Today in London Black history, 1787: anti-slave abolitionists, the Sons of Africa, write to Granville Sharp

Britain’s central role in the global slave trade is well known. For over 300 years, the abduction of millions of Africans to be used as forced labour, largely in America and the Caribbean, formed a major element of the British economy and was integral to the spread of the British Empire.

The end of Britain’s historical role in the slave trade is usually portrayed as a glorious moral campaign, of heroic upper class white philanthropists like William Wilberforce, gently and nobly persuading the authorities to abolish first the kidnapping and buying and selling of Africans (in 1807) and then, 30 years later, to abolish the slave plantations themselves and ‘grant’ slaves their freedom. Their charitable and altruistic motives are held up as another example of the civilising and beneficial influence of the Great British Empire…

Only in recent years has a counter-narrative been gaining voice, uncovering the vast history of slavery and of the slaves’ resistance to it, a resistance that took many forms, from physical rebellion and mutiny, armed warfare, through to an involvement in the campaign for abolition from below.

The constant resistance of slaves helped to slavery increasingly uneconomic as a way of guaranteeing labour in the West Indies, which was a major factor in the eventual acceptance of the slave-owning classes that slavery needed to go (the huge wodges of compensation paid to those who lost their ‘property’ also helped).

The usually accepted narrative also neglects the contribution of black abolitionists as activists in the movement to end the slave trade and abolish slavery itself. London itself was a centre of organised black abolitionism, emerging from the communities of black people that had grown up in London. The latter is achieving more recognition in recent years, though much still lies buried.

There had been significant numbers of Africans in London since Elizabethan times (when good Queen Bess famously attempted to get a law passed to throw all black people out of the country). By the 18th century London had a sizable black population, although it was hard to put a number on, being variously estimated; the Gentleman’s Magazine reckoned the capital’s black population at 20,000 in 1764, while other sources reckon it at only half that for the whole country… Disease, poverty, the hard conditions they had lived in and continued to live in took a regular toll, and so the numbers are likely to have varied wildly…

The vast majority of London’s black residents were ex-slaves, or sailors and former sailors. Some sailors would themselves have been runaway or freed slaves, who had worked their passage on ships from the West Indies (see for instance Olaudah Equiano, below). There were also musicians – many serving in English military and domestic orchestras and bands.

The work the black population could do was restricted, especially after 1731 when the lord mayor of London issued a proclamation banning them from being taken on as apprentices – the first known, though not the last, colour bar in the history of employment in Britain.

Many Africans of both sexes worked as domestic servants. This left them still in a difficult legal position, at the mercy of their employers, as even after 1772 (when transporting slaves was outlawed in England and they could not legally be deported by their owners) they were not really protected from being kidnapped and shipped abroad. Others worked as city porters, watermen, hawkers, and chairmen (carrying the rich from place to place, some employed directly, others touting for business in the days before cabs).

Black women also worked as nurses, or became basket women selling small items round the streets. But many were forced by poverty to turn to prostitution.

And a huge number ended without work at all, begging on the street for enough to keep them alive. The Poor Relief system, consisting then of a pittance of financial support from the parish you were born in, did not offer much support for incomers into parishes, which included most black folk. Many of course would arrive in London with nothing, whether slave, runaway or servant; many were reduced to extreme poverty. Black people forced into beggary became conspicuous in London in the later 17th century, many crowded into poor areas, ‘rookeries’ like St. Giles or Seven Dials, Limehouse and Ratcliff down by the river in the East End – all areas of poverty, refuges for the desperate, the rebellious and ‘criminal classes’. The black community was overwhelmingly male; many black men married local women and merged into the pre-existing plebeian world.

Rookeries were over-crowded, often a mass of sub-divided and sublet rooms, dangerous and unhealthy places to live. But being refuges to those on the run from the law, they were often no-go areas to the law, with a rudimentary solidarity against justices, constables and creditors… this of course made them useful to runaway slaves or black servants.

Despite being from many countries and backgrounds, divided in many ways, the London black community created not only social links but organised itself. This manifested on the various social levels which black people inhabited. Black servants certainly gathered together informally, partly to discuss information and common problems. Dr Johnson’s black servant Francis Barber was among them. A friend of Samuel Johnson’s was startled when, in the doctor’s absence, he discovered Francis Barber with ‘a group of his African countrymen . . . sitting around a fire in the gloomy anti-room; and on their all turning their sooty faces at once to stare at me, they presented a curious spectacle.’

A late 18th century skit on uppity servants, including a black servant satirised for ‘getting above his station’

Larger social gatherings with dances and music in taverns were also organised. About 57 ‘Black domestics’ of both sexes, for instance, “supped, drank and entertained themselves with dancing and music… at a public house in Fleet St” in 1764…”No whites were allowed to be present…”

But the plebeian black community also showed solidarity for its number – for example in 1773, two black men imprisoned in the Bridewell House of Correction for begging were supported financially and visited by 300 others. According to Philip Thicknesse, in 1778, “these black men have clubs to support those who are out of place”… Out of place means on the face of it ‘out of work’, but also has a wider sense, of those inhabiting spaces they didn’t quite feel at home in… This solidarity also took the form of support for runaways and ex-slaves living under cover, and encouragement for slaves who wanted to escape bondage. A common complaint among the slave-owning classes was that longer established escapees were influencing newer arrivals to leg it. Edward Long, a virulently racist ideologue, raged that “Upon arriving in London, these servants soon grow acquainted with a knot of blacks, who, having eloped from their respective owners at different times, repose here in ease and indolence, and endeavour to strengthen their party, by seducing as many of these strangers into the association as they can work to their purpose.”

The Bow Street magistrate John Fielding referred to these subversive ex-slaves as “intoxicated with liberty… the Sweets of Liberty and the conversations with free men and Christians enlarge their minds…” and even worse, alleged they had succeeded in allying themselves with “the London Mob”, the teeming, contradictory armed wing of the rebellious working people of London. This alliance bore angry fruit: ex-slaves were involved in the 1780 Gordon Riots, some coming to fore as rabble rousers and temporary leaders. Benjamin Bowsey and John Glover were among the leaders of the climatic moment of the Riots, the successful attack on Newgate; Black woman Charlotte Gardiner was sentenced to be hung for leading a crowd in the Riots.

The support of ‘native’ poor and working people for fugitive slaves came not from simple sentimental or abstract humanitarian feelings, as it did with the middle class anti-slavery abolitionists – though these feelings existed. Black people were suffering from treatment meted out by a class many in the slums saw as also being their own enemies; alliances were a matter of class solidarity. Long-established and strong traditions of resistance to the authorities were part of the culture in London slums and rookeries – fighting off the press gang or the army recruiters, or posses sent in to areas to seize fugitive criminals or debtors, were long established and instinctive, matters of self-defence and extended to support for runaway slaves.

There was also contact between fugitives in Britain and those still in chains in the Carribbean. Ex-slave rebels from Belize and Jamaica; and involvees in the American Revolution, also brought the spirit of freedom to England. Numbers of black people in London were swollen by an influx after 1784 of ‘loyal’ ex-slaves, who had been persuaded or forced to fight for the crown against the colonists during the war of independence… Many were poor and embittered, at the meagre reward for their loyalty; others who ended up in London had been involved in the rough and tumble of the American Revolution and taken on many ideas about liberty and equality… The authorities became so concerned at the ‘problem’ of black London they supported the plan to ‘re-patriate’ them to Africa in the Sierra Leone scheme.

The environment that sparked blacks involvement in the abolition movement, was thus twofold: a proletarian class in the slums, beggars, ex sailors, and a more elevated level of servants, more educated and literate… We know more about the latter, but there were clearly crossovers between these strata, and links between both may well have existed. Interestingly, there prominent individuals we know about do in some ways cross over both milieu, especially Robert Wedderburn.

These embryonic Black communities were sharply conscious of legal and social developments – they followed Mansfield’s judgement in the Somerset case in 1772, (which ruled that transporting  slaves in and out of England was illegal, the first legal advance in the slow progress towards abolition). They sent representatives to follow the hearings, who clapped and hugged each other when the judgement was given… And a few days later this victory was celebrated by a gathering of several hundred black men and women in a Westminster pub… Seemingly better off servants as tickets cost 5 shillings!

Another complaint of white upper class commentators of the time was that slaves were struggling to be paid wages! Pay not only helped black people gain economic independence – wages conferred status, also the right of residence within a parish, which could prevent deportation. The social and political self-confidence of working for a wage also fed into political organising; Individual and collective resistance thus sparked off campaigning for the abolition of slavery from within black communities themselves.

One group who took part in the campaign to abolish the slave trade from the heart of the beast itself were the Sons of Africa.

The Sons of Africa were what was clearly an organised group, at the centre of which appeared to be ex-slave activists Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano.

Olaudah Equiano is best known for his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, published in 1789, which told the story of his life, from the time he was taken as a slave as a child, through his years in slavery, on sailing ships and in the plantations. He later gained his freedom, buying himself out, and served various ships, eventually settling in London.

Olaudah Equiano

Equiano became involved in the rescue of slaves; a turning point in his life in London was his attempt in 1774 to save ex- slave john Annis, who he had recruited as a cook on a ship, from being seized by his former master. Equiano got in touch with famous abolitionist Granville Sharp, who took legal cases for slaves fighting seizure by old masters to court. Equiano had had to whiten up his face to swear a writ of habeus corpus. However, the case failed, and Annis was shipped off to the West Indies and flogged to death.

Equiano also wrote on slavery for various sympathetic newspapers, on several occasions reviewing pro-slavery tracts by plantation owners and their apologists… Later he published his life story, which was republished several times and had a huge influence on public opinion… ‘The Interesting narrative’ has been called the single most important document in abolition of the salve trade. Equiano built on his writings with public speaking, setting off round the country to talk at public meetings on slavery, which had a powerful affect, especially on the emerging radical and working class movement. Equiano not only worked with (and influenced) Granville Sharp and more mainstream abolitionists, but met many of the activists in the nascent radical scenes, including the reformist Constitutional Societies; he became friends with, and stayed with Thomas Hardy, founder of the London Corresponding Society, and joined the LCS himself. He served as a pivotal figure in many ways, linking self-organised black movement, radical societies and more liberal lobbyists.

Ottobah Cugoano was originally from Ghana, had been abducted from Africa aged 13, transported to Grenada; but had then been brought to Britain and freed, aged 15.

Cugoano got himself baptised to prevent being seized and resold (based on the belief that adopting Christianity prevented you from being enslaved – more of a superstition than actual defence…!) He became a preacher, and then servant to Richard Conway, and became involved in abolition campaigns.

Like Equiano, Cugano went on speaking tours around country; and like him, played his part in direct support of slaves and ex-slaves. In 1786 he was involved in the rescue of Henry Demane, a black man who had been kidnapped and was due to be shipped to the West Indies. Cugoano got Granville Sharpe involved, who managed to get Demane released.

In 1787, Cugoano wrote “Thoughts and Sentiments On the Evil and wicked traffic of the slavery and commerce of the human species” – possibly the earliest published black counterblast against slavery, based on the “Natural rights and liberties of men”.

A drawing of Ottobah Cugoano

This text demolished pro-slavery arguments about divine sanction for slavery, of justifications for it based on the fact that Africans also took slaves, that Africans were inferior and only fit to serve whites, or that slaves ‘lived better off lives than many among the European poor’.

The book not only advocated the total abolition of slavery, not just the slave trade, but disputed the emerging racist theories that justified slavery, dismissing talk of separate races, talking in terms of “many shades of the rainbow: All of us are fellow creatures, Africans free born…” He linked slavery to private property, and echoing the radicals of the English Revolution, spoke of a desire to “turn the world upside down”. Cugoano also asserted that slaves had a moral duty to resist slavery, and also posited the idea of it being a ‘crime against humanity’, and that all Britons were responsible for its continuation unless they opposed it.

Cugoano and Equiano together formed the Sons of Africa, a black abolitionist group, based in London. Besides these better known activists, several other black men signed Sons of Africa letters and public statements in late 1780s – including Yahne Aelane (who also used the anglicised name Joseph Sanders), Broughwa Jugensmel, William Green, George Robert Mandeville, Cojoh Ammere (aka George Williams), Thomas Cooper, Bernard Elliot Griffiths, Daniel Christopher, John Christopher, James Forster, John Scot, Jorge Dent, Thomas Oxford, James Bailey, James Frazer, Thomas Carlisle, William Stevens, Joseph Almaze, John Adams, George Wallace and Thomas Jones. Sons of Africa letters, statements and letters appeared in print around 1787-89, notably in the Diary newspaper.

Equiano and others of the Sons of Africa went to Westminster to listen to parliamentary debates on slavery. Like the white Abolition Committee, they too embarked on letter-writing and public-speaking campaigns, and made public appeals. Writing to the MP Sir William Dolben in the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, they discussed their position in England and elsewhere:

“Our simple testimony is not much, yet you will not be displeased to learn, that a few persons of colour, existing here, providentially released from the common calamity, and feeling for their kind, are daily pouring forth their prayers for you, Sir, and other noble and generous persons who will not (as we understand) longer suffer the rights of humanity to be confounded with ordinary commodities, and passed from hand to hand, as an article of trade.

We are not ignorant, however, Sir, that the best return we can make, is, to behave with sobriety, fidelity, and diligence in our different stations whether remaining here under the protection of the laws, or colonizing our native soil, as most of us wish to do, under the dominion of this country; or as free labourers and artizans in the West India islands, which, under equal laws, might become to men of colour places of voluntary and very general resort.

But in whatever station, Sir, having lived here, as we hope, without reproach, so we trust that we and our whole race shall endeavour to merit, by dutiful behaviour, those mercies, which, humane and benevolent minds seem to be preparing for us.”

Dolben thanked them and hoped their behaviour would recommend them to the British government, but ‘he must earnestly desire to decline any particular address upon the occasion’. (Though he had been so upset by what he saw on a slave ship anchored in the Thames in 1788 that he immediately proposed a bill limiting the horrifically cramped shelving of slaves being transported.)

They were always immensely grateful to Sharp and others in the Society for the Abolition of Slavery for their unflagging energy in the battle, calling Sharp ‘our constant and generous friend’, they wrote to him, in a public letter published on 15 December 1787, that ‘[w]e are those who were considered as slaves, even in England itself, till your aid and exertion set us free’. They requested him to collect his writings ‘for the benefit and good of all men, and for an enduring memorial of the great learning, piety, and vigilance of our good friend’.

There’s clearly more to be discovered about the Sons of Africa – and many questions that their existence throws up. What happened to the group? Equiano died in London in 1797; nothing is known of Cugoano after 1791. Was the group already defunct or did it survive them? Given the turbulent nature of the times they emerged in, with revolution, rebellion against slavery, theories of universal human rights coming to the fore – were there any black women active in London around this time on this issue? What relations did these figures have to the burgeoning reform and radical movements (as noted above, Olaudah Equiano bridged both scenes)…?

And did the ideas and thoughts the Sons of Africa were developing pass on to later generations? In London or wider afield? Certainly, there were later figures associated with radical movements that contained former members of the London Corresponding Society, who may have known Equiano and possibly others of the Sons, who later emerged to prominence – most notably Robert Wedderburn. Wedderburn blended English radicalism with an apocalyptic abolitionism, fired by his background, having been born a slave in the West Indies, and served as a sailor, before becoming a disciple of Thomas Spence. He mingled with the post-Napoleonic underground that launched the abortive Cato Street Conspiracy, besides lecturing and preaching blasphemy and egalitarianism. Others in the same radical scene included Cato Street Conspirator William Davidson.

Much more historical digging is needed here, as there’s almost certainly more fascinating evidence out there on these black abolitionists… Africans who refused to be passive pawns either for slavery and who give the lie to the idea that it was nice white posh people alone who generously ‘freed the slaves.’

The Silvertown Tunnel can be prevented – like the East London River Crossing back in the 1990s

Climate Change – the most pressing issue of our times; Global crisis that demands global solutions. Declarations of a climate emergency by councils or governments are all very well – but the profits of big business depend on continuing destruction of the natural world and exploitation of its resources, as well as mass exploitation of people. A global solution can only be based on LOCAL action, local change, from the grassroots.

In East London, locals are opposing the planned building of a new Thames river crossing which will increase pollution, congestion and emissions. Transport for London proposes to build the Silvertown Tunnel road tunnel under the Thames, from the Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks, under the river, just to the east of the A102/Blackwall Tunnel.

TfL say East London needs a new river crossing to relieve the over-congested Blackwall Tunnel. But building new roads only attracts new traffic, resulting in higher emissions and more pollution. The building of the second Blackwall Tunnel in the late 1960s saw traffic double within a year – its new approach roads were jammed within a decade. The M25 keeps filling up each time it’s widened. The Silvertown Tunnel would be no different.

It’s true that the Blackwall tunnels are regularly rammed and even shut due to congestion, with queues of vehicles backed up as far as the Sun in the Sands roundabout in the morning… And halfway up to Leyton in the evening… But adding more lanes only opens up for more traffic…

Air quality around the A102 and its approach roads on both sides of the Thames already breaks legal limits, putting locals’ health at risk, especially children. The effects of poor air contributes to the deaths of hundreds of local people; children who grow up near polluted roads have their lungs damaged for life. The solution to transport problems is better public transport, not more roads and more cars.

At best, the Silvertown Tunnel will be an expensive waste of money. At worst, it’ll blight the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

But it doesn’t have to be this way: local people have prevented such disastrous roads being built before. The A102 itself is a legacy from the failed London Ringway proposal, a plan to encircle London with urban motorways – fought off in the 1970s by angry residents. [Interestingly for those as remember the 1996 Reclaim the Streets party on the M41 motorways in Shepherds Bush, this is the only other part of the Ringway apart from the A102 that ever actually got built…]

And just downriver from where the Silvertown Tunnel is proposed today, the East London River Crossing was defeated in the 1990s.

Originally scheduled in the 1980s, the River Crossing faced opposition from the start. It faced the longest Public Inquiry ever held into a road scheme; an inquiry 194 days; the transcripts of the proceedings contained 9.5 million words!

Planned to run across the river from Beckton through Greenwich and Eltham, to link the A2 and A13, plans for the new road would have meant bulldozing through some beautiful southeast London woodlands, including the 8000 year-old Oxleas wood, and Shepherdleas wood, Woodlands Farm, and demolishing several hundred homes in Plumstead. Government policy at the time involved a massive new roadbuilding program – developers and some local authorities strongly supported the scheme.

In the words of one of the organisers against the scheme,the odds against stopping it were getting bigger all the time. To achieve victory, a concerted strategy was needed to make Oxleas Wood a big issue locally and give it wider significance – a strategy to make it a symbol of the environmental damage that the road programme was causing and a rallying point for the environment movement. If that could be done, then, given Oxleas Wood’s proximity to Westminster, it might force the Government to back down rather than risk confrontation with a united community and environment movement, in its own “back yard”.

As ancient woodland Oxleas Woods had survived in all its beauty and peace for over 8000 years and now, in the space of a year or so, it was to be decimated in the name of progress. 900 year-old trees and a vast array of rare flora and fauna were to be destroyed to provide drivers with a faster route between the City of London, East and South East London.

Many hundreds of years previously the 77 hectare site had been gifted to the citizens of London as a leisure area “to enjoy for perpetuity”. Oxleas was one of the capital city’s last remaining sizeable green spaces and in some respects acted as the lungs of London. It has been described as “the last remaining part of the pre-historic great forest of London”. People from all walks of life benefited from Oxleas – playing children, nature lovers, hikers and dog-walking adults, from the poorest communities in London in enormous social housing estates in Kidbrooke to the middle classes of Eltham and Shooters Hill.

‘Like all the best campaigns we fought on every level. There were letter-writing stalls at the popular Greenwich market, politicians were systematically lobbied and a well-presented public transport alternative was drawn-up. We organised an “Adopt-a- Tree” scheme; the aim here was to get every tree in Oxleas Wood adopted. As well as bringing in funds and publicity, it would give supporters a real stake in the campaign. And if the worst came to the worst we could invite tree adopters to turn up to defend their tree.

In order to make Oxleas a “line in the sand” for the environment movement, we got some of the large environmental non-government organisations (for example the Wildlife Trusts and World Wide Fund for Nature) to take part in an Oxleas Strategy Group. This helped lock them into a campaign that was ultimately run by local people, but which made the best use of the resources of the national campaigns.

A couple of legal lines of last resort helped propel the campaign into the national news. The Government had failed to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment for the scheme, as required by European Community law. The heroic European Commissioner for the Environment, Carlo Ripa di Meana, took up this complaint causing Prime Minister Major to hit the roof and interrupt a Commonwealth conference to condemn the EC’s action. The complaint was never seen through by the EC, but the publicity was invaluable, as was that which resulted from a High Court case where the “Oxleas 9” (nine local people) put their assets on the line to take the Department of Transport to court over their failure to provide adequate land in exchange for the damage to Oxleas woods. The case was lost, but Oxleas had caught the public imagination and the pressure on the government was intensifying.

Meanwhile, campaigners were preparing for the worst. A “Beat the Bulldozer” pledge was launched, with the aim of getting 10,000 people to pledge to be there if the bulldozers went in. With the TV pictures of direct action at Twyford Down fresh in their minds, as well as the vivid pictures we had painted of what would happen if they violated Oxleas Wood, the Government backed down.”

In the end, the pressure of the campaign paid off. In July 1993, the government withdrew the plans. The River Crossing was abandoned, unbuilt.’

The East London River Crossing was a turning point: part of, and helping to inspire, a growing movement against the government’s road building program. Community campaigns, protest camps, occupations and sabotage resisted roadbuilding at Twyford Down, against the M11, at Newbury, among many others. Mass resistance led to the whole roads program being cancelled by the New Labour government in 1997. Acting together – WE CAN WIN.

Check out the Stop Silvertown Tunnel Coalition on twitter: @SilvertownTn

More info on Silvertown Tunnel campaign:

Pagans and magick folk played a significant part in the fight against the East London River Crossing in the 1990s – check out this account

What was really great to see was the local Extinction Rebellion action against the proposed Silvertown tunnel this year. There have been many criticism of XR (our post on Reclaim the Streets, XR and more here has some thoughts) – but this was practical and pressing action, addressing the burning issues on the ground and in daily life… A good step forward.

The Silvertown Tunnel has now been approved for go ahead… But this does not mean the struggle is over! The story of the East London River Crossing and the Saving of Oxleas Wood shows the show ain’t over if we get our act together…

In memory: Liz Willis

Liz Willis (born Elizabeth Ann Smith) has died in hospital in London with family around her, age 72, following diagnosis of pancreatic cancer last year.

Past Tense knew Liz through her contributions to the Radical History Network of NorthEast London (RaHN), of which she remained a stalwart through its (intermittent) existence (even now, is it defunct?). Liz edited the RaHN blog – brilliantly and consistently… it remains a great resource of radical causes.

Below we repost a brief obituary of Liz written by her son Mark (with some links to Liz’s own family biogs and writings about her history).

Liz was born in Stornoway, daughter of Margaret (Peggy Flett) and Calum ‘Safety’ Smith, joined four years later by sister Alison. Her early childhood is recollected as a time of street games and unsupervised freedom on long summer days and it was this vision of Stornoway that stayed with her in later years. Her parents, large extended family, the wild landscape and stifling social mores of the island provided an ongoing source of inspiration and rebellion. An outstanding and prize-winning student, she developed a facility for languages and history in particular. The family moved to Dingwall in 1959, where younger sister Marjory arrived just as Liz was preparing to go to Aberdeen University to study history in 1964 at age 16.

It was in Aberdeen that her interest in politics crystallised, as she became an active member of Youth CND and left-wing societies, attending regular meetings and hops. She developed her lifelong internationalist, libertarian socialist outlook, joining Faslane protests, a peace march to Paris, and hitch-hiking across Europe to an anarchist camp in Italy in the summer of 1967. After attaining her MA in History, she chose Belfast to pursue a course in library studies, because it “seemed like an interesting place to be in 1968” and found herself on her second day in the province helping Bernadette Devlin up during a civil rights march. It was in this heady atmosphere that she met her future husband, Roy Willis. They married in 1969 and Janetta was born in 1970.

As the political situation deteriorated, the young family moved to London, where Mark was born in 1972. Roy’s social work course took them to Muirhouse housing scheme in Edinburgh, where Liz found time to get involved with tenants’ rights and demos in support of the miners and other causes. Returning to London in 1974, they settled in the borough of Ealing, where she spent the majority of her life. She found her political home in the shape of Solidarity for Workers’ Power, remaining an active member until its demise in 1992. Amongst her many contributions was the pamphlet ‘Women in the Spanish Revolution’, which remains a key text on the subject.

While looking after young children she stacked shelves in Sainsbury’s before finding a position at the Medical Research Council library at Hammersmith Hospital. Some of her most treasured memories were family holidays in Europe, allowing her to practice her proficiency in several languages and absorb her interest in the history and culture of places that she could still recollect clearly 40 years later. Her thirst for knowledge continued as she collected four diplomas and her activism was undimmed as she took on new causes such as the Polish Solidarnosc movement and provided support to an Iranian refugee friend. In the 90s, divorce and grown-up children allowed her more time to concentrate on her writing, research and book reviews, joining Medact’s Medicine, Conflict and Survival journal editorial board in 1991, which she served on until her final year, and for which she wrote well over 100 items. She also participated in the London Socialist historians’ group, Anarchist Research Group and other radical history forums. As grandchildren appeared in the new century, she proved to be a devoted grandmother, from knitting baby clothes to excavating archive materials to help them in their studies.

She started the ‘Smothpubs’ blogspot in 2011, (so named after a mix-up when helping police with their enquiries), with articles on a range of subjects including local and family history and including a mine of material on conscientious objectors. When diagnosed with cancer last year, she carried on through chemotherapy and a clinical trial, taking it as an opportunity to learn about the latest medical research and the state of the NHS, for which she was always committed but for most of her life never had much cause to use. She was appreciative of the NHS staff’s efforts to treat and support her in this time. Over the past year living in Walthamstow, she showed little sign of slowing down, continuing her trips to the British Library, Housmans bookshop and local libraries. She continued to collect material for her blog and the Radical History Network blogspot, and even found time to do translation work for an anarchist research project and take part in the E17 Art Trail. She managed regular trips to Scotland, including a flying visit to Stornoway to see her uncle Donald Smith’s retrospective exhibition and retrace childhood footsteps. It was only in the last month or so that the disease took hold, but she remained a ‘free rebel spirit’ to the end.

Liz Willis (21.10.47-10.11.19)

There’s much more to the story… Someone out there knows the full story of Liz breaking into nuclear bunkers in Scotland in the mid-1960s (around the time of Spies for Peace?) and nearly getting expelled from university… Anyone with other memories of Liz please do get in touch.

No-one who leaves their work behind them is truly gone.