Today in London’s radical history, 1848: Chartist rallies in Clerkenwell leads to fighting with police

For several days from the 29th May 1848, 1000s of supporters of the chartist movement assembled on Clerkenwell Green. A general order to police to disperse all chartist meeting led to fighting in the area, which spread to others areas of London…

Chartism, the world’s first mass political working class movement, demanded universal suffrage for all; i.e. the extension of the vote to all workingmen (although there was a vocal female element within Chartism). There were two wings of Chartism: physical force Chartism, which was ready to use insurrection if all else failed to achieve its goals; and the moral force wing, which put its trust in the fact of having right on its side and advocated the peaceful use of political activity as its preferred method.

Chartism emerged at a time when the labouring classes were still in the process of being formed into an industrial proletariat; the combination of artisan craftsmen and a mass of un- and semi-skilled labour were all being reshaped by forces such as de-skilling, an increased division of labour and factory production methods.

The two wings of Chartism reflected changes in the earlier and later periods of working class formation, self-organisation and political expression. In the earlier period, from the 1780s to the 1830s, the physical force aspects were to the fore. As previously described, in the Gordon Riots of 1780 the London Mob of slum dwellers and dissatisfied apprentices ruled the city for several days, finally defeated by Army guns and blades as the Mob attempted to storm the Bank of England. Clerkenwell’s New Prison was stormed, the prisoners released and it was then burned to the ground, as was Newgate. There were numerous riots, violent strikes and attempted insurrections throughout this period, strongly influenced by the1789 French Revolution.

From the 1830s onwards, independent working class political organisation began to replace the earlier spontaneous violent outbreaks and became the dominant form of struggle. The failed great syndicalist union movement of the 1830s had revolutionary goals to abolish (or at least ‘level’) class society through workers mass action, but it was intended to be achieved through an entirely peaceful withdrawal of labour. This domestication corresponded more to the moral force philosophy of the other wing of Chartism.

Clerkenwell Green and the Chartists

Clerkenwell was the heart of the radical political scene in Victorian London and Clerkenwell Green was a central venue for public meetings, demonstrations and frequent clashes between Chartists and the recently formed Metropolitan Police Force.

Clerkenwell was a major stronghold of Chartism from the late 1830s on. In 1837-39: Chartist mass meetings were held on the Green; a local Chartist division met at Lunt’s Coffee House, at no. 34 Clerkenwell Green.
The London Democratic Association was established in 1837 with its main strength in North and East London. They held regular meetings in the area. Though part of the broader Chartist movement they were closest to the physical force Chartists of the North; their membership cards bore the motto ‘Our rights – peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must’.
In 1840: Chartists protested here in solidarity with the imprisoned insurrectionaries of the Newport Rising and abortive revolts planned for northern cities.

Local sections of the various attempts to form united Chartist organisations also existed in the area, eg of the Metropolitan Charter Union in 1840, and the national Charter Association in 1841-2. These organisation were however, either shortlived or had lttle real significance in the capital, though London Chartism was becoming strong in the 1840s after a period of fragmentation.

Clerkenwell Green was one of the centres of large Chartist meetings in the tumult of August 1842, when mass strikes in the north and agitation in London seemed likely to break into wider revolt.
Chartist meetings were banned on the Green after this.

The last major period of Chartist activity was in 1848, in Clerkenwell as elsewhere. The build-up to the planned handing in to parliament of the third great Chartist petition involved a reviatlised Chartism all over he country. On April 10th 1848, a mass rally on Kennington Common in South London was intended to be the launch for a procession to Westminster; however, the government was afraid this would be the spark for revolution. Revolution was breaking out or brewing all over Europe at the time… The government planned ahead, brought in 1000s of troops and police to guard the capital, and enlisted thousands of the upper and middle classes to help out as special constables. They fortified buildings and bridges and prevented the Chartists from crossing the Thames into the City and Westminster, having banned the procession. The Chartists most prominent leaders backed down from confrontation, though many Chartists were up for it.

Far from being the end of Chartism, as orthodox histories often relate, April 10th did not see the end of the tensions and possibilities for the movement; London was gripped with the potential for revolt, and mass meetings were held around the capital’s open spaces and meeting grounds into June. The wave of revolts and radical movements sweeping Europe was both an inspiration to many workers, and a caution to the state, which came down hard on any demos and meetings as it had on April 10th. But rallies, marches and agitation continued into the Summer.

For instance, several days of fighting between Chartists and police took place in Clerkenwell, from 29 May 1848, lasting possibly up till June 4th.

Following Irish revolutionary John Mitchel’s sentencing of fourteen years transportation for allegedly plotting an uprising in Ireland, various Chartist and Irish groups organised a meeting and procession at Clerkenwell Green, London, on Monday 29 May 1848 to “demand from the Queen his release”

Following the meeting, the speakers organised the crowd to march through the streets, encouraging others to join in. Numbers of the marchers were reported to have been carrying ‘bludgeons, pitchforks and other dangerous implements’. However, a ‘strong body of police prevented the march from continuing to Buckingham Palace – the demonstrators then headed
back to Finsbury Square, where the leaders informed the assembly that they would
meet again on Wednesday.

The following day, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner issued a notice declaring all “assemblages and processions are illegal, and will not be allowed … all necessary measures will be adopted to prevent such processions taking place, and effectually to protect the public peace, and to suppress any attempt at the disturbance thereof.”

However the Chartists defied the ban by meeting at Clerkenwell Green again the following day. The Morning Post reported that by nine o’clock the area was densely crowded. This time the police did not even allow the gathering to form into a march, but started to disperse the crowd.

It was suggested in newspaper reports that there were ‘no known Chartist leaders at the assembly’ and that the large crowd of about 2,000 people had engaged in stone throwing, “running in different directions and shouting”. Although part of the crowd did disperse under pressure from the police, some activists called on people to stick together, that they could oppose the police; some asserted that the military would not hurt them.

According to the Morning Post (politically, a paper very hostile to Chartism) then declared that the actions of these “deluded people’ left the police with no option but to use their truncheons indiscriminately to clear the Green, which was still occupied by a ‘few men, women, and children, [who] were removed only by violent measures’.

Police tactics definitely outwitted the marchers. The police were hidden nearby and had plain-clothed observers at the assembly to report on any disorder, which helped the police time their intervention. Information had also been received that Chartists would meet at their several lodges and rush out to form a procession. But the police (amply furnished as usual with the informers and spies sent in to radical movements) had lists of the locations of Chartist meeting places, and a number of plain-clothed officers were stationed to watch them. Reserves of special constables and the City police were concealed nearby as backup.

On the 31st May, a crowd gathered again on the Green. According to one report: “in the absence of the conveners of the meeting, who had abandoned it in the face of immense police precautions, “a singular looking being with long hair, a profusion of beard and that ‘air distraught’ which is generally supposed to mark a child of the Muses” shinned up a lamp-post, and harangued the mob.

“When he had finished speaking, sections of the crowd began to make those desperate rushes, first in one direction and then in another, which generally precede a riot. At this critical moment a strong body of the police entered the Green from the east, and forming a line across the open space, swept the people at once and without opposition into the narrow streets and alleys opening from Clerkenwell Green on the west. Strong Parties of police were then placed at all the entrances to the Green and sections were sent to clear the several streets in the vicinity.”

On the 2 June 1848, The Morning Post declared: “owing to the admirable arrangements of the police, no processions were allowed to take place.”

On the following day, the provisions utilised by the authorities were re-stated: “the instructions given to Superintendents are that no processions are to be allowed, and if may are attempted, they are to be broken up at all hazards.”

The policy of the Whig government seemed to be to allow public rallies, up to a point, but to give the police their head to prevent any marches or demonstrations, anything that seemed potentially more threatening than speechifying. Processions continue to be banned.

Here is an account by James Cornish, a Clerkenwell policeman; referring to action against Chartists on one of these days, (though not sure which day, it might have been June 4th, given the reference to Victoria Park, see below).

“The Metropolitan policeman of the 1840s was a strange-looking individual. I wore a swallow tailed-coated suit with bright buttons and a tall hat. The hat was a fine protection for the head and saved me from many a Chartist’s bludgeon. It had a rim of stout leather round the top and a strip of covered steel each side. Then I had a truncheon, a weapon that was capable of doing a lot of execution and gave a good account of itself in those rough and dangerous times…When the Chartist agitation was at its worst I was stationed at Clerkenwell…in those days there were fields about and many open spaces. Clerkenwell was generally a rustic sort of suburb. There were of course great numbers of the working classes who listened readily enough to what agitators had to say about wrongs of which a lot of people knew nothing until attention was drawn to their existence. Stormy meetings were held everywhere and the police were nearly run off their legs in trying to keep order…Those were rougher, harder and coarser times and where in these days many arrests would be made, we in the ‘40s used to brush the mob off the streets and out of the way, the chief thing was to get rid of them…The rioting in London took the form of running fights between the Chartists and the Guardians of the Law, and the man who wanted excitement could get plenty of it at a very cheap rate. Every policeman became a target, and the way some of us got struck proved what first rate shots the Chartists were.

The weapons that were mostly used in the beginning were bludgeons and stone and bricks…as for the Chartists’ bludgeons they got them easily enough from trees and fences…a stake of this kind was about the only stake most of the rioters had in the country!

A famous battleground was Clerkenwell Green and another place I remember well was Cowcross Street. There was plenty of open space on the Green for fighting and many houses in which the Chartists could hide and throw things at us. Day after day we came into collision with them… One day the Chartists seemed to have vanished mysteriously and only two or three police were left to guard the Green. But that was merely a blind. They swooped down on us. By the time reinforcements arrived…the Chartists were giving us a thoroughly bad time. It turned into a massive battle that extended to neighbouring streets, into houses and onto roofs.

Truncheons were useless against the defenders of the roofs but we made good use of them in clearing the streets…there was a terrible to-do that day and I have often thought that I should like to see a picture of the street as it looked when sticks and stones and bricks were flying and police and Chartists were struggling furiously for mastery…we cleared the streets at last leaving many an aching bone and sore head.

Then a message was received to go to Victoria Park “to the relief and rescue of ‘N’ Division’ who were besieged in the church there.” A busy day for Clerkenwell’s coppers.”

Clerkenwell local Dan Chatterton, a Chartist at the time, and later a well-known secularist, republican and communist orator and writer/publisher, participated in these events in his youth; he later wrote he was badly injured during these clashes.

The fighting between Chartists and police spread to the East End. On Sunday June 4th, in Bonners Fields, Bethnal Green, a large Chartist meeting was scheduled, (in preparation for a protest march hoped to be the successor to April 10th). By eight in the morning approximately 300-400 people had gathered. As speakers addressed the crowd the meeting was broken up by mounted police with drawn swords, whose presence and precipitate action did little to calm an already agitated assembly. At least two policemen were attacked in Virginia Gardens during the afternoon in a revenge attack.

In  London Fields, on the same day, a potential Chartist meeting was prevented by a large body of police under a superintendent and two inspectors.

The Chartist leaders had planned to keep up the pressure after April 10th by holding more mass demos and marches, but the Home Office ban, and police willingess to crack heads, left this strategy on tatters by June 4th. The movements more prominent spokesmen and moral force representatives lost their hold on some of the more radical elements at this point. It was clear that moral force methods were not working. A dedicated number of Chartist activists began to meet to plot more direct action – in short, an uprising. An ‘Ulterior Committee’ was formed and began meeting regularly to co-ordinate efforts towards revolt…

… to which we return in this post


Today in London’s radical history, 1912: Great East/West End tailors strike 1912 ends in victory

London’s long history of tailoring work goes back centuries. By the 19th century clothes production expanded, as the capital’s population rocketed, and the increasing middle classes and workers created a mass market for new clothes. Working for low pay, often for long hours and in dismal conditions, London’s tailors also had a long history of getting together to fight for improvements in their working lives.

London had a long history of local production of garments for the capital’s inhabitants, usually focussed in small workshops. The West End, particularly Mayfair, (at its most famous, focused on Savile Row) became the centre for the high end of the tailoring trade: good quality clobber for the well to do, providing for the governing classes, the rich, and the growing middle classes as they achieved status, power and influence.

But the East End had a parallel tailoring trade. East London was well known for its secondhand trade in clothes since the 16th century at least, often through its rag markets. The eastern fringes of the city had built up a clothing and textile industry, notably in silk weaving; it relied on its proximity of the City and wealth districts, closeness to the centres of power and people who wanted fancy clothes. More and more this evolved into making clothes for those who wanted new clothes fast (of varying qualities). Silk production gradually gave way to tailoring workshops.

In the early 19th century, this end of the trade expanded into the cheap production of new clothes. The Industrial revolution had led to growth in factory tailoring, the production of cheap cloth and reduced production costs. East End tailoring had also always taken lots of subbed work from the West End: this increased as demand for new clothes rocketed. As the 19th century went on, gradual prosperity among the middle and emerging working classes led to a greater demand for consumer goods, including clothes. New clothes were a mark of having made something of yourself.

Separations and divisions among trade were multiple – between skilled and semi-skilled, English and foreign workers, male and female, factory worker and home/workshop hand worker… A complex web of prejudices and demarcations was aggravated by a growth in new technology, and older craft, male apprenticeship-based traditions built over centuries had been substantially challenged… The trade remained also wildly affected by trends and by seasonal demand.

Organising in the tailoring trade was as old as the trade. From the middle ages journeymen tailors had tilted at the control the masters of their guilds; in the eighteenth century, London’s tailors were such a trouble to their employers they were nick-named ‘the tailors’ republic’. Battles between workers and bosses almost always centred around long hours and low wages that afflicted the trade. Splits and tensions between groups of workers frustrated attempts to unite the journeymen; the most concerted effort at building a strong tailors union in the capital, contributing to the creation of the Owenite Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, ended in a disastrous strike in 1834 that caused the general union’s collapse.

Later in the century the trade revived, but gradually became divided between a self-selecting, highly skilled craft, high end, taking on few apprentices but recruiting from outside the capital, and the larger, lower paid, workshop or factory-based tailors, poorly treated and often precarious.

Separation between workers in the East End and the West End was further complicated by the large-scale Jewish migration into the area around Whitechapel and Stepney in the late nineteenth century.

In 1881 the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to  introduced a new era in Jewish migration. The first wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and part of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish zone. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth Street, 48 out of 85 shops were Jewish run by the 1890s.

Overwhelmingly the majority of the Jewish workers were engaged in the tailoring and clothing trades, always an important industry in this part of the East End. Tailoring had long been associated with the Jewish diaspora. Partly this evolved from practicality – for long persecuted communities having to up and move often when facing violent attacks, this was a trade needing few tools and small space to operate but universally needed. Christian laws across Europe also banned Jews from many trades, forcing them to congregate in work like tailoring that was not proscribed. Another factor was orthodox religious tenets in judaism, which set out that observant Jews had to buy certain clothes from co-religionists.
A migrant workforce needing to survive moving into an area with a tradition of low-paid manufacture quickly led to a widespread Jewish presence in the East End tailoring trade.

But whether the masters were English or ‘aliens’ hours were long, working conditions bad and pay low; the seasonal nature of demand for new clothes also meant weeks or months when trade was slack and work was scarce. Jewish migrants escaped persecution in their homelands only to find themselves exploited in the sweatshop conditions of London’s textile industry. Like the silkweavers before them, East London’s tailors struggled to survive, workers often having to hang out, ‘on call’ waiting for someone to offer them work. Both the social nature of this process and the quiet small scale organisation of the trade combined with crap conditions to create discontent and political radicalism.

Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.

A powerful Yiddish speaking working class movement would also develop among the East European Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. This created Jewish Socialist groupings and unions in the mid 1870s, and brought contact and alliances among the early English socialists, themselves inspired by continental migrants.

Organisation was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the bakers. A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

As ever, this migrant community aroused racism and xenophobia from the existing settled and ‘native’ residents. In the East End, Jewish communities were the targets vicious ‘anti-alien’ campaigns (like Flemings and Irish before them, and Bengalis and others after) – orchestrated usually by nationalists of rightwing stripe, but often supported by elements of the working class, and usually a substantial proportion of the local trade union movement. ‘Alien’ cultures raking over our area, threatening our way of life, taking our jobs… Some trade unionists and even socialists  justified anti-semitism by labelling Jewish workers as scabs, who would undercut existing wages and work for less because they were desperate. On occasions such accusations could even be borne out, since some migrants would by skint enough to work for less, scab during disputes, and/or feel that solidarity with trade unionists who were attacking them and calling for their expulsion from the country was not rally an ideal they could afford to subscribe to. In any case scabbing was hardly limited to migrant workers…

Jewish trade unionists and socialists were keen to build bridges with the ‘native’ movements, and besides trying to build organisation and unionisation among the Jewish workers, encouraged support for other workers’ strikes and refusal to strike-break. But they faced not only hostility from English unionists, but also from the Jewish religious establishment and many religious Jews, opposed to co-operation as they feared it would lead to ‘assimilation’ and the loss of Jewish identity, and also feared and hated leftwing ideas. Tensions between different Jewish migrant groups also hampered their work. Though there was a constant effort to build tailoring trade unions, for example, tens of such unions were launched, but split, collapsed, or failed to gain ground. Short term success was often followed by frustration and having to rebuild. The largest tailoring union, the Associated Society of Tailors, dominated by craft traditions and based in Manchester had a habit of the executive settling strikes over the heads of the members actually on strike without consulting them; this caused further splits and divisions. While many of the union organisers were socialists and anarchists, with wider visions of how workers’ organising and strikes could build towards a social revolution, the most successful activity came from battling for pragmatic and immediate demands.

A large-scale tailors strike in 1889, partly inspired by the historic Dock Strike, and organised largely through the efforts of socialists and anarchists from the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, saw a highpoint, with 6000 tailors on strike in the East End. This eventually forced he master tailors to raise wages, reduce hours and improve conditions across the area, though the concessions (which were historic) were gradually eroded by connivery of the employers over the succeeding months.

The emergence of the anarchist Arbeter Fraint group around Rudolf Rocker, several of whom were working tailors, helped cement links between Jewish and English workers. The group were centrally involved in many tailors’ strikes, including a 3-week mass strike of June 1906, which emerged from a growing militancy, sparked by a masters lockout, leading to mass walkouts and sympathy strikes. Rocker was a central inspiration and propagandist, and the strike won mass support. But the workers were driven gradually back to work by increasing hardship, and though it was settled with concessions on hours and abolition of piece work, masters also forced concessions, and union membership suffered.

By 1911-12, a general improvement in conditions of trade and employment was seeing Britain come out of a recession that had dominated the early part of the 1900s, when prices rose and wages fell in real terms. After 1910, the re-emergence of growth partly resulted in an increase in trade union action. There was also a rise in syndicalist ideas, partly under influence of the French CGT, and from the US from the de-Leonists/IWW. The theory of the General Strike as the method of workers taking over society gained some currency on the UK.
But syndicalism also proved attractive as a way of organising more immediate struggles, and also expressed trade unionists’ widespread disillusion with the business as usual union models and habits of compromise of union leaders. Syndicalism had influence in the East End – a Jewish Syndicalist Tailors Union was founded in 1908, and also developed among the Jewish anarchists.

Through 1911 a wave of strikes swept the UK – dockers, transport workers, miners, seamen struck for higher wages and better conditions, many winning improved deals. The struggle spread to many factory workers, among them people who had never unionised or gone on strike before (for instance the Bermondsey women workers who erupted in August 1911).

In 1912, the strike wave spread to London’s tailors. In April that year, 1500 tailors in the capital’s West End put in a demand for an increase in wages and better working conditions. Some were mainly members of the London Society of Tailors and Tailoresses, who backed their claim. Others, members of the larger Amalgamated Society of Tailors (and Tailoresses) West End branch, received no backing from their union. The West End master tailors rejected the workers’ demands with little consideration, resulting in an immediate strike call.

Unfinished garments in tailors workroom, due to tailors strike, Conduit Street, London, 7th May 1912.

In the East End, Rudolf Rocker saw an opportunity for Jewish tailors to not only show that Jewish workers could stand by their ‘native’ counterparts, but to fight for improvements in their own situation. The Arbeter Fraint published an editorial proposing the strike be extended to East London; following this a mass meeting of 8000 tailors, called by Rocker and Philip Kaplan secretary of the London Ladies tailors’ Union, met in the Mile End Assembly Hall, and voted for a general tailors’ strike. Two days later, over 13000 East End tailors were on strike; most of them not members of a union. “English, Jewish, Italian, French and Czech men’s tailors and mantle-makers in the bespoke, readymade, high quality and slop sectors of the industry had, for the first time, taken joint action in an attempt to increase wages and improve conditions in an industry renowned for its low pay and unhygienic workshops.” (Anne J. Kershen)

By this point in May, London dockers were also on strike, as the Port of London Authority had already reneged on its agreements after the dockers’ strike the year before. The striking tailors took in striking dockers’ children, and joint dockers and tailors strike meetings were held on Mile End Waste and at Tower Hill.

After three weeks on strike, the West end tailors and strikers in the men’s civil and military tailoring trades reached agreements with employers; leaving the East End tailors fighting alone, facing the decision as to whether they could also win…

Here’s Rudolf Rocker’s account of the 1912 strike:

“By 1912 we felt that the Jewish labour movement in England, and especially in the East  End of London, was strong enough to challenge the detested sweating system. The opportunity was provided by a strike of tailors in the West End of London in April 1912. It was called by the London Society of Tailors, and was soon actively supported by the members of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors. though the leaders of the Amalgamated were against the strike. It did not take them long however to realise that their members would do nothing against the strike.

There were about 1,500 tailors on strike, all highly-skilled craftsmen, doing the very best class of West End work. These tailors of the West End were an international crowd, Englishmen, Germans, French, Italians, Czech, and a few Jews. It was a completely different kind of work from the mass-produced sub divisional sweatshop tailoring of the East End Jewish workers. It soon became clear that strike-breaking work was being done in small East End tailoring workshops. There were so many of these that it was impossible to know of them all and to control them. The Jewish trades unions had never been able to accumulate enough funds to call a general strike. Their members didn’t earn enough to pay contributions large enough for strike pay. There was also a big mass of unorganised workers, some of whom were strike-breaking. We felt we must do something to remove the stigma of strike-breaking from the Jewish workers. lf the West End strike collapsed, the Jewish workers would be blamed for it. The entire British trade union movement would become hostile to the Jews. As it was, the English workers distrusted the Jewish immigrants, because of the sweatshop system, which they rightly saw as a danger to working class conditions. They couldn’t go into the reasons which had created the sweatshops. And it wouldn’t have altered the facts if they did.

It was therefore a point of honour with us to rouse the Jewish workers to abolish the sweatshops. It was even more Important morally than economically.

Our comrades in the Jewish trades unions brought up the question of the general strike in all of them. On 10th May I published a call in the Arbeter Fraint explaining to the workers what was at stake.

Our efforts got things moving. Over eight thousand Jewish workers packed the Assembly Hall for a meeting called by the United Jewish tailoring trades unions, which adopted the decision to strike. More than three thousand others stood outside, because the hall couldn’t hold more, waiting to hear what was decided. There was feverish excitement, and a real determination to act.

Kaplan opened the meeting. He was followed by MacDonald, the Secretary of the London Society of tailors and Chairman of the London Trades Council. The I spoke. I repeated more or less what I had already said in my call to the Jewish workers in the Arbeter Fraint. There was so much tension in the hall that no other speakers could get a hearing. The workers wanted a decision. When the vote was taken not one hand was lifted against the strike.

The strike was on. Eight thousand workers were out the first day. Another five thousand came out the day after. A small minority remained at work, but they were so few that it made little difference.   .           .

There was a strike committee of fifty members, representing all the tailoring trades unions in the East End. There were three sub-committees – finance, to raise funds for carrying on the strike; negotiations, to discuss agreements with employers prepare to accept the workers’ conditions, and one which set up the local strike committees, which were controlled by a committee of seven, to which Kaplan and I belonged.

We decided to issue the Arbeter Fraint for the duration of the strike as a four-page daily, to keep the workers informed of the progress of the strike.

Most of the strikers were not organised trade union members. Our problem was how they could get strike pay. Even the best organised trade unions in the strike, like the Mantle Makers, had no funds to meet anything like the call that was made on them. The other trades unions outside the tailoring industry had no funds with which to help. But the spirit of the workers was wonderful.

Except for the employers, who were interested parties, the whole East End was on the side of the strikers. The better-paid workers who had some savings refused to take strike pay. They even contributed to the strike fund. It didn’t swell our treasury very much. I was the Chairman of the Finance Committee, so I knew. We needed a lot of money to help the families of those strikers who were absolutely destitute. We opened canteens on the premises of all the trade unions in the East End. We were not able to provide much more than tea and bread and cheese.  But sometimes we also gave hot meals.

The Jewish Bakers Union supplied bread, and the cigarette makers provided cigarettes. All the Jewish trades unions put a levy on their members for the strike fund. Many who were not workers themselves and had no contact with the labour movement sent us money. The Yiddish theatre gave several performances to benefit the strikers. As a result we were ale to pay the strikers a few shillings during the first weeks.

The strike had started in sympathy with the West End tailoring workers. Now we had to draw up our own strike demands. What we wanted was to sweep away the whole sweating system. So our first demand was a normal working day. We asked for the abolition of overtime higher wages and above all, no more small workshops where decent hygienic conditions were impossible, and closed union workshops in all the rest. Without trade union labour there could be no guarantee that the better working conditions we obtained would last.

The employers association was as little prepared for the strike as the workers were. The Masters’ Association had about 300 members, which was only a fraction of the many hundreds who had small tailoring workshops in the East End. But the Masters’ Association had the backing of the big city firms for whom its members worked. The city firms had decided not to give any of their work to master tailors who accepted the workers’ conditions.

It was no secret that we had no funds. The Masters’ Association was therefore sure that we could not hold out more than a couple of weeks, and that sheer hunger would drive the workers back, ready to agree to anything. They had in answer to the strike retaliated with a three weeks’ lock-out. They had no doubt at all that before the end of the three weeks the workers would come begging to let them return.

The spokesman of the Master Tailors’ Association, a man named Samson, tried to create feeling against he strikers by alleging in statements to the English press that they had no real grievances, and were being used as tools in a pot by foreign anarchists to disrupt the industry. He produced false wage-sheets according to which the workers were earning anything between six pounds and ten pounds a week. Reading the reports he put out one got the impression that the infamous sweatshops of the East End were a paradise.

But the workers who slaved in those sweatshops knew what they were really like, and they were determined to stay out on strike whatever happened, in order to win better conditions. All our agitation would have been useless if the workers had not themselves stood firm. People often say the masses don’t know their own mind; this time they did. Attempts were made to play on the natural fears of the womenfolk, for who the strike meant literally no bread in the house. But the women too of the Jewish East End stood firm. There were big mass meetings of women at which they proclaimed their determination to stand by their menfolk in the strike until the end.

It so happened that the big London Dock Strike was on at the same time.

The common struggle brought Jewish and non-Jewish workers together. Joint strike meetings were held, and the same speakers spoke at huge joint demonstrations on Tower Hill and on Mile End Waste.

I was busy attending all the meetings of the strike committee, acting as Chairman of the Finance Committee and editing the daily Arbeter Fraint. I worked on the paper from six in the morning till eleven. I addressed three or four strike meetings every day. I never go finished before two in he morning. Luckily I had a robust constitution. I wasn’t the only one who worked these hours. We were all at our posts day and night.

Three weeks after the strike started he workers and the employers in the West End reached a settlement. The result was that the East End workers employed in men’s tailoring, including uniforms, also went back to work, their employers having agreed to their most important demands – shorter hours, no piecework, better sanitary conditions and the employment of union labour only.

The strike in the women’s garment industry continued. This was the branch of the industry in which the East End Jews, masters and workers, were overwhelmingly engaged. Both sides were suffering badly. The master tailors had lost their season’s trade and were getting worried. The workers had no funds left, and were going hungry. The Masters’ Association decided to meet the men’s representatives, and said they would agree to shorter hours and higher wages, but not to closed union shops.

The strike committee called a meeting of the strikers in the Pavilion Theatre. It started at midnight, after the performance was over. The place was packed. Crowds who couldn’t get in stood outside waiting to hear the decision. Kaplan, as Chairman of the strike committee, opened the meeting. The strikers listened to him silently. There was no interruption, no opposition, no applause. A murmur ran round the building when I stood up as the first speaker. I saw those pale, pinched, hungry faces, those thousands of people who had come together at midnight to decide what to do about this strike for which they had sacrificed so much. I felt that I dare not conceal anything from them. I must tell them the whole truth. I explained the position to them. I said that if they held out a few more days I was sure they would win. lf they decided to go back now the masters would make them feel that they had lost. “But the decision,” I said,  “rests with you. I am not going to tell you what to do. You must decide for yourselves.” There was an outburst of applause, and from all sides came the cry: “The strike goes on!”

When the Chairman took the vote, not one single hand was raised against the decision to continuo the strike.

The Masters’ Association met the following morning. Samson insisted that they must hold out. But the great majority had had enough. They withdrew from the Association, leaving only a few members to continue the opposition to the workers’ demands. Negotiations started the same afternoon. We were astonished to find that Samson was one or the first who came to ask the trade union to let him reopen his workshop. Our answer was that we could not deal with him until we had settled with all the other master tailors. He had been the leader of the opposition to our demands and would therefore have to wait to the last. Even after he had signed the agreement nobody wanted to go to work for him.

I had played a leading part of course in the organisation and conduct of the strike, but legends began to grow around me as though I had been the sole organiser and architect of the victory. People ascribed to me things I had never done and had never even heard of. There were many others who had done as much as I did. But the popular mind and tongue insisted that I had done more, that I had done most of it. It was terribly exaggerated, it was fanstastic. It was most embarrassing. I couldn’t put my foot out in the street without becoming the object of a demonstration. One day as I was walking along a narrow Whitechapel street with Milly, an old Jew with a white beard stopped me outside his house, and said: ‘”May God bless You! You helped my children in their need. You are not a Jew, but you are a man!” This old man lived in a completely different world from mine. But the memory of the gratitude that shone in his eyes has remained with me all these years.

The London dock strike was still dragging on. A great many dockers families were suffering real want. The Jewish workers who had just won their own strike felt they must do something to help their fellow workers.

The Arbeter Fraint took it up; we started a campaign. We called a conference of the Jewish trades unions. A committee was set up, and our comrades Ploshansky and Sabelinsky were elected secretary and treasurer. It was decided to ask Jewish families in the East End to take some or the dockers’ children into their homes. Offers poured in. Unfortunately we couldn’t accept them all. Members of the committee always went first to see the house and too often the family couldn’t feed its own children properly. When we found a suitable home, Milly would go to the docks area with one or two other women to fetch the children. They were in a terribly undernourished state, barefoot, In rags. We placed over 500 dockers’ children in East End Jewish homes. Shopkeepers gave us shoes and clothing for them. Trade union leaders and social workers in the docks area spoke publicly of the kindness shown by the East End Jews. The docker parents used to come to the Jewish homes in Whitechapel and Stepney to see their children. It did a great deal to strengthen the friendship between Jewish and non-Jewish workers.”

Anne J Kershen identifies this strike as qualitatively different to many previous tailors’ strikes, achieving victory and inspiring a rapid increase in union membership in the various tailors’ societies. A number of factors had on this occasion combined to tilt the scales in favour of the workers, including the gradual assimilation and Anglicisation of Jewish workers which was breaking down prejudice and separation, a growing integration in various (previously quite separate) branches of the trade; the fact that it took place in May, always the busy season, when masters were most desperate for workers. The dedicated leadership of Rocker, Kaplan and the Arbeter Fraint group had also been crucial.


The introduction to this post describing the London tailoring trade is a brief and very simplistic account; if you are interested in reading more on this, Anne J. Kershen’s ‘Uniting The Tailors’ is a brilliant write-up of tailoring and trade unionism in London and Leeds.

Rudolf Rockers account of the 1912 strike is taken from his autobiography, ‘The London Years’.

William J. Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals is also a mesmerising read on this period.

Today in London’s educational history, 1972: a Schools Action Union strike and demonstration

The Schools Action Union (SAU) was a children-led movement that existed between 1969 and 1974, and made significant gains in shifting the corporal punishment debate in Britain.

The SAU was formed on 4 Jan 1969 at a meeting attended by members of the Free Schools Campaign, Secondary School Students Union and various regional groups.

The Schools Action Union evolved from a broad and varied range of protests around education. One of these, in March 1968, saw hundreds of pupils from the Myles Platting Secondary Modern school in Manchester stage a school strike in response to the excessive use of the tawse, a pronged leather strap. Soon after, students from the strike formed the Manchester Union of Secondary Students. Other groups that emerged, partly inspired by these events, included the Swansea Union of Progressive Students, the Bristol Sixth Form Alliance, and the Cardiff Union of Secondary Schools.

Among the original founding members of the SAU, Tricia Jaffe had been in Paris during the period of civil unrest in May 1968 and established links with members of Comites d’Action Lyceens. This inspired her to become active in the Free Schools Campaign (FSC) in October 1968, and she organised an FSC conference in January 1969. The conference achieved a lot of TV and press publicity, as well as attracting threats of an attack by the far-right National Front. However, the conference opened up divisions between those who wanted an apolitical educational movement (which the FSC continued as), or an overtly radical political grouping – thus the Schools Action Union emerged.

The SAU’s founding demands were:

  1. Control of the schools by students and staff
  2. Freedom of speech and assembly
  3. The outlawing of corporal punishment
  4. The abolition of school uniforms
  5. Co-educational comprehensive schools
  6. More pay for teachers

The SAU wanted radical change, and (unlike the FSC), chose to make links with other political movements.

At this point the SAU apparently described itself as a “Marxist-Leninist-Liberal broad front”, subsequently it has generally been described as ‘extreme Maoist in nature’.

On 2 March 1979, the SAU held a demonstration attended by 700 people at the Department for Education and County Hall, London, headquarters of the Inner London Educational Authority (ILEA – then in charge of education in the capital, but since abolished).

An article by a SAU Executive Committee member set out their early thinking:
“Most school students, and some teachers too, can imagine why people at British schools are organising, through the SAU and other groups, to flight for their interests. The educational mill is frequently a very unpleasant experience. In schools young people are subjected to petty viciousness, intolerance and general academic bullying. Some schools are more liberal than others but everywhere power in the school is concentrated in the hands of one man or woman. At best students and staff have some sort of collective ’advisory’ capacity. In these circumstances change comes very slowly, especially as the undemocratic school boards often contain very backward elements in the community.

So in face of this hierarchy of academic bullshit, school students and teachers have begun to create groups dedicated to struggle within and outside schools for various programmes. About a year ago in North London schools branches of the Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation were set up. About the same time in South London the Free Schools Campaign began activity and from members of these groups, other smaller groups and individuals in London and School Unions in Manchester, Scotland, South Wales, Leicester and the rest of the country a national conference took place in January. Then a London conference was held and the Schools’ Action Union has crystallised out with about twenty affiliated branches throughout Britain.

In London our struggle is led by an elected Executive Committee and the London Union has set up area branches and branches in individual schools.

[Our] demands [as set out above] should not be taken as final, all the work of the Union is open to debate and criticism. It should be pointed out that the demand for ’coeducational comprehensive schools’ is no blank cheque for many of the schools that masquerade under that name are class and sex discriminatory, elitist and quite reactionary and anti-human institutions. However gathering different sexes and social strata under one roof is a step forward to a decent educational system which serves the people.

How does the Union intend to fight for its demands, demands that we consider reflect the ideas of hundreds of thousands of young people? At the moment we are developing our organisation. Our aim is to have groups throughout the schools which can carry out a propaganda work and lead the bulk of students at their schools to fight unitedly by any means possible – meetings, strikes and sit-ins for instance, all of which have occurred in schools up and down the country.”   

The SAU made attempts to forge unity with teachers: “Far from being against our teachers, we want and need the support of most of them against their authoritarian and disciplinarian colleagues and superiors.” When teachers went out on strike in November 20, 1969, London SAU printed and distributed its own leaflets supporting the dispute and a SAU contingent joined the teachers’ demonstration.

The creation of a universal comprehensive education was one of the SAU’s central aims. An early SAU action involved a provocative invasion of Dulwich College (a posh selective school in South London) in June 1969, to test how its ‘open’ its ‘Open Day’ really was.

The Union also called a strike for the last day of the Christmas term in 1969. Five school students at Kingsdale School (in Alleyn Park, Dulwich) were expelled after this 1969 SAU Christmas strike.

Among SAU’s regular early activities, the organisation put on Guerrilla Theatre performances, ran “teach-in socials with films,” eg, on July 4, 1969, the attendees watched films on the May revolution, the Chicago riots, and the Hornsey Arts College occupation. The Union published two magazines, Vanguard and Rebel, each sold for a three pence fortnightly subscription fee. Other regional journals were also published: Pupil Power (Liverpool), Slug (Manchester), Red Herring (Hemel Hempstead), as well as Intercourse (focussed on Secondary Schools).

SAU members regularly distributed the controversial Little Red Schoolbook, which was censored under the Obscene Publications Act, and a member of the SAU wrote in the now-infamous “SchoolKids” edition of Oz magazine, which was subject to an obscenity trial in 1971.

The SAU’s contacts with other left groups increased after they collected enough funds to rent an office at 160 North Gower Street, near Euston Station. This was conveniently located next door to “radical information agency” Agitprop. Contact with Agitprop helped the SAU to learn and improve printing and publishing techniques, as well as contributing to developments in political thinking… The SAU also developed close links with the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which had been established in Britain in the wake of the Stonewall Rebellion in America; the GLF partly funded the SAU’s publishing costs for a while.

By the summer of 1969, the SAU had twenty-seven branches across the country. It had also held three national conferences — two in Birmingham and one in London — and conducted numerous strikes across the country. Numbers are probably not a full measure of the Union’s influence, but as an example, the SAU claimed 500 members in late 1970, mostly in London.

The SAU backed a 1970 National Council for Civil Liberties campaign opposing compulsory religious education and corporal punishment in schools.

Later that year, a planned SAU ‘Living School’ at the London School of Economics (LSE) had to be relocated after a Conservative Party peer raised the prospect in the House of Lords, asking why the LSE was promoting ‘subversive activities’. According to Socialist and feminist Sheila Rowbotham, who was involved in setting up the event, it was an attempt to link up the SAU with working class apprentices who had been radicalised by events since 1968, and was intended as an ‘anti-authoritarian project’ with no set timetable, including poetry, songs, acting, films and fun… Banned by LSE Director Walter Adams, the meeting was re-located to Conway Hall, where attendees were shown films, attended lectures and received instruction on the manufacture of silk screen posters. There was fierce argument about whether those attending should all march off to storm the LSE, but in the end only a small minority left with this aim (unclear what happened after that?!) A Communist Party trade union official giving a lecture on Marxism was booed by SAU members, described by Sheila Rowbotham as “either anarchical or incipient Maoists, or a bit of both”… this room apparently blocked up a whole room in the tower at Conway Hall for hours…

In its earliest phase, the SAU membership had been mostly based among older, more middle-class pupils, including many from grammar schools (despite its original emergence from protests based in secondary modern and comprehensive schools). Its base apparently evolved, as the Conservatives under Edward Heath won the June 1970 general election, and began to implement policies aimed at restricting strikes, curbing the power of organised workers, and enforcing new anti-trade union legislation. As unemployment rose and resistance to the tory agenda grew, an influx of working-class members began to shift the SAU towards a more class-based politics. The SAU profile also rose, and in a climate of mass protest, their actions were often featured in the media cheek by jowl with reports on miners and dockers’ strikes. This was usually accompanied by suggestions that they were puppets controlled behind the scenes by leftwing adults, secretly funded by Soviet money, etc…

SAU activity seems to have been more sustained in London than elsewhere. (But this could probably be researched). In 1972, prominent activists in the organisation included Stephen Finch (a pupil at Rutherford Comprehensive School, Marylebone) and Simon Steyne (a 16 year old sixth-former at Forest Hill Comprehensive School in south-east London), with Liza Dresner acting as national spokesperson. Leftwing actor and playwright  Colin Welland (a former secondary school teacher) met Liza Dresner on the set of David Frost’s chat show and subsequently made a substantial donation to the SAU, which helped pay the rent on its North Gower Street offices.
Another ex-member of the national committee, Steve Wilson, commented  “A girl called Loulla Ephimou and a number of other members of North London’s Greek community, people like me, idealistic teachers and so on were members”…

The SAU’s activities reached a high point in the school strikes in May 1972.

On the 4th May 1972 about 200 boys aged between 11 and 16, put down their pencils and rulers at Quinton Kynaston School on the Finchley Road, near St John’s Wood, in north London. It was the start of a protest about unpleasant school dinners, caning, and the conformity of school uniforms. The boys swarmed over the school wall and not knowing really what to do next decided to all go home.

“I remember hiding on a roof in the back streets in St Johns Wood.
We stormed out from Quinton Kynaston School, one of the kid’s Christian Rabbi pushed the ice cream van over,
We heard a police car coming so we climbed up onto a roof and sat there for a while. when we thought it was all clear we climbed down. A copper crabbed me, my two school mates took off, I was marched back to school.” (Geoffrey Phillips)

A few days later 18 year old Steve ‘Ginger’ Finch, a pupil from Rutherford Comprehensive School in Marylebone, organised a small group of pupils from his school and nearby Sarah Siddons Girls’ School. The rally of about 60 school children met initially at Paddington Green but then started out on an eight mile march to enlist support from other schools, demanding the abolition of caning, slippering and school uniforms, and the introduction of passes to leave school at lunchtime.

Stephen Finch on SAU demo

This strike initially did seem to win some concessions from Rutherford’s headmaster, who announced a day or two later that that the demands were being seriously considered.

That these actions initially looked like they might achieve some immediate success inspired SAU members and other pupils to launch a series of small protests in schools across London and SE England, and to call a strike and demo for the following week, on 10 May.

Despite an instruction by the Inner London Education Authority to schools to treat any strikers as truants, on Wednesday May 10 1972, around 1500 schoolkids assembled at Speakers’ Corner  and marched to London’s County Hall, handing in a letter demanding an end to corporal punishment and school uniforms, the right to publish school magazines without censorship and to organise student meeting during lunch breaks and after school on school premises, the right to join student unions and engage in political activity, including strikes (among other demands). Simon Steyne also spoke of his support for the abolition of head teachers, who he called dictators.

Attempts were definitely made in some schools to prevent kids joining: “Earlier that day we heard that the girls at Sarah Siddons had been locked into their classrooms so that they could not join the demonstration. I don’t remember how we got into the building but I do remember us setting off the fire alarm so the doors were unlocked.” (Tal)

Allegedly this photo show a Paddington schoolgirl leaving to join the demo on May 10th

Stephen Finch was unable to take part in the 10th May actions, as he was still being held by police, having being arrested the week before. Several thousand pupils were involved in the wider school strike on the 10th. Home Secretary Reginald Maudling called the strike “the ultimate in absurd demonstration”.

ILEA’s dismissive reaction only spurred further SAU action. A delegate meeting of 60 SAU activists, held on May 14th, called for a national General Strike in schools, and announced another demo for May 17th. This time, ILEA played it more cautiously, suggesting schools take a “broadly liberal attitude” to pupils going absent for the day, and advised making “a clear distinction between taking normal and proper steps to deal with breaches of discipline, including truancy, and giving due consideration to the legitimate views of pupils”. Which is interesting tactics. ILEA may have decided a laissez-faire approach would allow the movement to fire up then fizzle out, or may have thought they could split kids taking political action from general non-political ‘troublemakers’. Not sure.

In any case, on May 17, 1972, ten thousand school children went on strike. Somewhere upwards of a thousand, some as young as 11, assembled at Trafalgar Square and once again marched on County Hall. Central London came to a standstill as police struggled to contain crowds marching through the streets with banners reading “No To The Cane.”

Unwilling to let the children occupy Trafalgar Square as the SAU had intended, the police blocked off the Square and fighting resulted; the cops dispersed the children across London in large groups, arresting many of the organisers and demonstrators in the process. 24 pupils were arrested, one 14-year-old girl was injured.

Striking schoolkids rush into Trafalgar Square, 17 May 1972

The anarchist newspaper Freedom reported on this demo, though the writer’s position on what they saw as the limited reformist politics of the SAU and other groups demands was critical, (they also assert that the demo overflowed what they saw as the organisers’ restrictions):

“WEDNESDAY, May 17. the second schoolkids’ demonstration was held in London. Whereas the first demonstration was allowed to march to County Hall to present petitions and state grievances, police tactics, such as sealing off both Trafalgar Square and County Hall, prevented any rally. As it was at about 10.45 driving in with vans and cars. I saw two people wearing blue blazers and caps (but probably not schoolkids) who were arrested for taking the numbers of policemen who acted in a very arrogant dominating way, and dearly terrified some younger children. After regrouping at St. Martin’s Church, the march moved off to rally in Hyde Park. The police then found that by fragmenting the groups an incoherent rabble wandering across roads, down back streets and through the parks had been created. About 22 other arrests followed with children and adults held. Keith Nathan of N.E. London ORA [Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists] is one of those busted and appeared in court on Thursday. Of course the newspapers and television were bloody bigots over the whole affair. Both TV news said less than 1,000 turned up and newspapers using police counts suddenly cut the march figure from 4.000 to 700 at the whim of Scotland Yard Press Office. The old ‘gymslip rebels’ ‘truant revolutionary’ bit was laid on as thick as was palatable to that particular audience but very few carried anything of the disciplinary and educational inadequacies which caused these demonstrations. The Guardian and Telegraph however did tell us of intimidation of kids by teachers and headmasters before the march, and of one scheme where boys will have to clock-in at school and carry a stamped card home for their parents. Kids able to run through central London and confront a mass of police will surely not be dissuaded by such ham-fisted attempts by headmasters. It is illegal to suggest what children should do to Kuper, a headmaster who said he would cane or expel any ‘truants’. A rather distasteful aspect of the march was the blatant use of it for propaganda from political groups. The IS group ‘Rebel’ had a leaflet out which wanted a ‘genuinely comprehensive schools system’. YCL called on kids to join NUSS (National Union of School Students) which in turn wants ‘democratic comprehensive’ schools. SAU ran out a simplistic leaflet which went no further than to challenge present-day rules and call for ‘rules made and kept by the whole school’, S. London ORA joined in with an organisation called SMACK (Schools Mass Action Collective for Kids). Predictably this leaflet was the most coherent, far-reaching and interesting issue. However I do not like the idea of selling ready-made union-type organisations to kids. I think ORA would be well advised to issue instead longer, detailed and more explanatory leaflets, which I know kids really would appreciate more than the farcical demonstration groups. As it was, most children refused to follow the SAU organisers’ plans. A very frustrated group of SAU stewards was seen by me outside Green Park Tube at 12.15 pm. as the kids ran rampant up to Hyde Park. If SAU want these demonstrations to degenerate into a kind of trades union pilgrimage from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square, they are doing the right things. More solidarity and less political salesmen might well produce more effective action.”

Another account of the demo relates the event started with confusion with half of the pupils marching to Hyde Park and half marching along the South Bank to County Hal chanting “attack the pigs,” and “we want a riot.”

I went to St Pauls Way School in Bow, east London. I don’t know how we found out about this strike but one of the hardnuts in the 3rd year rallied us at morning break. We marched towards the front gate and the head (AJ Davenport) met us there – he told us to ‘f*ck off then!’ – so we did. we made our way to Stepney Green School and shouted for them to join us and a fair amount did! We made our way to Hyde Park by jumping the tube but all got split up. I was fed up walking around by then and made my way home.”
(Gary Wood ) – but not sure if this refers to the May 10th or 17th demo…

The publicity resulting from the May 17th demo helped spread a small wave of school protests around the country; it also aroused lots of general support for the protestors’ aims, especially in reaction to hysterical press nonsense condemning the demonstration and strikes.

But SAU activists came under pressure from school authorities. The children who skipped school and joined the SAU’s marches were targeted by the schools and exposed in the hostile press. The SAU regularly held campaigns that called for the reinstatement of excluded students, suspended or expelled for “truancy.” Activists were often subjected to the cane, or to suspension of expulsion. The response had its impact on membership, as pressure at school and often led pupils to back off from involvement. In schools in Westminster and Forest Hill, however, mass petitions were apparently able to forestall victimisations of activists (possibly this refers to the schools Steyne and Finch attended respectively? see above).

The accusation that the SAU was controlled by adult subversives with a sinister agenda led to surveillance and infiltration, not just by the press (a tabloid reporter attended meetings undercover, and another paper allegedly sponsored a burglary of the North Gower Street offices), but also by the state. The SAU suspected some organised surveillance at the time, but like many activists and campaigners subjected to infiltration, were unable to prove anything.

De-classified files released in 2007 apparently show that Edward Heath’s government employed the security services to infiltrate, monitor, and to uncover adult supporters of the SAU. Heath was presented with a dossier of information about the SAU shortly after the demonstration on May 17, having requested detailed information about the event the day before. His concern was that “when a similar development occurred in France in 1968, it caused a good many problems and proved very difficult to get under control.”

Heath asked for “special attention at particular schools, to try to isolate the ringleaders of the militancy.” The tories were especially worried that working-class children were becoming radicalised. Margaret Thatcher, then education secretary, was  “reassured by a report from a serviceman who had infiltrated an SAU meeting and suggested that “the leaders spoke with Cockney accents and spoke illogically. It seemed there were a number of middle-class kids who were dressing badly to look working class.” Arf.

The files reveal that surveillance made much of the links SAU activists had to leftwing groups, Agitprop, the GLF etc.

Some ex-SAU activists had differing views on the organisation, its effectiveness, the impact of the strike and demos, and what caused people to join:

“I went over the wall at Quintin in 1972 and through some rabble rousing girls I knew from St Marylebone girls school quickly got involved with the organisers in Golders Green. We were given Chairman Mao lapel badges and a little red book to quote from and sent out to organise.

At boy’s schools at that time we weren’t too concerned about caning, school dinners, and uniforms but we felt repressed and let down by the promises not kept.

Powerful militant young women turning up at your school was all the encouragement needed for 12-14 year old boys to bunk off and get involved!

To be honest, I think it started off as wanting to have a bit of a laugh at someone else’s expense for a change, we liked the idea of having a bit of self-determination which grew into something more profound. As a kid growing up in London in the 60′s you played in the streets – but by the early 70′s this was no longer the case. The innocent pastime had come to an end and on the marches for once we outnumbered the coppers! A last hurrah to kids owning the streets.

It was all very innocent, nobody screwed, took drugs, got violent, or burnt anything down.” (Bill)

The local activity of SAU groups or cells within schools was probably more significant for most of those involved than the demos mentioned above. A glance at one page of Vanguard gives an insight into some of the day to day activity taking place in schools, and of evangelical expeditions to spread the word between schools (including Harrow!):

School Reports

St Clement Danes
The trouble at St Clement Danes has arisen for two reasons. 1) because the constitutional approach was slow and unsuccessful. 2) because Badcock’s regime became too much to near passively.
Two suspensions over length of hair, and a compete rejection of our six proposals in the Autumn term started the situation ticking, while four expulsions on doubtful grounds kept it going during Spring. But the summer saw the A-levels, and the most stupid piece of authoritarianism for a long time. Badcock walked into the Art exam and told a boy to get his hair cut before the next day or have his paper destroyed. The boy was leaving the following week anyway, so he didn’t return to school, and his exam paper survived. This incident prompted two letters from ‘pupils of St Clement Danes’ to Dr, Badcock calling on him to publicly apologise or resign, one to the governors suggesting that they take some disciplinary action, and one from SAU to Badcock deploring his action. Meanwhile a school council had been called for, and was supported by most of the students, but was interrupted by later events.
An SAU member was summoned to the headmaster, and told that he was ‘not welcome’ at the school, as he wrote on a ‘confidential’ application for careers advice that he believed that the questions asked were rubbish, and could have no relevance to his future job. He was then sent home: SAU called a meeting attended by 250, which decided on a walk-out but it was blocked by teachers, prefects and barred gates.
Another scapegoat was made ‘not welcome’ at the school for inciting a ‘disturbance/riot’, and informing the press. other charges were dropped. The other boy was allowed back providing he wrote a letter resigning from SAU disclosing the names of other sympathisers, and denouncing the aims of SAU.
Next day, the headmaster gave the sixth form a lecture on ‘sixth-form anarchists’., a list of whom had been drawn up, and threatened to ‘pounce on them’. The next day, the scapegoat’s parents withdrew him from the school to avoid further victimisation. 
That Friday the SAU arrived gave out 500 leaflets, and tried to give Badcock a letter, which he refused. We were then moved by the fuzz, brought by Badcock.
Before we finish, a warning, Syph (we know you read Vanguard) St Clement Danes SAU will reawaken in September to fight on.

Tulse Hill
Tulse Hill Boys’ School has 1800 students: perhaps it is because of these very large numbers that the authorities there feel they have to protect themselves and their system with extreme violence, but whatever their reasons, it is certainly used.
For this reason several of the boys contacted SAU and worked out a plan of action, which started off at the end of last term with the distribution of 1000 leaflets attacking the ‘education’ system which relies on terror to preserve itself. There was immediate response, and the hard core of 12 members of SAU at the school were contacted by many of their fellow students. SAU is underground at present, but with the large-scale support won so far, the authorities had better watch out this term…
F.I. (Tulse Hill Boys’ SAU)

‘Harrow’, someone said, ‘Harrow the public school, what about that.’ ‘Yeah, sure.’
So on Saturday about a dozen of us marched  – up the Hill past dizzy shoppers and waited and waited. 
A trickle of boys was drawn into discussion and swelled into a large crowd. ‘Can you all come back on Thursday?’ pleaded a boatered guy with Che in one pocket and fags in the other, ‘cos we have all this crazy parade in full regalia.’ Afterwards we were invited inside for a chat.
On Thursday 26 of us dutifully arrived with a special Harrovian leaflet and an escort of bright-eyed cameramen, to talk and talk, and found plenty of agreement, even on the injustice of privilege and the need for a social revolution.
A local reporter covered the event and compiled a list of pupil grievances, we made several contacts and demystified the ‘other half’. 

HAS ANYTHING HAPPENED AT YOUR SCHOOL? Anything that should be done and got away with anything you’ve done to try to get the rights and freedoms due to you, any struggles still going on. WRITE TO US – WE’LL ALMOST CERTAINLY PUBLISH IT.”
(from Vanguard, SAU mag, not sure what date).

Some SAU ‘branches’ may have taken more direct action… An interesting comment (found on a thread published elsewhere about the SAU demonstrations):

“the public side of the SAU was always on a loser. The clandestine side, though smaller in scale, was *much* more effective.

The SAU cell at St. Dunstan’s College (SDC) in Catford ran a 2-year covert operation of espionage and sabotage against the school establishment in general and R. R. Pedley, the HM, in particular. Actions by cell members – notably the 1970 Speech Day operation – destroyed Pedley’s standing within his own profession, which added much to the stress that brought his death in 1973 – two years after the cell members left.

There is also some circumstantial evidence consistent with the view that Philip Cooper, Head of Music at SDC, (d. 29/10/71) was poisoned by an unknown pupil who had access to the technical assets that the SDC SAU cell had collected (among them keys to every door and cupboard in the school).

If the SDC SAU cell had focussed on public demos, we would soon have been crushed. Acting covertly was much more successful – so much so that our security was never broken throughout our operations.

Pedley was one of the most vicious of all public school heads. Helping him to an early death by destroying his professional reputation was one of the SAUs greatest but least-known achievements. As for Cooper, since he was a predatory sado-masochistic paedophile, if it was an SDC SAU cell member who took him out, that trumps anything else that the SAU ever did.

As it was the security of the cell was never broken”
(Olwen Morgan)

Others flagged up that the much-touted links to adult leftist groups did have some substance:

“I had been in the SUA for a while by May 1972. Is there anyone who remembers the place we used to meet in Acre Lane, Brixton? The SAU was a kind of youth wing of an organisation whose name I have forgotten which was recruiting young ‘cadres’. Their newspaper’s banner featured the profiles of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. They were also very enthusiastic about Enver Hoxha and his Albanian regime. My father, a dyed-in-the-wool socialist who had left the Communist Party after the invasion of Hungary could barely stand to see me selling the paper with a picture of ‘that man’ (Stalin) on its cover.

I agree with much of the analysis of the SAU and the wider scholchidren’s revolt in this article – we were part of a genuine grassroots movement and had our own ideas. But there were adults in the background who had their own agenda.” (Tal)

[Typist’s note: I wonder if ‘the place we used to meet in Acre Lane’ is the Mao Memorial Centre, formerly based at 140 Acre Lane, Brixton, an offshoot of the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) and dominated by Ara Balakrishnan, ‘Comrade Bala’, arrested in 2013 on suspicion of assault, false imprisonment and immigration offences (Later sentenced to 23 years in prison by the Southwark crown court on 29 January 2016].

Some local authorities reacted to the May 1072 demos by introducing concessions in pupil representation, ILEA itself paid lip service to listening to pupils’ concerns. In the wake of the targeted SAU campaign throughout 1972, the Inner London Education Authority eventually defied pressure from the teaching unions and announced that by 1974, corporal punishment would be banned in all inner-London primary schools. ILEA gradually phased out corporal punishment for all ages in the late 1970s, several years before it was banned nationally in 1986.

Although the SAU fizzled out in 1974, they had forced the corporal punishment issue firmly into public debates on children’s rights. The ban on corporal punishment in London’s primary schools is perhaps their most recognisable achievement.

Many of the SAU’s other demands remain unfulfilled or at best partially conceded…


This post was edited together from several sources including:

Another Nickel in the Machine

No to the Cane

Children, Welfare and the State, edited by Barry Goldson, Michael Lavalette, Jim McKechnie

Worth reading also:

Sheila Rowbotham, Promise of a Dream

An account of some radicals engagement with rebellious schoolkids in a North London school, 1969

The 1985 School Strikes

Schoolkids rebel against the 2003 Gulf War

Today in London underground history, 2011: an incursion into the sewers under Buckingham Palace… terror? Love?

During the riots in August 2011 we were handed this text: a communiqué claiming to be from a murky group.. of sewer workers? or sewer dwellers?

The press went to town on 16th May 2011 with police claims that a ‘disturbed manhole’ on the Mall was evidence that ‘dissident republicans’ had tried to break into the sewers under Buckingham Palace to plant a bomb.

This text begged to differ…

It had been passed through various people, hand to hand, which may explain its reference to events several months before… We do not know the authors, but reproduce it here  again because we liked it.  


Down in the Sewer

On May 16th, there was a ‘terror alert’ in central London. The press reported a manhole into the sewers under The Mall being ‘disturbed’; according to police, ‘dissident Irish republicans’ had been exploring ways to blow up Buckingham Palace; as we rarely read the papers or pay attention to the guttersucking media, we’re only responding now, late. As usual.

There’s lots of rats down here

Disturbed manholes? It was republicans, yes, but no splinter psycho-rump IRA; it was us, sewer rats, but not trapped in any nationalist mazes. We’re republicans, yes, of an undetermined kind, with no attachment to any borders; ours is a floating republic, bright dreams of a life free from darkness and wage slavery – dreams tossing on the tide of shite we wade through day by day. We weren’t breaking IN to bomb the sad Windsor window-dressings ­- we were looking to break OUT.

Picking up empty coca cola cans…

The mid-19th Century journalist and ‘urban explorer’ John Hollingshead toured the London sewers with some of its workers. After they led him through a maze of tunnels, till he had no idea where he was, they halted, and told him he was standing directly under Buckingham Palace. Being a good patriotic soul he made them take off their caps and sing God Save the Queen.

In the sewers under the Queen’s toilets.

Knee deep in shit.
Like the poor fuckers sweeping the drains of St James need to learn the royal family are crapping on their heads.

It’s not something we need to learn either. We know.

People say you shouldn’t stay down here too long…

We weren’t delving into the drains to find a way to blow up the royals (you’ll find armed cops hanging out there anyway, polishing their glocks in their piss-soaked boots, still gutted they didn’t get to shoot down rioters on Regent Street in December 2010). We spend our lives in the sewers; we’ve swum the black depths of the Fleet, navigated the southern outfall, boated the echoing chambers, sidled past crumbling brickwork ­ all our lives. We’ve broken out of Newgate Prison through the drains… fought the Nazis from the sewers of Warsaw…

We’ve laid planks across the Fleet River (long become a stench-filled ditch), to allow our mates to escape the law when on the lam…

In more fragrant moments we’ve skinny dipped in the New River, chased off by the Company’s private cops; legged it naked with our clothes clutched in our arms when the Capper sisters caught us in their private ponds on Great Russell Fields… When the Thames froze over we danced on the ice, slugging spirits and printing blasphemous rants…

They said we planned to chuck acid in the reservoirs… daft bastards.

Lately you can barely move for the sub-urban explorers, the depoliticised psychogeographers of the sewers… tunnels and lost rivers are so TRENDY again.

…lose your sense of light and dark…

in fact we’ve kept our sense of light and dark. both light and dark are alive in us – the Light, the burning light of a new world, of the love we have for each other, the laughing, singing, dancing joy of being, for ourselves as humans, not commodities or wage slaves, the head thrown back ecstasy, our cheeky kids learning letters and who to trust, the fucking sucking and wanking (porn free), the trespassing, the stealing and the occasional all out rioting – all of it, at its best, utterly cut loose from control, property and suppression. The dark – the Dark – love is magical, but to survive in this sea of floating shite, we also need hate and defiance to keep our heads above water, hate for the early morning alarm clock, the bullying gaffer, the shithead bureaucrat, the racist small mind wankers proud on their white toilets, all the balding fuckwit violent men, the priestophiles and imumblers, gaybashers, godbotherers, gangbangers…the list goes on.

… lose your sense of smell…?

are we coming up into the daylight? we still don’t know… we carry the light with us, even in the gloomiest side tunnels. sometimes we sit disheartened, by torchlight. Sometimes we dance, Wilko Johnson on good speed. We drink alot.


Sometimes the circular walls close in on us, pressure beyond bearing…

… I tell you what I’m gonna do…

Some nights just the spirit we create between us vaporises the walls, the sewers, the royal shitheads on their golden thrones; it’s just a whisper though, a shadow, Harry Lime caught in the fork of two tunnels; an echo of a future that could be…

Sometimes the desires that burst inside us emerge sounding like pretentious poetry. Yuk. Like we’re fucking Tiqqun.

… gonna make love to a water rat or two…

… Athens, London, Tehran; we’re emerging, surfacing, with a clang of manhole covers, the rats, feverish and plague-rich, blinking and stretching, night of the living dead… If we’re coming then it won’t just be the underground Victorian brickwork that’ll crumble. Palaces will fall. We’ll turn banks into bonfires and streets into canals. We’ll flood the City, and return golf courses and gated communities to wilderness. We’ll squat all churches, mosques, temples and dance and drink all night, every night; we’ll hack into the phones of all journalists and spook them and stalk them till they crack. We’ll mix our races till we’re all funky colours. We aren’t yet decided if we’ll turn the houses of parlyment into a massive storehouse for manure (as William Morris predicted), though as we know all too well, all that shit has to go somewhere. Politicos, from biggest presidents to self-righteous activist moralists, will be taking our places sweeping up sewage. We won’t be living in ruins or holes in the wall, no thanks Durruti, we’ll be hotwiring space shuttles and heading for the stars.

past tense gongfermers cell, June 2011  

lines from Down In the Sewer, by the Stranglers, quoted absolutely without permission, but with thanks and apologies

Dedicated to the memory of the Stranglers Dave Greenfield, 29th March 1949 – 3rd May 2020. Fly straight, with perfection. (And Covid-19 conspiracy theorists can fuck right off.)

Spotlight on London’s radical herstory: The Brixton Black Women’s Group

The Brixton Black Women’s Group emerged from the Black Power movements that evolved in Britain in the 1960s-1970s, initially as an angry response to racism and police attacks.

Black communities in the UK were from the 1960s on often in a state of siege, confronted by repeated police raids, with or without warrants, trashing of people’s houses, intimidation, harassment on the street, searches, assaults. Black people were told that if they didn’t want to get nicked they should stay indoors. The massive widespread use of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to arrest people on suspicion that a crime may have been about to be committed, led to its infamous nickname  – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime” – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed get a conviction. ‘SUS’ was heavily aimed at young black people.

In response to an increasing atmosphere of racism and violence, from police, organised racists, and to the systematic discrimination and deprivation they encountered every day, younger black activists, increasingly influenced by the powerful Black Power movements in the USA, began in the mid-1960s to organise resistance. The activities of radical black campaigners and fighters emerging from the US civil rights struggle, in particular the the US Black Panther party, inspired a number of UK-based groups. But they were also forged by their own daily experience on inner-city streets. Many of the activists who formed the early radical black groups shared a similar background – predominantly arriving in Britain as young children or early teenagers (often between 1959 and 1963), children of the first generation of migrants. The culture shock of arrival here, the experience of racism, both casual and institutional and low quality of life, the lack of opportunities, was blended with the realisation that they were likely here for good, and would have to fight to establish their position. This militancy began to distinguish them from the majority of their parents. Attempts to turn existing race relations groups into black militant groups, led to splits and divisions in organisations like the Institute of Race relations, Campaign Against Race Discrimination and others, and the emergence of more self-consciously revolutionary groups: the Universal Coloured People’s Association (UCPA), Britain’s first Black Power group, founded in 1967, and emerging from the UCPA, the British Black Panthers, and the Black Unity and Freedom Party.

These Black Power groups mobilised hundreds and later of mainly younger black people up and down the UK; through “demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets, study circles, supplementary schools, day conferences, campaign and support groups”, aimed at racist immigration laws, police harassment, discrimination in housing, employment and education, many more were to be drawn in as the 70s went on. In tandem with this the movement set up education classes for local kids, running Saturday schools, Black Studies groups, libraries, ran social events, with a strong cultural element – dances, with sounds systems, poetry groups…

“Three Steps Behind the Men” ?

Women were vocal and active in this movement; from the first the Panthers, the Fasimbas and others had included a strong and confident caucus of black women. The Universal Coloured People’s Association had established a Black Women’s Liberation Movement. But this was the late ’60s and early ’70s – not only was a new black consciousness emerging, but a new women’s’ movement was also questing gender relations, and especially the roles of men and women in political organisations. Women in the Black Panthers began to meet and discuss male-female relations, later feeling the need to organise separately.

“The attitude of the ‘brothers’… often undermined our participation. We could not fully realise our full organisational potential in a situation where we were constantly regarded as sexual prey…”

“Every new woman was regarded as easy prey. Some of the brothers were called ‘flesh heads’ because people knew what they were about… The men certainly didn’t understand anything about women’s oppression… Nearly every one of them was a die-hard sexist… things were dominated by the men. We had very little say in anything, to begin with… There was this romantic image of African womanhood around at the time, although a lot of us were beginning to take on the idea that black women were strong and had a role to play, many of us hadn’t reached the stage where we could challenge the idea that we should walk three places behind the men. That’s why Angela Davis was such an inspiration to Black women at the time. She seemed to have liberated herself mentally and fought in her own development…”

Black women’s caucuses began to be formed in black organisations in the early 1970s, working on women’s issues, but also enabling women to come together as women, and address common experiences of both racial and sexual oppression. To some extent white feminism was an influence, but some in the black women’s movement attributed far more influence to people like Angela Davis, to the role of women in developing world liberation movements like Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe.

One of the earliest and well-known of the organisations that emerged from this ferment was the Brixton Black Women’s Group.

“We formed the Black Women’s group in 1973… We came mainly out of Black organisations. Some had left and some were still there, but on the whole the organisations we came from were in the process of disintegrating… Straight away we got accused of ‘splitting the movement’, of weakening organisations which were already on the way out… But for most of us setting up an autonomous group for Black women was really necessary at that time… there were issues that related to us as Black women, like women’s work, our economic dependence on men and childcare… it was a chance to put them at the top of the agenda for a change… We didn’t want to become part of the white women’ movement. We felt they had different priorities to us…
We help to set up and maintain the first Black bookshop in Brixton, and joined the Railton 4 Campaign over police harassment. We also mobilised the community in Brixton against the practice of setting up disruptive units, and helped in the campaign for parental rights.  As the first autonomous Black women’ group of its kind, certainly in London, there were no models for us to follow… We just had to work it out as we went along. We were very wary of charges that we might be ‘splitting the Black struggle’ or mobilising in a vacuum, or imitating white women. These were the kinds of criticism Black men were making all the time. We couldn’t be… anti-men… but it felt good to be in a group which wasn’t hostile and didn’t fight all the time… We would not have called ourselves feminists by any means – we didn’t go that far for many years. It took us a very long time before we worked out a Black women’s perspective, which took account of race, class, sex and sexuality.”

The links the Brixton Black Women’s group made with other developing groups, led on to the founding, in 1978, of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, a national grouping which brought together large numbers of black and Asian women.

In the interview that follows, three members of the Brixton Black Women’s Group give a brilliant insight into the activities, politics and discussions that animated the group.

Numbers in the text refer to notes the follow the article.


Talking Personal, Talking Political

Originally published in Trouble & Strife radical feminist magazine, no 19, 1990.

This interview with Olive Gallimore, Gail Lewis and Melba Wilson is a discussion about their individual reflections/perceptions by the Brixton Black Women’s Group and is not to be taken as the final word of the collective as a whole.

Agnes Quashie talks Gail Lewis, Melba Wilson and Olive Gallimore of Brixton Women’s Group about its activities, strengths and weaknesses, the contradictions of funding and the complex relationship Black women had and have to women’s liberation movement.

Agnes Quashie: Shall we begin with a history of how the group got started?

Gail Lewis: Basically it was a mixed group that started in 1974; women from Race Today [Note 1: See end of article] and women from Sabarr bookshop[2] who were working in mixed organisations and trying to form a women’s study group. The aim was to a space for themselves to look at the questions of colonialism and the nature of capitalist society, African history and these sorts of things. The object then, was probably to locate themselves as women but not particularly as feminists.

The context of Brixton at the time is important because it was when there was a very big local surge of political activity in a number of fields. There was, for example, a very active South London Women’s Charter[3] group that was a predominantly white women’s organisation but very much focused around questions of working class women’s relationship to work/employment. Some of the early Brixton Black Women’s Group (BWG) women felt that was a women’s organisation that they could have at least some sympathy with because it seemed to be related to questions of class whereas much of the Women’s Liberation Movement was organising in consciousness raising (CR) groups and was deemed to be not really to do with them certainly not to do with working class women as it was thought to be a ‘petit bourgeois’ diversion, if you like.

Something else that women were involved in at that time was the whole move in Brixton and other parts of the country on the question of housing and the demand for empty houses to be given over to local people to be renovated. At that time a squatters’ movement[4] was developing and one of our sisters who is dead now, a woman called Olive Morris[5], was involved in that and in setting up the study group. This was important, that we saw ourselves as an organic part of local community based political struggle. She was also involved in trying to set up Sabarr which was the Black book shop, because that was a time when we, as Black people, were particularly vocal, both in Britain and in the US, in  expressing the need for the learning and writing of our own history, literature being central, particularly resistance literature.

This also related to the whole question about imperialism politics, where literature was seen as a part of the resistance struggle; you know, the decolonisation of the mind and all that. Olive in fact got the Sabarr bookshop, the original one we had at the end of Railton Road, by going out as a part of the collective and claiming the building. In fact, when the council was going to evict them she went up onto the roof and said “I won’t come down until you let us have the building”. So what I’m saying is that the history of the group started as a study group, out of two locally based Black organisations, but saw itself very much as part of a community based organisation, campaigning on a number of issues.

AQ: How and why did each of you become involved?

Melba Wilson: I came to this country in 1977 from California where I was involved with consciousness raising type women’s groups and I had done a lot of things in terms of Black politics and community politics.

However when I came here I was looking for more of a consciousness raising (CR) group. Also I was looking to get connected to the Black community. I am married to a white British person and so I was cut off from the Black community, so in that sense the group was a sort of mainstay, a grounding.

CR was one of my main thrusts in the group and I kept on pushing that; that the personal is the political. But ultimately the group became for me a political education because, even though I had done a lot of work in the States, it was in the narrowly defined strictures of Black politics and basically it was all aimed at getting a piece of the pie, the American pie. BWG broadened my whole perspective in making me more aware of what Black people outside of the States were doing, and what Black people were doing outside of Britain, and in a sense it opened my eyes to the world.

Olive Gallimore: What was talked about little then was that women came out of different educational experiences or abilities or political understandings of their situations but there was the need to move beyond that. I was brought up in West London, I was a ‘single parent’ living in Vauxhall. I got to know other women, single women, women who were less articulate than the other women who were in BWG and I suppose in that sense I was part of this group of women who came in, but I wasn’t intimidated by that because there was some purpose behind it in sharing and moving beyond our current situation. Lots of things were happening at a community level and people were organising around education quite specifically. What was missing at that time was a clear political or feminist analysis of what was taking place and to find a way of using that to absorb as many women as there were. I think later on that created conflicts and it was quite an important political lesson for everyone involved.

GL: BWG was not the first women’s organisation that I had been involved in. As a teenager I had been involved in things like the Soledad Brothers[6] Support Campaign here, and briefly in something called the Black Liberation Front when it first split off from the [UK] Black Panthers[7]. I developed what I considered to be a Black consciousness, I had always thought of myself as some kind of a socialist as well, and during that period, before the late ’60s, I met one of the women who had been involved in setting up the study group and was introduced to a number of Black political events really, rather than a whole active network. Then I went away for a while because prior to that I had thought that feminism had nothing to do with Black women and working class women of any ‘race’. Then I started to read a few things and thought that maybe there is something in this and then got involved in 1975 in the National Abortion Campaign, as the lone Black woman, in the area where I was living.

I wanted a Black women’s group but was terrified because by this time I had also come out as a lesbian. I heard about a group that met every Sunday and I thought about it for a long time and then thought no, I can’t possibly go to a Black women’s group because I’m a dyke, and then one day I just took courage and went I joined the group because I felt not only did I want to be involved in a Black women’s group, but I wanted to be in a Black women’s group that defined itself as socialist and anti-imperialist.

There had to be some form of continuity for me in terms of my previous political development.

OG: For me came out of the Black Panther, Angela Davis[8] era; you know, the ‘most wanted woman in the United States’ and that kind of thing, and because as a single parent I had been working on those issues and like Gail wanted to belong, I got involved. What I wasn’t clear about at that time was feminism, so to speak, it wasn’t something close to me.

AQ: How were you run, was it collectively? Did you have funding?

GL: At that time we would have rejected funding. Our demand was that there are empty houses; we have a right to them as Black folks; we’re going to take them.

The study group used to meet in people’s houses and by the time we joined in 1978 we used to meet in Sabarr bookshop, in the room at the back. Clearly that was not satisfactory but it was a necessary step, because when we eventually came to discuss whether we should set up a centre there were many long and important discussions about whether an organisation like ours – one that was supposed to be revolutionary, supposed to be about change and centrally supposed to be critical of the state in the way in which it controls all Black people and working class people how could we take money from the state?

AQ: What did the organisation consider were its aims and objectives? Did it have a particular kind of politics; any particular labels by which to identify the people who were involved?

GL: We were a collective, but at the same time we had, like all other collectives, different individual women there. We had different forms of knowledge, we came from different kinds of political histories and political understandings, but there wasn’t one leadership position. On the contrary actually, that manifested itself more in organisations such as the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD)[9] than in BWG or in any of the local Black women’s organisations that we developed links with.

OG: I think that individuals were struggling to identify themselves and the community also saw us in a particular way. It was not until later that we sat down and decided who we were and wrote a position paper. It was not an overnight thing that you suddenly had one uniform concept of who we were. There was a lot of individuality within BWG. This is why the identity of the group involved at times a very deep and painful debating, to get those different focuses on the agenda.

MW: I suppose we were all already political women which is what made us come to BWG in the first place. We were all a certain type of Black woman and while we saw ourselves as being very much a part of our community, that did present problems in terms of Black community politics, male/female Black community politics. However, in terms of the workings of the group the coming together around a political basis was what provided the impetus and is what I think got us over a lot of those contradictions – even though we may not have dealt sufficiently with them at the time. For instance, the heterosexual/lesbian divide which is still hanging up the Black women’s movement to this very day, as I am sure you are aware.

At the same time I do think that we did try and deal with these issues, but it was after some prodding. When Gail got up in a meeting and came out to us it precipitated a whole load of discussion, heartache and soul-searching, which was good in terms of the group having to face its own weaknesses.

GL: The group, for most of the years that I was involved, was a heterosexual women’s group. I can remember saying to myself, “I have to tell these women that I am a lesbian”.

I was living with a white woman at the time and I felt this enormous split in my life, in terms of living as a lesbian and with a white woman then, yet being involved in anti-racist and Black women’s liberation politics. But I did not necessarily want to go into a discussion about it because I felt alone. I knew that some other women in the group were lesbians and for one woman in particular it was hidden from the rest of the women in the group for a long time. Granted, there may have been some discussion about lesbianism and what it meant, but in the late ’70s/early ’80s lesbianism was not seen as a political issue; it was seen as something you did privately and was therefore your own business. We really managed to hang ourselves up with that because like every other Black organisation at that time, we had a notion of the Black community as traditional, as homogenous and as unable to deal with difference.

After we got the Black Women’s Centre[10] in 1979/80, a Black lesbian group was formed. I was not a member of that, but they asked at some point if they could meet at our centre, and there was one hell of a furore amongst women from BWG, saying things like, “We can’t possibly have lesbians meeting in our centre, what would the community say? they’ll know”, and all this kind of stuff. By that time though there were enough other women, and not only the lesbian women in BWG but heterosexual women as well, who were saying, “This is crap, are they not our sisters?” So the lesbian group met in the centre but if you talked to any of the women who were involved in that, they never felt as if the centre could be claimed as their own; they always felt hostility.

There are also other questions about other identities and political positions. Some women may not have said that they were socialists as individuals but the group always said it was socialist.

MW: It wasn’t only the lesbian issue that was not adequately dealt with. For instance, I am in an inter-racial relationship and I had great angst about wanting to come out in that way and not feeling that I could. In the end I did pluck up courage and said it and one of my enduring memories is just how many other women in the group were in inter-racial relationships also and we just did not know it.

We were all afraid to come out in that way, which is why my thrust was always the personal becoming the political, because there was that sense that we could not talk about stuff that happened outside in our other lives.

It was like having a split personality, but in a way I felt a bit of a fraud, being in an interracial relationship, coming to a Black women’s group and not being able to discuss that whole other aspect of myself. This is why I pushed for the consciousness raising aspect of the group. Not to the exclusion of the active political campaigning work that we also did and which was the main thrust of the group, but I also thought that other strand was important. So we had these two strands working within the group for very much of its active period. However, I do believe that we began to deal with it in as straightforward a way as we could at the time, given our frame of reference. You have to remember that we were seen as an anachronism within the Black community; we were taking time away from the valuable Black struggle, talking about women’s politics, women’s rights and so on, and that was seen as a white women’s issue diverting our energies away from the Black struggle. There were all these things going on at the same time, which we were just trying to work through on a daily basis.

GL: I was probably one of the most vocal women in the group and I can remember saying, “I don’t want a CR group”. I mean there was an Irish war going on, there was Palestine, there was Southern Africa, there was class struggle in Britain and we had a wealth of information and something to offer. So I wanted to foreground all that stuff.

MW: I don’t think it got in the way of our work. It was left hanging, but it was left hanging while we got on with the business of fighting the SUS[11] laws and fighting the virginity testing at Heathrow Airport[12] and doing a lot of really good work. I mean, we did have an agenda, and in those Sunday meetings when we met from three o’clock until six/seven, the things that were on those agendas were about the SUS laws, about how we could organise as a community to stop young Black boys being stopped and hassled by the police. We organised around health, fighting against Depo Provera[13] injections and all that kind of stuff.

OG: There was also the issue of whether or not the group ought to accept partnership money (funding). As I remember it, the discussion was quite fierce and went on for weeks. In the end it was agreed that we would, but Olive (Morris) also insisted that she be statemented as saying she did not want to be a part of this, based on a political analysis of the state getting involved in the lives of Black people and buying them off.

GL: The cost was that we lost individuals. Women would come for a short period of time and then feel that the set-up wasn’t for them. This was usually for different reasons.

Sometimes they would say, “I am not a socialist”; some of them were more separatist; for some it was not a feminist enough type of group. But I think the key thing here is that it was contradictory. It was contradictory in the sense that I was the only out lesbian for quite a while, but I was also one of the people who was arguing against talking personal, that this was a political organisation and not necessarily a friendship organisation.

AQ: How did you see BWG’s relationship to predominantly white feminist organisations; about the idea of women being in sisterhood, Black as well as white women? Did you have close links with other women’s groups that had a predominantly white involvement? Lastly, what do you think about white women who are involved in politics and struggles pertaining to Black women? How do you see these things fusing together, or don’t they?

GL: Let’s start with the ‘easiest’ one about what other women’s organisations we were connected to. We were connected to many, and we also worked alongside many, and we were actively involved in other Black women’s groups that started. We were very much involved in setting up OWAAD. We were connected to other women’s organisations fighting around anti-imperialism: to SWAPO[14] Women, Zanu Women[15] and with women from Ethiopia, Eritrea; with Black American women’s organisations, with Irish women’s organisations. To some extent we were also involved with women organising around Palestine and anti-Zionism. We also mixed with many other organisations, like the Depo Provera campaign for example. We also had links with, but a different type of relationship with, other white women’s organisations that did not have a specific anti-imperialist focus, like reproductive rights. It was a much more tense relationship with such organisations but we weren’t necessarily fighting against each other.

What is problematic is, because there is scanty documentation about our work and aims, both Black and white women have picked up a very wrong picture of the politics of Brixton Black Women’s Group; saying things like we were completely against free and safe abortion on demand on the NHS, for example. We always supported the demand for a woman’s right to free and safe abortion, but we also said that abortion was not the sole issue. I mean from our own experiences, from what we knew to be happening to Black women in this country and from a kind of picture of the world.

MW: With regard to the second part of your question, I think BWG set itself up to be an autonomous Black organisation and I think that was partly because some BWG members had been involved with white women’s organisations/movement, and had come away feeling very disillusioned by the racism that they found within them; as well as the refusal generally to accept that there were issues that concerned Black women, or that Black women were involved with, that meant that we operated within a mixed (female/male) context within our communities and that we did not see ourselves as separate from our communities in their entirety. We consciously organised as a Black women’s organisation because we wanted to address those things. I suppose that it was a reaction to the racism in the white women’s movement as well, and it was also a reaction to the sexism of Black men, so in that sense we were a consciously Black and female organisation.

GL: I don’t think that we had a principle by which we responded to white women feminist organisations or white women socialists or whatever. What guided us, despite the fact that some women felt extremely suspicious of white women’s organisations, even when they were organisations like Women Against Imperialism for example, was saying that we come from a position of Black socialist feminism; our central concerns are the antiracist/ the Black Liberation struggle, the anti-imperialist struggle and the struggle against capitalism. Therefore we decided that we would work with, we would make alliances with people as and when we could see that they were also fighting for those things. We acknowledged that alliances are not a matter of principle, alliances have to be strategic.

AQ: Was it difficult to negotiate all those different identities, i.e. at one and the same time being a Black women’s organisation, a community-based organisation and negotiating that with wider women’s issues as you say making alliances and also at the same time acknowledging the racism that can come from those alliances and dealing with them? Was it difficult to negotiate all those things and come out with something that you felt was positive?

OG: It was a minefield. Rather than use the white women’s group terms ‘in sisterhood with’ we would say ‘in solidarity with’. This is because we were still working out the racism or at least forcing them to look at that Again in terms of this concept of ‘in sisterhood’, although I did not have any formal contact with white women’s groups, I think very warmly of individual white women who contributed very significantly to my understanding of what was going on. At the time I did not see how valuable it was to me. However, now I can see that it has been extremely important in shaping and giving me hope.

GL: But I think the way we negotiated it, and negotiated is exactly the right word, was because of the way we operated. We would have our Sunday meetings and then we would go off to do things that we had been collectively delegated to do. The strength of that is that you could always argue with other organisations that you were representing BWG. BWG grew in terms of how much respect it had; it was recognised in terms of socialist feminist networks at the activist level. There was a great deal of strength in that because you knew if there was a problem you could always go back to the group to get some feedback and work out how to proceed.

In many ways the most fraught sorts of negotiations that we had to deal with were with the men involved in the Brixton Defence Campaign[16]. After the 1981 uprising we had close links with the organisations in Toxteth[17] by now the women from BWG and the women and men from the Brixton Defence Campaign joined and went to Liverpool. We still had to make it known that we had something to say; that we were not just the providers of space – they used to meet in our centre – and the people who did the typing.

We still had to fight to be heard. I remember there was a big row, on the coach on the way back from Liverpool, between the women and the men and that created quite a big rift between us. Some of the sharpest contradictions that arose,· arose in relation to Black men rather than in relation to white women.

OG: Although it did not affect me directly in my confrontation with some of those men, I know that some very strong sisters were physically quite shaken by that experience.

Where there were differences between the women in those different groups, we could argue quite forcefully about them, but there still remained a great deal of respect amongst us. However that sort of respect was missing in our disagreements with the men and they were often quite dismissive of us in very derogatory terms and they did not want to look at why they were behaving in those particular ways.

AQ: I am conscious of what I am going to ask next, because at times I get slightly wary of the motives behind questions that are constantly asked about the relationships between Black women and Black men. However, having made my qualification, why do you think your relationships with white women were less problematic than with Black men?

OG: Black men, those so-called political men, saw Black feminism as divisive, in the sense that it was splitting the movement and those of us who had a long and continuing relationship with Black men weren’t communicating with them on that political level. With white women that is the basis on which a lot of relationships have been formed. But the immediate problems between the Black man and the Black woman were not analysed in that way; communication was about personal things the way you treat me, the personal not being the political – and I don’t think that the Black men had grasped that. Also they themselves were struggling through nationalist politics and had become quite entrenched in their own sexism and domination of women. It was only a privileged few of those men who were able to come out and look at all these things in a political context, but even they did not really want to spend a great deal of time looking at those issues we were raising because it struck at the very foundation of their own existence. They would have to undo a lot of things to get it right, but they were not prepared to do that.

GL: We were working with them, we were part of the Brixton Defence Campaign, we were meeting on our territory and some of those guys felt extremely threatened. I mean we did have political time for some of them, but others were just jokers; separatist, chauvinist people that we did not have much in common with politically, over and above Black nationalist politics. Even those that we did have political time for felt threatened. I remember we had this Hindi poster with a woman holding a machete type thing and some of those guys would come into the meetings saying that they really couldn’t handle the poster. They would say things like, “I don’t know how to be with you any more, just talking to you individually”. I can also remember being asked, “Do you think that Black feminism is becoming so strong now that all Black women are going to become lesbians?” There was also some disagreement as to how these tensions could be rationalised.

Some of the men and a few of the women would say it was all about personal relationships and others of us argued that it was about politics.

OG: These problems show where we were at that time and I think we have made tremendous strides since then, with still a long way to go and we are very hopeful because I don’t think that we are in a position to cut off any form of voice because we are all oppressed in one way or another. However, being oppressed does not mean at the same time you cannot oppress others. That was always another issue: was it possible for us to oppress each other within the group? As you can imagine some of us said “yes” and others said “no”, but I do think that at times we did intimidate one another.

MW: Not intentionally.

OG: I believe that we can turn oppression on each other: I can oppress you at one time, and you can oppress me on another. Whether it is intentional or not, the effects linger on.

AQ: So do you think the conflicts that came out of all that were productive, even though it was a hard and painful struggle?

OG: In the main.

GL: I agree, but with costs, because we lost some good women. I mean there was so much going on, there was friendships breaking down.

OG: It was too much to handle.

AQ: How did the group change, in terms of its earlier days, to that point at which the group as a collective ‘dissolved’ itself?

GL: We began to document our history. By then we had come to some agreement that documentation was quite important. Before, we would just write position papers which we discussed, because this was a way to encompass the division of interest amongst us, a way to share information, If you look in the earlier newsletters, nothing was given an individual person’s name, besides the poetry and contributions that came from other organisations.

Later it became the case that you could write individual pieces in Speak Out [18] for example.

Another move that we made was to become very definitely and very statedly socialist feminists, actually saying we were a socialist feminist organisation.

OG: We also started moving towards taking up lesbian feminist struggles, for example. But going back to what Gail said about the organisation losing many good women, we have to acknowledge that some of those women left because they did not agree with the direction in which they thought the group was going. Some of those that left wanted to become engaged purely in practice and they thought that BWG was becoming an elitist organisation by, say, sitting down and writing ‘position papers’ on these areas.

MW: There was also some recognition of the personal as well, towards the end. And in fact when we finally closed BWG, one of the things that came out of it was a group called “Sisters in Study”. This group not only dealt with study but with our personal interaction with each other and this was now an equal part of our agenda.

GL: We also moved from the earlier days where we were about creating a space in which women could meet together, for whatever purposes, to being a Black women’s organisation which foregrounded gender being the object of political change.

OG: Even the day and time that we met was an empowering factor in our lives. I mean, we met on Sunday afternoons between two and whenever, and that was generally a time of day when people stayed at home.

MW: In fact that was quite liberating for many of us, because to get that space was not easy for some BWG women; you know to leave the cooking and all the rest of it.

GL: I suppose the puzzle is, with all that going for it, why did it end?

MW: Many of the issues changed, for a start.

Many of the issues that we were involved with – Depo Provera, SUS, disruptive units – in a sense had been won. At the same time, while we were looking for a new focus, younger women were coming into BWG. I think we began to feel a bit like old fogeys and some of us who had been involved in that ten year period of high activity felt as if we had given as much as we could at that point and that perhaps it was time to make room for the younger women coming along with new ideas.

GL: But they couldn’t hold the group together either. I think that to a certain extent we had won some of the battles but there still remained other issues. For example, policing as an issue is still there. I think a split appeared in the group between women who had been involved in the organisation for a long time and who had come to formulate a ‘shared’ perspective, and between women coming from outside who did not share that perspective and many of whom would not define themselves as socialist. There were some who did not see the campaigning issues as being the same ones as we would have.

OG: Also some people were just physically exhausted.

MW: We were just tired. I mean it is hard to get across the level of intensity during that period. It required a lot from all of us, in addition to the rest of our lives – you know, working and living and families and children and that kind of thing.

OG: There was also the effect of losing certain sisters at that stage in the group; the death of Olive, the death of Sylvia[19] and others was quite a devastating experience as well.

GL: The other thing that happened was the grants strategy; you know, we became a bloody management committee with workers -we became employers. We stopped doing the things that we used to do, like standing on street corners selling papers – or more usually giving them away. We weren’t knocking on doors any more. All we had to do by then was to give out a few leaflets through the council premises. At first we didn’t; at first we would go out and encourage women, but we weren’t doing that any more; instead we just put it through the internal Lambeth mailing. We had become bloody managers, and this is what happens so often. You know, to get funding you have to meet certain criteria; to meet those criteria you have to adopt certain structures and to a great extent the structures dictate the relationships.

OG: Also, those who hold the purse strings know that we have certain unmet needs and goals and it’s like a carrot dangling. I think the obvious thing is that we had not thought it all through, you know; what it meant to acquire those things through those means.

MW: I think we did think them through, but we thought that we could overcome them.

OG: And we might have done, could have done; if we had tried even harder still.

GL: Maybe, if we were still the same group, but obviously we weren’t any more. You see the membership changed and was fluid by this time. Also, things might have worked out if we were centred around a particular project like Southall Black Sisters[20], who organise around the whole question of women and violence and everything that stems from that. We were more amorphous. We were also victim of not only the internal dynamics of BWG but also the fracturing of Black political activity; the fracturing, if not the demise of women’s liberation political activity and the general political environment.

OG: With all its imperfections, if we were to do it again I would still be a member of BWG. But, you know, I take the African saying that there are no mistakes in life but only lessons to be learnt, and I know that my life has certainly been enriched by that experience.

GL: Oh yes, I totally agree.

MW: Definitely, and in that sense it has not finished, because all those people who went through BWG in those early years remain committed to its principles, to its ideals, and conduct their lives in that way. Of course we carry it through in different ways: for example I am a freelance journalist, so whatever I do, whatever I am involved in is informed by those years. Olive is an educational social worker and acts accordingly in the work that she does. Gail lectures in trade unionism at a polytechnic and her work is also informed by her years in BWG. So in that sense BWG lives.


Also well worth a read for more on the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the wider Black Women’s movement in the UK:

  • Do You Remember Olive Morris? produced by the Remembering Olive Morris Collective, 2010.
  • Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, 1985. Now back in print over 30 years after its first appearance – a vital read.
  • The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement: An oral history and photography Project, published by Organised Youth. Produced for a exhibition in Brixton 2013 – some audio and photos from this project are online at

Notes on the text
Compiled by past tense

1 – Race Today: Originally linked to the Institute of Race Relations, Race Today was a black-run political magazine, which adopted a socialist position. It moved to Brixton, and was taken over by a group of mainly former Panthers, who had started to drop out of the party. Operating from 165 Railton Road, (above Brixton Advice Centre), the magazine became a strong voice in the 1970s and ‘80s, a fighting magazine reporting on black community struggles and burning issues of the day, and helping to build black organisations, eg the British Black Panthers, and other organisations like the Northern Collectives up in Bradford and Leeds. The journal was involved in several important campaigns that helped to transform both the political and cultural lives of black people in Britain. Many former Panthers became involved in Race Today, including editor Darcus Howe, dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and Farrukh Dhondy, later commissioner/editor of Channel Four’s cultural programs.

2 – Sabarr Books: Sabarr Bookshop is sometimes called the first Black Bookshop in Brixton, (though in fact the Black Panthers had set up Unity Bookshop in Brixton’s Railton Road in 1973. which had been burned to the ground when a firebomb was placed in the letter box). Sabarr Bookshop opened at 121 Railton Road, after it was re- squatted around 1974. Sabarr was later moved from 121 Railton Road to 378 Coldharbour Lane, at some point around 1980: the building where the Archives and Museum of Black Heritage and then the Black Cultural Archives were subsequently located during the 80s and 90s. (121 Railton Road was shortly afterward re-squatted by an anarchist collective, and ran as an anarchist centre, bookshop, cafe and gig and meeting space until 1999.)

3 – South London Womens Charter: Probably means a branch of the socialist-feminist current which appeared during the time of the Working Women’s Charter Campaign, which laid down its aim as producing a synthesis of socialism and feminism.
The Working Women’s Charter was drawn up by the subcommittee of the London Trades Council in March 1974. At its height it had 27 groups in towns and cities across the UK and was supported by 12 national unions, 55 trade union branches, 37 trade councils and 85 other organisations; it also published a monthly newspaper. The driving force behind the WWCC was the International Marxist Group and other smaller left groupings. The campaign attempted throughout the 1970s to support women in trade union disputes, most notably at TRICO (equal pay). It worked jointly with the London-based national nurseries campaign over the extension of nursery facilities and against cuts in local authority nurseries. The WWCC emphasised the importance of women pursuing their claims through direct action rather than by taking cases under the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act — the preferred option by the trade union bureaucracy. The women (and some men) active around the Charter in the main regarded themselves as socialist feminists and saw the Charter as a way of taking feminist ideas into the trade union and labour movement.

4 – Black squatting in Brixton: In the late 1960s and early 70s, Brixton became one of the most heavily squatted areas in London, for a number of reasons, but mainly because of high homelessness and a high demand for housing, especially among young people in the area, the presence of hundreds of empty run down houses (many compulsorily purchased for a massive redevelopment scheme which never happened), and a growing counter-culture which adopted squatting for the possibilities it offered. Although a large white squatting scene emerged, many local black youth also began to squat. From the early 70s the younger, more militant generation faced increasing black homelessness caused by massive overcrowding in traditional West Indian households, conflict with an older and more conservative generation in some cases getting them thrown out, and a hostile housing market, inflexible council housing policies or hostels. Many local black kids were sleeping rough, on building sites, etc. As a result, from about 1973-4 many occupied council properties. The black Melting Pot organisation played a part in housing many youth, from their squatted HQ in Vining Street (which was attacked by racists in August 1983. They later moved to Kellet Road).

Many houses, especially along Railton Road, were turned into ‘blues’ clubs, home to unlicensed drinking, smoking and reggae, in defiance of the authorities. The Blues had since the fifties been a response to the exclusion of blacks from many pubs and clubs, and this scene grew as younger kids with little respect for white society and white authority reached their teens. A lot of the black squatters had little contact with squatting groups, which were usually dominated by middle-class whites; relations were on occasion fractious. Race Today in 1974 claimed that black people were squatting in the areas they grew up in, that they were more likely to receive support from their community, “whereas the white squatters, who are generally London’s floating bedsitter population, set up squats in different areas with no organic relation to the indigenous population around them.”

Read more on squatting in Brixton

5 – Olive Morris: In 1969, aged 17, Olive, who grew up in Brixton, went to the aid of a black man the police were harassing, was nicked herself and strip-searched at the police station. She never looked back from then on, becoming a Black Panther, and gaining a reputation locally for her willingness to get stuck in and help people in battles with the authorities; whether over housing, social security, police, or the courts… Like many of the Panther generation, Olive arrived in the UK from the West Indies as a child, and went through school and teenage years in Brixton experiencing the xenophobia and inequality that characterised the migrant experience. From it she emerged a fierce and uncompromising fighter against the powers that be.

“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level… She would take anybody on…”
“I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went for him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.”

Olive was an early squatter, and helped to develop the black squatting scene in Brixton; she was one of two original squatters of 121 Railton Road, in the building which later became famous as Sabarr Books, and then 121 anarchist bookshop.

Liz Obi: “We were introduced to squatting by some white women who were squatting a shop with a flat above it at the top end of Railton Road and who had opened it up as a Women’s Centre. We had visited the Centre on a couple of occasions and learnt from them about squatting and the law and we decided we would look for somewhere to squat ourselves. 121 was the derelict Sunlight laundry on Railton Road consisting of a shop downstairs and a flat upstairs – we managed to get into the building one night and we had a look around and the following week some squatters from the squatters group came along and showed us ho to change the locks, turn on the water and the electricity supply, and we moved in.”

Olive re-squatting 121 Railton Road

They faced three illegal eviction attempts, but always managed to get back in and stayed there for about a year before a possession order was granted to the landlord and they had to move out. But the building was then re-squatted by others for use as Sabarr black bookshop; and was to be squatted more or less continuously until 1999, when in its the later incarnation as the 121 anarchist centre it was finally evicted by armed police. (But that’s another story.)
After the Panthers fragmented, Olive was involved in setting up Sabarr Books, then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group, moved to Manchester to study Social sciences at university, and helped to found Manchester Black Women’s Co-op. She later travelled to China. However, in 1979, aged only 26, Olive died of cancer.
Lambeth Council in its Leftspeak days named Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill after her, council offices including the dreaded Housing Benefit Department…
[In April 2020, in the midst of the Corona virus lockdown, the council decided to begin the demolition of this building – putting builders working there in danger or spreading the virus, since social distancing on demolition sites is impossible… and also spreading dust around Brixton Hill during a respiratory crisis. Nice one Lambo.]

Recently interest in this amazing character has revived; there is a brilliant website dedicated to her memory
They have also published a book: Do You Remember Olive Morris?

6 – Soledad Brothers: The Soledad Brothers were three African-American inmates charged with the murder of a white prison guard, John Vincent Mills, at California’s Soledad Prison on January 16, 1970. George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette were said to have murdered Mills in retaliation for the shooting of three black prisoners during a prison fight in the exercise yard three days prior by another guard, Opie G. Miller.

The Soledad Brothers Defense Committee was formed by Fay Stender to assist in publicizing the case and raising funds to defend Jackson, Drumgo, and Clutchette. The case achieved huge publicity and notoriety. Jackson in particular had become well known as a Black Panther, and was targetted by the prison authorities and justice system in retaliation for his political agitation. In August 1970, Jackson’s 17-year old brother Jonathan was killed during an armed attempt to take hostages and free the Brothers. Two weeks later George Jackson was killed in an armed escape attempt (possibly set up by the prison guards). Seven months later the remaining two prisoners were acquitted of the murder of Mills. Jackson’s prison writings have since raised him to important status in radical circles as a modern theorist of US imperialism and racism.

7 – Black Panthers and Black Liberation Front: Brixton’s West Indian community had faced racism and police violence from its inception, increasing in the 1960s, when local police labeled their roaming of the streets to beat up and arrest young blacks as ‘nigger hunting’. In the late 1960s-early 70s, a combination of street resistance and political thinking (influenced by both US black nationalism and African liberation movements) helped give birth to the British Black Panther Party, whose Brixton chapter was one of its mainstays and whose base of operations was around the ‘frontline’ (their HQ was in Shakespeare Road). Local actions concentrated on resistance to police oppression, education programs for black kids often excluded by mainstream schools,
and a lot of cultural expression. Targetted by police but always at the forefront of fighting back… Such luminaries as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Darcus Howe, Farrukh Dhondy emerged from its ranks; Race Today and many other groups also emerged from the breakup of the organisation.
The Black Liberation Front was a splinter that emerged from the Panthers in London, mainly based in West London (notably Ladbroke Grove, one on the other main strongholds of the early Panthers). The BLF maintained a bookshop in Golborne Road, Ladbroke Grove, Grassroots Storefront. It developed links with liberation struggles in Africa and throughout the African diaspora, and regularly organised the annual Africa LiberationDay celebrations in co-operation with other organisations in Britain. By establishing supplementary schools, community bookshops, affordable housing for black families and support for black prisoners, the movement focused on developing Pan-African consciousness, consolidating black political identity and challenging the impact of racism in Britain.

A very basic introduction to Brixton policing in the 1970s, the black community and the Black Panthers, can be read ‘In the Shadow of the SPG’, published by past tense, which can be bought online at: and several good radical bookshops in London.

8 – Angela Davis: Leading US black radical, communist and thinker, close to the black Panthers, who remains active and writing today. An academic at the University of California, and also active in social and political activism, Davis was targetted by state governor Ronald Reagan who tried to have her barred from teaching in 1969 because of her outspoken attacks on police racism. She was a supporter of the Soledad Brothers (see above), and bought the firearms used by Jonathan Jackson in his armed attack on a courthouse in August 1970. As a result Angela Davis as charged with “aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder” of a hostage judge. Davis went on the run, was arrested and held on remand. Her case became another huge international cause celebre: she was eventually acquitted. She remained active in the Communist Party until 1991.

9 – The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), a national organisation founded in 1978, by a number of groups including the Brixton Black Women’s Group; it sought to bring together Black women from a number of different backgrounds and political perspectives in Britain. Many of those who set up OWAAD were students living in Britain who came from Africa. Women from OWAAD gave support to women on strike (for example the Futters Strike, in Harlesden in 1979), to women involved in education battles against sin-bins and expulsions, to women fighting the Sus laws; and those facing deportation, and opposing virginity tests for migrant women (see below). However divisions over a number of issues led to OWAAD’s effective collapse in 1982.
Here’s an interesting short perspective on OWAAD’s formation and activities, written by members of the Brixton Black Women’s Group.

10 – Brixton Black Women’s Centre (BWC): The Brixton Black Women’s Group was initially based at 65 Railton Road: later they set up the Black Women’s Centre, located at 41 Stockwell Green, SW9. The BWC aimed “to give help and support to Black women in the community. We do this by: providing a welfare rights information and referral service; participating in a health group; providing meeting facilities; holding open days on themes reflecting Black women’s lives and struggles; having a small but growing library; running children’s projects at Easter and summer holidays.

11 – SUS laws: The massive widespread use by police of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, to stop and search and then arrest, people on suspicion that a crime ‘may have been about to be committed’, led to its infamous nickname – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime” – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed to get a conviction. SUS was heavily aimed at young black people; for instance 89% of sus defendants attending Balham Juvenile Court in 1976 were black. Lambeth was consistently the highest area in London for sus arrests. Daily use of SUS was a major factor in provoking the 1981 riots in Brixton and elsewhere.

12 – Virginity testing at Heathrow Airport: At least 80 women from India and Pakistan hoping to emigrate to Britain to marry were intimately examined by immigration staff to “check their marital status” in the late 1970s.

At that time, immigration rules stipulated that an engaged woman coming to Britain to marry her fiance within three months did not need a visa, whereas a bride required a visa in order to join her husband. If immigration officers suspected a woman was married, but was pretending to be engaged to avoid the wait for a visa, she would be taken away for an examination.

In 1979, the Home Office admitted to just three tests (after initially denying the practice). The technique was banned in February 1979 after the Guardian revealed that a 35-year-old Indian woman was examined by a male doctor at Heathrow to check whether she was in fact a virgin.

The Home Office initially denied that any internal examination had taken place.

13 – Depo Provera: A birth control drug, widely proscribed in developing countries and to poor women particularly in both the developing and developed world, on many occasions without their knowledge or consent. Depo Provera has been widely linked to permanent sterility and infertility, the development of breast cancer and an increase in a person’s chances of acquiring and transmitting HIV/AIDS, as well as a number of other serious medical conditions. Black and radical activists and feminists have raised the accusation that DP was deliberately used by manufacturers and health organisations (including Pfizer, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Planned Parenthood, the US Agency for International Development(USAID), the UN, the World Health Organisation, the Center for Disease Control, Columbia and Johns Hopkins Universities) of promoting DP as part of a eugenics agenda, aimed at reducing the birth rates of the poor, and especially africans and african-americans.

14 – SWAPO Women: SWAPO is the South West African People’s Organisation, formerly a national liberation movement, fighting to free the African country of Namibia from colonial rule by Apartheid-era South Africa; since 1990 the governing party of Namibia as an independent country.

15 – Zanu Women: The Women’s League of Zanu PF, in the 1970s the main Zimbabwean national liberation movement – since 1980 the governing party in Zimbabwe.

16 – Brixton Defence Campaign: In the immediate aftermath of the April 1981 Brixton riot/uprising the Brixton Defence Campaign was set up to defend the several hundred arrested, both legally and politically. Founded immediately after the riot, the first meeting was held at the Black Women’s Centre:

“The fact that we initiated the Brixton Defence Campaign, took on alot of the leadership, and, as a group, put in most of the work, shows how strong politically Black women had become and how much support there was in the community for the group. Many of the ‘committees’ set up by the brothers in the aftermath of the uprisings had failed. In some cases, the first meetings had ended in chaos. There were all kinds of conflicting interests… We recognised that the police would step up their operations. We also knew that we had to work quickly to counteract the media’s coverage of ‘Black Mobs on the Rampage’ and ‘Black Masses Rioting’, so that people could understand what had really happened.

Anyway, after the failure of the initial public meetings, the women’s group came together to discuss the brief of the campaign. The first meeting was held at the Black Women’s Centre, and after that it became the base of the campaign. We acted very quickly, using the skills we had to start distributing leaflets, organising more public meetings and producing a regular bulletin. We had two objectives really. The first was the practical matter of getting competent legal representation for the hundreds of people who’d been arrested. And the other was to publicise the police tactics which had led to the uprisings and to alert the community to particular incidents of brutality. We did this by holding street meetings on Railton Road, bringing the issues to the attention of the people. And we co-ordinated with other campaigns and defence committees in other parts of the country so that we could monitor the police operations in our communities outside London.” (from The Heart of the Race, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe)

17 – Toxteth: Otherwise known as Liverpool 8, an area of Liverpool’s inner city, like Brixton with a large black population, and subject to similar tensions around racism and policing. Centre of several riots in the city from 1981-85.

18 – Speak Out: The Brixton Black Women’s Group’s newsletter.

19 – Sylvia: Sylvia Erike, another member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group, who like Olive Morris also died tragically young.

20 – Southall Black Sisters: A black feminist group, which emerged among Asian women in Southall, West London, still going strong today. Established in August 1979 in the aftermath of the death of anti-fascist activist Blair Peach, who had taken part in a demonstration against a National Front rally at Southall Town Hall, the SBS was originally established in order to provide a focus for the struggle of Asian women in the fight against racism, but became increasingly involved in defending the human rights of Asian women who are the victims of domestic violence and in campaigning against religious fundamentalism.
Contact Southall Black Sisters

More here: Gail Lewis talks about the BBWG, consciousness raising and action.


Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015



A Shabby London Suburb? A walk around the radical & working class history of Hammersmith

This walk was originally researched and drawn up by members of the West London Anarchists & Radicals group (since defunct), who guided about 30 people around the walk on Friday 3 May 2002. The walk was part of the Mayday Festival of Alternatives. The walk lasted about two hours and at the end we finished off with a few pints in one of Hammersmith’s oldest pubs, the Dove. The walk has been retrodden several times since.
Some additional information has been added by interested mudlarks with permission of the walk’s original architects.  

To contact the authors of the walk, email:

START: Hammersmith Tube Station

The most famous revolutionary in Hammersmith was William Morris, who we will encounter many times, but there is much more to our local radical history than Morris. For example, Hammersmith was a stronghold of the National Union of the Working Classes in the early 1830s; local NUWC ‘classes’ met at the Perseverance Tavern. Meetings were held here, as in other working class areas, in the lead up to the Battle of Coldbath Fields, where radicals fought a pitched battle with police in Clerkenwell. Later the local branch of the Chartist movement met a short distance from here in Hammersmith Road, many times between 1842 and 1848. Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor also lived in King Street in 1837.

Walk up Shepherds Bush Road to old Hammersmith Palais

Hammersmith Palais: The building was originally a roller skating rink and opened as the Palais in 1919. It was an important place of working class entertainment as a popular dance venue. You will no doubt remember it from the Clash song White Man in the Hammersmith Palais’. The Clash were closely associated with West London, the members of the band all living locally. The Palais closed a few years ago in dubious circumstances when the owners wanted to convert it to offices. When it was reopened and renamed Poo Na Na, the original sign was presented to a bemused Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash. It later reverted to its old name; but the Palais was demolished in 2012. The Fall played the last ever gig. When the then Tory Council gave permission for closure and demolition, radio DJ Robert Elms, whose parents met at the Palais, said “It’s all about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Private student accommodation now stands on the site.

Hammersmith Police Station (Just up Shepherds Bush Road to north.) The police station is notorious. On Christmas Eve 1990 the cops rounded up lots of Irish men for being drunk. One prisoner, Patrick Quinn, was killed in the cells by the cops, who then framed another prisoner present in the cells, fellow Irishman Malcolm Kennedy, for his murder. It took Malcolm years to clear his name.

In the late 1950s, the area between Hammersmith and Notting Hill was, at the best of times, a violent playground for gangs. Leaving aside the local warriors, it was handy for Teds from Fulham, Battersea and Elephant and Castle in the south-east who would come over for a skirmish. Violence between the various factions, the police and any unfortunate bystanders was endemic. In 1958 several policemen were injured in Hammersmith when they went to deal with a crowd of youths who were ‘creating a public nuisance’ in Fulham Palace Road.

Up Shepherds Bush Road, at no 190, was for years the old Hammersmith and Fulham Unemployed Workers Centre. Sadly now shut.

Look towards Brook Green

Brook Green was the site of St Pauls School for posh girls. The school had to stop using the public baths in 1908 as the local bad boys of Hammersmith pulled their pigtails.

Dick Turpin was known to frequent the Queens Head pub (in which you can still enjoy a pint).

Brook Green Fair: This annual event was banned in the 1820s, when such rowdy gatherings were being suppressed as they terrified the authorities and upset religious reformers because of the explosion of sex and drink that accompanied them. They also were annoying the middle classes who were colonising the villages near London to escape the Smoke.

In the 1930s Hammersmith Council planned a grand new Town Hall in the middle of Brook Green; locals protested so much they built it in King Street instead.

Look towards Hammersmith Flyover: The flyover was built in 1966-70. There were protests at the opening from nearby residents, over the traffic noise. They demanded to be rehoused.

As you walk back through Hammersmith Broadway look to your left. Here you will see the building that in the 1980s housed the offices of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) Support Group. The ALF are the militant wing of the animal rights movement, best known for freeing animals from laboratories.

There was trouble on the Broadway in the 1926 General Strike. On 6th May TUC HQ sent a panicked letter after receiving reports of a  “bad riot at Hammersmith outside OMS HQ. it is said stones were thrown and police used batons.” It seems “buses were stopped near the station, and various parts removed by the strikers. When some of the buses returned at 8.30 pm some of the occupants began to jeer at the crowd some of which became angry and boarded some buses roughly handling the drivers and conductors one of whom was badly injured” (shame). “Local fascists began to throw stones from a building near by. Later the police made a charge using their batons, and arrested forty three people only one of which was a trade unionist and he was released owing to a mistake being made.”

A People’s Plaque Remembering the battles here during the General Strike was left, guerilla-style, as near to the spot as we could. this was a laminated poster cable-tied to a lamp-post… More permanent plaques – one day…?

Shortly after this time the local National Unemployed Workers Movement branch was campaigning over the means test & the dole. The NUWM branch had 1200 members here in 1931.

Walk up Beadon Road into the square

Where Turners Florists stands was the site of the Hammersmith bookshop from 1948 -1964, which was the supplier of revolutionary and radical publications. A plaque now marks the spot.

William Morris

William Morris moved to Hammersmith in 1878, when he was already well established as a designer. In 1883 he joined Henry M. Hyndman’s Marxian Democratic Federation (later the Social Democratic Federation, or SDF). Hyndman was known by the derogatory nickname ‘socialist in a top hat’. Morris (along with others) broke with the SDF in 1884 and formed the Socialist League. In a letter dated 1st January 1885 Morris complained of Hyndman’s jingoism and sneers at foreigners, pointing out that the SDF would at best bring about a kind of Bismarckian State Socialism. He said: “I cannot stand all this, it is not what I mean by socialism either in aim or in means; I want a real revolution, a real change in Society: Society a great organic mass of well regulated forces used for the bringing about a happy life for all”.

Morris is perhaps better known today as a designer of wallpaper, but he was an important revolutionary whose view of the transformation to communism was strongly influenced by the Paris Commune. He was anti-parliamentary at a time when only the anarchists supported such views. Indeed this was to become the reason for the split in the Socialist League. For the election in November 1885 the League issued a leaflet entitled “For Whom Shall we Vote”, which concluded by urging “do not vote at all”. Two thirds of the electorate usually take his advice! Instead the leaflet explained that “the time will come when you will step in and claim your place and become the new born society of the world”. Morris combined this outlook with distaste for politicians.

We are now standing at one of the places where William Morris spoke at open-air meetings (at an intersection north of the underground). For example on 17th April 1887 his diary records “meeting fair, also a good one at Walham Green [which is in Fulham] and at our room in the evening where I lectured”. Speaking at three meetings in a single day was common for Morris at this time.

Morris speaking

In April 1886 Morris spoke there ‘at the back of the Liberal Club’, in February 1887 the local socialists started meeting there regularly. For February 7th 1887, Morris’s diary reads: “I spoke there alone for about an hour, and a very fair audience (for the place which is out of the [way]) gathered curiously quickly; a comrade counted a hundred at most. This audience characteristic of small open air meetings also quite mixed, from labourers on their Sunday lounge to ‘respectable’ people coming from church; the latter inclined to grin, the working men listening attentively trying to understand, but mostly failing to do so: a fair cheer when I ended, of course led by the three or four branch members present.”

The William Morris pub is a recent addition, replacing a market. Inside you can see pictures of the Socialist League and examples of Morris’s designs.

One cause the Hammersmith Social Democratic Federation branch supported locally before the split was that of the local costermongers (poor street traders), in 1884, after the Board of Works threatened to ban the sellers from their kerbsite market…With help from the local SDF branch they resisted. Hammersmith costermongers were eventually forced to move by King Street shopkeepers in 1886, who feared competition. They resettled in North End Road, Fulham, which still has a cheap shopping ethos today.

Walk around the corner into Beadon Road:

On the morning of 23 September 1996 Diarmuid O’Neill, an alleged IRA member, was shot dead by the cops. He was unarmed and no weapons or explosives were found on the premises. Diarmuid was shot a total of six times and as he lay bleeding to death a police officer stood on his head. With blood pouring from him he was dragged down the steps of the house to the street. Just before Diarmuid was shot, another cop was heard to shout, “shoot the fucker”. The blood was left for 2 days as a reminder to us locals.

James Tochatti

Probably here, near the approach to the Hammersmith & City Line station, stood Carmagnole House, (sometimes described as being on ‘Railway Approach’, sometimes called 7 Beadon Road). James Tochatti lived here. Born in Canada, he became a tailor, and lifelong anarchist-communist activist and lecturer (as well as writing two plays about anarchist life!). A member of the local Socialist League branch from 1886, Tochatti spoke regularly at their outdoor meetings, and wrote for Commonweal. In 1889 he helped to organise a strike at Thorneycroft’s engineering factory in Fulham, and in 1891 was arrested for causing a ‘disturbance’ at a United Shop Assistants union strike… He remained in the Socialist League after Morris and the Hammersmith Socialist Society departed, and was involved in a Hammersmith Anarchist group around 1892. Despite the Hammersmith Socialist Society’s split from the Socialist League, Tochatti remained in close contact with Morris and the Society locally. He seems to have been closer in some ways to Morris than some of his fellow anarchists in the League, disagreeing with ‘propaganda by the deed’ (the current anarchist vogue for individual bombings and attacks against state and bourgeois targets). Tochatti started a new anarchist paper, Liberty, in January 1894, partly because of unease at the incendiary line Commonweal was taking. Despite his reservations about propaganda by the deed, in April ’94 The Liberty group organised a defence campaign for a French anarchist, Theodule Meunier, who had been arrested & was awaiting extradition to France for a bombing, but Meunier was deported & sentenced to life imprisonment. Liberty attempted to maintain a dialogue between anarchists, anti-parliamentary socialists & libertarians in groups like the Independent Labour Party – at a time when divisions between these wings of the socialist scene were increasing. Sadly, Tochatti’s ill-health led to the paper’s collapse in December 1896. Around 1911 however he became active again, speaking at meetings; “his book-lined cellar under his shop…became something of a centre in Hammersmith for ‘young workmen disillusioned by the timid programmes of other parties’“ as well as old comrades. Some meetings were held at the ‘Morris Studio’, in Adie Road, Hammersmith.

See a People’s Plaque Remembering Tochatti

Tochatti later lived at 13 Beadon Rd, and 6 Hammersmith Grove. He opposed World War 1; union activist and later Communist party leader Harry Pollitt described visiting his shop in 1918 and later, and debating conscientious objection to the War, with Tochatti “alternatively favour[ing] folded arms and shooting the officers.”

There were still anarchists of this or a related scene active in Hammersmith as late as World War 2, Several were involved in workers’ organising in the transport movement, as in the East End.

If you look round the corner into Hammersmith Grove: This seems to have been a regular meeting point for demos… In May 1913: A local contingent marched from here as part of a large London-wide anti-militarist demonstration as WW1 approached.

Walk through the square cross King Street & turn left, then right on the roundabout to St Paul’s Green

Hammersmith was known as a place for free thinking and troublemakers. Hammersmith folk were involved in the Peasants Revolt of 1381: Local rebel John Pecche (a Fulham fisherman) was specifically excluded from the General Pardon. But John Norman of Hammersmith was pardoned by name.

In 1647 the New Model Army agitators, elected agents of the rank and file of the army, to put forward their political and economic grievances, were quartered in Hammersmith in the Summer. At this time the radical political and religious views in the Army were not only leading soldiers to act independently against a growing alliance between moderate parliament and the defeated king, but also to make common cause with the Levellers against Army Grandees. These latter struggles against Cromwell and Ireton came to a head in the Putney Debates in November and the Ware Mutiny that followed… The Army dissidents set up a puritan chapel, probably in Union Court, now Foreman Court off the Broadway. The Levellers also had a group & printing press here in the late 1640s.

A People’s Plaque Remembering the Agitators… put up in the Broadway

In the 16th century Hammersmith was a place of non-believers, with no churches but many taverns. In 1722, in the first count, there were 28 public houses in the Broadway area, one for every 150 residents (the oldest was probably The George, which was originally called the White Horse). The Bishop of London (from his nearby house at Fulham Palace) had suggested taking a group of heretics to Hammersmith to be burnt. St Paul’s Church was consecrated on 7th June 1630 – very late for a large Parish. Between 1757 – 1783 the Rev

Burning of a group of vagabonds accused of heresy, Paris, 1372. MS 677, folio 103 verso

Thomas Sampson presided. He protested over being required to preach on a Sunday afternoon, on one Sunday refusing to perform his duties! The current church dates from 1887.

A People’s Plaque celebrating heresy in Hammersmith – more pubs less churches!

South from here is Fulham Palace Road, leading to Fulham. Where Charing Cross hospital now stands was the site of the workhouse, which was built in 1850 to house increasing numbers of the poor under a single roof. Later it became the hospital. In December 1991, there were 2 or 3 demos over NHS cuts here.

Opposite us (on the west side of Fulham Palace Rd) is the facade of Brandenbergh House. The home of the Lord of the Manor. Later it became a post office and the interior was removed to the Geffrye Museum. King George IV’s estranged wife Queen Caroline lived at Brandenburgh House 1820-21. Died here. She had become very popular because of widespread hatred of the king, who had treated her pretty badly. When she died her funeral procession (on 14th August 1821) from Hammersmith was turned into a riotous demo, erupting into fighting and two men, carpenter Richard Honey and George Francis, a bricklayer, were shot dead at Hyde Park Corner. A memorial stone was built to them in the churchyard after collections in pubs all over London. Brandenburgh House was pulled down after Queen Caroline’s death.

A People’s Plaque Remembering Queen Caroline. Past Tense have gone soft on royalty I hear you cry!

George IV had a hard time of it from locals: Radical journalist Leigh Hunt, who lived at 7 Cornwall Road (now 16 Rowan Road, off Brook Green), was jailed in 1816 for libelling Georgie Porgie (while he was still prince regent) in his paper the Examiner.

Walk to Hammersmith Bridge to left side and go under bridge

Hammersmith Bridge: The first bridge was a toll bridge was built in 1827. The current bridge dates from 1887.

Regular public talks were given under the bridge by William Morris on Sunday mornings, who complained when the Salvation Army, who had the pitch before him, used to overrun. To the meeting they bought the Socialist League banner, designed by Walter Crane and worked by May Morris. There were also reports of the meetings being interrupted by the police. After the meetings, the Socialist League often marched to Hyde Park or Trafalgar Square. On 13th November 1887 (which became known as Bloody Sunday) 200 socialists were hurt and 100 arrested at a demo in Trafalgar Square.

Morris described Mayday as: “Above all days of the year, fitting for the protest of the disinherited against the system of robbery that shuts the door between them and a decent life”.

A number of his lectures have been published, including “How we live  and how we might live” and “The society of the future”.

A People’s Plaque we left here commemorating Morris regular speaking under the bridge…

The bridge later became a favourite target for IRA bombers. The first was planted on 29th March 1939, as one of first mainland targets. A passer spotted the bomb by who threw it in the river so it caused minimal damage. In 1996 another IRA attempt was foiled, but they succeeded in 2000 and the bridge closed for over a year.

The IRA connection, unsurprisingly in an area long known for its Irish community, goes back much further though: Michael Collins, later IRA leader in the War of Independence, lived at 5 Netherwood road (off Brook Green) in 1914-15 and worked in the Post Office Savings Bank in Blythe rd.

Gustav Holst

Walk along the river to the west to the Blue Anchor Pub: In 1893 the composer Gustav Holst took rooms in Hammersmith. He attended meetings of the Hammersmith Socialist League and became a socialist. In 1897 he became conductor of Hammersmith Socialist Choir. Later, in 1905, he became musical director of St Pauls Girls School (remember those pigtails), as he needed the money. Although he composed works for the posh girls, he found them to be hopeless, so he preferred teaching working class boys at Morley College. He is best known for writing The Planet Suite, but he wrote the Hammersmith Suite in this pub, in memory of his socialist days.

Walk into Furnival Gardens and stop

Furnival Gardens: Originally the Creek ran from Stamford Brook to the river, and this was the site of slums, factories and wharves, an area known as Little Wapping. On the riverside was a local centre of heavy industry: Oil mills, lead works and Boat building. Behind this teeming slums where workers lived, in overcrowded and terrible conditions. Narrow alleys wove between factories, sheds and mills, each with their fumes and effluent.

In 1846 the District Medical Officer wrote: “Almost every house is visited with epidemic diarrhoea, so violent as to be mistaken for Asiatic cholera”. The same report recorded that: “The scanty supply of water, the crowded state of the dwellings, the overflow of privies and cesspools, all combine to poison and destroy the health of the poorer inhabitants of Hammersmith and are allowed to create and perpetuate more than half of the diseases which are incidental to human nature itself.”

The Creek was filled in in 1936 but the Furnival Gardens were not created until created in 1951.

Walk under the underpass down Macbeth Street and left through Riverside Gardens

The slums stretched from the river to King Street, an area now bisected by the A4. Histories of the area comment on the stark contrast between the slums and the grand buildings in King Street.

Riverside Gardens was part of the homes fit for heroes building program as slum clearance by the Council and completed in 1928. Neighbouring Aspen Gardens was built for returning soldiers after the 2nd World War and was opened in 1948 by Labour Minister for Health Aneurin Bevan. At the fifty years celebration a plaque was unveiled by Michael Foot to his mentor, Bevan.

The Aspen Gardens estate was the first to defy a local council and vote against voluntary stock transfer in the 1980’s.

Walk to Hammersmith Town Hall

The Town Hall was built in the 1930’s, when the creek was filled in.

Hammersmith first had a Labour council in 1937 and, save for a few short periods, it remained Labour – till 2006. The first black mayor, Randolph Berrisford, was appointed in 1975.

The Council and the health authority compete to be the largest employer locally. There have, of course, been many demonstrations here and strikes amongst council workers. One we remember was the nursery workers strike, when the Council decided in the early 1990’s to close all nursery provision. A couple of council workers scaled the town hall, removed the corporate red flag, and gave it to the striking nursery workers. It was last seen shredded on the front page of the local paper.

Walk along King Street to the Hampshire Pub

Hampshire Pub: this street was previously Hampshire Hog Lane, which ran into the slums behind, close to New Street. Formerly called the Hampshire Hog. In November 1905 it opened as a social (temperance) club for working men. A mock parliament was established here in 1906 and by 1910 it was debating a ‘Poor Law Amendment Bill’ and whether there could be a socialist government in office, but not in power.

Walk down King Street to the Bull statue

Hammersmith first returned a Labour MP in 1924. Prior to that it’s most famous MP had the great name of William Bull, who practised as a solicitor in the family firm of Bull and Bull! Bull was a Tory who supported votes for Women, and an egotist. The statute of the bull was moved here from the Black Bull Inn in Holborn in 1904. The gates of the park were erected in Bull’s memory in 1933.

Walk down King Street to Black Lion Lane

The corner of Weltje Road, which we have just passed, was another of William Morris’s public speaking haunts.

The Radical Club, which was located on King Street, although we have not been able to discover exactly where, was another regular meeting place for the Socialist League. Morris spoke here, in January 1887 he described the place: “The room was crowded, and of course our socialist friends there, my speech was well-received, but I thought the applause rather hollow as the really radical part of the audience had clearly no ideas beyond the ordinary party shibboleths, and were quite untouched by socialism; they seemed to me a very discouraging set of men…” Morris class origins emerge at times in his patronising tone, as he continues: “The frightful ignorance and want of impressibility of the average English working man floors me at times.”

There were two other local Radical Clubs, in Overstone Road and the Broadway, in the 1870s.

Also In King Street was the old Hammersmith Workhouse: After 1845 it was used for men and children only, as families were split up. Women were sent to Fulham Workhouse.

Look West towards Stamford Brook: The son of the anarchist sympathiser and impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, Lucien, lived here, as did the Russian anarchist Sergius Stepniak. A rarely used railway branch line ran from Stamford Brook to South Acton. On a fateful day in 1895 Stepniak was killed by a train whilst crossing the line. Given the infrequency of the trains, this was almost certainly an accident, although some authorities suggest he committed suicide. He had fled Russia in 1878 after being involved in the assassination of the Tsarist chief of police, and at the time of his death was living in nearby Bedford Park, and involved with Hammersmith Socialists. 1000s attended his funeral in Woking Crematorium. A footbridge was built over the line as a result.

Look down King Street

The trendy Hart bar, previously the White Hart pub, was a meeting place for Protestant dissenters in 1706.

Walk down Black Lion Lane on left side. Stop at the French restaurant.

In this street is the former home of MP Stephen Milligan, another radical Tory, at least in sexual practices if not political life. In 1994 Milligan was found dead, tied to a chair, wearing women’s underwear with a plastic bag over his head and a satsuma in his mouth. No one does it like a Tory MP!

satsumas were handed out on the original walk at this point! 

Here’s a People’s Plaque remembering Milligan’s heroic effort, which never got hung for one reason and another…

Unusually, St Peters Church was built in 1829 to attract rich residents, rather than serve an existing population. One of those attracted more recently is the doyen of the Workers Revolutionary Party, the Trotskyist actor Vanessa Redgrave, who still lives in St Peters Square (behind).

Walk under the underpass to the continuation of Black Lion Lane, at bottom turn right into Hammersmith Terrace and stop at No 8.

May Morris, HH Sparling, Emery Walker and George Bernard Shaw

This street has no less than 3 blue plaques, but there isn’t one on no 8, the home of May Morris, daughter of William and an important socialist in her own right. May later edited her father’s Collected Works. She was in love with George Bernard Shaw. Whilst he flirted with her, the love was unrequited and she later married Harry Sparling, another member of the Socialist League. Perhaps there is no plaque, because she was a woman?

Here’s a Plaque remembering May Morris we made ourselves and hung up to redress the balance…

At no 7 lived Emery Walker, another member of the Socialist League and a founder of the Doves Press (he had previously lived at no 3). A typographer and engraver, Walker joined his near neighbour William Morris in typographical experiments (which led to the founding of the Kelmscott Press), then in the Arts and Crafts movement, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and the local SDF and Socialist League branches. Walker served as the League branch secretary, organising the regular Sunday evening lectures. In 1900, Walker and

T Cobden-Sanderson founded the Doves Press at no 1 Hammersmith Terrace, (Cobden-Sanderson had begun bookbinding at 15 Upper Mall under the name of the Doves Bindery in 1893). Walker and Cobden-Sanderson didn’t get on, however, and Walker left the Press in 1909.

No 3 was also later the home of Edward Johnston, a “gifted but eccentric” calligrapher, who designed the type for the Doves Press books.

His neighbour and fellow socialist, T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, was a burned-out barrister whom Janey Morris thought capable of something therapeutic with his hands. And so the Doves Bindery and Press came about, first at 15 Upper Mall and later at 1 Hammersmith Terrace. After Walker left the Press, it gradually declined. One night in 1915, as blood flowed at the second Battle of Ypres, Cobden-Sanderson, by then a burned-out bookbinder, threw all the Doves type (from which the Kelmscott Chaucer and Bible were composed) off Hammersmith Bridge, to spite his old partner Emery Walker (with whom he had fallen out). The business closed down soon after.

Walk east along the river

In May 1906 a demonstration was held at Clare Lodge, the home of Mrs Dora Montefiore which was located near here. She was refusing to pay income tax as a protest at the exclusion of women from the parliamentary franchise’. The following month a further demonstration in her support was attended by 60 working class women who had walked all the way from Canning Town in the East End to lend their support.

Here’s a People’s Plaque we hung up to remember Dora Montefiore and her fellow suffragettes

It had been Sylvia Pankhurst who, in 1905, had helped to found the Fulham branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (the Suffragettes). William Morris of course had been an early influence on Sylvia, both politically and artistically. Later her influence was to be felt in Hammersmith, when a workers’ committee was formed at local factory Davidsons under the influence of her Workers Socialist Federation and the Russian Revolution.

A painting by Camille Pissarro contrasts the village of Chiswick with the heavy industry of Hammersmith, looking from Chiswick down the river. Ironically it is now in a private collection.

Continue along the river to Kelmscott House

The meeting hall at Kelmscott House

Morris lived in Kelmscott House from 1878 until his death in 1896, naming it after his country home Kelmscott Manor. The house is now owned by the William Morris Society and is open to the public as a museum on Thursdays and Saturdays. Inside you can see the printing press used by Morris, which is still used occasionally. On this was printed the Commonweal, the League’s paper. The second issue contained Engels “England in 1845 and England in 1885”, later published in “The Condition of the Working Class”. Other contributors included Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son in law, Shaw, Stepniak, and Belfort Bax.

George Bernard Shaw, echoing Morris’s views, said of the house: “everything that was necessary was clean and handsome; everything else was beautiful and beautifully presented”.

In 1885 Morris established the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League with Eleanor Marx and her husband Edward Aveling, among others. Meetings were held in the Kelmscott House Coach House. Originally a stables attached to 26 Upper Mall,  Morris had it converted to a meeting room; it was described as unheated and cold in the winter. Speakers and lecturers here included:

• George Bernard Shaw, a Fabian. Reading Marx’s Capital in French had an overwhelming effect on him and he felt that he had discovered what was wrong with the world and why he was so miserable in it.

• The Russian anarchist, Prince Kropotkin, a founder of the Freedom newspaper. He maintained his independence by neither joining the League nor writing for the Commonweal.

• Stepniak, another anarchist, was a compelling speaker, but not always comprehensible.

• Lucy Parsons, the US Black revolutionary, and later founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (as well as being the widow of the Chicago anarchist Albert Parsons, executed in 1885 after being framed for a bomb attack on police). She was a guest of the Socialist League in 1888 when she came on a speaking tour. She stayed at Kelmscott House.

• Socialist Annie Besant, one of the organisers of the 1888 East End matchwomens’ strike also spoke here.

The audience often included included figures such as Oscar Wilde, HG Wells and WB Yeats.

The League was increasing split between the ‘parliamentary’ (Eleanor Marx/Aveling) and anti-parliamentary (Morris) factions. In 1888 the anarchists seemed to be taking charge of the League and Aveling and Eleanor Marx split off. In 1890 Morris himself left the Socialist League and founded the Hammersmith Socialist Society, which again held their meetings here. His last lecture had as its title “One Socialist Party” and was given on 9th January 1896. On 3rd October that year he died. His body was taken up Rivercourt Road and by train to Kelmscott Manor.

Shortly after his death the Socialist Society folded, in December 1896.

But in May 1911, a Hammersmith Socialist Society revived, as a result of a direct action-oriented split from the Social Democratic Party (the old SDF). In the 1930s Guy Aldred’s United Socialist Movement had some support in London among old adherents of this long-defunct second Hammersmith Socialist Society.

Cobden-Sanderson lived at no 15 Upper Mall; here the Doves Bindery and Press were started. 

Kelmscott Press was located opposite the Dove pub at no 16 Upper Mall. Over the five years between its foundation and Morris’ death in 1896 it produced 52 hand-printed works, most with type and ornaments designed by Morris.

This ends our walk. But we can well imagine Morris, Eleanor Marx and the printers retiring to the Dove for a pint or a coffee!



This walk is available as a pamphlet, ‘A Shabby London Suburb’ which can be bought from the publications page on our website.

And why ‘A Shabby London Suburb’ eh? Bit rude?
It’s from the opening chapter of William Morris’ classic utopian vision of a post-revolutionary communist society, ‘News From Nowhere’. The book opens with an argument ‘Up at ‘he League’ – the Hammersmith Socialist League’s meeting hall, at Kelmscott House ? – as to what Britain would look like ‘after the revolution’. Dissatisfied with the debate, the narrator storms out into the night:

“he, like others, stewed discontentedly, while in self-reproachful mood he turned over the many excellent and conclusive arguments which, though they lay at his fingers’ ends, he had forgotten in the just past discussion.  But this frame of mind he was so used to, that it didn’t last him long, and after a brief discomfort, caused by disgust with himself for having lost his temper (which he was also well used to), he found himself musing on the subject-matter of discussion, but still discontentedly and unhappily.  “If I could but see a day of it,” he said to himself; “if I could but see it!”

As he formed the words, the train stopped at his station, five minutes’ walk from his own house, which stood on the banks of the Thames, a little way above an ugly suspension bridge.  He went out of the station, still discontented and unhappy, muttering “If I could but see it! if I could but see it!” but had not gone many steps towards the river before (says our friend who tells the story) all that discontent and trouble seemed to slip off him.

It was a beautiful night of early winter, the air just sharp enough to be refreshing after the hot room and the stinking railway carriage.  The wind, which had lately turned a point or two north of west, had blown the sky clear of all cloud save a light fleck or two which went swiftly down the heavens.  There was a young moon halfway up the sky, and as the home-farer caught sight of it, tangled in the branches of a tall old elm, he could scarce bring to his mind the shabby London suburb where he was, and he felt as if he were in a pleasant country place—pleasanter, indeed, than the deep country was as he had known it.”

He has been transported to the future, to a world of free communist existence…
You can read this excellent vision of the future as seen from the past, for free, here

“Go on living while you may, striving, with whatsoever pain and labour needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness.”

Yes, surely! and if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.”


If you liked this walk:

why not have a look at our other online radical history walks


All this week in London radical history, 1926: fighting in Southwark during the General Strike

The 1926 General Strike in Southwark

In May 1926, the leaders of the Trades Union Congress called a General Strike. Nearly 2 million workers all over the country joined the strike, in support of a million miners, locked out by mine-owners for refusing to accept wage cuts of up to 25 per cent, after the ending of the Government’s coal subsidy. The General Council of the TUC didn’t want to call the Strike: they were pushed into it for fear of workers taking action themselves without them…

Nine days later, afraid of the losing control of the situation, in the face of massive working class solidarity, the TUC General Council called the Strike off. Since then the General Strike has entered into the mythology of the working class and the left in Britain.

This text describes some of the events of the General Strike in the then Metropolitan Boroughs of Bermondsey, Camberwell and Southwark, now united into the London Borough of Southwark.

Scenes of clashes between strikers and police at the Elephant and Castle and surrounding areas were immortalised in photographs taken at the time, and the Thames seemed to many as a barricade between the plutocrats of the City of London and the insurgent working class south of the river.

The General Strike was of course a massive defeat for the working class. The TUC General Council capitulated; many of the strikers were forced to accept lower wages add conditions: the miners in whose support the Strike was called were eventually starved into submission.

This text was originally published by Southwark Trades Council: unsurprisingly then it concentrates mostly on the activities of local Trades Councils and unions. It describes some of the main events & the atmosphere reasonably well. 

The TUC leaders sold out the Strike, but despite their anger, support for the miners and resentment towards the TUC, neither the Councils of Action, the Trades Councils, the militant left, nor the insurgent workers they claimed to represent, significantly broke out of the official structures, to either broaden the Strike while it was on or to continue it after it had been called off.

Party-obsessed lefties like Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein in their “Marxism & the Trade Union Struggle” have argued for nearly 80 years that what was lacking was a strong centralised Communist Party to direct the struggle. The Communist Party of Great Britain that existed in 1926 was small and weak, for many reasons, including its own rightwing idealogy, the complex history of British communism, the social & economic conditions of the time, and state repression immediately before 1926. But clearly no party however strong or centralised is a substitute for a working class organising for itself. When the union leaders called the strike off, millions of workers, after an initial upsurge, obeyed, whatever their feelings. Workers told not to strike or to go back to work even before the Strike ended, did as they were told. And the CPGB in fact made little attempt to challenge the TUC running of events in fact calling for “All power to the General Council.” There’s an an analysis of some of the reasons for the failure of the Strike here

… and here’s a roundup of events in London during the Strike

1000s of working people fought the cops and scabs for nine days, all over the country. But only by breaking out of TUC control and extending the struggle on their own behalf could the outcome have been any different.


the national scene

On May 1st 1926 the main industrial dispute in the country was the battle between the miners and the coal-owners, and it was this battle which was to lead to the calling of the General Strike. This dispute was the focus of the power struggle between the owners and the workers. In the coal industry the owners had, for over a year prior to May 1926, been attempting to force reductions in wages and increases in hours worked. On July 31st 1925 the Tory government was forced, in return for industrial peace, to offer a nine month subsidy to the coal industry, a condition of which was the withdrawal by the coal-owners of notices of wage reductions. This subsidy ran out in April 1926 and immediately the coal-owners posted lock-out notices in the face of the total refusal by the miners to accept any reduction in wages or increase in hours worked: “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day.”

By this time the masses of the workers were calling for a General Strike in support of the miners’ struggle, which they saw as their own. They forced this view on the General Council of the TUC, who proposed “coordinated action” – and this proposal was endorsed on May lst at Farringdon Hall by a conference of Trade Union Executives representing 4 million workers. The leaders of the Trades Union Congress were still intent on negotiating with the Government. The government, however, broke off negotiations on the morning of May 3rd on account of the action taken by the printers of the Daily Mail ~ who refused to print the editorial which attacked the steps taken by the Trade Unions. The leaders of the TUC were left with no alternative but to call a General Strike to begin on May 4th.


That day-saw a response to the call which surprised everyone. All transport ground to a halt, no papers appeared, manufacturing industries stopped, workers who were not called out by their unions came out independently (Note 1), and many who were not even in a union joined the strike.

Of the two sides, the Government was definitely the better prepared. Since the previous year they had been working to ensure that they would be the victors in any protracted industrial struggle. In September 1925 they formed the ‘Organisation for Maintenance of Supplies’ (OMS) composed of upstanding members of the middle class, run by retired army officers. Its function was to collect lists of volunteers who would be willing to run the country in the event of a General Strike. On May lst the Government declared a State of Emergency, which suspended civil liberties and allowed them greater freedom to arrest and imprison so-called ‘dissidents’.


On the other hand, the organisation of the TUC was totally inadequate for the requirements of a General Strike, which could only mean that they thought, or indeed hoped, that the strike would be lost very quickly. At a local level, however, the Trades Councils responded by organising in an impromptu but efficient fashion. They formed themselves into Councils of Action and altogether there were 131 of these throughout the country.

The various functions taken over by the Councils of Action included: control of traffic, picketing factories that were on strike to ensure that the “volunteers” didn’t get in, picketing factories not on strike in an attempt to persuade the workers to join the stoppage, distribution of food and information, and alleviation of cases of great distress. In many places the Councils of Action became the only authority, the nearest thing to local control and autonomy in the history of modern Britain. And they had the support of the vast majority of workers in most cases. Their main headache was the constant need to convince workers who hadn’t yet officially been called out to go back to work.

This spontaneous development of the Councils of Action worried the Government more than anything else, and it was these organisations that were subjected to the toughest repression by the police. The possession of a newsletter produced by a Council of Action became a crime that could lead to two or three months hard labour – whilst the rather tame organ of the TUC, ‘The British Worker’, which urged the strikers to go for walks in the country, was allowed to continue printing after an initial five hour stoppage.


After days of secret negotiations with the Government, the TUC informed Baldwin, the Tory Prime Minister, that the strike was off, and the news was broadcast at 1 pm on May 12th. The news shattered the strikers and the Councils of Action, who saw the strike gaining in strength every day and the probability of success with it.

It seems it was precisely this strength that intimidated some members of the TUC General Council such as J.Thomas, who said he “dreaded” that the strike would “get out of the hands of responsible executives”.

When the strikers discovered that the settlement had not included any guarantees about reinstatement they initially decided to stay out, and on May 13th there were actually more workers on strike than on any other day. But the end had come and the workers were left to barter with their individual employers over the terms of their return, with the result that many people didn’t get their job back and many others had to “eat dirt” in order to do so.

Only the miners were left on strike, remaining out until November when they were finally starved into submission and forced to accept the owners’ terms.

Fighting at the Elephant & Castle during the Strike

The strike: south of the river

In 1926 the borough of Southwark was very different to the one that we know now. In the area presently covered by Southwark there were the three Metropolitan Boroughs of Southwark, Bermondsey and Camberwell.

The major industries in the three boroughs then were the docks, transport services, engineering works and printing. The workers in these industries were well organised, as shown by the example of Hoe & Co. Hoe and Company Ltd, were a printing press manufacturers in Borough Road, Southwark. They employed 900 men, and the printing engineering workers were amongst the best organised and the most militant in South London. There were three large engineering firms near the Elephant: Hoe’s, Waygood-Otis, and Durants.

In early January 1926, the 900 employees at Hoe’s began an ‘unofficial’ 10 week strike to protest the hiring of non-union workers, and to demand a £1 per week pay increase. The employers threatened a national lockout in the engineering sector involving 500,000 men. (South London Press, March 26 1926) And the workers marched to the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street to protest against the threatened lockout.

During the General Strike the workers were militant in their picketing of the firm. Stan Hutchins reports that only 20 apprentices remained at work and that they later contributed to a 100 per cent turn out.


Unemployment in the three boroughs around the national average of 12 per cent. The situation of the unemployed was hard. In 1926 unemployment benefit was about 15 shillings per week for a single man. This rate applied for 26 weeks only, after which unemployed received Poor Law Relief administered by the Board of Guardians for the Borough. After this was exhausted many of the unemployed in Southwark were sent to Labour Camps at Hollesey Bay and Belmont in Surrey, where they were forced to work under overseers.

A statement in the House of Commons (reported in the South London Observer, Wednesday March 24th, 1926) disclosed that one man in seven, and one woman in three were refused benefit at the Labour Exchange, and left to starve or apply for Poor Law Relief. The unemployed also had to sign on every day of the week.

The National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWCM) was very active in the area in organising unemployed workers before and during May 1926. Membership was very high in Southwark and meetings were held outside the Labour Exchange, where speakers would address the people waiting to collect their money. Many members of the organised unemployed were sent to prison during the period 1925-6 because of their political activities.


There were, however, noticeable differences between the three boroughs, especially in the question of social conditions and political organisation, being dominated by different political parties.

Southwark was the smallest of the three, and it also had the worst and most densely populated housing of any metropolitan borough. Its population density was 160 people to the acre, compared with 77 for Bermondsey and a very low 59 for Camberwell. The conditions in one part of Southwark are described in ‘The Book of Walworth’ published in 1925: “It is in the blocks especially in and adjacent to the New Kent Road that we have the greatest concentration of population. Here in streets that are little more than gulleys when their narrow width is compared with the great height of the buildings, live hundreds of people with no outlook in front except the gulley, and none in the rear except a still narrower gully into which at one time inconsiderate tenants threw their rubbish to everyone’s inconvenience.”

On the other hand the borough of Camberwell, with its coat of arms emblazoned with the motto “All’s well”, could, in its official guide book of 1926, proudly boast of the quality of life that its inhabitants enjoyed, with magnificent green spaces, fine educational institutions and other attractions offered to people wishing to move into the area. The handbook states that the council had purchased land for housing up to the tune of £300,000 and mentioned in particular a new estate of 7 houses and 174 flats that were occupied by “the more thrifty and respectable members of the class for whom they were intended” and that at a rent of 10 shillings to ll shillings per week, the estate was more than self supporting with the account showing a “substantial surplus” after paying loans and interest etc.


Bermondsey Borough Council was distinguished not only from the other two but also from the vast majority of the metropolitan boroughs by the fact that it had a Labour controlled council. lt was also distinguished by its policies, many of which ran counter to the London County Council, with which it was having a continual running battle.

One particular fight was highlighted in the October 1925 edition of the Bermondsey Labour Magazine. The council had applied for permission to build a housing project covering four acres; the LCC first tried to block it by withholding permission until it was almost too late, but then gave permission for the same amount of dwellings to be built in an area of one and a half acres, ordering the council to sell the rest of the land. Some facts about the health of the people show the way that the Bermondsey administration was changing the quality of life in the borough. During the three years from 1921, while the Independent Labour Party (ILP) had been in the majority, the average death rate dropped by 30 per cent and the infantile death rate dropped from 16 deaths per thousand to 76, whilst the death of mothers in became the lowest of all London boroughs.


Obviously the political and economic structure of the boroughs colored their response to the General Strike, and it is noticeable that the three boroughs had very contrasting attitudes during that period.

Southwark Council’s response was rather limited, not in intensity but certainly in its democratic base. The mayor was the subject of a special meeting called on May 19th “to consider the action of the Lord Mayor Alderman J.R.Want”, who’d called off all the council meetings, taking power into his own hands, and had sent threatening letters to all local authority workers warning them not to strike. A motion regretting this action as “thereby depriving the elected councillors of their right to share in the government of the borough” was defeated & an amendment expressing “entire confidence in the Lord Mayor” was passed by 49 votes to 14.

Camberwell Borough Council fully supported the Government against the strikers, it was cooperative with the Emergency Powers Act and its functionaries, and it appointed the Treasurer and Town Clerk as the officers in charge of food and fuel.

Of the three boroughs it is not surprising that Bermondsey showed the closest cooperation between Council and strikers. As soon as the strike was announced, “the Borough Council, being Labour, formed an emergency sub-committee which was in close touch with the Council of Action and both the Town Halls [ie Rotherhithe and Bermondsey] were passed over to the Trades Council during the strike, which were used for strike meetings and strike committees.”

In fact, the Council in effect suspended itself and delegated all its powers to this Emergency Committee, which consisted entirely of Labour members.

A comparison of the minutes of the London councils just before and after the strike shows very clearly how they responded to the situation.

Various local authorities passed motions and then circulated them to other local authorities to be endorsed. Of the many, two reflect their contrasting nature. Hackney requested all other Councils to join them in urging the Prime Minister to ensure that after the strike the local authorities would be able to discriminate against the strikers in favour of blacklegs. Southwark and Camberwell both agreed to endorse that Motion. However, the motion from Bethnal Green condemning the action of the government in breaking off negotiations with the TUC on May 2nd was consigned to the waste paper bin; whereas Bermondsey’s Emergency Committee seems to have passed a resolution in support of the Bethnal Green Trades Council motion. The Government had to appoint a retired Army Captain as its Food and Fuel Agent in Bermondsey, because cooperation was not forthcoming from the Council.


At the outset of the General Strike responsibility for the coordination of the strike in the locality fell to the lot of the Trades Councils, which were in the main very unprepared. Bert Edwards writes about Southwark that: “It’s hard to say how the Trades Councils became the centre of things. The only thing you can say is that the publicity had indicated that the Trades Council would be ‘the centre … We had no machinery set up … we didn’t have a typewriter or a duplicator.” There had been a lot of general debate throughout the country about the possibility of a strike and this of course had been a subject of discussion in the Trades Councils. However the actual declaration of the strike on May 3rd caught everyone on the hop. “On the first day of the strike I went around to the Trades Council offices – and I saw to my amazement that there was quite a crowd of people wanting advice. Nobody knew what they had to do.” However, “there was immediate response to the appeal that the Trades Council turn itself into a Council of Action. The Council of Action formed sub-committees dealing with press and propaganda, a contact committee for keeping in touch with the TUC, a finance committee and an enquiries committee.”

We have very little information on how Camberwell Trades Council organised themselves. There is however a letter to the TUC from G.W.Silverside, General Secretary of the Dulwich Divisional Labour Party in which he explains that at a meeting on May 3rd it was decided to collect money and distribute literature. Also “the question of the possibility of duplication arose” and Mr. Silverside explained that he had been in touch with the “Secretary of the Camberwell Trades Council who informs me that there are three duplicators available and that they are prepared to duplicate anything that may be necessary.”

In Bermondsey, where the great majority of the population of the Borough were behind the strike, the cooperation between the Borough Council and the Trades Council was much closer than in the other two boroughs. The Trades Council formed a Council of Action which was given the use of the two Town Halls which were put to use every day as meeting rooms, committee rooms and for giving out strike pay. Each afternoon meetings of strikers’ wives were held, and each evening there were mass meetings of strikers, “always packed to suffocation, with hundreds, sometimes thousands, unable to get in.” The Council of Action “sat continuously from day to day and endeavoured to coordinate all local efforts for forwarding the strike.” It also had the use of the local Labour Party offices and their stocks of paper, typewriters and office equipment.


The production of news-sheets was a very important part of the work of the Councils of Action. All national newspapers had ceased publication on the first day of the strike, although some managed to produce limited editions with scab labour. These were not widely distributed and of course were in opposition to the strike. The Government also produced a news-sheet, ‘The British Gazette’, under the editorship of Winston Churchill but this was naturally very hostile to the strike and carried only very biased or false information. The local papers in South London were also opposed to the strike. The ‘South London Press’ (SLP) was the most widely distributed paper in the Southwark area. When it was unable to produce a full issue it came out with a single sheet ‘Strike Bulletin’.

On May 7th its front page, announced: “We offer no apology for issuing this week the South London Press at half its normal size. The fact is, we are under a double obligation – firstly to our readers to give them as full a statement as possible in the circumstances which led to the country being plunged into a deplorable strike and unwarrantably involving this journal in the dispute, second to our Advertisers …”

The paper constantly referred to pickets as “hooligans”, “gangs of ruffians” etc. On May 7th it reported that “A great deal of trouble was caused by women who, shouting hysterically, flung themselves into the fray”. Headlines on May 14th announced “How Rowdyism was overcome by Police and Specials”, followed by praise of the cheerful way in which the uniformed forces restored order with their three-foot riot-sticks.

A scab car overturned at Blackfriars

The issue of Friday 21st carries an article on “The SLP in strike time – how it met the great blow against Liberty and Freedom”. The report states that by the night of Wednesday 5th all composing and mechanical staff of SLP were out “most of them unwillingly”. The following week the SLP was without linotype operators except one lion apprentice and two compositor apprentices. All nine members of the machine and stereotyping staff were on strike. So the directors and four of their sons, together with ‘volunteers’, produced the paper and distributed it by using disguised vans.

The only other form of communication was the BBC radio service, but this was entirely under the control of the Government.

There were a number of publications produced by the Councils of Action with varying degrees of success. This was because the Government tried to suppress the strikers’ news-sheets and prison sentences were handed out to those producing, selling or even possessing such publications.

In Camberwell at least two publications were brought out. The South London Observer of Saturday May 15th reports that a man was convicted of selling the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’ which was produced in Central Buildings, High Street, Peckham, by Ernest Baldwin (Secretary and Agent for the Peckham Labour Party) and James McLean. The paragraph headed “French workers refuse to blackleg” was thought by the court to be provocative. Police Inspector Hider in his evidence stated that it would cause “a certain feeling among certain people”.

Inspector Hider also saw copies of the ‘Camberwell Strike Bulletin’ also produced at Central Buildings on a duplicator by Eddy Jope, who denied any connection with the Peckham Labour Bulletin.

Southwark Council of Action also produced a news sheet but this was done with some difficulty. To start with they had no duplicator or typewriter, but Tommy Strudwick, a member of the Council Of Action from the National Union of Railwaymen managed to provide this equipment. It was hidden away in a recess in one of his room but after only a few issues the police raided his house and found it. He was arrested and sentenced to two months’ hard labour for spreading disaffection. Strudwick was also involved with two other publications, called ‘Juice’ and ‘The Young Striker’.

Bermondsey Council of Action was much better prepared than the other two. They not only had the stocks of paper, typewriters and office equipment belonging to the Labour Party, but also those belonging to the Borough Council. They produced a daily news-sheet, 6000 copies of which were distributed from seven official points. Much of the information for the Bulletin was collected by Dr. Alfred Salter, the Labour MP for Bermondsey. He spent much of his time during the strike collecting “every scrap of authentic news available in the House of Commons and from the TUC head office, and reported it in detail to the nightly meetings in the Bermondsey Town hall” or phone it in for the news-sheet in the afternoon. According to Fenner Brockway of the ILP Bermondsey was probably the best informed centre in the whole country during the nine days of the strike.”


The three Boroughs were strategically very significant during the General Strike. Bermondsey included the Surrey Commercial Docks. Camberwell was important because it housed Tillings Bus Co., one of the largest in London, (1200 people worked here, making it one of the biggest local employers) and many of the main roads from the south coast passed through the borough. Southwark’s significance lay in the Elephant and Castle, which was the meeting of six major roads which were used by many bus routes and by lorries coming in from the docks and the south.

The police were often evident at the Elephant chasing the people away, by riding at them swinging their long truncheons – but the crowd would reform. According to Stan Hutchins there were stewards from the Council of Action, distinguished by red arm bands, who tried to ensure that only traffic with permits from the TUC were allowed through, but many blacklegging volunteers would try to force their way through, and this led to several occasions of violence and even some instances of death. The Sunday Worker on May 9th reported that a volunteer driver who panicked when the crowd tried to stop him, knocked down a motor cyclist and drove onto the pavement, killing two people. On another occasion a bus driven by a blackleg and escorted by police and special constables was stopped by the strikers, emptied of its passengers, and set on fire.

Another bus met this fate in St. George’s Road (just north of the Elephant & Castle) where a No.12 on its way to Dulwich was seized and burned. All in all, the bus service, even with the help of the many volunteers (including students from Guys Hospital and Dulwich College who were recorded as heartily laying into strikers, shouting: “Up College!”) was very limited. [3]

By May 5th it was reported that forty-seven General Omnibus vehicles had been immobilised and, according to a TUC intelligence report, Lord Ashfield, Chairman of the General Omnibus Company, was resisting Government pressure to get More buses on the road. He was only willing to allow the oldest type out because of the danger from volunteer drivers and pickets.

The trams were in the main kept off the roads, but there was an attempt to bring them out of Camberwell Depot on Wednesday May 5th. This was possible once local electricity generating stations had been brought into use with the help of naval ratings. However a large group of strikers and their wives had gathered outside the depot and even the very large numbers of police and OMS could not stop them from smashing the tram windows and pushing it back. The British Worker (the daily paper put out during the Strike by the TUC) reported: “BANNED TRAMS SCENE: An unsuccessful attempt was made shortly after four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon to run LCC tramcars from the Camberwell depot.

Earlier in the day two lorries with higher officials of the tramways Department and OMS recruits arrived at the Depot, where a strong force of police had been posted.

A large crowd, including tramwaymen, their wives and sympathisers, collected, and when the first car came out of the Depot gates in Camberwell Green there was a hostile demonstration.

Some arrests were made. Following this incident the cars were driven back in to the Depot to the accompaniment of loud cheers.” (British Worker, 5th May.) [4]

Buses were also stoned in Camberwell on the Saturday night (8th May).

There was also rioting in Tower Bridge Road, in fact there seems to have been fighting here several times. 89 people were hurt in one police baton charge here.

No vehicle could proceed far without a permit issued by the Councils of Action. Main roads were barricaded and cars which did not have authorisation turned back. If a driver attempted to defy the strikers, his car would soon be lying on its side. Bermondsey Labour MP Dr Salter (a staunch supporter of the strike) only just missed this experience. He was driving down the Old Kent Road without the usual Council of Action symbol on his windscreen: strikers on the kerb threw stones which broke the car’s windows and, as it slowed down, they rushed into the road yelling “Throw ’em over.” However they apologised when they recognised Salter (a popular figure locally) The car was speeded on with the cry of “Good old Alf!” [5]


This wasn’t the only incident reported in Camberwell. Charlie Le Grande, a striker from Stockwell who received his strike pay from the Camberwell Bus Depot talks about the huge public meetings held at the triangle near the Eaton Arms and at Peckham Rye. [6] Another eye-witness account describes the police activity during a public meeting at Camberwell Green as terrifying. He was ten years old at the time. He had been taken by his father and was standing on the edge of the meeting only to see waves of police with drawn truncheons marching on the people, who broke and ran after repeated baton charges.

It wasn’t only on the streets that the strikers were subjected to attacks from the police. On the 6th May police invaded the Bricklayers Arms, a pub on the Old Kent Road used as a meeting place by the National Union of Railwaymen members working from the Bricklayers’ Arms Depot (an important centre of picketing), and arrested strikers. On May 7th the police raided another pub nearby, the Queen’s Head, and it was reported to the House of Commons by Dr. Haden-Guest, Labour MP for Southwark, that police had attacked people in the pub and had later chased and attacked women and children in the street. [7]

Another important area of activity during the strike was the Surrey Dock. Two thousand men were employed here, and yet only seven dockers turned up for work on the first day of the strike. Lock gate staff continued to work normally, and electric and hydraulic power was kept going by one foreman, but there were no tugs operating. and three ships with food stuffs were held up with no-one to unload them.

As a bonus – the Transport and General Workers Union reported a response of “wonderful solidarity” from the Port of London Authority clerical and supervisory staff in the Surrey Dock – their first-ever strike. The gates of the dock were effectively closed by a very strong mass picket stationed there from the beginning of the strike. The need to open the docks soon became acute as food began to get short in London, but it seemed an impossible task for the Government, given the large pickets at the Surrey Dock.

“Eighty men taken to the riverside to unload foodstuffs on May 7th refused to move without protection from a large and hostile crowd, the police protection was so long in arriving that when it had arrived the eighty men were found to be missing and the cargo was still awaiting their attention”. Later on, a party of Naval ratings were put into Surrey Dock, followed by volunteers brought in from Westminster by boat, who spent the weekend unloading food stuffs to be taken further up river on barges.


Tooley Street, which saw heavy picketing every day, was also the scene of solid resistance to the police and blacklegs and on Thursday May 6th there was a police baton charge that led to thirty-two arrests. Here too the government were determined to open Hays Wharf and ferried in blackleg labour, mainly undergraduates from Oxford and Cambridge.

As a group, students were some of the most active blacklegs. On Thursday May 6th the South London Press reported that many students from Guys Hospital had signed on as special constables “being involved with a strong sense of patriotic duty”. On Saturday May 29th the South London Observer reported that the Governors of Guys Hospital had from the secretary of the TGWU branch at Lower Road, Rotherhithe, a protest against the blacklegging by students and a statement that the branch would no longer contribute to the hospital’s funds.

Hays Wharf

The South London Press of May 14th reported that “Oxford undergraduates, numbering 250, together with 400 other volunteers, are unloading foodstuff from ships at Hays Wharf Ltd., Tooley St. The manager of Hays Wharf said: The undergraduates are receiving the usual pay of dockers. They moved between 1500 and 2000 tons per day. Normal output at the wharves is 5000 tons a day’.”


Mass support for the strike was growing in the three boroughs throughout the time it lasted. Bermondsey reported to the Labour Research Department that on May 12th there was no sign of weakening whatever. The workers were more solid the last day than on the first. The spirit of the workers, both men and women, could not have been better. When the “sell-out” was announced “there was a feeling of complete shock and disappointment in Southwark. The Labour Party passed a message through the Council of Action to the TUC urging them to continue the strike.. Then everything collapsed, it collapsed as suddenly as it started. The Council of Action went back to the original small organisation. The employers said on account of the stoppage, they couldn’t take everyone back.”

There were many cases of victimisation and attempts by employers to break the strength of the unions. On May 14th the South London Press reported that Tillings Ltd., the privately owned bus company which employed 1200 men on 400 buses (many of who has struck) had posted the following notice at their depots. “Men should realise that there is no agreement in existence, the Union having broken this. They should also understand plainly that we do not propose to make further agreement with the existing Union as this is the third occasion on which they have broken the agreement. Every man should fully understand these conditions before restarting.”

At Hoe’s engineering works, the employers refused to take the men back as a group “because they were no longer employees”, but agreed to take them back if they applied individually, at their former rate of payment and for their former jobs. Hoe’s said “They are being taken on as vacancies are available.”

The Labour Exchanges received instructions that those who withdrew their labour were disqualified from benefit on the ground that they left their employment without just cause. Sections of the workers were luckier and/or stronger – for instance, the dockers and railwaymen held out for agreements against victimisation. The dockers at Surrey Dock maintained their pickets until May 15th when Ernest Bevin came to an agreement with the employers.

Within a week of the ending of the strike, only the miners were still left out. They remained out until November when the employers finally starved them into submission and forced them to accept their conditions of less pay for longer hours. Bermondsey Council however continued to support the miners families even after the ending of the General Strike and all in all they contributed £7000 to the mining village of Blaina in Wales.


1) Strikers were initially called out on strike in waves, so that not all workers were out straight away. Large numbers of people wanted to join the strike but were ordered by the TUC & the unions to continue working, the idea being they would join later if the strike dragged on – the TUC General Council of course hoped (and made sure) this would never happen.

2: Hoes employed 900 men; their printing engineering workers were amongst the best organised and the most militant in South London.

They had struck in the 1922 engineers lockout; from then until the General Strike workers here were said to be in “open revolt”. In 1925 Amalgamated Engineering Union members here began an overtime ban in a campaign for higher wages; as a result in January 1926 some were sacked and replaced by non-union labour. This led to both shifts starting a stay-in-strike: Hoe’s then locked out all 900 workers, who began an ‘unofficial’ 10 week strike to protest the hiring of non-union workers, and to demand a £1 per week pay increase.. Hoe’s went to the Employers Federation, who threatened a national lockout in the engineering involving 500,000 men, unless the Hoe’s men went back to work. (South London Press, March 26 ‘ 1926) Hoe’s workers marched to the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street to protest against the threatened lockout, but the AEU ordered a return to work, saying the men had been morally right but technically wrong. Bah!

During the General Strike Hoe’s workers struck straight away, though not called out by the AEU, and were militant in their picketing of the firm.

After the end of the General Strike, Hoe’s workers were forced to re-apply individually for their jobs. The firm considered they had sacked themselves.

3: A large number of posh scabs volunteered from Dulwich College. Sons of whores, literally, since 17th century actor Edward Alleyn founded the College with help from the profits off his brothel in Bankside. Shame the suffragettes failed to burn it down in 1913, eh?

4: Note on Camberwell Green: Rumours spread by the South London Press that women pickets stopped trams by putting kids in front of the vehicles seem to be just typical SLP rightwing proper gander?

Trams were also attacked in other areas: in Old Kent Road, near the Dun Cow pub, a tram was overturned by crowds. The passengers were pulled off and scab drivers assaulted. In Walworth Road, crowds blocked tramlines with railings: bricks and bottles were chucked at police when they cleared the lines.

5: Salter, a convinced Independent Labour Party pacifist, did not like this violence, but according to Fenner Brockway he “recognised that it was only incidental to the real significance of the struggle. He was thrilled by the sacrificial solidarity of the workers. “Something happened,” he wrote, “that had never happened in the world before. Millions of men and women deliberately risked their livelihood, their future, their all, to win a living wage for their miner comrades.” Not a man or woman in Bermondsey expected to gain a penny, yet “eagerly, joyfully, unflinchingly,” they came out. “I felt humbled and overwhelmed when I saw what was happening. A transformation of character seemed to be taking place. Small men suddenly became great, mean men became generous, cowardly men became heroes. Self‑regarding thoughts were brushed aside, and ‘our brothers of the mines’ filled every heart. The strike was the most Christlike act on a grand scale since Calvary. I can never pay high enough tribute to the Bermondsey folk amongst whom I moved during those never‑to‑be‑forgotten nine days. The working people of this district are capable of the mightiest acts of effort and heroism if only their best instincts can be touched and roused.” “

6: Mass meetings were also held at Peckham Winter Gardens. Several thousand strikers, families and supporters met there for a social gathering organised by Peckham Labour Party on the evening of Sunday May 9th.

7: Queen’s head Pub, Southwark: 2 lorries full of cops ordered drinkers out of the pub & beat them up, when strikers ran in here after ‘allegedly’ roughing up a special constable at the Power Station…

8) W F Watson: A leading activist in the militant shop stewards movement during World War 1. In 1918-19 he was at the heart of the syndicalist London Workers Committee, an attempt to co-ordinate workers committees in different industries, along the lines of the Clyde Workers Comittee. He wrote a column in Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Dreadnought, which served as an unofficial organ for the Workers Committees 1917-19. Watson was jailed for sedition (for a speech encouraging soldiers not to fight against the Russian Revolution) after the LWC office was raided in March 1919, but on his release it emerged he had given information to Special Branch in return for cash – though he claimed he’d fed them useless info and used the money for righteous causes. The arguments this scandal caused led to the LWC’s collapse. Watson had dropped out of politics shortly after. He was widely distrusted but must have been a capable organiser, & not entirely suspect, if as Stanley Hutchins says he was allowed to carry on working in the Council of Action’s office.

For more information on Watson and the London Workers Committee, see Barbara Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst.

9) Archbishop’s Speech: On May 7, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement suggesting the dispute should be settled by negotiation, “in a spirit of co-operation and fellowship” – effectively a return to the pre-Strike status quo, ie end the Strike, continue the mining subsidy, and the mine-owners to withdraw their wage-cuts. In the event the Government ignored the speech, feeling they had the upper hand anyway (and just to make sure the speech had no influence they leaned heavily on the BBC not to publicise it).

Barclay & Perkins Brewery: only 2 workers on strike according to the South London Press: others enrolled as specials.

This text was originally published as part of a pamphlet by Union Place Community Resource Centre/ Southwark Trades Council, 1976.

Republished 2005 with new pictures and a new foreword by Past Tense


May Day in South London: a history

“Thou art here indicted by the name of Flora, of the City of Rome, in the County of Babylon, for that thou, contrary to the peace of our Soveraign Lord, his Crown and Dignity, hast brought in a pack of practical Fanaticks, viz. Ignorants, Atheists, Papists, Drunkards, Swearers, Swash∣bucklers, Maid-marrions, Morrice-dancers, Maskers, Mummers, May pole-stealers, Health-drinkers, together with a rascalian rout of Fidlers, Fools, Fighters, Gamesters, Whoremasters, Lewd-men, Light-women, Contemners of Magistracy, affronters of Ministery, rebellious to Masters, disobedient to Parents, mis-spenders of time, abusers of the creature, &c.”
(Thomas Hall, Funebria Florae, Or the Downfall of the May Games, 1661).

It’s International Workers Day… (regardless of the British government’s attempt to deny the existence of class by shifting the Bank Holiday to next week).. so we hope you’re all taking the day off. Or pretending to work from home. Assuming you’ve not been laid off without pay from your zero hours gig.
Or are you being forced to jostle with workmates on a crowded site or in a care home, cause you won’t get paid if you don’t turn up? Jammed together in a flat with the kids? Trying to keep yourself safe while looking after the sick or dying, while your manager hides the PPE in case you “use too much”?

It’s May Day – a day to strike, skive, shirk and fight back, if you can… (and then let’s carry it on…)

But the lily-livered attempt to replace the Mayday holiday with a more nebulous and patriotic national holiday does remind us of the discomfort that May Day in its various forms has caused ruling elites over the centuries. There’s no better time than now to turn Mayday back into a threat again…

So for all of you workers, shirkers, dancers and chancers – here’s Neil Transpontine’s excellent romp through the history of Mayday in South London – from medieval games and cavorting with Satan (oh yes!), to mass strikes and riots in the City, it’s our holiday and we’re not giving it up.

This text was published as a Past Tense pamphlet in 2011. You can also download a PDF of the pamphlet 


May Day in South London: a history

Neil Transpontine


1. Introduction
2. Ancient Festivals
3. The Merry Month of May – Middle Ages to Puritans
4. Milkmaids, Chimney Sweeps and the Jack-in-the-Green
5. Reinventing May Day
6. The Workers’ May Day: origins to 1930s
7. The Workers’ May Day After the Second World War
8. The Counter-Culture and the Folk Revival
9. Anti-Capitalist May Days
10. 21st Century May Day
10. Conclusion
11. Bibliography


For centuries people have been celebrating the height of Spring, and the first signs of Summer, at the beginning of May. This text examines the diverse ways they have done so in London South of the Thames.

It is a story of milkmaids, chimney sweeps, kings, socialists, pagans, Christians, school children and anarchists. A story of maypoles, May Queens and Jack-in-the-Greens.
A story too of subversion and conflicts with the authorities: May Day has often been a focus of religious and political contention, and continues to be so down to the present day.

This text started out as a talk and has developed through participation in various May Day events in South London over the past few years. The first talk was given in 2003 to South London Radical History Group at the Use Your Loaf Social Centre in Deptford High Street. After further research, a revised talk was given in 2005 to South East London Folklore Society, then meeting at the Spanish Galleon in Greenwich.
Short versions of the talk were given at May Day events organised by the Strawberry Thieves Socialist Choir in Brockley at Toad’s Mouth Too (2004), Moonbow Jakes (2005), and the Brockley Social Club (2007). Then, in 2010, I gave a talk at the Deptford Arms as part of a lovely May Day folk evening organised by Kit and Cutter that also featured the singing of Martin Carthy.

In a sense then, this pamphlet has emerged out of the story it describes. I can only hope that it goes back into the stream to inform those who come after to celebrate the May.



If we pick up one of the many books available on ‘Celtic spirituality’ or neopaganism we will find confident descriptions of the ancient festival of Beltane.
For instance according to Glennie Kindred (2001): ‘In the Celtic Pagan past, this was the night of the “greenwood marriage” where the union between the Horned God and the fertile Goddess was re-enacted by the men and women to ensure the fertility of the land. It was a night to spend in the woods, to make love under the trees, stay up all night and watch the sunrise, and bathe in the early morning dew. On this night, people walked the mazes and labyrinths and sat all night by the sacred wells and healing springs’.
This is though an imaginative reconstruction – in reality we know little about the precise content of religion and rituals in the British Isles before the Romans. We do though at least know that a festival has been held at this time of year for as long as records exist – although of course before the adoption of the Roman calendar the date ‘1st of May’ did itself not exist.

In his authoritative overview of seasonal customs, the historian Ronald Hutton (1996) notes that May Day is something of an exception to ‘the almost total absence of concrete evidence concerning pre-Christian seasonal rituals in the British Isles’. Early Medieval Irish documents refer to the burning of fires on Beltane or Beltine at the beginning of May, between which cattle were driven to protect them. A ninth-century document links this custom with the Druids (Hutton 1991).
Records of similar practices are found from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and South West England until into the nineteenth century. As well as fires, Beltane was associated in some areas with other customs, such as hanging rowan branches around doorways. It is common for writers to refer to Beltane as associated with a god ‘Bel’. There was a god called Belenus who was worshipped in what is now Austria, although there is no evidence of this deity ever being associated with Ireland or British Isles. Bel may just be derived from the Celtic preface meaning ‘bright’ or fortunate (Hutton 1996).
There are though no records of Beltane fires in the south of England. The custom was presumably tied up with a pastoral economy where animals were driven out to new pastures in the summer months. If the custom was observed in the London area it must have died out before written records came into being.

We can only speculate where in what is now South London Beltane or some other seasonal festival may have been observed at this time of year in prehistoric times. Remains of pre-Roman monuments and settlements have been found in various locations. Along the River Thames these include a burial mound by what is now London Bridge, and a wooden structure by the mouth of the River Effra in Vauxhall. There are surviving traces of Iron Age hillforts at the south end of Wimbledon Common and at Keston Mark in the London Borough of Bromley, on a hill above the spring that is the source of the River Ravensbourne (misleadingly, both sites are known as ‘Caesar’s Camp’).
Doubtless those who lived around these sites marked the turning of the seasons in their own way, but we do not really know how.


The Romans celebrated the festival of Floralia from 28 April to 3 May in honour of Flora, the personification and goddess of flowers and greenery. Like later May Day festivities in the British Isles, it was sometimes associated with license and indecency – prostitutes apparently claimed the festival as their own. The festival included theatrical performances and public games, known as the Ludi Floralia.
There was a substantial Roman settlement in Southwark around the south end of London Bridge, and numerous other Roman sites south of the Thames, such as a temple in what is now Greenwich Park. It is quite probable that a Roman spring festival was celebrated in such areas during the centuries of Roman influence following the invasion of 43 CE, but as with the pre-Roman period there are no records to confirm this.

Flora remained an important image of the season, long after the organised worship of the Romans died out. An image of Flora can be seen to this day in Camberwell Road, with a codestone relief depicting a figure with a garland of flowers now embedded in the wall of a block of flats. This was originally displayed in Dr Lettsom’s mansion in Grove Hill, an 1809 description of which states that ‘The front is adorned with emblematical figures of Flora and the Seasons’ (cited in Walford, 1878). In the mid-19th century, there was also a Royal Flora Gardens in Camberwell, a pleasure garden in Wyndham Road.



O the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolic, so gay, and so green, so green, so green!
O, and then did I unto my true love say,
Sweet Peg, thou shalt be my Summer’s Queen.

(Thomas Dekker, 1600)

The Roman festival of Floralia was associated with the wearing of garlands of flowers, and this has remained a common feature of May Day celebrations through the ages. This is not surprising as the proliferation of flowers is such a feature of the natural season, as is the shift to a warmer climate more suitable for outdoor celebrations.

In early modern England, May Day was one point in an annual ‘calendar that drew on celestial, pagan and ecclesiastical elements’. In addition to ‘the natural calendar of the seasons’ there was an ‘agricultural rhythm of cultivation, harrowing, planting and harvest… further modified by the cycles of lambing and calving, droving and herding, and the autumn slaughter of animals’. Then there was the ‘ceremonial calendar of the Christian year’, marking the life of Christ and the saints (Cressy 1989).

By the Middle Ages the whole ‘merry month of May’ was associated with communal celebrations in England, particularly the holidays of May Day and Whitsun. Festivities included games, fairs and communal feasts (often known as ‘ales’), with music, dancing and sports. Hutton (1996) suggests that the weather was one of the reasons for this: ‘Commoners, unlike royalty and the aristocracy, lacked large buildings in which communal festivities could comfortably be held in bad weather’. The warmer weather in May enabled outdoor gatherings, and in addition ‘it lay conveniently between the heavy work of ploughing and sowing, and that of hay making’.

The custom of going out to collect flowers and greenery on May Day, sometimes known as ‘Maying’ or simply ‘The May’, is described in the London area for as long as written records exist and no doubt had its origins in an even earlier period. It did not die out until late in the nineteenth century, by which point urbanisation meant that many people would have had quite a journey to find flowering hawthorn or other suitable foliage.

In his Survey of London (1603), John Stow wrote that ‘in the month of May, the Citizens of London of all estates, lightly in every Parish, or sometimes two or three parishes joining together, had their several mayings, and did fetch in Maypoles, with diverse warlike shows, with good Archers, Morris dancers, and other devices for pastime all the day long, and towards the Evening they had stage plays, and Bonfires in the streets’; and that ‘on May day in the morning, every man, except impediment, would walk into the sweet meadows and green woods, there to rejoice their spirits with the beauty and savour of sweet flowers, and with the harmony of birds, praising God in their kind’ .

Henry Machyn, a London merchant, recorded in his diary in 1559 that ‘The first day of May’ was marked ‘with streamers, banners, and flags, and trumpets and drums and guns, going a Maying’ and at the Queen’s place at Westminster ‘they shot and threw eggs and oranges at each other’.

A more hostile account is given by Philip Stubbes in his The Anatomie of Abuses, first published on 1 May 1583: ‘Against May, Whitsunday, or other time, all the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding overnight to the woods, groves, hills, and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bring with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withal. And no marvel; for there is a great lord present amongst them, as superintendant and lord over their pastimes and sports, namely Satan, Prince of Hell’.

Bringing in the May was sometimes accompanied by dancing, processions and other pleasures. Stubbes claimed that ‘of forty, threescore, or a hundred maids going to the wood overnight, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled’ – although demographers have found no evidence of a 1 February baby boom nine months later.

One of the first references we have to May Day in South London comes from 1492 when King Henry VII is recorded as having paid ten shillings ‘to the maidens of Lambeth for a May’ – presumably a garland of flowers, perhaps accompanied with some kind of performance. The King’s interest seems to indicate that May Day customs were observed at all levels of society. This vignette also suggests another feature of May Day: as well as being a time of popular celebration, it was also an opportunity to earn some extra income. As we shall see, this was an important aspect down to the 19th century.

May kings and queens

A feature of the May festivities was sometimes the crowning of a mock-king. Once again, Stubbes (1583) provides the most colourful description of this: ‘the wild heads of the parish conventing together, chose themselves a grand captain (of mischief) whom they ennoble with the title of my Lord of Misrule… they have their hobby horses, dragons and other antiques, together with their bawdy pipes and thundering drummers, to strike up the Devil’s Dance withal, then march those heathen company towards the Church and churchyard, their pipers piping, drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchieves swinging above their heads like madmen, their hobby horses and other monsters skirmishing among the throng’.

The May King or Lord was sometimes accompanied by a female counterpart – an instance is recorded at Kingston – but frequently not. The prominence of the May Queen seems to have initially been a literary invention of early seventeenth century London-based poets such as Michael Drayton and William Brown. Hutton (1996) remarks of these urban pastoralists that ‘their difference in priorities from genuine rustics is shown in their constant descriptions of pretty May Queens in preference to the more common village lords’.

Robin Hood

Robin Hood and his entourage were also sometimes associated with May festivities. Kingston in Surrey was known in the 16th century for its Robin Hood plays held over five days in May, featuring all the usual characters of Little John, Friar Tuck and Maid Marian, the latter usually played by a man in drag.

On May Day 1515, Henry VIII and the Queen ‘rode a Maying from Greenwich to the high ground of Shooters hill, where as they passed by the way, they spied a company of tall yeomen clothed all in Green’. The staged pageant included ‘Robin Hoode’ leading a band of 200 archers. ‘Robin Hoode desired the King & Queene with their retinue to enter the greene wood, where, in harbours made of boughs, and decked with flowers, they were set and served plentifully with venison and wine, by Robin Hoode and his men, to their great contentment, and had other Pageants and pastimes’ (Stow, 1603). The company included Lady May, Little John, Friar Tuck and Maid Marian.

Another account of this event is given by Sebastian Giustinian, a Venetian ambassador to the court of Henry VIII at the time. The Venetian party had arrived in London shortly before, travelling by road from Dover to Deptford where they were met on 16th April by fifty of the King’s horseman to accompany them into London. On the first day of May 1515 ‘his Majesty sent two English lords to the ambassadors, who were taken by them to a place called Greenwich, five miles hence, where the king was, for the purpose of celebrating May Day. On the ambassadors arriving there, they mounted on horse-back, with many of the chief nobles of the kingdom, and accompanied the most Serene Queen into the country, to meet the King. Her Majesty was most excellently attired, and very richly, and with her were twenty-five damsels, mounted on white palfreys, with housings of the same fashion, most beautifully embroidered in gold, and these damsels had all dresses slashed with gold lama in very costly trim, with a number of footmen in most excellent order’.
The party then proceeded to Shooters Hill: ‘The Queen went thus with her retinue a distance of two miles out of Greenwich, into a wood, where they found the King with his guard, all clad in a livery of green, with bows in their hands, and about a hundred noblemen on horseback, all gorgeously arrayed. In this wood were certain bowers filled purposely with singing birds, which carolled most sweetly, and in one of these bastions or bowers, were some triumphal cars, on which were singers and musicians, who played on an organ and lute and flutes for a good while, during a banquet which was served in this place; then proceeding homewards, certain tall paste-board giants being placed on cars, and surrounded by his Majesty’s guard, were conducted with the greatest order to Greenwich, the musicians singing the whole way, and sounding the trumpets and other instruments, so that, by my faith, it was an extremely fine triumph, and very pompous, and the King in person brought up the rear in as great state as possible, being followed by the Queen, with such a crowd on foot, as to exceed, I think, 25,000 persons’. After Mass and more feasting at Greenwich, the day finished with the King taking part in a jousting tournament.

May Day seems to have been celebrated regularly by Henry VIII at Greenwich as the start of the summer season. In 1536, his then Queen Anne Boleyn sat with him in the royal box to watch the May Day jousting. It was to be her last public appearance – the following day she was arrested, and on May 19th she was beheaded.

The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth the 1st, was also an enthusiast for May games. Machyn records that on the 25th June 1559 there was a special performance for her at Greenwich of ‘a May game’ featuring a giant, St George and the Dragon, Morris dancing, Robin Hood, Little John , Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, and the Nine Worthies of Christendom.
These Elizabethan May games were evidently very lavish. For the 1559 games, the City of London’s Ironmongers company sent ‘men in armour to the May game that went before the queen’s majestie to Greenwich’ and in 1571 ‘the Merchant Taylors sent 187 men in military costume, as their proportion towards a splendid Maying’ (Timbs, 1866).
Queen Elizabeth is also linked with another South London May Day. On 1 May 1602, ‘the Queen went a-maying to Mr. Richard Buckley’s at Lewisham’ (Lyson, 1796). Local legend has it that this occurred by an oak tree on what is now One Tree Hill, and that as a result this tree became known as the Oak of Honor – giving its name to the surrounding area of Honor Oak.


In the political and religious conflicts that shook England in the 16th and 17th century, popular festivities were often a focus of controversy. As the most visible symbol of May Day, it was the maypole itself that was frequently targeted. Philip Stubbes (1583) was typical of the Puritan reformers who regarded it as a kind of pagan idol: ‘But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their Maypole, which they bring home with great veneration… Then fall they to dance about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols, whereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself’.
Under Edward’s Protestant regime of the 1540s many seasonal festivities withered in the face of official hostility: in 1549 the Corporation of London even instructed property owners to prevent their servants from attending May games (Hutton 1994). It was in this climate that the local maypole in Wandsworth was sold off in 1547/8. It must have been replaced, because a century later it was destroyed once more, being dug up in 1640-1 shortly after the Long Parliament had dispensed the King’s ‘Book of Sports’ which had given some protection to popular festivities against the puritan onslaught. In 1644, Parliament passed an ordinance banning maypoles which were described as ‘a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness’.

In Bermondsey, there was a maypole at Horsleydown. A painting by Joris Hoefnagel of a fete there in around 1590 shows a very tall wooden pillar opposite the Tower of London, approximately where Potters Hill Fields park is now situated. Opposition to the local maypole was led by Edward Elton (c. 1569-1624), the vicar of St Mary Magdelen. Elton was a prolific puritan, the author of such works as ‘The complaint of a sanctified sinner answered’ and ‘A plaine and easie exposition upon the Lords prayer in questions and answers’. In 1617, after preaching against the pagan evils of May Day, Elton led a mob to cut down the local maypole.
A contemporary account records: ‘Some of these practitioners, with friends of the Artillery Garden, intended sport, but Parson Elton would not have it so, and desired the constable to strike out the heads of their drums, and he preached against it many Sabbath days. Further Elton and his people assaulted the said Maypole, and did, with hatchets, saws, or otherwise, cut down the same, divided it into several pieces, and carried it into Elton’s yard’ (cited in Clarke, 1902).

Another 17th century South London maypole is shown on a 1681 map near to the present Elephant and Castle junction, set up in the middle of the ‘King’s Highway to Southwark’, (now Newington Causeway)’. The fate of this maypole is unknown.

Repression and rebellion

The chopping down of maypoles can be seen as part of a broader assault of popular celebrations. According to Ronald Hutton (1994): ‘All over western and central Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reformers attacked popular festivity and tried to enforce a stricter standard of sexual morality and of personal decorum… Vagrants, fornicators, and suspected witches were all persecuted with a new intensity, and formal entertainments tended to replace spontaneous and participatory celebration’.
For the radical historian Peter Linebaugh (1999), May Day ‘was always a celebration of all that is free and life-giving in the world. That is the Green side of the story. Whatever else it was, it was not a time to work. Therefore, it was attacked by the authorities… In England the attacks on May Day were a necessary part of the wearisome, unending attempt to establish industrial work discipline’.

But the picture is more complicated than a straightforward desire to suppress all festivities: ‘Maypoles and May games provided easy targets for reformers of manners… But a vigorous tradition of May revels survived the Reformation and withstood the hostility of puritan critics. May games, May bowers, May fairs and maypoles enjoyed a popular vigour, sometimes encouraged and at other times frowned upon by local authorities… The royal orders of 1617 and 1633, known as the Book of Sports, authorized “May Games, Whitsun Ales, Morris Dances and the setting up of Maypoles”‘ (Cressy, 1989).
It may be true that in the Cromwell period there was less official tolerance of May Day customs, and that after the restoration of the monarchy following the English Civil War there was something of an officially-sponsored return of popular revelry – in 1661 a 134 foot maypole was erected in the Strand ‘to replace the one removed in 1644’ (Hutton, 1994).

It would be simplifying matters though to say that 17th century Royalists were always more inclined to festivities than Parliamentarian Puritans, or that in the previous century Catholics were always more tolerant of them than Protestants.
Under the Catholic reign of Mary Tudor the Privy Council banned May games in Kent because ‘lewd practises… are appointed to begun at such assemblies’, while in the seventeenth century Deptford Royalist John Evelyn condemned May customs – although to be fair a major concern for him as a tree enthusiast was that people were cutting down ‘fine straight trees’ to be used for maypoles. Evelyn denounced ‘those riotous assemblies of idle people, who under pretence of going a Maying, (as they term it) do oftentimes cut down and carry away fine straight trees, to set up before some ale-house, or revelling place, where they keep their drunken Bacchanalia… I think it were better to be quite abolish’d amongst us, for many reasons, besides that of occasioning so much waste and spoil as we find is done to trees at that season, under this wanton pretence, by breaking, mangling, and tearing down of branches, and entire arms of trees, to adorn their wooden idol’ (Evelyn, 1662)

[Editor’s note: One swivel-eyed parson set out his objections to the May Games, listing some of the dodgy types it attracted: “a pack of practical Fanaticks, viz. Ignorants, Atheists, Papists, Drunkards, Swearers, Swash∣bucklers, Maid-marrions, Morrice-dancers, Maskers, Mummers, May pole-stealers, Health-drinkers, together with a rascalian rout of Fidlers, Fools, Fighters, Gamesters, Whoremasters, Lewd-men, Light-women, Contemners of Magistracy, affronters of Ministery, rebellious to Masters, disobedient to Parents, mis-spenders of time, abusers of the creature, &c.”
(Thomas Hall, Funebria Florae, Or the Downfall of the May Games, 1661). If you’re not in that list – get misbehavin’…]

Many Protestants were happy to celebrate a calendar of holy days and Saints days, with May 1st being marked as the feast day of the apostles Saint Philip and Saint James. Not all were averse to people enjoying themselves, for some the issue was rather that the secular celebrations should be kept completely separate from the sphere of the church.
What united rulers of whatever stripe, Royalist or Parliamentarian, was ‘the fear of riot and rebellion during a period characterised not only by dramatic religious change but by inflation and harvest failure’ (Hutton,1994). May was a prime month for such rebellion: the Peasants Revolt 1381 and Jack Cade’s rebellion 1450 both started during the May Whitsun holidays. In 1517 the events known as ‘Evil May Day’ took place in London, an uprising of apprentices that targeted the houses of foreigners living in the city – arguably an early ‘race riot’ and a reminder that popular rebellions are not always propelled by emancipatory impulses.

In May 1640, there was a revolt of Southwark apprentices during the May holidays. The focus was the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, a key ally of Charles I who was to be executed as a Royalist a few years later in 1644.
John Evelyn recorded in his diary on April 27th ‘the Bishop of Canterbury’s palace at Lambeth being assaulted by a rude rabble from Southwark’.
Seemingly a few days later it was attacked again: ‘placards suddenly appeared throughout the City urging the apprentices to rise and free the land from the rule of the bishops. At a public meeting on St. George’s Fields, the City apprentices and the sailors and dockhands, now idle through lack of trade, joined up with the glovers, tanners, and brewery workers of Bermondsey and Southwark who were on holiday for the May Day celebrations to hunt “Laud, the fox”‘ (Browner, 1994).
On May 11th Laud himself recorded: ‘Monday night, at midnight, my house at Lambeth was beset with 500 persons of the rascal riotous multitude. I had notice, and strengthened the house as well as I could, and, God be blessed, I had no harm.’ A young rioter was condemned at Southwark soon after and hanged and quartered. The king issued a proclamation ‘for the repressing and punishing of the late Rebellious and Traiterous assemblies in Lambeth, Southwark, and other places adjoyning’. Laud’s fellow royalist the Earl of Clarendon wrote that ‘this infamous, scandalous, headless insurrection, quashed with the deserved death of that one varlet, was not thought to be contrived or fomented by any persons of quality’ (Walford, 1878).

In 1649 May 1st was again eventful. It was on this day that radical Leveller prisoners in the Tower of London, including Greenwich-born John Lilburne, published ‘An agreement of the free people of England’. On the same day the Scroop’s Horse regiment unanimously agreed not to obey Cromwell’s decision to send them to Ireland. At least five other regiments joined them and set up a Council of Agitators. Having mutinied at Salisbury, they joined with other mutinous regiments, until on May 14th they were surprised by Cromwell at Burford. Hundreds were captured and imprisoned in Burford church, and the next morning three were executed in sight of their comrades.


Milkmaids and Bunters

Whether due to repression, or simply changes in taste, May games in London seemed to have declined somewhat by the eighteenth century. May Day was though kept alive by specific occupations: in particular milkmaids. There are reports of Milk Maids in London celebrating May Day from the mid-17th century, and indeed there are images from the 14th century of milkmaids dancing and carrying flowers, although these cannot definitively be linked to May Day.

Milkmaids’ Mayday in London c. 1760

On May 1st 1667, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary ‘Thence to Westminster; in the way meeting many milk-maids with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them’. Pepys also recorded another seasonal tradition of May dew being good for the complexion: ‘My wife away down with Jane and W.Hewer to Woolwich, in order to a little ayre and to lie there tomorrow, and so to gather May-dew tomorrow morning, which Mrs Tuner hath taught here is the only thing in the world to wash her face with; and I am contented with it’ (28 May 1667). In Tudor times, Queen Catherine of Aragon is also said to have gathered May dew in Greenwich Park (Timbs, 1866)

The milkmaids’ ‘garland’ consisted of (often borrowed) silver plate decorated with flowers and ribbons which they carried on their heads. Accompanied by musicians they would go dancing through the streets collecting donations. This custom was seemingly in decline by the time Hone’s Every-Day Book was published in 1826, with its lament that ‘In London thirty years ago, When pretty milkmaids went about, It was a goodly sight to see, Their May-day pageant all drawn out. Such scenes and sounds once blest my eye, And charm’d my ears; but all have vanish’d, On May-day now no garlands go, For milkmaids and their dance are banish’d’.

Milkmaids were associated with one of the longest surviving maypoles in London, to be found ‘near Kennington Green… the Maypole was in the field on the south side of the Workhouse Lane, and nearly opposite to the Black Prince public house. It remained til about the year 1795, and was much frequented, particularly by milk maids’ (Hone, 1826).
As well as the milkmaids there are also references in the 18th century to ‘bunters’ May Day – bunter being a term for a prostitute. According to Roy Judge (2000), ‘The Bunters were, in fact, a kind of parody of the Milkmaids’ custom, with their pewter in place of silver… giving a deliberately grotesque show as public entertainment’. A 1770 print purporting to depict this includes the verse ‘What Frolicks are here /So droll and so queer/ How joyful appeareth the day/ E’en Bunter and Bawd Unite to applaud /And celebrate first of the May’ (The Humours of May Day.).

The Jack in the Green

By the beginning of the 19th century, May Day was associated more and more with another occupational group – the Chimney Sweeps. Robert Southey commented that ‘The first days of May are the Saturnalia of these people, a wretched class of men, who exist in no other country than England’ (Southey, 1836).

In his ‘Sports and pastimes of the people of England’ published in 1801, Joseph Strutt, described the Chimney Sweeps’ May Day: ‘The chimney-sweepers of London have also singled out the first of May for their festival; at which time they parade the streets in companies, disguised in various manners. Their dresses are usually decorated with gilt paper and other mock fineries; they have their shovels and brushes in their hands which they rattle one upon the other; and to this rough music they jump about in imitation of dancing. Some of the larger companies have a fiddler with them, and a Jack-in-the-Green, as well as a Lord and Lady of the May, who follow the minstrel with great stateliness, and dance as occasion requires. The Jack-in-the-Green is a piece of pageantry consisting of a hollow frame of wood or wicker work, made in the form of a sugarloaf, but open at the bottom, and sufficiently large and high to receive a man. The frame is covered with green leaves and bunches of flowers interwoven with each other, so that the man within may be completely concealed, who dances with his companions, and the populace are mightily pleased with the oddity of the moving pyramid’.

Early 19th century chimney sweeps’ parade

Another observer of this custom complained: ‘Unfortunately, the apparently innocent and somewhat child-like capers of the Jack-in-the-green and his jovial troop engender and increase the vice of drinking. At each halt, more refreshments are produced, and sobriety is not a distinctive quality of the poor in general, or of chimney-sweeps in particular’ (Thomson & Smith, 1877).

Henry Mayhew (1850) was told that costermongers (market traders) were also involved: ‘This kind of street performance is generally got up by some master sweep in reduced circumstances, who engages all the parties and finds the dresses. There was only one regular sweep in the school that my informant joined. Many of the Jacks-in-the-green are got up by costermongers. “My Lady” generally has 3s. a day, and is mostly the sweep’s or costermonger’s daughter or sister – anything, indeed, said my informant, so as she can shake a leg about a bit. The Clown gets 5s., the Jack 3s. or 4s., and the drum and pipes 6s. There are generally from five to six persons go out together, and the expenses (not including dresses) will be about 30s. a day, and the receipts about £3’.
The folklorist Roy Judge (among other things a Peckham teacher) wrote the classic study of ‘The Jack in the Green’ (2000). He rejects the notion that the Jack in the Green represents some kind of pagan survival from ancient times of a Green Man figure, noting that the first descriptions of a Jack in the Green on May Day date from the late 18th century. The pyramid of greenery may have evolved from the milkmaids garland which became increasingly more elaborate, with the structure carried on the head evolving into something that had to be carried by hand.

Within South London, reports of Jack in the Green have been found from Borough, Camberwell, Clapham, Greenwich, Tooting, Wandsworth and Lewisham where on May Day 1894 ‘a Jack with a Queen of May, two maidens proper, one man dressed as a woman, and a man with a piano-organ’ were spotted dancing and collecting money ‘In the High Street, at the inn near St Mary’s Church’ (cited in Judge, 2000).

The chimney sweeps’ May Day seems to have been in steady decline from the middle of the 19th century and had more or less disappeared by the end of the century. Acts of Parliament in 1842 and 1875 had prohibited the use of the child labour of ‘climbing boys’ whose presence was a source of sympathy and therefore charity on May Day. It is important not to be too carried away by the picturesque scenes of the Chimney Sweeps’ May Day – behind the Jack in the Green and the dancing there was acute poverty. May marked the end of the peak season for sweeps, making the search for extra income through ritualised begging a necessity. As William Blake wrote in his poem ‘The Chimney Sweeper’:
‘And because I am happy, & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery’.

The Jack in the Green survived a while longer. In around 1900 the Jack was spotted in Bermondsey: ‘Walking along Jamaica Road I saw what looked like a big bush hopping from one side of the road to the other, and bobbing up and down. This being the first time I had seen a Jack-in-the-Green it scared the life out of me’ (cited in Judge, 2000).
The Kentish Mercury reported on 18th May 1906: ‘It is not more than 3 or 4 years since such a band were seen in the streets of Deptford. Jack in his greenery, twirling, and the male and female dancers with him pirouetting something after the traditional style – but there was a sad falling off. In olden days the dancers used to be sweeps, to whom money collected was a sort of annual perquisite and sweeps were very jealous of their privileges in this direction being usurped, latterly however, this rule was by no means adhered to’. A photograph survives of the Deptford Jack in the Green on the back of which is a note from the photographer Thankful Sturdee, believed to have been written in about 1934, which reads: ‘Jack in the Green. Fowlers troop of Mayday revellers. ‘Jack in the Green’ was an old institution in Deptford and regularly kept up until about twenty years ago, when the police stopped all such customs’ (see Crofts, 2002).

Fowlers Troop and the Deptford Jack in the Green, early 20th century.

One of the last descriptions we have is from St Thomas Street, SE1 from 1923 of ‘a man enclosed in an openwork cage of greenery dancing upon he road, accompanied by a girl in fancy dress, money being collected in a sieve’ (Judge, 2000)

Horse Parades

A final group of workers associated with May Day was those working with horses. May Day 1860, saw ‘the decorations of horses belonging to the several railway companies and other large establishments’ in South London. The annual procession from the South-Eastern Railway Company from the Bricklayers Arms on the Old Kent Road ‘created some sensation in the locality’ with the streets crowded and the horses ‘preceded by a band of music’. In the evening ‘a supper was provided for the drivers, presided over by the principal officials, at which about one hundred sat down’. However another custom had already faded away by this date: ‘The procession of mail-coaches which formerly drew such crowds to witness at the General Post-Office on May-day, no longer exists’ (South London Chronicle 5.5.1860).

An annual May Day parade of horses was held in this period at Wellington Wharf, Lambeth by Eastwood and Co. Ltd. The event had outgrown the Wharf by 1899 when it was moved to Battersea Park and featured nearly a hundred ‘gaily bedecked’ horse drawn vehicles. In the same year St Olaves Board of Works in Bermondsey agreed to give 5 shillings to each carman and dustman in its employ for the ‘parade of horses on May 1’ (South London Press, 6 May 1899).

May Day Cart Horse Parade, Bermondsey 1892

Local Council workers also held a parade. In 1892 ‘the Bermondsey dustmen and other servants of the Vestry turned out with twenty-two teams’, and prizes were awarded to the most effective of them’ (The Graphic, 7 May 1892). May Day Cart Horse Parade, Bermondsey 1892

This event was still taking place at the turn of the 20th century: ‘On Tuesday the annual May Day parade of the horses belonging to the vestry of Bermondsey was held. Twenty four horses, with their carmen, paraded in Spa Road… at the conclusion of the judging, the parade was continued through the streets of Bermondsey until 1:30 pm, the carmen being given the remainder of the day as holiday’. Prizes were awarded for the best cared for animal (SLP, 5 May 1900).

In 1920, May Day horse parades were put on in Lee by employees of Mr. A. Manchester, horse and steam contractors (based at Dacre-Park) and at the Whitbreads bottling store in Lewisham, the latter a revival of ‘a popular feature before the war’ (KM, 7.5.1920).


Much of what came in the 20th century to be understood as traditional May Day custom actually only dates back to the 19th century. The rise of industry and urbanisation fostered a dream of a return to a pastoral idyll, as seen for instance in the popularity of Arthurian romances and the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. May Day was one of the arenas where this dream was manifested, and Hutton (1996) suggests that it was ‘substantially recreated by the Victorians’ prompted by ‘acute anxiety about the weakening of traditional social bonds’ and ‘a hankering after an idealized past, characterised by order and harmony’. Likewise Judge (2000) sees ‘The nineteenth century Arcadian view of May Day’ as rooted in the fact that ‘the problems presented by the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and of the Industrial Revolution were enough to make a dream of rural innocence and peaceful tranquillity most attractive’. Still, as we shall see, this dream could be put to use for revolutionary ends as well as conservative ones.

While there were still some surviving May Day customs in the 19th century, more influential in the Victorian recreation of the festival were accounts of Tudor celebrations and romantic imaginings such as Tennyson’s ‘The May Queen’ (1830). Interestingly the May Queen, a seemingly marginal figure in the Middle Ages, came to be the centre of the Victorian May Day. And while in previous generations May Day had been celebrated by adults, the Victorians and Edwardians increasingly organised it as a children’s festival.

May Queens

One of the longest established modern May Queen customs in South London seems to have been in Walworth in Southwark, and actually pre-dates the Victorian period. According to the South London Observer, the first May Queen ceremony there took place at the York Street Independent Chapel in 1798 ‘when Walworth really was a village’ (SLO 6 May 1949). The ceremony was still being held in the same location 170 years later – now renamed the Browning Hall in Browning Street in honour of the poet Robert Browning who was baptised at York Street Chapel. A report from 1967 claims that it had been uninterrupted ‘with the exception of 1940’ (SLO 11 May 1967). The May Queen was presented with an emblem ‘enscribed with the names of previous queens’ (SLO, 5 May 1950).

The format was for children to nominate their own ‘Queen of the May’, who was crowned by her predecessor at a pageant also featuring maids of honour, page boys and heralds. Newsreel film of the 1920 May Queen ceremony in Walworth shows the May Queen being crowned at seven o’clock in the morning. The Queen and all her attendants wear white dresses, and all have foliage in their hair as well sashes of greenery over their shoulders. Several of them are also carrying branches. After the coronation they make their way on a pony and cart for the procession, with Girl Guides at the front and Scouts behind (British Pathe Newsreel 3 May 1920: There is also British Pathe newsreel film of the Walworth May Queen from 1927, 1928 and 1929.). In the 1920s at least, the May Queen and her maids of honour were treated to a trip to the seaside – in 1926 they were taken to Littlehampton for a weekend (SLP, 14 May 1926).

These features – white clothes, election by peers, crowning by the previous year’s Queen, a supporting cast of assistants – recur repeatedly in descriptions of various children’s May Queens from the 19th century down to the present.

Another well-established May Queen festival, and indeed one that has continued into the 21st century, is the London-wide event held on Hayes Common in the London Borough of Bromley. The first Bromley and Hayes May Queen Festival was held in 1907. In 1910, it featured a procession with a ‘Jack in the Green’ and the May Queen’s carriage, which made its way from the public gardens next to Bromley’s Free Library to Hayes where there was singing and dancing round the maypole. The event was organised by Joseph Deedy of 62 Bromley Common (Bromley Record, June 1910). In the following year, Deedy founded the Merrie England Society to encourage May queen ceremonies, especially in the London area. It established a London-wide May Queen festival at Hayes Common where by 1930 hundreds of schools were taking part ‘and little girls brought along May-dolls, of the nineteenth century sort, in prams’ (Hutton, 1996).

Becoming London May Queen was seen as a major honour. When Betty Wadsworth (aged 11) from Deptford High Street was crowned London May Queen in 1930, a reception was held at New Cross Cinema with the Mayor of Deptford in attendance. Betty’s father was an international footballer who was playing for Millwall at the time (SLP, 9 May 1930). The event sometimes received national coverage: in 1921, the winner of the Daily Mirror‘s children’s beauty competition was crowned London’s May Queen at Hayes (British Pathe newsreel 12 May 1921).

Often the May Queen was just one element in a wider May Day pageant. We have a detailed description of one such ‘May Day Festival’ put on by Bermondsey Settlement Guild of Play at Bermondsey Village Hall in 1898: ‘The children were all very prettily attired as merry maids, foresters, villagers, morris players, milkmaids, and shepherdesses. A real May tree in full blossom and quantities of freshly plucked flowers… were used in decorating the middle of the hall, the maypole being crowned with flowers and banked up with them at the bottom. A rustic throne covered with evergreens was provided for the May Queen’. There was dancing round the Maypole ‘to music of the time of Charles II’ and singing of old English songs. The May Queen was ‘a cripple girl who had been elected by the members of the Guild of the Brave Poor Things’ (The Times 2 May 1898).
An account of the same event two years previously suggested that the urban dwellers of this part of London could have no conception of the rural delights which May Day was intended to celebrate: ‘the fact that Bermondsey could boast a May Queen at all is distinctly creditable to the authorities of the Bermondsey Settlement, who are responsible for this pleasing and picturesque revival. It would have been better still, of course, if the affair had been the spontaneous outburst of a popular yearning for that faint and far away past when there were still green fields and spring flowers round Bermondsey Spa, vanished utterly long ago, save for the name of Spa Road. But there is not, probably, much spontaneous yearning after Arcady on the part of the latter-day population of that delectable region, and so one must, perforce, be content with what can be done by the organising efforts of those who devote themselves to the noble work of bringing all the sunshine and springtime that they can into the sombre existence of our London poor. How, indeed, can the Bermondsey Board School boy or girl know anything of the glories of Nature’s great Renaissance as it is going on far away from the smoke and smother of ignoble London’ (The Graphic, 2 May 1896).

These May events were often self-consciously nostalgic. In 1920 ‘The Childer Chaine’, a young people’s organisation linked to the Belgrave Hospital for Children in Clapham Road, held a ‘May Fair and Sale’ in at St John the Divine Parochial Hall in Frederick Crescent (Camberwell). The South London Press reported that ‘The hall was most effectively transformed into an Old English Village… The many stalls were constructed as representative of the “Good Old Days” and the stallholders and workers were attired in costumes of the period’.

The event included ‘a maypole dance by children of St George’s School, Camberwell, a Jack-in-the-Green procession, dances by members of the English Folk Dance Society’ and ‘a mummer’s play, “St George and the Dragon”‘ (SLP 14 May 1920).
All kinds of organisations seem to have been involved in organising such events through the first half of the twentieth century, including churches of all denominations. Bermondsey Settlement was initiated by a Methodist preacher; the temperance Band of Hope held a May Day concert with a May Queen at Robert Street Chapel, Plumstead in 1907 (Woolwich Pioneer 3 May 1907); and in 1950 the Roman Catholic Our Lady of Seven Dolours, Friary Road (Peckham) hosted festivities with a May Queen elected by St Francis Infants School and ‘wearing a white silk confirmation gown with blue trim’. The Guide movement was also active; in 1948 for instance, Peckham Rye Guides and Brownies elected the May Queen for the May Day Revels held at St. Antholin’s Church Hall in Nunhead.
In Stockwell, the local Church of England vicar was the driving force: ‘at St Andrew’s National School, Stockwell Green…. the girls give a very charming display on May Day… The girl who is chosen Queen for her good conduct is the heroine of the day… After a pretty dance round the Maypole, the pageant concludes by the Queen’s receiving homage from the other girls. The revival is due to the Rev. J.H. Browne, the vicar of St Andrews’ (The Graphic, 7 May 1898).

Schools were clearly also a focus. In 1908, ‘The seventh annual May day Festival was held at Choumert road Girls School’ in Peckham, where eight year old Edith Hollands was crowned Queen and there was a ‘rustic romp round the maypole’ (SLO, 6 May 1908). A Downham May Queen was crowned at Pendragon Junior Girls School ‘attended by heralds, train-bearers and a crownbearer’ (KM, 1 July 1938: For other examples see Kennington Road Girls School, SLO 8 May 1908; St Chrysostum Girls Club, Peckham, SLO 10 May 1946.)

Other events were organised by socialist and co-operative movements. In the early part of the 20th century, the Woolwich Children’s Co-operative Guild held an annual May Day festival. In 1905 it took place at the Co-operative Hall, Parson’s Hill: ‘In olden times such gatherings were wont to be held on the village green: for Woolwich in the twentieth century the green had to be the Cooperative Hall, with a brilliantly be-ribboned and be-flagged maypole in the centre’. The hall was ‘festooned… with a profusion of spring flowers’. As well as the crowning of the Guild Queen and maypole dancing, the children performed a piece called ‘The Yearly Round’ featuring children representing the seasons, the months of the year, farmers, milkmaids and ‘the Spirit of Co-operation’ (WP 5 May 1905). In 1915 Woolwich Socialist Sunday School organised a May Day outing to Eltham Public Park (WP, 7 May 1915).

Return of the Maypole

The maypoles of the Middle Ages seem to have usually been just stripped tree trunks. Maypoles with ribbons were however known in France and seem to have been introduced into England to feature as part of the entertainments of the Pleasure Gardens of London, such as those at Vauxhall and Ranelagh in Chelsea. Horace Walpole wrote of a 1749 visit to the latter that ‘in one quarter was a maypole dressed with garlands, and people dancing round it to a tabor and pipe and rustic music, all masked’ (Walpole, 1840). The supper boxes at Vauxhall featured paintings of May Day scenes by Francis Hayman.
The Victorians codified a series of maypole ribbon plaiting dances which were popularised through schools. A key vector for this transmission was Whitelands College in Roehampton, where generations of teachers were taught the dances as part of their teacher training. John Ruskin – art critic, philanthropist and Camberwell resident – had an important role in this. He was a friend of the College Principal, the Reverend Canon John Faunthorpe, and in 1881 helped initiate the first May Day festival there. Students at Whitelands have elected an annual May Monarch ever since with the main concession to modernity being that in 1986 the rules were relaxed so that a May King could sometimes be elected instead of a May Queen.

Maypole dancing became a feature of school life in South London and elsewhere. In Bermondsey for instance, the opening of the new Tanner Street playground on 11 May 1929 featured a Maypole dance by infants of Riley Street School (Bermondsey Labour Magazine, June 1929). Maypole dancing was not always confined to May – it featured for instance at the Shirley Street Sports Day in Bermondsey in July of that year (BLM, September 1929).

The maypole also featured in the May Day Fetes held at St Mary Cray in the 1890s organised by local paper mill owner, E.H. Joynson. The Graphic reported (10 May 1890): ‘Of all pretty revivals, one of the prettiest, the May Day Fete, attracted great crowds to the usually quiet Kentish village of St Mary Cray. The May Queen, attended by her maids of honour, had her throne of a triumphal car, drawn by four Sussex bullocks, with drivers in Old English costume. The procession was led by Druids, with flowing beards and flowing robes (one very much like Father Christmas, out of season), followed by Friendly Societies with their banners, and tilters on horseback, by maskers, clowns, and sweeps, Jack-in-the-Green, living chess characters, milkmaids leading a decorated cow, children representing wild flowers, maids with garlands, and a living pack of cards… The dance around the Maypole… attracted great notice’.
May Day in St Mary Cray, (The Graphic, 10 May 1890)

The following year 10,000 spectators turned out in the pouring rain. ‘The costumes… were entirely designed by Mr Joynson, of the paper mills, and were carried out at the mill under his personal superintendence… it betokened a very pleasant state of feeling between the employer and the employed that the latter should have entered so heartily into the spirit and enjoyment of the performance’ (Graphic 9 May 1891).

May Day in St Mary Cray, (The Graphic, 10 May 1890)

But this kind of paternalist May Day from above was already being challenged by a new kind of May Day event. The same issue of the Graphic reported May Day demonstrations, and in some cases riots, in various countries. It seemed that a new spectre was haunting Europe: ‘Nothing in its way could be more impressive than the fact that essentially the same ideas have captivated the imagination of the labouring population of every civilised country… in all the great centres of industrial life they are evidently of the opinion that it is possible for them to have shorter hours of work and higher pay, and that it is just and necessary that the possibility should be transformed into a reality’ (Graphic 9 May 1891).



In the late nineteenth century a new layer of meaning was added to May Day, as the first of May became associated with the international workers movement. As we shall see, elements from traditional May Day celebrations came to be incorporated into socialist demonstrations – but was it just, as Hutton (1996) suggests, ‘a wholly fortuitous coincidence’ that ‘the strike which became the symbol of the American Labor Movement began upon 1 May’?. To answer this we have to examine the origins of the ‘Workers’ May Day’ in the struggle for an 8 hour day in the United States and elsewhere.

For the early workers movement internationally a key demand was for a reduction in the length of the working day. The 1884 Chicago congress of the Federation of Organized and Labor Unions (which later become the American Federation of Labor) declared that from May 1st 1886, it would impose an eight-hour working day in the United States by industrial action. Unlike most strikes which respond to particular events, this date was set several years in advance.

It is unlikely to have been a purely arbitrary date – but why the first of May? Dave Roediger (1997) has noted that in parts of the United States May 1st was known as Moving Day, the date when leases expired and when new terms and conditions of work were set for building tradesmen and others who worked outdoors. This would make it an obvious date for setting new hours of work. Of course the notion of May 1st as effectively the start of a new year might itself be related to older seasonal traditions. It is also quite possible that for some within the workers’ movement at the time the date had a symbolic value as a time of renewal, related to these traditions. Immigrants to the USA brought with them various May Day customs from their home countries. For instance a Maypole was famously set up at Merrymount in New England by Thomas Morton in the 1620s.

There does also seem to have been a precedent for radical movements to regard May 1st as significant. We have already seen that the Levellers’ ‘Agreement of the People’ was published on 1 May 1650. The proposed French Revolutionary Calendar renamed the month Floreal, with the opening day envisaged as a celebration of love and nature. The utopian socialist Robert Owen announced in 1833 that the New Moral World should begin on 1 May 1834 – Owenite ideas certainly had their influence in the US so this may have been a factor. On May Day 1820 the Cato Street conspirators, who had plotted to assassinate the British cabinet, were hanged in London.

It was also on 1 May 1776 that Adam Weishaupt founded the ‘Order of Perfectibilists’, later known as the llluminati, at the University of Ingolstadt. Apparently dedicated to the enlightenment ideas and critical of the absolute rule of kings and priests, this Masonic society was seen by reactionaries as the hidden hand behind every radical and republican stirring in 19th century Europe. As a case in point, the notorious anti-semite Nora Webster (1924) saw May Day as a plot of ‘the great German-Jewish company that hopes to rule the world’ led by ‘illuminized freemasons’ in the guise of socialists. She asked ‘Was it again a mere coincidence that in July 1889 an International Socialist Congress in Paris decided that May 1, which was the day on which Weishaupt founded the Illuminati, should be chosen for an annual International Labour demonstration?’. Well yes in all probability it was a coincidence.

Whatever the factors involved in choosing the date, the events of Saturday 1 May 1886 and the succeeding days are well documented. The eight hour day strike went ahead in parts of the USA, and by May 3 1886 perhaps 750,000 workers had struck or demonstrated (Roediger). In Chicago police killed two people when they opened fire on Monday 3 May during clashes outside the McCormack Reaper Works, where workers had been on strike since February. The following day a policeman was killed by a bomb thrown at a protest meeting in Haymarket square in the city. Eight anarchists who had been in the forefront of the 8-hour-day agitation in Chicago were convicted of murder, of whom seven were sentenced to death.

There was an international outcry against the trial and the sentences. In London those who spoke out included William Morris, Annie Besant (who had lived in Colby Road, Upper Norwood), George Bernard Shaw, Peter Kropotkin (then living at 6 Crescent Road, Bromley), Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, Ford Madox Brown, Walter Crane, E. Nesbit (then living in Lewisham), Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling (who later lived in Sydenham). A meeting on the case was held at the Peckham Reform Club (Freedom, November 1897).
Nevertheless, four of the accused were hanged. The deaths in Chicago had a powerful impact across the world, not least on Jim Connell who was inspired to write ‘The Red Flag’ anthem in 1889 on a train to New Cross – he was living at 22a Stondon Park in Honor Oak at the time (Gordon-Orr, 2004).

The movement for a shorter working day did not die with those who became known as the Chicago Martyrs. In December 1888 the American Federation of Labour called for a national day of demonstrations and strikes on 1 May 1890, and this call was echoed in July 1889 by the international socialist conference in Paris. So it was that from 1890 May Day became an annual international festival of working class solidarity.

The 1890s

In London, May Day 1890 was marked by a huge demonstration in Hyde Park, a venue that was to become the focus for May Day protests for many years to come. May 1st 1890 actually fell on a Thursday, and saw London anarchists holding a meeting at Clerkenwell Green. The main demonstration took place [after some political shenanigans- Ed: here’s Engels on the subject] on the following Sunday – May 4th – and saw contingents heading towards Hyde Park from all over London. A description from the South London Press of the attendance of the North Camberwell Radical Club and Institute’ provides an insight into how local groups organised themselves for the march:
‘A goodly contingent went from this club to take part in the monster eight-hours demonstration. The procession was headed by the club’s excellent band, which discoursed some well-chosen music on the way. A large banner followed, bearing the device in front, ‘The Proletariat Unite’, and on the reverse side the legend, ‘Eight hours’ work, eight hours’ pay; Eight hours’ rest, eight bob a day’. Mr Oodshorn devised and executed the banner, which was very effective. Mr J. Harrison (chairman of the club) headed those who marched in front, and Mr. H.J. Begg accompanied the contingent until it took its place in the general ranks. Two breaks followed the pedestrians – one full of ladies, and one containing those of the sterner sex who were not equal to a four-hours march on a warm day. Messrs. Benstroke and J.Sage (chairman of the Political Council) acted as marshalls. The breaks, which added greatly to the effectiveness of the procession, were under the charge of Mr A. Boreham (chairman of the Entertainment Sub-Committee). The contingent arrived in the park in time to hear some good speaking from No.7 Platform, and afterwards Mrs Besant’s stirring speech from the Socialists’ platform. The whole affair was excellently managed, and good humour and good order prevailed throughout’ (South London Press, 10 May 1890).

The next few years saw this route being repeated. In 1891, the North Camberwell Radical Club was again said to have been busy in preparing for the 8 hours demonstration in Hyde Park (SLP 25 April1891). The Club was based in Albany Road.

In 1892 a crowd estimated between 300 and 500,000 marched from Westminster Bridge to Hyde Park, with 350 banners and 110 bands. An observer reported that ‘The great staple industries of London, the dockers, the stevedores, the coal-porters, the gas-workers… railway workers, and so on, came first: and then a whole host of miscellaneous trades, led by little Jew cigar and cigarette-makers from the East End… The Workgirls… were in great force. The chocolate-makers had a smart little wagonette all to themselves, from which they dispensed ‘Union Chocolate’ in penny packets’ matchgirls’. Those present included Bernard Shaw, Tom Mann and Louise Michel (all of whom spoke), Eleanor Marx and the elderly Frederick Engels. The crowd was so large that ‘the South London contingent, led by John Burns, never got in at all, and it turned sadly back without a chance of attending the meeting. In a word, London has never seen such a gigantic turn-out of the forces which create her wealth’ (Penny Illustrated Paper, 7 May 1892)
In 1897 the Demonstration from Embankment to Hyde Park on Saturday 1 May included contingents from Camberwell and Battersea (Times 3 May 1897); in 1898 there was a large ‘International May Day Demonstration’ from Embankment to Hyde Park in the pouring rain (Times 2 May 1898).

Crystal Palace and Walter Crane

The turn of the new century saw the main May Day event moving to South London at the Crystal Palace. The Palace had been hosting May Day celebrations for many years. In the 1850s, William Husk of the Sacred Harmonic Society had helped recreate a Tudor-style May game there (Hutton, 1996). On May Day 1866 ‘a great concert of five thousand voices was given by children and others connected with the metropolitan schools… Ethardo [a circus performer] also reappeared, his lofty pole being converted into a gigantic maypole. On the following day Mr Charles Dickens kindly undertook to give a reading of Little Dombey’ (PIP 5 May 1866). In 1898 a ‘Crystal Palace May Day Festival’ had included ‘May-Day Sports and Maypole dance’ with a programme featuring ‘the Clan Johnson, Scottish Dancers and Champion Pipers and an Old English Maypole Dance’ as well as a ‘Grand May-Day Concert’ featuring ‘madrigals by the Crystal Palace Choir’ (advert in the Times, 1 May 1899).

May Day 1900 was different in tone. The Times reported that 12,000 took part, including ‘about 150 associations connected with the Social Democratic Federation and London Trades Council’. Six platforms were set up and the resolutions carried included one asserting ‘their determination to overthrow wagedom and capitalism, and to establish by united efforts that international cooperative commonwealth in which all the instruments of industry will be owned and controlled by the organised communities and equal opportunity be given to all to lead healthy, happy human lives’ (Times, 2 May 1900).
The event did though include more traditional May Day elements alongside the socialist speeches: ‘There was a procession at half past two, and meetings at 3 o’clock. There were also cycling and athletic sports, a Maypole dance and other attractions. The programme concluded with a display of fireworks by C.T. Brock & Co., including a special set Labour piece by Walter Crane’ (South London Press, 5 May 1900). Other attractions of the ‘International Labour Festival’ included a variety show and a performance of Bernard Shaw’s ‘Widowers’ Houses’ (advert in Times, 1 May 1900).

The artist Walter Crane recalled: ‘Labour’s May Day, which has become an international festival in the Socialist movement, was this year celebrated at the Crystal Palace, which certainly afforded plenty of space for the gathering, as well as entertainment and refreshment in the intervals of the functions. A vast meeting was held under the dome, and this was addressed by many of the leaders, such as Mr. H. M. Hyndman, Mr. G. N. Barnes, Secretary of the Amalgamated Engineers (and now in Parliament), Mr. Pete Curran, Mr. Ben Tillet, and many others. I made a design for a set piece for the firework display which was carried out on a gigantic scale and with remarkable success by Messrs. Brock. It was a group of four figures, typifying the workers of the world, joining hands, a winged central figure with the cap of Liberty, encircled by the globe, uniting them, and a scroll with the words ‘The Unity of Labour is the Hope of the World’. It was the first time a design of mine had been associated with pyrotechnics. I was rewarded by the hearty cheers of a vast multitude.’ (Crane, 1907 – Crane dates this event to 1899 while The Times reports it as being in 1900, though it is possible it was repeated in both years).
Crane was a key figure in the creation of a May Day iconography that combined socialist values with the familiar ‘Merrie England’ imagery of may queens, garlands and angels. Crane’s earliest May Day work was a series of illustrations for a fairy tale by John Wise, The First of May, a Fairy Masque (1881). His drawings depicted animals dancing round a maypole and fairy scenes. Soon he was to add a political dimension to such imagery. While for some conservative Victorians, the recreation of May Day festivities harked back to a traditional social order where everybody knew their place, socialists like Crane and William Morris mobilised visions of medieval pageantry and a lost rural idyll in the service of a critique of what they saw as the squalor of industrial capitalism.
The contrast between May Day festivities and the world of work had been drawn before. In May Day songs from the 1860s, WC Bennett had written: ‘Your fathers met the May, With laughter, dance, and tabor; Come, be as wise as they: Come steal today from labour… Talk not of want of leisure; Believe me, life was made, For laughter, mirth and pleasure, Far more than toil and trade’ (PIP 7 May 1864); and ‘Out from cities haste away, This is earth’s great holiday: Who can labour while the hours, In with songs are bringing May’ (PIP 5 May 1866).

But for most workers skipping into the fields on a work day was not an option – it was only the reduction of working hours and the extension of weekends and holidays that could create the free time for festive celebrations.
As the historian Eric Hobsbawm (1998) has argued, the act of demonstrating, and in some cases striking, on May Day made this connection directly: ‘It was thus both a gesture of class assertion and class struggle and a holiday: a sort of trailer for the good life to come after the emancipation of labour… Seen in this light May Day carried with it a rich cargo of emotion and hope’.


Crane’s images gave a strong visual identity to this ’emotion and hope’ and were precisely adverts ‘for the good life to come’, in which carefree, healthy proletarians dance in the open air. After May Day became the focus of an annual socialist demonstration, Crane produced a May Day cartoon every year. These were mostly published in Justice, paper of the Social Democratic Federation, but they were also printed for sale separately. Examples included ‘The Triumph of Labour’ (1891) ‘The Workers May Pole’ (1894) ‘A Garland for May Day’ (1895) ‘John Ball’s Creditors’ (1900), ‘The Goal’ (1904) ‘Socialism and the Imperialistic Will O’ the Wisp’ (1907), ‘A Posy for May Day and a Poser for Britannia’ (1910) and ‘The Triumph Car for May Day’ (1911).

Socialism and the Seasons

In addition to the main London demonstration, May Day was often marked by local events. In 1905, for instance, there was a ‘tremendous gathering’ in Woolwich’s Beresford Square for a May Day demonstration sponsored by Woolwich Independent Labour Party and Woolwich and District Trades and Labour Council. Speeches at this event show how in England at least, many saw a clear continuity between the workers’ May Day and the more traditional festivities. Mr. H.S. Wishart, the Chairman, declared: ‘long ago the workers were wont to assemble on May Day to enjoy themselves. Today the workers were nominally free, but their real condition was worse than in days gone by. Today the workers were really slaves owned by the masters, slaves to wages, and to the men who controlled the money power of the world’. Councillor Grinling elaborated: ‘May Day was the birthday of summer, and they were assembled on that occasion in spirit with the men and women all over the universe who on May Day saw the sun rise on a new summer and a new season. The lives of all were dependent upon the four seasons, yet livers in towns were so unfamiliar with the beauties of the earth and sky that they forgot the changing seasons’. He went on to herald the summer of the Labour Movement, with the ‘people rising to take… a fuller and juster share in all that comes from Mother Earth’ (Woolwich Pioneer, 28 April 1905, 5 May 1905).

Similar sentiments were voiced in Bermondsey Labour Magazine in the 1920s: ‘All over the world the organised Labour movement has set aside May 1st as a special holiday or festival. From pagan and mediaeval times the period of the year marked by the beginning of the month of May has been held as a time of rejoicing at the return of sunshine and warmth after the greyness and frost of winter. In the young trees the sap is rising. Flowers and buds and blossoms are lifting up their faces to the sun. Shall not humanity do likewise and rejoice with them? May Day for our ancestors, therefore, symbolised the Dawn of Hope – hope of harvest, hope of fruit, hope of plenty, hope of the glad time to come after the bleak discomfort of the past months. For Labour and the toiling masses everywhere, May Day signifies the new hope of the better days that are to be. It proclaims the bursting of the fetters of convention; it declares deliverance from the bondage of wage slavery; it tells of the times when the disinherited shall share in the beauty, the joy, the dignity of life. And, as the men of the past proclaimed their faith in the future by song and dance and merrymaking, by procession and pageant and revel, so the Labour and Socialist Movement over Europe demands that May 1st shall be a day of demonstration, of carnival, of freedom from work. The celebration of May Day is Labour’s proclamation to the tyrants of Land and Capital that the mighty are to put down from their seats and that the people of low degree are at long last to enter into their inheritance… May Day is Labour’s International Holy-day’ (The Meaning of May Day, Bermondsey Labour Magazine, May 1924).

The following year’s May edition of the magazine included ‘The Workers’ Song of the Springtide’ which bemoaned: ‘They sing of the merry springtide, Which is sweet to them indeed, These wealthy whom we are clothing, Whose little ones we feed; But to us is the sun a furnace, The spring but a burning cauldron, And life but a prison cell’. Still, the author proclaimed ‘the time will come when the
beauties of earth shall be for all… When the spring shall come laden with gladness, And pleasure instead of pain’
 (BLM, May 1925).

The Nineteen Twenties

The official labour movement in Britain generally timed the main May Day demonstrations so that they did not fall on a working day. 1920 was an exception – May Day fell on a Saturday, still a normal working day for most, and 6 million workers took a holiday. At the Woolwich Arsenal, the Shop Stewards wrote to the management informing them that the workers there had ‘decided to celebrate the First of May as a Labour Holiday’ (WP 30.4.1920). On the day ‘there were so many absentees from work that some of the departments had to shut down’ (WP 7 May 1920).

Many of them joined a demonstration on Dartford Heath that included contingents who had marched from Woolwich, Welling, Erith, Bexley Heath, Dartford and Crayford. It featured the Woolwich Labour Protection League drum and fife band and songs from the Woolwich Socialist Sunday School. There was also a children’s wedding procession with girls in home made paper dresses (KM 7 May 1920). The resolution passed at the mass meeting declared:
‘This meeting of workers assembled on Dartford Heath, May Day, 1920, sends fraternal greetings to the Proletariat of the World, and heartily rejoices at the continued success of the Russian Revolution. Recognising that the ever increasing burdens placed upon us are entirely due to Capitalist Domination, we urge the International Solidarity of our Class to bring about its emancipation from this system. Furthermore, we condemn the action of the British Government, in regard to its Militarist oppression of Ireland, Egypt and India’ (WP 7 May 1920).
As well as the Dartford demonstration, The South London Press reported a ‘gigantic muster in Hyde Park’ at the end of the May Day demonstration from Thames Embankment (SLP 7 May 1920).

In 1926, May Day marked the effective start of the General Strike. On Saturday May 1st, one million miners were locked out for refusing to accept a pay cut and longer hours. The same day workers at the Daily Mail walked out on strike refusing to print the paper’s lead article ‘For King and Country’. This marked the point of no return and from Monday May 3rd millions of workers went on strike in support of the miners. After nine days they were ordered back to work by the Trades Union Congress.
On Saturday May 1st itself at least 100,000 people marched from the Embankment to Hyde Park, including many from South London. ‘The Bermondsey contingent in the London May Day procession was the finest and most impressive that had been organised. At 11 am we lined up outside the Bermondsey Town Hall with our band, banners and brakes. Almost every section of organised workers in the Borough was represented’. The Bermondsey contingent met up with marchers from Deptford and Camberwell by St George’s Circus (BLM June 1926). Later there was a May Day Festival and Dance at Bermondsey Town Hall featuring ‘Bert Healey’s Famous Dance Band’ and ‘Limelight colour effects and novelties’ (BLM, April 1926).

May Day messages in the Bermondsey Labour Magazine reflected the turbulent times. New Cross (No.1 Branch) of the National Union of Railwaymen declared ‘Greetings to the workers in “All Labour Bermondsey”. International Labour Day, 1926, will go down in history as the turning point in the inevitable all conquering march towards emancipation… Let us honour the memory of our valiant pioneers, by striving for Unity – at home and in all the lands, irrespective of race, colour or creed’. Bermondsey NUR sounded a more seasonal note: ‘Let us therefore strengthen our own organisations, industrial and political, and continue every day this May Day Spirit of Brotherhood and Comradeship to meet the present Capitalist offensive. We read how in London before the ugly factories were built children danced the Maypole and men and women joined in their games on the people’s commons. Spring had come, birds were beginning to sing, flowers to bloom, and nature putting on her best. It is because of this, we workers think of the laws that are unjust and bind us. We long to repeal them and make Liberty and Freedom for all to enjoy’ (BLM, May 1926).
The history of the General Strike in South London is beyond the scope of this text, but it was strongly supported in most areas. There were clashes between strikers and police at the Elephant and Castle (Past Tense, 2005) and at the New Cross Tram Depot in New Cross Road (Gordon-Orr, 2004).

The Nineteen Thirties

In 1930, May 1st marked the end of a National Unemployed Workers Movement hunger march. Starting on 30 March 1930, twelve contingents of unemployed workers set off from areas including Scotland, Yorkshire, South Wales and Kent. Unemployed ‘hunger marchers from Kent’ joined with contingents from Bermondsey, Deptford and Lewisham at Bermondsey Town Hall in Spa Road to march via St George’s Circus to the Embankment and on to Hyde Park. ‘Bermondsey workers gathered in large numbers… under the banners of the local branch of the Electrical Trades Union, Bermondsey Shop Stewards Committee and the Bermondsey Branch of the National Unemployed Workers Committee Movement’. The marchers were headed by a drum and fife band (SLP 2 May 1930)
On 1st May the march finished with a mass demonstration of at least 50,000 in Hyde Park. Over the next few days there were various clashes with the authorities as marchers took control of Fulham workhouse to provide accommodation, occupied the boardroom at the Ministry of Health and attempted to storm the House of Commons (Hannington 1936). On May 2nd there was also a strike on the docks in Bermondsey, with a thousand ‘Tooley Street Stevedores and Dock Labourers’ walking out claiming that not enough workers had been allocated to unload a ship (SLP 6 May 1930)
In the same year, Bermondsey Council – led by the Labour Party’s Alfred Salter – agreed to grant employees a May Day holiday. In the evening there was a May Dance at Bermondsey Town Hall, followed on the Sunday after by a May Day demonstration from Bermondsey Town Hall to Southwark Park. The attendance was apparently not as large as in previous years, and the Labour Party’s platform in the park had to contend with the presence of ‘a rival communist orator and his following’ (BLM, May 1930).
An account of May Day in Bermondsey in the late 1930s is given in Jessica Mitford’s memoir of the period, Hons and Rebels (1960). In 1937, she moved to 41 Rotherhithe Street with her husband Esmond Romilly, back from supporting the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. They became involved in left-wing politics in the area and took part in the 1937 May Day march:
‘On May Day the entire community turned out, men, women and children, home-made banners proclaiming slogans of the ‘United Front against Fascism’ waving alongside the official ones. The long march to Hyde Park started early in the morning, contingents of the Labour Party, the Co-ops, the Communist Party, Independent Labour Party marching through the long day to join other thousands from all parts of London in the traditional May Day labour festival… Everyone took lunch in a paper bag, and there was much good-natured jostling and shouting of orders, and last-minute rounding up of children who had darted away in the crowd. Philip [Toynbee] and Roger taught us some new songs to sing on the way – parodies on Communist songs: ‘Class conscious we are, and class conscious we’ll be, And we’ll tread on the neck of the bourgeoisie’. ‘Oh ’tis my delight on a Saturday night to bomb the bourgeoisie!’, and a sarcastic version of the ‘The People’s Flag: ‘The People’s Flag is palest pink, It’s not as red as you might think’. We had been warned that the Blackshirts might try to disrupt the parade, and sure enough there were groups of them lying in wait at several points along the way. Armed with rubber truncheons and knuckledusters, they leaped out form behind buildings; there were several brief battles in which the Blackshirts were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the Bermondsey men’.


1940s and 1950s

In the aftermath of the Second World War, May Day marches resumed but were marked by a split as the Labour Party endeavoured to keep its members away from Communist Party influence. In 1946, the former held a rally at Covent Garden Opera House on the same day as the London Trades Council’s May Day demonstration to Hyde Park: ‘Marching to the band of Camberwell British Legion, about 1,000 workers from SE London moved off from St Georges Circus… every trades council in SE London, with the exception of Southwark and Wandsworth, was present. Local Communist parties were well represented, and among the trade union banners were those of Southwark TGWU, Brixton AEU and S. London AEU’ (SLO, 10 May 1946). In 1947, a May Day rally in Lewisham Town Hall was addressed by Labour Minister Herbert Morrison, whose criticism of strikes was met with silence, and saw 800 people singing ‘The Red Flag’ (SLO, 9 May 1947). The following year, the Labour Party organised a May Day procession through Lambeth, culminating in a rally in Brockwell Park (SLO, 7 May 1948).

The May Day demonstration was banned in 1949, prompting defiance and arrests in South London. The South London Press (May 1949) reported: ‘Waterloo marchers broken up by police: The Battle of Waterloo Road was South London’s biggest share in the May Day clashes between thousands of people in procession and the police. Some were injured after the police called for reinforcements to try and stop thousands who swelled a crowd of about 600 leaving St George’s Circus, Southwark, where a South London demonstration had been organised by Southwark Trades Council and supported by Bermondsey and Camberwell Trades Councils.
After the meeting ended and the crowd began to move along Waterloo Road, a procession was soon deemed contrary to the ban imposed by Mr Chuter Ede. More police, on foot and mounted, arrived and there were several clashes as they tried to break up the march. At the southern end of Waterloo Bridge there was a police cordon, but the crowd seeped through to find another line of police at the northern end of the bridge. Some of the marchers were diverted down to the Embankment, but most of them continued. Mr A.E. Scriven, secretary of the Southwark Trades Council, told the South London Press: ‘Our meeting passed off peacefully under the chairmanship of Mr Len Smith, chairman of our Trades Council. We made no attempt to organise a procession afterwards. It was extraordinary how the crowds suddenly increased as the people drifted away from our meeting. I think the police used unnecessary violence in dealing with the crowd in Waterloo Road. I know they have a difficult job to do, but they could have been more tactful’. London Trades Council speakers at the Southwark meeting included Mr Mark Bass of the Fire Brigade Union and Mr I.W. Hall, Sheet Metal Workers Union, a member of the London Trades Council executive’.

The following year, May Day demonstrators again sought to defy the Home Secretary’s ban on political processions. 69 people were arrested as mounted police broke up a crowd of thousands of people in and around Trafalgar Square (Times 8 May 1950). A number of South Londoners were among those arrested, including James McCabe, 31, an engineer from Carter Street, Albert Lodge, a Walworth Lorry Driver, and Agnes Mennell, an East Dulwich typist (SLO, 12 May 1950).

1960s and 1970s

May Day demonstrations continued in London through the 1950s and early 1960s, usually from the Victoria Embankment to Hyde Park on the first Sunday after May 1st. By the mid-1960s these seemed to be dwindling away, with numbers getting smaller each year. Some saw them as archaic and harking back to the interwar period. At the 1958 London Labour Conference a Deptford delegate complained that marching behind brass bands belonged ‘to the times of mass unemployment and empty bellies’, while in 1966 a black Labour councillor in Camberwell told Tribune that the now traditional May Day demonstration ‘meant little to him, as he had not participated in any of the struggles it honoured. He called for the celebrations to be made more relevant, not just for the sake of immigrants but also for native-born youngsters’ (Fielding 2004). Subsequently the Labour Party withdrew from the demonstrations and held a rally in Festival Hall instead from 1969 to 1971, though the agenda of speeches, classical music and performances from the Royal Shakespeare Company were not particularly popular with the party’s rank and file (Fielding 2004). Others were determined to take May Day back to its radical roots, prompting the formation in 1967 of the London May Day Committee to try and reinvigorate the tradition of demonstrating on May Day itself, not on the nearest weekend. A key driving force in this was John Lawrence (1915-2002), who lived at 29 Love Walk in Camberwell in this period.
Their first march in 1967, from Blackfriars to Farringdon, only attracted around 250 people, but by 1968 this had increased to a more respectable 2500 marching from Tower Hill to Transport House (McIlroy 2003). Unfortunately the 1968 May Day march was overshadowed by another demonstration of workers that day: dockers and workers from Smithfield and Billingsgate markets walked out in support of the racist MP Enoch Powell and marched on Westminster. Outside the House of Commons they clashed with marchers from the May Day demonstration (Times 2 May 1968). On the following Sunday there was a Labour Party May Day rally in Trafalgar Square, where Government ministers were heckled from the crowd (Times 6 May 1968).

1969 saw one of the biggest May Day events for years when thousands of people went on strike against the Labour Government’s proposed trade union legislation. The strike was unofficial but despite the lack of support of trade union leaders the government estimated that 90,000 walked out, including printers, car workers and dockers (other estimates put the number closer to 200,000). The Port of London was at a standstill and no daily papers were printed in London.
The 1969 London May Day demonstration was split due to political differences.Writing in the anarchist paper Freedom, Lawrence had proclaimed that ‘May Day is May 1st or it is nothing… This May Day is going to be different. Not a dreary slog through the City and the West End but a short march and then off to an open space, Victoria Park in the East End, to enjoy ourselves with bands, groups (pop not political), dancing, sports and anything else that the members want to do … it will be free day in every sense of the word, free from work and free to do what you like…. As one worker at our May Day Committee said: “My guv’nor will be choked if I take the day off and he’ll be double choked if he knows that I’m enjoying myself as well.”‘
However the Communist Party-led Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions refused to support the London May Day Committee and instead organised its own demonstration, to start from the same location half an hour before. At least 15,000 took part in the CP/LCTDU demonstration from Tower Hill to Lincoln’s Inn Fields (Times 2 May 1969), while another 500 headed off to Victoria Park.

The following year, the May Day demonstration (Sunday May 3rd) seemed to have returned to a relatively low key event, with the Times reporting that only 1000 marched to a rally at Festival Hall on the South Bank. As they went by Trafalgar Square they passed a rival May Day rally organised by the right-wing Conservative Party group The Monday Club with a strong National Front presence of at least 500. On the same day Pakistani workers marched from Hyde Park to Downing Street to protest against racist attacks (Times 4 May 1970). The 1971 march was uneventful, with ‘about a thousand people, including Labour Party members, old age pensioners and Vietnam war protestors, marched from Charing Cross to Hyde Park’ (Times 3 May 1971).

In 1973 the TUC called for a national day of action on May 1st against the Conservative government’s clampdown on wages. The pay freeze had already led to disputes in South London. For instance, in January ’73, 90 electricians employed by Southwark firm Phoenix on the St Thomas’s Hospital building site walked out and were still on strike on March 19th when there were clashes with police on the picket line (SLP 8 May 1973).
On May Day, by the government’s own estimates 1,600,000 workers went on strike, while the TUC estimated ‘several millions’ stayed away from work. In any event it was the biggest single stoppage of work since the 1926 General Strike with railways, factories, and newspapers all affected (Times, 2 May 1973). All 30,000 staff employed by the Labour-led Greater London Council were given the day off including the many employed at County Hall on the South Bank (SLP 8 May 1973).

An unusual call for support for the May Day strike came from the National Union of School Students branch at Dulwich College, one of the capital’s most exclusive private schools. The NUSS there claimed 47 members, including Simon Keys, a member of the national executive of the union. As well as calling for a walk out on May 1st, the Dulwich College NUSS newsletter denounced the class-segregated education system: ‘Most school students are middle to upper class and will go on to become part of the ruling class whereas the students at Kingsdale (a local comprehensive school) are predominantly working class, are educated to a much lower level, live in a worse environment and leave school to be wage slaves’ (SLP 1 May 1973).

By the end of the 1970s, May Day had been declared a public holiday. In 1970, the Trades Union Congress passed a resolution calling for two new public holidays a year: May Day and New Year’s Day (Times 12 September 1970). In 1975, the Labour Government declared that from 1978, May Day (or the Monday after it) would be a bank holiday.
The trade union May Day march has continued in Central London ever since, generally a fairly routine demonstration rarely exceeding a few thousand marchers. From time to time there have been other large scale trade union-organised events. In 1981 for instance, the May Day bank holiday (Monday 4th) was marked with a celebration of the Peasants’ Revolt 600th Anniversary on Blackheath, with music including Leon Rosselson and Squeeze.


Free Games for May

On May 12 1967 Pink Floyd presented “Games for May” at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank promising ‘space-age relaxation for the climax of spring, with electronic compositions, colour and image projections, girls and the Pink Floyd’. There was recorded bird song, millions of bubbles and free daffodils. Counter-cultural events like this were signs of a renewed interest in the pastoral dream of evergreen Albion. The earlier 1960s folk revival had also led to a resurgence of Morris and other forms of English folk dancing. From these overlapping strands the seasonal elements of May Day once again came to the fore.

In South London, students at Goldsmiths College formed the Blackheath Foot’n’Death Men in 1969, described in the International Times as a ‘Long haired Morris dancing crew’ (IT 11-25 February 1971). They danced at ‘underground’ happenings alongside bands like Hawkwind and The Pink Fairies. Over time they morphed into Blackheath Morris Men and are still going today, 40 years later. It was members of the Blackheath Morris Men who revived the Fowlers Troop Jack in the Green in the early 1980s, inspired by one of Thankful Sturdee’s photographs of the original troop from the turn of the twentieth century.
The Fowlers Troop have been going out on May Day ever since, processing through the streets with music, dance and fancy dress (clown costumes, a bear, Edwardian style clothes), all accompanying a very impressive Jack – a pyramid of greenery on a frame carried by a hardy volunteer concealed. The location varies – sometimes Greenwich, sometimes the Borough/Bankside area of Southwark (e.g. in 2007-2009 and 2011). In 2006, a larger scale event in Deptford with Rediscovered Urban Rituals included a recreation of Sturdee’s 1902 photograph.

Sacred Marriages and Green Men: neo-pagan Beltane

The flowering of the counter-culture also saw a revived interest in mysticism, the occult and various spiritual paths. In this context May Day came to acquire another layer of meaning, with its reinvention as the neo-Pagan Beltane festival.

In her influential ‘The Witch Cult in Western Europe’ (1921) Margaret Murray (1862-1963) identified May Day as one of the four Sabbats of an underground witch religion that had survived from pre-Christian times until at least the seventeenth century. Similarly in ‘The Golden Bough’ (1922), James Frazier paid a lot of attention to May customs. He considered the Jack-in-the-Greens in a chapter on ‘Relics of tree worship in Modern Europe’ as ‘representatives of the beneficent spirit of vegetation’, while the crowning of the King and Queen of May represented a kind of sacred marriage, ‘magical rites intended to ensure the revival of nature in spring… our rude forefathers personified the powers of vegetation as male and female, and attempted, on the principle of homeopathic or imitative magic, to quicken the growth of trees and plants by representing the marriage of the sylvan deities in the persons of a King or Queen of May’.

Current day folklorists and historians are generally dismissive of the suggestion of folk customs being diluted survivals from pre-history. In any event, the notion of the sacred marriage of the King and Queen does not fit with most descriptions of early modern May Day, where, as we have seen, May Kings seems to have been a lot more numerous than Queens. There is no evidence of the Jack in the Green before the 1780s, even if the image of what has more recently been labelled as the Green Man is familiar from the foliate heads on old churches.

Ronald Hutton and others have undermined the claims of modern day witches and neo-pagans to be inheritors to an ancient nature religion practiced continuously since the Neolithic, and indeed poured scorn on Margaret Murray’s earlier claim that such a religion was still being practiced as recently as the seventeenth century.
Modern witchcraft, or Wicca, seems to have been codified by Gerald Gardner (1884-1964) and others in the 1940s and 1950s, drawing on various literary, occult, and folklore sources. In the process they effectively reinvented a pagan May day – which may, or may not, have been recognisable to the pre-Christian revellers of the British Isles. Gardner included a ritual for May Day into his ‘Book of Shadows’, influenced by Kipling’s ‘Puck’s Song’. This was one of eight seasonal festivals, including solstices and equinoxes, occurring at regular intervals in the course of the ‘Wheel of the Year’.

All of these festivals may have been marked at one time or other by different groups of our ancestors, but there is no evidence that this particular calendar in its entirety was celebrated in any one period. Its origin seems to lie with Ross Nichols, an important figure in modern Druidry, who devised the Wheel based on his reading of Medieval literature in the 1940s (Orr, 2000).
The various neo-Druid groups originating in the 18th century celebrated the equinoxes and summer solstice, but not Beltane. The order Nichols belonged to rejected his calendar, and it was not until he established The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) in 1964 that modern Druids in Britain began May Day rituals. In the mean time, Nichols’ ‘Wheel of the Year’ had been incorporated in another reinvented pagan tradition – that of Wicca – by his friend Gerald Gardner.
One of the earliest of Gardner’s covens was developed in South London from the late 1950s, where Rae Bone was high priestess. Her coven was in Tooting Bec and then Streatham, while its daughter coven, Madge Worthington’s Whitecroft, met in Chiswick, Chislehurst and then Beckenham (Hutton 1999). Whatever the origins of their ritual, it is indisputable that by the 1960s various school of modern paganism were celebrating Beltane or a similar festival on May Day in the London area.


In the aftermath of the 1988 ‘Acid House’ explosion, a new generation tasted the delights of partying in the great outdoors and some of the old ‘hippy’ ideals of love, peace and communing with nature were excavated once again. In conflict with the authorities, parts of this scene also became increasingly politicised. The scene was set for the latest twist in the London May Day story.

Within the rave scene, May Day was sometimes marked with parties if only because it was a bank holiday weekend. For instance Telepathic Fish were pioneers of ambient parties, where the emphasis was as much on chilling out as on dancing. One of their first big parties in 1993 was a May Day tea party in a squat in Tunstall Road, Brixton. Fliers were given out on teabags and DJs including Mixmaster Morris and Richard “Aphex Twin” James. One of the organisers recalled ‘It was from Sunday tea on May bank holiday and people just turned up in dribs and drabs all through the night. We got Vegetable Vision in to do the lights. We ran around and got mattresses from on the street round Brixton and we had some of my friends doing the tea. We made lots of jelly and there was plenty of acid about. That went on for about fourteen, fifteen hours, with people lying around. That was the first proper Telepathic Fish, May 1st, ’93’ (Toop, 1995).

On Clapham Common, Wandsworth Trades Council started putting on big May Day free festivals in the 1990s, and by featuring bands who were also popular on the electronic dance music and festival circuits attracted thousands of people who might not otherwise have come into direct contact with the socialist May Day tradition.
On 1st May 1994 featured bands included Dub Warriors and Fun Da Mental, as well as the Bhundu Boys, The following year, sponsored by the GMB Union, acts included Tribal Drift and Skunk Anansie. The Government had just passed its Criminal Justice Act, with its notorious ‘anti-rave’ powers targeting parties where the music was characterised by ‘repetitive beats’. On Sunday April 30th 1995, 3,000 marched from the Embankment to oppose the CJA, ending up at the May Day festival on Clapham Common. Neither the police nor the festival stewards were keen to allow the United Systems sound system on to the Common, so the lorry pulled up alongside the park, where people danced on the grass next to it.

The movement of opposition to new roads and other developments came to a head in the mid-1990s with the protest camp against the Newbury bypass and the occupation of abandoned houses on the proposed route of the M11 at Claremont Road in Leytonstone. Seasonal parties became part of the social life of these camps, and on May Day 1998 a Beltane party was held in the protest camp at Crystal Palace, set up in the previous month to oppose plans to build a multiplex cinema in the park. The protest continued until March 1999 when hundreds of police evicted the camp – though it took them a further three weeks to remove two protestors who had barricaded themselves in an underground bunker (Anon 1999).

In 1999, two separate May Day protests ended up on Clapham Common. The International Cannabis Coalition organised a ‘May day is J day’ Cannabis Carnival 1999, with people marching from Brixton to Clapham behind Luton’s Exodus Collective sound system on a flat bad lorry. More than 10,000 people gathered on the Common, with bands and sound systems playing despite a last minute objection by the police to the event getting a licence (SchQuall 2000). On the same day, several hundred people held a May Day party on the London Underground. Boarding a Circle Line train at Liverpool Street station, they decorated the train, released balloons, played music and gave away food. Leaflets were given out against tube privatisation and demanding a free transport system. After a couple of hours, the police stopped the train and those on board were put on another train to Clapham Common, where they joined the legalise cannabis campaigners in the sunshine.

Among those organising the Party Line tube party was Reclaim the Streets (RTS), established amidst the road protests of the early 1990s with a focus on reclaiming public space from the car through street parties. On May Day 2000 they called for an anti-capitalist protest in Parliament Square, explicitly bringing together the different strands of May Day: “Mayday is RED for international workers’ day; GREEN for Beltane, the ancient fire and fertility festival that signals transformation and rebirth; and BLACK for the anarchists executed for their part in trying to bring about a shorter working day… Mayday is a time when RED, GREEN and BLACK converge – a catalyst for hope and possibility” (RTS flyer, 2000).

This echoed the sentiments of the US radical historian Peter Linebaugh (1999): ‘To the history of May Day there is a Green side and there is a Red side. Green is a relationship to the Earth and what grows thereof. Red is a relationship to other people and the blood spilt there among… Green dreams of the world that is to come; Red resists the world as it is. Green is nurturing; Red is struggle. May Day is both’.

Several thousand people made their way to central London on May 1st 2000, with banners displayed proclaiming ‘the earth is a common treasury for all’, and a Maypole raised next to Parliament. An attempt was made to transform the Parliament Square green into a ‘guerrilla garden’ with the planting of flowers and plants. Most famously the statue of Winston Churchill was given a turf mohican. After a long stand off with the police, hundreds of people headed South with a Samba band over the river to Kennington Park where ‘someone had the bright idea of starting a football match… and a hundred a-side game ensured. Eventually, the crowd dispersed’ (Anon 2000).

The following year there was an intensive police operation to prevent a recurrence of the May Day protests. A month before May Day, up to 200 police raided the Button Factory, a squatted building in Wanless Road, Herne Hill that had been used for gigs, parties and meetings. The police portrayed it a training centre where ‘Anarchists from across Europe were due to gather in the disused factory this weekend for riot training and planning’ (Daily Telegraph, 31 March 2001). On May Day itself, the South London May Day Collective called for people to gather at Elephant and Castle for an ‘anti-privatisation picnic’ as one of a series of ‘anti-capitalist actions across London’. Several hundred people met up there before heading into central London where the day ended with demonstrators being held in a police cordon by Oxford Circus.

The 2002 May Day events saw several hundred cyclists take part in the South London Critical Mass mobile protest, starting off from Camberwell and heading off via Elephant and Castle into the City of London and the West End. There they joined up with the main protest in Mayfair, which the flyer pointed put was so-named as ‘the traditional place of Mayday celebrations… Mayday in Mayfair will be a fluid, spontaneous and exciting return to the Mayfayre’. Many other events were held across London during that week as part of the Mayday Festival of Alternatives, including a New Cross and Deptford Radical History Walk.
2003 Mayday in London


In the first decade of the twenty-first century May Day continued to be marked in South London in many different ways. The children’s May Queen festivities initiated by the Victorians continued, particular on the outer fringes of South London. It is true that some of the longer established traditions seemed to struggle to survive. In 2002, the May Queen Society in Mitcham agreed to discontinue its event that had started in 1949: ‘The crowning of Mitcham May Queen, one of the borough’s best-loved traditions, could be consigned to history after more than 50 years because organisers cannot drum up enough support to keep the event running’ (Wimbledon Guardian, 1 May 2002). In Croydon too, the future of the May Queen was in doubt: ‘The little girls of the historic Croydon May Queen group, who have delighted generations with their jigs round the maypole, may have had their last dance’ (Croydon Guardian, 16 May 1998).

Elsewhere though the Wallington May Queen made it through to its centenary in 2003, and the Beckenham May Queen was crowned in Croydon Road Recreation Ground in 2010. In the same year, the Caterham and Warlingham May Queens both had floats in Caterham Carnival on Westway Common. And on Hayes Common in the London Borough of Bromley, 26 May Queens from around south-east London and Kent took part in the London May Queen event – where similar events have been held for a hundred years or more. Maypole dancing in schools was much rarer than fifty years before, but not entirely extinct. At Redriff Primary School (SE16), a May Day event with maypole dancing was held in 2008, with the English Folk Dance and Song Society on hand to teach the children dances. The school was chosen because in the 1960s it had hosted a festival of singing games and playground chants.

The pagan Beltane was celebrated in various places: Children of Artemis held Beltane events at Croydon Fairfield Hall in 2002 and 2007. At Green Angels in Trundle Street (SE1), Avalon in London and the Dragon Environmental Network held an eco-pagan Beltane in 2004.

In the Roman Catholic Church, May 1st was designated as the Feast of St Joseph the Worker in 1955. With the influx of migrant workers into London from traditionally Catholic countries (e.g. Latin American people settling around Elephant and Castle or Portuguese around South Lambeth), the day gained a new resonance. South London churches took part in an annual Mass for Migrant Workers at Westminster Cathedral held from 2006 at the beginning of May, accompanied by a rally calling for better wages and an amnesty for undocumented migrants. In 2011, it was scheduled to take place at St George’s Cathedral in Southwark.

While the annual socialist May Day demonstration continued in central London, the more direct action oriented anti-capitalist protests came to end for the time being in 2004, when the London May Day Collective decided not to organise an event other than a picnic in St James Park. But there were a variety of local radical May Day events. In 2007 a procession made its way from the Camberwell Squat Centre in Warham Street SE5 to Kennington Park behind banners reading ‘Workers of the World Relax’ and ‘Kennington Park – A common place for all’, referring to the park’s pre-enclosure history as a common, where the Chartists gathered in 1848. 50 or so people gathered in the park for a picnic where they danced around a maypole, featuring an imitation surveillance camera on top. Fowlers Troop Jack in the Green were out every May Day with their costumes, folk music and dancing, and there were occasional larger scale festive events.

In Battersea Park there was a 2007 ‘May Day Festival and Procession’ featuring a Maypole, Morris dancing and the burning of a giant Jack in the Green sculpture.


For hundreds, and in all probability thousands of years, people have been celebrating at the height of Spring in many different ways. When people celebrate today they are not simply acting out a script surviving from ancient times, but nor are they simply reinventing festivals spontaneously from scratch.

We can think of May Day as a kind of dressing up box, full of customs, images, songs and stories. Different people at different times have dipped into this box and selected the bits that fitted with their current hopes and concerns. Some things have been lost or forgotten, but new elements have been added. As Roy Judge (2000) has put it: ‘May Day should be thought of as producing a diversity of activity, which changed its associations and relationships in kaleidoscopic fashion. There was not a set, immutable pattern, but rather a fluid, moving process, which combined different elements at different times’.
For as long as people have been writing about May Day they have been looking back to some golden age when the festival was supposedly bigger and better.

When John Stowe wrote 400 years ago of London May Day customs he did so under the heading ‘Sports and Pastimes of Old Time’. A common complaint in the 19th century was that ‘The May-day morris dancers have degenerated into Jack-in-the-green and his attendants, and they are not what they used to be; the dance of milk-maids is no more; the May-pole is unhonoured; all the old customs are dying out’ (The Graphic 4 March 1870).
If the best of May Day was always already in the past, it has evidently had a very long after life in South London and many other places. Paradoxically this nostalgia has sustained May Day and helped give it life: ‘We love it for what it has been – for what it reminds us of; for undying memories and evergreen associations, for the fragrance of flowers that still lingers about it, and the echoes of unsurpassed music that it still brings home to our hearts’ (PIP 2 May 1863).

But May Day is not simply backward looking – there is an inherent optimism in celebrating the perpetual return of brighter days, and indeed of looking to children as the bearers of the future. May Day in all its guises is ‘an amorphous event within which the central themes of revival and new life have been expressed in a number of different ways’ (Judge, 1999). But more than that the idealised form of May Day festivities has offered a glimpse of a different way of life – an affirmation of the joy of living, of free time spent in the company of others in the open air, of pleasure exalted over drudgery of labour. Or as described on the ribbons of Walter Crane’s Workers Maypole, a celebration of ‘Socialication, Solidarity, Humanity’ and ‘Leisure for All’.


The overall understanding of May Day customs in this text is particularly indebted to Ronald Hutton and Roy Judge, whose work is an essential starting point for the study of seasonal festivities and May Day in particular.

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Newspapers and periodicals:
• Bermondsey Labour Magazine (BLM)
• Bromley Record
• The Graphic
• International Times
• Kentish Mercury (KM)
• Penny Illustrated Paper (PIP)
• South London Observer (SLO)
• South London Press (SLP)
• Woolwich Pioneer (WP)