Resisting enclosure past & present: East London Waterworks, Leyton Marsh, and the Leyton Lammas lands

NB: Update to this post (July 2020): since this was published the application for the controversial Waterworks Festival was refused by Waltham Forest Council… One victory! The planning application for the massive expansion of the ice rink is still up in the air…

Regular readers of our blog will know that one of our obsessions is open green space in London – its history, how much of what was defended and preserved by collective action, and its present and future use…

In the capital, as in many big cities, land has often gone through many incarnations over the centuries. If some spaces have remained largely open and accessible (although that had to be fought for), some pieces of land have been split up, parts built on, some saved and other sections lost; then in some cases, returned to open space. Industry has taken over then declined or fallen derelict and been re-wilded (or re-wilded itself).

Some of this process is still going on. The long years of battling against enclosures, campaigning for parks to be built or commons and woods to be left undeveloped, are not over. Corporate interests, local authorities, admin quangos, often owning or managing space, have certain visions as to how they can be exploited; some of which clash with other viewpoints. Land is a cash cow to some; a resource to milk, or to be sold off, built on, concreted over.

For many others of us open space remains a vital part of what makes a city liveable. Many times we have to come together to fight off attempts to enclose places we love; other times, there’s a chance to return open land lost to a useable and shareable environment. Because of the nature of land ownership, even public land ownership, campaigns to save or reclaim open space can often face an uphill battle, because the authorities who supposedly manage such resources on our behalf may see the space differently to us. (To be honest there’s often conflict about use of open space among users…)

The Lea Bridge Waterworks, where Leyton and Hackney Marshes meet, in North East London, are one space where the next developments are under up for debate at the moment shines an interesting light on past, present and possible futures. Collective resistance helped preserve part of this space in the past; community campaigns have helped fight off some recent developments, and could help re-shape the area for all our benefit…

Part of what was once open land here is threatened by the expansion of ‘leisure’ facilities… part is fenced off after failed development plans… part is open as a nature reserve but a corporate festival is planned for the next three summers (experience with other open spaces suggests this may mean increased exploitation for such large destructive moneyspinning events…)
There’s a lot of local anger and opposition, taking inspiration from the history of resistance to the loss of open land here. Parts of what was once lammas land, on the old Leyton Marsh, have been a contested zone for many decades… The high point being direct action in 1892 which helped preserve access to some of these lands…

The Icerink Cometh?

The Lea Valley Icerink, which stands off Lea Bridge Road, has applied for planning permission to expand, which would mean the building doubling in size, snaffling more of the open land around it. We ourselves love ice skating at Lea Valley, but stealing more open space to expand it is just unnecessary…

Meanwhile, on the old East London Waterworks Site opposite, there are plans for a large corporate music festival is planned for this August (and the next two summers). The site is next door to the Waterworks Nature Reserve, a lovely place, well worth a visit. Built on the former Essex filter beds, the derelict treatment plant has been allowed to fall back to nature and has been developed as a nature reserve, a cracking place for watching wild birds, but also just for wandering and hanging out. The Reserve is designated as part of a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation. It’s really not the place for a festival to have plonked next door.

As campaigners Save Lea Marshes point out: “If the noise and light pollution will be significant nuisance for human neighbours, it will be catastrophic for neighbouring wildlife, particularly birds. This is simply an inappropriate place to hold a one-off one-day music festival, let alone an annual three-day event.”

The Walthamstow Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest is very close to the proposed ‘premises’ and birds particularly will be seriously impacted by the noise coming from the event.

The immediate chance to object to both the proposals for the festival and the expansion of the Rink closed on March 10th, but that won’t mean the end of campaigning, should the plans be approved… (The festival might fall victim to the corona pandemic, maybe…!)

There’s also been conflict for a while over the neighbouring Thames Water site…

Until the 1960s the Thames Water Site was part of the Lea Bridge Waterworks, providing water to the people of London. A complex of 25 filter beds were served by an aqueduct bringing water from the Walthamstow reservoirs further north.

The site was closed after the new Coppermill Water Treatment Works were opened. The Lee Valley Park Authority eventually agreed to take over the Middlesex Filter Beds (after first suggesting they should be filled in to make football pitches) and later took on the Essex and Leyton Filter Beds.

Today, the Middlesex and Essex Filter Beds are beautiful, important and secluded nature reserves. They show what can be achieved when industrial sites are sensitively managed to return to nature.

The whole of the site was designated as Metropolitan Open Land in the 1970s.

However, in the 1980s, the so-called Essex Number One Beds were retained by Thames Water as an operational site, first of all a ‘temporary’ pipe store; later a base for the Thames Water/Clancy Docwra mega-plan to replace the East London water mains. In the process they have completely trashed the site without any regard for its status as Metropolitan Open Land.

The Thames Water Site, to the west, and the Nature Reserve, to the east, and the lammas lands, to the southeast…

When Thames Water decided they wanted to offload the land, it was originally earmarked for two brand new academy ‘free’ schools, but after much local opposition this was kyboshed in the planning process, as it was a completely inappropriate site miles from any prospective catchment area, and would have increased traffic overload on the already gridlocked Lea Bridge Road.

Defence of open space on Leyton Marsh… only part of the story

(and a long and complicated story it is… bear with us!)

Campaigners fighting to preserve the open space and reclaim the Thames Water site stand in a long local tradition: this area has a long history of resistance to the enclosure if open land; as well as complex conflicts over its use. The most famous incident took place in August 1892, when 3000 people gathered to pull down railings protecting a railway that had been unpopularly run across Leyton’s ‘Lammas’ land, and wrecked the railway lines.

The land around Lea Bridge was one all Lammas lands: of old 1 August, was Lammas Day, (from old saxon “loaf-mass”)…

Lammas Day signalled the annual shift from agricultural focus from planting crops to grazing animals. It was the last day on which grass was cut for hay, and the day grazing could commence and the hunting season began. ‘The Glorious Twelfth’ – the first day for shooting grouse – is in fact Lammas Day, pushed eleven days back by the UK’s transition from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian in 1752.

The right to cut hay and graze animals on certain fields extended to all parishioners, rich or poor. Such fields were known as Lammas land. Their use belonged to everyone, ‘without regard to tenement’  – meaning you didn’t have to be relatively well-off house-owner to have Lammas Rights. If this existed by long-established tradition, it was often a tradition that had to be enforced collectively, when the rich and powerful attempted to take possession of land, fence it off, exploit it commercially, etc. Lammas Day was thus also a day when battles around enclosure often took place, as the ritual significance of the day was a central part of the rural year, and the ritual opening up of land for grazing was a useful arena for protest around loss of access. Martinmas, November 11th, the day when woods were traditionally open to all for cutting wood for fuel, was another day of ritual protest (– see Thomas Willingale’s actions in nearby Epping Forest…) The ritual importance of these dates outlasted the actual economic significance in many areas.

East London Waterworks

Waterworks were long established on the river Lea all along its length; its proximity to London and the increasing pollution of the Thames and its tributaries further west made a relatively clean water supply on the capital’s eastern doorstep invaluable. Even today reservoirs and treatment plant dominate a good part of the Lea Valley.

The waterworks lay on both banks of the Lea, bridging the boundary of Essex and Middlesex from at least 1760, whilst expansion after 1850 was concentrated on the Essex bank within the Districts of Leyton and Walthamstow.

Waterworks were established on Leyton Marsh from the early nineteenth century, as London expanded and demand for water and its treatment increased. But each successive expansion of the Lea Bridge works, from at least 1824, encroached upon ancient Lammas lands, and required the loss, buyout or extinguishment of any existing commonable Lammas rights local communities had, whether by agreement, paying compensation, or just by jumping in and ignoring protest.

Leyton, Walthamstow and Hackney parishes all bordered on each other on the marshes, and residents of all three parishes held lammas rights there. Until around 1752, Walthamstow and Leyton had ‘intercommoned’ – shared access by agreement – on what was known as the Great Mead (or Walthamstow Common Mead). This system broke down in 1752 due to a dispute over the change in the Calendar in 1751/2. After the alteration of the calendar in 1752, apparently Leyton continued to turn the cattle onto the lammas lands on 1 August (New Lammas Day), while Walthamstow went with beginning grazing on Old Lammas Day (from 1752, 13 August). You couldn’t make it up.

The land, and the return on the property rates, was a valuable public asset.

The Great Eastern Railway bought stretches of land on Leyton Marsh for the London to Cambridge line in the 1840’s, in many cases without compensation to local people, as the Railway Acts of the time did not recognise Lammas Rights. Later sections of land were bought to build Temple Mills Marshalling Yards.

A considerable portion of the Lammas lands on Walthamstow and Leyton Marsh were ‘dis-lammased’ in 1854 and handed over to the East Waterworks London Company for extensions to the treatment plants. On top of earlier land lost, this grant reduced the Walthamstow Lammas land to only 100 acres.

The loss of land to the waterworks contributed to disputes between neighbouring parishes over the remaining lammas land, already aggravated by the complex interaction of commoning, and the slightly fragmented parish borders. In 1858, Leyton challenged Walthamstow’s attempt to establish the extent of the ‘Walthamstow Slip’ (a detached part of Walthamstow actually inside Leyton’s borders) through the most valuable part of the waterworks company’s Essex Filter Beds (an attempt to prove the valuable land was Leyton’s not Walthamstow’s? With an eye to extracting profit from the Company?). By 1873 a fence was put up on the boundary between the two parishes here. By 1876, 176 acres of Leyton Lammas Land remained for the use of local people.

In 1890, the waterworks company laid railway tracks and erected fences across Leyton Marsh, blocking a traditional bridle path, in order to create an access to the new filter beds, for the transport of coal to the pumping engines. This enraged locals, already seething at the gradual erosion of access to the land.

By 1892, commoners were agitating for the marsh to be preserved as an open space, and were lobbying the parish vestry to refuse to sell their common rights to the Company.

The Leyton Vestry (Council)’s Lammas Lands Committee, a long-standing body, with responsibility for managing access and negotiate compensation for its loss, (made up of local Liberal or Tory gentlemen), ordered the water company to take up the rails and remove the fence. The Company refused, and the vestry took matters into their own hands. Four gentlemen agreed to take responsibility for a little bit of direct action, hoping to encourage the masses to join in.

On Lammas Day 1892, a crowd from Leyton, joined by a force some 2500 strong from Hackney, and led by Councillor Christopher George, a member of the Local Board and the Essex County Council, and Leytonstone resident Henry Humphries, marched on the Marsh, demolished the fence, and instigated the removal of the rails themselves. The rails seem to have run roughly north-east-southwest, from the nearby line into the waterworks.

Barbados-born Humphries, a Justice of the Peace and County Councillor in Essex, was prominent in this direct action. He was charged, along with eight others, four of whom were prosecuted under the Malicious Damages (Railways) Act of 1861.

Many working class radicals joined in the action. Like many other mainly working class areas across London and beyond, Leyton, Walthamstow and Homerton was home to a network of Working Men’s Clubs, many highly politicised, with politics that ranged through Liberal, Radical, socialist, to anarchist. These cubs were self-organised, venues for political debate, self-education and discussion – and centres for organising. Among the trade unionists and agitators that frequented the clubs, land, and access to it, had increasingly become a subject for fierce discussion and campaigning. The urban working class had remembered that their immediate ancestors had been dispossessed by enclosure. The clubs, though inherited ideas from groups like the Spenceans and the Chartists, who had identified the theft of the land by the wealthy as one of the crucial sources of poverty, and made regaining access to land a central plank of their platforms, forming organisations like the Land and Labour League. This took the form of agitation for access to urban open space for recreation and holding meetings, as well as demanding that land be nationalised of collectivised for common use…

Among the contingent from the Hackney clubs who flocked to the defence of the lammas lands were land agitators of the “Commons Defence League,” a radical association that had been founded by the well-known leftwing agitator, John de Morgan, an Irish-born radical who had for some time lived in Hackney, and had twice served time in prison for his part in riots against theft of Common Land in Plumstead, South London.

However, the East London Water Company wasn’t going to just roll over. The Company immediately took out legal proceedings against George and Humphries. And on the Tuesday after the tracks were removed, they sent out workers to re-lay them.

A commemorative plaque to the 1892 direct action, erected in 1929

The following Saturday another mass meeting was called at the Antelope pub, still standing today at the top of Marsh Lane in Leyton.

The atmosphere was different this time. The Lammas Lands Committee – already embroiled in a court case with the water company – thought further direct action would endanger the case. They refused to endorse further destruction, leaving the crowd to be led by Ambrose Barker, founder of the Walthamstow Working Men’s Club. This kind of tactical split was quite common in battles against enclosure and in defence of common land, with moderate elements concentrating on legal tactics, (though sometimes tentatively endorsing direct action, when the legal case for doing so seemed solid), then pulling back, and a more fiery element often refusing to stick to legal methods…

Once again, after this meeting, thousands marched down to the Marsh and took up the rails. The water company, again, re-laid them on the Monday.

But on Tuesday, 1,500 people descended on the tracks, including a large party from Leyton and four Working Men’s Clubs in Homerton. They ripped up the rails and again knocked down the fences the water company had erected around them.

The water company had the rails re-laid yet again on the Wednesday.

However, again on the following Saturday, led by a man known only as ‘the Village Blacksmith’, the Homerton clubs gathered their full strength to yet again march on the tracks, pulling them out of the ground and scattering them all over the fields.

Five days of sabotage won the day. The water company gave up.

Local people – at a packed meeting at Leyton Town Hall on Wednesday 30th November 1892 – formed a ‘Lammas Lands Defence Committee’ to defend the George and Humphries in their legal battle with the Waterworks Company, and to oppose the Parliamentary Bill then being promoted by the East London Waterworks Company to extinguish further Lammas rights on Leyton Marshes.

In August 1893, locals held a meeting was called to celebrate the previous year’s ‘Great Riot’. A speaker proposed that the land saved should be handed over to the local people, for purposes other than grazing. By this time the lands were mainly used for recreation, often for playing cricket.

A compromise was reached in 1893, confirmed by the East London Waterworks Act of 1894. The company withdrew all claims to enclose any part of the marsh, ended the legal proceedings against Humphries and George, and paid all their costs, as well as donating £100 to improve the bridleway. In return, the rails were allowed to stay. What looks like the remains can still be seen, in the half-exposed cobbles in the Waterworks Nature Reserve.

In 1904, local Lammas rights were commuted, to be replaced by Access Right: the land is vested with the local authorities, but is to be kept open for the whole community to use.

Under the 1904 Leyton Urban District Council Act, 111 acres of Lammas Land to the north and south of Lea Bridge Road were acquired by the Leyton Urban District Council: “vested absolutely in the Council subject to all existing Lammas Rights…and the Council shall from the passing of such resolution and subject to the provisions of this Act hold the same… as and for an open space for the perpetual use thereof for exercise and recreation and shall maintain preserve manage and regulate the same as such accordingly.”

Lammas Rights were not extinguished by the Act, which allowed for local people to receive other rights or money in exchange for their Lammas Rights. The Lammas Lands Defence Committee wanted ‘‘rights of recreation’’ in exchange for the Lammas Rights. The decision of the LLLDC to accept recreation rights in exchange is recorded in the Council minutes of 31st January 1905:

“That the Lammas Rights over the Lammas Lands acquired by the Council under and by virtue of the Leyton Urban District Council Act, 1904, be extinguished in consideration of the said Lands being devoted to the purposes of a Public Open Space or Recreation Ground, as provided for by said Act.”

In giving up their Lammas rights, local people were expecting the council would honour their side of what was, in effect, a contract: the Council and its successors are under a duty to maintain the land as “… a Public Open Space or Recreation Ground..” perpetually. This duty applied to almost the entire area of 111 acres, excepting only parcels of land of no more than 20 acres in total which could be exchanged or sold if the Council felt they were unsuitable for use as “open space or recreation ground.”

The fields at Marsh Lane did not come under this agreement and remained as Lammas land.

The 1892 victory was celebrated in an annual festival, held here for many years by the New Lammas Lands Defence Committee; formed in recent decades to commemorate the preservation of the Lammas Lands, and to help keep them free.

Common land on the marshes further south, remaining at the turn of the twentieth Century, including White Hart Field and East Marsh, was also incorporated by the local District Councils in 1904. These lands were in turn incorporated into the Lea Valley Regional Park in 1971, as part of a network of ‘metropolitan open lands’. Although no longer truly common land, public right of access remains within the metropolitan open land definition.

Although the old lammas rights of grazing animals had been replaced by more leisurely pursuits, this was not a break, but a continuity: it was the ability to access the land that mattered to people and that people felt was their right, even if the reasons had evolved. As Juliet Davis noted of Marsh Fields, “A Leyton Lammas Lands Defence Committee (LLLDC) member recalls old Leyton ‘commoners’ returning from the marsh with pockets stuffed with rabbits and blackberries. Such practices represent threads of continuity – all-be-they ambiguous – in the context of wide ranging transformations of the site over three centuries. It is arguably less the specific or historic practices of beating bounds or grazing cattle that are important for a contemporary reappraisal of common land, but the openness and possibility offered by genuinely public space for the development and layering of multiple informal and social uses and their spatial artefacts over time. Such possibility – in terms of practice and of culture – is commonly recognised as being absent in contemporary, controlled and/or privatised public spaces.”

Campaigning to prevent the enclosure and destruction of marshes in the Lea Valley didn’t end with the Leyton Lammas riots.

Between 1979 and 1985, the Save the Marshes Campaign fought to prevent the Walthamstow Marshes, further north, being destroyed for development into a marina, and a later plan to dump 8000 tons of ballast there.

Locally, the old lammas lands have seen a succession of bits of land nibbled away and attempts by the Council to flog bits off.

In 1949 Leyton Council attempted to redevelop the Marsh Lane area as a Sports Ground and to provide Leyton Football Club with a Stadium on the Lammas Land: local people opposed them and after campaigning, the Council then dropped the idea. Railway sidings were extended as far as Lea Bridge Road in the 1950s. The Gas Board also occupies some of the former lammas land.

In Lea Valley Regional Park bought all the Lammas Land to the west of the old Cambridge Railway Line from the Council under a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO). But since then, the Park authority has taken the view that it now has the absolute freehold of the land it holds and does not acknowledge the need to maintain it as Public Open Space or Recreation Ground as provided for in the 1904 Act or contract under which Lammas Rights were given up.

Over the years the Park’s denial of rights of way over our Lammas Land has been resisted. Shortly after the CPO in 1971, people refused to stop using the ancient Porters’ Way route from the Black Path to Lea Bridge Road by Essex Wharf. The Park found that they were unable to deny people’s right to use the path.

However, the Lea Valley Riding School have now taken over all the land between what was once Low Level Brook (now the Flood Relief Channel) and the former Waterworks Aqueduct, on the former Lammas Land, and the Park has from time to time denied local people right of way over the land the School occupies.

The Ice Rink now also occupies much of the land between the Waterworks aqueduct and the River Lea, on Porter’s Field – partly on land sold by the Council to a private fairground at a time when the 20 acre limit for disposal/ exchange under the 1904 Act had not yet been exceeded and partly on Lammas Land proper.

In 1993 the Council proposed fencing off over one third of Seymour Fields at Marsh Lane so that it could be used only by people prepared to pay for the use of the football pitches, and an income-generating fenced off Astroturf football pitch, with a 15 foot high fence and huge floodlights. An overwhelming negative response from local people pushed Councillors into voting against the scheme and overturning it.

And Leyton Marsh has come under further pressure more recently. Marsh Lane Fields, which continues to be referred to as Lammas Land, is outside the remit of the Lea Valley Regional Park. The western edge of this space began was built over in the late 1990s by the construction of the Leyton Freight road (Orient Way) and the Eurostar train depot. In 1989 local people had defeated plans to put Freight Road spurs across Marsh Lane Fields, but Orient Way, was eventually built, against massive local opposition and despite its rejection at the 1994 Public Inquiry.

From 2004, the loss of land here was exacerbated by development plans to relocate businesses and allotments from the Olympic site here…

The Olympics caused major upheaval in the Lea Valley, generating much hype and large profits, destruction of housing and long-standing industry. Huge areas of East London were redeveloped; in a number of areas open green space was appropriated, for training facilities, police compounds… with lots of it to be sold off for various dubious developments… Much of this nefarious dealing is documented at Games Monitor site. Large open spaces were laid out in recompense, its true, like Queen Elizabeth Park. But conflict over management of open space has if anything intensified.

One small site of resistance to the Olym-perial Project was Leyton Marsh, opposite the waterworks, where a basketball training facility was built for the duration of the games, despite many objections, and a protest camp, which attempted to block the development. Although the land was returned to open space afterwards it was heavily damaged. There was an attempt to use the land nicked for the basketball court to erect a new bigger ice-rink, to replace the existing one on Lea Bridge Road. This was defeated in court. But there’s now yet another proposal to enlarge the ice rink, doubling it in size…

The Thames Water site’s future is still up for grabs. Although the proposal for the free school was knocked back in Waltham Forest’s planning process, campaigners fear this may be overturned on appeal; especially since the government effectively own the land, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, acting on behalf of the Education Funding Agency (now the Education and Skills Funding Agency – “ESFA”) paid the vast sum of £33.3 million + VAT to acquire the site for the pair of free school academies. ESFA were very likely aware that the site was Metropolitan Open Land but were willing to ignore the fact, and may be confident that a pliable Planning Inspector will eventually approve the change of use.

Most of the organisations, authorities and quangos who have had some involvement or responsibility for the land have behaved less than admirably. Thames Water have knowingly destroyed the site. Thames Water used to be a publicly owned utility, in theory at least, owned and operated for the public benefit. Since privatisation, had a series of owners bent on loading the company with debt and extracting as much money as they can. When the last Walthamstow Planning Strategy – the so called Core Strategy – was being adopted, Thames Water lobbied for the site to be re-designated for a “commercially viable” development: but the Inspector at the Public Enquiry confirmed that the site’s status as protected Metropolitan Open Land should continue.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency knowingly overpaid for the land, expecting compliant authorities to give them what they want.

The Lea Valley Regional Park Authority – supposed to act as custodian of the parkland as a whole – has stood by, wholly disregarding its own Park Plan and made no effort to protect the site, in dereliction of its duties to protect the Park, only paying lip service and announcing grandiose plans that have come to nothing.

The Park Authority was even offered the Thames Water site as compensation for land that it was required to give up for the Chobham Manor housing development, next to the Olympic Park. It opted to take cash compensation instead; then splurge this money on large leisure facilities and not on improving the landscape. It then stood back and did nothing while the site was purchased for a purpose that is anything but Park-compatible use.

The approval for an annual, three day, 15,000 people capacity per day, electronic dance music festival appears to fit with a continuing strategy of fencing off and eventually developing the open space here – including the lovely Waterworks Reserve.

Waltham Forest Council’s licensing department has been deluged by objections from borough residents opposed to the Premises License application of Waterworks Events Ltd. The local community has protested vehemently en masse to the Council, the festival organisers and Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, on social media and by email. However, campaigners are suspicious that the assessment of the festival’s Premises License application may be a foregone conclusion – because Waltham Forest Council’s Licensing Department, have allied with the festival’s landlords, Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, in facilitating and advising the planning process of the festival prior to the Premises License application being submitted. There’s suspicion that the Festival was given the nod of approval from at least a Senior Officer and possibly by Waltham Forest Councillors (although the Lea Bridge Road area Councillors say they didn’t know about the planned festival and that they oppose it). Suspicion is further raised by the fact that Sam Jones, who was Creative Producer and Production Manager, London Borough of Culture 2019, for Waltham Forest Council, is also a shareholder in Waterworks Events Ltd, the company (registered in January 2020) that is organising the festival. Is this going to be the legacy of the much-touted 2019 Borough of Culture: Waltham Forest’s precious and much loved Lea Marshes green spaces being exploited by opportunistic rich Old Harrovian (Frederick Roscoe Valadas-Letts), party animal nightclub promoters from outside the borough (brought in by Sam Jones), to the cost of Waltham Forest’s residents.

The Lee Valley Regional Park Authority wants to ‘dispose’ of the Waterworks Centre and the land behind it, to sell it off for housing (a plan which Waltham Forest Council also supports). Is disconnecting people from the land, by fencing it off for events like this, part of their long-term strategy to turn a green field site into a brown field site, paving the way for the eventual building of housing over what should remain accessible open land?

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We Stand at a Fork in the Way

 

“Presently, the landscape is dislocated, with local people traversing well-worn routes into and out of each individual pocket of green space but unable to vary their walks much because of the fences they find in their way. Local people treasure these spaces, but few travel any distance to visit them and there is little to capture the wider public’s imagination. Historic buildings, such as the unusual octagonal sluice house, are hidden from view and the area’s industrial heritage and its significance as the boundary between the Danelaw and Anglo-Saxon England are ignored. Consequently, the vast potential of the area as a place to linger, a place to explore and a place to reconnect with nature is being overlooked. Re-integrating the ex-Thames Water Depot site into the landscape can change all this, bringing real health and well-being benefits to the people and wildlife that call this corner of north-east London home.” (‘The centrepiece of The East London Waterworks Park a future for the ex-Thames Water Depot site that benefits the whole community’, The East London Waterworks Campaign, January 2020)

The Thames Water site could form a connecting thread between Leyton Marshes and Hackney Marshes, linking the open spaces of the Lea valley in one continuous whole – Leyton and Walthamstow Marshes, Walthamstow Wetlands and Tottenham Marshes to the north, the Waterworks Centre and Nature Reserve to the east, Hackney Marshes and Middlesex Filter Beds to the south and the river and towpath to the west… a huge urban park where people and wildlife can roam.

Campaigners at Save Lea Marshes believe the following principles should form the basis of any decision about the land:

  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks is Metropolitan Open Land and its status as such should be protected.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks plays a critical role in connecting the marshes of the Lower Lea Valley.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks backs on to one of the most beautiful and unspoiled sections of the River Lea, the haunt of kingfishers, stretching from the mighty Lea Bridge Weir to Friends Bridge.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks contains significant remnants of its industrial heritage, adjacent to the weir, which can be interpreted to promote understanding of this important historical site.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks can be linked to the Essex and Middlesex Filter Beds and managed and re-wilded over time.

The East London Waterworks Park Campaign have put forward an alternative vision to the corporate exploiters, developers, scheming councils and quangos…
Which includes proposals for a wild swimming site, an extension of the nature reserve, and opening up the fenced off land to link it up with the other green spaces it borders onto. A brilliant and far-sighted vision, well worth getting behind.

Support Save Lea Marshes in calling for the Lea Bridge Waterworks to be protected from development and opened up to public access.

Much more info here

and more on the history of the waterworks

Worth a read: (Inside the Blue Fence, An Exploration, by Juliet Davis)

Today in London’s unruly history, 1848: a Chartist riot in Camberwell

In the early 19th Century, with working people being increasingly forced off the land and into urban areas, with the growth of factories and massive spread of Cities, working class people were rapidly becoming politicised and conscious of themselves and their class interests. Working class organisations, radical clubs and early Trade Unions formed a growing network across many cities… London was no exception.

The Chartists are usually quoted to be the’ first national movement of British working class’: they aimed broadly at an increase in political power for working class people, excluded from the vote or political process. Although many of their leaders nationally were of middle class (or even aristocratic) origin, (actually in London they tended to be more artisans or working class) they were a hugely broadly based mass movement, organised around six major demands for political reform that had been the program of the British reformers and radicals since the 1760s…

  1. A vote for every man twenty one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
  2. The ballot —To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for members of Parliament—thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
  4. Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
  5. Equal constituencies securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors,–instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones.
  6. Annual Parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

The Chartists’ tactics included huge monster meetings, and a petition to Parliament, presented and rejected three times between 1838 and 1848. The movement was made up of thousands of local branches, whose activities went far beyond pressing for reform, but built a whole culture, of education, songs, history, their own ceremonies and open discussion; they were conscious of their links to radicals of the past and similar movements abroad. and included all kinds of people, women and men, black people… Although many did not advocate the vote for women, others did, and female democratic associations formed a part of the movement.

As their petitions and political pressure failed, many Chartists began to advocate a working class seizure of power by armed force, and divisions split these ‘Physical Force’ Chartists from their ‘Moral Force’ counterparts. Several Chartist uprisings were planned in 1839-40, which failed or were repressed. Plotters,and Chartists involved in organising rallies, strikers and other actions were jailed, transported to the penal colonies.

The Chartists held mass meetings in South London in the 1840s, mainly on Kennington Common, especially in 1842, and then in 1848, the year of the last great Chartist upsurge, when they prepared the third petition. While the plans for presenting the petition were developed, physical force Chartists again prepared uprisings; in London in ‘48 several riots ensued when rallies were attacked by police. Through the Spring and early Summer the capital was in a state of alert: the authorities feared revolution (which was breaking out in France and across Europe), and Chartists hoped and worked for a popular rising to achieve their rights.

Chartist Riot?

In March 1848 this climate led to a riot after a Chartist meeting – which seems to mainly ended in some opportunist looting…

A week after 3 days of riots in newly opened Trafalgar Square in early March, another Chartist meeting was convened, on Kennington Common for 13th March: on the platform were a number of the Chartist leaders. The authorities had taken extensive precautions and troops were under orders to be called out, if necessary, with General Brotherton in command, and the mobilisation of police totalled an extraordinary 3,88i, including eighty mounted men and one hundred in plain clothes, in the vicinity of the Common; 1,141 on the Surrey side of the bridges; and the remainder in reserve.

In the event, no obstruction was offered to 400 or 500 men who about noon – for which time the commencement of the proceedings was announced – departed, so the Camberwell Division of Police later reported, on a signal being given ‘by raising a Pole’. The band took in their Route the most retired arid unfrequented byeways supposed for the purpose of’ avoiding the observations of’ the Police and Special Constables until they reached Bowyer Lane where they commenced an attack upon the small Shop Keepers by breaking their Windows and in some cases forcing down the Shutters and carrying away a quantity of their Goods.

The shops rifled in Camberwell consisted of a pawnbroker’s, three boot and shoemaker’s, a tailor’s, a clothes shop, a confectioner’s, baker’s, broker’s and three general dealer’s. The looters were armed with ‘staves of barrels, and sticks of all descriptions’, including palings. One of the shoemakers told them:—I am a poor man; if you want something, don’t come to me” – 1 said 1 was no maker of laws, I had nothing to lose, and begged them not to distress me.’ He persuaded fifty or sixty to pass on, but when the main body came up they beat in his shop-front arid removed 162 pairs of boots and shoes, worth £35 16s. The principal target was the premises of a pawnbroker and silversmith. His shutters and doors were attacked with ‘Hatchets Hammers Shovels and other offensive and dangerous weapons’ to cries of ‘Hurrah for Liberty’ and ‘Come on, my brave boys, we’ll have our liberty’;”” and ‘watches were thrown into the street over the heads of ‘the people’. He estimated his loss at upwards of £900, including as it did 200 watches and 170 rings.

The whole episode occurred within the space of an hour and only nine arrests were made (by a party of’ mounted police, assisted by special constables) at the time, but since a number of the rioters had been recognised by the locals twenty-five were brought to trial in April. Several witnesses identified among the leaders Charles Lee, a gipsy (not apprehended until a year later), arid David Anthony Duffy,a ‘man of colour’ and unemployed seaman, known to the police as a beggar in the Mint, where he went about without shirt, shoe, or stocking’. (Benjamin Prophett, known as’Black Ben’, was another ‘man of colour’ and seaman.)’ Eighteen men, of’ whom four had previous convictions, were sentenced to from seven to fourteen years’ transportation and three to one year’s imprisonment. The ages of all twenty-six (including Lee) are known: only ten were aged twenty or over (Prophett at twenty-nine was the eldest) and the youngest were three thirteen -year-olds. The Camberwell police superintendent dismissed the offenders as: ‘All Labourers and Costermongers’; yet of the twenty-five tried in 1848 a substantial number had trades, even though most of them were still in their teens. The occupations were: four labourers, three seamen, one fishmonger, costermonger, hawkboy, errand boy, brickmaker, ginger beer maker, bonnet box maker, baker, carpenter, bricklayer, sealing wax maker, glass blower, printer, tailor, currier, shoemaker, twine spinner (rope-maker), and brushmaker (and seller of ‘brooms and brushes).

Although the Camberwell riot was of short duration it was intense and also of historical importance, for it contributed to the hysterical prelude to 10 April 1848 in London” and it was upon 8 and 10 April that the minatory sentences were imposed upon the rioters. It has, however, been overlooked by virtually all historians – and others. The Northern Star did not carry a report of either the riot or the resultant trials. Mayhew mentions the pillaging of a pawnbroker’s shop but assumes that it took place on 10 April (while his collaborator John Binny transcribed the autobiographical narrative of Charles Lee after his return from transportation for life).

The participation of black radicals in the riot is interesting: the early 19th Century radical movement was notable for the involvement of prominent activists of African descent. One of the leaders of the London Chartists was William Cuffay, a Black tailor whose father had been a slave from St Kitts in the Carribbean. Cuffay was prominent in the April 1848 Kennington meeting, and was then arrested in August of that year, accused of involvement in the planning of a Chartist Uprising and transported to Tasmania for life.

There’s a post here on Benjamin Prophett’s transportation,

Chartists in Camberwell

Camberwell had by 1848 become a stronghold of Chartism in South London. Chartists we know of include John Simpson, of Elm Cottage, Camberwell, a local agent selling tickets for a Chartist-sponsored soiree in honour of radical MP TS Duncombe in 1845; and David Johnston, born in Scotland, a Weaver, then apprentice baker in Edinburgh and Camberwell; he married a Soho baker’s daughter and, with her dowry, bought a baker’s shop in Camberwell; he was elected Overseer of the Poor in St. Giles, Camberwell, 1831, ‘by popular vote’;  and ‘was a keen (moral force) Chartist until rowdies from Kennington wrecked my shop in 1848’. We have to wonder if this wrecking was the same riot of 13th March above?
Johnston left in 1848 for Chicago, Illinois, after labouring work in New York and Philadelphia. Lived and worked in Chicago till 1890, when he died. (Autobiographical Reminiscences of an Octogenarian Scotchman (Chicago, 1885)

John Simpson, mentioned above, was also a subscriber to the Chartist land Plan: a list of those who subscribed a little money to the Chartist Land Company, Feargus O’ Connor’s scheme to settle workers on land to make them self-sufficient. O’Connor was undoubtedly the most influential Chartist leader in the 1840s; but his grand scheme failed (after attracting thousands of poor subscribers). After some years of propaganda the Chartist Co-operative Land Society (later the National Land Company) was founded in 1845. O’Connor’s vigourous propaganda work collected a mass of subscribers and donations, and in 1846 “O’Connorville” was founded at Heronsgate, near Chorleywood, northwest of London. Other estates were bought and let out in smallholding to subscribers picked by ballot. But by the end of 1847, the financial difficulties facing the scheme and the incompetence of its directors, became obvious. In 1848 a House of Commons Committee reported that the Company was illegal, its finances in a state of chaos, and its promises impossible to fulfill.

Other Camberwell Land Plan subscribers included

  • John Cheshire, of James St, Camberwell New Rd,
  • Richard Ackenhead, who lived in Arms place, Coburg Rd, and also (later) in St Marks Place, Kennington, was a cordwainer
  • William Clipsham, a joiner, of Nelson St, Spilsbys, Camberwell
  • William Cook, a labourer, of 5 Westmoreland St, Southampton St, Camberwell
  • William Coombes, 9 Regent St, Camberwell, a labourer
  • George Cooper, a labourer, also of Regent St
  • Daniel Dempsey, labourer, 12 Regent St Camberwell

Regent St seems to have been a Chrtist hotspot

John Counningham, Susanna Cotts, James St, Camberwell, and William of the same name – brothers?

  • William Greengrass, labourer, James St Camberwell New Rd

(Again, James Street a sounds a very radical place…)

  • George Richard Day, a law clerk, 1 Surrey Place, Camberwell
  • Baziel Fisk, shoemaker, 1 Tangue Place James St Camberwell New Rd
  • Thomas Heath, joiner, Portland St Camberwell
  • John Keen, tailor, 13 Neat St, Coburgh Rd,Camberwell
  • John King, waiter, 15 Neat St
  • Edward North, carpenter, Windham Rd, Camberwell

who may have been same as Edward North, who lived in Bereford Place, Wyndham Rd, Camberwell, but later listed as a hawker…

  • James Rhodes, dairyman, Southampton St, Camberwell
  • George Rutherford, 3 Pitt St, Camberwell

(There’s also a George Rutherford listed in Wyndham rd as a labourer…)

  • John Wilkins, baker, 1 Acorn Place Camberwell

There’s an interesting pattern tho if you look at where these addresses mostly if not all are – all north of Camberwell Church Street, probably poorer housing then as it is now, if you compare it to what lies south of Church Street. Check out Booth’s Poverty maps and you can see that class-wise, Church Street/Camberwell New Road broadly marked a boundary, delineating something of a north-south wealth divide in Camberwell.

 

Today in London radical herstory, 1914: International Womens Day march sees launch of newspaper the Woman’s Dreadnought

“The first part of the procession, which was headed by boys and young men , dressed in a sort of cowboy dress, had just entered the square when Miss Sylvia Pankhurst got off the bus…her arrest was effected as soon as she stepped into the street . and though she endeavoured to force her way into the procession she was hurried away in a taxicab before the main body of the processionalists realised she had been captured. When the fact became known there was a wild rush in the direction taken by the cab, but the police, after a brief tussle, restored order and “The first part of the procession, which was headed by boys and young men , dressed in a sort of cowboy dress, had just entered the square when Miss Sylvia Pankhurst got off the bus…her arrest was effected as soon as she stepped into the street . and though she endeavoured to force her way into the procession she was hurried away in a taxicab before the main body of the processionalists realised she had been captured. When the fact became known there was a wild rush in the direction taken by the cab, but the police, after a brief tussle, restored order and the procession joined the meeting in the square. …Miss Patterson exclaimed, ‘We feel that the time has come for action. Follow the flags. See if we can find something to do’ and proceeded towards Whitehall with strong contingent of men, women and boys …The arrest of Miss Patterson was a signal for wild disorder, many of her supporters throwing themselves on her captors. Eventually mounted police dispersed the crowd. Altogether ten persons were arrested”.  (Manchester Guardian, 9 March 1914, p.9.)

On 8 March 1914 the East London Federation of a Suffragette held an International Women’s Day demonstration in Trafalgar Square, to demand votes for women. The march saw launch of its newspaper, the Women’s Dreadnought.

The march was met by mounted police who waded in to inflict considerable violence on the demonstrators. Five women and five men were brought to court the following day, where an angry magistrate complained “Half Scotland Yard had turned out to keep a lot of desperadoes in order!”


The East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS), had only two months before had formally split from the largest militant suffragette organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which had engineered their expulsion, mistrustful of the ELFS’s emphasis on centring the campaign for the vote among working-class women in London’s East End.

Leading light in the ELFS was socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, whose political divergence from her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel was only past of the story. Sylvia had undertaken hunger strikes in prison to the point that the authorities temporarily released her to ensure she did not die in their custody, and was at constant risk of re-arrest and imprisonment (she was in fact re-arrested again on the 8th March demonstration).

Sylvia Pankhurst would later recall that the WSPU leader (who was also Sylvia’s older sister), Christabel Pankhurst, demanded that the ELFS form a separate organisation on the grounds that

‘a working women’s movement was of no value: working women were the weakest portion of the sex: how could it be otherwise? Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest. ‘Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!’ 

The ELFS completely rejected this view that richer women were more effective suffragettes, publishing an impassioned defence of the necessity of campaigning ‘from below’ in the first edition of the Dreadnought:

‘Some people tell us that it is neither specially important that working women should agitate for the Vote, nor specially important that they should have it. They forget that comparatively, the leisured comfortably situated women are but a little group, and the working-women a multitude.

‘Some people say that the lives of working-women are too hard and their education too small for them to become a powerful force in winning the Vote, many though they are. Such people have forgotten their history. What sort of women were those women who marched to Versailles?

‘Those Suffragists who say that it is the duty of the richer and more fortunate women to win the Vote, and that their poorer sisters need not feel themselves called upon to aid in the struggle appear, in using such arguments, to forget that it is the Vote for which we are fighting. The essential principle of the vote is that each one of us shall have a share of power to help himself or herself and us all. It is in direct opposition to the idea that some few, who are more favoured, shall help and teach and patronise the others’.

The ELFS’s insistence on applying to the struggle the principle of self-representation that they saw embodied in the vote also entailed a rejection of Christabel Pankhurst’s assumption that all women shared the same interests and therefore richer women could fight on behalf of working-class women.

The ELFS had a strong alliance with East End socialists & workers in particular trades, especially the East End dockers. ELFS members had supported dock strikes in 1912, & the organisation continued to work closely with dockers. Many dockers wives became suffragettes. In March 1913, dockers had supported a march to Holloway, where suffragette Scott Troy was on hunger strike; Troy had organised support to help feed 1000s of dockers families during 1912 strike. ELFS had a branch which operated at the East India Dock Gate, the entrance to one of the biggest docks and a well-known speakers corner for trade unions and socialists. Every Sunday in spring & summer the ELFS staged processions that began or ended at the dock gates.

Sylvia Pankhurst speaks

The ELFS also distinguished themselves from the WSPU and other suffrage groups, in that they campaigned for universal adult suffrage – many working men also could not vote. This brought them closer to workers’ organisations, which remained suspicious of the WPSU in some ways.

Although Sylvia Pankhurst was the focus of EFLS activity, other leading women included Charlotte Drake, ex-barmaid, labourers wife & mother of 5; Melvina Walker, a one-time lady’s maid and dockers wife, whose tales of the high society she had served made her a popular speaker; Nellie Cressell mother of 6, who later became Mayor of Poplar; Annie Barnes and Julia Scurr, later councillors in Stepney & Poplar; Jennie MacKay, ex of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), also later a councillor; Louise Somerville, veteran of the Socialist League and Amy Hicks, also ex-SDF.

The 8 March was held to commemorate International Women’s Day, (initially called for at an international socialist conference in Copenhagen in 1910 by the German socialist Clara Zetkin, to draw attention to the struggles of working-class women). Choosing this day for their demonstration highlighted the working-class and internationalist politics that characterised the ELFS.

Melvina Walker

The demonstration was also notable, as it saw the launch of a new publication, the ELFS’s own newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, edited by Sylvia Pankhurst.

The paper was started by Pankhurst at the suggestion of Zelie Emerson, after Pankhurst had been expelled from the Women’s Social and Political Union by her mother and sister.

On the drawing board it was titled Workers’ Mate, but appeared as The Woman’s Dreadnought, with a weekly circulation of anywhere between 10-20,000. It cost a penny; it was advertised by Graffiti campaigns around the East End. Police harassed the women and men who sold it on the streets.

Despite frequent violent re-arrests, imprisonments and hunger strikes, Sylvia Pankhurst ensured the newspaper came out each week; even a policeman arresting her in May 1914 asked her ‘how I found the time for it’. During Sylvia’s regular spells of imprisonment, Norah Smyth alternated as acting editor with Jack O’Sullivan. Smyth used her photography skills to provide pictures for the newspaper of East End life, particularly of women and children living in poverty.

East London Federation of Sufragettes street stall

Until World War 1 began, it covered London-based, mostly East End news: including women’s suffrage, battles with borough councils, fights with police, women’s lives… When WW1 began, it also began to voice opposition to the slaughter, resistance to conscription, and campaigns around the austerity and shortages the war brought. It was viewed by the authorities as having such a dangerous influence that its offices were subject to repeated police raids.

The Dreadnought would go through several incarnations over the next ten years, as the emphasis of the organisation around Sylvia would change and evolve, through suffrage campaigns, resistance to world war and austerity, support for revolution… In July 1917 the name was changed to Workers’ Dreadnought, which initially had a circulation of 10,000. Its slogan changed to “Socialism, Internationalism, Votes for All”, and then in July 1918 to “For International Socialism”, reflecting increasing opposition to Parliamentarism in the party.

Norah Smyth

On 19 June 1920 Workers’ Dreadnought was adopted as the official weekly organ of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). Pankhurst continued publishing the newspaper until 1924.

The first edition of the Dreadnought declared: ‘the chief duty of The Dreadnought will be to deal with the franchise question from the working women’s point of view’. ELFS members, for the most part women who worked in manual jobs, became the Dreadnought’s journalists, reporting on the concerns of their own communities and workplaces which, Sylvia Pankhurst later wrote, ‘produced far truer accounts than any Fleet Street journalist, for they knew what to ask and how to win the confidence of the sufferers.’ One of these members was Florence Buchan, a jam factory worker who had been sacked when her employers found out she was a suffragette, whose first article exposed the dangerous conditions in jam factories. Her interviews with local striking workers conveyed the sacrifices they made, but also their spirit and humour. Women workers at a preserves and tea packing factory told her that when they tried to go on strike the foreman had locked them in the workroom, and when the women told the male workers what had happened they gave the foreman ‘a good thrashing’; the women concluded ‘there are too many bosses’.

Hoping to engage widely with the local community, Sylvia Pankhurst initially wanted the Dreadnought to be free but this proved unaffordable so they charged a halfpenny for it (half the cost of most political publications) in the first four days after printing after which they distributed the remaining copies from the 20,000 print-run house to house around the East End free of charge.

Going door to door also helped the ELFS to in its aim to connect their political campaign with the economic and social issues of the local community. ELFS members would knock on every door in a particular street, ask the women at home about their lives and then report the conversations they had with the women in the Dreadnought, revealing the problems of ordinary people’s lives. In one such report one woman told of the domestic abuse she was habitually subjected to when her husband discovered they had run out of money – ‘they ask you what you’ve done with it all, and then they start on you’, while others spoke of unemployment, hunger and extortionate rents. The ELFS reporter then summarised her political conclusions from the conversations:

‘Denial to the Government which calls these women unoccupied.

‘One came face to face with the unemployed problem.

‘With Poverty. – Housing Question. – Women as Slaves. – Sweating of Women. – Insurance Act as a failure. – Great faith in women. Suffragettes to be found in slums.’

The Dreadnought gained a reputation for amplifying the voices of people that the establishment did not want to hear. The fact that the Dreadnought carried stories which it received from people writing into paper about injustices they wanted publicised demonstrates the trust and credibility the publication had built up.

During World War 1, the East London Federation of Suffragettes opposed the war, (unlike the leading suffrage organisations, the WPSU and the NUWSS). Sylvia insisted on the Fed and the paper taking this view, which did lead to some ‘pro-war’ ELFS activists leaving, and lost the ELFS much support; initially, as the war was popular and opposition considered traitorous. Several well-off backers who had funded the organisation pulled out, outraged at its anti-war stance.

The Mothers’ Arms toy making workshop

However, as the war went on, and deaths mounted, conscription was introduced, and shortages and privations started to it, the ELFS started to regain support. Gradually, the group evolved from a political organisation into a feminist social welfare movement, focusing on the daily needs of East End women. From this they developed political and social demands reflecting the impact the war was having on the poor: for control of food so people wouldn’t go hungry; against rent rises and wage cuts. A rent strike was attempted in August 1914. At this time some East End women were taking direct action – seizing food from shops without paying. At their Bow HQ, a former pub renamed the ‘Mother’s Arms’, the ELFs set up two cost-price restaurants to feed those with little money, and workshops where women could make items to sell to get by.

Cost price eating at the Mothers’ Arms

In the First World War the Dreadnought also exposed the way in which imprisoned Conscientious Objectors were being deported to the warzone in France where, under army jurisdiction, they could be shot. Its front pages reported the dangers of the chemicals women war workers were exposed to in the factories, something that was down-played and denied by their employers. Despite the establishment’s attempts to suppress all information about the mutiny in the British army at the notorious army camp at Étaples in France in late September 1917, the Dreadnought was able to report this news on its front page because a soldier wrote in:

‘The men out here are fed up with the whole b___y lot.

‘About four weeks ago about 10,000 men had a big racket in Etaples, and they cleared the place from one end to the other, and when the General asked what was wrong, they said they wanted the war stopped. That was never in the papers.’

Throughout its existence the Dreadnought sought to represent the most radical section of contemporary social movements. Formed to give expression to the working women’s campaign for the vote, it opposed the First World War from the moment it broke out and in 1914 it became the first English publication to print the anti-war speech of the German socialist Karl Liebknecht.

In June 1917 The Woman’s Dreadnought changed its name to The Workers’ Dreadnought, reflecting the increasing breadth of the campaigns it was taking up. The newspaper championed the Bolshevik Revolution and printed the writings of leading revolutionaries across Europe. In 1920 Sylvia Pankhurst became the first newspaper editor in Britain to employ a black journalist when she invited the Jamaican poet Claude McKay to work on the Dreadnought.

The Dreadnought consistently opposed racism and imperialism and sent its reporters to Ireland to expose atrocities committed by British troops. The paper also (uniquely among the UK left at the time) opposed colonialism, and attacked racism among some East End workers – explicitly linking socialism to anti-racism & anti-colonial struggles. In contrast, other contemporary left papers like the Daily Herald were overtly racist.

Influenced by the Russian Revolution, the ELFS transformed itself into the Workers Socialist Federation, reflecting a change in orientation: towards revolutionary socialism. In a marked change of course from their origins in the suffrage movement, the WSF adopted an anti-parliamentary communist stance, and opposed participation in elections as a bourgeois distraction from the class struggle. They also rejected affiliation to the Labour Party, in contrast to large parts of the Communist scene in the UK (and in contradiction to Lenin’s advice).  The WDF did not forget conflicts with the Labour hierarchy during the war. The Workers’ Dreadnought now advocated soviets and workers control of production, and promoted the forming of workers committees in several London factories; it also flirted with syndicalism/industrial unionism, which was seeing a revival as part of a new post-war upsurge in industrial militancy in 1918-19, which saw a plethora of strikes. Billy Watson, who attempted to set up a London Workers Committee to unite workers’ struggles from below, wrote a regular industrial column for the Dreadnought in 1917.

Pankhurst developed her own theory of ‘social soviets’: councils of working class inside AND outside workplaces, to include people not in work, eg housewives, unemployed, elderly, children… This was an advanced position for a leftist of the times (where the workplace was generally considered the only place for class struggle to take place). He vision was of a local & decentralised form of socialism, under workers’ control. This all reflected Sylvia’s interest in practical problems of how socialism would run on a local level, food, welfare etc – all of which arose from the ELFS practical experience during WW1.

The WSF were the first communist group to make contact with the Bolsheviks after the October 1917 Revolution; over the next few years the group’s relationship to the situation in Russia would in many ways define its trajectory. The WSF affiliated to the communist Third international in 1919. But in the same year, Sylvia Pankhurst went to Italy, Germany, Holland, making contacts with the left fractions of the communist movement, with whose positions she clearly agreed, on elections, parliamentary participation, in particular. This would get the WSF denounced by Lenin in 1920 in his ‘Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder’. While the WSF was heavily involved in struggles in London against the UK plan for military intervention in Soviet Russia, news coming from the USSR increased Sylvia’s distrust of the directions the Soviet revolution was taking. Nevertheless, the WSF reformed (in alliance with Aberdeen, Holt & Croydon Communist groups, Stepney Communist League, Gorton Socialist Society, the Labour Abstentionist Party, & the Manchester Soviet) into the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) in 1920: the first UK Communist Party. Lenin also thought this move premature.

After many raids during the war, the Dreadnought’s spreading of communism was guaranteed to attract more police attention. The Dreadnought offices were raided again under the draconian Defence of the Realm Act, for publication of articles which referred to discontent in the navy: the CP(BSTI) had some contacts among rebel sailors, eg black sailor Reuben Samuels, and Dave Springhall.

Claude Mackay

It was through Jamaican-born Claude Mackay that these contacts had been made. Though later better known as a poet and writer, a crucial figure in the Harlem Renaissance, in 1919-20, McKay was living in London, and had become a communist. He fused communist ideas with anti-colonial and anti-racist thinking, and bridged the black nationalist and socialist scenes, critical of where both fell short from within. As well as writing for the Dreadnought (at times during Sylvia’s imprisonment he virtually edited several issues), he also frequented a mostly black soldiers’ club in Drury Lane, and the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch (successor to the 19th century old Communist Club  A militant atheist, he also joined the Rationalist Press Association. During this period that his commitment to socialism deepened and he read Marx assiduously. At the International Socialist Club, McKay met Shapurji SaklatvalaA. J. CookGuy AldredJack TannerArthur McManusWilliam Gallacher, and George Lansbury. He attended the Communist Unity Conference that established the Communist Party of Great Britain.

In April 1920, the Daily Herald, a socialist paper published by George Lansbury, included a racist article written by E. D. Morel. Entitled “Black Scourge in Europe: Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine“, it insinuated gross hypersexuality on black people in general. Lansbury refused to print McKay’s response. This response then appeared in Workers’ Dreadnought. In response to the “Black Horror on the Rhine” stories that the Daily Herald was running, McKay wrote:

“Why this obscene maniacal outburst about the sex vitality of black men in a proletarian paper?” Rape is rape; the colour of the skin doesn’t make it different. Negroes are no more over-sexed than Caucasians; mulatto children in the West Indies and America were not the result of parthenogenesis. If Negro troops had syphilis, they contracted it from the white and yellow races. As for German women, in their economic plight they were selling themselves to anyone. I do not protest because I happen to be a Negro … I write because I feel that the ultimate result of your propaganda will be further strife and blood-spilling between whites and the many members of my race … who have been dumped down on the English docks since the ending of the European war … Bourbons of the United States will thank you, and the proletarian underworld of London will certainly gloat over the scoop of the Christian-Socialist pacifist Daily Herald.”

The Dreadnought office was raided in October 1920, after the paper published the articles about discontent among sailors, and Sylvia Pankhurst was charged under DORA for publishing these articles. Mackay, in a room at the top of the building, was warned by Pankhurst’s secretary, Mackay smuggled the original letters from which they derived out of the building, and burned them. He escaped arrest, but Sylvia was sent to prison for six months in 1921 for publishing them. At her trial she defiantly called for the overthrow of capitalism, telling the court: ‘this is a wrong system, and has got to be smashed.’ 

Mackay left Britain shortly after, feeling things were getting too hot for him. He later spent time in the Soviet Union, though he distanced himself from communism in later life.

The Dreadnought was in the news again only a few weeks later, after a crowd attacked women working there who had disrupted the first November 11th Armistice Day commemorations.

The CP(BSTI) entered into negotiations with other socialist groups to form a united Communist Party, including the British Socialist Party (BSP) – the anti-war majority of the old Social Democratic Federation – and the mainly Scottish-based Socialist Labour Party. Throughout the protracted discussions, the ‘communist left’ attempted to form a left bloc in or allied to any new Communist Party, which many had realised would be dominated by more right wing members of the BSP. The 21 theses laid down by the Communist International caused some debate, as they included stipulations Pankhurst and the left communists had serious issues with. 4 CP(BSTI) branches refused to agree to them & left. Although the majority of the CP(BSTI) did unite with the new Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in January 1921, by this time problems had led to division between Pankhurst & others, and she was in immediate conflict with the new party hierarchy. All CP publications were supposed (under the 21 Theses) to be subordinated to party control, and the Workers’ Dreadnought was not accepted as a party paper; Sylvia was ordered to cease publication. The new party also did little to support her while she was in jail. Though she joined the CPGB on her release, she maintained contact with the European left communists – the KAPD, left factions & the Workers Opposition. She was ordered to give up the Dreadnought, and refusing to do so, was expelled from the CPGB in September 1921.

After her expulsion, Pankhurst & a few others (including Melvina Walker & Nora Smythe) formed a Communist Workers Party (CWP), but this was only ever a small propaganda sect. They attempted to revive their old speaking places and links in the East End but the group never really took off. Sylvia also refused to unite with another left communist grouping in Britain, the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation, mainly due to personality differences…

Sylvia carried on publishing the Dreadnought, and allied herself and the CWP to the Fourth International of left wing communist groups, including the KAPD, & Belgian, Dutch, Bulgarian, Czech left communists (known as International of Opposition Parties). They shared their criticisms of developments in Russia, and built up links also to the Workers Opposition in the USSR.

But being excluded from the CPGB pushed Sylvia and her group to the margins, and movements they had built up were declining or divided. CWP-backed alternatives to the mainstream communist-backed union movements or the National Unemployed Workers Movement were either small and weak or short-lived. Revolutionary Growing more out of touch, the CWP collapsed by 1924. Lack of support, money and energy led Sylvia to halt publication of the Workers’ Dreadnought in July 1924.

Although Sylvia eventually moved out of the East End, she remained active politically, and would go on to be an early campaigner against the rise of fascism, as well as outspokenly fighting for international solidarity with Ethiopia when it was invaded by fascist Italy. She died in Ethiopia in 1960. The ELFS and its successors had done some amazing work in the East End, from agitating among working class women and men over the vote, through grassroots day to day solidarity in the face of war and repression, resisting the war effort, supporting revolution and correctly criticising the USSR’s turn to authoritarianism and the western communist parties’ slavish falling into line and opportunism. Like many another suffragette, her health was irrevocably damaged by hunger strikes in prison; but she never stopped trying to change the world for the better…

Read Copies of the Women’s/Workers’ Dreadnought in the British Newspaper Archive

Worth a read: Sylvia’s accounts of her activism, in The Suffragette Movement, and The Home Front (about the ELFS in WW1).
Also Barbara Wilmslow, Sylvia Pankhurst, a good account of the various phases of Sylvia’s political journey.

Today in London’s parklife, 1999: Crystal Palace eco-camp stormed by police

After the 1851 ‘Great Exhibition’, showcase for the British Empire, glamfest for capitalism, the entire glass “Crystal Palace”, which housed the Exhibition in Hyde Park, was dismantled and moved to a new permanent site on parkland at Sydenham in the south London suburbs. The area subsequently took its name from the building, and park and area became known as Crystal Palace. The destruction of the building by fire in 1936 left the top of the park still landscaped, with terraces and amazing views, but gradually this area fell into decline as it was left largely ignored.

The Park was built on the northern edge of what had previously, for centuries, been known as Penge Common, which had been enclosed in the 1820s after a protracted struggle over who owned it. Suffice to say, open space here has always been subject to struggle over its use – between landowners and peasants, between local communities and councils and corporate interests… [check out Martin Spence’s excellent ‘The Making of a Suburb: Capital Comes to Penge’, for more on the enclosure of Penge Common… and see pengepast]

Sixty years after the Crystal Palace burned down, the site was threatened by the local council of Bromley within whose borders the park lay, and who had taken over managing the park when the Greater London Council was abolished. Bromley proposed a wholly inappropriate development for the site – a 20-screen cinema multiplex with restaurants, bars and rooftop parking for a thousand cars, housed in a building, which was described by a local newspaper as having the appearance of an aircraft terminal.

This was no the first threat to the park – when the Crystal Palace Company went bankrupt in 1911, the whole park was due to be sold at public auction by Knight, Frank and Rutley. If that had taken place we would have had ranks of terraced houses instead of “a great, life-enhancing breathing space for south London”. There followed weeks of the protest; the subsequent sale led to the park being saved as open space.

A map of the park from the 1911 auctioneers’ brochure

In 1989 Bromley proposed the development of the site for hotel and leisure purposes, it culminated in the passing by the House of Commons of the Bromley London Borough Council (Crystal Palace) Act 1990, which limits development on the site.

In the late 1990s, Bromley Council’s plans to sell off the top end of South London’s Crystal Palace Park, to allow the development of a huge multiplex cinema complex, were widely opposed by locals.

The plans would have involved:

  • An 18 screen multiplex cinema 950′ long by 70′ high.
  • 9 eateries including fast food and takeaways.
  • 3 ‘leisure boxes’, contents to be decided by profit alone. Bowling alley? Video arcades?
  • Rooftop car parking for 950 cars.
  • Giant vehicle ramps on 3 sides of building.
  • Opening hours 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. 365 days a year.
  • Concrete tunnel entrance and roads in park.
  • Illuminated traffic signage.
  • Roads expanded to increase capacity.

A broadly based local Crystal Palace Campaign was formed by local residents and businesses, angered by the “monstrous edifice” which Bromley wished to impose on the landscape and the complete disregard for the site’s history.

Their objections included:

  • Loss of 12 acres of green open space, protected as Metropolitan Open Land.
  • Destruction of 200 trees.
  • Vast unsightly building, the size of 2 football stadiums, vehicle ramps, tunnel entrance and illuminated signage do not belong in a park.
  • Degradation of the historic site of the Crystal Palace, protected as Grade 2* listed historic park.
  • Noise, especially at night, with hundreds leaving at 2 a.m.
  • 17,000 vehicle movements each Saturday on narrow, Victorian residential streets, causing congestion and pollution. Traffic is the major cause of asthma in our children
  • Crime. Major leisure venues attract it.
  • Parking overflow. On-site provision is only 50% of what is needed.
  • Threat to local trade, leading to spiral of decline on the village high street.
  • Loss of village atmosphere. The surrounding area is a Conservation Area

There was virtually no local support for the development. The campaign held many meetings, demos, lobbies, etc., and led to strong legal challenges to the plans, including a High Court case, in London where the Crystal Palace Campaign sought judicial review of Bromley’s outline planning permission. The legal objection turned on the question of style. The Crystal Palace Act of 1990 stated that any building on the Park site should be “in the style and spirit of the former Crystal Palace”.

In parallel with this more orthodox campaign, an eco-protest camp was squatted in the threatened part of the park, in April 1998, by activists mainly drawn from the anti-roads movement, which had been growing throughout the 1990s and had been involved in high profile campaigns at Twyford Down, against the M11 in East London, and at Newbury… and many more…

The ‘Crystal Pallets’ camp remained occupied 24/7 for over a year, with treehouses and barricades built.

On 3rd March 1999, most of the camp was violently evicted by the police who arrived hidden in double decker buses lying down between the seats. We was there, in a tree.
Two protestors stayed in tunnels underground for three more weeks…

Here’s an account of the camp, from Earth First mag, Do or Die Issue 8.

Storming the Palace

Park Life in South London

Rising from flat suburban S. London and crowned with a huge 160ft television transmission tower, Crystal Palace Park boasts the tallest hill in the capital’s south. In one of London’s more surreal green spaces ornamental gardens, a football stadium, and geese covered lakes mix with grand stone staircases that go nowhere and 30ft hollow 19th Century metal dinosaurs.

This was the second site of the great exhibition in the last century, a celebratory extravaganza glorifying the power of the British Empire and its global reach. The vast glass palace which had held displays and artifacts from every corner of the world burnt down in the 1930s, ironically just as the Empire was beginning to face a re-emerging opposition in the Third World. All that remains now are piles of rubble, the odd column and the dinosaurs. Nineteenth century scientists misunderstood the bones they discovered so the monsters are hopelessly mis-shapen. Used in the Second World War as bomb shelters their main function now seems to be to create a bizarre backdrop for local kids to take drugs by moonlight. Already well established as a place of drama and weirdness, Crystal Palace seemed ideally suited for the direct action to come.

For three years locals had fought the local Councils plan to build a multiplex cinema but their legal campaign had got them nowhere. The multiplex will destroy the highest part of the park including the now wooded and wilded Palace foundation site. Following hot on the heels of the defence and eviction of a tree site in Kingston Park, it was almost by natural selection that the action site at Crystal Palace was established. So just after midnight on April Fools Day ’98 a crew of eighteen people (and two dogs) quietly reclaimed the site of the Palace.

The Rise of ‘Crystal Pallets’

By dawn we had tents, nets and squatting notices up, quickly followed by the first visit from the enemy who were politely told they were trespassing and could they fuck off and knock next time. It wasn’t long before the media circus arrived, fresh, alert and looking for Swampy. From day one the press and TV crews were invasive, seeking to dominate and exploit us while remaining aloof about their aims. With a degree of wisdom gained from our experiences maybe we can learn to control the media feeding frenzy by simply issuing statements whilst hand picking selective interviews.

Support from the local residents came quickly. For about three years their protest had failed, suddenly there was a new focus for their energies. People from all around this ancient hill top site arrived with food, clothes, shelter, tools, and mountains of pallets. If you haven’t been to a direct action site you won’t understand the sheer possibilities that lie in pallets. Nearly every structure, every treehouse, barricade and bender is made from them. The site was thus nicknamed ‘Crystal Pallets’.

Being a Sports Council site, no lottery cash could be thrown at the Palace, so the Tory council cooked up the old recipe of ‘regeneration’. Alarm bells woke up a dedicated band of local residents, who having exhausted their ‘democratic’ rights, accepted what they knew in their hearts was the only course of action left-the direct one.

Within six weeks a comfortable, if toxic, home for dozens was built. Toxic because after the Palace had burned down, the site was used to dump blitz rubble, resulting in an unusual concentration of lead in the soil. To add to this, the council had allowed flytipping including lots of asbestos! Anyway, back to the story. The support, both moral and material, continued to flood in. Surveys showing 85% local opposition to the development were the norm, and thousands were adding their names to petitions. Therefore it was no surprise to learn that Bromley Council were obstinately digging their heels in. They wanted these ‘filthy illegal squatters’ orf their land or…erm, they’d evict (surprise). Full moons came and went and with them, new direction, new impetus. According to the multiplex’s architect Ian Ritchie, ‘Building is an act of economic and cultural virility’

Mid-Summer Madness

Over the summer swathes of the Palace posse travelled, marched and danced to various parties/protests. The tour started from home on Beltane (May 1st), where spaced out goats played with the animals resident and visiting. Come the G8 Global street party on May 16th we put on our gladrags, tarted it up to the hilt and ‘ad it with them in Birmingham. The atmosphere in and around the sound system was fucking wild, fucking wicked, yet anyone near the upturned car won’t need reminding of the eerie intense few seconds as some lunatic attempted to set it on fire. A word of advice: Get the car near the pigs, not your family before you light the blue touch paper and retire. All day and night Birmingham had a electric air, resonant with the vibration of creative unified resistance.

With summer came the usual problems on site. Consumption of drugs increased and a mainly lunched out recycling program led to communal areas being spaces to avoid. In amongst the rats, flies, filth and beer cans, alcoholics flourish. Fighting authority takes sobriety.

Other things flowering and fruiting that summer were our fruit, veg, herbs and flowers. Attempting to work with a permaculture ethic, we harvested beans, tomatoes, courgettes, potatoes, nasturtiums, onions, blackberries and more I forgot. Establishing productive gardens can be as important as climbing up trees. Not everyone can live in trees but we can all look after plants. Rediscovering old skills for a brighter future.

Whilst the festivities all around were going on security was breached at the Palace three times or more. Firstly by the Police Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) who took the piss by storming onto site and filming this and demanding that. More vigilance was needed if the community was to keep the state off and be a true temporary autonomous zone.

Coupled with an influx of Babylon’s waifs and strays who took advantage of the welcoming atmosphere, site life took on a more strenuous and stressful atmosphere. During July thefts from site were happening, and regularly. Tools, money, even Tasmanian passports were going missing from under our noses. We have but ourselves to blame for not being a tight-knit crew.

These lapses, with ensuing witch hunts fuelled by paranoia, combined with the constant bombardment of microwaves from the TV mast meant focus and momentum was lost, and the days were noticeably getting shorter… and all the while Bromley Council were shuffling and squirming, issuing writs and threats. The camp decided to take the fight to them (you gotta raise the stakes). Having ignored three years of protest and the voices of all who lived there we decided a big fuck off party might change the perspective slightly.

The full moon on August 8th 1998 saw sound systems, over 500 people and as much stimulation as a person can shove up their nose hit the top ridge adjacent to the site.

The sun rose to a fantastic vibe, new friends, and a spotlessly clean aftermath heralded what was to be a noise-filled early Autumn. There was a ‘village fair’ which it must be said we lunched out, punk nights, more sound systems interwoven with regular candlelit vigils.

We knew as we entered into September the game had taken a new twist. The legal challenge by the liberal Crystal Palace Campaign was faltering- and badly. No surprise there (see Never Trust the Middle Classes box). The pagan festival of Samhain approached and the merry big band from Palace started to look inwards with thoughts of evictions.

Defenses that looked all Summer like they would remain fantasies took shape as we poured tonne after tonne of concrete on to madly unstable land.

The earth we walked for nearly a year was as it turned out perfect ground for our engineers of sketchy construction. As holes appeared and got deeper (digging spurred on by rumours of existing tunnel networks), from the surface rose Faulty Towers of scaffolding.

With more spikes than a punx picnic, more wired than any amphetamin assassin, the original damaged leaning tower of piss ‘eds increasingly dominated the landscape. Come eviction it was over forty foot high and well over 400 cans of Strongbow Super old. Memories of it still fresh bring smiles to faces.

With winter fast approaching, the debris on site both animate and inanimate was piling up. For some it was time to move off site and recuperate, for those living on site the need to party was never far away.

What do you do when the local redneck pub just up the road gets boarded up? Get sound systems and your mates and rock it that’s what. A posse quickly reclaimed it (obviously feeling very at home there), and caused the Council yet more headaches.

During those dark, dark nights around Winter Solstice actions were planned and carried out against the partnerships who wanted to develop the top ridge. Hitting multinationals is easy – they are everywhere, but faceless property developers like London and Regional Properties are more tricky. Owned by a Dutch company and based in an off-shore Guernsey bank account, these bastard wide boys were almost unreachable, suffice to say we knew where the directors lived.

Eviction Paranoia & Eviction Reality

With Yule came the first major eviction paranoia.The fear was based around unfinished defenses, oh, and the small matter of Bromley being granted an order to evict, at their leisure, with pleasure. We got our minds on the job in hand. Amazing dedication to the cause saw towers appear in all directions and as we entered the final year of the millennium rumours and counter-rumours did the rounds. Again!!

It seemed, paranoia aside, that it was possible and plausible that the Forces of Darkness would strike quickly after the New Year. With this in mind local residents dug deep for the umpteenth time to supply the crew with brew, and vegans with… whatever those funny people eat and drink.

It came to pass that definitely, for certain, 100% they were coming in on the 4th of January. Warnings were issued countrywide and a posse of around 70 people climbed up trees, went down tunnels or locked on and a vigil of around 40 locals anxiously waited from 6am to welcome the state.

Meanwhile at the Epsom site (see article’s end) around 300 police with double that number of security laid siege to the Silver Birches. They met fierce resistance from the sole occupier who moaned about being woken up. Game Over Epsom. Sigh of relief for Palace.

Gypsies paid us 20 per load so that they could dump tires on our site – which we used for defenses. Business flourished as did the barricades – shame about the wildlife. More Swampification by the corporate media, intent on highlighting tedious trivialities. When will we learn?

Storm clouds gathered over the hilltop as the daylight hours grew longer. Many nights and days were spent in various states of mind watching the natural light shows. We had it all there, from temperatures above 100f to downpours, lightning and double rainbows. Ain’t nature wonderful?

After Imbok (yet another pagan date for your diary), the eviction wind up got into gear with the barricading and trial runs happening at the 121 Squat centre just down the road in Brixton (see p. 132). Judging by appearances in February, many on site were starting to wish the eviction on themselves and who can blame them?

At the full moon on the third of March the state moved in to restore their order and repossess this most toxic of squats. People and defenses were readyish for the battle to commence. All through the night before people rushed about sorting out where the last minute drinks were being had. With dawn, there was the arrival of various substances and again lots of media. Whose fuckin’ eviction is this anyway!?

Up in the Faulty Tower our vantage point wasn’t great. Bloody trees were obscuring all the action but it was good enough to see over 350 cops storm in quickly, most in riot gear. Within ten minutes or so a lot of ground support was gone, people failing to get into lock-on positions in the chaos.

The massive operation brought all traffic to a grinding halt. Pensioners and school kids were unwittingly caught up in a military manoeuvre. A half hour into the eviction and the scale of it all was vividly apparent. Fearing a take over of the TV mast masses of pigs had gathered around it getting microwaved to fuck. I mean as if we would…

Fencing contractors ordered by Bromley to break the law duly obliged, fencing off a right of way, flouting the instructions of two High Court judges. Come nightfall that first day, one could only imagine what everyone else was feeling. Underground, up trees, locked on in holes or on your own up a 25 foot tower that had no shelter, no bedding and no food. Dedication to duty does not sum up feelings of admiration for the women and men, girls and boys, who time and time again put their arses on the line. Altruistic beautiful people every single one of ’em.

Evictions are to be enjoyed (if possible) and frankly we were having a giggle constantly baiting baby-faced coppers who couldn’t resist stroking saplings. By day two of the eviction twice as many security had either been arrested for shoplifting, stealing videos or for fighting as had been arrested on our side.

Most of the trees were cut down before nightfall and as we curled up that night, our thoughts were on our brothers and sitters in much more perilous positions than us. Up on the Faulty Tower we went to sleep knowing they were coming to get us – and soon. One of our lot, freezing cold and starving and without brew for two days was still refusing to get off what was a hugely significant strategic tower on top of a bunker. Babylon was duly unimpressed.

Things were getting very surreal. Police were giving us Mexican waves at sunrise. On day three they asked us to sing Happy Birthday to one of their mates.”Is that before you smash our skulls in and spray CS gas in our eyes – or after?” We didn’t bother.

After deliberating for some time they took out the tower quite swiftly. About five hours elapsed before it was finally cleared. This turned into a blessing for it enabled us up there to be re-united with the posse on the terraces just in time for us to witness a pissed chief druid/biker who thinks he’s King Arthur wobble then fall backwards tumbling down the bank. Monarchy – HA!

Typical post-eviction celebrations ensued, fully in the knowledge that three of our mates were still underground. Drinks were drunk for them, repeatedly! Unless having worked and lived underground it is difficult to comprehend the changes in your awareness. Days turned to weeks. On the eighth our Lancashire comrade emerged from his bunker after a butane bottle leaked underground.

Words aplenty have been spoken about the two naughty kids staying underground in their ten by six ft bunker for 19 days. By staying down they massively increased the cost of the eviction. They refused to speak either to the media, police or tunnel teams (see box to the right). This admirable show of no compromise, either with the state or spectacle should be found at evictions more often. Many of us could do a lot worse than following their good example.

The last bunker dwellers were taken off site nearly three weeks after the eviction had started, making Crystal Palace the longest eviction in British history. However, the fight wasn’t over, for a few faced prison on unrelated charges, one of whom after spending 19 days underground was banged up for a month using a 25 year old anti-union law. It just shows the extent of Babylon’s annoyance. I’m sure the 2 million eviction bill must have upset them a bit. Still, they bleeding started it.

So the complex Bromley have about the complex they want has not vanished. As we go to press Babylon is tied up in red tape of its own making. Many of us went back to our homes outside South London while other Palaceites have remained, living as a community squatting in Streatham. Whether still in the area or not we all valued the time and experiences our great Mother produced there. As did loads of residents who changed and adapted to the new climate (of resistance).

The zeitgeist seems to force more and more into taking action, and with each week new people join the hoards.

A Surreal Day In Epsom

It was the first working day of 1999. The headquarters of Shell had been occupied and the London Underground offices had been invaded in solidarity with tube strikers. At the same time around 70 of us had responded to an eviction scare at the Crystal Palace action camp.

Although the eviction alert turned out to be false alarm, we soon found out that whilst we had been waiting for the bailiffs to arrive the eviction at the Epsom anti-road/car park camp elsewhere in South London had begun. Energy and enthusiasm at the Crystal Palace camp was low and many people were reluctant to leave the site. However one vehicle left immediately hoping that security at Epsom would still be minimal and that they’d be able to get on site. Later, I jumped into a car with a few others. During the journey we received a call from the first van who warned us of the scale of the police presence and that the only person to have been at the camp when the eviction began had already been arrested and taken to court. We decided to continue but to go straight to the court to support the person who had been arrested. Arriving at one of the police road blocks stopping all ‘suspicious’ looking vehicles going into the town, we quickly became aware of the size of the police operation. After a brief delay we drove to the court building. It was from this point on that the day became increasingly bizzare.

The camp at Epsom was small with very few people living there and serious resistance to the eviction was unlikely. Despite this being obvious to the local police, whose headquarters were located directly opposite the camp, the scale of the security measures taken was phenomenal. Several hundred police and security surrounded the site whilst bailiffs and climbers cleared the trees and structures that had been built by those resisting the development. Their operation, however, stretched much further than the boundaries of the camp.

Shortly after being refused entry to the court building by five cops, an unmarked white van drew up, the side door opened and several members of the Metropolitan Police FIT team jumped out. They approached us immediately, addressing the person I was with by her first name. Slightly shocked our natural response was to get up and leg it. As we turned the first corner I noticed a person not in police uniform speak into their coat. He also began to chase us along with the two cops from FIT. They were all fairly unfit, so we managed to lose them quite easily. After hiding for a while behind a public toilet we ventured back out onto the High Street. There were cops on almost every street corner. We began walking back to the Court where, along with the person who’d been arrested, we bumped in to a few other’s who had been involved in the campaign.

Keen to find somewhere to get tea and chill out we left the court together. A van full of police in black boiler suits followed us slowly as a group of police photographers took pictures whilst some members of FIT attempted to strike up conversations. Keen not to lead a police convoy to the house of the friendly person who had offered us a room to relax we split up. A couple of people went back to the car we had arrived in, only to be followed by a police van, whilst others of us went into tourist shops to avoid the photographers. Undeterred FIT continued their harassment. Each of us was being tailed by two or three cops, one of whom had either a stills or video camera. Trying to minimise the number of pictures they could get of us we tried to use paper bags from a gift shop as make-shift masks.

It was clear that the cops following us were under instructions not to let us go anywhere without keeping us under observation. Perhaps the local police were expecting either a much larger response to the eviction alert, or for the few people who turned up at the site to attempt to re-occupy the camp or damage the machinery being used to clear the trees. Unfortunately there was no possibility of our being able to achieve either of these things. We called the person driving the car we had arrived in, arranged a meeting point and travelled back to Crystal Palace – followed, of course, by a van full of cops and several members of the FIT team. A truly bizzare day!

Power to the People’s Towers!

Right: During the eviction the Faulty Tower stood firm for two days. Building towers can be a very effective defence tactic in fighting developments. Left: In 1975 as part of the vast resistance to the building of the Toyko Airport at Narita, Japanese peasants built two 62 metre high towers. Standing at the end of the first runway the towers prevented the take off or landing of any planes. Tens of thousands defended the towers, masked up, wearing helmets and wielding pikes. ‘Surrounded by fields, gleaming emerald that day in the rain, the tower exuded strength. It’s steel girders, meshing and intermeshing like the joined arms of it’s defenders. As if the secret forces of the earth had come together to replenish the struggle of those pledged to defend it, against those who would spread the pall of death’-from Libero No.3 (Japanese Anarchist mag) 1976

Two Statements From The Bunker

1) For years politicians have been selling our future to multinational companies. Ordinary people are constantly excluded from decisions about their own environment. The only way for us to resist this is by direct action. Every day we remain, we cost them money, which makes the scheme less viable.

As anarchists we hope that by resisting this development, we will not only protect this historic site, but will move one step closer to a future in which neither politicians, nor business, but people themselves control every aspect of their own lives.

2) Contrary to some opinions, our action was not a media stunt but direct action. Our aim was to protect the site and hinder those who seek to profit from it’s destruction.

As anarchists we understand direct action to be the only way people are empowered, and real change achieved.There is no spectacle that the capitalist media could create that would do justice to the reality of the campaign, or the community that has grown from it. The collective action of this community is more important than any personality or individual efforts.As capitalist media cannot be expected to fairly represent any action that undermines the capitalist system, we will not be saying any more.

Never Trust the Middle Classes

“The treehouses are built, the tunnels dug and the small community is already on eviction alert. A world away, in the rarefied atmosphere of QC Anthony Scrivener’s Gray’s Inn chambers, barrister and Bromley resident Philip Kolvin [far right!] is leading his campaign of ‘professional resistance’ against the council.” (from the Trade magazine Estates Gazette, 20th February 1999.)

Kolvin’s Campaign (nicknamed Babylon’s Protest) purposefully set itself apart from the site, groups and locals involved in direct action, while simultaneously reaping the financial reward of the televised resistance. Mistakenly thinking they were giving money to the site many donated to the ‘campaign’ which instead went on countless fruitless legal manouevres. Money flooded in to the campaign coffers (30,000+) while those on site often went without food or basic action supplies – relying often on what they could skip and steal.

The last two eco-warriors left the tunnels on March 25th.

However, the time and cost of evicting the camp, fighting legal challenges etc, held development off for several years, to the point where in 2001, Bromley Council announced the collapse of the plan.

There’s lots of archived campaign material and history relating to the multiplex plans here

The future of the top of the Park remained a subject of local debate… Here’s a series of updated articles briefly detailing some of the negotiations and plans that have emerged since…

Various plans have come and gone since 2001. In 2003, plan for a modern building in glass was submitted to the Bromley council; ironically proposed by Philip Kolvin, campaigner against the multiplex, who was accused of being an opportunist and self-promoter…

In 2007, a £67 million master plan was drawn up by the London Development Agency which included the building of a new sports centre, the creation of a tree canopy to mimic the outline of the palace, the restoration of the Paxton Axis walkway through the park, but it also included a controversial proposal for housing on two parts of the park. It won government backing in 2010, and the plans were upheld by the High Court in 2012 after a challenge by the Crystal Palace Community Association.

The owners of Crystal Palace F.C. announced plans to relocate the club back to their original home (now the site of the National Sports Centre) from their current Selhurst Park home; this also never happened.

In 2013, a plan to build a replica of the destroyed Crystal Palace was proposed by a Chinese developer. Bromley Council however cancelled the exclusivity agreement with the developer in 2015.

More recently, the running of the park is to be taken over this year from Bromley by the Crystal Palace Park Trust, an independent community trust. As the history of the community’s relations has shown, ‘public’ ownership of space, as with other ‘assets’ has a long and chequered history. ‘Public’ bodies nominally under ‘our’ control do not always manage space, housing, health, (etc) in anything like the interests of ‘the public’. And what is the public? A catch-all term that obscures the vast variety of competing and struggling interests that we are enmeshed in…

We will have to see how ‘community’ control of the Park pans out… as ‘community’, like ‘public’, is a term that can cover a multitude of sins. ‘Community’ management can reflect a narrow caste imposing their vision of a space, or can genuinely encompass how splintering ideas and alternative needs intersect.

Open space is often a zone of contestation. Open spaces all over England have been the focus of dispute and struggle for a thousand years. Apart from everyday uses – in medieval times collecting firewood, grazing animals; later drying clothes, recreation, sports, just walking or hanging out – apart from providing space for everyone, often they were gathering places for the outcast and for rebellious or radical mobs, or places for illicit sex. The poor, the outcast, the sexually promiscuous or unlawful, the homeless, have faced numberless attempts to exclude them by better off residents or City authorities, including campaigns to end rowdy and troublesome fairs, build on ‘wastelands’, enclose ‘unproductive’ commons and marginalise the already precarious, to fence off squares, arrest and drive out beggars, prostitutes (or women simply labelled as such), gays (in centuries when gay sex was illegal and punishable by death), the homeless, etc. The authorities saw open spaces as centres of disorder, immorality; by the 19th century po-faced social reformers had come to see open and unorganised space as immoral in itself, leading to the landscaping of ‘wasteland’, the creation of properly laid out parks – a process which was thought to have a civilising effect on the people who used it.

These conflicts have not gone away – from the restrictive bylaws of the parks to modern control orders, parts of the ‘community’ and the ‘public’ clash constantly over how space is used, respectability and unruly… Echoing also the largely middle class legal campaign against the Crystal Place multiplex and the uneasy alliance with the activist hippy riot of the eco-camp; anti-enclosure struggles historically also often had their legalistic and riotous sides (as at nearby One Tree Hill…) Which in reality both generally contributed to spaces being saved, but was not always the end of the dispute over what the space should BE.

Also – we kind of LIKE the top of Crystal Palace Park wilder and unmanaged; landscaping that had gone to seed, weeds growing over the terraces… Wilderness, re-wilding of Victorian strait-lacedness… The camp too was like another new world being half-built and struggling to emerge (though it had its problemos)… No to multiplexes in parks, yes, but also no to every park being planned and mowed…

Martin Spence, in talking about the enclosure of Penge Common, has thrown up a question about ‘commons’ – if we posit a new commons, shared collective inheritance for us all (echoing the vision of shared traditional use of the land on the old ‘commons’) – what should that consist of? Can our shared use of open space be expanded into a ‘commons’? Commons traditionally were also venues for struggle BETWEEN users, between parishes as well as between classes.

We need a new commons… based not in the past but in the future. The main thing to take from the numberless struggles to preserve open space is that people won because they considered the places they were defending to be theirs, to belong to them, even when that stood in opposition to the legal ‘reality’… Although sometimes relying on those traditions and common rights as the basis for legal argument didn’t work, often when it formed the backbone for direct action and a collective campaigning approach, this sense of the commons being ‘ours’ could overcome all the power of law, profit and parliament. This is a lesson worth taking when we think about how we view open space: although we can take many inspirations from our history, reliance on the past can not be a defence, we need to be re-forging a sense that the resources of the world are for all of us, for people’s enjoyment, not for the profit of a few.

We need to be redefining what is ours, collectively, in opposition and defiance of the laws and fences built to exclude us; and not just when it comes to green or urban space, but for the whole world. In the midst of 21st century London, a whirlwind of global profit, backed by a government with a determined ruling class agenda, is uprooting communities, altering the landscape, destroying or severely hamstringing any right to social housing, welfare, health, education, for increasing numbers of us.

 

Today in London anti-racist history, 1981: the Black People’s Day of Action protests the New Cross Fire

On Sunday 18th January 1981, 13 black youths, all between the ages of 15 and 20 years old, were killed in a fire at a birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson, at 439 New Cross Road, in the heart of the South London neighbourhood of New Cross.

The victims of the New Cross fire were Humphrey Brown, 18, Peter Campbell, 18, Steve Collins, 17, Patrick Cummings, 16, Gerry Francis, 17, Andrew Gooding, 14, Lloyd Richard Hall, 20, Patricia Denise Johnston, 15, Rosalind Henry, 16, Glenton Powell, 15, Paul Ruddock, 22, Yvonne Ruddock, 16, and Owen Thompson, 16.

Twenty seven others were seriously injured.

Anthony Berbeck, caught up in the fire, was believed to have committed suicide following the trauma of the event, in July 1983.

The police initially concluded that the fire was caused by a firebomb, and many believed that it was a racist attack – not unreasonably, as racial attacks and racist fire-bombings had been endemic against black and asian communities throughout the previous decade.

“The suspicion was that it was a racial attack. A lot of that was happening in the country at the time, in the East End of London, everywhere. So it seemed perfectly reasonable to believe the place had been fire-bombed. I genuinely believe that, and everybody believed that at the time. A policeman told Mrs Ruddock on the night of the fire that there was a fire-bomb – from his mouth came the words.” 

Over the preceding two decades, elements of the political class and the media had stoked a climate of racism in which horrific levels of brutality, including murder, became routine. The incidence of racist attacks was closely related to government and media-inspired resentment against immigration; of the 64 racist murders between 1970 and 1986, 50 occurred in the five years – 1976 and 1978-81 – when immigration scares ‘reached fever pitch’.

The New Cross fire occurred in the context of racist arson attacks across South London, particularly in New Cross and Deptford. In 1971, three petrol bombs had been thrown into an African-Caribbean party in Sunderland Road in Ladywell. The immediate response of the police was to arrest eight members of the Black Unity and Freedom Party on their way home from visiting victims in Lewisham hospital. Both the Moonshot youth club in New Cross and the Albany centre in Deptford had been burnt out by fascists in the preceding few years.

After initially suggesting that the New Cross Fire might be a racist attack, the police quite quickly back-pedalled on the racial aspect of the tragedy. Police officers had told Mrs Ruddock twice, within the first couple of hours of the fire, that it had been caused by a petrol bomb. The first officer to point to arson was on the scene outside the house, the second at King’s College Hospital. Other witnesses reported the suspicious behaviour of a man who pulled up and drove off in White Austin Princess. Four days later, the South East London Mercury reported that the police were trying to trace the driver of the vehicle which was parked outside the house (22 January 1981)

Survivors and witnesses were grilled by the police and treated with suspicion, and hostility, even at the inquest: “I was one of the last people to give evidence, and so I had to watch everyone – you know, all my friends go in and do their bit, and then it was me. And I was scared. But I used the inquest as an opportunity to let everyone know what had happened the night when the police did interview me, ‘cos I felt as if they were asking me the questions and then they were answering them themselves. So I used that as an opportunity to say, Well, okay, this was what was happening. But I think the build-up to it was a lot worse than the actual day was. Bishop Wood was a big help. And he was in there with me, and I suppose I needed someone in there with me, anyway. And he was my support, really, yeah. It was an experience, for my age. It was an experience, and not one I’d like to go through again in a hurry. Yeah, it was terrible. Every morning, you’d pull up at the court and it would be sort of, like, cameramen and all that, every day…. There were times when I did feel, especially when 1 was being interviewed by the police, I felt like, Hold on, I am the victim here, yet I feel as if I’m a suspect.”

Family members and the local black community felt the attack was ignored and belittled – there was little serious press coverage or official sympathy. Police fed stories to the media about gate-crashers and cannabis at the party, detained black youth for questioning and twisted evidence at every turn to ‘prove’ that the fire was not started by racists. Despite the fact that the New Cross massacre was the worst atrocity suffered by black people in Britain, it took the Day of Action to force MPs to raise it in parliament. Local Labour MP, John Silkin, said not one word in the House of Commons and for three weeks did not send even a message of condolence to the families. As one woman stated at a press conference, if the fire had taken place in a dog’s home and killed 12 dogs, there would have been more response.

“The action committee – which was Darcus Howe then, and Mrs Phoenix – they wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and one to the Queen. And they never get a reply until six weeks after. Six weeks after! That’s when they get the reply. But, I think it was two weeks after the New Cross march, they had one in Ireland and forty-eight died. That was a Sunday, too, ‘cos that happened this Saturday night, some disco, and forty-eight people die. And straight away condolence went from here to there, and we had to wait for six weeks reply. That was bad! Bad, that very bad. Something happen in your country and you write to the authorities and you didn’t get no response from them. And six weeks after the time, that couldn’t look good, and 1 felt very bad about that. That wasn’t good enough, six weeks.”

To the families, friends of the dead, and wider communities they came from, the lives and deaths of black people were considered unimportant; black lives did not matter.

Racist attacks on black people in Britain had been part of black communities’ lives since the 1950s; the activities of fascist groupings like the National Front and the British Movement had been both capitalising on white British racism and encouraging and whipping it up though the 1970s.

An inquiry was launched, led by South London head of CID, Commander Graham Stockwell This enraged black activists, as Stockwell had been instrumental in reinstating the incitement to riot charges against the Mangrove Nine (including Darcus Howe). Stockwell’s form was not lost on the campaigners. Darcus Howe was convinced that the decision to put Stockwell in charge of the investigation was essentially “a political decision, because he knew some of the characters in the game”. Relations between the police and the local community were already strained, with the Metropolitan Police accused of lacking urgency.  There was a rejection of moves by police to bring the black community behind the Community Relations Councils (CRCs) and the Commission for Racial Equality, as this was seen as undermining an independent struggle for justice.

The NCMAC also established a Fact Finding Commission on 20 Jan 1981 to compile its own evidence through interviews with survivors and with the bereaved.  It not only carried out an independent investigation as to what had happened, but also found out through such interviews about the methods that the police were using to obtain their information.  Allegations were made that some of those interviewed by police had been forced into signing false statements under pressure. The Fact Finding Committee discovered that the police were detaining the young survivors of the fire, in some cases without their parents’ permission, and pressurising them into signing statements saying the fire was the result of a fight at the party. 11-year-old Denise Gooding, whose 14-year old brother Andrew had died in the fire, was questioned in a police station for many hours before finally being released at 1 a.m. During the interrogation, she was repeatedly told by officers not to lie, just to tell them there was fighting in the house. NCMAC would eventually expose how child witnesses were made to sign false statements under police duress at the Inquest into the fire, by which point the Met had abandoned the theory of a fight as the cause of the fire altogether. However, as La Rose later pointed out, the movement had been forced to “exercise every ounce of alertness and vigilance to stop the police framing a group of young blacks who were at the party”.

Rumours of a racist attack carried out by far right groups were too easily overlooked by the police.

For many Black Londoners the New Cross Fire was the last straw. The fire was to have a long and traumatic impact on black consciousness in the UK – in the short term it galvanised a sudden and angry movement in response. New Cross was after all, the arena for mass resistance to a National Front march in 1977: locals were less and less prepared to be pushed around by racists or treated like shit by the police.

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee, chaired by John La Rose, was mobilised to protest at the apparent bias and mishandling of the police investigation into the fire, to challenge the indifference shown by the government, and to highlight distorted media coverage.  Fuelled by a history of attacks on black people, including several incidents in the Lewisham, New Cross and Deptford areas, suspicions soon arose about police methods of detection and inherent racism.

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee coalesced around three members of the Black Parents Movement – Darcus Howe, John La Rose, and Roxy Harris, together with Alex Pascall – who formed a delegation and visited Mrs Gee Ruddock, owner of 439 New Cross Road, at the house of black community leader Sybil Phoenix.  Mrs Ruddock had lost both of her children in the fire.

“’I was in a meeting of the Black Parents’ Movement. There was an alliance between the Black Parents’ Movement, Race Today, which I edited, and the Black Youth Movement. That would be at Finsbury Park, around John Larose’ and the New Beacon Bookshop, and we were there on Sunday night and a phone call came, I think it was via Sibyl Phoenix, to tell us that this terrible thing had happened on the Saturday. And the first thing we did was to stop the meeting, adjourned it, and went. And we met Mrs Ruddock and Sibyl Phoenix and they invited all of us down on the Monday to the Moonshot Club, youth club.” (Darcus Howe)

The Pagnell St/Moonshot Youth Club in Pagnell Street, New Cross, was a local community centre established for and by black youth: survivors had gathered here in the early hours of Sunday morning. Sybil Phoenix, who ran the Moonshot, had arrived at the scene of the fire while bodies were still being carried from the building. Phoenix had been asked by the police to try to find people who had been at the party to help identify the badly burned bodies. She was to play a crucial role supporting the bereaved through the devastation of the days and weeks that followed.

On the Sunday after the fire (20th January 1981), a mass meeting was held at the Pagnell Street Community Centre in New Cross, attended by over 1000 people.

“And we thought, or I certainly thought, Well, we’re going to meet a committee of about ten people. When we got there there were three hundred people. John and I were, by and large, two of the major figures in that alliance, so I said, “John, this is trouble. This is it.” But, you see, I wasn’t surprised that much, because the black people were starting to gather.” (Howe)

At the beginning of the meeting, Lewisham Police Commander John Smith arrived uninvited to address those present: his words were drowned out by angry shouts of ‘ Go away murderer! ’. Smith, visibly shaken, by the experience, later called his reception ‘ rather sad ’. Flanked by Scotland Yard Press Officer, Bob Cox, he left the building without speaking. So much anger against the Met was hardly surprising – police had failed to investigate a string of suspected racist attacks in the area properly. The Met’s failures, particularly when dealing with suspected arson, were legion. The Moonshot club itself had burnt down in December 1977 a few weeks after reports of it being identified as a target for attack during a local meeting of the National Front. Nonetheless, the police excluded arson as a possible cause. Similarly, the police’s decision to rule out foul play when The Albany Theatre in Creek Road, Deptford, burnt down in August 1978 caused rage locally.

“And then we decided to have a public meeting. This is Monday, for Saturday, and when we went down there were about three thousand people.”

The second meeting ended with a demonstration to 439 New Cross Road, which blocked the main road (the A2) for several hours.

A series of public meetings were held across London to encourage support.  There were also regional committees set up across the country, in Leicester, Manchester and Rugby, as well as committees in North, West, and South East London.

“And we started to meet every Tuesday. It was a kind of black assembly – hundreds of people came every Tuesday. John Larose was chair. We had a committee which I was on, the officers were officers of Race Today in Brixton, by which time we could organise. We took a political decision to do that, for one simple reason: every single week you would hear clashes between the police and blacks all over London and it was becoming something of importance. There were other issues at large, and I said, “Well, if they’re going to kill so many kids in a fire, we have to mobilise and show them we got some power in this place, and only way to do that is to call a general strike of blacks.” That was at the back of my mind. I discussed it with Race Today people. I said, “Let’s see how it goes ‘cos I think we can pull this one off.” (Darcus Howe)

It was the Black People’s Assembly which decided on holding a Black People’s Day of Action, on a working day, set for Monday 2nd March 1981. The committee planned a campaign of support for a demonstration on that day.

“So we decided to call a day of action, the meeting, and they decided it should be on a weekday, a working day, and I thought, “Well, let’s see how it goes.”

John La Rose, the chair of the NCMAC, recalled in an interview:

‘People would be saying, “Man we have got to do something about this thing. The police cannot get away with this thing!” That kind of talk went on. And they said, “Yes we’ll go on a march.” “Where are the guns?” That kind of talk…And I said, “Have you heard of a man called Brigadier Frank Kitson, Low Intensity Operations? If you haven’t read his book then you should read it. Because if you are talking about going to Parliament with guns then you have to take on Kitson.” He had been the Commander in Northern Ireland, he was GOC in Britain. I said, “Let’s talk seriously, you are starting at the end, let’s start at the beginning.”

‘We had that sort of interchange all the time at the meetings, very open, free meetings. So they said, “OK we’ll go on a march.” We said, “Well, what day are we going to march?” Because the normal marches took place on a Sunday, when nobody’s working, everyone’s home, the people said that they wanted it to be on a day when the British are bound to take notice. So what day? We had to disrupt British society; that was absolutely clear. That is what we were saying in that movement. We wanted to snarl up traffic all over London.

‘So we decided it must be a Monday; that came from within the audience. We wanted to make this place realise that we’re serious and we’re going to disrupt the whole of British society. We aren’t going to work that day…

‘What demonstrations in the past usually did was to march on Hyde Park into Whitehall. We said we were going to go where the people are going to know that this is happening, we’re going to march in all those areas – like Peckham – before we come to Blackfriars Bridge. That way you are going to hit that area of London with all those people who are really concerned about what’s happening in the whole New Cross area, and then march through the financial centre, the City, and shake up the place, terrify them.x

The Black People’s Day of Action saw the biggest political mobilisation of black people seen in Britain up to that point. 20,000 black people and their supporters marched over a period of eight hours from Fordham Park in New Cross, through Peckham, Elephant and Castle, across Blackfriars Bridge, into Fleet Street, Regent Street, then Cavendish Street and finally into Hyde Park, with banners and placards with slogans including: ‘Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said’, ‘No Police Cover‑Up’, ‘Blood Ah Go Run If Justice No Come’, ‘New Cross Massacre Cover Up’; ‘Forward to Freedom’, ‘Babylon will fall’; ‘No stopping us now we are on the move’; ‘No Rights, No Obligations’.

Attempts by the police to control and restrict the scope of the march had failed. As the Day of Action drew closer, Darcus Howe entered into tense negotiations with the authorities over the route and date of the march. Howe and John La Rose headed a small delegation which met with Inspector Pollinghorne, who had been placed in charge of policing the march, at Brixton Police Station in late February. The NCMAC proposed route of the march went from New Cross over Blackfriars Bridge, through the City and Fleet Street, past Scotland Yard and the Houses of Parliament before finishing in Hyde Park some 17 miles later.

The route was symbolic. It had been picked so the protestors could express their disapproval at the distorted press coverage of the fi re, protest at the police’s handling of the investigation and so that the parents of the dead and members of NCMAC could hand in a statement to Parliament voicing concern at the lack of a government response.

Inspector Pollinghorne objected to the length and route of the march and said it should go through the Old Kent Road, a route which the campaign had already rejected. Howe defended the NCMAC’s preferred route, which had been designed to maximise the support and participation of the black community by going via Camberwell and Peckham. Pollinghorne demanded to know how long it would take the protestors to walk the 17 miles. Howe replied: ‘ you’re a military man, Inspector, we plan to advance a mile a day ’. At this, Pollinghorne walked out. The meeting lasted barely 5 minutes.

The police, in particular, felt large demos of angry black people to be a challenge to their control of the streets. London’s Black population felt they could be burned to death, without much comment, but god forbid they take to the streets in anger.

Darcus Howe recalled that the weather on the morning of Monday 2 March was beautiful; not cold but temperate and bright. He arrived at Fordham Park next to the Moonshot in good time and watched the marchers assemble in awe as wave upon wave came down the hill into the valley to join him in the park. Buses, organised by the NCMAC, kept arriving carrying black people from across the country. Hundreds of school children walked out of their schools to join the demonstration.

“The start of the demonstration was in a valley. You came down a hill in this little valley. And I was there, commander in chief, really, on the day, dealing with the stuff. I was in charge of the big truck, and I was in charge of the mike. So I was settled in. I was there on time, and beautiful weather, not cold, just temperate, bright sun, and waves and waves and waves and waves and waves of black people coming down that hill. It was a Charge of the Light Brigade… And off we went: “Thirteen dead and nothing said.” That was the slogan. “Thirteen dead and nothing said.” So the whole organisation of the march was around the fact that we can’t get an explanation from anybody.” (Darcus Howe)

“In the wake of the New Cross Fire we took a decision very early in the first meeting that it was a massacre politically. We decided that the protest would be Black~led and we decided that we would mobilise the whole country from a central co~ordinating group. I can remember very vividly being part of the debate. It was clear that we didn’t want it to be part of a commission or whatever because those bodies are not political bodies. If we were to wage any struggle, it had to be a political struggle, purely based on the resources of the community. You don’t apply for grants to take political action!” (Trevor Sinclair)

The march had been planned carefully. The stewards, who wore identification berets, were briefed by Howe to show discipline and restraint in the face of police provocation, ‘otherwise the march would collapse into a mass violence and the point would not be made’. With the Collective acting as chief stewards, he knew that if anything went wrong ‘ we would be held responsible ’.

The police had said they wanted the march to start at 11.30 a.m. At 11 a.m., Howe called over to one of the officers and said ‘ Let ’ s go ’ in the hope it would upset any plans they might have to disrupt the march along the route. It was tactical flourishes like this which led Linton Kwesi Johnson to christen Howe with the nickname ‘ General ’. Tactics aside, Howe opines that the police were unprepared in a second sense. From studying James, from his experiences in the Caribbean and America, from travelling the country during the Lindo Campaign, from the Basement Sessions, and his run-ins with the police, Howe was prepared for the Day of Action. The event was unprecedented, but Howe’s years of experience organising campaigns and his theoretical understanding of the dynamics involved in mass protest meant that he was as prepared as anyone for the march. The police, by contrast, had no idea what they were dealing with. “They underestimated us. . . . They thought we were a load of little, stupid, black people.” The police were caught off guard by the scale of the march and the sophistication of the organisation. “There had never seen that size demonstration of black people before. So the police didn’t know culturally what to do”. (Howe).

As the march set off along New Cross Road, Howe could see that many thousands had missed school or work to protest. By the time that the front of the march arrived at the remains of 439 New Cross Road half a mile away and stopped to pay its respects to the 13 young lives lost in the inferno, the tail end of the march had not yet left the Fordham Park.

“… undoubtedly, [it was] black people, in the leadership of the march. In the main, if you look at street demonstrations, even street demonstrations around issues that affect black people, you get a sense that white people were somehow in command of events. They’d organised it. This was black organised, black led and you felt that. So it was very much a black community event. And then the numbers who joined it, that was significant, as you went along. But also in some parts of the march the hostility, directed by people who were undoubtedly racist…” (Darcus Howe)

As the mass of people passed through Southwark towards Blackfriars Bridge, the organisers reckoned that somewhere in the region of 25,000 people may have been on the march. When the chief stewards tallied their numbers together at the end, the final figure they arrived at was a little over 20,000. There was a sense that the police were frightened, that they had never seen anger from the black community on this scale before and that the movement which had mobilised that day ‘shook them to their roots’ .

When the march got to Blackfriars Bridge, it started to rain. A small delegation consisting of John la Rose and the victims ’ families left the head of march to take their protest to Parliament. A group of about 50 young people at the front of the march pressed ahead and overtook the lorry only to find they were confronted by rows of police blocking the entrance to Blackfriars Bridge. The police were determined to stop the demonstration from crossing the bridge. The bridge was symbolic. This was the first protest march since the Chartist Procession of 10 April 1848 to attempt to cross Blackfriars Bridge and the police were determined to block it. As a result, fighting broke out as the youth struggled to break through the police lines and fought to free comrades arrested by the police. “. . . Runners amongst the stewards were despatched to bring forward the truck trapped way back from the pitched battle. Chaos was increased as contradictory directives were issued by the police commanders. As Lewisham police tried to ease a way for the truck to move forward, the City police continued with blocking manoeuvres. The impasse was broken as the truck nosed its way through the seething mass, Rasta flag flying aloft. Strengthened now by the presence of the lorry, the crowd with one last heave laid siege to the police line, and with a resounding cheer, broke through the cordon.”

Among those arrested during the melee by police officers who called him a ‘ cunt ’ and ‘ bastard ’ was the Policy Studies Institute undercover researcher who was writing a police-funded study of young black attitudes towards the police….!

“We come across Blackfriars Bridge. No demonstration had crossed that bridge since the Chartists and, suddenly, the police threw a cordon across the road and say, “You are not going anywhere.” And the driver of that huge wagon, I said, “Drive!” Just leant towards him. “Drive that.” Brrrrm! And the police . . . “What? Are you going to stand before a truck?” I don’t know any police officer that brave. And we crossed the bridge into Fleet Street, running…” (Howe)

Once they had crossed the Thames, the protestors regrouped and continued their demonstration through the City and into Fleet Street. Marching in tight formation past the Red Tops and broadsheets, the protestors offered up the cries of ‘ Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said ’ and ‘ Fleet Street Liars ’. All the participant accounts concur in reporting abuse that the marchers received from the offices in Fleet Street.

“And then as we came up Fleet Street there, the taunting and the abuse that rained down upon us from the Express building in particular, I will never forget that.” (Paul Boateng)

As they passed by The Sun‘s offices ‘ there was a torrent of racial abuse from people working in the building . . . “ Go Back Home you Black Bastards ” , the usual banal kind of things that these people say ’… people leaning out of windows making ‘ monkey noises ’ and throwing banana skins at the crowd.

Against the chants of ‘ Justice, Justice ’ and the jeers of journalists, Fleet Street also saw renewed confrontation between the protestors and the police.

“In Fleet Street the whole mood of policing changed. The police imposed themselves on marchers, pushing, shoving, and kicking people off pavements. Scuffles broke out up and down Fleet Street, and, unlike Peckham, it was the police and not the stewards who stood guard in front of shops.”

In an isolated incident, which the vast majority of protesters were oblivious to, one small group broke off from the demonstration to smash and loot a jeweller’s shop. As police tried to stop them, an officer was injured. Obviously this was the incident that dominated the newspapers the next day. Despite the aggressive police tactics, of the thousands who marched that day, only 25 were nicked and charged with minor offences by the police.


There continued to be clashes and altercations with the police for the remainder of the march. Police rode horses into families with young children at Cumberland Gate in an apparent attempt to break up the march and stop it reaching Hyde Park.

Notwithstanding the provocative methods used to police the march, it did finally reach its destination at Hyde Park 7 hours aft er it had set out from Fordham Park. Thousands of protestors gathered around the lorry to listen to speeches by Howe and others.

From New Cross to Hyde Park, traffic in central London was brought to a standstill. Youth fought to break through police lines at Blackfriars Bridge and the march surged into the heart of the City… ‘city gents cowered in their offices terrified at the sight of the oppressed demanding justice’. The symbols of wealth – a bank and a jeweller’s shop – ‘fell victim to a hail of bricks and stones: journalists who quite rightly are seen as siding with the racist British state got rough justice…when a youth was arrested the march came to an immediate halt shouting “Let him go!” which police were forced to do as the marchers refused to move without their captured comrade.’

The racist response of the millionaire press to the 2 March was predictable. The Sun raved of ‘a frenzied mob’. Headlines screamed ‘The Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London’.

For many on the black communities, the Day of Action felt like the birth, or rebirth, of a large-scale black people’s movement in the UK; the sense of strength it gave people in the midst of the horror and tragedy of the fire help cement community and political unity of a kind…

If many first generation West Indians who moved to the UK responded to the racism, police attacks, discrimination, they faced by trying to keep their heads down, not making a fuss, putting up with, (if not completely accepting as fair) shit jobs, overcrowded housing and constant abuse, hoping it would gradually disappear over time. (This is not true of all, witness the self defence organised in 1958 against racist rioters in Notting Hill.) As their children grew up, however, a new angrier attitude evolved.

“Those of us who came here in the late 50s and early 60s were constrained by the myth that we were going home sooner or later, that we would earn some money and go, and therefore tended to put up with things that we knew were wrong – but there are young blacks who were born here, who have grown up here, who eat bangers and mash, egg and chips” (Darcus Howe)

This generation reacted to police oppression with a completely different attitude: this was their home, they had little intention of “returning” to islands they barely knew if at all, and were determined to make space for themselves in Britain; to force institutions and society to respect black people and their rights.

“British rulers had maintained that young blacks, who were born here or grew up here, would follow the social pattern laid down for their parents. Young blacks, they hoped, would meekly accept those jobs that refused to do; they would bow, bend before and make accommodations with their employers; they would be hesitant and cautious in their opposition to police malpractice. Undoubtedly some did, but the major tendency among the youth was a rejection, a total and militant rejection to these established ways of immigrant life.” (Race Today, 1982)

The feeling of a growing widespread resistance to racism, both organised and unofficial, murderous and repressive or simply daily harassment, was amplified five weeks later when Brixton erupted into uprising in response to years of racist policing and in particular Operation Swamp ’81.

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

Postscript: Inquests into the Fire

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee closely monitored the Inquest proceedings, which began at County Hall in London on 21 Apr 1981.  Four theories were advanced from the police: 1) a firebomb attack from outside the building; 2) an opportunist arson attack from outside the building; 3) a deliberate fire from inside the building; 4) an accidental fire from inside the building.  However, it was soon clear that racial motives were being ruled out as theories 1 and 2 were abandoned, despite the revelation from forensics that a possible incendiary device had been found at the scene.  The speed and force of the fire had also caused a police officer at the scene to conclude that a petrol bomb had been thrown into the house, but this theory was dismissed.  The Coroner, Dr. Arthur Gordon Davies, refused to take any notes of evidence during the hearing, preferring to read from police statements.  The jury returned an open verdict.

Families with the support of the NCMAC appealed for the inquest verdict to be quashed and demanded a new inquest, considering the hearing to have been biased.  The fact that the Coroner refused to take notes during the hearing was ruled illegal under Section 6 of the Coroner’s Act 1887, and the Attorney General authorised the Appeal lodged by the relatives of the dead.  The integrity of the initial investigation was also called into question.  On 10 May 1982, the relatives won leave to Appeal, and an Appeal date was set for 5 July 1982.  However, the inquest jury refused to quash the open verdict. Despite attempts by the courts to avoid a second inquest, the NCMAC and relatives of the victims demanded that a new inquest should take place.

An International Commission of Inquiry was also planned by the NCMAC, although it never took place.  In an unfortunate decision, the Courts decided to hear the Appeal during the same period planned for the International Commission of Inquiry.  The latter had already been postponed from Jan 1982 due to the unavailability of some of the Commissioners chosen.  In Jun 1983, the NCMAC was at last planning to hold its own independent inquiry, but decided to postpone it again after detectives suggested that they might be on the verge of a breakthrough. This subsequently turned out to be misleading.

The Committee also established a Fire Fund to support the families involved, to raise money to help families to bury their dead, and to care for the injured.  The fund was chaired by Alex Pascall, member of NCMAC, and broadcaster of the daily Black Londoners BBC Radio London programme.  Access to broadcasting proved invaluable for interviewing relatives and members of the NCMAC, reporting on the New Cross Massacre Campaign, encouraging public support, and analysing social and political tensions.  A total of £27,000 was raised.

Annual vigils and memorial services continued to be held on the anniversary of the fire. The New Cross Memorial Trust was also set up in 1981 by the families of the victims.  Following a request from black community leader Sybil Phoenix, Lewisham council erected a memorial to the victims of the New Cross fire in 1997.

Despite repeated requests, the opportunity for a second inquest did not come until 1997, when the police re-opened the investigation.  Calls for a new inquest were twice rejected, until the High Court finally agreed in 2002.  A second Inquest began in Feb 2004, 23 years after the New Cross fire occurred.  An open verdict was again returned.