Today in London anti-fascist history, 1949: 43 Group disrupt Oswald Mosley rally, Kensington

Snapshots in London’s anti-fascist history, continued… 

After the second world war, Britain’s pre-war fascist leader Oswald Mosley, freed from wartime imprisonment, tried to rebuild the fascist movement he had led in the 1930s. A core of Mosley’s former comrades in the former British Union of Fascists, joined by a number of younger men, took up the largely anti-semitic agitation they had revelled in before the war. Jewish areas of London, or areas where a mix of Jews and other communities mixed, were seen as fruitful areas for street meetings and rallies – partly to pick up support from and to foster, local xenophobic sentiment, and partly to provoke and intimidate.

But opposition was strong: London’s Jews refused to be intimidated and a substantial minority took up active – and physical – resistance to the fascist revival. In 1947, a group of Jewish ex-army servicemen formed the 43 Group, with the intention of responding to the fascist attempt to reform. Growing rapidly, they resolved to resist the violent rhetoric and physical attacks with a determination to break up fascist meetings, attack the fash wherever possible, and disrupt them in all ways they could. They developed a strong physical and intelligence-led operation that would eventually put the fascist on the back foot.

Constant disruption of fascist meetings forced Mosley and his cohorts onto the back foot…

Although in 1948 Mosley and the fledgling fascist groups combined to form the Union Movement, the constant battering they took from the 43 Group, with weekly fights all over town, took its toll on them.

The more moderate Jewish Establishment, manifested through the Jewish Board of Deputies, was severely critical of the actions of the 43 Group. While happy to complain about the fascist resurgence, they were un-nerved by the physical resistance of the 43ers, by the suggestion of any anti-fascist links to socialism or the Communist Party, law-breaking, unrespectable violence in general… Various attempts were made to control or marginalise the Group’s activities by the Board and their associated organisations, but the Group’s direct action against the fascist threat was undoubtedly hugely effective (although other, less agro-heavy, anti-fascist activities from other Jewish groups also impacted on the fash).

By the end of 1948, though, the 43 Group was having trouble attracting audiences to their street meetings – happily, this was partly because the fascists, now grouped together in the Union Movement, had themselves lost much support and impetus. In an attempt to revive the fortunes of his would-be third reich, Mosley planned to stand candidates in the upcoming municipal elections, and booked Kensington Town Hall for a mass meeting. The Town Hall had a capacity of 700, and it looked like the UM could fill it. Mosley had already gambled on his grandiose nazi dreams, leasing large new HQ on Vauxhall bridge Road (much bigger than his dwindling party could use).

By now accustomed to the 43 Group’s tactics – infiltrating fascist meetings with forged tickets then disrupting them – the Kensington meeting’s organisers pulled out all the stops to prevent them breaking this one up. But in fact, the Group had decoded that they would get better publicity by holding a mass protest and wreath laying ceremony at the War memorial next to the hall, rather than attempt to disrupt the meeting, which was to be heavily protected by police. They hoped for a larger turnout than usual, including people who would not normally turn up for the Group’s more hands-on attacks on fascist rallies…

On the 31st January, more than 3000 joined the 43 Group at the memorial, holding anti-fascist banners, holding a minute’s silence for the laying of wreath, and listening to a variety of speakers. The turnout was described by ‘On Guard’ as representing the biggest and most dramatic anti-fascist demo since the 1930s.

Meanwhile at least 700 fascist sympathisers turned up to fill in Kensington Town Hall and listen to Mosley spouting the usual froth about international Jewish financiers; with – initially – no disruption from the nasty 43ers, thanks to the huge police guard.

The 43 Group’s plans aside, some elements associated with the Group were not prepared to let the fascist rally go by un-disrupted. After Mosley had been ranting for 15 minutes, however, someone let off a tear gas canister near the back of the audience, causing near panic inside, and a stampede as 100 people ran out of the hall; despite the crap fuhrer appealing for everyone to stand firm (well, he was far enough away from the gas, on the platform). Shortly after, part of the anti-fascist crowd attempted to storm the hall, and fought with mounted police determined to prevent them, riding into the crowd. As Mosley was driven away, fascists tried to attack the crowds, leading to some fighting. There were seven arrests, several of whom were 43 Group members.

The moderate Jewish establishment was – as usual – critical of the actions of the anti-fascists and Kensington, claiming that Mosley’s meeting would have received no publicity if it had not been violently opposed. However, the hype around the event in fact helped revive a wide opposition to the Union Movement among the Jewish community and further afield. A UM march from Ridley Road in Dalston to Tottenham a couple of months later was oppose by 5000 people, including groups who had shied away from anti-fascism in recent years for fear of being associated with the 43 Group’s actions…

After several years the Mosleyite agitation had largely faded out by 1952. Frustrated once again, the shitest little fuhrer, Oswald Mosley, fucked off out of the country in a huff that Britain wasn’t ready for his message of hate. This was pretty much the end for Mosley’s serious political challenge, though he would return periodically to haunt the scene… But newer, madder Nazis would soon be springing up to sewage up the streets…

Advertisement

Today in radical publishing history, 1817: first issue of the Black Dwarf newspaper

On 29th January 1817, the first issue of the radical Black Dwarf paper was published.

“Prospectus for the Black Dwarf

It may be required of us to declare whether the Black dwarf emanates from the celestial regions, or from the shades of evil – whether he be an European sage or an Indian savage – whether he is subject to the vicissitudes of mortality, or a phantom of the imagination – in what shape he appears, by what authority he presumes to write – what object he has in view, and whether his designs are wicked or charitable. In answer to all these probable topics of enquiry, our simple reply is, that we are not at liberty to unfold all the secrets of his prison house, to ears of flesh and blood. We have, besides, no wish to perplex the mind, or draw to largely upon the faith of the enquirer. Were we to state what he is, the infallibility of the pope, the miracles of Mahomet, and all the wonders that wanton fancy ever drew, would appear probable and consistent to the story we should unfold. But these disclosures we must reserve, until better times ensure the civil treatment of so singular a stranger.

In the interim, however, the Black Dwarf will not be idle. He intends to expose every species of vice and folly, with which this virtuous age, and enlightened metropolis abounds. To political delinquency he will give no quarter, even if royalty were to sanction it by private favors and reward it with public honors. He will shew no mercy to spiritual imposition, even though decorated with lawn. Neither the throne, nor the altar, will be sanctuary against his intrusion. Secure from his invisibility, and dangerous from his power of division, (for like the polypus, he can divide and redivide himself, and each division remain a perfect animal) he will be engaged at the same instant, in listening for evil at the portals of the temple, under the canopy of the throne, and in the gallery of the lower house; in weighing the patriotism of our patriots; in comparing the disinterested independence of our journalists; besides the stranger occupation of seeking for honesty in the mazes of the law, and humility on the bench of bishops.

The lighter and ore agreeable business of the Black Dwarf, will be a survey of the DRAMA, and the literary world in general; to foster genius, and chastise impudence; to encourage the modest, and prune the luxuriance of the redundant fancy; in short to exhibit, unbiassed by the spirit of any party, a correct reflection of merit in the mirror of impartial criticism.

To fools, and to men of sense, the Black Dwarf hopes to be equally agreeable; the former will imagine they understand him when they do not; and the latter will be able to comprehend him more than he means to utter. To the ministry and the opposition he may be equally serviceable, by teaching the latter to begin, where they leave off, and the former how dangerous it is to oppose the progress of a deluge. A well-wisher to all, but an uncourtly friend, the Black Dwarf will steadily hold up a glass, in which no honest man need be ashamed to look, and every fool and knave may readily trace his resemblance.

Dedication

TO THE PREINCE REGENT
HOPING that he will awake to full knowledge of Himself, his MINISTERS, and his People, before it be too late: –

TO THE MINISTRY,
TRUSTING that a grateful people may ultimately appreciate, and properly reward the merits of all who compose it: –

TO THE JUDGES,
AS a proof that even judges may be mistaken; –

TO THE ATTORNEY GENERAL,
AS a record of his benevolent intentions, and the advantage of his persecution: –

AND TO WILLIAM COBBETT, ESQ.
AS a warning against precipitate conduct, and rash prediction; and in evidence that the Liberty of the Press is not entirely destroyed in England: –

THESE PAPERS ARE DEDICATED,

BY T.J.WOOLER”

In January 1817, Thomas Jonathan Wooler, a journalist, established a new radical unstamped journal, the Black Dwarf. Wooler, from Yorkshire, was a printer, who had served his apprenticeship in Shoreditch and become politically active in the numerous political debating clubs (eg the Socratic Club, which met in the Mermaid Tavern, Hackney), and had been involved in helping to produce reformist publications in the years of the Napoleonic Wars. He worked for the radical journal The Reasoner, then became editor of The Statesman. Wooler’s interest in legal matters led him to write and publish the pamphlet An Appeal to the Citizens of London against the Packing of Special Juries in 1817.

Wooler had previously founded The Stage in 1815, a paper featuring a mix of heavy satire and libertarian rhetoric, which foreshadowed the Black Dwarf’s general approach to politics.

The Black Dwarf first appeared in January 1817 as an eight page newspaper; it later became a 32 page pamphlet costing 4d. At this time it was possible to make a living from being a radical publisher. “The means of production of the printed page were sufficiently cheap to mean that neither capital nor advertising revenue gave much advantage; while the successful Radicalism, for the first time, a profession which could maintain its own full-time agitators.” Radical journalists like William Cobbett, Wooler and Richard Carlile became beacons of the reform movement, hugely influential, but also exposing themselves to repression, censorship and arrest, in an era when the government tried every method of closing down dissenting voices.

Within a few months the Dwarf reached a circulation of 12,000 and received the backing of the reform movement’s senior politician, Major John Cartwright.

The newspaper gave its support politically to Cartwright’s network of Hampden Clubs. Cartwright’s main objective was to unite middle class moderates with radical members of the working class to build a movement that could successfully press for reform of the corrupt, class-based British political system. Through his links to Cartwright Wooler became for a while one of the main leaders of the movement for political reform in Britain.

Wooler composed regular letters from the character named the Black Dwarf to various fictional correspondents. The Dwarf’s content consisted of satire, parodies and humour, attacking the political establishment and promoting Reform and working class interests. The paper drew on the emerging and evolving popular working class culture of poetry, ballads and songs, and reported speeches and quotations, questions, answers and parodies. At the heart of its method was to undermine lower class deference to the political classes, to encourage plebeian literary sophistication.
Its satire and parody also reflected the – then shocking and cutting edge – radical form of pisstaking of religious liturgy. For instance, an 1817 biblical parody attacked the House of Lords: “The LORD giveth, and the LORDS taketh away. Blessed be the way of the Lords”.

When the radical William Hone was tried for publishing a parody of parts of the Book of Common Prayer and acquitted in January 1818, Wooler based his response on “This Is the House That Jack Built“:

“This is the verdict recorded and found,
By the Jury unbiass’d, unpack’d and unfrowned
That frighten’d the Judge so choleric and old,
Who swore “by the oath of his office” so bold, ‘
Twas an impious, blasphemous libel, and so,
The man should be ruined ex-oficio,
By the servant of servants who blustered so big,
With his ears in his hand and his wits in his wig;
To please the Ministers
Who hated the truth
That was told by the man
Who published the parodies.”

“Did the title refer to the European sage or the Indian savage? Wooler teased, “We are not at liberty to unfold all the secrets of his prison‑house.” Here was the motley in both its forms, rags and fooling. The black dwarf was a trickster against throne and altar, secure from his invisibility, and dangerous from his power of division”Wooler might be describing the hydra‑”for like the polypus, he can divide and redivide himself, and each division remains a perfect animal.” (Linnaeus had given the name Hydra to a genus of freshwater polyps in 1756).
The Black Dwarf was international and multiethnic, featuring reviews of Oroonoko, news of the wild abolitionist dances of Barbados, the latest on struggles in South America. The dwarf of the frontispiece had his right hand raised in a fist of victory, and his left firmly on his hip in a further gesture of determination. A barrel‑chested Pan clasped the dwarf’s arm in comradely alliance and pointed to the symbols of vanquished Powers‑a royal scepter, a stack of money…’ ” (Peter Linebaugh)

For a few years, Wooler and the Black Dwarf commanded the largest radical audience, (particularly after William Cobbett fled to the US, after the passage of the 1817 Coercion Act and fearing arrest for his arguably seditious writings). The ruling class, petrified that the reform movement would become powerful enough to overthrow their power, saw in the Dwarf and other radical papers the inspiration that might bring that terrible time about. In 1819 Viscount Castlereagh, England’s Foreign Secretary and perhaps the most hated member of the Government, complained in parliament that T. J. Wooler had become “the bugleman of the Radicals”, and that The Black Dwarf was circulating from radical Westminster to northern colliery districts, where it could be found “in the hatcrown of almost every pitman you meet.”

Wooler was a capable orator and writer; when putting together articles, he worked directly from thought to press, composing directly as he typeset, rather than writing a draft first. This was cutting edge stuff – the words flowing from his mind to the hot type to the press.

Politically Wooler backed constitutionalist radical organisation, through local clubs. And education classes of not more than 20, a weekly penny subscription, meeting to sell and discuss radical papers and pamphlets. He thought large meetings didn’t work well for discussion; he was against secret actions and proclaimed open organization would defeat the workings of government spies.
In many of the clubs that were beginning to spring up, men would meet to listen to someone read out news and views from the Black Dwarf, Cobbett’s Political Register, and other papers, and discuss what they heard.

Wooler argued in the first issue of the Dwarf that the real freedom of Englishmen lay in their power and their will to uphold their liberties, not through the Constitution which was simply the “recorded merits of our ancestors”, but by deeds. He warned “the higher orders think the best mode is to destroy the Constitution altogether and then their cause can run no further risk.”

Cartoon attacking the radicals demanding parliamentary reform. It shows Henry Orator Hunt in the centre, next to him is the Black Dwarf (Thomas Wooler) and a pig dressed as Napoleon (Thomas Spence)

Wooler compared working class political clubs to the work of the Quakers: “Those who condemn clubs either do not understand what they can accomplish, or they wish nothing to be done… Let us look at, and emulate the patient resolution of the Quakers. They have conquered without arms – without violence – without threats. They conquered by union.” He attacked the erstwhile hero of the radical press, Cobbett, who had denounced the clubs: in contrast, Wooler asserted that people needed to organise themselves, and that the clubs were thus a necessity: “good men should associate when the bad combine to injure them. Our enemies are clubbed in every direction around us. Do military clubs and naval clubs and clubs of boroughmongers do no good to the cause of corruption? Are not all associations clubs; and is it not quite evident that the associated powers of a number are more likely to produce an effect than the individual exertions of twice or three times the number?”

Like Robert Wedderburn, Wooler took a dim view of Robert Owen’s attempt to create a model community in New Lanark. In August 1817, Wooler wrote: “It is very amusing to hear Mr Owen talk of re-moralizing the poor. Does he not think that the rich are a little more in want of re-moralizing; and particularly that class of them that has contributed to demoralize the poor, if they are demoralized, by supporting measures which have made them poor, and which now continue them poor and wretched? Talk of the poor being demoralized! It is their would-be masters that create all the evils that afflict the poor, and all the depravity that pretended philanthropists pretend to regret.”

Wooler was critical of capitalism: “Let him abandon the labourer to his own protection; cease to oppress him, and the poor man would scorn to hold any fictitious dependence upon the rich. Give him a fair price for his labour, and do not take two-thirds of a depreciated remuneration back from him again in the shape of taxes. Lower the extravagance of the great. Tax those real luxuries, enormous fortunes obtained without merit. Reduce the herd of locusts that prey upon the honey of the hive, and think they do the bees a most essential service by robbing them. The working bee can always find a hive. Do not take from them what they can earn, to supply the wants of those who will earn nothing. Do this; and the poor will not want your splendid erections for the cultivation of misery and the subjugation of the mind.”

George Cruikshank, Funeral Pile, published in 1820. Thomas Jonathan Wooler is the one with the bellows.

The development and growth in circulation of the Black Dwarf reflected the turbulent times it operated in. the post-Napoleonic War economic slump and resulting upsurge in demands for political and social reform, provoked only refusal and repression from the political establishment, which in turn led to increased agitation. State violence, police infiltration, legislative crackdowns, arrests and prosecutions were all used to try to beat down the pressure for change. In turn this pushed a minority into plans for uprisings and plots for revolution, though these proved abortive. Wooler himself argued in favour of the more constitutional wing of the movement and against taking up arms.

Tumultous events abounded. In December 1816 the third mass reform rally in a few months in Clerkenwell’s Spa Fields ended in a riotous attempt at insurrection. A month later the Prince Regent’s coach was attacked as he rode to open Parliament. In response to the agitation, the government passed the repressive Six Acts, banned large meeting and suspended the law of Habeus Corpus. William Cobbett fled to America to escape arrest. Thomas Wooler was arrested in early May 1817 and faced two trials for seditious libel for two articles published in the third and tenth numbers of the Black Dwarf. He was tried at the London Guildhall before Justice Charles Abbott and two special juries on 5th June that year. Read his Trial statement
The attorney-general, Samuel Shepherd, led the prosecution; however, Wooler defended himself brilliantly, advised by Charles Pearson, a young City radical, and was eventually acquitted of the charges.

The government repression inspired rebellion in Derbyshire in 1817; and continued, to culminate in the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in August 1819. At least 18 people were killed and about 500 were wounded during a meeting calling for parliamentary reform. This event in itself sparked rage and riotous rallies across the country, but abortive plots for revolution ended with failed uprisings in Scotland and Yorkshire and arrests in Cato Street in London. Spies had been at he heart of all the plans and ensured that they went ahead to gather in the radicals but had no chance of succeeding.

Wooler himself was arrested for taking part in the campaign to elect Sir Charles Wolseley to represent Birmingham in the House of Commons. As Birmingham had not been given permission to have an election, Wooler and his fellow campaigners were charged with “forming a seditious conspiracy to elect a representative to Parliament without lawful authority”. Wooler was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment.

On his release from prison Wooler modified the tone of the Black Dwarf in an effort to comply with the terms of the Six Acts. This lost him some support from other radicals, including Richard Carlile, the editor of The Republican, who refused to reduce his radicalism.

To survive, Wooler had to rely on financial help from Major John Cartwright. However, on Cartwright’s death on 23rd September 1824, he was forced to close the newspaper down. The movements had not subsided, but the ferment of a few years before had dwindled, and Wooler was despondent. “In ceasing his political labours, the Black Dwarf has to regret one mistake, and that a serious one. He commenced writing under the idea that there was a PUBLIC in Britain, and that public devotedly attached to the cause of parliamentary reform. This, it is but candid to admit, was an error… Whereas in the past they had demanded reform, now they only “clamoured for bread”.

For a while, Wooler edited the British Gazette, but, after the Reform Act 1832 was passed, he gave up politics to become a lawyer. Wooler went on to write books and pamphlets on the British legal system, including Every Man his Own Lawyer in 1845.

Read some articles from the Black Dwarf 

There’s a partial archive of Black Dwarf

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online

 

 

Today and tomorrow, in London’s shopping history: bread riots in Whitechapel, 1861

The winter of 1860-61 was grim: freezing weather and lack of work, leading to mass poverty among working people in London. ‘The district of Old Street, Goswell Street, Barbican, and Whitecross Street’, wrote a correspondent of the Morning Post on January 20, 1861, ‘are the boundaries, in a maze of courts swarming with people in a state of starvation.’

The low temperatures led to a lack of work: “Owing to the continuance of the frost, and all out door labour being stopped, the distress and suffering that prevail in the metropolis, particularly among the dock labourers, bricklayers, masons, and labouring classes at the East End, are truly horrible. Throughout the day thousands congregate round the approaches of the different workhouses and unions, seeking relief, but it has been impossible for the officers to supply one-third that applied. This led to consider able dissatisfaction, and hundreds have perambulated the different streets seeking alms of the inhabitants and of the passers-by.” (Morning Star, January 18, 1861)

“THE one domestic question at present uppermost in the public mind is the social condition of the humbler classes. It has been forced upon us by a winter of unexampled severity; by an amount of national distress, not at all exceptional in the cold season, which has gone to the very verge of bread riots; and by agitations in the press and on the platform for an immediate improvement in labourers’ cottages. The chief streets of the metropolis have been haunted for weeks by gaunt labourers, who have moaned out a song of want that has penetrated the thickest walls. The workhouses have been daily besieged by noisy and half-famished crowds; the clumsy poor-law system, with its twenty-three thousand officers, its boards, and its twelve thousand annual reports, has notoriously broken down; the working clergy, and the London magistrates, worn out and exhausted, have been the willing almoners of stray benevolence; Dorcas societies, soup-kitchens, ragged-schools, asylums, refuges, and all the varied machinery of British charity, have been strained to the utmost; and now we may sit down and congratulate ourselves that only a few of our fellow-creatures have been starved to death. The storm to all appearance has passed, but the really poor will feel the effects of those two bitter months -December, 1860, and January, 1861 – for years.” (Ragged London in 1861, John Hollingshead, 1861.)

The extreme poverty provoked collective action – proletarian shopping – taking the necessities of life by force without the politeness of paying. Over the nights of 15/16 January 1861, there were bread riots in Whitechapel.
Several bakers’ shops in the East End of London were emptied by a mob of 30 to 40 people on the evening of the 15th. The next day, things escalated: on the 16th, between seven and nine o’clock at night, thousands gathered, many of them dockers and their families, and cleared bakers’ shops and eating-houses. Outnumbered, the mounted police were powerless to stop the desperate spectacle.

“On Tuesday night much alarm was produced by an attack made on a large number of bakers’ shops in the vicinity of the Whitechapel Road and Commercial Road East. They were surrounded by a mob of about thirty or forty in number, who cleared the shops of the bread they contained, and then decamped. On Wednesday night, however, affairs assumed a more threatening character, and acts of violence were committed. By sonic means it became known, in the course of the afternoon, that the dock labourers intended to visit Whitechapel in a mass, as soon as dusk set in, and that an attack would be made on all the provision shops in that locality. This led to a general shutting up of the shops almost through out the East End – a precaution highly necessary, for between seven and nine o’clock thousands congregated in the principal streets and proceeded in a body from street to street. An attack was made upon many of the bakers’ shops and eating-houses, and every morsel of food was carried away. A great many thieves and dissipated characters mingled with the mob, and many serious acts of violence were committed. The mounted police of the district were present, but it was impossible for them to act against so large a number of people. Yesterday, the streets were thronged with groups of the unemployed, seeking relief of the passers-by. In the outskirts similar scenes were observed, and in some instances acts approaching intimidation were resorted to to obtain alms.” (Morning Star, January 18, 1861)

The bread riot was a not irregular feature of life both before and after industrialisation in England, with bread prices at the mercy of many factors including bad harvests, greedy price-raising by hoarders and artificial price-hiking in the interests of landowners by use of legislation like the Corn Laws. Although these laws had been repealed in 1846, economic slump or seasonal conditions could reduce whole areas to near-destitution. There had been bread riots across London in 1855, including in Whitechapel…

In the January 1861 riots, East End dockers were prominent: dock work was precarious and unstable at the best of times, with men engaged day to day at the whim of the gangmasters; frozen weather caused ships not to be able to be unloaded and work to slacken.

The grim conditions continued into February and March: “It is doubtful if there was not more real privation in February than in January of the present year; and the registrar-general’s return of deaths from starvation – the most awful of all deaths – for the mild week ending February 16, had certainly increased. There has been no lack of generosity on the part of those who have been able to give. The full purse has been everywhere found open, and thousands have asked to be shown real suffering, and the best mode of relieving it. A local taxation, cheerfully and regularly paid, of 18,000,000l. per annum, beyond the Government burden, is either inadequate for the purposes to which it is applied, or applied in the most wasteful and unskilful manner. The sum, or its administration, is unable to do its work. The metropolis, not to speak of other towns, is not “managed,” not cleansed, not relieved from the spectre of starvation which dances before us at our doors.”

(Ragged London in 1861, John Hollingshead, 1861)

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online

Today in London religious history, 1819: Followers of millenarian prophetess Joanna Southcott ’cause a riot’ in Cannon Street

The Woman Clothed with the Sun

Joanna Southcott  (April 1750 – 27 December 1814), was a self-described religious prophetess. She was born in the hamlet of Taleford, baptised at Ottery St Mary, and raised in the village of Gittisham, all in Devon, England.

Originally in the Church of England, in about 1792 she joined the Methodist Church in Exeter, becoming persuaded that she possessed supernatural gifts, she wrote and dictated prophecies in rhyme, and then announced herself as the Woman of the Apocalypse spoken of in a prophetic passage of the Revelation (12:1–6). An apocalypse was coming, she announced, where the ‘satanic powers’ would be overthrown, and a messiah would return, to launch a Millennium of peace.

Moving to London, Southcott began selling paper “seals of the Lord” (at prices varying from twelve shillings to a guinea) – basically ‘Get Out of the Apocalypse Free’ Cards which supposedly ensured the holders’ places among the 144,000 people who would be elected to eternal life. She spent the 1790s recording a series of prophecies communicated to her, she maintained, by a ‘Spirit of Truth’; worldly events (war, famine, etc) signalling the impending end of days. The theology she developed set out a role for herself, partly identifying her with ‘The Woman Clothed with the Sun’ described in the Book of Revelation (which features in a famous engraving by William Blake); empowered with the redemptive power of God, who would tale part in a war on heaven; she also foretold that a ‘Shiloh’ or prophet would appear immediately before Jesus’ return (again derived from Biblical writings)

The World Turned Upside Down

Southcott’s prophecies began to gain her followers, as her writings became wider known across the country. By 1814 she had gathered at least 12,000 adherents, although the movement was estimated as influencing many more; accurate figures are hard to nail down. Many of her followers had previously cleaved to Methodism, like herself, to other fringe Christian churches and to prophets like her near-contemporary Richard Brothers, The millenarian ferment could take wildly divergent forms: on one hand millenarians could by politically quietist, avoiding action for reform or social change in the immediate because they viewed the Second Coming of Jesus as imminent and that would sweep worldly structures away, but just as easily, millenarianism could evolve into the urgent compulsion to bring the Second Coming about by collective action. As Southcott was beginning her career this dangerous dichotomy had already landed Richard Brothers in prison, Brothers having spooked the authorities after predicting the downfall of Parliament and king George III in apocalyptic language so violent that it came close to echoing the revolutionary agitation of France. As during the years of the English Revolution, religious fervour and dreams of the apocalypse and everyday social change went to some extent hand in hand. Millenarians hanging out in London taverns rubbed shoulders with very earthly radicals, with ideas mingling at the fringes, producing individuals like James Hadfield, who tried to shoot king George III in 1800, convinced it would help bring about the Millennium. Figures like William Blake, who mixed religious millenarianism with radical desires for social justice, are not unusual in this evolving, fertile brew of milieu.

Many of Southcott’s followers (in common with the adherents of other prophets, Methodists and other sects) were of plebeian origins; the dream of overturning society appealing most obviously to those whose lives were often bitterly hard, faced with oppression, poverty and arbitrary powers above them. The massive social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, the dislocation caused by enclosure, the political cataclysm represented by the French Revolution, were all combining to give birth of a varied, shifting, many-faceted sense of a world changing being turned on its head. Southcott herself, however, specifically opposed radical politics and warned her readers against following the reform-minded and republican paths. ‘Rebellion is as iniquity and Idolatry’, she wrote, urging her followers to ‘not trouble themselves about politics or parties and have no connection with desperate Men… avoid contention or strife’. She wrote a book in reply and opposition to Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, and declared her support for the English monarchy.
Nevertheless among her following were a number of former radicals of the 1790s; on the other hand, after her death, a portion of the Southcottian scene did take part on reformist or radical politics.

Her followers created a network of Southcottian chapels (taking advantage of new easings on the opening of dissenting meeting houses), to hear sermons and sing hymns on the subject of the Millennium.

At the age of 64 Southcott let it be known that she was pregnant and would give birth to the new Messiah, the Shiloh mentioned in the book of of Genesis (49:10). The date of 19 October 1814 was that fixed for the birth, but Shiloh failed to appear, and it was announced that Southcott was in a trance.

She died not long after. The official date of death was given as 27 December 1814, but it seems that she died the previous day, but her followers retained her body for a day or two, believing that she would soon be raised from the dead. They agreed to her burial only after the corpse began to decay.

Her death, without giving birth to the Messiah, didn’t completely disillusion her following, though the movement splintered into sects with diverging explanations for what had ‘happened’ at her death (had the Shiloh in fact been born but was taken up to God etc). The kind of rationalisation that generally takes place in cults when Millennial dates pass without visible sign of Apocalypse or Rapture… Elements of the Southcottian tradition continue to exit today, though much declined in number. Successor prophets including George Turner, John Wroe, and John ‘Zion’ Ward held sway in some parts of the Southcottian movement; other factions felt she could have no earthly successor.

‘A MOST lamentable instance of the effects of infatuation and religious enthusiasm’

Engaged with radicalism or not, the movement attracted both the distrust of the authorities and something of the more general contempt and mockery that dissenting religious sects aroused among a section of the populace. Southcottians became occasional targets for mobs and general abuse.
At least once this led to a mini-riot. In January 2019 a family of Southcottians were arrested in the City of London after triggering a barney in the street. An account of their trial exists in the Newgate Calendar:

“SAMUEL SIBLEY; MARIA CATHERINE SIBLEY; SAMUEL JONES; his son; THOMAS JONES; JOHN ANGEL; THOMAS SMITH; JAMES DODD and EDWARD SLATER

Deluded followers of Joanna Southcott, the sham prophetess, tried for rioting, 13th of January, 1819

   A MOST lamentable instance of the effects of infatuation and religious enthusiasm was exhibited before the sitting magistrate, at Guildhall, London, on the 13th of January, 1819, when Samuel Sibley, and Maria Catherine Sibley, his wife; Samuel Jones; his son, a boy of ten years’ old; Thomas Jones, John Angel, Thomas Smith, James Dodd, and Edward Slater, a boy of twelve years’ of age; were brought up from the Compter, by two officers of the Cordwainers’ Ward, who had with great difficulty, and at the hazard of their own lives, rescued the prisoners from the fury of an immense mob, in Budge-row, Cannon-street, about ten o’clock on the previous morning.

   These deluded people, it was ascertained, were disciples of the lately famous Joanna Southcott, of whom the public have heard so much, and conceived themselves directed by God to proclaim the Coming of Shiloh on Earth: for this purpose they assembled at the west end of the town, in order to enter the only gate of the great city (Temple-bar), through which they marched in procession about nine o’clock in the morning, They were each decorated with a white cockade, and wore a small star of yellow riband on the left breast; Sibley, who led the procession, bearing a brazen trumpet adorned with light blue ribands, and the boys carried each a small flag of blue silk.

   In this manner they had proceeded through Fleet-street, up Ludgate-hill, and along St Paul’s Church-yard, to Budge-row, a great crowd following them, increasing continually as they proceeded. Having arrived, as they supposed, in the middle of the great city, they halted, and began to perform their ceremonies. Sibley sounded the trumpet, and proclaimed the second coming of the Shiloh, the Prince of Peace, on earth; and his wife cried aloud, “Wo! wo! to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the coming of the Shiioh!” This cry was repeated several times, and joined in with a loud voice by the others of the company.

   The crowd was by this time immense, every avenue was stopped up, and the passage of carts and carriages rendered impossible. The mob began with laughing and shouting at these miserably deluded people, and at length proceeded to pelting them with mud and every sort of missile they could procure; they, on their part, being most of them stout young men, resisted; the fight became general and tremendous, the flags were torn down, and Sibley and his associates with great difficulty preserved, by the exertions of the officers, from falling victims to the infuriated rage of the mob, and conveyed to the Compter. Their appearance, when put to the bar, bespoke the danger they had gone through; the men had been all rolled in the mud, and Sibley bore evident marks of violence in his face. The tattered remnants of the paraphernalia used on this singular occasion were also produced, and excited in the minds of all present a mixed sensation of pity and disgust at the assumption of holy functions and heavenly agencies in which the deluded fanatics had so impiously indulged.

   On being called upon by the magistrate, Mr. Alderman Bridges, to give an account of their conduct, in thus disturbing the public peace, Sibley, with an air of authority, directed the others to be silent, and, addressing the alderman, said, he regretted there was no time for him to enter into the particulars of the mission of God to him. He had been commanded by a voice, through the boy Slater, to announce that the Prince of Peace was come upon earth. He was commanded to proclaim the Second Coming of Shiloh, in the same manner, and with the same authority as John the Baptist had proclaimed his first coming. This proclamation he was to make three times in the midst of the great city, by the sound of the trumpet. He and his companions were obeying the commands of God, and in so doing had conducted themselves peaceably, and interfered with no one, when they were attacked by the mob.

   He was proceeding to explain the nature of the visions with which the boy had been favoured, and his wife was raising her voice to bear testimony to the fact of the Shiloh being on earth, whom she said she had had in her arms four times, when the magistrate interrupted them, and observed, that it was evident, if they were not insane, that they were acting under a strong delusion, and pointed out to them how much better they would have been employed in pursuing their regular avocations, than in being the cause of public riot, and endangering their own persons; recommending them to desist from any repetitions of their gross absurdities and delusions.

   The men in reply said, it was right they should obey God; but they would do whatever the magistrate directed, and desist from any further proclamation, assuring him at the same time that nevertheless the Shiloh was come.

   The Alderman said he would not rely on their promise, and should detain them all in custody till they could procure him some better assurance than their own words for their peaceable demeanour in future. They were accordingly conveyed back to the Compter in two coaches to protect them from the mob: one of the men on stepping into the coach, unbuttoned his coat, displayed his yellow star, and placing his hand on it, proclaimed that it was God’s colour.

   On the following morning, the whole party of these self-created heralds of heavenly news were again brought up before the sitting magistrate, Alderman Christopher Smith.

   Sibley was again the spokesman, and, in reply to the magistrate, who inquired if he had ever been in Bedlam, said, the gentlemen might laugh, but he was not mad, but had investigated the business thoroughly before he was convinced. He believed the Bible from cover to cover, and could point out the prophecies which were now fulfilling. He then went into a long rhapsody of nonsense respecting the visions with which the boy had been favoured by God, and declared he had witnessed miracles performed by him. In the course of his long address, he quoted the Scriptures very fluently, and concluded by referring, in justification of his belief, to the passage in which it is said, “in the latter days your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men see visions.” Being asked what place of worship he attended, he replied, his church was his own house, No. 3, Gooch-yard, Upper Whitecross-street; there were about thirty of them who met there frequently, to read the Bible and receive commands of the Lord. He had now received command from God to desist from any further proclamation; and if the Prince Regent were to collect all the money in the world, and lay it at his feet, he dared not do it; the magistrate might therefore rely there would be no repetition of their previous conduct.

   In this declaration he was joined by his wife and the rest of his associates, who all declared aloud, that they dared not now proceed any further in this business. On this assurance on their parts, they were discharged with a suitable admonition from the worthy Alderman, and thus terminated this very singular mission.

   The leader of this redoubtable troop, Sibley, held the dignified station of watchman, in the neighbourhood of St. George’s Fields; and the rest of the maniac band was composed of journeymen mechanics and labourers, with their wives. The whole were grossly ignorant and stupid, but most inveterate1y conceited, and evidently acted under a full impression of the divine nature of the cause in which they were embarked.”

As noted above, the popular millenarian movement founded by Joanna Southcott enjoyed a complex relationship with political radicalism in early nineteenth-century Britain. Southcott opposed radicalism during her lifetime, encouraging her followers to await a messianic agent of the millennium. But within two decades of the prophet’s death, some surviving Southcottians became political radicals, most notably, John ‘Zion’ Ward (1781-1837) and James Elishama Smith (1801-57). Ward was a popular preacher during the agitations around the Reform Bill, speaking regularly at Carlile’s Rotunda; Smith was a utopian socialist lecturer, editor of Robert Owen’s journal Crisis, active in the co-operative movement’s attempt to create a ‘general trades union’ in 1833-34. The influence of Ward and Smith drew several hundred Southcottians into engagement with politics.

Historians have differed widely on the relationship of Southcottianism and religious millenarianism more widely to political radicalism. ‘Visionary Religion and Radicalism in Early Industrial England: From Southcott to Socialism’ by Philip Lockley (published 2013) look like an interesting recent discussion of this interaction.

What’s In the Box? What’s In the Baaax?

The most intriguing myth of the Southcottian tradition centres around ‘Joanna Southcott’s Box. On her death, she left a sealed wooden box of prophecies, with the instruction that it be opened only at a time of national crisis, and then only in the presence of all 24 bishops of the Church of England (who were to spend time beforehand studying Southcott’s prophecies). Attempts were made to persuade the episcopate to open it during the Crimean War and again during the First World War. In 1927, the psychic researcher Harry Price claimed that he had come into possession of the box and arranged to have it opened in the presence of the reluctant suffragan Bishop of Grantham, but this box was found to contain only a few oddments and unimportant papers, among them a lottery ticket and a horse-pistol. However, historians and followers of Southcott disputed Price’s claims to have had the true box; modern Southcottians the Panacea Society claim THEY have the real box, and ran an advertising campaign on billboards and in British newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s, to try to persuade the twenty-four bishops to have the box opened, on the grounds that “War, disease, crime and banditry, distress of nations and perplexity will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott’s box.”

However, Southcott’s prophesy that the Day of Judgement would come in the year 2004 appears not to have come to pass, and her followers’ campaign for the contents of the box to be been studied beforehand (so that the world would have had to meet the Second Coming unprepared) fell on largely deaf ears…

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online

 

 

Today in London history, 1987: Michael Delaney killed by scab TNT truck, Wapping.

The 1986-7 Wapping Dispute claimed many jobs – and Michael Delaney’s life.

Traditionally newspaper printers on Fleet Street newspapers were well-organised, with a long history of militancy and support for other workers (dating back to the 1926 General Strike and beyond). Not a history calculated to endear them to their bosses…

In 1986 Rupert Murdoch’s News International, producers of the Sun, Times, News of the World etc, in a well-prepared move, provoked a printers strike by demanding drastic changes in working conditions and promptly moved production from Fleet Street to a fortified plant in Wapping, sacking 500 printers & introducing new technology – all with the carefully laid plan to break the printers’ power over the presses.

Cue a year-long battle, fought out on the streets of Wapping, with daily mass pickets, blockades and attempts to stop the lorries leaving with papers, and battles with police round Wapping & the Highway, as well as mass sabotage, solidarity actions and occasional arson against News International, their papers (and the scab TNT lorries carrying them) all round the country…

A high-tech plant was built in Wapping, the union-busting plan disguised with false claims that a new title, The London Post, would be printed there. Secret deals were then drawn up to bus in electricians from outside London to run the machinery; members of the EEPTU (electricians) union were quite happy to shit on the printers and line their own pockets doing this work.

News International blue collar staff were issued with an ultimatum – work to new inferior contracts or face the sack. Then journalists were offered £2,000 to cross picket lines and work behind the razor wire and security cameras that surrounded the new East London headquarters.

When this provoked strike action and mass sackings among printers, Murdoch hired the transport company TNT to deliver his titles direct to retailers, breaking up the nationwide distribution system shared by other publications and doing away with many more jobs.

Picketing repeatedly erupted into riots, barricades were built several times (on occasions holding up paper delivery for hours). Spoof versions of the Sun and an independent satirical Wapping Times paper were brought out by strikers and their supporters.  The printers were well supported, especially locally, with police tactics  – such as towing locals’ cars away to allow lorries movement, raiding local pubs and blocking people off from their homes – alienating residents. Many of who were never big fans of the Met; alot had trade union backgrounds, and general anger at LDDC/Council-sponsored yuppification in the area was held to be linked to the dispute. TNT vans and distribution points became targets for strikers and their supporters.

The leaderships of the then-existing two printers unions, Sogat and the NGA, constantly tried to control and limit the struggle, especially when it (necessarily) turned violent – union officials went to the lengths of identifying and grassing up rioters.

Have a read of issues of Picket, the unofficial bulletin of the Wapping strikers.

Eventually despite widespread support and mass action, the print unions gave up the fight, leaving sacked workers high & dry and encouraging similar moves by other newspapers. The printers were the latest in a long line of workers with strong traditions of solidarity & standing up for themselves to be battered by the capitalist class in the ‘80s.

The dispute would also claim the life of one local teenager.

On the evening of 10 January 1987, 19-year old Michael Delaney was on his way home after drinking with friends to celebrate his birthday of the previous week.

At the junction of Butcher Row and Commercial Road in Stepney, one of the preferred routes for Murdoch’s delivery boys, the lads spotted a TNT lorry used by News International to distribute papers during the bitter Wapping dispute that had been going on for a year.

There was a red light at the junction and Michael Delaney tried to remonstrate with the lorry driver, Delaney got close enough to slap the door but, as the lorry moved off, he was dragged underneath and crushed by the wheels.

The lorry did not stop again until it reached the Heston Services on the M4. Michael’s body was left lying in the road, until an ambulance took him to the London Hospital, where he died in the early hours of 11 January. Meanwhile his companions had been taken off to Leman Street Police station.

At Delaney’s inquest in Snaresbrook, Essex, in April 1987, the driver, Robert Higgins, was not called to give evidence, but was seen by Michael’s distraught family during the lunch break, laughing and drinking in a nearby pub – in the company of one Inspector Pickard of Leman Street Police Station. Was there collusion with police to prevent any evidence coming out that would lead to a prosecution of the driver – embarrassing for News International?

The inquest coroner advised the jury to return a verdict of accidental death. Instead, they decided it was a case of unlawful killing. Afterwards, the director of public prosecutions ruled against launching a prosecution on the grounds of insufficient evidence. A year later the inquest verdict itself was quashed in the high court. (The first the family heard about this was on the TV news).

As then Wapping resident Mike Jempson (who knew Michael from his youth), later pointed out, (in the run up to the Leveson Inquiry into tabloid phone hacking):

“Given what is now known about the unhealthily close relationships between News International and the Metropolitan Police over the years, the whole sad saga deserves a full investigation.

Sir Paul Stephenson, who resigned as head of the Met under a cloud last summer, told the Home Affairs Select Committee that almost 25% of the Met’s public affairs unit had previously worked for Murdoch papers. Former Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, who resigned after allegations of impropriety, became a columnist for The Times, and a former News of the World editor Neil Wallis was hired by the Met as a communications consultant, at a time when questions were being asked about the full extent of phone hacking by his old paper.

Another of Stephenson’s colleagues, Assistant Commissioner John Yates, also resigned over the phone hacking scandal in July 2011. All three senior officers are still under investigation, along with about three dozen Murdoch employees, police officers and civil servants arrested as part of police investigations into aspects of the hacking scandal.

These sensational facts may never merit attention in Murdoch’s Sun but they deserve to be recalled at the Leveson Inquiry. Will Michael Delaney’s fate get a mention? Perhaps those scandalised by the cover-up over his death will ensure that Murdoch never forgets the young man who died so The Sun could hit the streets.

The big question still to be answered is whether law officers and Murdoch’s News International conspired to avoid a prosecution that might have revealed how and why Michael Delaney died.”

Heartbreakingly for Michael’s family – we will probably never know.

Policing of the Wapping dispute became a day to day issue – with 100s of police drafted in to bash pickets and defend Fortress Wapping. But policing was also going on behind the scenes – Special Branch were keeping a keen eye on those organising picketing, and their Special Demonstration Squad department – consisting of undercover officers infiltrating protest can campaign groups – were there on the picket line, pretending to support the dispute. At least one SDS spycop – Bob Lambert – regularly attended Wapping demos. Now well known as having acted as an agent provocateur in animal rights groups and initiated the plot to fire bomb Debenhams stores in July 1987. Wonder if he also acted an agent provocateur down Wapping too?

Check out the Special Branch files revelations on their surveillance of the Wapping strike

In memory of Michael Delaney

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online

 

 

 

 

Today in London’s anarchist history, 1993: Leah Feldman, veteran of the Russian Revolution, cremated

A Rebel Spirit (obituary of Leah Feldman)

Albert Meltzer

Leah (Leila) Feldman, who was cremated at East London in the presence of some fifty comrades from DAM, ABC, Black Flag and the feminist movement, on January 7th 1993, was a history lesson in herself. She merits more than an obituary.

She was born (she always said) in Warsaw around 1899. Her British passport says she was born in Odessa, but in view of her problems through life, she must have had many occasions to “change” birthdays, names, birthplaces and nationalities. The problems faced by a woman just in travelling independently in the old days were immense, apart from her anarchist activities. While she was still a schoolgirl she become interested in anarchism (her mother used to hide her shoes so that she could not attend meetings, then illegal). Finally she ran away to her sister in London to earn her own living at the sewing machine.

Working in the sweatshops of the East End, she become active in the Yiddish-speaking anarchist movement that flourished at the time and vanished. She was possibly the last survivor of that Jewish workers’ movement. When the Russian Revolution was thought to have come about and the army was in rebellion the overwhelming majority of Russian Jewish male anarchists, who had resisted conscription up to then, joined up to return to Russia. The women Anarchists had a more difficult problem – many with husbands or companions who were able to go back, arranged to follow later but that was the last they heard of their menfolk, overtaken by the triumph of Bolshevism. This Jewish (in the sense they used, neither racial nor religious but language) anarchist movement, gradually dwindled away over the years. A few remaining males survived until the early fifties, and the women, often married into English dockers’ families, ended with Leah so far as this country is concerned.

Leah, however, independently made her own way back, a tremendous task. Viewing Russia from the train, a comrade jestingly remarked she was like Madame Butterfly watching for her lover (we played “One Fine Day” at her funeral, and also Paul Robeson singing the equally appropriate “Joe Hill”). Unfortunately it was no fine day and Leah, as a working woman, was one of the first to see what would be the effects of Bolshevism, something one [none] of the intellectuals who visited could see.

She attended Kropotkin’s funeral, the last permitted anarchist demonstration before the long dark night (they stole the flowers from Lenin’s tribute in the House of the People, but all those paroled from prison for the day returned to jail).

Leah left Moscow to join Makhno’s army in the Ukraine (perhaps that was when she decided she was born in Odessa), which fought into the last against Tsarism, Bolshevism, the Social Democratic oppression and foreign intervention. She was one of a number of Jewish Anarchists who were living testimony to the lie started by the Soviet historian Yaroslavsky and accepted by academics universally (including many encyclopaedists copying each other) about Makhno’s pogroms. Though she did not actually fight, as a few women (who could ride horseback) did, she joined the train that followed the army and prepared clothes and food for the orphans and strays they picked up everywhere. For the rest of her life she was to follow the pattern of behind-the-lines support for revolutionary action.

When the army was defeated, Leah took advantage of one ‘privilege’ offered to women – she changed nationality by a formal marriage to a German anarchist, and left the country. They did not meet again. She made her way to Paris and then back to London. She still wanted to travel and was involved with the Anarchist movement in many countries. She was however tied by her German “marriage” once she had left Russia, but was later free to contract another formal marriage to a British ex-serviceman, named Downes. In a deprecating obituary in ‘Freedom’, which takes into account only her selling of ‘Freedom’ during and a few years after the war, it is said he was her lover. This is rubbish. He was a derelict, like many wounded old soldiers after 1918, found for her by Charles Lahr and paid £10 for his services, lent by the Workers’ Friend group and repaid by Leah over a period. (Typically, Charlie joked that to find a real husband would cost a lot more). They never met again until Leah found by official communication her ‘husband” was in a geriatric hospital and she used to visit with presents of tobacco. When she was abroad, Polly Witcop (sister of Milly Rocker and Rose Witcop) undertook the visits for her.

Leah visited both Poland and mandated Palestine once she was a British citizen, working her way to both places. In Palestine she organised a federation of Anarchists, mostly old friends from the old country. One surprise was her old friend Paula Green, who had been pressurised into marriage in Russia, so had decided on an atheistic Socialist-Zionist with whom she was in love. Forced into exile he had obviously chosen (Ottoman) Palestine. Paula knew he was into active Socialist politics but thought it as impossible he would ever be in government as he thought her ideas impossible. Green changed his name to Ben Gurion, and after 1945 become Prime Minster. His wife did not leave him but did not take part in any public activities, and the whisper in Socialist-Zionist circles was that she was mad and could not be taken on an official platform. (‘Because he becomes the baker do you have to be the baker’s wife?” Leah asked her back in 1935, ten years before Paula faced the final humiliation as Premier’s wife though a still believing if passive anarchist, getting the reply, with a shrug, “So what do I get but the smell of the bakery?”).

Eventually Leah decided there was nothing she could do in Palestine and returned to London at the end of 1935 when I met her for the first time. She helped raise finance for the German sailors who organised a resistance group in the thirties, and took a tremendous part in activities for the Spanish movement when the civil war broke out. I used to go to her flat in Lordship Park (Stoke Newington) and hump great parcels of food and clothing which she had collected from her fellow fur machinists. She could never understand why I could “only raise pennies among my friends when she raised pounds” and never appreciated I was still at school, which for some obscure reason I was somewhat abashed at mentioning in then mostly ageing anarchist circles.

She took part in the selling of “Freedom” after the war and still thought of it as Kropotkin’s paper until her death, but a lot of people made that mistake. She could never understand in later years why they persistently ignored her except when she gave them money, and never visited her when she was ill, but the truth was they resented her criticism that Kropotkin intended it for the Anarchist movement not for a few cronies of one man who had seized control. When “Black Flag” come along she supported it equally always saying to me, “How is it that the people in this group are so different from the Freedom Group?” – I always answered “Because they’re Anarchists” but I fear she didn’t want to hear that.

Leah was associated with Spanish women anarchists in a joint working collective of different Anarchist women in Holborn (London) with Marie Goldberg, Suceso Portales and others, ever since 1939. How, with the confusion of tongues, broken English, Yiddish, Polish, bits of French, Spanish and Catalan, Indian-English of one and broad Scots of another, plus the total lack of verbal communication of two Cypriot women, one Greek and the other Turkish, they could ever have understood each other was a mystery to many, but they made up for it in volume, and maybe that’s how new languages are born. (The postman once said to me on the stairs, ‘I can never work out what nationality those ladies are – they told me they come from somewhere in Anarchy but Christ knows where that is.”) Leah had to give up work when her eyesight went after an operation (she was blind in one eye thereafter and increasingly so in the other),

She wanted to give aid to the Spanish Resistance in spite of all, and during the turbulent sixties, with the International First of May Movement, helped in taking care of the armoury, even taking it with her luggage into Spain. She was known affectionately by Catalans, always prone to giving nicknames, as “la yaya (granny) Makhnowista”.

In her seventies she revisited Warsaw in a vain attempt to find her relatives. A Polish journalist took her round as she refused to believe everything and everybody in the ghetto had vanished. “Maybe the neighbours know something,” she said and they had to show her visual proof that the neighbourhood had been flattened, the Polish inhabitants dispersed and scarcely one of the Jewish residents remaining anywhere in Poland other than those who had come in after the war. Presumably this episode appeared on local TV or radio as the journalist took enormous trouble in convincing her of the reality.

Her last years were sad. Not only were all her family and early friends dead, there was nobody left to whom she could even talk in her own language. She still supported anarchist meetings and went on holiday independently but in the last years of her life accompanied by Margaret, Jessica, Peter, Terry from Black Flag. One of us used to take her to the annual Anarchist Book Fair whenever her health permitted – she always sat at the Freedom Press stall in the hope of meeting some of the people she knew in Freedom who only appeared on the scene that day of the year, if at all, stubbornly refusing to admit it was now quite a different ball game.

As she got increasingly deaf and almost totally blind, she had to surrender some of her cherished independence and allow people to do things for her. She became paranoiac, argumentative and even aggressive in her nineties, after a series of horrendous street accidents, feeling her best friends were trying to kill her by driving cars or motorbikes straight at her, The fact that these dedicated young people still persevered week after week looking after her, being fond of her, and remembering all she had done in the past, says a lot for them especially, in addition to those already named, the feminists Ann and Cathy, and DAM people like Ken and Helen.

George Cores said that “most of the work that was done (in building the Anarchist movement) was due to the activities of working men and women, most of whom did not appear as orators or writers in printed papers”. Cathy and Margaret, and our late comrade Leo Rosser, obtained in a series of interviews, and a video, notes of her life which have been transcribed but are voluminous though chronologically jumbled. We hope that these can be edited into a coherent volume, which will be well worth publishing, far more so than the oft-repeated hagiographies of the ‘secular saints’ of the movement in the past. [Not sure is this ever got done? -Past Tense ed.]

Nicked from KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 4, 1993.

There’s a short interview from 1985 with Leah here (conducted by Black Flag’s Leo Rosser, another we’ve lost…)

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online