Today in London’s policing history, 1798: the Wapping Coal Riot

On 2nd July 1798, officers of the West India Merchants and Planters Marine Police Institute, the UK’s earliest organised police force proper, launched their first patrols of the crowded waters of the River Thames, based at a HQ at Wapping New Stairs.

The new force was at first privately funded, and had been launched by Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish businessman and statistician. Colquhoun had made his name and money in the lucrative commercial trade in Virginia, and later made more cash trading linen. When the American Revolution broke out, Colquhoun took the side of the British government against the rebellious colonists, and helped fund a Glasgow regiment to contribute to the war effort.

The British defeat saw him relocate back his energies to Britain. Colquhoun was interested in statistics, and collected economic data, which he used to lobby the government on behalf of the employers in various industries, particularly cotton and muslin (his background in textile dealing had made him a lot of contacts). He wrote numerous pamphlets and treatises promoting legal reform and changes in business practice – usually in the interests of powerful employers. Colquhoun was increasingly in political and government circles, and he aspired to a government position. In the late 1780s he was appointed a Magistrate in the East End.

The London docks were then the East End’s major industry; vast amounts of cargo were unloaded here, from all over the world. This was how the capital was supplied with food, cloth, sugar, raw materials… anything to supply what had become the most powerful and richest city in the world.

But there was a major problem for the dock owners and traders whose goods travelled through them – theft. Merchants were losing an estimated £500,000 worth (million in our money) in stolen cargo annually from the Pool of London on the River Thames. Many ships were unloaded on open docks or on the open river, accessible to looting; however, organised or individual theft by dockers, sailors and other workers was responsible for large amounts of disappeared cargo. There were any number of ways of making items vanish for resale on the many East End markets. The authorities had relatively little manpower to exert any force to prevent or detect theft or track missing goods down.

In 1797 Colquhoun, John Harriot, an Essex Justice of the Peace and master mariner, and utilitarian philosopher of repression Jeremy Bentham collaborated on a plan to remedy the losses to thieves. Harriot and Bentham drew up a proposal for a new police force on the docks, and Colquhoun went to work to lobby the West India Planters Committees and the West India Merchants to fund the new organisation, and applied to the government for permission to operate. The merchants stumped up £4,200 (about £543,000 in today’s moolah), and the state agreed to a one-year trial of the embryonic force. On 2 July 1798, the Thames River Police began operating with Colquhoun as Superintending Magistrate and Harriot the Resident Magistrate.

The very idea of a police was considered an affront by many in England; English folk of various classes held it outraged ‘the liberties they held dear’. Some in positions of power and wealth also thought the idea of a government-controlled police force ( as it existed in France) would be an expensive burden on the public purse. Colquhoun cleverly re-framed the political debate on policing, drawing on his economic statistics to try to demonstrate show that a police dedicated to crime prevention was not only “perfectly congenial to the principle of the British constitution” but also had potential to be cost effective.

The new force began with about 50 men, whose job was to police more than 30,000 workers in the river trades. Of these workers Colquhoun claimed a third were known criminals and “on the game”.

Whether these figures were reliable, the new river police inevitably received a hostile reception from the riverfront workers. For many of the workers on the docks, lighters and ships, and in the warehouses, a little bit of lightfingeredness supplemented what was usually low and irregular pay. Most of these jobs were casual, badly paid, seasonal; survival for these men and their families was generally a matter of daily worry. Meanwhile huge profits were being made on the tobacco, food, sugar, coal and myriads of other imports. The merchants at the top lived in luxury the dockworkers could only imagine. The temptation to help yourself to some of the profits passing through your hands had grown by tradition and struggle into a perk of the job. A lot of cracking down on ‘theft’ took the form of changing (or enforcing tighter interpretations of) perks and traditional right to take offcuts, spilled goods etc, which workers had established over decades of struggle and negotiation. Workers fighting to extend those perks ,and bosses pushing to restrict the, was part of a constant war between workers and employers; the creation of the river police could only be seen as an attack on a part of the workers’ income. And the London dockworkers were often prepared to fight to protect their interests.

The embryonic Thames River Police was organised very differently from what we might think of as a modern police force. The men who made up the river police were described as watermen, surveyors and lumpers – dockworkers enlisted to also police the job. There were only a very few constables in the force (five initially) – they were mostly employed patrolling the dockside. The rationale behind employing workers to police their workmates was that a considerable amount of crime, committed by those people employed in unloading vessels arriving in the Port of London, could be prevented if you could guarantee the honesty and integrity of those men employed in ‘lumping’ cargoes off the ships. ‘Lumpers’ employed in unloading vessels under the protection of the Marine Police Office were those with a reputation for honesty – and they were paid above the usual rate. These men were seen to be as much a part of the Marine Police Office as, say the watermen, surveyors or even the magistrates themselves. A clever process of internalising policing into the mentalities of workers, setting some workers to spy on others.

The River Police was aimed not only control of the mass and endemic nicking of goods arriving at the docks, but also breaking any form of organisation by the workers. It was paid for by the bosses, and expected to serve their interest, and workers getting together was on its radar as part of the ‘crime’ it had to keep an eye on. Colquhoun was a magistrate, and the East End magistrates had powers over labour and wages; they set wage levels, and even had a hand in organising the trade itself, for instance organising coalheaving gangs. Rival views as to how this was to be interpreted had played a crucial and divisive part in the 1768 ‘river strike’– a cataclysmic strike for higher wages that had ended up in pitched battles, murder and hangings… Alderman William Beckford, an East End magistrate, had backed gangs of scabs collected to fight strikers and smash the strike; Beckford was also a major importer of goods through the docks. The same men were employers, law enforcers and politicians, and use these connections to their own profit, and to attack working people on a multitude of levels – as well as being slave traders and plantation owners in the West Indies. Beckford, for instance, was known as the ‘king of Jamaica’ for the size of his plantations, and was determined to protect the profits from his goods from the Caribbean that came through the docks.

Like Beckford, Colquhoun was deeply involved in both the East End dock trades and the Atlantic triangular trade. Historian Peter Linebaugh identifies Colquhoun as a crucial product of, and contributor to, the economic and social power networks that drove the Atlantic trades.

“He was a planner of the trans-Atlantic cotton economy compiling stats of the workers, wages, factories, and imports in order to assist the prime minister and cabinet of England maximise profits from the cycle of capital in England, India, America, Ireland, Africa. That work was interrupted by the revolutions in France and Haiti. In the 1790s he criminalised custom. He led the hanging of those committing money crimes. He led the apprehension of those in textile labour who re-cycled waste products to their own use. He organised political surveillance by spies and snitches of those opposing slavery. In addition to his Virginia cotton interests he owned shares in Jamaican sugar plantations.” There was a direct link in terms of goods arriving from Caribbean and the interests of planters, shippers, etc, in seeing maximum of profits from them and less ‘attrition’ by working people. The West India merchants and planters were major contributors to the funds raised to pay for the new police.

Transport of coal was at the heart of the docks, and theft of coal a crucial battleground. Houses, industry, offices – coal was vital for heating and came into the docks on a colossal scale. Possibly more than any other commodity, coal was ripped off by the dockworkers, often on an individual scale. Coalheaving was dirty, hard and backbreaking work, paid badly. As the 1768 strike had shown, the coalheavers were often the most volatile group of workers, with a potential for collective action and violence.

Coal was also to cause an early battle between the dockworkers and the new River Police. Harriott and Colquhoun were both determined to stop the ‘coal markets’, selling of nicked coal from the docks, which were openly held in the streets of Wapping.

On the evening of 16th October 1798, three men stood trial at the Thames Magistrates Court, which was attached to the Marine Police Office. They were two coal heavers and one watchman’s boy, all accused of theft of coal (in fact of having coal in their possession and giving no reasonable explanation as to why), and were all convicted and each fined forty shillings. As they left the building, some friends arrived at the court and paid the fines. Upon leaving, one of the three, Charles Eyers, was met by his brother, James, who said “Damn your long eyes, have you paid the money?” Charles said “Yes, I have.” James then took his brother by the collar, dragged him toward the door and said “Come along and we shall have the money back or else we shall have the house down!”

Constable Richard Perry later testified: “I opened the door to let Charles Eyers out, when there was a voice cried, you b-y long thief have you paid the money? I saw there was a riot going to be, and I shoved the door of the office to immediately: then there was another voice said, here goes for the forty; with that the fan-light of the door was instantly knocked all over me, I suppose with a stick, they could not have reached it without; I went into the Magistrate’s room, and immediately the next light was beat, shutters and all, into the office, by large stones, I suppose twenty pounds weight, such stones as the streets were paved with; they then proceeded to the next light, that was beat in also with great stones.

– Q. Was the street quiet at this time?
– A. No, there was crying and shouting, and a great noise, and saying they would have the b-y Police-office down; they then proceeded to the third window, and beat that in also, and a large stone came in, which took me over the shoulder, and passed Mr. Colquhoun, the Magistrate.”

Within a very short period of time a hostile crowd – some reports reckoned it at around 2000 men – had gathered outside the police office and stones and rocks were being directed against the windows. There was talk of burning down the police office, with the police inside.

The action that was to follow was to leave two men dead and another wounded.

The police inside the office secured the building. When a large stone smashed through a window, officer Perry took a pistol and fired a shot into the crowd, that shot killed a rioter (who was never identified at the trial). The crowd seemed to quieten and withdraw slightly. Perry asked the magistrates to leave the building where he obviously felt at great risk. Having gone into the street, Colquhoun read the Riot Act to the crowd, ordering them to disperse. They did not.

Gabriel Franks, a master lumper employed by the Marine Police Office (later described as ‘not a sworn constable but occasionally assisting in the Office’) was apparently drinking in the nearby Rose and Crown pub. Hearing the commotion, he made his way to the police office with two other men named Peacock and Webb, and asked to be admitted, but was told that nobody was being allowed in or out of the building. Franks returned to the main street, possibly to observe the disturbance and gather information and evidence. He told Peacock to keep tabs on one particularly active rioter, whilst he himself went off, telling peacock he would try and secure a cutlass for their protection. However, someone obviously recognised Franks as a Police Office agent, as according to Peacock, about a minute after Franks walked off, a shot rang out from the direction of the Dung Wharf, and Franks cried out that he had been shot. The shooting from inside the Police Office that killed the rioter and the shot that killed Franks apparently happened in quick succession.

Franks did not die immediately. He lived on for several days, drifting in and out of consciousness. During this time Franks was questioned about the shooting, but had no idea as to who had fired the shot. The actual identity of the person who pulled the trigger and fired the fatal shot was never discovered; however, the motive would clearly seem to be hatred of the Marine Police, Franks being known as someone associated with the police office.  He might have been deliberately singled out as he walked towards the Dung Wharf, or, he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Could it have been friendly fire – ie was he killed by a shot from inside the Police Office? Witness Elizabeth Forester later tried to persuade the court that both Franks and the unnamed rioter had been killed by the one shot fired from the police office, but her evidence was discredited by the court. However, there doesn’t seem to have been any other evidence of rioters carrying or using firearms.

Failing to identify anyone who might have really shot Franks, the authorities plumped for a blatant frame-up on the loosest of justifications. James Eyers, whose behaviour at the court was the initial spark that kicked off the riot, was eventually arrested and charged with the murder of Gabriel Franks.

No one produced any evidence to suggest that Eyers had actually fired the fatal shot, or even seriously tried to suggest he had anything to do with the shooting. The prosecution’s case was that his actions in starting the riot, therefore he was responsible for Franks’ death, under the law of ‘common purpose’ (today this might come under the ‘Joint Enterprise’ concept). This was conveniently also useful in removing an obvious opponent of the Marine Police and setting a grim example to the coalheavers that resistance to policing would reap the harshest of rewards. Eyers greatest crime, the judge freely admitted, was that he had called for the Police Office to be torn down, “in breach of the peace, and in open violation of the laws of the land, in the pursuit of a very wicked purpose, namely, the demolition of the house in which the Magistrates administered the justice of the country, and the destruction of the Magistrates themselves…”

Eyers was convicted of murder on the 9th January 1799, and sentenced the following Monday morning to be hanged.

Despite – or because of – the riot and resulting deaths, the success of the police force in reducing theft on the docks was enough to guarantee the Marine Police’s future. After its first year, Colquhoun reported that the force had “established their worth by saving £122,000 worth of cargo and by the rescuing of several lives”.

The government passed the Marine Police Bill on 28 July 1800, transforming it from a private to public police agency – making official the police as a centralised, armed, and uniformed cadre of the state. Colquhoun later published a book on the experiment, The Commerce and Policing of the River Thames. It found receptive audiences far outside London, and inspired similar forces in places in other countries, notably, New York City, Dublin, and Sydney.

Historians of policing credit Colquhoun’s innovation as a critical development towards the creation Robert Peel’s “new” police three decades later. Along with the Bow Street Runners, the Marine Police Force was eventually absorbed by the Metropolitan Police in the 19th century. Colquhoun’s utilitarian approach to the problem – using a cost-benefit argument to obtain support from businesses standing to benefit – allowed him to achieve what previous magistrates had failed – for instance the Bow Street detectives. Unlike the stipendiary system at Bow Street, the river police were full-time, salaried officers prohibited from taking private fees.

The Marine Police Force continues to operate at the same Wapping High Street address. In 1839 it merged with the Metropolitan Police Force to become Thames Division; and is now the Marine Support Unit of the Metropolitan Police Service.

 

This week in London radical history, 1831: riots break out as House of Lords reject the Reform Bill

The long campaign for reform of the British political system went through many phases, especially in the 19th century. Between 1830 and 1832 a powerful agitation for political change revived, following a decade in which post-Peterloo repression and a measure of economic stability had left pressure on this front relatively quiet. This period marks an almost unique phase in the evolution of the franchise, as the middle and working classes formed a brief alliance, a broadly shared goal – parliamentary representation for unrepresented towns.

During the 1820s, after the Napoleonic Wars, an upsurge of reform movements had been frustrated by government repression, leading to outbreaks of mass violence such as the Spa Fields Riot, attempts at insurrection like the Pentrich Uprising, vicious official responses like the Peterloo Massacre, and clandestine plots such as the Cato Street Conspiracy. Following these turbulent years, many radical energies instead went into the free thought ideas of Richard Carlile, into Owenite socialism and co-operation, into the ‘war of the unstamped press’. After 1830, though, campaigns for political reform grew up again, to become more powerful than even previous waves of battles for reform.

Many reform associations and political unions were launched, often by veterans of the 1816-20 reform wave. Many who had been seen as ultra-radicals then had become solidly liberal and respectable, seeking moderate reform and representation for newly-confident manufacturing towns, as well as free trade. In Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, for example, Whig-liberal merchants and manufacturers (predominantly from Dissenting religious backgrounds) had become increasingly wealthy and influential economically, because of massive growth in industries like textiles; they posed a more serious challenge to the power of the Tory-Anglican local elites, in a way that they had been unable to do in the 1790s or 1810s.

The early 1830s saw three main phases of agitation:
– the initial formation of political unions across the country, to support the introduction of Earl Grey’s first reform bill in March 1831;
– a wave of meetings, petitions and riots following the House of Lords’ rejection of the bill on 8 October 1831,
– finally, the tumultuous passage of Lord John Russell’s reform bill from March to the ‘days of May’ in 1832.

By 1830 two major constitutional changes affecting the franchise had already been made by the Tories: the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which had prevented members of non-conformist protestant churches from voting or holding office, and the passing of Catholic Emancipation, removing bars on Catholic participation in public life. Both these pieces of legislation were put through parliament by the Duke of Wellington’s Tory government with the assistance of Robert Peel, his leader in the House of Commons.

But after being re-elected prime minister in 1830, the Duke of Wellington made a speech early in November pledging not only not to introduce any measure for parliamentary reform but also to oppose any reform proposals. This enraged reformers:

“The Duke of Wellington made a speech in the Lords, and declared against Reform. I hear he was hissed, and hurt by a stone. I heard this evening that a very unpleasant feeling was rising among the working classes, and that the shopkeepers in the Metropolis were so much alarmed that they talked of arming themselves.” John Cab Hobhouse (diary entry, 4th November, 1830)

London saw an upsurge in pro-reform demonstrations, which erupted into rioting.

Wellington was forced to resign shortly after. Earl Grey formed a Whig ministry which pledged to introducing a Reform Bill and he asked Lord John Russell to prepare the legislation. On 1 March 1830 the Bill was presented to the House of Commons, passing its second reading by only one vote at the end of the month. The government was then defeated on an amendment to the Bill and Grey resigned. This led to more rioting. The ensuing general election was fought solely on the question of reform and saw the return of the Whigs with a massive majority. Grey took this to be a mandate for continuing with the reform proposals.

Since the first Bill had not passed through all the required stages of debate and vote, committee and discussion by the time the parliamentary session had ended in the summer of 1831, Russell had to introduce a new Bill in the new session. On 22nd September 1831, the House of Commons passed the Reform Bill.

However it was defeated by forty-one votes in the House of Lords on 8 October 1831. The House of Lords was dominated by the Tories, led by the Wellington; the Lords deliberately rejected the Bill because the legislation included curtailing the power that the Lords previously had exercised over the election of MPs.

The defeat of the Bill was greeted with dismay across the country: “On the morning of the 8 Oct. 1831 I was compelled to go down to Gravesend by the Steamer and thence to Chatham. Before I started I obtained in the City a copy of the Sun Newspaper published at half past 6 o clock, fringed with black, and announcing the loss of the peoples bill in the house of Lords by the frightful majority of 41. Never shall I forget the excitement which prevailed in the breast of every one at hearing the news. The morning papers were not out, the boat was crowded and the passengers were conversing in groups on the deck on rumours which had reached their ears. I was the only person on board who possessed anything like an authentic account, and, when the paper with a black border was seen in my hand, the passengers rushed towards me, I was instantly mounted on a chair and compelled to read the debate through from beginning to end. The excitement, the disapprobation, and approbation of the several speakers were as energetic as they could have been had they been the actual spectators of the scene which the report described…” (Mr Powell)

According to the Westminster radical tailor, moderate activist (and Home office informant) Francis Place, it spurred an immediate agitation in the capital:
“Meetings were held on the Saturday (October 8th) in many of the Metropolitan Parishes and many more were called for the Monday. The Parish of Mary-le-bone had taken the lead respecting parliamentary interference for the regulation of vestries, and had succeeded in inducing a considerable number of parishes to appoint deputies to confer together in their mutual interests, the persons who in that parish had assembled frequently appointed a committee to watch over their interests and this committee now considered themselves a political committee in respect to the reform bill. They assembled and being joined by a considerable number of the inhabitants they issued the following notice.

The Lords have rejected the bill. England expects every man will do his duty.

The parishioners of Mary-le-Bone will assemble at the Horse Bazaar at twelve o’clock on Monday next, to address the King, support his ministers and consult on the present state of affairs. Pursuant to a resolution passed at two preparatory meetings, the inhabitants are desired to devote Monday next solemnly to these objects, to suspend all business and shut up their shops.”

This call out became a huge demonstration on Monday 10th October, demanding reform, which marched in procession from Whitehall to Hyde Park:

“Long before the time appointed the capacious square of the Horse Bazaar was not only filled but an immense number of persons—said to amount to 30,000 could not gain admittance. A call became general to adjourn to Hyde Park and it was announced that Mr Hume who had agreed to take the chair would meet them there. An orderly procession of the people immediately took place and an immense number, estimated at 50,000 congregated in the open space north of the Serpentine River. They had come nearly a mile to this spot and had waited some time when two gentlemen on horseback rode among them and told them that Mr Hume thought the meeting would be illegal if held out of the Parish and as Mr Maberly had granted the use of a piece of ground in Regents Park they requested the meeting would assemble there as speedily as possible. ‘If any thing,’ observes the Chronicle (very justly)

could have cooled the ardour of the people, who however proved themselves as ardent as patriotic, it was this demand upon their patience after waiting above an hour at the Bazaar, and dragging through the Park for an hour more; but nothing daunted they proceeded in good humour, to the Regents Park and arrived there between one and two o’clock. Several waggons were placed at the lower part of the grounds and the assembled multitude which before the chair was taken must have amounted to 80,000 persons formed themselves on the rising ground into a sort of semi-circle and the wind being in their faces, the majority could hear the proceedings.

Mr Hume took the Chair..

Large Placards were exhibited, one was ‘Englishmen – Remember it was the Bishops—and the Bishops only whose votes decided the fate of the Reform Bill’

The other was—

‘England expects that every man will do His Duty’

Mr Hume—said it was no ordinary occasion which had called them together, and in the great and important measures they were about to discuss, every man from the King to the Peasant had a deep interest. He knew they would act peacably and orderly, and would not despair, as long as they had a Patriot King, a liberal ministry, and a majority in favour of the measure. They would tell the petty pitiful majority of the house of Lords that they had rights as Englishmen as sacred as their own and that an oligarchy which had usurped their rights should be compelled to relinquish their tyrannical power which they had so long exercised against the people. He respected the words of Lord Grey that he would stand by the people and the King so long as the King gave him his confidence, said he reposed confidence in his sincerity, and though ministers had not been so active in promoting the bill as they ought to have been, he hoped they would profit by experience and not coquet with the Tories, since it was vain to expect the tories could be induced to approve of measures favourable to the people. He said there must be either reform or revolution (immense cheering and cries of we will have it). It was because in case of a revolution the working and useful classes would be the greatest sufferers that he wished to effect a reform by constitutional means and hoped to avoid such a revolution as the Duke of Wellington wished should take place. He knew the people would not be drawn in to commit acts of violence (no—no) they would protect the property of the country (we will).”

Among those who had organised the procession were the leaders of the National Union of the Working Classes, the London-based radical organisation. 

Place estimated that around 70,000 people attended, many wearing the white scarves emblematic of manhood suffrage. Although these were impressive numbers, they compared poorly with larger a demonstration in the following days at Birmingham, drawn too from a smaller population.

The procession of October 1831 was mainly composed (it seems) of ‘shopkeepers and superior artisans’, and remained peaceful.

However, rioting broke out in London later in the week:

“It was in allusion to the rejection of the Reform Bill in the month of October 1831 by the House of Lords, that the popular feeling was most strongly exhibited. Many of the newspapers, which announced the result of the division in the House of Lords, were put into mourning, and a feeling of the deepest and most melancholy foreboding soon spread itself throughout the country. The fate of the Reform Bill became speedily known, and on the Monday following (10th) marks of unequivocal sorrow and disgust exhibited themselves. In the metropolis circulars were distributed in every parish, calling meetings; all business appeared suspended; and the shops in all directions were either partially or totally closed. Mourning flags were exhibited from the houses, accompanied by placards, in which the bishops, who had formed a considerable portion of the majority against the bill, presented a source of prolific censure. In King-street, Seven-dials, the effigy of the Duke of Wellington was burned; and, in Tottenham-court-road, a placard was exhibited at a shop, announcing that arms might be had, to be paid for by instalments. On the part of the government, every precaution was taken for the preservation of the public peace. Troops were marched into London, and stationed so as to be ready to be called into immediate activity in case of necessity; ball-cartridges were distributed, and everything was done which prudence could suggest for the maintenance of order. Numerous meetings were held in the course of the week, at which the most enthusiastic determination was exhibited; and every means was adopted by the people to throw disgrace and discredit upon those by whom their wishes had been opposed. The Duke of Wellington, and other noble peers who had distinguished themselves by their opposition to the bill, were roughly greeted, and were pelted on their way to the House of Lords. The Duke of Cumberland was also nearly receiving much ill-usage from a mob assembled in the Park.

On Wednesday (the 12th of October), the king held a levee at St. James’s Palace, at which an immense number of addresses was presented. The trades’ unions assembled in vast mobs in the neighbourhood of the palace, accompanied by their flags and other insignia, and some violence was done by the mob. The residence of the Marquis of Bristol, in St. James’s-square, was made the object of an attack by them. Many of the windows were dashed in, and a considerable quantity of valuable effects destroyed; but fortunately there were many well-disposed persons in the vicinity, by whom the police were assisted, and the rioters dispersed. The mob, however, had been no sooner driven from here, than they proceeded at once to the residence of the Duke of Wellington, Apsley House, Piccadilly. This was, in turn, made the object of an assault even more severe and determined than that of the Marquis of Bristol. At about half-past two o’clock in the day, several parties were seen to approach the residence of his grace, and the foremost of the gang threw a few stones at the windows, and sent forth the most horrible yells. Some of the servants belonging to the establishment came forward and presented pistols at the mob assembled; but this only served to increase their anger. A volley of stones was instantly hurled at their supposed assailants; and a cry being raised of “They are going to fire on us — now let us go to work,” an instant attack was commenced on the mansion. Stones flew in showers on the house, and not a dozen panes of glass were left undemolished, while many valuable pictures inside were utterly ruined, and the furniture was destroyed. The police at first were in small numbers upon the spot, but a reinforcement having arrived from the Vigo-street Station-house, a vigorous attack on the mob was commenced. The employment of their staves, and the determination which was exhibited by the constables, served, in a very material degree, to drive away the assembled crowd; and, of those who were taken into custody, all were of the lowest class — showing that their object was rather mischief or depredation, than the assertion of a principle, or the maintenance of a right. At about seven o’clock in the evening, a new attempt to get up a riot was made by a mob of two or three hundred persons, who were met on their way through Piccadilly towards St. James’s Palace; but a speedy stop was put to their proceedings by the police, who had assembled in large bodies to repel any such new effort as might be made.”

However, the trouble in London was piecemeal at best compared with the response to the defeat of the Reform Bill in other parts of the country. Serious rioting took place in Bristol, Nottingham and Derby.

Rioting took place in Bristol after the arrival of anti-reform judge Charles Wetherell in the city for the annual assizes on 29 October. Wetherell’s carriage was attacked and civic and military authorities lost control of the situation. There followed two days of rioting and looting in which much of the city centre was burned and prisoners freed from the jails. The riots were brought to an end on 31 October by which time £300,000 of damage had been caused and up to 250 casualties incurred.  A dozen people were killed and hundreds wounded or arrested. The Bristol riot was probably the most violent and widespread outbreak of working class violence in 19th century British history…

Rioting also broke out in Nottingham on 9 October upon learning of the defeat of the bill. This was initially directed solely against the private houses of known opponents of reform. On 10 October a public meeting turned to violence, the attendees marched on Colwick Hall, home of John Musters, which was damaged. The next day the mob burned Nottingham Castle, home of anti-reform peer Henry Pelham-Clinton, 4th Duke of Newcastle, who was away at parliament. Lowe’s Silk Mill in Beeston was burnt on 11 October, the same day the riots ceased. The Duke was able to gather yeomanry and his own tenants to successfully defend his residence at Clumber Park.

There were other violent incidents: the Manchester Chronicle noted that since the Manchester meeting, ‘symptoms of disorder and tumult have been manifested each evening in the vicinity of New Cross, by the assemblage of numerous bodies of men’. On the Friday evening a crowd ‘demolished the windows of the residence of Hugh Hornby Birley Esq, Mosley Street’ and the cavalry were called to suppress the riot. Birley, had been hated seen his involvement in the repression at Peterloo 12 years before.

There was also agro in Carlisle, Leicester, Yeovil, Sherborne, Exeter, Bath and Worcester.

After this truculent response to the defeat of the Bill, Earl Grey was reluctant to provoke more division by ask parliament to discuss the issue of reform yet again; but Thomas Attwood and other leaders of the Political Unions organised a huge campaign to demand the passing of the legislation. Grey tried to defuse the situation by agreeing to the introduction of a third Reform Bill.
This third Bill again passed the Commons, and proceeded to the Lords on 26 March 1832. The Lords threatened to reject it again, so Grey resigned on 9th May 1832. Wellington attempted to form a ministry but was could not gain the support of leading tory MPs, including Robert Peel. King William IV sent again for Grey, who agreed to resume office but only on the condition that the king would create enough new Peers in the House of Lords to guarantee the passage of the Bill.

Whilst the politicians argued and bargained, there was further rioting. The Duke of Wellington eventually recognised the necessity of the Bill passing, and ordered the Tory Lords either to vote for the Bill or to absent themselves from the session when the vote was taken. Over two hundred Tory Lords didn’t turn up for the vote and the Bill passed through the House of Lords on 7 June 1832.

Although the legislation is often referred to as the “Great Reform Act” its terms – although far reaching at the time – were really quite moderate, and did not satisfy the huge demand for change that had been building for decades. A. L. Morton, the author of A People’s History of England (1938) argued that the most import change was that it placed “political power in the hands of the industrial capitalists and their middle class followers.” Voting in the urban boroughs was restricted to men who occupied homes with an annual value of £10; there were also property qualifications for people living in rural areas. After the  Act, still only one in seven adult males had the vote. It added some 217,000 to an electorate of 435,000 in England and Wales – an increase of about 50%. But 650,000 electors in a population of 14 million were a small minority. Nor were the constituencies of equal size – another crucial demand for many reformers. Whereas 35 constituencies had less than 300 electors, Liverpool had a constituency of over 11,000.

It has been suggested subsequently that Britain was close to revolution during the reform crises of the early 1830s, both in the autumn of 1831 and in the ‘days of May’ of 1832. Could a British revolution anticipated the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune?

Contemporary commentators thought the country was on the tipping point. Edward Littleton, then a Whig MP, commented in his diary that the country was “in a state little short of insurrection”,while the Anglican clergyman Sydney Smith later described a “hand-shaking, bowel-disturbing passion of fear”.(which should really be the bottom line for how the ruling classes should always be reacting to working class collective action…) Fears among the wealthy that a general uprising was imminent, triggered a rush of gold withdrawals from the Bank of England in May 1832.

This fear was apparently shared by the Queen, whose “fixed impression, is that an English revolution is rapidly approaching, and that her own fate is to be that of Marie Antoinette” Sadly not. Some historians agree: E. P. Thompson wrote that “in the autumn of 1831 and in the ‘Days of May’ Britain was within an ace of revolution” and Eric Hobsbawm felt that “This period is probably the only one in modern history … where something not unlike a revolutionary situation might have developed.”

The more radical elements in the country had denounced the limited range of the Reform Bill from the beginning, and until

the winter of 1831-2, some had refused to engage in agitation around the Bill; lecturers in Carlile’s Rotunda labelled the Bill a ‘trap’ designed to split and betray the radical movement. The Poor Man’s Guardian ridiculed the whole Bill. But as the diehard reactionary establishment resisted any reform, it pushed the country to the threshold of mass upheaval, and the radicals became drawn in. The Poor Man’s Guardian adjusted its tactics and published a special supplement featuring extracts from Colonel Macerone’s Defensive Instructions for the People (a manual for street-fighting). By early 1832, National Union of the Working Classes ultra-radicals like William Benbow and Julian Hibbert were preparing for an armed struggle.

The Midlands and the north were in ferment: “Walk into any lane or public-house, where a number of operatives are congregated together,” wrote John Doherty “and listen for ten minutes to the conversation . . . In at least seven out of every ten cases, the subjects of debate will be found to bear upon the appalling question of whether it would be more advantageous to attack the lives or the property of the rich…”

In May 1832, during the ‘eleven days of England’s apprehension and turmoil’ which preceded the final passage, of the Bill through the Lords in May, Francis Place held his breath, anticipating uprising if the Bill did not pass and Wellington returned to power. On the evening of the day when it passed, he returned home and noted:

“We were within a moment of general rebellion, and had it been possible for the Duke of Wellington to have formed an administration the Thing and the people would have been at issue… There would have been ‘Barricadoes of the principal towns – stopping circulation of paper money’; if a revolution had commenced, it ‘would have been the act of the whole people to a greater extent than any which had ever before been accomplished”.

That none of the crisis points of the Reform Bill saga did lead to revolution, or even to any sustained revolt or uprising, probably boiled down at least in part to the unwillingness of a majority of reformist leaders to push that far. A large part of the Radical tradition (of which William Cobbett was the leading spokesman) was deeply constitutional, committed to peaceable methods of achieving change. The organised radicals prepared to use more direct tactics were in a minority. Whether or not riots could have been extended into insurrections if a more vocal leadership had been out there, in the various parts of the country, is unclear. Beyond a handful of cities the willingness of local populations to take to the streets was also limited. 

The spectrum within the reform movement, ranging from Parliamentary Whigs through middle class radicals to the NUWC, could bring temporary unity in demonstrations but little agreement as to methods and even ultimate aims. But leaders like Thomas Attwood wielded immense influence, and the middle-class Radicals cleverly assembled a program of reforms that offered a compromise which strengthened both the State and property-rights.

Influential radicals like Francis Place were as much concerned to prevent the NUWC and ‘extremists’ from gaining more traction and followers as they were to see the Bill pass. Place spent much effort undermining the NUWC and bolstering the National Political Union, by as underhand methods as he could get away with (including informing to the Home Office on radicals he considered ‘dangerous). How much did some of the moderate leaders exploit the threat of uprising and working class violence to get what they wanted, never intending to support anything wider?

But the adaptability of the British establishment was also a factor. The ability to cut the sails and compromise just enough to split the reform movement, to absorb and buy off the middle classes while giving nothing to the masses, marked the UK’s elite out of from the more rigid continental regimes. The ruling class bent so as not to break. Even the ultra-reactionary Wellington could see by May 1832 that some reform was inevitable.

The Reform Act left the many working class activists who had been arguing, agitating and rioting for change hugely disappointed. Unsurprisingly, many of the middle classes who had benefitted from the Act did not continue to campaign for an extension to the franchise. The growing working class political movements – radicals, Owenites, co-operators, trade unionists – reacted by beginning to rebuild their own movements for political reform, which was to give birth to Chartism.

Today in radical herstory, 1899: working class Suffragist Jessie Craigen dies

Jessie Craigen (c.1835-99) was a working-class activist and public speaker in the earlier phases of the movement for women’s suffrage in Britain. Craigen’s background was relatively unusual, in a movement which was at the time dominated by middle and upper-class activists. She was also a freelance (or ‘paid agent’) speaker in the campaigns for Irish Home Rule and the cooperative movement and against vivisection, compulsory vaccination, and the Contagious Diseases Acts.

 Her background is somewhat obscure. Her father was said to be Scottish, possibly a seafarer, who died when she was an infant; her mother was sometimes described as an Italian actress, and she was described in a newspaper of 1866 as a ‘Scotch lady’, though a few years later she claimed to have been born in London.

As a child, after her father’s early death, under her mother’s influence she apparently appeared on the stage from the age of four, which may have helped her acquire the skills and the confidence for her later career in public speaking.

She began in the late 1850s giving readings from plays and recitations, before moving onto delivering orations at temperance meetings, and was described on one such occasion in 1861 as a ‘clever Quakeress’ Craigen moved around the UK, living variously in Retford, Nottinghamshire and Bristol in the 1870s and ‘80s. She made a living as a paid ‘Lecturer on Social Subjects’. 

By December 1868, she was addressing suffrage meetings. A newspaper reporter wrote in 1869 at Alnwick, Northumberland, that her talks were well attended, but added with typical male snobbery, that this was because a lady lecturer was a novelty, and he recalled Dr Johnson’s comments on the subject,
… a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ Even by the standards of late nineteenth century England this was misogynistic, as well as increasingly inaccurate.

“The earliest published reference so far found regarding her association with the suffrage movement refers to a series of meetings she held at the end of 1870, in the north of England.  Such speaking tours were a recent innovation, for few suffragists had yet found the courage to undertake public speaking of such a kind and on this scale. She was not, however, a regular employee of the suffrage movement, nor, at this point, did she take direction from any suffrage society. This was work which she herself initiated and managed, travelling the length and breadth of Britain, accompanied only by her dog, Tiny. During these tours she held impromptu, outdoor meetings as she saw fit, and collected petitions which she then sent to London headquarters, requesting only the occasional five-pound note to cover her living expenses. By such means, she was able to reach audiences not usually addressed by the middle-class leadership of the movement during its set-piece public meetings in the halls of the larger cities.” (Sandra Stanley Holton)

She is recorded as speaking on behalf of women’s rights between 1868 and 1884. Her main supporters were the radical suffragists Priscilla Bright McLaren, Lilias Ashworth Hallett and the Quaker sisters Anna Maria and Mary Priestman, all part of closely knit family and political networks which were highly influential in Liberal circles.

Although the womens’ suffrage movement had largely arisen from individuals of the well-to-do classes, a number of these had come to realise the necessity of gaining support from the working classes.

Feminist and campaigner for women’s rights, Helen Blackburn described Jessie Craigen as a ‘strange erratic genius’ who spoke with a tone like a ‘mighty melodious bell’, recalling that she planned and carried out her tours by herself, travelling all over the kingdom from John O’Groats to Lands End, accompanied only by a dog. Blackburn also attributed Craigen’s renown as a speaker to her ‘magnificent voice’, with which she was able to gather audiences and hold them riveted, ‘from miners in Northumberland… and fishers in Cornwall… to agricultural labourers in the market-places of country towns’… “Lecturing always in the open air, at the pit’s mouth, in market places”, her method was to hire a bellringer to attract an audience and then “mount on a chair, a cart, or barrel” to speak. She found her audiences “amongst the miners in Cornwall, the agricultural labourers of Dorsetshire, the colliers of South Wales, the factory hands of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the miners of Durham and the north”. She became one of the first advocates for women’s suffrage – if not the first – to be arrested for publicly speaking out for the cause.

Descriptions of Jessie Craigen focus relentlessly on her appearance, and all agree that by conventional standards of beauty dominant at the time (and today) she was not physically attractive (unsurprisingly few accounts of men spend anything like a similar amount of time calling attention to their physical attractiveness…) Jessie was called ugly, short, stout, and badly-dressed in old and unfashionable clothes. However, pretty much everyone agreed that she was a fantastic public speaker.

The early Marxist writer and politician Henry Hyndman wrote (in his usual patronising posh way):

“Jessie Craigen was ugly, self-taught, roughly attired, and uncouth in her ways. Yet all this was soon overlooked when once the lady began to speak…She came forward, dumped down on the table in front of me an umbrella, a neck wrapper, and a shabby old bag. Then she turned round to face the audience. She was greeted with boisterous peals of laughter. No wonder! Such a figure of fun you never saw. It was Mrs. Gamp come again in the flesh – umbrella, corkscrew curls and all. There she stood with a battered bonnet on her straggling grey hair, with a rough shawl pinned over her shoulders, displaying a powerful and strongly marked and somewhat bibulous physiognomy, with a body of portly development and as broad as it was long… In two minutes the whole audience was listening intently; within five she had them in fits of laughter, this time not at her but with her. A little later tears were in every eye as she told some terribly touching story of domestic suffering, self-sacrifice, and misery. So it went on. This ungainly person was producing more effect than all the rest of the speakers put together.”

 By 1879 Craigen was appearing on platforms with the principal figures of the suffrage movement. She had, at this point, been taken up by a network of radical suffragists, formed by the kinship and friendship circles of women of the Bright family. An upsurge in suffrage campaigning began at the end of the 1870s in anticipation of a new Reform Bill, she organised meetings in the market squares and outside the local works of the small towns and villages of the north, in preparation for a major demonstration in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester in February 1880. Lydia Becker reported to Priscilla Bright McLaren a meeting that Jessie Craigen organised in one of the poorest wards in Manchester. It attracted an audience of some 600-700, “all poor working women”, who responded to the suffragists in ways to which Lydia Becker was quite unaccustomed: “If my eyes had been shut I should have fancied it was men who were cheering and clapping; the applause was as hearty and strong as at a men’s meeting”. This contact with working women took on something of a conversion-experience for Lydia Becker: “to see them look at me – oh, it was really sacred – awful; it was as if I received a baptism”.

On 3 February 1880 Craigen spoke at a ‘Great Demonstration of Women’ in the Manchester Free Trade Hall, alongside such luminaries as Mrs McClaren, Lydia Becker and Josephine Butler. One eye-witness recalled it as “a night never to be forgotten”. The dense crowd wishing to take part was almost entirely of women, some of whom were said to have walked 10, even 20, miles to attend. An overflow meeting had to be organised nearby, with Margaret Bright Lucas presiding, and even then thousands, it was claimed, were turned away. Priscilla Bright McLaren chaired the main meeting and reminded her audience that they were present in a hall built “in the cause of freedom”. Jessie Craigen’s contribution came at the end of the meeting, when she roused the audience to new heights of enthusiasm, “sending forth a voice that pealed like a sonorous bell over the vast multitude … till every one had risen from their seats in one united burst of cheering”.

Subsequently, she became one of the attractions in a series of major demonstrations which was organised in each of the larger cities around the British Isles by Priscilla Bright McLaren and her friend, Alice Scatcherd.

Craigen was also associated with the beginnings of the Women’s Protective and Provident League in 1874, forming a women’s union among the jute-workers of Dundee which survived for several decades. She also helped organise opposition for the Contagious Diseases Acts among working-class women, and she remained active on animal rights until the end of her life.

Coming from a very different social backgrounds to many of the speakers and organisers she was associating with seems to have caused awkwardness; women like Craigen, who took payment for her lecturing, were generally looked down on and considered on the same terms as personal servants by the middle-class activists who dominated the suffrage movement. Class position was everything at the time, and the attempt of suffrage activists to break down barriers barring women from playing a part in public life did not mean that similar barriers for the working class were necessarily intended to also be challenged. Sandra Stanley Holton observes that Craigen “entered a movement formally committed to autonomy and self-realisation for women, yet met among some there with destructive expectations as to her own emotional and political subordination.” Her middle class allies found Craigen’s attitudes to money embarrassing – ie , they did not need to struggle to survive financially as she did – but her need for money also made her more dependent on wealthy backers. Her unconventional appearance led to her being increasingly seen as a liability by women who wanted their movement to present a more respectable and conventional face. 

The problems with her appearance reflect the superficial demand for a woman to present as attractive and well-dressed and to dismiss her if she does not conform to that – not exactly a dead dynamic today, but all-consuming in her era. Jessie Craigen was ‘unladylike’ – “large, ungainly, and, by the standards of many in the suffrage leadership, she dressed unsuitably. She was unrestrained in her expression of passions, both political and romantic.”

However, her undoubted abilities as a speaker and affinity with the ‘lower orders’ meant she was a valuable asset to the movement. The tension between these two perceptions of her led to what seems like farcical attempts to give her a makeover: certain of her middle-class sponsors attempted to spruce up her appearance, and it was to this end that she was kitted out in stately silk dresses and lavender kid gloves during her brief heyday as a suffrage speaker.” Others, however, felt that adopting these accoutrements would alienate the very plebs Craigen could appeal to,  making them feel she wasn’t like them (so presumably her shabby appearance should be encouraged? It’s difficult to know which group to feel greater contempt for here.)

In the early 1880s, Jessie Craigen was also heavily involved in the Ladies National Association, in the campaign for repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, legislation which allowed police officers to arrest women suspected of being prostitutes in certain ports and army towns. The women were then subjected to compulsory checks for venereal disease. If a woman was declared to be infected, she would be confined in what was known as a lock hospital until she recovered or her sentence finished. Many of the women involved in the suffrage movement were also active in opposition to these laws, on the grounds that they in effect legalised prostitution under police control. The opposition was based on a blending of morality – prostitution was sinful and should not be condoned by the law – and concern for the women involved, as the Acts opened them up to abuse and exploitation by male policemen. Their campaign was ultimately successful, and the Acts were repealed after three years of operation. Its basis in moral superiority aside, the campaign was one of the fist widespread successful political campaigns organised by women in Britain.

In 1881-2 Craigen formed a romantic friendship with the feminist and suffragist Helen Taylor, the daughter of Harriet Taylor Mill and stepdaughter of liberal theorist and philosopher John Stuart Mill. Taylor was heavily involved in the Irish Land League, often hosting Irish MP and activist Charles Parnell to her home, and she drew Craigen into this movement, to the point where Craigen dropped out of the suffrage movement for a while to work on Irish causes. Visiting Ireland, she in fact began to espouse more radical views on Irish freedom than Taylor, and the pair fell out (this seems to have been partly due to Taylor’s outrage that Craigen was thinking and acting independently from her influence…)

In the 1880s the women’s suffrage movement suffered splits and splintering of forces. Jessie Craigen was involved in fierce arguments as to whether married women should be included in the proposals for women to get the vote under the upcoming Reform Bill. More cautious and moderate elements suggested leaving married women out of any proposals; Craigen and other ‘radicals’ demanded married women not be excluded. Although with her involvement the radicals largely carried the day, in te end no women were enfranchised under the Reform Bill at all.

The movement’s failed to win any measure for women’s right to vote under the Third Reform Act of December 1884 led to a sharp decline in activity. Jesse Craigen’s position, as a paid agent speaker, became more difficult and she gradually faded from the women’s rights scene.

She continued to protest on behalf of other causes however, contributing an article to the Nineteenth Century Review against proposals to build a Channel Tunnel, and when speaking at an anti-vivisection, anti-vaccination demonstration in Chelsea, in April 1894, she was described (in the usual misogynist terms) as ‘a stout, elderly lady of dark complexion, with a stubby beard and a strong moustache…’  The mingling of  the anti-vaccination movement and animal rights sentiments here is interesting –progressive social views could also merge into quackery and anti-scientific hokum… However, of course, these days, such crossovers have died out. Oh wait…

The Local Government Act 1894 had created a system of urban and rural district councils, and had permitted women to be councillors. By this time Jessie Craigen was living in Ilford in East London. In December 1894, she stood as the only woman candidate in the election for Ilford Urban District Council, on behalf of the Women’s Liberal Association. She was unsuccessful, coming fourteenth out of seventeen candidates.

She died in her lodgings 2, Grove-villas, Ilford Lane, Ilford, Essex on 5 October 1899: local newspapers described her as a ‘well-known old maiden lady’ and ‘miser’, who had shared her house with fifteen dogs. Her obituary in the Zoophilist declared that “as a woman of the people, she exercised a great influence over the working classes… We shall miss her courageous and outspoken advocacy… her racy and eloquent speeches”.

Despite Jessie Craigen being a well-known figure in her time, no known photographs or even drawings of her survive; a reflection on her class background as much as her sex. Many lesser-known activists from more affluent backgrounds, and many more men, were recorded for posterity.
This lack of any pictorial record led illustrator Kate Taylor to do some sketches of how Jessie may have looked.

A point that Kate Taylor makes in her appreciation, “People who don’t fit a certain mold rarely make history books, no matter how much heavy lifting they do” is interesting and pertinent. Jessie Craigen spread the idea of women’s suffrage extremely effectively, to many people, using the skills and talents she had evolved; however, one undoubted aspects of the ethos of a large part of the ‘suffragist’ movement was a kind of cult of beauty. Great emphasis was placed in the art, imagery and pageantry of the movement on classically beautiful figures, expressing also a myth of feminine purity and radiance: mirrored by the vicious anti-suffragette propaganda which generally caricatured activists as ugly, overweight shrieking harpies with twisted features. Whether unconsciously influenced by the male depiction of them as ugly or not, much of the mainstream message of the suffrage movement was focussed on beauty. Jessie just didn’t fit the notions that many in the movement were trying to project, despite the attempts to pretty her up. She lived a bit too early for the later suffragette photo-art and tableau used in their printed propaganda – she probably wouldn’t have been allowed in. Were her unrespectable origins – part proletarian but even worse, part bohemian theatre (horror!) also a reason for her part in the movement herstory to be played down? Orthodox accounts of the movement, generally written after some women achieved the vote in 1918, barely mention her. Many of these also leave out or play down the importance of figures like Mary Wollstonecraft – too radical, in both her personal life and her revolutionary ideals, to fit in to the respectable image many in the suffrage movement wanted to build for feminism. Maybe, as Kate Taylor writes, they felt she “her “masculine” appearance gave critics evidence of what women would become if they gained the right to vote: unladylike, messy, unrestrained.”

Jessie Craigen’s name is recorded on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, unveiled in 2018.

Sandra Stanley Holton’s essay on Jessie Craigen is well worth a read.

Today in London’s military history, 1759: army recruits mutiny on the Savoy barracks

As covered in earlier posts on this blog, part of the old Savoy Palace building  – built in the thirteenth century for Edmund Earl of Lancaster, on land between the Strand and the river Thames  – was converted around 1679 into a barracks, which included a military prison, which particularly held any army deserters due to be shot in Hyde Park. Later the prison also seems to have been used to house civilian convicts.

Another group seemingly confined here, though as to how regularly is unclear, were ‘recruits’ destined to be shipped to India or other parts of the ‘far east’ to serve in the military forces commanded by the East India Company.

Whether recruited into the British Army (either voluntarily or pressganged) or into the East India Company’s own private militia, many of those billeted in the Savoy – fodder for Britain’s constant wars of imperial expansion  – quickly came to regret signing up, and the barracks were the site of regular mutinies and revolts in the 18th century.

In 1759 a riot of recruits had to be quelled by troops:

“About eight o’clock in the evening, the recruits in the Savoy mutinied: a guard was sent to quell them, who as first were ordered to fire only with powder; the recruits returned the compliment by throwing brickbats, which knocked several of he soldiers down; they were then ordered to fire with ball, which wounded several of the recruits, and put a stop to the fray. But unhappily one Jones, belonging to the third regiment of foot guards, getting upon the leads of the prison to see the affair, and looking down, was taken for one of the prisoners by the sentinel, who immediately shot at him, and the ball went through his head, and killed him on the spot. Nine of the men were dangerously wounded, and eighteen more of the put in irons.” (Annual Register, 1759)

In 1761 over 200 (possibly military) prisoners held in the Savoy mutinied, and a considerable battle developed.
1763 saw a revolt by East India Company troops stationed here.

In 1776 there was another mutiny.

In 1798 military prisoners rebelled & rioted for several days.

The site of the prison and palace was cleared from 1816-1820 for the construction of the approach to the new Waterloo Bridge.

 

 

Today in London striking herstory, 1995: Hillingdon Hospital cleaners strike against casualisation

‘We’ve met people from all over the world who are supporting us: from Russia, India, South Africa, America, Germany – even Winnie Mandela! They know we are low-paid workers. They know we are mostly Asian workers. But the point isn’t that we’re Asian, black, white, women or whatever. This is a struggle of workers against greedy bosses.’

The Hillingdon Hospital Strike began on October 1st, 1995 when 56 domestic and catering workers were sacked by private contractor Pall Mall for refusing to accept a £40 per week wage cut.

The strike continued for five years.

On October 30, 2000, UNISON shop steward Malkiat Bilku led her members back to work on their original terms and conditions with no victimisations, having also won maximum compensation for unfair dismissal.

The women were ‘outsourced’ in 1986. In September 1985 at the civic centre, the District Health Authority had voted to privatise the Hospital cleaning service, with the loss of 213 jobs.

Hillingdon was one of the first private contracts after St Helier, Hammersmith to be forced through by the Tory government.

This had not taken place without any resistance – for instance a One Day strike organised by COHSE and NUPE had taken at Hillingdon Hospital on 23rd May 1985, in protest at the hospital’s privatisation programme and in support of strikers at Barking hospital.

Hillingdon Hospital Management had put a vote to domestic staff – asked them either to lose their bonus or be privatised. The staff voted overwhelmingly against cutting their bonus.

After privatisation, some 320 ‘domestic’ staff at the Hillingdon Hospital found themselves employed not directly by the NHS, but by private contractor ICC Hospital Services Ltd. ICC took over the contract from February 1st 1986.

A series of NHS reforms had been introduced by the Thatcher Government – it was still politically inadvisable to launch a frontal assault on the principles of the NHS itself – which imposed the ‘contracting out’ of specific services, like catering and cleaning, to the lowest bidders in the private sector. ‘They thought that the people could do more work for less wages,’ said Malkiat Bilku. In the process the staff lost sick pay, bonus and pension rights.

In 1989 another company, Initial, took over the contract and cut working hours. The number of staff fell to 220, though the work remained the same. Then, in 1994, the contract was passed on again, this time to Pall Mall, part of the Davies Group international conglomerate, which proposed a 20 per cent wage cut.

Greater ‘efficiency’ at the Hillingdon Hospital was being paid for straight out of the purses of these women – already among the lowest-paid in the country. To increase its efficiency still further, the hospital also announced that it would refuse admission to patients aged over 75.

Then Pall Mall went one step further. The company demanded the women’s passports – an intimidatory move, questioning their immigration status – and presented individuals with new contracts. ‘They told us, if you don’t sign this, you’ve got no job,’ said Malkiat Bilku. ‘We’d already had our wages cut, we’d already been transferred to a private company. We did not refuse to work. We did not even ask for more money. We did not ask for anything. And they asked for our passports and they wanted to force us to accept.’

In May 1995, Pall Mall announced that they were bringing in multi-skilling, intended to cut wages by what amounted to £40 a week, and change working conditions.

The 53 women refused to sign the new contracts and were duly locked out. In October 1995 the strike began, reluctantly supported by their union, Unison. Subsequent negotiations between Unison officials and Pall Mall produced a cash offer of $500 for each of the women as ‘compensation’ for the loss of their jobs.

The membership had voted for action, but the union officials did not call a strike, so the strike started off as an ‘unofficial’ action on October 1st, 1995.

The strikers had to battle with the trade union leaders for nine weeks to force them to make it official. UNISON organised a national demonstration on October 21, 1995 and Hillingdon strikers went along.

They fought to place themselves at the front of the march, as they were leading the fight in the NHS against the privateers, defying the stewards, who tried to physically remove them. At the rally in Kennington, the demonstration demanded that strike leader Malkiat Bilku be allowed to address them, which she did.

There were many demonstrations and marches that the strikers participated in. They organised two lobbies of the UNISON headquarters to demand their strike be made official. At one, where the NEC was meeting, the strikers occupied the building until the then General Secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe came down to speak to them.

Finally on November 17 1995, the UNISON Industrial Action Committee was forced to make the strike official. At the 1996 National Delegate Conference, a resolution was carried unanimously which said that the Hillingdon strike would be supported by the union until the remaining 53 strikers won their jobs back on their old terms and conditions.

But the trade union leaders resisted all calls for national action to win the Hillingdon struggle, while boasting that the strike had stopped Pall Mall cutting wages in their other NHS contracts. The irony being that, largely because of its behaviour at Hillingdon, Pall Mall had been losing numerous NHS contracts – much to the benefit of those who might otherwise have had to work for them, but not of the strikers themselves.

The strike remained official until January 16, 1997, when UNISON declared that the strike was over and told the strikers to accept the Pall Mall offer of £6,000 compensation as this was the best they would get and further, that they would not win their Industrial Tribunal.

They did allow a ballot but, as far as they were concerned, the strike was over!

Everything was being rushed through as a general election was coming in May, and they wanted the struggle out of the way so as not to ‘embarrass’ Labour. However, the strikers rejected the offer, insisting that they would continue until they got their jobs back and the Industrial Tribunal must proceed as well.

On January 16, the strikers lobbied the UNISON head office again where they found two rows of police armed with batons guarding the door of the head office.

At a strike meeting the following Sunday morning they resolved to fight back, continue their strike, and defy the UNISON leadership.
They would not return until they had won back their jobs, on the old terms and conditions.

A conference was called to announce their intention and in spite of the SWP and others, insisting that the strikers must accept the UNISON decision and call off their strike, the Conference overwhelmingly supported the strikers’ decision to continue their strike.

The strikers continued unofficially; they toured the country tirelessly for the next 18 months, winning huge support everywhere and raising enough money to pay £100 weekly strike pay to all the strikers.
They attended every demonstration and challenged Bickerstaffe and TUC General Secretary John Monks if they were there.

Just one month later, the Annual General Meeting of the London Region of UNISON voted to give £10,000 to the Hillingdon Strikers’ Support Campaign – a donation which was stopped by the UNISON leadership. They also tried to stop other branches and districts making donations.

Meanwhile, Pall Mall pulled out of Hillingdon Hospital and media giant Granada – a prominent money-spinner in the catering and media trades – took over the contract.
A High Court injunction was brought by the hospital against the strikers picketting outside the hospital, and refusing them entry. The strikers were forced to move from the hospital entrance but picketing continued (despite racist taunts directed at them from passers-by).

On the second anniversary of their strike, on October 1st, 1997, 3,000 people marched through Uxbridge, to a rally, on a working day, with a number of trade union leaders and MPs speaking at the rally.

In January 1998, the strikers won their appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal which meant that their claims for unfair dismissal by Pall Mall would now be heard.

Then at the UNISON conference in Bournemouth in 1998, in the last five minutes of the Conference, overcoming all the objections of Standing Orders and the attempt by the union’s bureaucracy to delay the resolution, the vast majority of the Conference voted for the emergency resolution which called to make the Hillingdon strike official again and restore their full membership.

The strike was once more back to being official, with national negotiations by the union to ‘ensure reinstatement’.

Then at their Employment Tribunal, Pall Mall admitted that they had wrongfully dismissed the hospital workers. Granada was left to meet the unfair dismissal claims.

The Tribunal ruled that the maximum compensation must be paid to all the strikers and that the employers should restore them back into their jobs at the hospital. Although this was carried, Granada did nothing. There were pickets of the Granada HQ to demand they take the workers back.

But Granada challenged the ruling and organised an appeal against this decision. Once again at the Employment Tribunal, Granada was defeated and the decision upheld. The strikers were paid maximum compensation and they also won the right to their jobs back at the hospital.

Every cynic said this would never happen but on October 30th 2000, Malkiat Bilku walked back into the hospital, to the first day back at her job after five years. She was subsequently elected as UNISON shop steward.

In 2004, she stood for the leadership of UNISON challenging for the position of General Secretary and received 30,000 votes.