Spotlight on London’s radicals: The Deptford Infidels

The 19th century saw a ferment among working class radicals around freedom from religion and ‘freethinking’. Throughout the Victorian age, religion was a dominant force in the lives of the vast majority of the UK population. The Church of England exerted a powerful influence; the parson dominated the village. Until 1836 parsons received a tithe from residents of the parish. Social life for millions of people revolved around choir and Sunday School outings; employers insisted that their employees go to church and sacked those that didn’t, or would only hire orthodox believers. Most people were members of the Anglican or Presbyterian Church, although there were some Catholics and increasing numbers of Non-conformists, Quakers and Methodists. Until 1829, anybody holding public office had to make a public oath denying Catholic doctrines, which meant that Catholics could not be civil servants, Justices of the Peace or judges. No university would even admit a non-Anglican, let alone a non-believer.

On the one hand, religious ‘revivalism’ was massive – John Wesley’s Methodist Church and other newer strands of protestantism attracted many among the exploding urban centres, where millions dislocated by industrialisation were ripe for conversion…

On the other hand, doubt and questioning were filtering through society. The industrial revolution had broken numerous bonds that bound classes together, and a ferment of political and social subversion was spreading, especially among working class people radicalised by the naked exploitation of capitalism in its most voracious phrase. Belief in a supreme being was on the wane, particularly where people were already questioning belief in supremacy of the powers above them on earth…

A provocative and courageous tradition runs through the nineteenth century, influenced by Thomas Paine, but finding a solid focus around Richard Carlile, and from him spiralling out through the unstamped press agitation, cross-fertilising and feeding into the Owenite co-operative movement and the political movements it helped to germinate. Carlile’s bookshops around Fleet Street, and the lectures that took place at his Rotunda in Blackfriars Road (early on featuring the ‘Devil’s Chaplain’, Robert Taylor) were hugely influential in spreading the questioning of religion… Carlile acted as mentor to other ‘blasphemous’ writers and speakers, including the pioneering female secularist Eliza Sharples, who herself helped to form the ideas of the later titan of the National Secular Society, Charles Bradlaugh. As Chartism waned and economic prosperity led to a (temporary) decline in the movement for political reform, many old Chartists and radicals formed the backbone of a network of working men’s clubs, sprouting through the 1860s-70s, dedicated to discussion of ideas, self-education, through lectures, debate, sharing of publications and spreading knowledge. Many were infused with ideas from the co-operative and early trade union movements; motivating ideas ranged from liberalism through to a class-conscious revolutionary proto-socialism. The clubs formed part of a transition from Chartism to a radical/liberal milieu from which the earliest recruits to Marxism and anarchism later emerged, (eg the Social Democratic Federation). And a vocal questioning of religion formed an important strand in this tradition. 

Below we repost an article on the secularist movement in just one area of South East London, written by Terry Liddle, a long time socialist activist and writer on the history of secularism and radicalism. This kind of agitation was mirrored all around the capital and other cities, especially in the 1860s-1890s.


Terry Liddle

This is not a concise history. Rather it is a thumbnail sketch of secularism and related radicalisms in South London and nearby areas of North Kent in the 1870s. This was the period between the decline of Chartism as a national movement and the rise of socialism. It was also the period of a short but intense republican agitation triggered by the fall of Napoleon le petit and the restoration of a French Republic.

The area has a long radical tradition. A Chartist organisation was formed in Greenwich in the 1830s. In the 1840s mass Chartist rallies on Blackheath were addressed by Fergus O’Connor and in the 1850s Chartist activities in the area were regularly reported in Deptford man George Harney‘s Red Republican.

As Chartism declined, many Chartists, freethinkers already, moved into secularism. (Note 1) The first secular society was formed in 1854 by Augustus Dinmore, a rope maker and Advanced Liberal. And in 1865 Le Lubez formed the Deptford and Greenwich Secular Society (DGSS) to join the Land and Labour League and a short lived branch was formed. In the 1860s the Deptford United Irishmen held a march in support of the Fenians while Woolwich and Plumstead secularists held a tea party and soiree to celebrate Thomas Paine. In March 1870 a Mr Babbs called on members of DGSS to join the Land and Labour League and a short lived branch was formed.

In 1873 a branch of the First International was formed in Woolwich, its secretary was H. Maddox. It stopped German workers scabbing on a strike by engineers at the Siemens factory.

By 1871 the National Reformer, a weekly edited by Charles Bradlaugh had a number of agents in Deptford including a Mr Laverick in Friendly Street. It also had three agents in Woolwich including one near the Dockyard gate. That year John Joseph of Woolwich was listed as an active member of the National Secular Society. 2
At a meeting held in March of that year G. French of 6, Naval Place, Amersham Vale, New Cross, was elected secretary. At the meeting there followed an “animated conversation” on PA Taylor opposing the dowry of Princess Louise. 3

In May of that year the Southwark Republican Club, secretary Belliston, held a public meeting. 4
In June 1871 the Greenwich Advanced Liberal Association (GALA) issued an invitation to a conference to be held in October to members of the Radical Party in and out of Parliament. The secretary was T S Floyd of East Street Greenwich. 5
The GALA, formed in 1869 at a public meeting of 500, wanted independent working class representation in Parliament, and so found itself in conflict with mainstream liberalism. A leading member the secularist William McCurly stated : “It was now time for the working classes to think for themselves and manage their own affairs.” Another leading secularist was E W Balbin who secretary of the Greenwich Reform League which agitated for the vote for adult male workers. In the Beehive of April 14, 1865 he wrote “Numbers of slaves (slaves of capital) and hungry bellies are the millionaires joy.”
Following a local agitation in support of farm labourers, members of GALA formed the Deptford Radical Association.
At the time the main form of propaganda was the open air public meeting. The Greenwich and Deptford secularists held these at Deptford Broadway. The National Reformer reported that on June 18, 1871 Mr Antill had spoken, giving his reasons why the gospel should be rejected. In July that year at a meeting in the Duke of Cambridge, Deptford High Street, a Mr Bishop lectured the Advanced Liberal Association on taxation and expenditure. 6 Also in July Mr Wade lectured on the Broadway on Republicanism and the Bible. The following Sunday at 7pm on Blackheath Mr Mesh lectured on the atonement. In August Mr Bishop was speaking on prophecies of the Bible. “There was a deal of opposition at the close”. 7

On August 28, 1871 Charles Bradlaugh spoke in Deptford Town Hall on the impeachment of the house of Brunswick, the title of his Republican pamphlet.“The lecture was loudly cheered at the close.” The following Sunday Robert Forder was speaking on the Broadway on gentlemen of the Bible. 8

In September Thomas Motteshead was speaking to South London Secular Society on the Commune and its mission. 9
By now the Deptford and Greenwich Secular Society was holding three open air meetings on Sundays at Deptford, Blackheath and Woolwich. Subjects included Dr Bate on the prophets, Kirby on moral evidence of Christianity and Forder on external evidence of the existence of Jesus. At the conference of the National Secular Society, G. French was elected a member of the council.

In January 1872 several members journeyed to Northfleet where they met the secular friends of that neighbourhood. The owner of the Royal Charlotte Music Hall had put a room holding 150 for a meeting. Soon after a Northfleet Republican Club was formed. 10
The National Reformer of May 26, 1872 reported a meeting in Camberwell of the Universal Republican League where ‘Citizen Chatterton’ spoke on ‘land and money lords’. Could this have been Dan Chatterton whose paper Chatterton’s Commune was filled with his Chartist memoirs and challenges to the clergy, usually not accepted, to debate?
Camberwell Republican meetings were held on Sunday morning in Church Street and in the evenings in the Rose and Crown in Acorn Street. 11

In July at a meeting of the Advanced Liberal Association Thomas Mooney lectured on the structure of the Swiss and American Republics. In Camberwell a Mr McAra was speaking on the necessity of the direct representation of the working class in parliament. 12
At meetings of the Kent Secular Union W Ramsey spoke in Rochester in the afternoon on ‘Hell and damnation’ and that evening in Chatharn on ‘God’s chosen people’. These were followed by meetings in Chatham where G W Foote spoke on Cromwell and John De Morgan spoke on the International. 13

By January, 1873 the National Reformer had two agents in Greenwich, three in Deptford, and one each in Plumstead and New Cross Gate.
On March 23 a Mr Riddle spoke to the Camberwell Discussion Society on land nationalisation and the following week G W Foote spoke to South London Secular Society on Napoleon. 14
At the Republican conference held in Birmingham on May 12 Le Lubez represented Deptford and Greenwich Secular Society. At a meeting of this body to be held in the Lecture Hall, Deptford the speaker was to be Harriet Law.

Come 1874 the National Reformer was advertising meetings of Deptford Radical Association in the Duke of Cambridge. At a meeting of the South London Secular Society held on January 11 a Mr Wood spoke on ‘was Christ an historical figure’.
In the spring of that year meetings continued on Deptford Broadway. Mr Hale spoke on the teachings of Christ to a “numerous and attentive audience”. Forder spoke on the improbability of the gospel history. 15
On June 14 1874, the Secularist Mr Antill visited Blackheath to find a temperance advocate holding forth. Antill suggested Jesus had manufactured wine at a wedding and a considerable debate followed in which Antill set out “at some length his objections to Christianity.” 16

In June a conference of Kentish Freethinkers was held in Northfleet, people travelling by river boat from Deptford, Greenwich and Woolwich. There followed a tea at 5pm. 17
In August the South London Secular Society had debated spiritualism. A Mr Law denounced spiritualism and called on the audience not to put any credence on a system so palpably absurd and ridiculous. 18
By September a Woolwich Freethought Association had been formed and a member of the Corresponding Council of the NSS was duly appointed for Woolwich. “The Freethinkers of Woolwich, Plumstead and Chariton are now organised and there is every probability of a strong society being the result.” Information could be had from R. Forder at 36 Taylor Street, Woolwich. 19
Bradlaugh spoke in Woolwich on ‘is the Bible true?’. “Judging from the repeated cheers of a crowded audience and the weakness of the replies of three opponents, the answer was a decided negative.”
This was followed on October 13 by Mrs Law lecturing on ‘is the Bible a good book?’

In the Lecture Hall in Nelson Street, Greenwich M McSweeny had lectured on ‘heathen mythology, the basis of Jewish and Christian theology’. 20
Forder was elected secretary of the new group, J. Sinclair its president and a Mr Roberts its treasurer. It had members over the river in North Woolwich and Silvertown as well as in Woolwich and Charlton. 21
The Kingston and Surbiton Progressive Society had lectures on phrenology, the Bible and science not in harmony, and GW Foote on the “impeachment of Christianity at the bar of history” The secretary, T Edwards, spoke on ‘why I reject Christianity’. At meetings in Kingston the National Reformer was on sale alongside the Secular Chronicle and Republican Chronicle. In May 6 a tea party attended by 45 people was held “Mr Godfrey presided most admirably on the pianoforte”. 22

On April 4, 1875 Mrs Besant lectured in Powis Street, Woolwich on civil and religious liberty. Several soldiers attended in uniform. “The lecture was admirably delivered and excited great enthusiasm.” 23  On June 1 Bradlaugh lectured in Woolwich on the French Revolution. Local freethinkers agreed to form a branch of the NSS, which would be represented on the NSS Council by Robert Forder. Bradlaugh returned on June 19 to lecture on ‘Washington and Cromwell’ and on September 5 was speaking in Deptford Lecture Hall on the limits of human thought. 24
The secularists now came under attack in the local press. The Kentish Mercury published an article signed “a friend of the working class” accused them of “flaunting their atheism” and complained that people who brought their children to listen to temperance and religious speakers were upset by this. Three weeks later an article signed “a Christian” attacked a lecture by Mrs Law on ‘how I became freethinker and why I remain one’ delivered in Woolwich on September 21. 25

The Deptford Broadway meetings now encountered considerable opposition, speakers having to be taken by the police to the station to escape the mob. The secularists rallied to defend their pitch and peace was soon restored.
All was not doom and gloom. After a meeting to arrange a lecture by Mrs Besant, Mr E J Lee entertained members by submitting for their examination various interesting objects through his very powerful microscope. Mrs Besant “lectured on the marriage question on a wet net night to an audience of 250.” 26
The next week Bradlaugh spoke on ‘is the Bible a revelation from God?’.

Open air meetings continued on the Broadway and on Blackheath. Forder had been arrested for allegedly destroying fences in a protest at attempts to enclose Plumstead Common. The demonstrations had been led by John De Morgan a veteran Republican, anti-vaccinationist and member of the Magna Carta Association, who had been brought to Plumstead by a young solicitor Edmund Kimble. In 1876 Dilke, an apostate Republican, had raised the issue of Plumstead Common in Parliament. De Morgan and Forder were to have a very acrimonious fallout, which ended in a highly disorderly meeting in a Plumstead pub. Matters were not helped by De Morgan having been a stern opponent of Bradlaugh in the Republican movement. 27
Forder who worked in Woolwich Arsenal in the shell foundry was described as an “intelligent mechanic with extreme views ill fitting with the views of society at large” (W T Vincent, The Records of the Woolwich District, Vol 11, 1887). He was associated with the Advanced Liberals. Eventually, he was brought to trial in Maidstone charged with riotous assembly and malicious damage. Robert Martin, treasurer of the Forder defence fund which raised £46, and Le Lubez were defence witnesses. Forder was acquited while De Morgan was imprisoned for a month with a £50 fine or a further month. 28 Despite collections in the Arsenal, he was determined to stay in prison.
However, he was released after 17 days and returned to Woolwich where he addressed a crowd of over 20,000. Elected to the Leeds School Board in 1879, he failed to win the Liberal nomination in a by- election and emigrated to America. 29
Forder continued his career as a secularist speaker addressing meetings all over London. For example, he spoke on signs of the zodiac to South London Secular Society and to Walworth Association of Freethinkers on early witnesses to Christianity and their opinions. 30  He was also an auditor for the NSS and involved in the London Secular Tract Society which published several thousand pamphlets. Some meetings were held in the newly opened Deptford Secular Institute on Union Street. “Our hall is well filled every Sunday evening” reported Reynolds News (December 10, 1876) Christian hecklers who were thrown out were not readmitted. On Christmas Eve George Stranding spoke there on the French Revolution.

By 1878 Forder is listed as a member of the education committee of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society. The RACS maintained reading rooms at its branches and moving in a socialist direction began to take such papers as Workman’s Times, Clarion and Labour Leader. In 1886 a branch of the Social Democratic Federation was formed in Deptford and slightly later Robert Banner formed branches of the Socialist League and then the ILP in Woolwich. Woolwich and Deptford were the first two constituencies in South London to elect Labour MPs.

This is not the end, rather it is only the beginning of a much larger study. It is hoped it will encourage readers to undertake studies of secularism in their areas.

This article was originally published in the Journal of Freethought History, bulletin of the Freethought History Research Group, no 1, Vol 1, 2003. They produced some fascinating glimpses into the history of secularists, atheists and freethinkers… 


1 . Geoffrey Crossik, An Artisan Elite in London, Croom Helm, London, 1978.
2 . National Reformer, 1/8/1871
3 . National Reformer, 5/3/1871
4 . National Reformer, 12/5/1871
5 . National Reformer, 4/6/1871
6 . National Reformer, 16/6/1871
7 . National Reformer, 13/8/1871
8 . National Reformer, 3/9/1871
9 . National Reformer, 10/9/1871
10. National Reformer, 21/1/1872
11. National Reformer, 26/5/1872
12. National Reformer, 7/7/1872
13. National Reformer, 15/9/1872, 23/10/1872
14. National Reformer, 30/3/1873
15. National Reformer, 5/4/1874
16. National Reformer, 14/6/1874
17. National Reformer, 21/6/1874
18. National Reformer, 2/8/1874
19 . National Reformer, 6/9/1874
20. National Reformer, 23/10/1874
21. National Reformer, 6/12/1874, 10/1/1876, 16/5/1876
22. National Reformer, 16/5/1875
23. National Reformer, 7/7/1875
24. National Reformer, 5/4/1875
25. Kentish Mercury, 4/9/1875, 25/9/1875
26. National Reformer, 27/2/1876
27. Sylvester St Clair, Sketch of the Life and Labour of John De Morgan, Orator, Elocutionist and Tribune of the People, Leeds, 1880.
28. National Reformer, 29/10/1876
29 . Leeds Times, 17/4/1880
30. National Reformer, 12/11/1876


Terry Liddle, who originally wrote the above, died in 2012, after many decades of involvement in socialist, anarchist, green and secularist politics (among much more!)

There’s a couple of obituaries of Terry, here


and here’s a short notice which includes Terry’s self-penned ‘Death Song’:


Although Terry’s account above is fairly dry and factual – the street meetings he briefly mentions must have often been quite lively affairs. Secularist street speaking often took place on or around local ‘speakers corners’, use of which developed over decades. These local speaking pitches were often crowded or contested – with local churches, religious groups, evangelical cults as well as radicals, socialists, liberals and any amount of other factions vying for space and fighting to be heard. The term ‘marketplace of ideology’ is literally accurate in many cases, as speakers corners were sometimes on the edge of local markets; others on open spaces, or on the high street. Christians, cops and various authorities took a dim view of these godless plebs articulating dangerous and subversive ideas, and secularists often faced harassment, a tussle over speaking pitches, and sometimes arrest. Bystanders might come to listen, hackle, or just to enjoy what disorder might arise…
But the secularists formed the shock troops of a process that was taking place at various levels of society, a long, slow dissolution of the deadening and suffocating influence christianity had over people. The undermining, questioning and debate that secularists and radical clubs hosted and took part in in the latter half of the 19th century helped push an already tottering edifice into collapse…


Rent Strike Now? Inspiration from the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike

This blog normally concentrates on highlighting and discussing historical events in London. Only because we live here and this is where we mostly write about…

We’ve made an exception for this post, as we’re in exceptional times. But also times that illustrate starkly that the conditions we are currently facing are, in fact, concentrated secretions of the same old same old…


There’s lots to be written about social changes that we are – voluntarily, or less voluntarily – undergoing as a result of the rapid spread and catastrophic impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Mass deaths… horrific isolation for many… the lack of adequate protection for healthworkers, for people who live or work in care homes; for those who aren’t being paid if they don’t work, so have to carry on putting themselves and other at risk… the unequal distribution of deaths depending on your social class, ethnic background… underlying it all the unviability of a worldwide social system based on social division and economic exploitation, a society so precarious in its brutal rapaciousness that it totters when faced with a pandemic of these proportions. The horror of personal loss and fear for yourself and others; the devastation anger and pain…

People are writing that elsewhere… We might return to some of these aspects another time. Our approach is generally historical; we try where we can to link current events with struggles and movements of the past, to see what parallels and differences we can illustrate, to inspire, yes, inform, yes, but also just to throw up points for discussion which we think might be useful. (Others may disagree…)

The many economic measures hurriedly thrown up by the various nation states to support people unable to work while lockdowns and social distancing restrict our movement are not exactly unprecedented, if slightly unexpected when coming from a neo-liberal regime like the UK’s… But altruism is not suddenly the flavour of the month. After failing to convince even their own supporters that a eugenically-minded ‘herd immunity’ policy was scientifically unfeasible (as well as possibly dooming a future tory majority?) the massive ‘support’ program has been brought in to try to limit the inevitable anger and revolt that forcing people into lockdown poverty would provoke.

One way or another we’ll be paying for this for decades, and if experience is anything to go by, some of us will pay more than others; the classes with the most resources will be asked to pay less proportionally, and those who create the wealth, or can’t work, or have little or nothing, will again be squeezed as much as they will take. And more. Millions who cannot pay their way already can expect more holes in their pockets.

While millions cannot work, many of who aren’t getting paid, the bills keep coming in… Landlords are, unsurprisingly, not all cancelling rents, and the government is not even considering legislating to force them to – obviously, as the government is there to represent the interests of the propertied classes, and rent is one of the underlying pillars that keep propertied classes – well, propertied.

The new Government package lays down that landlords in England and Wales have to give three months’ notice before starting eviction proceedings. It’s worth noting though that this change won’t affect eviction proceedings already under way. Scotland’s emergency coronavirus legislation will also prevent private and social tenants being evicted for up to six months, by increasing the amount of notice the landlord needs to give before they can take steps to take over the property. In Northern Ireland no decision has yet been made (possibly the DUP will re-introduce the ducking-stool for tenants in arrears ?)

Beyond these three or six-month points, you’ll be expected to “work with your landlord to establish an affordable repayment plan which takes your circumstances into account”. Which for many tenants means – you might as well start packing.

The Government has also said that existing rules for social landlords dealing with rent arrears will be extended to also include private landlords. This is to “support engagement” between landlords and tenants and help them solve disputes. It will ask landlords to be compassionate and allow tenants to stay in their homes wherever possible – while associations representing local government and housing associations have already said that no social renter should be evicted due to coronavirus. However – rent still has to be paid. If not now – later. Not getting paid now ‘cause you’re stuck at home? You MIGHT not have to any rent while the lockdown is over – but your arrears may well build up and your landlord will certainly come knocking down the line…

While private landlords are also now eligible for a three-month buy-to-let mortgage payment holiday if their tenants are ‘experiencing financial difficulties’ – no accompanying legislation lets tenants off paying the rent. There is no legal obligation for a landlord claiming a mortgage holiday to pass this on to their tenants. Relying on the moral sense of landlords to do so – like Captain Smith calling on the iceberg not to hole the Titanic below the waterline (except a government of landlords and property magnates knows for sure what non-regulation means… the monkey never pokes the organ grinders…)

None of this exactly SURPRISING. If you’ve been paying attention.

Across the world, people are starting to respond to this, with some rent strikes having already started, and many other folk are starting to discuss the idea. There are proposals for a mass collective rent strike to begin on May 1st, International Workers’ Day… That’s this week folks!
Read/download a guide to rent striking during the Covid-19 Crisis

Rent strikes historically have had some success, at some times, in some situations. Like most tactics for forcing concessions from the properties, working collectively tends to work better than fighting alone. Refusing to pay rent now might not result in immediate eviction in these extraordinary circumstances, but might also get individuals into hot water when ‘normal conditions’ are restored. For some people it won’t be a question of choice – no money coming in means no moolah for the landlord.
But collective action might produce a different result. As with any struggle, what people want and expect to get out of it is a good start. Abolition of rents until the end of the virus crisis? All sorts of possibilities beyond this exist, though it would seem a good start.

Whether it has a chance of succeeding, across the board or even in some places, depends on developed  – or the development of – levels of social solidarity and preparedness to act together, stand by each other and – without mincing words – break the law as it stands. This type of cohesiveness varies wildly from country to country and from city to town to neighbourhood in the UK. This country in particular (though not uniquely) has seen four and a half decades through which social solidarity has withered and been weakened; much of this process has been more or less deliberately engineered to push society towards certain economic conditions and to undermine the strength of working class communities and their ability or willingness to organise collectively. Hand in hand with the destruction of industries where workers’ autonomy an§d self-organisation was strong has gone the full-scale selling of the dream of home ownership and the selling off of social housing. Both workers’ organisation on their own behalf and widespread access to social housing had resulted from decades of struggle against the crap housing and bad conditions/low pay/exploitation and lack of control at work. Both high unionisation/autonomy at work and council housing were partial concessions won in the face of fierce resistance by the ruling elites, to prevent the whole of their wealth an control being taken away; as soon as conditions allowed, these concessions were reversed. To the point where social housing and control over your labour are a pipe dream for most of us.

Working class solidarity evolved over centuries was always partial (and subject to chasms of experience based on race, sex, and any number of prejudices), but has been decimated in many communities since the 1970s. Whether the solidarity being developed now through mutual aid groups being set up to support each other through the lockdown can be part of a rebuilding is an open question we can all supply the answer to; will some of them survive the ‘end’ of the crisis (assuming there is an ‘end’) ? Could they be the basis for ongoing mutual aid in our daily lives ?

Simply in terms of rent and rent strikes, there are interesting lessons to be learnt from previous struggles. We’ve decided to post up an account of the rent strikes that took places in Glasgow during World War 1, partly because the practical methods of organising are inspiring and useful, though may not be immediately applicable to many in our atomised and isolated semis; this is only a contribution. But technology available to us now enables connections the residents of 1915 Glasgow closes never dreamed of. On the flipside, the limitations of adhering to social distancing rules can make our old expressions of solidarity, like traditional demonstrations, etc, difficult. But there’s lots of creativity, out there… ways around restrictions…

Another reason to flag up Glasgow 1915 is the parallels, in terms of the location of the struggle in times of international crisis, and the ideology of national unity, sacrifice for the greater good that people of the time would have recognised echoes of in the calls for us all to do our bit, stay at home, protect the NHS etc. Leaving aside the toxic divisions between the tories over whether to push for global capitalism or national capitalism, its easy to see that patriotism is a sham designed to make us imagine We Are in It Together –
when we’re in the Shit and our rulers think they’re It…

During World War 1 millions fell for the national unity sell, and many died for that. Small minorities spoke up and pointed out that the working class of all countries have everything in common and we have nothing in common with our bosses. However – there were those who supported the war effort AND those who opposed it who worked to resist exploitation and crap pay and conditions, expand workers’ autonomy, and to seize as much in terms of concessions out of the state and the owners as they could. Not without massive fractures and contradictions, true. Normal economic and social relations were pushed aside to a limited extent during the war (and the second one…) and this not only opened up opportunities for change, but the pressure of war, death, fear, horror made many sit up and think – isn’t these another way? A different way of being not based on profit and slog but people and love?

The ideology of the Glasgow Rent Strike should be examined critically therefore, as much as their methods and tactics admired; it is also worth seeing it as part of an evolution of resistance to the war and the development of self-organisation and revolutionary potential, as well as a parallel stage in the creation of the social housing of the following century and other welfare developments.

There are some other links to other historical rent strikes and more, at the end… only a beginning towards places to read up.


‘We Are Not Removing’

The Glasgow Rent Strikes During World War 1

In 1915 one of the largest rent strikes in urban history broke out in parts of Glasgow, in response to steep rent rises imposed by private landlords. Within months, after more than 20,000 joined the refusal to pay rent, organising a grassroots movement that physically resisted evictions and contested them in the courts, the upheaval forced the British government into passing emergency legislation to control rent levels.

Miserable Dwellings

From the late nineteenth century, Glasgow’s shipbuilding and naval engineering industries were booming, partly sparked by the demands of imperial expansion, and then by the growing expectation of a war amongst the great powers in Europe.

The growing demand for workers to man these industries led to a huge rise in the population. But housing did not keep pace with this increase. Much of Glasgow’s housing stock was severely overcrowded and in a terrible state; 70 per cent of the population lived in over- crowded one or two room flats, usually in tenement blocks. On top of this some 11 percent of accommodation was consistently empty, partly due to blatant speculation by landlords. The increase in demand worsened this situation, pushing rents up.

“The working people of Glasgow live in great many-storied barrack dwellings, in which are one roomed ‘houses’, two-roomed ‘houses’ three- roomed ‘houses and so on. In these ‘houses’ one finds a bed built into the wall of each room. In the kitchen, the bed is open to the view, though curtains are sometimes put up by the tenants. In the parlour, the bed is often hidden behind a wall and entered by what looks like an ordinary cupboard door which is only about a third of the bed’s length in width. The unhealthy stuffiness and darkness of such a bed and the difficulty of making it and keeping it clean may be imagined. The municipal authority do not allow any new cupboard beds to be built.

The overcrowding and the jerry buildings of Glasgow are proverbial, and for the miserable dwellings, very high rents are charged.” (Woman’s Dreadnought)

“In Clydeside there was more discontent about rents then elsewhere because the housing conditions were so much worse. There were streets and streets of one-room apartments, with whole families living in the one room and four or five families sharing one toilet on the stair. The tenement houses were all privately owned and there was a lot of opposition from the landlords to corporation housing. Rents were low because wages were low, but still they were difficult to collect. Rent arrears led to frequent moonlight flittings, which were possible because there was no shortage of dwellings in Glasgow before the war. The builders had even stopped building houses for rent because there was no profit in them.”

(Harry McShane)

Any kind of hovel

“There seemed to exist in the minds of the capitalist and exploiting class the idea that any kind of hovel was good enough for the working class; but an awakening was taking place throughout the country, and a demand was being made for a better standard of housing…” (Helen Crawfurd)

These pressures had led labour movement activists to put housing reform at the centre of their political programmes in Glasgow from the 1880s; immediately before the war socialist groups were pushing forward demands for municipal housing to be developed, and organising tenants associations to oppose rent increases. These demands were also linked to growing opposition to the high rates the working class had to pay for public services such as water, and gas.

But the outbreak of World War One was to sharpen the crisis in Glasgow’s housing and spark a revolt that would have long-term effects on social housing both in the city and nationwide.

Glasgow was a major centre for naval construction and munitions and arms factories. The war created massive demand in these industries, which was fed by a rapid influx of workers and their families into the city. Some 16,000 moved into the city and 4000 into its suburbs in 1914-15; as many as 60,000 new workers had by some accounts come to seek jobs in the city and its environs.

Private landlords seized the opportunity to jack up their profits: rents were increased some 23 percent, most notably in the industrial areas surrounding the shipyards where demand was highest.
With the war creating bad conditions for financial speculation many landlords saw that their ‘unearned income’ wasn’t accruing enough profit and so this had to be realized through rent increases. Rents increased steadily, as well as food prices during this period.

“When the war started all the unoccupied houses were taken up workers drafted into the workshops and shipyards for war production. The landlords immediately started to raise the rents and to apply for eviction orders against the old tenants who couldn’t pay. The hardest hit were the unemployed and the elderly, and the soldiers’ wives; but it even became difficult for the employed workers, despite increased wages, to meet the demands of the house-factors.
The struggle against rent increases and evictions became keenest in Govan and Partick, where most of the skilled workers in engineering and shipbuilding lived. New workers were moving into these areas all the time; everyone was looking for a house near his work because of the long hours of overtime.”
(Harry McShane)

Rent arrears or non-payment was treated very harshly – resulting in eviction, seizure of any possession to pay for the defaulted amounts…

Unrest was already boiling in the factories and shipyards. Glasgow, like many other cities, had seen a swelling of workers’ organising and strikes, as well as growth in socialist, anarchist and syndicalist ideas in the years before 1914; “the largest wave of working class struggle since Chartism.” These movements were to crystalise in the War years, producing the Clyde Workers Committee, the shop stewards movement, and would continue after WW1.

But while these developments were building in the workplace, the rent strike was mainly created and given its strength by the mass participation of women, in the community. Community organising was in fact somewhat disparaged by many of those who built the shop stewards movement, to start with; they saw the ‘point of production’, where workers were directly exploited by the bosses, as the crucial venue for class struggle. The rent strike was to prove that this was too narrow a view of exploitation and of resistance, and where it could be effective. It was also to cross the boundaries between ‘home’ and ‘workplace’, as workers came out on strike to support rent strikers. “What is inferred here is a short-sightedness typical of a political climate that sees industrial combat as a central and separate sector – the exploitative is seen as residing only around the workplace, a more male domain. But capitalist relations are secured and integrated in society at large; at the point of consumption as well as that of production, with both being regulated by government.”

Obviously, the war was used as an excuse to keep wages at a minimum. “so consequently the Rent Strikes can be seen in close relation to the industrial unrest on the Clyde of 1914-15, noted for the rise of militant ‘shop-stewards’ to echo a shop-floor distrust of
moderate union leaders who by 1916 were in collaboration with employers and government ministers. John MacLean, later jailed for opposing the war, saw in this conjunction of industrial and social strikes the first step “towards the political strike”. MacLean was also critical of
the TUC and Clyde Workers Committee for not becoming directly involved with the rent strike itself but remaining within the bounds of the workshop movement, itself later co-opted.”

The Role of the Independent Labour Party

“The housing conditions in Glasgow in 1914 were appalling and the Labour Party before the war initiated a Glasgow Women’s Housing Association. The two strongest sections of this Association were in Govan and Partick (the principal industrial areas of the city). Mrs Mary Barbour, afterwards a councillor and magistrate in Glasgow, was the leading woman in Govan, while Mrs Ferguson was the leader in Partick. Many women participated and were active in this organisation. They included Mrs Laird and Mrs Morrison of the Co-operative movement… The idea behind this movement was to bring women of all political parties into the agitation and drive for better housing in Glasgow.

Agitation against rent in- creases and evictions for non- payment of rent developed all through 1915. A Housing Conference, attended by 450 delegates, opposed rent increases and called for publicly funded and subsidised housing.

Although the Independent Labour Party (ILP) had called the conference, as was central to the propaganda against the landlords, it was a grassroots movement based on self-organised committees, springing up in the first months of the year, that led to the rent strike beginning in 1915.” (Helen Crawfurd)

“Mrs Mary Barbour organised the women in Govan to resist the rent increases. They got together to resist the sheriff officer when he came to evict anybody, and had processions two hundred strong against the house-factors. Mrs Barbour became a Govan legend; even now her name is still used by the Labour Party at election times…

Mary Barbour

Most of the women who led the fight on rents were in the Independent Labour Party. Andrew McBride was in the thick of it with them. Andrew was a little fellow, modest and not much of a speaker, but he was the Secretary of the Glasgow Labour Housing Association from before the war and really built it up… Andrew Hood played a big part. He was editor of the Partick Gazette and used it to publicise and used it to publicise the rent strike – later he became a Labour Lord Provost.” (Harry McShane)

While the Labour Party had a strong organisation on which a movement could be based, the movement had already to some extent autonomously organised, in many areas, into ‘Close Committees’. If Labour had hoped that solutions to the city’s housing problems could be achieved via petitions, representations, legal obstructions and not by Rent Strikes, the mainly working class women who formed the backbone of the strike had their own experience, their own ideas, and from the first found methods of defeating evictions gained strength from the particular geography of their housing.

Joseph Melling in his account of the rent strikes (which does emphasise the part played by the Labour Party) reports that there was a considerable amount of friction between the tenant committees and Labour councilors… As often happens. The party had pre-existing policies and an interest in a more legalistic solution, but also hoped to benefit electorally… the autonomous movement that was developing at the grassroots had its own interests, and undoubtedly it was the physical resistance to evictions that transformed the rent strike into the threat that it became.

Other left groupings were also involved, for instance the Women’s Labour League, also the Marxist British Socialist Party (formerly the SDF), of which John MacLean was a leading light.

We are Not Removing

The movement quickly became huge. From the start, as well as regular procession in the streets demanding the rent rises be withdrawn, and calling for a new housing policy, the campaign was based on refusal to pay the rent, legal defence in the courts and physical prevention of bailiffs eviction of non-payers.

“All day long in the streets, in the halls, in the houses, meetings were held. Kitchen meetings, street meetings, mass meetings, meetings of every kind. No halt, no rest for anyone, all in reparation for the sitting of the court when the test case came on…”

Some Dalmuir rent strikers

By October 1915 there were about 25,000 tenants on rent strike. From Govan and Partick, the strike had spread to Parkhead, Pollokshaws, Pollok, Cowcaddens, Kelvingrove, Ibrox, Parkhead, Govanhill, Shettleston, Richmond Park, Cathcart, Kinning Park, Dalmuir.

St. Rollox, Townhead, Springburn, Maryhill, Fairfield, Blackfriars and Woodside.
“The strikes were all against private landlords, as was always the case in Glasgow, and were helped by the fact that people had to take their rent to the house-factor (the solicitor who managed the rents for the landlord). They could see who was going into the house-factor’s office and knew who was paying and who wasn’t.” (Harry McShane)

“The Glasgow Women’s Housing Association took up this issue, and
in the working class districts, committees were formed, to resist these increases in rents. Cards, oblong in shape, were printed with the words

‘RENT STRIKE, WE ARE NOT REMOVING’ and placed in the windows of the houses where rent increase were demanded. When the increased rents were refused, the property owners immediately took legal action for the eviction of the tenants. The women then organised resistance to these evictions in the following way. In the Govan and Partick districts the working class houses were mainly tenements. One woman with a bell would sit in the close, or passage, watching while the other women living in the tenement went on with their household duties. Whenever the Bailiff ’s officer appeared to evict a tenant, the woman in the passage immediately rang the bell, and the women came from all parts of the building. Some with flour, baking, wet clothes, washing, and other missiles. Usually the Bailiff made off for his life, chased by a mob of angry women. The idea caught on, and it was a common experience to go through the working class districts, and find almost all the windows with these cards in them. In Govan, on one occasion, where a woman had been persuaded by the House Factor to pay the increase, having been told that the other tenants had paid, Mrs Barbour got the men from the shipyards in Govan to come out on the street where the House Factor’s office was, and then went up with the woman and demanded a return of the money. On the factor being shown the thousands of black-faced workers crowding the street he handed it over. This went on for months, with increasing
publicity and propaganda until every hall in the working class districts was packed. Rent Strike meetings gave the opportunity for anti-war and socialist propaganda from the platforms. I soon found myself in the thick of this fight, addressing meetings, always somewhat disgusted that the workers were asking so little when the whole world was theirs by right.”
(Helen Crawfurd)

Tactics adopted by the rent strikers also included: pulling down the bailiffs’ trousers to humiliate them! Without a doubt we should be reviving that… ‘Rough music’ played on pots, pans and other household implements was also used on the demonstrations, to alert people of impending evictions, and imply to intimidate the factors and sheriff ’s officers.

The Woman’s Dreadnought, a socialist-feminist paper run by Sylvia Pankhurst in London, reported on the Rent Strike in October 1915, in a report that illustrates that Glasgow was not alone – strikes has broken out in other cities:

“On Thursday, October 7th, a deputation accompanied by a procession of 15,000 people – mostly women – went in the midst of great enthusiasm to the City Council with banners inscribed:- ‘Our husbands, sons and brothers are fighting the Prussians of Germany. We are fighting the Prussians of Partick! Only alternative – municipal housing.’

Mr William Reid who introduced the deputation, said that rents had been raised since the valuations were confirmed so that the landlords might evade the payment of extra taxes. The increased costs of higher rates, bond interest and repairs was estimated at 5 per cent on a rental of £10, 10 shillings, 0 pence. But the rent of £10 houses has been raised by 15 shillings to 40 shillings.

Landlords were therefore making a profit out of the war at the expense of poor tenants.

The Town Clerk explained that the representations of the deputation could not be discussed until the next meeting of the council unless a majority of two thirds should decide to discuss them now.

Baillies Stewart, Mitchell and Izett urged that the matter must be dealt with at once to prevent the people being turned out, but as their motions failed to receive a two-thirds majority the matter was postponed.

On Tuesday, October 12th, the landlords applied to the Sheriff for nine eviction warrants. Six of the tenants were munitioneers, and as it was said that if munitions workers’ or soldiers’ wives were evicted rioting

would ensue, the Sheriff adjourned these cases for a week. In three other cases eviction notices were granted to take effect in four days.

Will the neighbours allow these people to be turned out? Strikes against increased rents are developing in many other places.

In Birmingham, registered letters were sent out by landlords, giving no- tice to quit, and stating that rents would be doubled. As soon as the rent strikers learnt the contents of the letters one of their scouts went round in front of the postman advising householders not to accept delivery of the landlords’ registered letters. The advice was accepted and when the rent collector called on Monday, he was accompanied by a policeman. The tenants tendered their rents minus the increase and it was accepted.

In a Northampton working class district, where an increase of 6 pence on a 6 shilling house rental has already been made since the beginning of the war, the tenants have met a demand for an additional 6 pence with a blank refusal.

Occupants of houses in working class districts in Dulwich have received notice of an increase of one shilling per week. One landlord has threatened an increase of another shilling before Christmas. The tenants in many streets have decided to refuse to pay any increase. In Bermondsey the landlords have given notice to raise rents and the tenants are organizing resistance.

In Tooting the 350 rent strikers have won the day, the landlords after a stiff fight, agreeing to withdraw the increase…

It should at least be possible for the government to appoint an impartial body who could decided whether or not the owners of the property were securing from the addition in rent any advantage from the national emergency.

In our view such a compromise would be absolutely futile. When food is taxed manufacturers and shop keepers raise the price and the poor consumer who lives by his or her own exertions has to pay. When rates, taxes, bond interest and so on go up, landlords raise rents and again the poor person living from hand to mouth by his or her own exertions has to pay. The rich and powerful always pass on the burden to those who are poorer. The poorest have no one to whom they can pass the burden on. What is to happen unless this sort of thing is stopped?”

(“Fight Against Grasping Landlords”, article from the Woman’s Dreadnought, 23rd October 1915.)

Apart from the areas mentioned by the Dreadnought, there were also reports of rent strikes in Aberdeen, Belfast, Birkenhead, and Dundee.

Down Tools

“By the end of the year strong feeling had built up about evictions of soldiers’ wives and widows and their children. The people’s attitude to the war had changed; the stories were coming back from the trenches,
it was plain that the war was lasting much more than six months, and they just weren’t prepared to go on suffering. The support for rent strikes and the rise in discontent and ill-feeling were so great that the government began to consider whether or not to bring in legislation on rents – although many in the government were completely opposed to limitation. Then, in November 1915, an industrial strike against the rent increases finished all the discussions.

In November 18 tenants were taken to court in an attempt by the factors to get rent deducted from their wages at source. One of them was an engineer in the Dalmuir shipyard called James Reid and all the shipyard workers from Dalmuir, Fairfield, Stephens and other yards and factories downed tools and marched to the court in support…”
(Harry McShane)

The notices to prosecute issued against Reid and other Dalmuir Rent Strikers ended with thousands congregating in George Square outside the Court House. Five major shipyards and one munitions plant came out in support of the defendants, and other plants sent deputies in support to threaten general strike action; despite the war- time regulations against industrial action. The threat of a crossover between industrial struggle and the rent strike made the situation highly volatile, especially given the state’s dependence on the munitions and shipbuilding industries.

“The men from the shipyards and engineering works in Govan, Partick and Clydebank came out in their thousands. I will never forget the sight and sound of those marching men with black faces. Thousands of them marched through the principal streets down to the Sheriff ’s Court and the surrounding streets were packed. John MacLean, afterwards imprisoned for his anti-war activity, and first consul for the USSR in Glasgow, was one of he speakers, who from barrels and upturned boxes addressed the crowds. Inside the court the judge and his attendants were attempting in a tense atmosphere to make decisions on the nine cases. The court was also packed.” (Helen Crawfurd)

“At the court-house there was a mass meeting in the street. Maclean, Gallacher, McBride and others spoke; the police pulled the platforms from under them they continued speaking, and the meeting demanded that the sheriff receive a deputation. To discuss a case with a deputation of workers before the proceedings opened was against all
the court rules, but once again Sheriff Lee was in charge and he agreed. After he had met the deputation he phoned Whitehall, who assured him that the rent restrictions legislation would be introduced in the next month. The house-factors still wouldn’t agree to an adjournment of the case, and Sheriff Lee decided it on his own responsibility.”

(Harry McShane)

The Birth of Public Housing?

After this confrontation all pending legal actions against striking tenants were dropped, and the Secretary of State for Scotland asked the Cabinet to order the freezing of rents at a pre-war level. Less than a week later, the Rents and Mortgage Interest Restriction Act was introduced into Parliament, and was law by the 25th of December.
It prevented the increase of rent on all homes whose rental did not exceed £90 a year. “This applied to the whole of Britain, so that the fight put up by those brave Glasgow women was crowned with success, and the working people of Britain reaped the benefit.” (Helen Crawfurd)

“When the Act came into force it pegged rents to the levels they were before the war broke out, and only allowed a 40 per cent increase if repairs were carried out. In the 1930s it was possible for the socialist movement to use that act and encourage tenants to with-hold rents until they got their repairs done… Even past the second world war there were some tenants in private homes that had been rent-controlled in 1915.”
(Harry McShane)

Later in 1919 the Housing and Town Planning Act was passed, mandating local authorities to build council housing and providing the cash… This is widely celebrated as the ‘Birth of public housing’; in which the memory of the Glasgow Rent Strike was a powerful influencing factor.

Obviously the legislation was implemented not through any sense of class justice, but “in the interest of the state as a whole.” The immediate and desperate needs of British Capital as a whole was threatened by the potential of the rent strike to spread to the industrial sphere.

Although municipal housing had been a labour movement demand for years, and although there were many factors in the creation of public housing, it was to some extent the extra-ordinary wartime conditions that allowed the tenants to triumph. The acclaimed climate of ‘national unity’, “we’re all in the same boat”, etc, was without doubt double-edged. It did allow the state to close out and repress some industrial and social struggles on the one hand, but did also create some space for those struggling from below to posit demands for social improvements, especially against interests seen as profiting from wartime conditions. Clearly workers and employers/the state were not ‘in the same boat’, but the rhetoric of sacrifice did sometimes cut both ways. Landlords raising rents where war work was leading to housing shortages, in this light, laid themselves open to charges of war-profiteering. The State found it difficult to side with profiteering landlords against munitions workers, and soldiers’ families.

One commentator on the rent strike and its significance identifies the difficult position the British state was put in, and the willingness of the ‘executive committee of the bourgeoisie’ to cut loose the landlords if the interest of the ‘national capital’ demanded it:

“The separate capitalist interest of the socially unproductive landlords during the first years of the war, upping rents to profit from the shortage of accommodation, and the increased spending power of the many workers, men and women, engaged in overtime on munitions production, threatened to undermine the effectiveness of the main British capitalist offensive. The object of this offensive, as we have already noted, was to increase the efficient investment of capital and the level and rate of productivity of the labour force, to intensify exploitation. But this offensive depended for its political effectiveness upon the state presenting it as a national mobilization of both capital and labour that would transcend all private interests or class divisions in a national partnership based upon the appeal for increased productivity for the war effort. The ‘selfishness’ of the landlords was undermining the state’s appeal to the national interest by producing working class resistance to rising rents and was threatening to tar the industrial capitalists with the same brush, despite the state propaganda about the control of industrial profits that was thrown as a sop to the working class. Already the working class in Glasgow in their slogans and posters, were identifying the landlords, ‘The Hun at Home’, as they were dubbed, with the ‘national enemy’, the Germans. Working class tenants were defending themselves against the bailiffs, starting with the defence of those worst hit by the rent rises and attempted evictions, the war widows on their miserable pensions and wives of soldiers serving in France who had young children to look after and so could not take advantage of the work to be had in the munitions factories. Since the class movement developing around the rent struggle threatened to spread to production and paralyse the ‘war effort’, the state was forced to ‘side’ with the tenants against the landlords and cut away the ‘parasitic’ capitalist interests of the landlords from the main body of ‘progressive’ capitalist interests it saw itself as the representative of.” (Steve Vahrman)

To some extent this pressure to adhere to a kind of ‘national unity moral economy’ survived until after the war (and could be observed even more after World War Two).

However just as it was the collective spirit of the rent strikers that made it imperative to settle the conflict quickly, after 1918, the situation was exacerbated by the high post-war workers militancy.

A growing unemployed movement and strike wave fed into by the expectations of ex-servicemen and the families, who took the loudly professed ideal of sacrifice and unity at face value (sometimes genuinely and sometimes tactically) and pushed for widespread social change. The mutinies and revolutions which contributed to the war’s end also struck fear of revolt into the minds of the more astute ruling class strategists who foresaw that public housing and other large-scale improvements in working class life would be likely to stave off more violent upheaval.

Was the rent strike implicitly backed by capital? It is suggested by Joseph Melling that the Clydeside industrialists in effect supported the demand for rent freezes and even for state-subsidised public housing, not only because it meant and end to instability that was threatening social peace and thus productivity, but also long-term because they thought it would do the same in the long term – pacify and integrate militant working class movements.

According to Manuel Castells: “The enemies of rent strikers were not the capitalists but the landlords, and individual speculators… Two- thirds of Glasgow housing was built by individual owners borrowing money from small bondholders who were charging increasingly high interest. This explains both the inadequacy of the housing production and the harshness of the landlords who had to collect their rents in order to pay their interest. As well as this class of wealthy urban rentiers, the strikers also had to fact the building industry, a very small business sector operating on an ad hoc basis under the control of the landlords.”

Thus defeat for the landlords was not as such a defeat for large capitalist enterprises. The big losers were the landlords, and the building industry; one result of the rent strike was a depression in the private building industry, which in fact stimulated the need and push towards municipal housing even more.

The Rent Strike and Class Composition

But to discuss the rent strike in terms of capital and its interests is in some ways to undervalue the positive aspects of the self-organisation and unity the rent strikers achieved. Given the high level of both legislation and social pressure against strikes, agitation, under war- time conditions, the rent strike movement reached an impressive level of solidarity. It is true that they were able to articulate the boundaries of the struggle in terms that did not in themselves oppose the war, even to cast the landlords as the ones sabotaging the patriotic consensus, stabbing soldiers in the back etc. Nevertheless they were more successful in winning substantial intervention from the state than other contemporary struggles, notably the Clyde shop stewards movement. Both these two upheavals, though, also formed part of a continuum of struggle in Glasgow that began before the war, and continued after it.

Some commentators have flagged up the 1915 rent strike as arising from the conflict around craft privileges, the breakdown of old strata of traditional skilled workers – especially in the context of the industrialists’ wartime need to break these down, in the interest of mass industrial production.

A hypothesis exists of the 1915 rent strike as a manifestation of old labour unionism; by some commentators it is contrasted with the shop stewards movement developing in the city at the same time, and in which a newer, more homogenous class movement was developing in opposition to old labour aristocracies and craft divisions. Although skilled artisan workers formed the backbone of the Independent Labour Party, which as we have seen was heavily involved in the movement…

But according to Castells, the strike provided a common ground for unity between different segments of the city’s working class, “at the very moment when workers were weakened within the factories both by the recomposition of the work process and by the dramatic altering of the procedures for unionisation and labour representation.”

However the strike was clearly only won by the support of the trade unions (Castells illustrates this by pointing out that a rent strike in nearby Clydebank in 1922 was defeated, despite again having 20,000 participants, when the local unions did not give their support.)

In terms of different strata of the working class and their involvement in the movement, Sean Damer noted the character of the areas where the rent strike was strongest: “What is interesting to note about these areas of the city is that they are markedly different: heavily industrial areas, more respectable artisanal areas, and slum areas.”

It may be that the struggle gained strength from its ability to forge unity between skilled artisanal areas and more unskilled, traditionally slum, neighbourhoods.

This is interesting, if you compare it to Quintin Bradley’s analysis on the Leeds rent strike (which began in January 1914 and ended in March, before WW1 had begun). In The Leeds Rent Strike of 1914, A reappraisal of the radical history of the tenants movement, he identifies the Leeds Strike as arising specifically from the aristocracy of labour, skilled craft workers, people who saw themselves as a cut above the slums, who were facing rent rises on their somewhat better quality housing and being forced to pay or told to move to the slums… They struck to defend themselves against being driven down wards socially, to distinguish themselves from the poorest. The Leeds rent strike was heavily defeated. Beyond this he goes on to question the twentieth century tenants movement’s view of itself and its history, suggesting that the movement’s birth had more to do with a respectable strata of the working class defending its precarious position above the slum-dweller/unskilled, that with an egalitarian vision of public housing for all.

It would be interesting to know if research bore this out for Glasgow, or even for parts of the city, in 1915. And how it compares to later rent strikes.

Quintin Bradley’s article is online here

Women led the Movement

All accounts agree women led the campaign – they were at the head of the mass demos, central to the structures that spread the strike and kept watch/alerted the closes and blocks to impending evictions; they were the ones who launched violent attacks on House factors and sheriff ’s officers attempting to evict people.

“The presence of women as the backbone and main co-ordinators of
the rent strikes is an obvious fact bearing in mind the rigidity of society at this time, but documentation of these ‘housewives’ only exists in the guise of those women who were particularly vociferous in the context of the Independent Labour Party. A certain silence descends on the motivations and thoughts of the “two women for each close” involved on committees in the Richmond Park Strike, and on the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association established in 1914. Joseph Melling mentions a Boilermaker telling a group of shipbuilding tradesmen that “The men laughed the idea of a rent strike to scorn.”

Some were widows, of soldiers, many were workers in factories and munitions works themselves… A number had been suffragettes pre- war. There had been a massive entry of women into the industrial workforce, to replace men away at war. It may have been important factor in women’s leadership of the struggle – they were the breadwinners in many families, already breaking down labour privileges in work previously restricted to men. Manuel Castells has suggested that this process had an impact on their autonomy, their ability to make decisions and take charge of the strike. But this fails to take into account previous history… women had a traditional role in asserting moral economy of the lower classes and imposing it on their ‘betters’; in bread riots and similar protests through the preceding centuries, women can be seen taking a central role.
While the rent strike may have seen women taking centre stage, ironically the end of the war had a negative impact on many women – not only as returning men expected their jobs back and there was mass unemployment as war economy was wound down, which affected women heavily as their position in the workplace was precarious. But, also, the ‘restoration of authority’ and normal relations was an important pressure in post-war Britain, and restoring the gender power relations that had been shaken by the war and by struggles like the rent strike was seen as part of this. Mass unemployment also contributed to this, forcing women on the defensive, back into customary roles.

Welfare and Class Warfare

To some extent the Rent Strike is an important struggle in the development of a welfare state, especially in terms of how organised workers imposed some of their needs and demands on the state and forced it to integrate some forms of recognition of them from the representatives of capitalist interests.

It also was a stage in the development of a political leadership in Glasgow that was to dominate politics there for decades, and play a part in transforming the city in to a stronghold of both Labour and the Communist Party; witness how both Mary Barbour and Andrew Hood rose to high positions in the City administration in later years.

Both of these two developments reflect the underlying social-democratic nature of the workers movement of the time, despite some of the syndicalist methods the Clyde Workers Committee had adopted and despite the autonomous elements that won the rent strike. Much of the welfare state, as it was gradually adopted between the early twentieth century and the late 1940s, was the result of pressure from below, working class movements pushing for far-reaching changes, but channeled through a political leadership via the Liberals, Labour and the Trade Unions.

Without getting into a complex and possibly sterile debate about whether this represented concessions granted to prevent a militant working class from taking more by force, it is undoubtedly true that capital internationally, and in the UK particularly, through the twentieth century, up to the 1970s at least, managed, or tried , to integrate working class aspirations to some extent. In the decades since, a great deal of the concessions won have been under threat, some has been dismantled, others have been slowly disintegrated or undermined, and much of what remains is now subject to a renewed onslaught under the banner of ‘austerity’, ‘sharing the burden of getting the national debt down’… Social housing is probably the sector of the social-democratic welfare state that has suffered the heaviest restructuring since the Thatcher government of the 1980s took aim at it. If Glasgow can be seen as an important point in its development, does the rent strike also have lessons for dealing with the problems of modern urban housing?

Changes in housing can hardly be gone into in great detail here. But in the decades after the World War 1, social housing, mostly run by local councils, expanded massively, to the point where 42 percent of the UK population lived in council housing in the late 1970s.

Since the 1980s, it has been both declining in size, firstly due to a massive increase in the tenant right to but schemes, and has been semi-privatised (in the form of being hived off to housing associations and more recently of arms length management organisations). New council housing hasn’t been built, in any significant amounts.

To some extent social housing’s decline has led to council housing, in many parts of the UK, being relegated to a safety net for people with no alternative, dismissed and despised by many as a last resort, rather than a collective aspiration with a shared positive ethos.
Right to Buy, the Thatcher government’s cleverest policy in many ways, has played a part in the almost total identification of home ownership with self-respect, achievement and respectability. If you can’t achieve it you aspire to it. Private rents have also soared, especially since laws restricting rent levels were abolished – again under the Thatcher government – in the Housing Act 1980 and in subsequent legislation through the 1980s.

The massive growth in owning your own gaff has been part of an undeniable atomisation of ideas of collectivity in Britain since the 1980s, which has had huge positive consequences for capital, for
its ability to reshape society in the interest of profit with very little chance of mass opposition. It also created a huge new internal potential for expansion in markets for moneylenders, builders, developers and so on. Hence, though, the spiralling madness of house prices, private rents, and the impossibility for many of social housing.

On top of this the whole idea of ‘working class areas’ has broken down in many places – for instance, in London, integration of ‘rich and poor areas’ has spiralled; people of many backgrounds now live cheek by jowl, even former council flats on estates having been sold off – in some cases whole blocks. Gentrification has accelerated this.

All this has many results – but one is undoubtedly that movements- like the Glasgow Rent Strike would be much harder to build now. Although tenants of private landlords built the first rent strikes, and won them successfully at times (not just in Glasgow, also London’s East End rent strikes in the later 1930s), in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, rent strikes became better known for taking place among council tenants. Being all tenants of the one big landlord, in the same boat, living in the same blocks, made it easier to organise. Physical geography may well also play a big part in social struggles around housing. The Glasgow and East End 1930s rent strikes worked best when organised around people living in blocks… making collective self-defence easier, to keep look out, and helping in the process of meeting other people and building solidarity with them, etc. It is more difficult in isolated housing… though not impossible…

Many private flats these days might be owned by someone who owns just one or two properties… it’s not just home ownership that has become integrated into the mindset, but also the aspiration to own somewhere to rent to others…

This diffuse and fragmented housing map seems then ideal to divide us from each other. However… if history tells us anything it’s that no barriers can stand against us when we’re cunning, and start making links outside the immediately obvious. In recent years London, for instance, has seen tentative steps towards the beginnings of a private tenants movement, with small local groups of ‘renters’ getting together to campaign and protest.

The adoption of the World War 1 rhetoric of national sacrifice, we’re all in it together, unity in the country’s interest, by the current administration, is striking. What is certain is that if working class people stop pushing forward the boundaries, imposing our needs and

desires on capital, then capital’s own class warriors will push back. As they have been very successful in the last 35 years, the question uppermost is – how fast can we get pushing?



This episode by no means marks the end of Rent Struggles in Scotland, but the seed of more prolonged rent strike that took place between 1920 and 1927 in Clydebank, which employed widespread contestation in the courts as well s civil disobedience.

Sean Damer, Rent Strike! The Clydebank rent Strike of the 1920s (Clydeside District Council, District Library.)

Joseph Melling, Rent Strikes, People’s Struggle for housing in the West of Scot- land, 1890 – 1916. (Polygon Books, Edinburgh).

Steve Vahrman, 1973, introduction to John MacLean’s War After the War.

Harry McShane, No Mean Fighter (Pluto Press 1978). McShane was a long time Glasgow communist activist and trade unionist, sometime ally of John MacLean; a veteran of the Clyde Workers Committee, the unemployed struggles of the 1920s and ‘30s… After some thirty years in the Communist Party of Great Britain, he left in the early 1950s, remaining a committed Marxist.

Manuel Castells, The Industrial City and the Working Class, in The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements, 1983.

Helen Crawfurd was born in 1877 in the Gorbals district of Glasgow. She played an active role in the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association and was a member of the Independent Labour Party during this period. Preceding the rent strikes she was militant throughout Britain as part of the women’s suffragette movement, being arrested once in Glasgow and once in Perth, and twice going on hunger strike. Her account of the Rent Strike was taken from her unpublished memoirs that lie in the Marx Memorial Library.

Also worth a look:

Rent Strike 1960: An edited account of The St Pancras Rent Strike

The Barcelona Rent Strike of 1931.

1930s Rent strikes in London’s East End 
.. and another account that discusses this rent strike in comparison to later East End housing battles…

Watch a film about the East End strikes

The Struggle Against the 1972 Finance Act

A film about the 1972 Kirby Rent Strike in Liverpool

…and an article on the South Kirby rent strike

And it’s not just rent strikes – an account of 1930s mortgage strikes in South East London

We’ll add more here when we can… let us know of good links


Today in London radical history, 1771: an informer who sent insurgent silkweavers to the gallows killed in community punishment, Bethnal Green

On 16th April 1771, Daniel Clarke, a pattern drawer in the silk weaving trade, was chased by a crowd through the streets of Spitalfields, & then stoned to death in the Hare Street Pond. This came some 15 months after he had testified in the trial of silk weavers accused of being involved in organised sabotage and intimidation in a work dispute against their employers. The shocked reaction of the authorities to Clarke’s death was mirrored by a feeling among some East End locals that Clarke had deserved his fate. The incident was only the latest twist in a long-running war that had erupted into regular violence and brought the army onto the streets of the East End.


The Work of the Weavers

As previously related on this blog, the silk weavers of Spitalfields, in London’s East End, fought a long volatile and violent class war against wage cuts, mechanisation and ‘dilution’ of skilled work, a struggle that lasted a century and a half. While it broke out sporadically between (roughly) the 1670s and the 1820s, the most intense battles were fought throughout the 1760s. The disputes were sparked by attempts by employers to reduce wages and pay rates, and organised attempts by their journeymen to maintain or raise them. The war came to a head as groups of ‘cutters’ came together to target wage-slashing masters, extending a campaign of threats, intimidation and assault to workers who worked for lower rates – such breaking ranks threatened the livelihoods of all by undermining the solidarity the journeymen weavers were trying to build.

The ‘cutters’ were so-nicknamed one of their favoured tactic was to slash silk on the loom, rendering the normally high-value fabric worthless. The silk-weaving trade was mostly conducted through home-work – weavers took silk belonging to a master to their homes, which doubled as workshops, and wove it there, and were paid by the piece finished. This method of mostly artisan production was, by the 1760s, beginning to evolve into a larger-scale more factory-based system, but in London’s East End, silkweaving was very much a complex mesh of self-employment, patronage, and interwoven relationships of work, friendship, and community. Journeymen could rise to be masters; though most did not. Attempts to replace long-established skilled work with more mechanised production methods that enabled hiring weavers at lower pay had been going on for a century, constantly resisted by a self-consciously skilled and sometimes well-paid workforce determined to extract the maximum from their labour (partly because periodic trade slumps and cloth imports made their position not always secure).
This situation was further complicated by the increase in middlemen and agents interposing themselves between workers and masters, a bit like the employment agencies of today, though often emerging from the ranks of the silk weavers themselves.

Like the later Luddites of the midlands and the north, the weavers’ battle to defend their livelihoods consistently involved collective violence; and like them, was viciously repressed by the authorities, who in the main lined up behind the master weavers. But the silkweavers’ struggles were complex and contradictory: sometimes they were battling their employers and sometimes co-operating with them; to some extent they won more concessions than their northern counterparts, holding off mechanisation for a century, and maintaining some control over their wages and conditions, at least for a while.

After decades of skirmishing over prices, by the 1760s tensions between masters and workers had grown to eruption point. Dissatisfaction over pay among journeymen silkweavers was increasing; a slump in the trade partly caused by smuggling had left 7,072 looms were out of employment. In 1762, the journeymen wrote a Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases). They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. Increasingly masters were turning to machine looms, and hiring the untrained, sometimes women and children, to operate them, in order to bypass the journeyman and traditional apprentices and their complex structure of pay and conditions.

As a result of the rejection of the Book, two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials, and went on strike.

There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides. Tactics included threatening letters to employers, stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, riots, attacks on the houses of wealthy silk masters and politicians and justices seen as instituting repression against the weavers’ combinations or passing laws that threatened their position. As well as huge unruly demonstrations, secret subversive clubs of weavers were organised to conduct sabotage, and intimidate wage-breakers and employers. These were often run from the taverns of Spitalfields, Shoreditch and Bethnal Green where weavers gathered and drank (many trades were effectively organised through such establishments, which doubled as community centres, meeting places and union halls).

One committee allegedly called the Bold Defiance, (or Conquering and Bold Defiance, or the Defiance Sloop), who met at the Dolphin Tavern. The Bold Defiance started raising a fighting funds for their dispute, as part of which they attempted to levy a tax on anyone who owned or worked a loom. Their methods of fund-raising bordered, shall we say, on extortion, expressed in the delivery to silk weaving masters of Captain Swing-style notes: “Mr Hill, you are desired to send the full donation of all your looms to the Dolphin in Cock Lane. This from the conquering and bold Defiance to be levied four shillings per loom.” 

The violence of the weavers’ agitation through 1762-8 led to the army being sent in to occupy the Spitalfields area several times, and to an Act of Parliament being passed in 1765, declaring it to be a felony and punishable with death, to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture. This law was to be used with devastating effect four years later.

In the Summer of 1769, some of the masters attempted to force a cut in rates of pay, further inflaming the situation.

Summer of ’69

One major silk boss threatened by the cutters was Lewis Chauvet, a master on an increasing scale. Chauvet had set up a factory for silk production, which stood in Crispin Street, Spitalfields. A leading manufacturer of silk handkerchiefs, who had already been involved in bitter battles against striking weavers in Dublin, Chauvet banned his workers from joining the weavers’ clubs or paying any levies, and organised a private guard on his looms.
Through the summer of 1769, cutters’ groups gathered in large numbers and visited workers weaving Chauvet’s silk, both to destroy their work, and to ask for contributions to the fighting fund. Fights broke out.

On the night of Thursday 17th August, cutters assembled in gangs and went to the homes of Chauvet’s workers, cutting the silk out of more than fifty looms. Four nights later, on Monday 21st, and in even greater numbers, cutters slashed the silk off more than a hundred looms. Throughout the month, the streets of Spitalfields resounded to the noise of pistols being fired in the air. Chauvet was eventually forced to pay a levy to the cutters to prevent further sabotage…

But he also advertised a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. But for several weeks the people of Spitalfields remained silent, from solidarity, because they did not wish to give evidence that might send a man to the gallows, or from fear of reprisals from the cutters. The atmosphere had become bitter, rife with confused anger and rumour – weaver against weaver. People who lived cheek-by-jowl and worked together were at odds; weavers who had accepted lower rates of pay or worked for masters like Chauvet were seen as scabs by others. Many who had no time for employers breaking wage rates were unnerved and scared by the vehemence of the cutters and their tactics; on the flipside, many who would not normally have endorsed law-breaking felt informing on their neighbours and their fellow weavers was beyond the pale. Everyone knew that the harsh penal code meant workers ‘combining’ for any aim of maintaining wages or work conditions was illegal, and that going disguised to intimidate or sabotage was a capital offence. Whether they approved of the cutters’ methods or not, many would not have dobbed them in. And given the closeness of the communities, many would have known who was doing what.

And community anger against informants was also a powerful and widely shared element of the social code, and this rage was often acted on, and violently – as we shall see.

Poor Show

However, on the 26th September 1769, a minor master weaver, Thomas Poor, and his wife Mary, swore in front of a magistrate that a few weeks before in early August, their seven looms, in their home in ‘Stocking-frame Alley’ in Shoreditch, had been slashed by a group of cutters. Thomas and Mary Poor swore these men had come to their home/workshop about eleven at night and slashed to ribbons silk they had been weaving, belonging to Joseph Horton.

Altogether they identified seven men – John Doyle, Bill Duff, Joe Colman, (known as Jolly Dog,) Andrew Mahoney, Thomas Pickles, William Horsford  and John Valloine. All of these men had been known to the Poors beforehand for several years; as must have been common in the tightly knit communities where people worked with and for each other, often out of their own homes.

However, before giving evidence the couple had inquired with Lewis Chauvet about receiving the reward he had offered – and Doyle had already been arrested by the time they went to the magistrates. Possibly the Poors may have been prompted to name men already marked down as agitators… The accused were arrested, protesting their innocence of the sabotage. other men who worked for the Poors and had been present said they could not identify the men, as it had been almost pitch black when the incident took place.

Four days later, on 30 September, after a tip off from a master weaver who had had the squeeze put on him, magistrates, Bow St Runners and troops raided the Bold Defiance’ HQ at the Dolphin Tavern, finding the cutters assembled in an upstairs room, armed, and “receiving the contributions of terrified manufacturers.” A firefight started between the weavers and the soldiers and runners, which left two weavers (including a bystander) and a soldier dead; but the cutters escaped through the windows and over rooves. Four weavers who were drinking in the pub downstairs, and one found in bed upstairs were arrested, and held for a few weeks; though no-one was brought to court over the deaths.

However, Valloine and Doyle were convicted of the attack on the Poor’s looms and sentenced to death under the 1765 Act, despite very dubious identification evidence. They were hanged on the 6th December 1769, at corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road opposite the Salmon and Ball pub. Though Tyburn was the usual place of execution, the major silk manufacturers pressured the authorities to have them ‘scragged’ locally; this was often done in an area seen as troublesome or crime-ridden, to put the fear onto others who might be thinking of breaking the law. The aim here was to overawe the rebellious weavers and intimidate them into backing down on their agitations.

Initially this attempt at a show of state force looked like it might backfire. An organised attempt to free the two was planned, and the men building the gallows were attacked with stones:

“There was an inconceivable number of people assembled, and many bricks, tiles, stones &c thrown while the gallows was fixing, and a great apprehension of a general tumult, notwithstanding the persuasion and endeavours of several gentlemen to appease the same. The unhappy sufferers were therefore obliged to be turned off before the usual time allowed on such occasions, which was about 11 o’clock; when, after hanging about fifty minutes they were cut down and delivered to their friends.”

Doyle and Valloine died proclaiming themselves not guilty of the silk cutting in question. After their execution an enraged crowd tore down the gallows, rebuilt them in front of Chauvet’s factory in Crispin Street, a clear threat to the man many saw as responsible for the two weavers’ deaths. An estimated 5,000 people gathered, smashing the windows of Chauvet’s premises and burning some of his furniture.

On the day the hanging took place, William Eastman, William Horsford and John Carmichael went on trial. Horsford had also been implicated by the Poors in their evidence; however, Daniel Clarke, another Irish silk pattern drawer and small employer, had claimed Eastman, had slashed his work in a similar attack; Clarke had also received money from Lewis Chauvet’s reward to give evidence against him.

Clarke had already made himself unpopular with the East End weavers’ community, having previously tried to undercut collectively agreed wage rates. He had possibly also informed or given evidence against insurgent weavers before, in his native Dublin: a letter sent from weavers in Dublin to ‘The Committee of Silk Weavers London in London’ in 1768 refers to a Dan Clarke as an ‘ignorant master’, calling him a ‘cat’s-paw’ who had been ‘villain enough to swear false’. Chauvet also had been operating looms in Dublin and come up against organized workers there – whether Clarke and he had had a previous association there, and if this relates to the Dubliners’ accusations against ‘Dan Clarke’, is unclear.

Cutters had by Clarke’s account broken into his home and cut silk from his looms on 11 September 1769.  Although Clarke had originally told friends that he couldn’t identify the men who’d cut his silk, after contacting Lewis Chauvet, his memory miraculously altered; medical experts say being offered large sums of money can have that effect. Clark changed his story, identifying the men who sabotaged his weaving as being part of a weavers’ combination organised out of the Red Lion Tavern, including William Eastman, locally thought to be the chairman of one of the cutters’ committees, and one Philip Gosset. It is possible Eastman, as a local cutters’ leader or organiser, was present at Clarke’s on the night in question, or it may be that he was an agitator that that Chauvet simply wanted out of the way. Philip Gosset, however, was never caught.

The evidence against Eastman, Carmichael and Horsford was contradictory and confused; but this was relatively unimportant when severe examples needed to be made to cow the rebellious workers. Protests, a weavers’ march on Parliament to ask for pardon, all fell on deaf ears. This time, though, afraid of the local reaction after the riots that followed the deaths of Doyle and Valloine, the authorities made sure the three were executed outside the area. They were hanged at Tyburn on 20th December 1769.

Although the reaction to Doyle and Valloine’s hanging had been fierce, the vicious repression did in fact have its intended effect for a while. The cutters’ acts of sabotage largely stopped and the wage agitations died down for a couple of years.

But the bitter dispute and the rage fanned up by the hangings, perceived as a burning injustice locally, still had a twist to throw up. Fifteen months later, revenge would be taken against at least one informant whose testimony had made sure that the weavers would be convicted.


The Hare Street Pond

On 16th April 1771, Daniel Clarke, the grass who had sent William Eastman to the gallows, was spotted walking along Norton Folgate; a crowd quickly gathered, which seems to have mainly consisted of women and boys; among them Anstis Horsford, the widow of William Horsford. The crowd chased Clarke through Spitalfields streets, and, after some attempts to take refuge failed, he was finally caught, and dunked in the Hare Street Pond, a flooded gravel pit in Bethnal Green. The crowd stoned and abused him, and soon after they let him out of the pond, he collapsed and died.

Benjamin West, a weaver of Fleet Street, gave evidence later that: “Clarke the deceased used to draw patterns for me: I saw him about twelve o’clock, the day he was killed, at his own house; he was coming with me up Half Nichols street, Spital-fields, to look at some work; we were attacked by two men, the people increased very fast; they called after him, ” There goes Clarke, that blood-selling rascal” or to that effect; he turned round to speak to them, and expostulated with them; I told him he had better come along; they threw stones at him; after he had turned up a little street, I saw two men knocking him down; we ran; I did not look behind me till I saw him upon the ground, after I came into Cock-lane.

Q: Which way did you run?

West. Strait forward; he turned up a little turning which leads into Cock lane: I saw him upon the ground: then he and I went different ways.

Q: But the way he and you went, both came into the same street again?

West. Yes, in Cock-lane; there I saw him down, with his hat and wig off.

Q: Was nobody with him when you saw him down?

West. I saw two or three men: I saw one man kicking him: I cannot tell what kind of a man he was; I saw Clarke get up, and he ran into Mrs. Snee’s house: that is all I saw of him; then I came away.

Q: Did they follow him to Mrs. Snee’s house?

West. I saw several people about the place.

Q: Where did you go?

West. I went to his house, and told the person he lived with, which I understand now is not his wife; that he was at Mrs. Snee’s, that he had been attacked and lost his wig: I desired her to take him a wig.

Q: Did you desire her to carry any thing else to him?

West. I told her I thought it would be necessary to take his pistols, for fear he should be attacked again; he was desired by the justices to carry pistols in his pocket, for fear of being attacked.

Q: Did any of the stones hit him?

West. I cannot say.

Q: What o’clock was it then?

West. Between twelve and one.

Q: What time was from the time he was attacked till you went off?

West. Not above half an hour.

Q: What kind of weather was it, that day?

West. Scorching weather, afterwards I fancy it rained.

Q: What o’clock might it be?

West. Near one: it was half past twelve when we left his house.

Mary Snee . I live in Cock-lane.

Q: You knew Clarke, I believe?

Snee. Yes; I had seen him five times.

Q: Do you remember his coming to your house?

Snee. Yes.

Q: What time was that?

Snee. I thought about twelve; my people tell me it was about one.

Q: Was your door open?

Snee. He opened my latch and ran in he was bloody: he was cut over his eyes, and had no wig on; I said Lord have mercy upon me what is the matter Mr. Clarke: he said, I beset; I said who has beset you? know says he: he walked about the house, we gave him water and washed him, he said when he came in,

“Lock the door, for God’s lock the door.” I did, and shut the inside shutters of my windows: he was very disconsolate. After he had been there some time, he desired me to send for his wife: he said, “this is the finishing stroke; this crowns “the work:” he desired me to send for his wife, for he had no wig, he asked me to let my daughter bring his pistols: my daughter went and met Mrs. Clarke coming in Shoreditch with his pistols; she brought them, he desired her to go back and fetch him a wig, and bring his powder box with his gun powder, which she did.

Q: How long was she before she returned again?

Snee. Half an hour, to be sure.

Q: In the mean time did you hear any noise at your door?

Snee. Yes, now and then; but they turned down the corner of the streets; and our door was pretty clear when she came the last time.

Q: Before that, did the people call out?

Snee. Yes; several times, they peeped thro’ the window and said,

“D – n him, there he is: turn him out, let us hang him, or burn him, or any thing, let us do something with him.”

Q: When the wife came, it was pretty quiet then?

Snee. Yes; and he came out then with his hands one in one pocket and the other in the other, upon his pistols; he went out with his wife.

Q: How long was he in the house, in the whole?

Snee. Upwards of an hour.

Q: Then he and his wife went out together?

Snee. Yes, and a little boy; they went a little way, not half a stone’s throw, and when the mob saw the corners of the streets beset they came running round him; I was at my own door, I saw a great mob, then he run back again.

Q: With his wife and boy?

Snee. No; they came back no more.

Q: I suppose that was but a few minutes after they had left your house?

Snee. Yes, a very few minutes; then he stood at my door, he took his pistols out; a fellow coming up to him, he said, “I will shoot you,” the fellow took his stick and held it up to his face, and said, “D – n you do.” Mr. Clarke could not let the pistol’s off, so he pushed into the house, and I shut the door and locked it.

Q: How many people might there be then?

Snee. I do not know; a great number of people.

Q: Were there some hundreds?

Snee. There were I believe, a hundred; I said, for God’s sake what must I do; the outside shutters were not shut at all; they throwed a great brickbat at the door, and when they had done that, they throwed another and broke four panes of glass and the frame, and all of the windows. They said, “D – n him, turn him out, and they would hang him, or burn him, or drown him, or do something or other to him; d – n him turn him out;” I asked Mr. Clarke whether he knowed them or not, that beset him, he said no I don’t, but I know them that does. They kept knocking and beating at the door and window, I did not know what to do; he said, “For God’s sake do not open the door;” then he asked me if I had any cellar; I said, yes; he went down into the wash house, and then down into the cellar; when he was in the cellar, I opened the door, one of the fellows came in; as soon as he came in he pushed into the kitchen to me, and said, “D – n you, where is he.” I said he is not here.

Q: Look at the prisoners and recollect if you saw either of them there?

Snee. No; I was in a great fright.

Q: How came you to open the door?

Snee. I opened it to let a friend in; I thought he was a pretty safe in the cellar; the man ran up stairs and met my daughter and said, “D – n my blood, if I don’t kill all in the house if they don’t find him; “my daughter said, as I hope to be saved, he is not up stairs; (for he was then in the cellar;) he saw my daughter go over a garden wall, which put him in mind to do so; the poor creature heard the man swear he would kill all in the house. While he was in the kitchen, the deceased came out and got over the wall. Then they called out in the street, “There he goes, there he runs;” then they left me, and run out into the garden.

Q: That is not a garden belonging to your house, I believe?

Snee. No; a great garden, belonging to a gardener; they all ran after him.

Q: Did they go over the wall too?

Snee. There is gates and places; they can go every way from the street.

Q: Did you hear a pistol go off after this?

Snee. I did not; I was so frightened I heard nothing more.

Q: How long had he been in your house; you say the first time he was in your house, about an hour; how long was it from the time he first came into your house, till he got over the wall?

Snee. About an hour, or upwards.

Q: Then the hour includes the whole time from his coming into your house till he finally went away?

Snee. Yes.

John Marsh of Norton Folgate “had just dined and heard an extraordinary noise, which occasioned me to look out of my window; there I saw a man, which they tell me, was Clarke; I saw him at the corner of White Lyon street, at Mr. Woodrow’s corner, surrounded by a number of people; I saw nobody strike him then; I went to my other window, and there I saw a man with a whip, like a carman’s whip, there was a circle of people; I suppose the man was under; I saw the whip up several times; it seemed to strike at some object below, that I could not see; but it was within a few yards of where I had seen Clarke before; I saw no more…”

Another Norton Folgate resident, Thomas Gibson, also observed Clarke being mobbed:

“he went and stood up at the corner, going to White Lyon-street, with his back against the wall; he dropt with his back-side upon the ground; a man came by with a dray, and said, Clear the way; he took a whip and began whipping of him.

Q: How long did he whip him?

Gibson. Perhaps a minute; I went away to my shop; I work in Blossom-street: he got up, how I know not; I lost fight of him then, I got fight of him again in about four or five minutes, in Wheeler-street, the next street to White Lyon-street; the people were pursuing him; they had got him up in a corner and were throwing dirt at him, and striking him, that was about one hundred yards from White-Lyon-street; then they went away down Quaker-street with him; he never seemed to try to get away, but seemed to go with them; he was in the middle of a great number of people: about the middle of Quaker’s-street somebody came and gave him a blow, and said, D – n your blood: and Clarke fell down. I followed him to the Broad way.

Q: What was done there?

Gibson. He kept going before the mob; I saw nobody meddle with him there; he was before that in a very deplorable condition; his head was bloody: then they went to Hare-street: he was going down Hare-street; somebody came and asked me what was the matter; I stopped to tell him it was Clarke: they stopped him against the brew-house; there they stripped him; it is about the middle of Hare-street; I cannot say how much they stripped him; he had his breeches and stockings; then they went into the field, called, Hare-street field, that is at the end of Hare-street: I went into Hare-street field with the mob: when he came into Hare-street field , whether they knocked him down, or kicked him down, I cannot say, but he was down, and they were beating him upon the ground while he was down; some got hold of his legs; some his arms, and they dragged him along upon the ground; then they said, “We will throw him into a pond, or a ditch;” one said, This is not deep enough; and another, This is not deep enough: at last they carried him into the Brick-field, where there is a pond, occasioned by digging out the bricks.

Q: What did they do with him then?

Gibson. They forced him into the water; whether they thrust him in by the back, or took hold of him by the arms, I cannot say.

Q: What distance might you be?

Gibson. One hundred yards, or farther.

Q: What number of people might be gathered together at this time.

Gibson. There might be two or three thousand; there were people out of number.

Q: How long did you stay after he was shoved into the pond?

Gibson. Till the very last of all. They kept pelting him with earth and brick-bats, and any thing they met with whilst he was in the water.

Q: How deep was this pond?

Gibson. Where he stood he seemed to be about three feet in the water: whether he stood, or kneeled down in the water, I cannot say.

Q: How high did the water come?

Gibson. About the middle of his belly.

Q: What kind of weather was this?

Gibson. It snowed at times as fast as I ever saw it in my life.

Q: How long did he continue in this pond?

Gibson. It was a considerable time; half an hour, or three quarters.”

Gibson and others pulled Clarke from the pond, but this was only a temporary respite:

“I got hold of him; we dragged him four or five yards from the place; some of them said, He is one of his confederates or some such word, and pushed the man in and all; and they were going to push me in with him; I slipped away at a distance from the mob; some advised me to go home, and said I should get myself ill used; but I staid.

Q: Where was Clark at this time?

Gibson. About nine or ten yards from the water.

Q: In what condition?

Gibson. He was down upon the sand-heap, and they were throwing sand on the top of him.

Q: How long did this treatment continue upon the sand?

Gibson. It might be a quarter of an hour, or twenty minutes.

Q: What became of him at the end of this quarter of an hour, or twenty minutes?

Gibson. They made a sort of a hallo themselves, and then they came and throwed him into the water again.

Q: How high was the water then?

Gibson. He was crawling like upon his hands and knees, at times, striving to keep himself from drowning; they kept throwing brickbats and stones at him; brickbats were the chief; there was not many stones; I saw half a brick, as it appeared to me, come and strike him on the left side of his temple, and the blood poured out as fast as if he had been pricked with a lancet, and the water was discoloured with the blood.

Q: Did you observe Clarke do or say any thing?

Gibson. He put his hand upon his head, and wiped the blood off and said, “Oh, gentlemen, you use me cruelly:” I went to get to the side of him to try to get him out of the water, but could not find any body to help me. Somebody cried, By and by; here is Justice Fielding’s people coming; with that they drawed back. Somebody said, No, it is not; it is the keeper or White chapel prison. I saw a man coming, a turnkey, or something belonging to the prison; then they drawed back; there was another man there, one Clarke; I asked him to help me to get the man out of the water; he was going to take hold of him; Clarke refused him; whether he thought he was going to push him in further or no, I do not know; but we got him out the second time; that Clarke is a fisherman.

Q: When you had taken him out of the pond, what happened then?

Gibson. We got him out of the pond five or six yards, I put him down upon the ground; he got up upon his backside; there I left him; I got away from him; by and by I came up to him again; I think he was leaning down upon his elbow, sitting upon one side; somebody said, Get him to an hospital; I said, It is impossible without a coach; I will assist for one; I left him: soon after somebody came up again, and said, He is dead; I said, How can that be, I saw him just now.

Q: Did he speak after you took him out the second time?

Gibson. I don’t remember hearing him speak.

Q: Did he groan?

Gibson. No; I thought he seemed pretty hearty.

Q: How were his eyes?

Gibson. He was pretty full in the eyebrows; his eyes were considerably swelled.

Q: Could he see?

Gibson. I did not perceive but that he could; I got in between the mob again, and looked, and then he was laying straight upon the ground, with both hands out; I stood awhile, and saw him fetch breath: the mob were very strong; I got away again; I could not stand it: somebody cried out afterwards, He is dead: when I went to look again, I saw he was dead; we drawed him away from there to the sand house.

Q: How long was it after he came out of the pond the second time that you observed he was dead?

Gibson. I cannot tell; but it must be after four o’clock.”

According to Francis Clarke, another witness, Daniel Clarke tried at the last to suggest the real villain was Lewis Chauvet, and that he would say nothing to the authorities if the crowd would let him go. Not unreasonably, given his record, the mob refused to believe him:

“Q: When he was pulled out where did they take him to?

Clarke. They left him near the side of the pond, about six feet off.

Q: it was at that time the people talked to him about hanging the cutters?

Clarke. Yes, and about Chevat; he made answer and said, Chevat is worse than me.

Q: Did they talk to him about any body else.

Clarke. He said, “Let me go home, for God’s sake; I will freely forgive you:” some of them said, “D – n you, you said you would swear against twenty.” Some of them said that to enrage the people the more, I believe; he said he would freely forgive them if they would let him go home, and shook his head; some of them d – d and cursed him; very saw was for him; all the mob were against him; I heard very saw people that were pitying of him; they said, “He was a very bad man, and would swear peoples lives away.”

Francis Clarke also alleged that Anstis Horsford had called out “Clarke, Clarke, I am left a widow, my child is fatherless on account of you, and more of your companions” and calling him to him ‘like a vengeful spirit; while he stood naked in the pond, asking him “Do you remember poor William Eastman?”

As with many community punishments there’s a feeling of a ritual element to the attack on Clarke; the questioning of him as he was being dunked evokes cross-examination in a trial setting; the dunking in water itself brings to mind the older ducking of scolds or witches. Whipping him through the streets and making him wear a halter around his neck were also legal punishments designed to humiliate an offender, engage the community in joining in chastising transgressors, and warn others. Self-consciously or sub-consciously, collective actions often adopt ritual elements – sometimes drawn from law, religion, even theatre; because people are looking for a form that legitimises their actions? Gives them a meaning they can get their heads around? Just because memory brings forward what you’ve known and seen? All of the above, mingled together, probably…

Revenge which the law would not admit of

In Spitalfields the killing of Clarke was clearly seen, at least by some, as community justice. Local Magistrate David Wilmot put out adverts asking for information on who had been involved in the attack on Clarke. The first response was not quite as hoped: Wilmot received a series of threatening letters. A missive dated 17 April signed ‘one of ten thousand’ informed the justice that ‘the fellow we kill’d on Tuesday swore away the life of my dearest friend and if he had a thousand lives I would with pleasure have taken them.’ It also suggested Wilmot, his home and family would be targeted if he pursued the case. A later letter (dated 21 April) firmly set the ‘lynching’ of Clarke in a context of a community morality which did not exactly line up fully with morality and law as imposed by the state, expressing the view that the crowd had ‘taken that just revenge which the law would not admit of [against] that detestable late object [Clarke] who was thirsting after their blood not thro’ any motive of justice but merely for reward.’

Informing for a reward was widely detested, especially among the poorer classes, most likely to be at the sharp end, but in fact, this sentiment extended to various levels of society. This alternative morality expressed both a sense of solidarity – there was nothing in fact wrong with what the accused were doing, or if there was, death was too severe a punishment – but also a practical objection – paying for information leads to people lying, for the money. This problem was not unique to late-18th century East London, and alternative moralities which reject grasses are alive and well… Whether punitive action is then taken against informers tends to vary. In eighteenth century London, the lively plebeian culture included a general willingness of large numbers to come out and take part in riots, disturbances and unruly activity, to try to achieve results that weren’t available to most of them through legal means. Large swathes of society saw nothing wrong in this, so long as it chimed with some form of consensus of what was right and what was wrong. So seizing consignments of food being sold at high prices during food shortages/had harvests, and ensuring it was sold at a more affordable price, was widely accepted as socially just, by all except those profiting from it. Action against informers may have a much less wide groundswell of support, but a substantial social base saw nothing immoral about having a go at someone who had given evidence that had led men to be executed – certainly, as in this case, where the hanged had proclaimed the evidence false and money had changed hands.

Obviously, however, the official ‘justices’ had to squash another blatant challenge to law and order: culprits had to be fund and severely dealt with. Despite the threats, names were named and fingers were pointed. two more weavers, Henry Stroud – William Eastman’s brother in law – and Robert Campbell, together with William Horsford’s widow, Anstis, were arrested by Wilmot, and charged with murdering Clarke. Campbell was held to be the man who had ducked Clarke and held his head under water. Stroud was identified as one of the crowd; witnesses claimed he had pelted Clarke with half bricks while he was in the pond.

Witnesses had to be bribed to testify, however. Those who gave evidence against the three at the trial were all paid; Francis Clarke, a fruiterer, and Sarah Scales admitted they had been paid a total of £80 to give evidence against Campbell. Joseph Chambers, David Higgins and William Watts identified Stroud; all were forced to concede that they had done so with the promise of sharing a £100 reward. Constable John Pagett also openly hinted he had been paid to testify. Reading the trial transcripts, it seems fairly clear that blatant bribery was at work: the accused were in the frame and no expense would be spared to convict them. As so often was when the justice system was loaded against the plebs, and money talked (how things have changed… wait…er…)

Campbell and Stroud were found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged on July 8th, 1771. Once again, local punishment was deemed necessary to overawe the uppity weavers, and they were stretched at the scene of the crime, in Hare Street.

Anstis Horsford, however, disappears from view here; it is possible she received a lesser sentence than execution; or was executed but not so publicly; maybe she was maybe even acquitted. Frustratingly, the records seem to dry up.

As had taken place when Doyle and Valloine were executed, the hanging of Campbell and Stroud provoked a violent emotion locally, though reports are contradictory about whether there was similar trouble or not. A hundred soldiers had to be posted to ensure the hanging took place.

As noted above, the repression of the cutters contributed to a lull in the silkweavers’ struggles for a while. Attempts were also made by magistrates to prevent more disorder by suggesting that masters keep to the wage agreements and listing the going rates for weavers’ work; a further agitation in 1773 (after some masters again tried to break these rates) led to this being codified and set into law. A series of Spitalfields Acts set out the agreed rate and also the punishments for masters or journeymen who tried to break them – up or down. The Acts largely kept the peace and ensured peaceful wage negotiations, until they were repealed in the 1820s, though they also hobbled weavers’ self-organisation.

Questions of Violence

The collective violence involved the silkweavers’ many disputes is hardly unique; this kind of collective bargaining by riot has not died away in our own times. In the 1760s the law was overwhelmingly and blatantly loaded in favour of the propertied classes, and without money or property your chances in the legal system were slim. Organising trade unions or any kind of ‘combination’ to even ask for higher wages or better conditions were illegal. Any attempt at getting together was by default outside the law, and the law was not only for sale to the highest bidder, but its higher echelons were by definition men of property, who stuck by their own.

Elsewhere we have written about the different kinds of physical force employed in disputes around Spitalfields silkweaving in the eighteenth century.

  • Disputes that engaged the rank and file of the weavers – in alliance with the masters, for instance against imports of cheap cloth; demonstrating and rioting with the tacit approval of their bosses, a cross-class industry-wide unity (an example being the Calico Riots of 1719-20, more on which we will publish in June)
  • The type of full-scale warfare AGAINST the masters described above
  • By the 1760s yet a third struggle emerges, as groups of workers start to fight between themselves, machine loom weavers against hand loom weavers.

If at some points employers were willing to back journeymen weavers’ violence and identify themselves as having interests in common (in defence of the East End whole silkweaving trade), this didn’t prevent them from shafting their workers when felt it was in their interests.

It’s worth remembering that the silk trade consisted of many different levels of manufacture; there were many small masters, operating just above the journeymen, sub-contracting for larger manufacturers like Chauvet. As with many craft-based trades from the middle ages to the nineteenth century, there also existed a mechanism for apprentices to rise to become small or even larger masters, through the recognised structures, which could complicate any naïve vision of a simple division of class interests. Sometimes small masters like Thomas Poor could be virtually united with a mass of journeymen, later they were driven by class struggle and the increasing bitterness of the 1760s into collusion with the major employers.

The masters’ drive to cut wages, notably through mechanisation, was partly driven by the need to reduce costs, itself stimulated by the strength of the weavers’ organisations and their preparedness to use force, and by the widespread resistance to work in the form of absenteeism. A further incentive was the increasing threat to their profits coming from silk and other fine cloth smuggling, which had reached a chronic scale: lowering wages and production costs through mechanisation was seen as a way to undercut the cheaper smuggled cloths, since protectionism and legislation was failing.

For the journeymen’s part, willingness to front for the masters on the one hand didn’t blind some of them to the fundamental difference in their interests; the emergence of cutters’ groups like the Bold Defiance shows their were elements capable and prepared to take defence of what they saw as their interests to fantastic levels.

If some cutters’ groups had drifted from collecting contributions to pay for organising costs, into extortion and intimidation? The suggestion that a violent and extreme minority are forcing other workers into supporting rebellious action by force is part of the armoury of your daily mails etc when ranting about any strike. These foaming mouths never reckon the violence done on the other side, or the processes of coercion by which poverty, the factory system, submission to dehumanising work are imposed; the morality runs only one way. Collective self-defence is often necessary – sometimes you have to get your self-defence in first. This was even more true in the 1760s, when even meeting to discuss wage levels could get you thrown in prison, and demonstrating could bring the army down on you.

And morality was subtly different to our own era; by necessity, bonds of community solidarity were often stronger, and many among the lower orders shared a common disregard for a legal system willing to openly and unhesitatingly shed blood for petty crimes. Two hundred years of careful social conditioning and calculated concessions have altered attitudes towards policing, the law, imprisonment and social/anti-social crime – interesting developments in class and society that we cannot for space reasons go into here. But there’s widespread and stubborn resistance among some strata of the working class even today to the ‘accepted’ moral codes of right and wrong…

Killing Daniel Clarke would not bring back the dead; whether or not the attackers meant him to die. To some extent the attack on him was a spasm of rage from people who had not only lost loved ones and neighbours, but also may have felt they lost the struggle those men had (allegedly) taken part in.

The journeymen in many cases did what they thought was necessary to defend their livelihoods; when you need to eat, morals come second. The law had backed Chauvet and his ilk, accepted the flagrantly bought testimony of Clarke and the other witnesses, and ruthlessly killed Eastman, Horsford and the others cutters… Whether the law had framed guilty men, or connived at the deaths of the innocent, thousands in Spitalfields had known there was no justice for them in the law; only their own actions would get any kind of justice.


An entry in
 the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar




Today in London’s religious history, 1575: twenty Dutch Anabaptists arrested near Aldgate

On 3rd April 1575, twenty Dutch Anabaptists were arrested near Aldgate on the eastern edge of the City of London, at a meeting for Easter. Of these, fourteen were banished, two escaped from prison, and two, Jan Pieters and Hendrick Terwoort, were burned at Smithfield on 22 July.

Anabaptism can best be broadly described as a radical offshoot of the Protestant Reformation, spiritual ancestors of the modern Baptists, Mennonites and Quakers. (Though historians argue about how much influence and connection anabaptists had on later movements like the Baptist churches). However, it’s unlikely anyone called them self an anabaptist in the 1530s; it was a derogatory name given to them by their detractors. The movement’s most distinctive tenet was adult baptism: converts underwent a second baptism, (a ‘crime’ punishable by death under the legal codes of the time.) Members rejected the label Anabaptist (meaning Rebaptizer) – they repudiated their own baptism as infants as a blasphemous formality. They considered the public confession of sin and faith, sealed by adult baptism, to be the only proper baptism. Following the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli, they held that infants are not punishable for sin until they become aware of good and evil and can exercise their own free will, repent, and accept baptism.

The Anabaptists also believed that the church, the community of those who have made a public commitment of faith, should be separated from the state, which they believed existed only for the punishment of sinners. Most Anabaptists were pacifists who opposed war and the use of coercive measures to maintain the social order; they also refused to swear oaths, including those to civil authorities. For their teachings regarding baptism and for the apparent danger they posed to the political order, they were persecuted pretty much everywhere they emerged, by Protestant and Catholic states alike.

The Anabaptists, like most Protestant Reformers, were determined to restore the institutions and spirit of the primitive church and often identified their suffering with that of the martyrs of the first three Christian centuries. Quite confident that they were living at the end of time, they expected the imminent return of Jesus Christ.

The biblical validity of infant baptism began to be debated in the early years of the Reformation, and the first adult baptism, which took place at Zollikon, outside Zürich, probably on January 21, 1525, was the result of the dissatisfaction of a group of Zwingli’s followers, led by the patrician humanist Konrad Grebel, over Zwingli’s unwillingness to undertake what they considered necessary reforms. Soon thereafter an extensive movement was in progress. Some of the more distinctive convictions of the Swiss movement were set forth in the seven articles of the Schleitheim Confession (1527), prepared under the leadership of Michael Sattler.

The revolutionary implications of their teachings got the early anabaptists expelled from one city after another: however this also served to spread their ideas around Europe. Soon civil magistrates took sterner measures, and most of the early Anabaptist leaders died in prison or were executed.

Despite increasing persecution, new Anabaptist communities and teachings emerged. A unique type of Anabaptism, developed later in Moravia under the leadership of Jakob Hutter, stressed the common ownership of goods modeled on the primitive church in Jerusalem. The Hutterite colonies first established in Moravia survived the Reformation and are now located primarily in the western United States and Canada.  Melchior Hofmann, established a large following in the Netherlands and inspired a number of disciples. He taught that the world would soon end and that the new age would begin in Strasbourg. He was imprisoned in that city in 1533 and died about 10 years later.

Some of Hofmann’s followers, such as the Dutchman Jan Mathijs (died 1534) and John of Leiden (Jan Beuckelson; died 1536), and many persecuted Anabaptists settled in Münster, Westphalia. Hofmann’s disciples were attracted to the city by dramatic changes that occurred there in the early 1530s. Under the influence of the Reformer Bernhard Rothman, Anabaptist sentiment was strong enough there to elect an Anabaptist majority to the city council in 1533. This was followed, under the direction of Mathijs and John of Leiden, by the expulsion and persecution of all non-Anabaptists and the creation of a messianic kingdom under John of Leiden. The city was surrounded in 1534 by an army of Catholics and Protestants, which perhaps encouraged further reforms, including the common ownership of goods (and allegedly polygamy) – justified by biblical scripture. The city was captured in 1535, and the Anabaptist leaders were tortured and killed and their bodies hung in steel cages from the steeple of St. Lambert’s church.

While most so-called Anabaptists were horrified at the episode in Münster, it brought down fiercer repression on all of them. The massive upsurge of Class violence during the German Peasants’ War and the anabaptists’ ideas were clearly linked to the authorities way of thinking: rejection of state and church and refusal to obey the law could only lead to revolution and disorder.

However, the pacifist Anabaptists in the Netherlands and northern Germany rallied under the leadership of the former priest Menno Simons, becoming the Mennonite church.

A number of anabaptists settled in England from the early 1530s, lulled by Henry VIII’s dispute with the pope and flirtations with reform into seeing it as a safer haven than other European countries. But repression awaited them here too, especially after the Münster revolution, which scared the authorities everywhere into cracking down on any whiff of the sect or sympathy for it. Henry imprisoned & burned some; and this treatment continued under Elizabeth I, despite her much-quoted decree that she would not look into men’s souls and persecute them for their beliefs…

Here’s an account of the arrests of the anabaptists in London in 1575, from a chronicle of English Baptism:

“During the persecution which raged in the Netherlands under the Duke of Alva, butcher-general of the Inquisition in that country, numbers fled to other parts of the Continent, or to England, for refuge and safety. In England, at any rate, they ought to have been safe. But the demon of persecution ruled here. In London, on the 3rd of April, 1575, a small congregation of Dutch Baptists convened in a private house, outside the City gates (“without Aldgate”), was interrupted by a constable while at worship, and twenty-five persons were taken before a magistrate, who committed them to prison, but released them after two days’ confinement, on their giving bail for their appearance whenever summoned.

Information being given to the Queen, a Royal Commission was issued to Sandys, Bishop of London, and some others, to examine the parties and proceed accordingly. They appeared before the Commissioners in pursuance of the summons. Their confession of faith was rejected, and they were required to subscribe to four articles, condemnatory of their own principles.

“They proposed to us four questions,” says one of the prisoners, “telling us to say yea or nay—”

“1. Whether Christ had not taken His flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary?

“We answered: ‘He is the Son of the living God.’”

“2. Ought not little children to be baptized ?

“We answered: ‘Not so; we find it not written in Holy Scripture.

“3. May a Christian serve the office of a magistrate?

“We answered: ‘That it did not oblige our consciences; but, as we read, we esteemed it an ordinance of God.

“4. Whether a Christian, if needs be, may not swear?

“We answered: That it also obliged not our consciences; for Christ has said, in Matthew, Let your words be yea, yea; nay, nay. Then we were silent.

“But the Bishop said, that our misdeeds therein were so great that we could not enjoy the favour of God. O, Lord, avenge it not! He then said to us all, that we should be imprisoned in the Marshalsea.”

In the Marshalsea Prison (now called the “Queen’s Bench”), to which they were then conveyed, many efforts were made, by the ministers of the Dutch Church and others, to persuade them to submit and recant. “Master Joris came to us and said, If we would join the Church, that is, the Dutch Church, our chains should be struck off and our bonds loosed. The Bishop, he said, had given him command so to do. But we remained steadfast to the truth of Jesus Christ. He is, indeed, our Captain, and no other; yea, in Him is all our trust. My dear brethren, and sweet sisters, let us persevere until we conquer. The Lord will then give us to drink of the new wine. O Lord, strengthen our faith. As we have received the Lord Jesus Christ, let us go forward courageously, trusting in Him.” Five of them were overpowered, and consented to join the Dutch Church. They made a public recantation in St. Paul’s churchyard, on the 25th of May, standing there before thousands of people, with faggots bound to, their shoulders, as in Popish times. A few days after the remainder appeared again before the Commissioners. “We remembered the Word of the Lord,” says Gerrit van Byler, “‘When they shall lead you before lords and princes, fear not what you shall say, for in that hour it shall be given you.’ So we trusted in the Lord. The questions were again proposed, and subscription demanded; but we said, ‘That we would cleave to the Word of the Lord.”’ Upon this they were declared to be incorrigible heretics, sentenced to death, and given over to the secular arm to be punished.

Bishop Sandys was the spokesman on the occasion. The sentence accorded with his theology. In a sermon preached by him before the Parliament this passage occurs: “Such as teach, but teach not the good and right way; such as are open and public maintainers of errors and heresy; such, in the judgment of God, are thought unworthy to live. Let the false prophet die (Deut. xiii.5). Elias and Jehu did not think themselves imbrued, but rather sanctified, with such blood. I have no cruel heart; blood be far from me. I mind [desire] nothing less. Yet needs must it be granted that the maintainers and teachers of errors and heresy are to be repressed in every Christian commonwealth.”1

Fourteen women and a youth were put on board a vessel and sent out of the country. The youth was whipped from the prison to the wharf. The remaining five were consigned to Newgate, where they were put in heavy irons, thrust into a damp and filthy dungeon swarming with vermin, and not allowed to associate with other prisoners lest the thieves and murderers in the jail should be corrupted by Anabaptist contamination. One of their number, Christian Kernels, sank under the inhuman treatment. He died in the dungeon, after eight days’ confinement. He was “released by death, trusting in God; his dying testimony filled us with joy.”

The Queen was entreated to spare them. But she resented such interference with her prerogative, and would only consent to a month’s reprieve, and that in compliance with the intercession of John Foxe, the Martyrologist, whose truly pathetic and eloquent letter to her Majesty on the subject has been often printed and generally admired. Admirable it was in some respects. It was a gushing forth of Christianized humanity, quite peculiar in that age of steel-clad religion. But good old John was still in the dark. He did not understand soul-freedom. According to him, Baptists had no right to hold and profess their opinions. They were ranked with those “fanatical sects” which “are by no means to be countenanced in a commonwealth,” but ought to be “suppressed by proper correction.” He did not ask, therefore, for their release. All he complained of was “the sharpness of their punishment.” He would have it changed. “There are excommunications, and close imprisonment; there are bonds; there is perpetual banishment, burning of the hand, and whipping, or even slavery itself.” But “to roast alive the bodies of poor wretches, that offend rather through blindness of judgment than perverseness of will, in fire and flames, raging with pitch and brimstone,” he denounced as “a hard-hearted thing, and more agreeable to the practice of the Romanists than the custom of the Gospellers.” If, however, the Queen would not consent to recall the sentence, he implored her to grant “a month or two, in which we may try whether the Lord will give them grace to turn from their dangerous errors, lest, with the destruction of their bodies, their souls be in danger of eternal ruin.”

Foxe wrote also to the prisoners, urging them to acknowledge their errors, to give up their “frantic conceptions,” and telling them that they had “disturbed the Church by their great scandal and offence.” He sent them a copy of his letter to the Queen. In their reply to him, they say: “We are sorry, that you do not understand our matter, and that you have another opinion of us than we wish, since you think that by our curiosity and obstinacy we have not only given offence to the Church of God, but also provoked God himself, and frustrated our salvation. What reason you have thus to think of us we know not; nevertheless, we can assure you that we seek with our whole hearts to serve the one God and Christ in a good conscience, and to edify our neighbour, as far as in us lies. Therefore we gladly receive what the Holy Scripture testifies, and wish to be permitted to adhere to the plainness and simplicity of the Word of God, and not to be urged farther with subtle questions, which our feeble understandings are not able to comprehend, nor by Scripture to justify.”

The prisoners transmitted to the Queen a confession of their faith, accompanied by a “ supplication,” from which we take the following extract:—

“We testify before God and your Majesty, that were we in our consciences able by any means to think or understand the contrary, we would with all our hearts receive and confess it; since it were a great folly in us, not to live rather in the exercise of a right faith than to die, perhaps, in a false one. May it also please your Majesty in your wisdom and innate goodness to consider that it were not right, but hypocrisy in us to speak otherwise than with our hearts we believe, in order to escape the peril of temporal death; that it is impossible to believe otherwise than we in our consciences think; and also that it is not in our power to believe this or that, as evil-doers who do right or wrong as they please. But the true faith must be implanted in the heart of man by God; and to Him we daily pray that He would give us His Spirit, to understand His Word and Gospel.”

“Above all, it is evident to your Majesty that we have not sought to stir up any rebellions or seditions against your Majesty; but, much more, have daily besought the Lord for your happy reign, and the welfare both of your soul and body. Lastly, we have not endeavoured to spread our faith in the land. This we could not do, for we are only unlearned trades-people, unskilled in divinity.”

All was in vain. The Baptists remained firm. The Queen would not relent. On the 15th of July she signed the warrant for the execution of two of them, commanding the Sheriffs of London to burn them alive in Smithfield.

A copy of the warrant is now before us. There is also before us a copy of the warrant for the burning of Archbishop Cranmer, in Queen Mary’s days. These warrants are substantially alike. In fact, they are almost couched in the same language, word for word. Mary, the Papist, dooming to death the Protestant, and Elizabeth, the Protestant, ordering the execution of the Baptist, advance the same pretensions and adopt the same forms of speech. Both of them call their victims “heretics.” Both assume to be “zealous for justice.” Both are “defenders of the Catholic faith.” Both declare their determination to “maintain and defend the Holy Church, her rights and liberties.” Both avow their resolve to “root out and extirpate heresies and errors.” Both assert that the heretics named in the warrants had been convicted and condemned “according to the laws and customs of the realm.” Both charge the Sheriffs to take their prisoners to a “public and open place,” and there to “commit them to the fire,” in the presence of the people, and to cause them to be “really consumed” in the said fire. Both warn the Sheriffs that they fail therein at their peril. Herod and Pontius Pilate forgot their differences when they united in crucifying the Saviour. Papists and Protestants agree in murdering His followers.

Hendrick Terwoort and Jan Pieters were the two whom the Queen appointed to death. Terwoort was a young man, about twenty-five years of age. He was a goldsmith, and in good circumstances. He was married some eight or ten weeks before his imprisonment. Pieters was aged, poor, and had nine children dependent on his daily toil. His first wife had been martyred at Ghent, in Flanders: his second wife was the widow of a martyr. A statement of his circumstances was laid before Sandys, in order to induce him to get permission for Pieters to leave the country, with his wife and children. But the Bishop was inaccessible to pity.

On Lord’s Day, the 17th of July, they were informed that the warrant for their execution had arrived. “Upon Tuesday,” says Gerrit Van Byler, “a stake was set up in Smithfield, but the execution was not that day. On Wednesday, many people were gathered together to witness the death of our two friends, but it was again deferred. This was done to terrify, and draw our friends and us from the faith. But on Friday our two friends, Hendrick Terwoort and Jan Pieters, being brought out from their prison, were led to the sacrifice. As they went forth, Jan Pieters said, ‘The holy prophets, and also Christ, our Saviour, have gone this way before us, even from the beginning, from Abel until now.’” A vast multitude had collected together on the occasion, but few of whom, probably, sympathized with the sufferers. Some preachers were sent to the place of execution to prevent the expression of sympathy by maligning them. One of them exclaimed, “These men believe not on God.” “We believe,” replied Pieters, “in one God, our Heavenly Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ His Son.” When they were bound to the stake, the articles were again offered to them, and life and pardon promised if they would subscribe. Pieters answered for them both, “You have laboured hard to drive us to you, but now, when placed at the stake, it is labor in vain.” One of the preachers said in excuse, “That all such matters were determined by the Council, and that it was the Queen’s intention they should die.” “But,” rejoined Pieters, “you are the teachers of the Queen, whom it behooves you to instruct better; therefore shall our blood be required at your hands.” No answer could be given to this. Fire was applied, and the souls of the martyrs ascended to God. “How utterly absurd,” says the Dutch Martyrologist, “do all such cruel proceedings and sentences as are here seen appear, when contrasted with the Christian faith! The Christian host is described as sheep and lambs, sent forth among cruel and devouring wolves. Who will be able, with a good conscience, to believe that these English preachers were the true sheep of Christ, since in this matter they brought forth so notably the fruit of wolves ?”

This was a black affair. It was essentially unjust and cruel, and admitted of no palliation. These Baptists owed no allegiance to Elizabeth. They were not her subjects. They were refugees, and claimed her protection as exiles for religion’s sake from their native land. They were living peaceably, doing harm to none. No rioting or disturbance was laid to their charge. All that could be alleged against them was that they did not go to the parish churches, but exercised Christian freedom, and worshipped God as they understood the Scriptures to teach them. For this they were burnt to death by a Protestant Queen.

We are willing to believe that Elizabeth was influenced by her bishops. Sandys and Whitgift were furious against the Baptists. They misrepresented and calumniated them continually. They held them up to public scorn and indignation, as professing sentiments incompatible with the well-being of society. The Queen was instructed by these men to regard the Baptists as hostile to her royal authority. That was touching her in a tender part. The womanly heart was strangely hardened, and she refused to show mercy.

Elizabeth could not plead ignorance respecting the sentiments of the Baptists. In the confession of faith which Terwoort and Pieters sent to her, a revised copy of which was signed by them the day before their martyrdom, they thus plainly stated their views:—

“We believe and confess that magistrates are set and ordained of God, to punish the evil and protect the good; which magistracy we desire from our hearts to obey, as it is written in 1 Peter 2:13, ‘Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.’ ‘For he beareth not the sword in vain’ (Romans 8:4). And Paul teaches us that we should offer up for all ‘prayers, and intercessions, and giving of thanks; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires that all men should be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:1-4)He further teaches us ‘to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, and to be ready to every good work’ (Titus 3:1). Therefore we pray your Majesty kindly to understand aright our meaning; which is, that we do not despise the eminent, noble, and gracious Queen, and her wise councils, but esteem them as worthy of all honour, to whom we desire to be obedient in all things that we may. For we confess with Paul, as above, that she is God’s servant, and that if we resist this power we resist the ordinance of God; for ‘rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.’ Therefore we confess to be due unto her, and are ready to give, tribute, custom, honour, and fear, as Christ Himself has taught us, saying, I Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21). Since, therefore, she is a servant of God, we will kindly pray her Majesty that it would please her to show pity to us poor prisoners, even as our Father in heaven is pitiful (Luke 6:36). We likewise do not approve of those who resist the magistrates; but confess and declare, with our whole heart, that we must be obedient and subject unto them, as we have here set down.”

But it availed them nothing. They were Baptists. The Queen was told that the Baptists were incorrigible heretics, and that she would be doing God service if she put them to death. So she lighted again the flames of Smithfield.

We have referred to Sandys and Whitgift. Their writings teem with invectives against the Baptists. In his controversy with Thomas Cartwright, the Puritan, Whitgift endeavoured to show that the arguments employed by Cartwright in defense of separation from the Church of England were similar to those used by the “Anabaptists,” a sect which was “hated” by “all estates and orders of the realm.” He collected a number of extracts from the writings of Zuingli, Calvin, Bullinger, and others, and adopted them as containing true descriptions of the opinions and practices of the “hated” party, adding observations of his own to the same effect. He says that they make contentions wheresoever they come; that the churches are disquieted by them, and magistrates contemned and despised; that “they do with as spiteful words and bitter speeches condemn the Church of England as they do the Papistical Church;” that they count all them as wicked and reprobate which are not of their sect; that they are “great hypocrites;” that they constantly “invent new opinions, and run from error to error;” that they are “stubborn and willful, wayward and froward, without all humanity;” that they seek to “overthrow commonweals, and states of government;” that they “reject all authority of superiors;” that they seek “to be free from all laws, and to do what they list;” and, finally, that all this is “most true, and therefore no slander.” No comment on these monstrosities is required. They are fair specimens of the controversial style of the age.

Doubtless, it was an unpardonable sin in the Baptists that they condemned the interference of the civil power with religion. They were remarkably clear on that subject. Whitgift unwittingly does them justice. He observes that they taught that “the civil magistrate hath no authority in ecclesiastical matters, and that he ought not to meddle in causes of religion and faith”—that “no man ought to be compelled to faith and religion” —and that “Christians ought to punish faults, not with imprisonment, not with the sword, or corporal punishment, but only with excommunication.” These are scriptural truths, which the bishops aforesaid laboured to suppress, because their own nefarious proceedings were inconsistent with them.

When Terwoort and Pieters were led out to die, Gerrit van Byler and Hans van Straten were left in Newgate, uncertain as to their fate. How long they remained there is not known. It is said that they were heavily ironed because they had endeavoured to escape by filing asunder the bars of their dungeon. At length they were discharged, probably because the Government were unwilling to incur the odium of another burning.”