ‘suspected cohabitation’ and asked IAGOU for support when the fraud officer came to visit. When he came in and saw a group of people with a tape recorder, he asked her ‘don’t you regard it as a private matter?’ as though IAGOU were the ones interested in her personal relations.

Then came the struggle against race-checks at the dole office. Staff were to be ordered to fill in a computer form for each claimant, marking them down as;
1) African/West Indian
2) Asian
3) Other
4) Refusal (claimants had the right to refuse to be assessed, but the staff were not allowed to tell them that they were being assessed, making this ‘right’ pretty useless. The reason for this was that in test runs, they found that more people refused to be assessed when they’d been told about it than when they hadn’t!)

Only 1, 2 & 4 would have been marked on the computer, in other words only if you were black or bolshie enough to refuse would you have a mark on your file – a mark identifying you for the fraud squads when looking for someone to harass or for anyone else with access to the computer.

The Department of Employment claimed they only wanted statistics, and for this they were supported by parts of the race relations industry who wanted to show that black people are discriminated against in employment. But anyone who didn’t already recognise this fact would be among those, journalists, government ministers etc, who would no doubt use these same statistics to ‘prove’ the opposite – portraying black people as ‘scroungers’, as the problem. Employers are the problem so they’re the ones who should be hassled and assessed. Race statistics have always been used to promote racism, never to fight it.

In March ’83 IAGOU produced leaflets on the checks, including a tear-off slip to hand in when signing on. saying ‘please note that I refuse to be monitored for my ethnic origin’. At this stage the government postponed their plans, but by the end of the year it seemed they were ready to try again. So after a lot of leafleting, flyposting and visiting other groups, the inaugural meeting of the Islington Campaign Against Racist Checks was held at the Centre in December, with guest speakers from the Black Healthworkers and Patients Group and others. The turn-out was appalling – most of the black groups contacted had said-good luck, but had their own agendas of struggle and many people leafleted outside the dole offices expressed anger but felt nothing could be done until the checks started – and the campaign remained the work of IAGOU. The publicity continued, including a live interview on Radio London, and soon the campaign spread, so that in February ‘84 the London Campaign Against Racist Checks was set up, made up of unwaged groups, dole staff and others. Much of that summer was spent leafleting at various festivals, and the meetings, when held in Islington, would often go on till the early hours of the morning (but business was always finished in time to pop over to the pub) and generally campaigning was combined with having a bloody good time.

In August the government decided to have a test run of the checks at various dole offices – they had already done test-runs so it was obvious that what was, being tested was the amount of resistance. Demos were held at Holloway, Peckham and Brixton dole offices when the tests were supposed to be carried out there. About a year later they tried again – again there were demos-and a one-day strike by the staff. Another year on they tried it in the Job Centres, where for many reasons people felt less threatened by it so there was little resistance, but now that the Job Centres and dole offices are to be re-merged, the struggle is being taken up again. [15]

At various times there were attempts to campaign against the Youth Training Scheme etc, against benefit cuts, and for concessions at council sports facilities – (successful) and at cinemas, Arsenal, public transport etc (unsuccessful). Some fun was had at a show put on by the government as part of their ‘review’ of benefits. They held a public (though practically un-publicised) series of discussions between representatives of the government, business and a few liberal organisations. The result of this farce was a foregone conclusion, so IAGOU and some of the Claimants Unions booed the show off stage, drowning it out with whistles and loud conversation. Unfortunately the performers were allowed to leave the stage unharmed despite being outnumbered.

The question of how to effectively campaign over the level of benefits, our standard of living, was always a major problem. Obviously the unemployed (as opposed to other sectors of the unwaged – ie ‘housewives’) are not in a position to strike, but can still be very disruptive to the system. Our current level of income is due in part to past disruptions, and the state’s attempts to avoid them in future. What would most encourage the state to increase benefits would be a situation where large numbers of the unwaged (and waged) were already directly taking more, through mass looting, mass fare dodging, rent strikes etc. in which case demanding increased benefits would be irrelevant – the important thing would be to extend this real power instead of legitimising the state by making demands of it. On the other hand there is the possibility of waged workers taking up the demand, especially when fighting redundancies, but IAGOU do not seem to have directly suggested this to any workers. Instead the idea of an increase, or of a Guaranteed Minimum Income were used in effect as a way of explaining other campaigns and struggles (we should get more/a GMI because… so we’re demanding/doing X) or as an alternative/opposition to the demand for jobs. Meanwhile they encouraged shoplifting, benefit fraud, squatting, careful tampering with meters, eating the rich etc.

5) CHANGE OF MEMBERS

By the first anniversary of the Centre’s opening there was only one person left running it, it was opening very irregularly and there was no money as the GLC grant was late as usual. Some people had actually found jobs while others had just got sick of putting in a lot of work for little return, and waiting for funding to come through, or had their time taken up with other struggles. Fortunately two new active members turned up within a couple of months and helped get things going again, while some of the less active members returned once the Centre was opening regularly again. But when the last of the original activists left, in early ‘84, all continuity had been broken. The new members had to gradually discover the group’s history, contacts in other groups etc, and deal with the bad relations inherited from past disputes. Having not taken part in the long struggle to get the Centre and funding, the new members tended to take them for granted, and took the threats from the council and GLC less seriously than they should, while they also lacked the experience of fighting these authorities. And as they had not been part of the original collective process of deciding what the Centre was for, and because of the need to get more people involved, they often felt unable to impose their views on those who wandered in, meaning that at various times the place was a centre for local kids to wreck, or for the propagation of ultra-leftist ideology, or whatever. The film-shows, which were originally chosen for their political and social content, to encourage discussion and activities, degenerated into showing whatever it was felt would attract the most people, although the best attended showings were actually on Nicaragua and the Amsterdam squatters riots. Also there were the ever-present problems – that the activists became a group of friends who tended to mould the centre and its activities around themselves, making it more accessible and attractive to their friends than to the majority of the unwaged; that the smallness of the group always limited its actions, so putting off more people from joining in; and of course the many people who came along expecting someone to fight for them or organise them. But through the Centre being constantly kept open, and through constant campaigning and events, new people were attracted and the problems gradually confronted (to return in other forms).

By the summer of ’84 the Centre had again become a real centre of activity, with the campaign against racist checks leading to meetings and actions all around London, the miners strike, with miners using the Centre as a base, and the group doing collections and visiting some mining areas, and the start of threats from the GLC leading to trips to County Hall to graffiti counter-threats and leaflet their festivals, and many other things.

But as the racist checks were postponed and the GLC threats went slowly through the bureaucracy, so losing their immediate importance, what was left was the political line and posture the group had taken on the miners’ strike. This, along with the political affiliations of the two main activists had attracted a few ultra-left politicos from outside Islington, and for a while all that came out of the Centre was propaganda that had little direct relevance to the unwaged of Islington.

Meanwhile, another centre had been open for some time in Islington. Molly’s Cafe was a squatted centre in Upper Street, about a mile away from the Unwaged Centre, with a vegetarian cafe and various activities. It had been started mainly by punks who had been involved in previous squatted centres, the ‘Peace Centre’ in Rosebery Avenue [16], the anarchist bookshop in Albany Street [17] etc. and in ‘Stop the City’ [18]. For some time the two centres ignored each other, IAGOU sinking into isolation in its centre and opposed to the anarchism of Molly’s, while the Molly’s crew were put off by their expectation of another council-run community centre. But eventually they got to know each other and started working together – the Tavistock Square Claimants Union was set up at Molly’s with publicity printed by IAGOU, together they set up the Islington Housing Action Group, and a day of videos, speeches and discussion on Ireland was jointly organised at the Unwaged Centre.

It was the day on Ireland that finally brought to a head the dispute between the ultra-leftists and the other users, including the activists from Molly’s. In political terms the dispute was over self-organisation: in principle both sides were for it, but for the ultra-leftists this meant producing propaganda attacking manipulators, forms of organisation that restrain struggle, recuperation of struggle etc, so that the Centre and its resources were there for them to use as they saw fit, as representatives of this ‘correct’ ideology. But for the others the resources were for the direct self-organisation of the unwaged (and others) irrespective of political position, for developing our struggles according to our experience. Two of the ultra-leftists in particular were making the atmosphere unbearable – one was constantly critical of everything without any positive suggestions and easily wound up to a tantrum, while the other took pleasure in winding him up, hid the best paper for his own pamphlets, ignored most of the people coming in, and finally wrote stupid graffiti across a poster in the window for the day on Ireland, having made no attempt to take part and so express his views constructively.

At that time the weekly meetings had again stopped, as IAGOU as such was not doing a lot, except with the people from Molly’s who, although they were using the Centre more and more, had not got directly involved in running it. To break out of this rut, a package was put together and put to everyone involved – expulsion of the two disrupters, and new activities for the Centre with meetings again. A special meeting was held for the expulsion and the result was a forgone conclusion, the expellers having organised the invitations to the meeting. One of the expellees recognised this and didn’t turn up, having paint-bombed the front of the Centre the night before in protest, but the other tried unsuccessfully to justify himself. A new issue of Unwaged Fightback magazine was started and various activities organised to defend the Centre and restart campaigning, which gave new life to IAGOU, but with a new, informal power structure based around a few of the activists who were moving into a squat together.

6) MINERS & OTHERS

1984 was the year of the miners’ strike, and IAGOU, like many other groups, joined in by collecting money etc, joining pickets and demonstrations, and encouraging solidarity among the unwaged (and waged) of the area. Two groups of miners used the Centre at different times, as a base for organising collections, meetings and trips to speak to other workers – first from a pit in Staffordshire, and when they found a less chaotic (and more officially approved of) base a branch from Sunderland moved in. The money collected by IAGOU went, at various times, to these two groups, to strikers at a Nottingham pit, a Women’s Action Group (mainly miners’ wives) in Derbyshire and to the families of miners imprisoned for their part in the struggle. This was always organised directly, rather than through official union channels – when the Staffordshire lads were met on a demo in the early days of the strike, their regional union treasurer was supporting the scabs and refusing to pass on money to strikers, while towards the end there was the fear of the money being sequestered, but the main reason was that the group wanted direct links, so that ideas and experiences could be shared, and so that the miners would know who the solidarity was coming from and why, rather than it appearing to be the work of the union bureaucrats. Collections were held at least once a week outside Sainsburys, two jumble-sales were held, and a large window display (made famous by the Islington Gazette) encouraged passers-by to come in and donate. One guy who came in said that he had just been interviewing Margaret Hodge, the council leader, and the only way he felt he could make himself clean again was by donating a fiver to the miners. An attempt to collect toys for miners’ children for Xmas failed, but food and money were donated instead, and a couple of Islington shops donated toys without knowing it.

From early on in the strike it became obvious that the miners were not going to win on their own, and that the government was trying very hard to avoid any other important section of the working class entering into major activity at the same time. So IAGOU, like others, stepped up their encouragement of workers’ activity, they joined a picket for a one-day dock strike, distributed a leaflet by Central London post workers at the Islington sorting office, supported the local nursery workers’ strike against understaffing, made a poster calling for real action on the TUC-called ‘Day of Action’ … There was a lot of talk around of the need to open up-a ‘2nd Front’ against the state, yet IAGOU managed to avoid the obvious conclusion of what they themselves were saying – that they should have been stepping up their struggle as part of the unwaged movement. IAGOU were fairly weak at this time, which to some extent explains why they looked elsewhere for the ‘2nd Front’, but they were weak because they were constantly looking elsewhere. Once the racist checks were postponed they had little contact with the dole and DHSS offices, but instead waited for the masses to be attracted to the Centre by their extremist political proclamations. The reason for IAGOU’s existence, that the unwaged must organise and fight their own battles as part of the wider working-class movement was effectively forgotten, and they relegated themselves to the position that the left had tried hard to impose on them and that they had always resisted, the position of individual supporters of the struggles of the waged and of a particular political line. Of course the unwaged movement must support the struggles of other sectors of the working class, and the miners’ strike was a very important struggle, but the development of unity depends on each struggle becoming a catalyst for the others. The threat by the DHSS to reduce strikers’ miserable benefits by the amount of any donations should have been fought at the Islington DHSS offices, along with more general threats against benefits. The state’s attempts to make energy production more profitable should have been fought from the other end, through struggle for concessionary rates for (or free) fuel. Discussion should have been started among the unwaged on what the strike could mean for them. Despite having miners using the Centre, they were never asked to speak at a meeting there. The one aspect of the strike that IAGOU did take up and try to encourage to other sectors, was the necessity of using all possible means and force to fight our struggles.

Generally IAGOU made great efforts to support, and encourage support for other struggles, such as the Newham 8 (8 Asian youths arrested and charged for defending their community against racist attacks) the nursery workers’ strike, the struggles at Kingston and Southwark unemployed centres against their managements. But IAGOU seemed to have great difficulty in keeping permanent contact with other groups, partly through the turnover in active members, partly through the constant rise and fall of other groups and partly through quarrelling.

In the beginning relations with Islington Trades Council were fairly good especially with the labour left. The Trades Council was dominated by the Communist Party, not because they were in a majority, but because they were the ones willing to take responsible positions and do the work, and because they had contacts (and party links) with the regional TUC and other Trades Councils. On the question of the Unwaged Centre (as on all other questions) they followed the TUC line – that centres should be run by paid workers and controlled by a management committee dominated by the council and unions. But the labour left were more supportive of IAGOU and used this, and other issues to depose the CP and take the leading positions. This was the time of the council’s defection to the SDP, and when Labour won the new elections, these new Trades Council leaders had become councillors, leaving the CP back in control. Despite the differences, the chair of the Trades Council did a lot of work to get the centre and became a trustee of the building, but in April ’83 he resigned this position and tried to stop the council funding because of his (and other ‘responsible authorities’) lack of control over day-to-day running. He claimed that as the money was controlled only by the users themselves, they would ‘take the money and run’. This left relations rather bad. The Trades Council still had two delegates on the Centre’s admin committee (with 4 from IAGOU) but for a long time meetings were very irregular, and a formality when they did happen. And IAGOU had two fraternal delegates (meaning they could only speak when spoken to) on the Trades Council, but they only attended to make sure they weren’t being attacked, and to enjoy the outbursts of the secretary, who would explode at the mere mention of IAGOU. This situation suited the newcomers to IAGOU, not only because it left them free from any interference, but also because of their view of unions as bureaucratic organisations, controlling workers’ struggles and dividing them. Of course at local level most union delegates and officials are still workers, often radical workers critical of the leadership and bureaucracy, but as long as they see the union as the organ for struggle, and seek merely to reform it, they strengthen it, and so those manipulators and parasites most fit to run it, and sabotage the power of the working class, to spread its struggles across all imposed boundaries and fragmentation, and to directly seize power and the wealth we produce. Unions exist to mediate between us and our enemy (assuming and imposing their right to exist) and between us and other groups of workers. Those who run unions can never share the direct interests of their members, and do not even have to pretend to have common interests with those not in the union, who must therefore be kept separate.

IAGOU always saw themselves as an active minority, not as representatives of anyone, but to some extent this is also the true position of local union delegates. They are often elected to positions of ‘representation’ because they are active and willing to do the work – because they are an active minority. But as they take up positions in the hierarchy (on the grounds that it is better for them to be there than someone worse – the excuse of all reformists) they get caught up in the machinery of representing ‘their’ members (so requiring majority support before doing anything, no matter how important they consider it) representing the union’s decisions and-actions to the members, mediating with the boss, more and more meetings…… To break with the union structure means not only to lose the restrictions imposed by it, but also the support for (some) struggles that comes from official recognition. The fact that support is dependant on going through the ‘correct channels’ shows how different this is from solidarity – in fact through ‘replacing’ solidarity, it represses it – although rank and file activists are constantly battling to create something meaningful out of the empty form of words and gestures behind which each union continues to carve out its own kingdom of separate interests.

Anyway, when IAGOU were forced to turn to the Trades Council for support against the threats of the council and the GLC, they found they actually had quite a lot in common with some of the delegates. Relations with activists from the DHSS staff were particularly good – IAGOU often joined their pickets and took up their campaigns, while they kept IAGOU informed of goings-on at their offices and were the most active in the struggle to keep the Centre open. There were also good relations with delegates from the ‘voluntary sector’ (council funded groups, advice workers etc) who were often involved in similar struggles with the council. While the Centre was finally being evicted, a housing advice agency was being victimised and then closed down because of its campaigning, and publicising of racism in the council’s housing allocation. IAGOU also started getting involved in some of the Trades Council run campaigns, such as the campaign against the privatisation of the health service, which was effectively sabotaged by the health workers’ union rep (a member of management!) who complained about the campaign being run by non-health workers, while ensuring that ‘his’ members could not get involved. Again IAGOU became one of the main issues dividing the CP leadership from the left majority, and eventually the chair and treasurer resigned and the secretary was voted out.

7) THE END OF THE CENTRE

It was in May ’84 that the first suggestion was made by the GLC that the funding would be cut off. At this point the only reason given was that IAGOU was not considered a priority, but when other groups started writing letters of support, a list of reasons came back – ‘the irregular hours that the Unwaged Centre opened’ which had been sorted out 8 months earlier, ‘the smallness and relative unrepresentativeness of the group running the Centre, whereas they now wanted centres run by a couple of paid workers, and control over spending (in particular money given to Wageless Women so that they could control their own struggles). IAGOU answered these points and started trying to improve the Centre, by redecorating (now that the building works weren’t going to happen) more publicity and trying to get input from other local groups. Groups were invited to meetings to discuss the direction and running of the Centre, but none turned up (not even the Latin American groups which used the Centre for film shows and meetings) – when they were invited to regularly use the Centre (so freeing IAGOU from having to be there all the time) only the Claimants Union showed any interest, and eventually set up a new branch there, which only created confusion in the Centre. The local GLC councillor was invited round so that IAGOU could put their case to him, but instead he was only interested in putting the GLC case to them, showing who he really represented.

Then in September the Centre became front-page news in the local rightwing rag (and even got a mention in the London Evening Standard) when they noticed one word in the window display, and blew it up out of all proportion. Apart from the many inaccuracies (the most obvious being that about £40,000 was received, not £60,000, the group’s accounts were already in the hands of the council, although a bit behind, and the “poster saying Suspend the Bosses”‘ were actually stickers saying ‘Support the Bosses’) most of the group were pleased at the publicity, and thought unwaged people would be attracted by this image. But apart from a few people popping in to say ‘if the Gazette is against you, you must be OK’, this didn’t seem to work. The identity of the man ‘who visited the centre regularly’ but claimed that ‘people like me can not go in there’ was never proved, but he was believed to be a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain who was upset at being refused access to the duplicators for his party propaganda, and who was later seen at the Gazette office. There were some fears for the safety of the Centre, as a Gazette front-page attack on the Community Press a couple of years earlier had been closely followed by a fascist fire-bomb attack, but for some reason the Centre was left alone.

After this the council and GLC made it clear that they were really objecting to the group’s campaigning;

‘You have a radical libertarian approach to the problems of society… the activities you wish to carry on are sometimes incompatible with receiving public money’ (GLC)

‘I am concerned that the philosophy of IAGOU is that of a political campaigning organisation rather than a provider of services’ (Islington)

Of course IAGOU were not against services for the unwaged. They gave advice and support, cheap tea and coffee and-sometimes meals, somewhere to meet, films etc, but all this was seen as part of organising, not as servicing. The council wanted to be able to say ‘look what we’re doing for the unwaged’, IAGOU said ‘come and see what we can do for ourselves’. Between April and August ’84 a record was kept of visitors to the Centre – it varied from 3 to 20 a day (more for some films) which compared reasonably with other centres, and it would have been hard to fit many more people in, but the council were not impressed, or even interested. They decided to organise trips to other centres to see how they worked, first to the Reading Unemployed Centre. Any comparison with Islington was impossible; it had 24 paid workers, a lot of room and money and no facilities for campaigning – the delegate from the Chamber of Commerce was most impressed. Then to Southwark, where the centre was at that time being occupied by the users. There had been a long-running battle by most of the users and workers against the bureaucracy, manipulation, racism and sexism of the management committee, and when, in October ‘84, a black woman worker was harassed and assaulted by members of the management committee, they took over the building. But as far as Islington Council were concerned Southwark was a good example of how an unwaged centre should be run, and their report did not mention the occupation. The final visit was to Greenwich, which had a good centre but at that time no active unwaged group, partly because some of the leading activists had become workers there.

IAGOU had to admit that the other centres supplied a better service, but because they were given the money to do so. For example they were probably the only centre around without their own minibus, making them dependant either on Southwark for lifts (to mining areas, to support the Camel Laird occupation, to lobby the TUC, to demos etc) or on the council social services, who would not allow their minibuses for ‘political’ use(their office was only two doors away, so when a minibus was requested ‘for a trip to Kew Gardens’, they could see an advert in the window for a trip to a demo in Newham) and they were only allowed to specially qualified drivers, which IAGOU didn’t have after March ’84.

The council then started talking about setting up a new centre, which IAGOU certainly didn’t mind – apart from the original problems with the building, the heating system had exploded with a torrent of boiling water, the damp was eating away the floor and wall at the back and the head landlords, having refused permission for alterations, were now demanding restoration work that had been included in the plans – but the important point was how the new centre was to be run.

In May ’85 IAGOU drew up a new proposed constitution, including paid workers, greater concentration on services and wider representation on the admin committee. The council ignored it and told IAGOU to disband, and in July gave them 3 months notice to move out. Then in October they invited IAGOU, the chair of the Trades Council and Starting Point (an unwaged youth project in south Islington) to a meeting to discuss the new centre. At this meeting they brought out their proposed constitution (which most people had not seen before), shrugged off all criticism with ‘it can be changed later’, and effectively told those present that they were the management committee for the new centre. All the non-council members resigned these positions as soon as they returned to their groups to discuss it. The meeting also organised a trip to see possible sites for the centre, except that the council didn’t organise their part, so that out of three proposed sites, only one was found, and even with this one nobody knew which part of the building was available, but it was totally inappropriate anyway. The council put their proposals, not agreed by anyone else, to the GLC and got £30,000 from them for the 5 months to the end of the financial year. £30,000 for a non-existent centre, and IAGOU were accused of wanting to ‘take the money and run’. The Trades Council tried to get the constitution reopened for discussion, and the Centre kept open until the new one actually existed, but they only managed to get a statement that IAGOU might be allowed to stay until 31st December. The new centre of course never came about.

But IAGOU weren’t going to disappear without a fight. On October 15th they held a demo outside the council meeting at the Town Hall. Only about 30 people turned up, plus 20 council workers who were demonstrating about something else but had forgotten their leaflets. Only one person from the other London unwaged groups turned up, and none from the Trades Council.

The best bit was that some housing association had supplied free food for the council as a bribe, and demonstrators wandered in to partake, as did some local kids attracted by the chant of ‘Islington cares, food upstairs’. There was some heckling during the meeting, but a group of the activists managed to get locked out while trying to get permission to speak.

On the evening of October 18th IAGOU started their illegal occupation of the Centre with an all-night party, and from then on the place was occupied 24 hours a day, with a rota for nights. Posters from the original attempt to occupy the place were rediscovered and stuck up everywhere. A benefit gig was held at a squatted centre in Wood Green, which made some money, mainly on the drinks. The occupation raised people’s enthusiasm for a while as publicity was organised and new campaigns planned. An ‘unwaged Xmas Presence’ was planned to attack the misery of the festivities, but as the time got nearer people lost interest. It became obvious that it would not be practical to try anything more than a symbolic defence of the centre and by the end of the year the important issues became where the equipment and meetings could be moved to, and selling off the equipment that couldn’t be taken with. The idea of occupying the Town Hall or some other Council building when the eviction took place was discussed, but people were getting bored with occupying. The phones were cut off (with about £2,000 owed), the equipment packed up, and the occupation fizzled out. The Centre was finally evicted in February ‘86. After 20 months the building is still empty [19].

Meetings continued at an office in Essex Road, but most of the members had lost interest, including some of those who still came. Great efforts were made to attract new people and remain public – the GLC farewell festival was leafleted, a public meeting organised on the chaos at the DHSS (which nobody came to) and a demonstration was called on the night of the council election against whoever won, but the turnout was pathetic and everyone went straight to the pub.

They moved again, to a new squatted centre in Upper Street, but despite a lot of publicity nobody new came, and by the summer of ’86 IAGOU had gone to sleep.

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Notes

These notes were not part of the original text – we at past tense have added  them to help people who may not remember the 80s, (shurely shome mishtake? ed.), or who may not have followed the intricacies of the politics of that fabled era… However, they are brief points, not detailed analyses of the group/policy/benefit to which they refer; apologies to anyone who knows all this and finds our explanations simplistic.

[1] – NF: The National Front, a rightwing nationalist group, pretty similar to the BNP or EDL of more recent times (the BNP in fact began as a splinter-group from the NF); basically blaming immigrants for all the problems in society and campaigning to “send them all home”, as well as encouraging and carrying out racist attacks. In the 1970s the NF for a while grew very strong as the economic recession deepened, but they collapsed effectively after Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government came to power in ’79, and adopted many of their policies, and much of their support deserted them for the tories. The rump NF fell back to the hardline neo-Nazi core at its heart; but in the 80s they also had a policy of attempting to weasel their way into social struggles and community groups and spread their shite. For instance they sent money to striking miners (who sent it back) and as late as 1989 tried unsuccessfully to set up anti-poll tax groups.

[2] – At the time the TUC and trade unions generally were attempting to set up Unemployed Centres, under the control of union bureaucracies, and often funded by them and local (usually Labour) councils. Many survived into the 1990s, even till today, though most closed gradually in the ‘90s as funding grew tighter and Labour’s rightward lurch made them embarrassing and expensive anachronisms.

[3] – This refers to the 1980 Bristol riot in St Pauls and the April 1981 Brixton riot. Just after this conference, in July ‘81, massive riots broke out all over the country, terrifying the middle classes and the bosses alike. There seems to be a debate about whether the 2011 riots were bigger in scale; the reaction was very similar – massive repression, arrests and increases in police powers. The 81 riots did lead to funding for lots of measures in inner cities to try and to ‘address the problems’ (ie pacify) of rebellious youth.

[4] – Socialist Organiser were a left group who broadly speaking followed the ideas of Russian ‘revolutionary’ Leon Trotsky. SO had a policy of organising inside the Labour Party at that time (as did many other ‘trotskyist’ groups); they succeeded in taking control in some local Labour party branches and thus came to run local councils like Lambeth in South London. The group were gradually expelled from Labour as it became New Labour and ditching the ‘extreme’ left seemed necessary so as to become electable/respectable to middle England. Socialist Organiser have now mutated into the Alliance for Workers Liberty.

[5] – DHSS: the Department for Health and Social Security, the central government branch running the Health Service and all areas of benefits and welfare at the time. In 1988 Health and Social Security were separated into two Departments; so the Department of Work and Pensions is the DHSS’s modern successor. Many claimants in the 80s just called them the SS after everyone’s favourite nazi unit.

[6] – Hackney: the London Borough next door to Islington.

[7] – UB Press: refers to Unemployment Benefit, now replaced by Jobseekers Allowance (via numberless changes in identity).

[8] – Wal Hannington was a leader of the National Unemployed Workers Movement, a national organisation of the unemployed (which existed 1921-46). After the first world war, Britain saw mass unemployment; the NUWM was formed from the upsurge in unemployed groups that sprang up to campaign for improved benefits and facilities, better treatment from the authorities, etc… Grounded very much in the socialist and working class movement of that had grown up before the war, it came to be dominated by the Communist Party of Great Britain. Hannington and other CP members, while clearly dedicated working class activists, undeniably steered the NUWM away from its early powerful locally based strengths towards a concentration on stunts like the hunger marches, and centralised the Movement to the point of sterility. Nevertheless, particularly in the early years, the NUWM achieved many gains for the unemployed. Wal Hannington’s book, Unemployed Struggles 1919-36, is well worth a read; though for an objective account, read We Refuse to Starve in Silence by Richard Croucher; and for some unpleasant truths about NUWM and Hannington’s tendency to manipulate and control working class people in the Communist Party’s interest, check out Sylvia Pankhurst, by Barbara Winslow.

[9] – Occupation of a disused Islington Library: this was Essex Road Library, used as a meeting point by the local unemployed group, post World War 1 (see previous note). After being granted the use of this empty building, they were told to leave, but barricaded themselves in. The Council cut off power and water but food, candles and water were brought in. After holding it by force for a few weeks, in December 1920, E. H. King, Islington’s first Labour mayor, ordered the police to eject them; cops stormed the library early one morning. King described the group as ‘unemployables’. The growing radical disillusionment with the Labour Party was reinforced in September 1921 when the majority of the Labour Guardians voted to withdraw an increase in outdoor relief (the main benefit of the time) to which they had earlier agreed.

[10] – SWP: the Socialist Workers Party, a left group who are still around, (and unlike Socialist Organiser, see prior note, have not changed their name). Not orthodox trotskyists like S.O., much larger in numbers and more opportunist: they have had more front organisations than Michael Jackson had prescription pharmaceuticals. These days the SWP pretty much consists of students, though in the early ‘80s they had more working class members. What has not changed is the SWP hierarchy’s basic policy of exploiting all struggles to recruit members above all other considerations, obstructing anyone else trying to get anything achieved who doesn’t want to join the party, having the attention span of a distracted toddler, and attempting to centrally control everything. As well as trying to cover up rape and sexual assault of women members by leading cadres…

[11] – Greater London Council: the old administrative body for the whole London area (replacing the old London County Council). In its day it had responsibilities broadly similar to the modern Mayor of London and GLA, but it also ran much of London’s social housing and alot more besides. In 1981 the GLC changed hands from Conservative to Labour, and came to be controlled by the Labour Left, headed up by Ken Livingstone; they adopted a left program and increased funding for community groups and voluntary sector, especially organisations that fitted their broad socialist agenda. The press stereotyped the GLC as funding ‘loony left’ minority projects – “taxpayers money is supporting one legged black lesbian mothers against the bomb!” etc. These policies brought the GLC into conflict with the tory national government, not only because the GLC opposed the tories politically, but also because a central plank of tory policy was cutting back state expenditure, especially by cutting the amount local or regional authorities could both raise (in rates etc) and spend. Despite a high profile campaign and alot of public support, the GLC was abolished with other (all Labour-controlled) Metropolitan Authorities in 1986. This really isn’t the place for a debate about the merits of the GLC; its funding definitely allowed many projects to exist or continue that enriched life in London and improved conditions for millions of people, and its abolition was part of a process of restricting alternatives and closing down opportunities that have life harder in London for many. Much of this was down to social and economic changes, as well as political policies. On the flipside, some of its actual policies involved more posturing than effective change, and the 1980s GLC leadership had a record of backing down on them when it came to the crunch. The Council was not only bound by the restrictions of modern capitalism, but at the time those rules were being changed dramatically: Livingstone and co were on the losing side of the argument as to how modern capitalism should be managed.

[12] – MSC: Manpower Services Commission. An agency set up by the British government to co-ordinate training and employment in the UK, working with employers, trade unions, local authorities and educational institutions… The MSC promoted the idea that all these bodies had a role in improving training and education for people looking for work or while in work. In the ‘80s it was heavily involved in government employment programs like the Youth Training Scheme. It was replaced by 72 regional Training and Enterprise Councils.

[13] – SDP: The Social Democratic Party. In 1981 sections of the right wing of the Labour Party split off, deciding that the party had become dominated by the ‘extreme left’ and by too close association with the trade unions. This, they thought, was why they had lost the 1979 General Election and would be unelectable. In Islington council, Labour councillors defected en masse, so ‘seizing power’ for the SDP. The Social Democratic Party briefly became achieved popularity as a ‘centre party’ (as well as being promoted by the media as a stick to beat Labour with). Later they formed an electoral pact with the Liberal Party (then at a low ebb of support), with whom they eventually merged to form today’s Liberal Democrats. Ironically the Labour Party did in the late 80s and 90s move very much in the glossy rightward direction the SDP had previously taken.

[14] – SPG: The Special Patrol Group, the Metropolitan Police’s riot squads, basically, dealing with serious disorder and crowd control. Now called the Territorial Support Group; the name change became necessary Public Relations as the SPG became synonymous with violent police assaults killings of demonstrators, institutionalised racism, and invasions of ‘trouble spots’, eg Brixton, and systematic harassment of residents, especially black youth.

[15] – We’re not sure, but we think DHSS race checks were never revived. If anyone remembers different please let us know!

[16] – The Peace Centre in Rosebery Avenue (in Finsbury, South Islington): one of, if not the, earliest anarcho-punk squat centres in London. Occupied 6 September 1983 as the Peace Centre/Alternative Centre, an organising space for the September ‘83 Stop the City (see below), it lasted a few months.

[17] – The anarchist bookshop at no 36 Albany Street, in Euston, was a successor to the Peace Centre in 1983, based in an area of mass squatting for both housing and alternative projects, around Tolmers Square and Drummond Street. The anarchist paper Class War was briefly based at the bookshop.

[18] – ‘Stop the City’ was a series of actions in the City of London and spreading elsewhere, roughly 1983-84, coming mainly (though not entirely) from anarchist punks involved in the peace movement, aimed at City institutions and corporations funding nuclear and other weaponry and war, but widening out to an attack on capitalism generally. Thousands would gather on one day for demos, occupations, graffiti, aiming to try and disrupt daily corporate life, at least for a day. While early on large numbers and new tactics caused chaos in the City, by the later actions the police just swamped STC and arrested or dispersed everyone they could. Stop the City as an idea continued to inspire others towards similar tactics for a couple of decades though, and many of those involved formed the backbone of many activist groups and projects over the 80s and 90s and till the present.

[19] – The building remained empty for some years, but is now (2011) a Dentist’s Surgery; ironically, it’s one of the few in the area that accepts NHS patients, among whom is one of our own past tense crew!

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At the time of writing a massive ‘re-organisation’ of the benefits system is underway, with the creation of Universal  Credit. This follows on 8 years of vicious ‘austerity’, a relentless onslaught on the living standards for working class in this country as possible, and force people to work for less, live on less and work harder. Gains fought for long and hard over decades are being clawed back…

The only real alternative is to make the rich pay, permanently. Our motive for reprinting the above text, as with all past tense projects, as struggles around the dole may again become vitally important, is to take lessons, inspiration, ideas from struggles and movements of the past. By this we don’t mean slavishly following old models, but taking what’s useful and adding to it with our own experiences.

Islington Action Group of the Unwaged’s attempts to organise themselves for themselves, were unacceptable to trade union structures and politicos of right and left alike. When workers refuse to be pawns, but think and act for themselves, they turn their potential threat into real threat, and all the forces of manipulation and control unite to bring them back to heel. Union bureaucracies, Labour hacks, and ‘left’ parties are, have, as always, spent the last 8 years jostling to head the movement against cuts and keep it under control, on their terms; diverting anger and potential for change into pointless ‘days of action’, ‘one day strikes’ and other nonsense. In Islington itself, Labour councillors implemented savage cuts to services one day and led the ‘anti-cuts’ marches the next.

During the 1980s rate-capping struggles many people invested much support and hope in their elected representatives; disillusion was probably bound to follow, partly because brave lefty leaders get cold feet, or end up sacking workers and making cuts in the end (‘with a heavy heart’), usually on the grounds that it’s better for them to be in charge than someone worse, they have no choice. In reality they do have little choice, because their real room to manoeuvre IS limited, by central government funding, legal obligations, and so on, even more now than in the ’80s. It would be great to have an independent workers movement, that answered both austerity and attempts to co-opt rebellion by Labour councillors, union full-timers, and professional lefties with the proper politeness: occupy the lot, strike, not for a day but for good, and lets run the world ourselves. Time will tell as to if that develops, and how.

Now times have changed mightily since the days of the Greater London Council, and ‘leftwing’ Labour boroughs funding alternative groups and centres, as was commonplace in the 1970s and ’80s. Thousands of advice centres, childcare groups, adventure playgrounds, women’s groups, organisations campaigning for rights, equality etc for various minorities, and numerous other causes, which often started out organising voluntarily, gradually accepted funding from local, regional or national government. This allowed them better facilities, wider reach and stability, enabled many groups to run from better premises, open longer hours, and produce better printed materials, help people directly. There’s no doubt that official funding for broadly progressive projects improved the lives of large numbers of people.

However it was a double-edged sword: it also brought them under official control and tended often to hamper their independence. Their reliance on this funding could lead to toning down any challenging of state structures, campaigning against council or government policies and so on. hen the money was withdrawn, people could no longer operate on without it, and projects collapsed. More radical projects could also be bought off and neutralised in this way. Of course, if like Islington Unwaged Centre, you attempted to combine union or council funding with a revolutionary critique of how those groups basically are part of the problem you’re fighting, then eventually they’ll stop giving you the dosh – that was only a matter of time.

Local councils funding such projects as Islington Unwaged Centre are largely a thing of the past. The experiences of the Islington Unwaged do provide a warning against trusting union bureaucracies, Labour politicians and other left managers of misery. But it’s also true that the ultra-radical activist model adopted by Islington Action Group of the Unwaged present its own problems. The balance between day to day activities to keep people afloat, grab a slightly bigger piece of the economic pie, and calling for an all-out overthrow of existing social relations, is a hard one to maintain. But even if we believe the current economic system has to go, and be replaced by something more co-operative, egalitarian and based on need and love, not profit, we still have to face and fight the daily battle to survive, collectively as well as individually. Experience of numerous activist collectives (including ones based around the dole/benefits) suggests that sometimes you have to tread a fine line to avoid a kind of theoretically correct isolation on the one hand, and unpaid advice or social work, on others behalf, on the other. We don’t really have a trite solution, and some of us at past tense have tended to swing from one end of that spectrum to another: too much ultra-left posturing and you feel like a bit more practical work, sometimes, and vice versa.

As we said we’re not offering answers, just contributions to debate.

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The Past Is Before Us . . .

We can accept cuts, cut our own throats, or fight back… Some contacts for unwaged action today.

We aren’t endorsing all of the politics of these groups, and there are certainly useful organisations not listed here because we don’t know about them… These groups can also put you in touch with others in your area.

London Coalition Against Poverty

A coalition of groups based on the idea that through solidarity and direct action, ordinary people have the power to change our own lives. Email: lcap@lcap.org.uk

Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty

Formerly Edinburgh Claimants – organising around hassles with the Benefits authorities, bad conditions and insecurity at work, harrassment by sheriff officers and debt collectors, soaring electricity and gas bills, and rip-off landlords and housing problems. email: ecap@lists.riseup.net

Disabled People Against Cuts

DPAC is about disabled people and their allies. We welcome all to join us in fighting for justice and human rights for all disabled people. Info, support, solidarity, campaigns…

Boycott Workfare

Workfare – compulsory work for benefits… BW call on public sector bodies, voluntary organisations and businesses being offered these placements as well as union branches to boycott the scheme. Email: info@boycottworkfare.org

After ATOS

Atos Healthcare administer the medical test for claimants on disability benefits that examine their ability to work, ie are aimed at forcing people off incapacity benefits.

And in Islington… the struggle continues:

Islington Poverty Action Group

Advice & campaigning on problems with the benefits system and poverty.
Email: islingtonpovertyactiongroup@gmail.com

Today in London anti-fascist history, 1937: mass opposition prevents British Union of Fascists marching into Bermondsey

On October 3rd 1937, the British Union of Fascists (BUF) gathered at Millbank, Pimlico, to hold a march to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the BUF. It was a year almost to the day after the famous events of Cable Street, when a BUF march to the East End had been blocked in Whitechapel by thousands of local Jews, dockers, communists and many more…

And just as at Cable Street, the fascist march to Bermondsey was to be prevented from reaching its end point by barricades built by thousands of anti-fascists.

The BUF had in fact wanted to march through the East End, but was prohibited from doing so under the Public Order Act, 1936 (ostensibly passed to restrict the growth of the fascists, though also increasingly used against their opponents). After Cable Street, the BUF’s numbers had briefly risen, but then dropped. Now their stated aim was to invade ‘areas unconquered’.

Mass opposition had dogged Mosley’s men wherever they had gathered, from Hyde Park to the East End. Despite the BUF’s support among the upper classes, national newspapers, and a sizable working class population influenced by racist ideas which did sympathise with the BUF, working class resistance to both the ideas and presence on the streets was constant.

In July 1937 the BUF had made an application to hold a procession on 4 July from Limehouse to Trafalgar Square, which would pass through the same area fought over at Cable Street… The new Home Secretary, Sir Samuel

Hoare, banned political processions would be in effect for six weeks in this particular area in the East End of London, and the BUF subsequently organised a procession from Kentish Town to Trafalgar Square; well outside of the prohibited area. This BUF procession on 4 July 1937 passed without any serious disturbances: some 6,000 fascists had assembled but had to protected by 2,383 police, as they were ‘dwarfed by the crowd which collected in the locality.’

When the ban expired in August 1937, it was renewed for a further six weeks. In September, it was subsequently renewed for three months, the maximum duration under the Act. The three month ban on political marches in the specified area was continually renewed every three months until the proscription of the BUF in 1940 under Defence Regulation 18B.

The BUF proposed march route for 3 October was thus not going to be authorised, so a new route was then decided on, which would take the fash through Bermondsey and South London.

Bermondsey had a strong left wing tradition, based on active local trade unionism among dockers and factory workers, linked to an active branch of the Independent Labour party; Bermondsey Borough’s local council was run by a leftwing Labour administration. This was doubtless partly why the fash had targeted the area. It was also to be reflected in the huge local turnout to oppose the blackshirts.

‘No Jew red mob has the power to daunt us’, proclaimed the Fascist newspaper, which also carried an advertisement for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a violently anti-semitic hoax tract used to incite racial hatred by both Hitler and Franco.

A deputation to the Home Secretary, led by Rotherhithe Labour MP Ben Smith, supported by Bermondsey Trades Council and religious leaders, asking him to prohibit the procession failed; justified on the grounds that while it was reasonable to ban anti-semitic marches through areas with a large Jewish population because of the fear and ‘sensitivities’ that would arise, to extend of the prohibition to every area that had a ‘strong feeling of opposition to a procession demonstrating some unpopular political creed would be contrary to the spirit of the Public Order Act…’

Bermondsey had a large catholic Irish population but few Jews, which by this criteria meant a fascist demo was not provocative. Mosley might have expected some support from Irish Catholics (a proportion of who did have some sympathy to fascism in areas like Stepney) but as at Cable Street, in fact, many from this community rallied to the opposition.

When the attempt to get the march banned failed, the Executive Committee of London Labour Party then tried to dampen down local hostility, and urged local Labour branches to avoid organising a counter-demo, sending round a circular stating the fascism thrived on disorder and not to give them the publicity. However, Bermondsey Trades Council rejected this advice, calling for a massive counter-demo; they supported by the Communist Party and Independent Labour Party – although the CP in fact were not keen on militant opposition at this point, but were forced by the actions of the Trades Council and local feeling to back the call.

There was much preparation for the day, along similar lines to the local work done in the build-up to the battle of Cable Street – chalking up anti-fascist slogans, mass leaflettings, meetings held in advance of the day… The CP also managed to advertise where anti-fascists should meet without openly stating it, to get round the strict terms of the Public Order Act.

When October 3rd came, a column of 3400 fascists a mile long set off from Millbank, surrounded by 2500 police.

As at Cable Street, anti-fascists erected barricades: the BUF marchers were greeted in Long Lane by barriers formed from coster barrows, fencing and barbed wire, erected by the Jewish community, the Communists and many other groups whose anti fascist views poured out onto the streets. It is possible that numbers assembled he fascists surpassed those at Cable Street – some estimates run as high as 50,000 massed at Borough tube, though with true police numbering skills, Special Branch estimated around 12,000.

The barricades were repeatedly attacked and demolished by the police: but they and Mosley’s men were treated to a barrage of missiles – stones, eggs, bricks and bottles. Red flags waved, while a water tank was borrowed from a nearby factory and used as a barricade. Arrests and custodial sentences were even higher than they had been at Cable Street the year before. 111 people were nicked in total.

But Long Lane remained blocked, and BUF were forced to an alternative meeting point. Mosley addressed a rally briefly but was drowned out by the surrounding crowd beyond police cordon, chanting ‘They did not pass!” Mosley’s meeting place had already been occupied by Sally Schwartz and Tim Walsh of the ‘Federation of Democrats’, who staged a local talent show to entertain the crowd!

The event was reported in newspapers across the world from Montreal to Melbourne. ‘Wild scenes’ marked the day, and police on foot and horseback made repeated baton charges. The Times dramatically claimed ‘the scenes of disorder yesterday seem to have been quite as bad as those in the East End which induced Parliament to pass the Public Order Act.’ Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Philip Game attempted to use the fighting to bolster his position that the ban should be extended to the whole Metropolitan Police District, and to go further, advocating that new legislation should be considered that would make ‘processions of all kinds in the streets illegal once and for all’, stating that the Public Order Act “has had a positive effect on the conduct of political meetings and demonstrations but had not reduced their number. He recorded that out of the 11,804 meetings and processions that were policed in 1937, over 7,000 of these were either fascist or anti-fascist.”

Police remove barricades in Long Lane

There’s some silent film of the Bermondsey BUF demo here

Although less well known than Cable Street, the fighting at Bermondsey was just as bloody. But like Cable Street, attempts to paint this as the end of BUF marches, as has sometimes been suggested, is not accurate – seven months later, on May 1 1938, the BUF were able to march largely unopposed through Bermondsey and hold a rally, with Mosley speaking from the top of a van. There was on opposition because crowds had been directed to Hyde Park for an anti-fascist Spanish Civil War Mayday rally… Was this possibly arranged deliberately by the Communist Party etc to prevent another confrontation with the fash? The CP were now talking of defeating fascism ideologically not physically; in the East End they were concentrating on grassroots struggles to win the support of working class away from the BUF (notably housing struggles, which would lead to rent strikes); anti-fascist crowds were advised to hold meetings near to fash meetings and rallies, not disrupt and drown them out as had been previous policy. Dissident Stepney Communist Joe Jacobs would be suspended from the Party in 1938, and then expelled, for being one of the CP minority advocating taking a more confrontational line.

This backing down from physical resistance to fascism by the CP leadership – joining the Labour Party in advocating avoidance of confrontation – goes some way against the long-propagated myth of how the BUF were resisted in the 1930s in London. Even in the run up to Cable Street the Party had tried initially to prevent mass physical resistance, but were forced by pressure from below and the mass desire to block the path of Mosley. In the decades since, the carefully constructed image of the CP leading the fight has masked a more complex reality. Of course many Party members were central to resistance to Mosley, as in fact has been Labour Party members, locals of many political feelings and communities, forefront of course the Jews and the dockers, many of whom were catholic Irish.

Physical disruption and attacks on fascists trying to spread racist and anti-working class ideas would continue to be central to keeping the far right from growing, as the history of the 43 Group after the second world war, and later opposition to nazi groupsucules in the 1950s and ‘60s would illustrate. Raids, disruption of rallies were useful and effective.

The importance of physical opposition would be highlighted even morewith  rise of the National Front in the ‘70s, and events like Lewisham, Wood Green and Southall. And would continue, with the struggle against the British National Party and its influence in the 1990s.

That the CP hierarchy spent a lot of time in 1935-39 trying to prevent direct confrontation, though they have attempted to present a slightly different story later, is of course, not unique in UK anti-fascist/left history: compare this to the actions of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in luring people AWAY from direct occupation of Brick Lane in September 1978 to prevent a National Front paper sale.

The ANL spent a lot of energy over the next couple of years trying to divert anti-fascist efforts away from street-fighting, and shutting down branches and members who pushed for militant confrontation. Sound familiar? As with the dissident anti-fascists within the Communist Party like Joe Jacobs, stalwarts within the ANL who saw physical resistance to the National Front and other far-right groups as a continuing priority were marginalised and expelled from parties like the Socialist Workers Party. Some of these would go on to contribute to the founding of Anti-Fascist Action in 1985, which maintained the policy of combining physical and political opposition to fascism wherever it reared its head.

Although it’s always worth our celebrating and commemorating historical victories, we should also base our memories on what really happened and learn the lessons, and questioning the repetition of established myths. The battles of Cable Street and later of Bermondsey were important defeats for Mosley’s homegrown fascism, and physical opposition to far-right presence on the streets remains as vital now as then; from the BUF to the ‘Football Lads Alliance’ and Tommy Robinson, bopping them on the head is as crucial as arguing against their racist shite.

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There’s a detailed account of the political machinations around the 1936 Public Order Act, the BUF marches and opposition to them in the late 1930s here

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

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For a slightly contrasting more recent experience of fascism and anti-fascism relating to Bermondsey, check out an account of antI-fascist organising in South London in 1991.