‘Zone of Transition’: A radical history walk around Spitalfields and Brick Lane

Zone of Transition

A radical history walk around Spitalfields and Brick Lane

START: Christ Church, Commercial Street 

“a land of beer and blood”.

The area this walk covers is one of the oldest inhabited parts of London’s East End, and one of the earliest areas outside the City Walls to be built up as the fringes of the City of London spread outward. Brick Lane’s origins go back some 2000 years, to an ancient roman cemetery at Lolesworth Field, Spitalfields. In 1576 this field was broken up for brick manufacture, hence the name of Brick Lane.

From the Middle Ages, the ‘Northeast Suburbs’, Spitalfields, Bishopsgate and Shoreditch, were well known for industry, which was able to establish here outside the overcrowded City; but also for poverty, disorder and crime. Outside the City walls, they fell outside the jurisdiction of City authorities, so criminals, outcasts, the poor and rebellious clustered here.

Map showing the Tower of London and the ‘Spital Field’, 1633

After 1500 Spitalfields underwent rapid urban growth. London expanded massively as large numbers of people flooded into the city: many dispossessed by rural enclosures, and deprived of the traditional welfare system by the Dissolution of the Monasteries under king Henry VII. In the City of London, trade was also expanding in many and varied directions, there were numerous jobs to be had, in both legitimate and illegitimate sectors. New rich classes were emerging, with new needs, requiring new services, and opening up exciting new chances to rob them. Neighbouring poor areas like Spitalfields absorbed many of these incomers.

In 1580 the population of east London was estimated to be 14,000. A third of these were in Whitechapel, and the rest in Stepney, which seems then to have included Spitalfields. Fifty years later in 1630, numbers had nearly quadrupled to 48,000. As land in the City and other central areas was redeveloped for commercial use and railways and new roads were built, working class people displaced from these neighbourhoods moved gradually eastward, joining refugees from rural ‘improvements’ and the persecuted from abroad.

John Stow’s Survey of London in 1603 referred to the building of “filthy cottages” to the north of Aldgate. At the end of the 16th Century there were already complaints about the numbers of lodging houses in the area. Spitalfields district was built up further around 1700.

The district between Aldgate and Brick Lane became a centre for homeless and drifting people – “idle, vagrant, loose and disorderly persons” – by the early 18th Century. The Brick Lane area especially remained associated with severe social problems: according to Mayhew, the lane and the streets running off it included not only lodging houses but also considerable numbers of brothels. Brick Lane, said the Rector of Christ Church in the 1880s, was “a land of beer and blood”.

[Partly because the area was known for housing breweries: The largest operator was Truman Hanbury & Buxton. This company’s brewery stood at 91 Brick Lane: T.H. & B. appear to have had a virtual monopoly of Spitalfields tied pubs east of Commercial Street, and gave their names to some of its central streets. Another major brewer was Mann Crossman & Paulin in Whitechapel Road, and further east where it became Mile End Road was Charrington & Co.

There were still some small, independent brewers, such as in nearby Spellman Street, into the late 19th century.]

Spitalfields housing was inevitably usually of low quality, overcrowded, run-down, often sub-divided, especially in the slums or ‘rookeries’.

But Spitalfields has also been described as City’s “first industrial suburb”. From medieval times the area’s major employer has been the clothing trade; but breweries have also been major employers since 17th century, and later residents formed a pool of cheap labour for the industries of the City and East End: especially in the docks, clothing, building, and furniture trades. Small workshops came to dominate employment here.

The relationship between the affluent City of London and the often poverty and misery- stricken residents over its eastern border in Spitalfields has dominated the area’s history. More than half the poor in Spitalfields worked for masters who resided in the City in 1816; today the local clothing trade depends on orders from West End fashion shops… The same old social and economic relations continue…

For similar reasons as those that led to the growth of industry and slums here, the area has always been home to large communities of migrants. Many foreigners in the middle ages could not legally live or work inside City walls (due to restrictions enforced by the authorities or the guilds), leading many to settle outside the City’s jurisdiction. Successive waves of migrants have made their homes here, and dominated the life of the area: usually, though not always, the poorest incomers, sometimes competing for the jobs of the native population, at other times deliberately hired to control wages in existing trades… Huguenot silkweavers, the Irish who were set to work undercutting them, Jewish refugees from late nineteenth‑century pogroms in east Europe, and Bengalis who have settled in the area since the 1950s. Almost always they have been dissenters, or identifiably apart in religion or race. In the last decade or two newer communities like the Somalis have added to the mix. Colin Ward described Spitalfields as an inner‑city ‘zone of transition’, a densely populated ‘service centre for the metropolis’ where wave after wave of immigrants had struggled to gain a foothold on the urban economy.

Disorder has often been a regular feature of life here; from the 16th century, when London archers & youth gathered to demolish fences erected by the richer citizens of the City and outlying villages to try & enclose traditional recreation grounds. The open fields here were also place of illicit sex, clandestine meetings, prostitution.Poverty, partly caused by periodic depressions in cloth trade (eg that of 1620-40), and other issues could lead to outbreaks of rebelliousness: sometimes aimed at their bosses and betters and sometimes at migrant workers seen as lowering wages or taking work away from ‘natives’.

These aspects of local life led Spitalfields and the majority of its inhabitants to be seen as a ‘problem’ by those in power and the better of classes of London. Their poverty, the way they lived and often their attitude to work, caused them to be generally labeled immoral; the poverty and crap housing they lived in was perceived to be their own fault; their tendency to drink, crime and riot made them a threat. The area has for centuries been subject to plans, redevelopment, demolition, the removal and re-ordering of its population; whether to bring order or better housing to the poor, or to move them out so as to take over the space they lived in, as more recently.

These then are some of the central themes of our walk: the relationship of the City and Spitalfields’ industry, and the poor workers employed by it; migration and new incoming communities; and living space, how people live together, especially their housing, its quality and but also pressure from their betters seeing them as a threat, and wanting to control their environment, or wanting the land they live on and trying to move them on.

Christ Church

Hawksmoor’s grandiose Christ Church, Spitalfields, built in the early 18th Century, was deliberately located here, at a time when Spitalfields’ population of transients, migrants and dissidents was starting to worry the authorities. The power of the state was inextricably bound up with the power of the official Anglican church, not least in the minds of those in charge of both. Not only were there growing numbers of non-anglicans in Spitalfields, like the Hugenot refugees, as well as other non-conformists, but the constantly flowing movements of the poor meant it was hard to impose religious discipline. In order to advertise the overweening authority of Anglicanism to the inhabitants,  Christ Church was one of 50 new churches commissioned by an Act of parliament in 1711 (though only twelve got built, as the money ran out).

Homelessness was and still is, endemic in Spitalfields:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the gardens behind the church, then much larger, were a popular crashpad for the local homeless, known as Itchy Park.

Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1903) describes his visit to the gardens at three o’clock one afternoon:

“A chill, raw wind was blowing, and these creatures huddled there in their rags, sleeping for the most part, or trying to sleep. Here were a dozen women, ranging in age from twenty years to seventy. Next a babe, possibly of nine months, lying asleep, flat on the hard bench, with neither pillow nor covering, nor with anyone looking after it. Next half‑a‑dozen men, sleeping bolt upright or leaning against one another in their sleep… On another bench a woman trimming the frayed strips of her rags with a knife, and another woman, with thread and needle, sewing up rents.”

London notes that as the iron railings prevented people from sleeping there at night, the homeless were obliged to sleep by day.

A large homeless population still frequents the area, due to the Salvation army hostels and Providence Row hostel; and the gardens were still popular with the homeless in the 1980s, when they used to come into a sharp class conflict with the visitors to the classical music concerts taking place at the church:

“This is the derelict congregation of the crypt. Its members attend a hostel and soup kitchen famous from the days when the church yard was known as Itchy Park and that, for many of the post‑war years which the church above stood semi‑derelict, provided the only regular service offered here. Ignoring the ancient injunction on bidding them to ‘Commit no nuisance’, these time‑honoured figures stage a vile performance of their own. They hurl insults at the concert‑goers, begging money from them obscenely and urinating on their smart cars. My sleeve was taken by a man who dragged me through the hellish narrative of twenty‑two years spent in gaol, shuddering with horror at the deteriorated company into which he been released, this fellow declared his own outlaw ethic in words should be cut into the stone of Hawksmoor’s building: ‘I’ve never mugged. I’ve never robbed a working‑class home’. As he sank away towards the underworld of the crypt, we ascended hierarchical steps to hear music by Messaien and Hans Werner. The frisson was undeniable.” (Patrick White)

The Irish

By the early 18th Century there were numbers of Irish people living in Spitalfields; frequently they were poor or destitute. The extreme poverty of the Irish locally was frequently noted. The radical Francis Place remarked in 1816 that the native poor of Spitalfields were better off than the Irish. Irish migrants were blamed for working for cheaper wages, especially in the building trades, and were on occasions attacked by ‘native’ workers. Irish workmen were being used for the building of Christ Church, and there were anti-Irish riots in Spitalfields in 1736:

“Tuesday 27 July 1736, the alarm was given by the Deputy Lieutenants of Tower Hamlets. They were barricaded inside the Angel and Crown tavern in Spitalfields, and calling desperately for reinforcements. Outside, the East End had erupted in violence. It was feeling against the Irish that triggered it. London was full of Irish workers. They flooded into the capital in search of jobs on building sites or out in the fields and, like all immigrants before and after them, they were accused of stealing English jobs. Within hours of the trouble starting, Walpole had informers mingling with the crowd, and sending back regular reports from public houses. ‘Some of [the crowd] told me,’ Joseph Bell scribbled hastily to his master, 6 there was such numbers of Irish who underwork them, they could not live and that there was an Irish man in the neighbourhood who employed numbers of them & they was determined to demolish him and drive the rest away.’ It turned out that the contractor for Shoreditch Church ‘had paid off his English labourers and imployed Irish because they worked cheaper.’ The same thing was happening in the weaving industry.

On the first night of the riots, Irish public houses were attacked. A squad of fifty soldiers under Major White, officer on duty at the Tower, found itself up against a crowd he estimated at 4,000. On Thursday, a boy called Thomas Larkin was shot dead in Brick Lane. The next night was even worse. Richard Button, a brewer’s assistant, ‘saw the mob coming down Bell Yard, with sticks and lighted links. One of them made a sort of speech directing the rest to go to Church Lane, to the Gentleman and Porter.’ The crowd was organised by now. These were no longer spontaneous demonstrations. Quite a few of the leaders had papers with lists of Irish pubs on them. ‘One of them was called Captain Tom the Barber, and was in a striped banjan. I would have taken notice of him ‘ Richard Button told the Old Bailey later, ‘but he turned away and would not let me see his face.’ The authorities were having to take ever stronger measures to deal with the situation. Clifford William Phillips, a Tower Hamlets magistrate, was woken by neighbours about ten o’clock, despatched a message to the Tower for help, and then set off towards the riot. ‘The street was very light,’ he recalled afterwards, ‘and I could see (at a distance) the mob beating against the shutters with their clubs and hear the glass. fly … 1 heard the hollowing at my house, and the cry in the street was Down with the Irish, Down with the Irish.’ As Richard Burton remembered, it was only the appearance of magistrate and soldiers that prevented worse violence. ‘Justice Phillips coming down, and the captain with his soldiers. they took some of [the crowd], and the rest made off immediately, and were gone as suddenly, as if a hole had been ready dug in the bottom of the street, and they had all dropped into it at once.”‘..

The Angel and Crown might have been on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street.

There were further attacks on the Irish during the anti-Catholic phase of the Gordon riots in 1780 (in which many local weavers were said be involved).

Commercial Street: The Wicked Quarter Mile

For centuries there was a slum here, a “rookery” as they called them in the 19th Century: a notorious area of narrow alleys and dark yards; many of the buildings here were overcrowded, teeming with the poor; a good number were lodging houses, dosshouses, where the hungriest of the homeless scrounged a living, and of these most were identified by the police as haunts of criminals, thieves, prostitutes and other undesirables.  A double bed would cost 8d, a single 4d and when the all the beds were taken a rope might be fixed down the middle of the room with residents sleeping against it back-to-back for 2d. Those without the money for their lodgings were evicted nightly.

Commercial Street was built in the 1840s, partly as a way of breaking up this dangerous area, filled with the poor & desperate. “Wide new roads” were built around this time throughout London, partly to improve traffic and trade, but also were driven through rookeries to “let in air, light, police, and most important of all, disturbing the inhabitants from their old haunts.” Commercial Street’s commercial value was exaggerated:  for twenty years as it didn’t extend far enough northwards to be of much use as a highway; but this wasn’t its main aim. 1300 poor people were evicted here (with no right to rehousing in those days) and many of the most infamous areas knocked down… Each side of the new throughfare, tenement blocks were build by Model Dwelling Companies, (Rothschild Buildings and Lolesworth Buildings to the east, Wentworth and Brunswick Buildings and Davis Mansions to the west) sponsored by middle class housing reformers, built by pioneering Housing Associations like Peabody. Although an important motive for their construction was a desire to improve working class living conditions, and thus help stave off class violence and rebellion, and drag the immoral poor out of the gutter, in the long run the new Dwellings failed in their purpose. Rents were deliberately set high enough to make sure only most respectable of working class could afford it; certainly excluding the very poor who mainly inhabited the rookery.

More on the building of roads in the 19th century to deliberately socially cleanse the poor

Walk south down Commercial Street to Flower & Dean St or Lolesworth Close

But thirty years later Flower and Dean Street area, two streets south of here, was still a ‘rookery’, “the most menacing working class area of London”. The area between Wentworth Street and Spitalfields market was labelled the ‘Wicked Quarter Mile’, by outsiders of course. The 1870s saw a revived campaign of middle class reformers to demolish it, a huge propaganda war waged at portraying the inhabitants as immoral, ‘unsavoury characters’ crims, prostitutes etc. This was a time of great fear among the middle classes, after the Paris Commune rising, that the disorderly poor would, if not controlled/pacified by charity and coercion hand in hand, rise up and destroy them. Also that they were immoral, vice-ridden, responsible for their own poverty, etc and that if you put them in a different more moral and orderly environment, moral reform and improved social conditions would make them less shiftless, respectable, and less likely to riot and rebel. Many of the age’s greatest middle class reformers, celebrated pioneers in the development of housing associations, charity etc, acted partly from this fear. Repeated attempts of charity, police, religion, sanitary reform and coercion having constantly failed to control the Flower and Dean Street area, only demolition would do. But it took the Jack the Ripper murders to provide the push that led to the demolition of the “foulest enclaves” of Flower & Dean Street. Three of the ripper’s victims had lived lives of dire poverty in the street, and the media storm the killings roused focussed a spotlight on the area. The Four Per Cent Dwelling Company bought up the north-east side of the street and built Nathaniel Dwellings; on the north side of Wentworth Street, Stafford House was erected (thanks to the guilt-ridden landowners the Hendersons, in an attempt to banish the bad publicity the murders were spreading). Through the 1890s other blocks went up in the old rookery, between Lolesworth and Thrawl Streets.

Ironically 120 years and more later these model blocks had decayed themselves and become slums, and the same process would be repeated: plans were laid to scatter the residents and build new housing for a better class of inhabitant. Only this time the tenants resistance would change the outcome… We will return to this…

Walk across Commercial Street to White’s Row, and walk down to the corner of Tenterground.

The area immediately south of here, known as the Tenter Ground, between Wentworth Street on the south, Rose Lane (since disappeared under Commercial Street) on the east and Bell Lane on the west, was the last part of Spitalfields to be formed into streets. The bounding streets on the south, east and west were built up by the 1640’s and the northern boundary was formed into the south side of White’s Row in about 1650. The central plot of ground remained open, however, until the second decade of the nineteenth century, being a space where ‘tenters’ could be set up – frames to stretch dry newly woven cloth.

On 4th March 1702, Jack Sheppard was born somewhere here. Growing up poor, he spent some of his childhood in the local workhouse, later being apprenticed to a carpenter. He jacked this in to become a thief, but as the prison escaper extra-ordinaire of the 18th century, breaking out of the Clerkenwell New Prison, the Bridewell, and Newgate Prison, in various ingenious ways, he earned enduring fame in his short lifetime. For a hundred years after his death many working class people uninterested in the name of current monarchs and prime ministers could retell Jack’s story in detail.

In some ways Jack could be held to be symbolic of the disorderly nature of this area. Although his rebellion was individual, it chimes with the poor and rebellious Spitalfields folk of many centuries, resistant to authority, hostile to attempts to govern them. As another example, from two streets north of here: in 1763, after Cornelius Sanders was hanged for stealing £50 from her, a Mrs White’s house was attacked by a large crowd: “great numbers of people assembling, they at last grew so outrageous that a guard of soldiers was sent for to stop their proceedings; notwithstanding which, they forced open the door, pitched out all the salmon-tubs, most of the household furniture, piled them on a heap, and set fire to them, and, to prevent the guards from extinguishing the flames, pelted them off with stones, and would not disperse till the whole was consumed.” (Annual Register, 1763)

Walk down White’s Row To Crispin Street

Lewis Chauvet’s silk factory stood here in the 1760s, at no 39.

For centuries Silk Weaving was the dominant industry in Spitalfields and neighbouring areas like Bethnal Green.

Silkweavers were incorporated as a London City Company in 1629. But many foreigners or weavers from northern England or other areas were not allowed to join the Company, and had problems working or selling their work as they weren’t members… Spitalfields had a small-scale silk-weaving industry from the fifteenth century, based on early settlements of foreigners outside the City walls, which increased gradually as protestant refugees from Netherlands congregated here, especially during the Dutch Wars of independence from Spain in the 1580s-early 1600s.

In the early years weaving here was a cottage industry, with many independent workers labouring at home. This quickly developed into a situation with a smaller number of masters, who employed journeymen and a legally recognised number of apprentices to do the work. Numbers of workers, and training, in the Weavers Compnay were regulated by law and in the Company courts; later wages came to be a matter of dispute and the courts had to deal with this too.

Masters often sub-contracted out work to homeworkers, so that by the end of the 18th Century, many silkweavers were employed in their own homes, using patterns and silk provided by masters, and paid weekly. Later still there developed middlemen or factors, who bought woven silks at lowest prices and sold them to wholesale dealers. This led to lower wages for the weavers themselves.

Silk dyeing in the fourteenth century

Silk Weavers conducted a long-running battle with their employers in the 17th and 18th centuries, over wage levels, working conditions and increasing mechanisation in the industry. One early method of struggle was the ‘right of search’: a power won over centuries by journeymen weavers and eventually backed by law, to search out and in some cases destroy weaving work done by ‘outsiders’, usually those working below the agreed wage rates, or by weavers who hadn’t gone through proper apprenticeships, by foreigners etc. Silkweavers used it, however, at several points from 1616 to 1675, to block the introduction of the engine loom with its multiple shuttles. At this point the interests of masters and journeymen converged, for the engine loom was being used by total outsiders, and restriction on this technical innovation kept both wages and profits high. But tacit backing of workers violence by master-weavers was always a risky strategy: class conflict kept breaking through. And continued agitation to keep wages high gradually pushed masters seeking to drive profits and productivity up into increased mechanisation…

The journeymen weavers also had a history of support for radical groups, from the Leveller democrats of the English Civil War. through 1760s populist demagogue John Wilkes, to the extreme Chartists of the 1830s.

In 1675, in a three-day riot against machine looms, dozens of bands of weavers roamed the city, some clothed in green (a suspect colour politically, being associated with the Levellers), beating drums, waving flags & setting on the masters who used new engine looms, burning the looms in the streets. The Army suppressed the ‘insurrection’. As a result of the riots full mechanisation was delayed in the industry for a century.

After 1685, Hugenot refugees from France swelled the ranks of the weavers, in Spitalfields, West Bethnal Green and Norton Folgate. Some French co-religionists already there, and many of the migrants were clothworkers, eg weavers from Tours and Lyons. They brought new techniques, designs and materials, working top quality silks with high levels of skill;  their methods, designs and materials spread from them to wider population here.

In 1697 there were further riots against imports on foreign silks, widely seen as undercutting prices for East London cloths. Again masters encouraged crowd violence. Weavers besieged parliament, marched on Lewisham’s silks mills to smash machine looms operating there; and attacked the HQ of the East India Company, major importer of silks from India. They also threatened the house of Joshua Childs, the East India Company’s dictator.

These disturbances and others in succeeding years led to protectionist measures being passed in parliament in 1700 to protect the industry from competition from foreign cloths.

In the 18th Century, silk and the wearing of it, was one of the most potent symbols of class divisions. According to Peter Linebaugh “it was the fabric of power and class command…”; he describes this century as ‘The Age of Silk’. A silk dress could cost £50 in materials alone (a huge sum then), but there was a great contrast of consumer and producer: “the ladies strolling in St James’s Park, adorned in cascades of silk contrived with cuffs, flounces and bows to capture the wandering eye…the gentlmen in their silk stockings and waistcoats, their brocaded jackets and silken knee-britches, bowing and scraping into lordly favour, awaiting the moment to give a command of battle or to sign a death warrant…” The producers were the thousands of men, women and children in the East End, “winding, throwing, dyeing, weaving, drawing, cutting, designing, stitching in hundreds of attics and garrets”. A proverb summed it up: “We are all Adam’s children, but silk makes the difference.”

Silk reeling

Huge fluctuations in silk trade meant intermittent poverty for weavers, the whole area could be plunged into periodic depression and desperation. As a result crime was rife; Spitalfields was the home parish for 64 of the men and women hanged at Tyburn between 1709 and 1783; many were silkworkers, and overwhelmingly a larger proportion of those executed hailed from Spitalfields and Bethnal Green.

1719-20 saw another prolonged agitation, this time over imports of calico, dyed and patterned cloth from India, very fashionable then, which weavers widely perceived as causing reduced demand for silk (calico was quite a bit cheaper…) In June 1719, thousands assembled in Spitalfields and the Mint, and marched in protest over calico imports. Somewhat dodgily tactics included attacking any women walking in the City wearing calico.

Obviously this tactic is not without its, er, issues today, and one woman at least, did respond in print, denouncing “a gang of audacious rogues to come and fall on us on the streets, and tear the clothes off our backs, insult and abuse us, and tell us we shall not wear what they do not weave; is this to be allowed in a Nation of Liberty?” Class and gender relations tangled here in confused ways: the weavers were poor workers, the women targeted mostly middle to upper class; but male power and violence was clearly involved too. Hmmm. Discuss.

In 1720, weavers rallied in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, and more attacks on calico wearers followed. The protests of 1719-20 were successful, leading to a ban on calico. High import duties were also imposed on the importing of French made silks, the main competitor for Spitalfields cloth; this led however to a widespread trade in smuggled silks from France.

The weavers and their morals

Their penchant for violence in their economic interests was not the only attribute that earned the silkweavers denunciations from their ‘betters’. Being relatively highly paid, for the time, (at least when trade was good), if many silkweavers could subsist on three days work a week, they would. Spitalfields silkweavers were often attacked in print for their idleness and drunkenness. ‘Saint Monday’, taking Monday off (with a hangover, or just to carry on partying), was usually celebrated, and work in the week was often interupted by talking and tippling. And while Saturday morning was officially a work day, it was usually the day to get piece work together, take it to the master and get paid; another day involving much hanging about, chewing the fat and getting a few bevvies in. There were many weavers alehouses in the area: the Crown and Shuttle, the Mulberry Tree, the Three Jolly Weavers, the

Silk weaving, from Hogarth’s ‘Idle Apprentice’ series of etching. Hogarth’s series tells a moral tale of a lazy, unruly apprentice weaver who neglects his work, falls in with bad company and ends on the gallows.

Throwers Arms, the Dyers, the eight different pubs called Weavers Arms, and the three Robin Hood and Little John Inns.

If the politicians, journalists and other worthies who every so often express their disgust, thought that “the scandal of public drunkenness” was anything new… they should think again.

For centuries the life of all classes was steeped in alcohol; up to the eighteenth century public carousing was enjoyed pretty freely, and the English were famed for drink and violence. It was only really in Victorian times that the question of the inebriated state of the poor became the favourite subject for the chattering classes. There were three main reasons:

a – increasing overcrowding in cities, due to enclosure etc pushing people off the land…

b – the growing industrial Revolution: the need for more effective work discipline to force people to work in factories;

c – fear of the disorderly poor, dating from the 18th century mobs, but made more urgent by events like the French revolution: plebs could overthrow society if they weren’t kept in line/taught to respect authority, etc.

Growing campaigns for ‘moral reform’ was the result. Overall a population which sweated out its beer by performing long hours of hard, physical work appears to have held its drink well. However drunkenness was a common problem, especially at weekends and in the lowest districts. Given the moralistic nature of Victorian society this inevitably gave rise to considerable debate amongst the chattering classes. Often this was conducted through the columns of the newspapers, which had become obsessed with the condition of the underclass in what would now be described as ‘the inner cities’. The question as to whether people were poor because they drank, or drank because they were poor was well aired. In fact this debate pre-dated the Ripper murders by a few years. Early sociologists such as Charles Booth (who performed studies in the East End) had already investigated the subject. Booth had reached the unfashionable conclusion that it was the poor socio-economic conditions of the area that caused excessive drinking.

Whatever the cause, newspaper reports and court records of the time show a constant stream of offenders being dealt with by magistrates. A study of the penalties for being drunk and disorderly shows a full range of sentences, from fines to jail sentences with hard labour. Miscreants were frequently imprisoned because they could not afford to pay the fine.

Calico printing

Although the Calico Acts protected the silkweaving trade for a few decades, increased smuggling, gradual exporting of skills and methods to other parts of the country, slowly eroded the Spitalfields  stranglehold on the industry. Sporadic flashes of aggro broke out. In 1739 a master weaver’s house in Spital Square was besieged by workers, who tried to destroy it – they were dispersed by guards.

But by the 1760s tensions between masters and workers had grown to eruption point. Dissatisfaction over pay among journeymen silkweavers was increasing; and 7,072 looms were out of employment, with a slump in the trade partly caused by smuggling (carried on to a greater extent than ever). In 1762, the journeymen wrote a Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases). They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. As a result two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials, and went on strike.

There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides.

Tactics included stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, involving the army, secret subversive groups of weavers, and ended in murder and execution.

In 1763 thousands of weavers took part in wage riots & machine smashings, armed with cutlasses and disguised, destroying looms. They broke open one of the master’s houses,  destroyed his looms, cut to pieces much valuable silk, carried his effigy in a cart through the neighbourhood and afterwards burnt it, hung in chains from a gibbet. The military occupied parts of Spitalfields in response.

The following year, with the slump worsening, weavers petitioned Parliament to impose double duties upon all foreign wrought silks. This petition being rejected, crowds of weavers went to the House of Commons on 10 January 1764, ‘with drums beating and banners flying,’ to demand the total prohibition of foreign silks. This was the day of the opening of Parliament: its members were besieged by the weavers with tales of the great distress which had fallen upon them and their families. Parliament did pass some laws lowering the import duty on raw silk and prohibiting the importation of silk ribbons, stockings, and gloves, and dealers in foreign silks gave assurances they would reduce orders for foreign silks, and a contribution was made for the immediate relief of the sufferers. These actions appeased the weavers for a while, and the only violence committed was that of breaking the windows of some merchants who dealt in French silks.

In 1765, however, wage riots broke out again; at a time of high food prices & unemployment. In May 8000 weavers armed with bludgeons and pickaxes, besieged and attacked Bedford House in Bloomsbury three times, after the Duke engineered the defeat of a bill in the House of Lords designed to protect the  silkweaving trade by placing high import duties on Italian silks. The 4th Duke of Bedford was a whig politician, in and out of various positions of power; leader at one time of a political faction nick-named the Bloomsbury Gang; his extensive interests in the East India Company, which was engaged in importing cheaper Indian textiles, also undercutting the weavers’ livelihoods, made him an even more hated target.

Continued rioting by the weavers all month in Spitalfields and elsewhere kept London in such a state of general alarm that troops were stationed in the area and in Moorfields, and the citizens enrolled themselves for military duty. As a result of the May riots an Act was passed in 1765 declaring it to be felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture.

In 1767 wage disputes broke out again: masters who had reduced piece rates had silk cut from their looms. At a hearing in the Weavers Court, in November that year, a case was heard, in which a number of journeymen demanded the 1762 prices from their Book be agreed. The Court agreed that some masters had caused trouble by reducing wages and ruled that they should abide by the Book. However this had little effect, and trouble carried on sporadically.

Trouble was also breaking out between groups of workers: single loom weavers and engine looms weavers were now at loggerheads. On 30 November 1767, “ a body of weavers, armed with rusty swords, pistols and other offensive weapons, assembled at a house on Saffron-hill, with an intent to destroy the work of an eminent weaver without much mischief.” On the authorities arresting and questioning some of them  it turned out this was a dispute between hand loom weavers and machine loom users.

The events of 1762-7 however were merely a curtain raiser for 1768-69 though. The ‘Cutters’ Riots’ saw a prolonged struggle with bitter violence, rioting, threatening letters to employers, hundreds of raids on factories. Strikers in other trades joined in the mayhem. Crowds of weavers also forcibly set their own prices in the food markets, in defiance of high prices.

In the Summer of 1769, an attempt to cut wages by some masters led some journeymen to organise a levy on looms, to raise money to fund organised resistance. Secret clubs were formed, including one allegedly called the Bold Defiance, (or Conquering and Bold Defiance, or the Defiance Sloop), which attempted to levy a tax on anyone who owned or possessed a loom. They met at the Dolphin Tavern in Cock Lane, Bethnal Green. Their methods of fund-raising bordered, shall we say, on extortion, expressed in the delivery to silk weaving masters of Captain Swing style notes: ”Mr Hill, you are desired to send the full donation of all your looms to the Dolphin in Cock Lane. This from the conquering and bold Defiance to be levied four shillings per loom.”

Which brings us to Lewis Chauvet, a major silk boss, whose factory was here in Crispin Street: leading manufacturer of silk handkerchiefs, who had already been involved in bitter battles against striking weavers in Dublin. He forbade his workers to join the weavers’ clubs or to pay any levies, and organised a private guard on his looms. As a result, the cutters gathered in large numbers and tried to force Chauvet’s workers to pay up. Fights broke out and many people on both sides were badly hurt. Then, on the night of Thursday 17th August, the cutters assembled in gangs and went to the homes of Chauvet’s workers, cutting the silk out of more than fifty looms. Four nights later, on Monday 21st, they gathered in even greater numbers and cut the silk out of more than a hundred looms. Throughout the night the streets of Spitalfields resounded to the noise of pistols being fired in the air.

Chauvet’s response to this episode was to advertise a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. But for several weeks the people of Spitalfields remained silent, either for fear of the cutters, or because they did not wish to give evidence that might send a man to the gallows.

This was going way too far for the authorities. On 30 Sept 1769, magistrates, Bow St Runners and troops raided the Bold Defiance’ HQ at the Dolphin Tavern, finding the cutters assembled, armed, and “receiving the contributions of terrified manufacturers.” A firefight started between the weavers and the soldiers and runners, which left two cutters and a soldier dead; four weavers were arrested.

As a result, two weavers, John Valloine & John Doyle,  implicated by witnesses who claimed a reward from Chauvet, were convicted of murder and hanged on the 6th December 1769, despite an organised attempt to free them, and attacks on the men building the gallows with stones. Doyle and Valloine were hanged at corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road. After their execution the crowd tore down the gallows, rebuilt them in front of Chauvet’s factory/house here in Crispin Street, and 5,000 people gathered to smash the windows & burn his furniture. Two weeks later on December 20th,  more cutters were executed: William Eastman, William Horsford and John Carmichael. Daniel Clarke, a silk pattern drawer and small employer was paid by Chauvet to give evidence against some of the hanged men. He had regularly tried to undercut agreed wage rates and had testified before against insurgent weavers.

Loom with a Jacquard pattern head. The cards with holes in to guide the loom into weaving particular patterns pre-figured early card-driven computers

Although the repression quietened things down for a year or so, these hangings still had a grim epitaph. On 16th April 1771, Daniel Clarke was spotted walking through Spitalfields streets, and chased by a crowd of mainly women and boys, including the widow of William Horsford, and finally stoned to death in the Hare Street Pond in Bethnal Green.  In Spitalfields this was widely seen as community justice – the official ‘justices’ had to squash another open challenge. Two more weavers, Henry Stroud – William Eastman’s brother in law –  and Robert Campbell were hanged in Hare Street on July 8th for Clarke’s ‘murder’. Witnesses had to be bribed to testify, and were attacked; Justice Wilmot, who arrested the two men, only just escaped the angry crowd, and a hundred soldiers had to be posted to ensure the hanging took place.

Although prices were fixed between masters and workers, nothing obliged the masters to keep to them. In 1773, further discontent broke out. Handbills circulated, addressed to weavers, coalheavers, porters and carmen (cartdrivers), to ‘Rise’ and petition the king. Silkweavers met at Moorfields on April 26th, incited by another handbill that read “Suffer yourselves no longer to be persecuted by a set of miscreants, whose way to Riches and power lays through your Families and by every attempt to starve and Enslave you…” Magistrates however met with them, and persuaded them to disperse, promising them a lasting deal. This materialised in the form of the Spitalfields Acts. The first Act, in 1773, laid down that wages for journeymen weavers were to be set, and maintained, at a reasonable level by the local Magistrates, (in Middlesex) or the Lord Mayor or Aldermen (in the City). Employers who broke the agreed rate would be fined £50; journeymen who demanded more would also be punished, and silk weavers were prohibited from having more than two apprentices at one time.

The Act of 1792 included those weavers who worked upon silk mixed with other materials, and that of 1811 extended the provisions to female weavers.

The Spitalfields Acts were renewed several times until 1824. Opinion at the time as to their effect on the local silk industry was sharply divided: in the 1810s/1820s they were the subject of a pamphlet war and verbal exchanges in the newspapers. Historians also disagree. On one hand wages were not reduced to starvation levels across the board, as had happened before. On the other it was claimed they had a negative effect on the weavers and industry; some manufacturers upped sticks and moved up north where they could pay cheaper wages. It did sometimes mean that some men would be working at full rates while others would have been laid off by masters unable, or unwilling, or who didn’t have enough work to pay the proper rate; a slump in the trade between 1785 and 1798 forced thousands of weavers completely out of work. Although things were better between 1798 and 1815, the post-War recession bit hard;  at a public meeting held at the Mansion House on 26 November 1816, for the relief of the weavers, the secretary stated that two-thirds of them were without employment and without the means of support, that ‘some had deserted their houses in despair unable to endure the sight of their starving families, and many pined under languishing diseases brought on by the want of food and clothing.’

One major result at least between 1773 and 1824 seems to have been an end to weavers’ riots and cuttings… It is argued in pamphlets in the 1820s that the Spitalfields weavers were diverted from radical, reforming and revolutionary politics, especially in the 1790s and 1810s when other similar groups of workers were widely attracted to such ideas. For instance, no or few weavers were supposed to have taken place in the food riots of 1795… [Interestingly local anger may have also been diverted in 1795 by the opening of London’s first ever soup kitchen. Its founder, Patrick Colquhoun, had the stated aim of preventing the poor being attracted by revolutionary ideas at the time of the French Revolution & widespread radical activity; he was a clever theorist of controlling the troublesome workers with repression and paternalism hand in hand, and was also instrumental in forming the Thames River Police, and important forerunner of the Met.]

So if it is the case that some weavers were skint while others worked, the Acts may have worked to reduce militancy and split the weavers movement.

The division over the Acts can be seen then as a traditional split in ruling/employer attitudes to workers militancy: either pacify them and reduce trouble, or reduce their wages savagely regardless and repress any resistance. In the 1770s the paternal idea of a local state intervention to keep the peace in everyone ‘s interest prevailed, but in the harsher times of the laissez-faire 1820s they were an expensive anachronism. Manufacturers may have moved their business out to areas with less of a rebellious tradition in any case, however.

It is certain that Repeal of the Acts in 1824, under the ‘progressive’ Whig program of economic liberalisation, was very unpopular among weavers (an 11,000 strong petition was got up in 3 days against repeal, and there were demos at parliament) and resulted in widespread wage cuts and extreme poverty. The trade was sabotaged. But the fight had seemingly gone out of the weavers… Although there were some strikes, loom–cutting and window smashing, it was ineffective.

Repeal led to or coincided with terrible poverty in area: (see Buxton Street, below).

After 1830, the London silkweaving industry went into a terminal decline,. Although in 1831 there were still 17,000 looms in the East End, and some 50,000 people in Spitalfields, Mile End New Town and Bethnal Green were directly dependent on silk weaving, 30,000 were said to be unemployed here in the 1830s. The steam-powered loom gradually took over from handloom-weaving. Although some weavers migrated to other silk-working areas, most remained, many taking to casual work in spells of unemployment, especially on the docks. An 1837 Poor Law Report stated that ‘a considerable number of the weavers are fellowship porters and are employed in unloading vessels at London docks during seasons of distress.’  Many weavers worked half in and half out of the trade through the 1840s and 1850s, hopeful that the good times would return. But the fate of the industry was finally sealed by the Cobden free trade treaty with France in 1860, which allowed cheaper french silks in without duty.  In the twenty years, the numbers dependent on the silk trade fell from 9,500 to 3,300. A deputation of silk weavers to the Board of Trade in 1866, stated that in the previous six years, their wage rates had been reduced by 20 per cent, and the price paid for weaving standard velvet had fallen front 4s. 3d. per yard in 1825 to 1s. 9d. per yard. A dwindling band of ageing workers remained in the trade, sharing out the limited work that continued to be available.

But the clothing trade has remained a major employer in the area, though today it has moved on from silkweaving, (through different branches of tailoring), to wholesaling and retailing clothing. Clothes are still made here, overwhelmingly in small workshops or people’s homes, for low pay, usually the province of migrant workers or their children. New communities moving into the area could be hired to work at lower rates than existing workers. The Irish were hired to work power looms to undercut the rebellious descendants of the hugenots…

Although the Spitalfields Acts said by historians to have kept weavers out of food riots during the various crises of the French/Napoleonic Wars, at the same time, reforming and radical groupings met in Spitalfields and had support in this area through the 1790s to the 1830s.

In the late 1790s, the various splinter groups variously called the United Britons, United Englishmen or the True Britons were active here. These groups emerged from the wreckage of the London Corresponding Society, a reforming organisation formed in 1792 among London artisans and workers. The LCS had campaigned for an extension of the vote for working men, but even this simple reform had scared the British government in the atmosphere following the French Revolution: they saw the shadow of the guillotine in even the most polite of working class organisation. The LCS became more radical as it faced increasing government repression, mass surveillance by Home Office spies, arrests, treason trials, and as laws were passed attacking freedom of expression and association and removing legal protection from detainees.
LCS Division 17 formed November 1792 met at the Black Swan, Brown’s Lane, Spitalfields; Brown’s Lane changed its name to Hanbury Street in 1876. The Black Swan was at 23 Hanbury Street until 1899, on the north side of the street.

Faced with massive repression, the failure of the LCS’ main tactics of the monster rally and gradual education, some frustrated radicals gave up on demands for reform, and decided that only a revolution by force would achieve any gains at all for the lower classes. By 1797, small fractions of the LCS were organising in secret, making links with like-minded groups in other cities (and in Ireland, which was ready to explode). Leading lights included former LCS Secretary Thomas Evans, and Dr Crossfield. The United Englishmen attempted to create grassroots divisions in late 1797, and local societies existed in Spitalfields and other parts of the East End. After a crackdown and some arrests in 1798, the underground groups revived in 1799, as part of a structure based on cells, centred on former soldier Colonel Despard, who had recently been released from detention. In the East End they effectively merged with the Sons of Liberty, another radical splinter group. The Seven Stars Pub was a Sons of Liberty/United Englishmen rendesvous in 1798-99. (possibly in Seven Star Yard, off Brick Lane). These groups attempted to plot an uprising, with support from disaffected soldiers, radical groups nationwide and irish republicans, culminating in an abortive insurrection in 1802, for which Despard and others were executed.

Later, during the economic slump that followed the end of the Napoleonic War, mass unemployment (as hundreds of thousands were suddenly demobbed from the army and navy, and the war economy collapsed), food shortages and high prices led to unrest all over the country. 1815 saw riots all year, including against the new ‘Corn Laws’, Acts of Parliament designed to guarantee maximum profits for the English landed aristocracy (who then dominated Parliament) by banning cheap imports of corn; in times of bad harvest this meant high bread prices. The government cracked down, sending in troops and passing new repressive laws. 45,000 people were said to be ‘in want’ in Spitalfields at this time; how many weavers were involved in the Corn Law riots and the battle of Spa Fields (where rioters looted gun shops) is not known… But local taverns again saw heated gatherings of the ultra-radicals, plotting insurrection and rebellion: some of them even veterans of the 1790s movement. The Golden Key Tavern, the Red Lion (possibly 92 Commercial Street?, on the east side, at entrance to modern Puma Court, then Red Lion Court) ), and the Spotted Dog, were all said in 1817/18 to be regular meeting places of the insurrectionary revolutionaries.

The National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) had a Spitalfields and East End branch. The NUWC formed as an alliance of metropolitan radicals, mainly artisans, and campaigned for political reform, mainly through demanding the vote for working men.

Later, the East London Democratic Association, a ‘physical force’ Chartist organisation, was strong in Spitalfields, with alot of support among the silkweavers.

Walk west down Artillery Lane, then north up Gun Street, to the corner with Brushfield Street

Jewish immigration in Whitechapel and Spitalfields

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 leave Russia. 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 St, 48 out of 85 shops were jewish run by the 1890s.

Anti-semitism has a long history, but large-scale Jewish migration into the area sparked a new and specific campaign against it. There was fierce anti-immigrant agitation; and not just from right-wingers. Central figures in this campaign included people like Major Evans-Gordon, the MP for Stepney, (whose speeches and writings are remarkably similar to those of Enoch Powell later), the Reverend Billing of Spitalfields, the local vicar; and Arnold White, but also from East End trade unions. An early rally against Jewish immigration produced a resolution to Parliament calling for bans on migrants, signed by 43 unions including the Dockers Union; pioneer socialist and much revered dockers leader Ben Tillet was outspokenly very anti-immigrant.

Much of the writing and speechmaking Invasion’ described them as being of inferior race of humanity, and tried to establish a causal link between the Jews and poverty, and the creation of social evils in the areas they inhabited. Arnold White’s symposium The Destitute Alien in Great Britain was published in 1892. Books like  WH Wilkins’ ‘The Alien Invasion’ described them as being of inferior class, questioned whether they in fact brought Russian persecution upon themselves, and campaigned for strict immigration laws.

Locally the Jewish migrants, overcrowded like most new-coming communities into the worst housing, were blamed for the squalor, overcrowding and poverty they lived in; accusations repeated by other working class people barely escaped from a similar position, but most vehemently by those of the class that profited nicely from renting slums at over-inflated rents. The same accusations had been levelled at the Irish, wherever they had ‘colonised’, and were later repeated against West Indians in Brixton and Notting Hill in the 1950s and ’60s.

In 1901 Major Evans-Gordon and others formed the British Brothers’ League, basically a nationalist and racist organisation, to help build up  anti-immigrant activity. Every Conservative candidate in Bethnal Green, Hoxton and Haggerston – districts where organised racism remained a major feature for decades – exploited anti-immigrant attitudes in elections from 1892 to 1906. This pressure paid off, contributing to the passing the first Aliens Act. restricting immigration, in 1905.

Local working class people from older communities often saw the Jews as direct competition in the daily struggle for jobs. The East End had long depended on casual, low paid work, where you might compete day by day to get work ahead of your neighbours. Others were ‘self-employed’ in precarious circumstances; for instance many of the incomers either were or became street pedlars, selling in the street, which was a direct threat to the livelihoods of the mostly irish costermongers (street-traders) of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. many of these  organized their own agitation against Jewish immigration; much as their ancestors had also been attacked in earlier centuries.

Anti-semitic traditions passed down to 1930s Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, strong in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch and parts of Stepney.

The local Irish population were ironically strongly anti-semitic, despite the story of the jews echoing their own experience in the area 100-150 years earlier. (the powerful influence of the Catholic Church in Irish communities would be a powerful factor, “the Jews killed Our Lord blah blah”…) This echo is a regular feature of life here: migrant communities struggle to gain foothold, provoking fear of difference and economic competition, but when they establish themselves, they often turn on the next migrants to arrive, who they see as threatening their own barely established hold. Many East End Irish were to become strong supporters of Oswald Mosley and his fascists; long-cockneyfied Irish descendants in more recent decades took a dim view of incoming Bangladeshis.

Facing such a hostile reaction, the migrant Jews tended to respond in one of three ways: religious isolationism, a turn to more orthodox judaism; working hard and attempting to assimilate; thirdly, to radicalism, trade unionism and ideas of class solidarity, usually across ‘religious’ lines.

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.

As a result, a lively and active socialist and trade unionist scene was to grow in the East End, especially in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. It 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.

East End tailors, 1913.

Like the silkweaving industry of old, the tailoring trade was subject to many fluctuations. Annually there were two seasons, busy time and slack time: in busy time tailors were overworked, denied breaks, working very long hours; in slack times, there was little or no work, resulting in great poverty and hunger. Pawnbrokers would be the only ones booming, and 100s of unemployed tailors would mill in the streets, waiting to hear about work, gossiping, discussing…

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.

In May 1876, the Hebrew Socialist Union was founded here in Gun Street, at no 40. (The current building at no 40 replaced the building they met in, which was demolished in 1976). The HSU’s founders included Aaron Lieberman, who had emigrated to London the year before, having been involved in populist and socialist politics in Russia, and Isaac Stone. The Union aimed to organise among the Jewish working class, spread socialism among Jews and non-Jews, and to support workers’ organisation and struggles; they held educational classes on philosophy, history, revolution, socialism. Although they organised Jewish workers separately from ‘native’ workers they were not separatist, and they did make a noble but ill-fated attempt to approach Irish workers locally, who were often very anti semitic. The HSU also promoted the formation of a tailors union in August 1876.

But the group was paralysed by constant doctrinal disputes; over whether small masters and peddlars were workers and should be allowed in to the HSU; but mostly over religion, assimilation and observance. Liebermann was very anti-religious, but many of the members combined some radical views with religious belief.

Hebrew Socialist Union pamphlet

As well as internal division, the Hebrew Socialist Union also faced hostility from the Anglo-Jewish establishment. Many Jews in established communities, which had more or less made themselves acceptable and respectable to British society, were worried or even opposed to the influx of poor Eastern Jews, especially with so many being of the radical persuasion; would the latent anti-semitism always present here be provoked and would they older more assimilated communities also become targets? The great and good among the more accepted Jews adopted a dual approach: charity towards the new migrants, but accompanied by pressure to settle down, work hard, integrate into ‘normal’ British life, and not make trouble. On the other hand they attacked the HSU in print, trying to discredit them by suggesting they weren’t Jewish, and found support for this among local bosses. Workers found to be HSU members were sacked. Rabbis denounced them, and the Jewish Chronicle accused them of being secret Christian missionaries. Union Meetings were infiltrated by religious jews incited by this, and degenerated into rowdy argument.

Partly as a result, and partly due to dissensions between the more intellectual Lithuanian socialists, and practical-minded workers (mainly from Galicia), both the HSU and its offshoot tailors’ union were shortlived; the HSU collapsed in September 1876, the tailors union split from its socialist founders but collapsed when the treasurer ran off with its funds.

Aaron Lieberman left for America, where he was to kill himself in 1880; but he had influenced the growing Jewish socialist movement in Russia, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe through his writings in the journal Vperyod, which helped form Jewish socialist movements in those countries.
And brief as its life had been, the Hebrew Socialist Union had laid some foundations for the movements of Jewish radicals, socialists, anarchists, and trade unionists, which continued for decades. Jews formed the basis of East End tailors unions, the movements against sweating in the clothing trades, of the strong East End anarchist movement before World War 1, and later of the strong Jewish element among the Communist Party long into the 20th Century.

Walk west down Brushfield Street to the corner with Fort Street

29a Fort Street was the original editorial address of the Arbeter Fraint, or Workers Friend, a hugely influential and long-running Yiddish language newspaper based in the East End.

The Arbeter Fraint had its origins in the Poilishe Yidel, a socialist paper that was initially based nearby at 137 Commercial Street. First published in 1884, the group that grew up around the paper’s office was of fundamental importance in building the local Jewish radical tradition.

The Poilishe Yidel (meaning the little polish jew, which in itself was a dig an anglo-jewish establishment) was the first socialist paper in Yiddish, founded by Morris Winchevsky, who had arrived in London around 1879, and worked as a book-keeper in the City. He had met up with ex-members of the Hebrew Socialist Union, and took careful note of the religious problems that had dogged the HSU; he laid off from attacks on religion!

Winchevsky launched a socialist paper (sponsored by his mate E. Rabbinowitz) with a three-fold mission: to instruct and support Jewish people, to help the new Jewish migrant or‘greener’ practically (eg in seeking work), and to provide insight into world events, with a radical perspective.

The Yidel employed a strong use of religious language, using quotes directly from religuous texts as headings, etc. This reflected the  background of Winchevsky (and several other jewish radical editors) in a religious training they had later rejected.

But this language of religion was also obviously a common point of reference with their audience, as well as often being powerful imagery in itself.

16 issues of the Poilishe Yidel appeared. Winchevsky had a distinctive style, alternating from pathos to bitter irony. The paper featured descriptions of immigrant life in the ‘stetl’ (the slang name for a community mostly populated by Jews); local, national and international news with political analysis and comment, correspondents from Leeds (the other main Jewish centre in the UK). Mainly though the Yidel contained didactic appraisals of life in the ghetto and suggestions for solutions. This included numerous articles on the subject of work – finding it, the pay, exploitation of ‘greeners’ (newly arrived naive Jews), problems with bosses and landlords… The paper continually advised Jews to get involved in the formation of trade unions.

Poilishe Yidel also kept a watch on anti-semitism in the press, meetings, encouraged Jewish workers to get tuition in Yiddish and English.

However, the group putting out the paper split in October 1884: initially this was caused by Winchevsky’s resentment of Rabbinowitz’s insertion of adverts, both religious and commercial, espeically an ad for the Liberal Jewish candidate (later local MP) Samuel Montagu. Under Rabbinowitz’s influence the paper was renamed ‘Zukunft’, went anti-socialist, concentrated on local affairs & ended in 1889…

Winchevsky, however, founded a new paper, the Arbeter Fraint, again published in Yiddish. Initially this was a non-partisan socialist paper, “open to all radicals…  social democrats, collectivists, communists, and anarchists”.

This paper always held a global view of socialism, rejecting jewish nationalism along with anti-semitism, and advocating  revolution… but Winchevsky remained committed to helping the Jewish poor.

It gathered a group of bright young Jewish writers: eg Benjamin Feigenbaum, (obsessed with debunking religion), wrote anti-religious satires. Evolving from the Yidel’s abstaining where religion was converned, the Arbeter Fraint began to attack on religion: constantly denigrating the Jews’ own ancient faith, sometimes through the parody of religious texts.


Initially the AF attacked trade unions as merely a sop to the workers, as there could be no real improvements under capitalism. Revolution was the only solution and was imminent… But fairly soon realities of conditions in the tailoring sweating trades forced them to concede to necessity, and from 1886 the paper helped the drive toward unionisation.

From a monthly, the paper went weekly in June 1886, and came under control of activists at the Berner Street International Workingmans Educational Club, off Commercial Road, Whitechapel, where it was based till the club closed in 1892.

Gradually the group hardened into a more anarchist position, and recruited several libertarian writers and poets. The group that published it were heavily involved in the agitation among tailoring workers that helped lead to the 1889 tailors strike, 6000 tailors struck for a reduction in hours, breaks, meals to be had off premises, government contractors to pay union rates, no home work at night after hours…120 workshops were closed down.

The strike was won after much agitation, but the master tailors started to break the subsequent agreements immediately.

We’ll return to Arbeter Fraint later

Dino’s café, on the corner of Brushfield Street/Crispin Street was apparently used as an impromptu shelter all night by the many homeless who frequented the area in the 1960s/70s, as it was open all hours for market workers; also mods used to gather here, as it was a hangout for speed dealers in the early ‘60s…

There was also a legendary homeless flame on Brushfield Street, somewhere behaind the market: a leak in a gas pipe possibly?), popularly remembered as the “Spitalfields Fire’, around which the homeless also used to gather. The legend claimed the flame had a charter, that it had burned forever…

People around a fire, Spitafields Market

Apparently there was a Jewish Co-operative Bakery established in Brushfield Street, in September 1894; Yanovsky and Wess of Arbeter Fraint were involved. We have no more info…

 Walk down Brushfield Street to the entrance to Spitalfields Market

A regular market has been held on this spot for centuries. In earlier centuries it was a popular spot for selling off materials knocked off from work by dockers, shipyard workers and tailors.

Socking – flogging off tobacco lifted off the docks – was widely practised here… very similar to the selling of smuggled fags & baccy at Brick Lane in more recent times…

The 1880s saw the first attempt to close the market: it was opposed by locals and radicals, successfully. But in 1885 acres of ‘unused ‘land here which the Metropolitan Board (explain) had taken over, were beginning to be built on with warehouses. There was, according to the local Rector, some working‑class anger that new housing was not being built instead: some organised protest meetings took place.
The current Market building was built in 1890; the buildings were extended in 1928.
Fruit and veg market ended in 1980s, when the City of London relocated the market, selling the site to developers Spitalfields Development Group (SDG). Despite the building being partly listed, there have been several attempts to get it demolished, or partly, as the land’s worth a fortune esp with expansion of office blocks into Spitalfields since the 80s.

As an interim measure, while it honed plans for new office blocks, the developers Spitalfields Development Group (SDG) started a Sunday market at the site, with stalls offering everything from organic food to tarot readings. The irony is that the interim market was such a huge success that it was seized upon by opponents to City encroachment as a much better option for Spitalfields than more office blocks. Spitalfields Market Under Threat (Smut) is supported by organisations as disparate as the East London Mosque, the local Georgian house-owners’ association, the local community council and prominent individuals such as Sir Terence Conran, Tracey Emin and Gilbert and George. And the  battle between it and the City, the Corporation of London and SDG grows ever more bitter. Smut took its campaign to the heart of the City where members unfurled a “Don’t Demolish Neighbourhood Assets” banner outside the Bank of England, where the Corporation of London was hosting a debate on East End regeneration.

Two-fifths of the market – built in 1890, listed and, therefore, protected – is now in the hands of Ballymore developers who are promising to preserve a reduced stall market in their new commercial development.

Ironically much of the support for the campaigns against demolishing the market is centred on newer occupants, buying in to cheap property prices but driving up land values… another case of one wave of gentrification resisting the one that follows them?

We’ll return to gentrification later on…

Walk across Commercial Street into Fournier Street, walk east, then north into Wilkes Street

Wilkes Street is named for John Wilkes, demagogue, rakish hellraiser, sometime reformer (and eventual pillar of the establishment), through the 1760s and 1770s, Wilkes served as a figurehead for a collection of varied and almost contradictory political and social urges – the national pressure for reform of the electoral franchise, the struggle for ‘liberty’ of the subject, the teeming resentments of the artisans and apprentices against their ‘betters’…

Wilkes had many allies in the City of London, among powerful merchants who combined genuine opposition to the corrupt political establishment with an eye for their own advancement. He tapped into widespread desires across the country for electoral reform, among a middle class frustrated by their exclusion from political representation.

But he could also excite a rowdy mob… Several times in the years from 1763 to 1772 his supporters thronged the city of London and terrified the ruling elite.
After Wilkes in 1763 criticised a royal speech in which King George III praised the Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years’ War, he was charged with libel, in effect, accusing the King of lying. This got him locked up in the Tower of London and, when he fled into exile, he was declared an outlaw in 1764.

Wilkes returned from exile in February 1768, a move which was to spark a huge agitation across the capital. Wilkes petitioned for a royal pardon, an appeal that went unanswered, but he was left free by the authorities. Despite still technically being an outlaw, he attempted without success to win election to the House of Commons in Westminster; when that failed, he stood for election in Middlesex in late March. Accompanied by a great crowd from London, Wilkes attended the hustings in Brentford, and was duly elected as MP for Middlesex. This result, a slap in the face for the government, caused outbreaks of wild celebrating among elements of the ‘London Mobility’, who rejoiced in the streets, harassing householders (especially the well-to-do) into lighting up their houses ‘for Wilkes and Liberty’ (smashing windows of those who refused). Despite Wilkes appealing for calm, demonstrations and riots followed for nearly two months.

On 27 April 1768: John Wilkes was brought to the 3 Tuns Tavern in Wilkes Street by a crowd & spoke to a vast mob…

Within a couple of weeks he was in prison and the authorities were shooting his supporters at the ‘Massacre of St George’s Fields’.

The weavers seized on the popular figure of Wilkes at a time of fierce class struggle in their trade, and gave him mass support…

Like many another popular leader, Wilkes eventually made his peace with the establishment and ended up Mayor of London, and commanded troops against later rioters in 1780.

An anarchist group called ‘proletariat’ was said by a hostile press report to meet in Wilkes Street in 1891…

Walk down to Wilkes Street to Hanbury St: Stop at Christchurch Hall 

Christchurch Hall, Hanbury Street, was used for many strike meetings and radical gatherings from the 1880s;  including the famous striking matchgirls in 1888, anti-sweating rallies, by striking tailors during the massive strikes in 1889 and the 1890s, by anti-development campaigns in Brick Lane (1919); also by the local anarchists: the Arbeter Fraint group held public meetings and anti-religious balls here.

1891: An anarchist mantlemakers union briefly existed in Hanbury Street, possibly the same ‘Knights of Freedom’ said to have had a club in Hanbury Street in 1891… not sure where? But could have been at the Sugar Loaf pub…

Walk down to Brick Lane, across and down to eastern end of Hanbury Street

After the demise of the Berner Street anarchist club in November 1892, the Arbeter Fraint group, now completely anarchist, held its weekly meetings at the Sugar Loaf Public House, then no 187 Hanbury Street, somewhere at eastern end… In a building since demolished.

They met in in a large hall behind the bar. The pub atmosphere could be hostile: “there were always several drunks there, men and women, who used foul language and became abusive when they saw a foreigner.” Meetings were held on Friday nights, and the regular lectures were given sometimes in English, Yiddish, German or Russian! Speakers included Rudolf Rocker, John Turner, William Wess, Tcherkesov, and many more… The Sugar Loaf was home to the group right up until they established their own club again in Jubilee Street in Stepney in 1906.

According to Rocker the Arbeter Fraint group was overwhelmingly composed of workers, “sad and worn, they were sweatshop workers, badly paid, and half-starved. They sat crowded together on hard benches, and the badly lighted room made them seem paler than they really were. But they followed the speaker with rapt attention…”

The group in the early 1900s included Rudolf Rocker, the Mitcop sisters Millie and Rose, ‘Red’ Rose Robins, who like several other Arbeter Frainters worked as a tailor; and Judith Goodman, who always wore a wig as cossacks had torn all her hair out before she emigrated from Russia.

But increasingly the group was centred around Rudolf Rocker, who became a hugely influential figure in the East End, for a few short years. German, not in fact Jewish, Rocker was originally a socialist, who became an anarchist under the influence of Malatesta and Louise Michel after migrating to London. Moving to East London and got involved in the Sugar Loaf/Arbeter Fraint circle, learning Yiddish so as to immerse himself in the life of the Jewish community…

In 1905 Rocker was accused of being a German government spy and was called to answer the charge at a meeting of London-based anarchists in a large back room of a pub at the corner of Old Montague Street and Osborne Street – now called The Archers. The meeting ended in uproar but Rocker’s innocence was established.

The Arbeter Fraint Group were centrally involved in many tailors’ strikes, including a 3-week mass strike of June 1906. This emerged from a growing militancy, sparked by a masters lockout, led to mass walkouts and sympathy strikes. A strike committee was set up in a HQ in Independent Tailors & Garment workers Union office in Old Montague Street (since demolished). There was mass picketing, and scabs were kidnapped and released to their families on payment of a fine into the strike fund! But workers were driven gradually back to work by hardship, and though it was settled with concession on hours and abolition of piece work, the terms won were ambivalent, masters also forced concessions on the workers, and union membership suffered.

The effects of this strike were not totally reversed till the massive 1912 Tailors Strike, when East End tailors struck en masse in solidarity with a (mainly non-Jewish) West End strike, refusing to scab, inspired by a powerful Rocker speech at a meeting in Wonderland Theatre, Whitechapel. 13,000 Jewish tailors came out and made their own demands; this time Rocker and other Arbeter Frainters were on the strike committee. Demands were formulated for a 9 hour working day, payment by day work not piece work, higher wages, closed union shops, an end to bad conditions at work… Attempts to starve workers back by lockout failed, and the workers won all their demands – paving the way for an end to sweating and possibility of united tailors unions… Rocker and the AF group encouraged support for 1911 and 1912 dock strikes, and many Jewish workers took dockers children into homes in 1912… They made links that lasted years, bearing fruit into the 1930s and the battle of Cable Street…

The Jewish anarchist workers movement declined with World War 1; Rocker was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ for the duration of the war, and many Jews went back to Russia with the 1917 revolution… Many anarchists and syndicalists joined the Communist Party under the influence of the Soviet victory, others left the movement as Jews gradually moved to other areas of London.

Walk east down Hanbury Street to Greatorex Street, turn right, walk down Greatorex Street to Chicksand Street

In 1917, Isaac Glassman ran a coal depot in Chicksand Street. After the Russian Revolution, Poplar socialists Glassman & Edgar Lansbury allegedly stashed the Russian Crown Jewels (smuggled into Britain by Russian socialists) here, while they tried to flog them, to raise money for the socialist Daily Herald paper! But Edgar’s dad George Lansbury, then running the Herald, quashed the idea; the jewels eventually ended up in the US but it’s not clear what happened to the money…

Continue down Greatorex Street to Old Montague Street, turn right

Housing Struggles

 Housing conditions for the working classes in Spitalfields were notoriously terrible for centuries. A 1837 outbreak of fever among silkweavers was blamed on their bad housing. The People of the Abyss damns the state of housing here… Little had changed by the 1970s. Local housing was overcrowded, especially in the privately rented tenements and terraces, but also in council flats; often there was no hot water, no heating, bad sanitation, no baths, no inside toilets… lots of bugs and damp.

Many houses were traditionally combined with workplaces, from the weavers through to the Jewish tailors who took piecework in their homes.

Spitalfields didn’t feature in the 1944 County of London Plan to improve housing, or get much rehousing post WW2, especially in the then Jewish areas. Spitalfields and St Mary’s Ward (south of Whitechapel Road, around Parfett Street) were two local wards left out of the post-war plan; much of the buildings there into the 1970s were hangovers from a century or more earlier.

From the building of Commercial Street to County of London Plan 1944, middle classes have always seen it as legit to force people out of an area when they didn’t fit the plan… This continues…

By the 1960s, locals, including the Jewish communities, were often moving on from this part of the East End. The more affluent Jewish often moved to Stamford Hill, Tottenham, Finchley, Golders Green etc… Those with less cash ended up rehoused in LCC/GLC housing, often in Becontree and Ilford estates (the LCC had managed to buy 1000 acres of Ilford land before WW2) .

Left unimproved by the bulldozing planners, Spitalfields and St Mary’s Ward where were cheap private rents were available for early Bengali immigrants moving into the area in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Many first moved into private housing as they couldn’t get into council housing; but private also was not easy – in 1966 a third of all ads for private housing specified ‘no coloureds’.

The earliest Bengali settlers were men, migrant workers; most crowded into a few houses in Settles Street (off Fieldgate Street), Princelet Street, Old Montague Street, Heneage Street, and Wilkes Street …

The men came first, arriving from the nineteen-fifties as guestworkers to help solve the labour shortage. Later, they sent for their wives and families, many leaving extreme poverty, natural disaster and war in Bangladesh. Spitalfields and Whitechapel again saw the growth of concentrated migrant communities, once again mainly poor and facing the same dynamics of racism and resistance, as well as an ongoing struggle between insularity and integration into the East End…

Their settlement followed patterns, overcrowding, multiple occupation houses and flats, in a bad state of repair, many buildings containing houses and workshops.

Spitalfields by the 1970s and 1980s had nearly the highest overcrowding, nearly highest unemployment levels, nearly highest percentage of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in London. The Bengali migrants were generally working in the clothing trade, having gradually taken over as the workforce where the older Jewish tailors moved on. As previously noted, the East End clothing trades relied heavily on proximity to West End, and a quick response to fashion and seasonal changes. Fast turnover was crucial to supply shops in the West End and further afield, as were low overheads: home workers represented a major cost saving for employers. Around 1989, 12 per cent of the Spitalfields population was working in the home.

There was little contact between Bengalis and the older white population (which was itself far from homogenous, encompassing not only British, but also the descendants of Irish, Maltese, and Jewish groups: many of who were considered ‘less than white’ and targeted for discrimination and racism for decades)

White people mainly lived in the best of local council housing, and mainly worked for the council or in service industries by the 1980s, while 2/3 of Bengalis were in clothing trades. But a quarter of white population were pensioners by the 70s. Many younger and more mobile whites had moved out of slums, taken housing further east or out in Essex. Much of the local Council housing was pre-war, and had no lifts, heating or bathrooms; even the more modern 60s stuff was at its worst (like some flats in the Chicksand Estate) badly designed. unheatable, damp, with warping timbers, and leaks…

Many white tenants wanted to leave, but others had long roots in area, felt a sense of community, and wanted to stay and fight for improvements. Some of their activities were based on racism, however; the age old local dynamic that the last community in are the scum of the earth and the descendants of the previous waves of migrants will give them hell, forgetting their own forbears’ experience (of course there were exceptions to this).

Some white tenants mounted resistance to Bengalis being rehoused in council flats. White tenants on the Holland Estate tried to prevent a Bengali Community school being resited in neighbouring Denning St; white tenants in Chicksand Estate tried to stop new houses in Davenant Street being built for Bengalis.

Both of these did go through in the end.

In 1974, mounting anger over housing conditions led to mass leaflettings and a mass meeting in the Montefiore Centre, which led to the creation of Spit Community Action Group. Discussions among the Bengali community around this time also led to the birth of Spitalfields Bengali Action Group.

Many tenants in old mansion blocks had to campaign to get rehoused. The blocks, often built as model dwellings to replace the rookery housing in the 19th century, and seen as prestigious enough in their day, had themselves fallen into decline.

In Brunswick Buildings, Petticoat Lane, walls were collapsing, postmen wouldn’t go in; the bin men couldn’t drive their cart in due to overparking from the array of Jags and Opels of businessmen working in nearby offices. The tenants fought for a council CPO and got themselves rehoused…

Similarly two years of campaigns at Pelham Buildings, Howard Buildings , Albert Family Dwellings (all off Deal Street and Buxton Street) by tenants action committees got people rehoused.

Often campaigns for rehousing in the same local area, or for modernisation of the existing blocks, was turned down; the council had longer term plans to sell land off for office developments, as at Brady Street Dwellings, which contained well built flats which could have been modernised.

Amidst the housing struggles, the Bengalis and other community groups united to resist plans to ghettoize them… especially vital for the Bengalis, as they tended to get left behind when white tenants were rehoused, or faced racist attacks and harassment when rehoused into council estates in other parts of the borough. Which often led to them fleeing back to the areas where the Bengali community clustered already, for self-defence, community, to avoid being isolated and attacked. Young Bengalis were in the forefront of the anti-ghetto movement. Ironically, given the isolation and hostility Bengalis faced when rehoused on overwhelmingly white estates, institutions like Tower Hamlets Council and the GLC were worried about areas or streets becoming exclusively Bengali.

Horace Cutler, leader of the GLC in the late 1970s, expressed “extreme disquiet” about proposals to rehouse Asian families together, rejecting “ absolutely the kind of social engineering which could result in all-Asian estates or blocks.

Squatting

The complex struggle for better housing conditions and rehousing was further refracted by the emergence of squatting in the early-mid 1970s.

From 1969-70 onwards, right across London squatters were invading housing that had been left empty, often by over‑ambitious council development programmes that had backfired. Tower Hamlets was no exception. Although many of the early squatters were young, white and single, Bengali families were quick to join in. Some were homeless families who’d been rehoused on white estates, and had been punched and stoned back to E1 by systematic racist violence. Others were looking for places to squat to avoid this fate, as the council was offering them nothing through the waiting list, and they had exhausted the goodwill of friends and relatives who had been putting them up. These were some of the very first Bengali families to join their men in London.

The squatting began in Bromley Street, Aston Street, Whitehorse Lane, Belgrave Street in East Stepney, then Adelina Grove near Sidney Street, and Parfett Street, Myrdle Street and Fieldgate Mansions off Whitechapel Road. Students mixed in with Bengali families.

The cutting edge of the movement was an organisation which called itself the ‘Faceless Homeless’. They escalated the confrontation in 1974 by seizing a decanted council block in Bow called Sumner House, and held it despite everything the council could do.

Tower Hamlets Council accused squatters of ‘jumping the waiting list’. However, the council itself was sponsoring its own way of  jumping the list: the Housing Ballot, where young couples ‘won’ a council house if their names were picked out of a Bingo drum. This ended any pretence that housing was being allocated according to need; if housing were allocated on the basis of need, Bengalis stood a chance, as they were living in the very worst housing. The Bingo Ballot was a thinly disguised way of giving white working‑class families, who weren’t living in the worst slums, a chance to beat Bengalis to rehousing.

Bengalis, living in desperate, overcrowded conditions, faced no priority for council housing, and so had to take action for themselves. In the summer of 1975, the first mass Bengali squat in Spitalfields opened up the empty houses of Old Montague Street, housing  twenty‑two adults and 50 children. This kickstarted a rush of squatting in the area: empties in Varden Street and Nelson Street were taken over. And the more houses were squatted, the collective strength helped make everyone safer from individual eviction. Many of the homes had been recently vacated by tenants who had struggled collectively for rehousing.

A council attempt of a show of force against the Faceless Homeless in occupation of a block in Corfield Street, Bethnal Green, in 1975, where gangs were sent in to knock the block down with the squatters still inside, faced stout resistance, including the petrol‑bombing of the  demolition equipment, and the Corfield Street squatters were given permanent rehousing as a Tenant Management Co‑operative in Wapping.

February 1976 saw the various Bengali squatted streets unite as the Bengali Housing Action Group, known as BHAG (bhag is also Bengali for ‘tiger’!) Largely a creation of Abbas Uddin, one of the organisers of the Bengali squats (and later the first Bengali Labour councillor), Terry Fitzpatrick, one of the Faceless Homeless, supported of the editorial collective of the magazine Race Today. At its peak BHAG was several hundred families strong, with a core of 150 in the four main squatted streets. Under BHAG’s auspices another block was taken, this time the recently emptied Pelham Buildings in the heart of Spitalfields. Bengali squatters controlled a large chunk of the housing at the heart of the council’s local development programme. They were in a strong position to demand terms for proper council rehousing for its membership.

Homes were rewired, replumbed, reglazed by the squatters. But many of the homes had degenerated into near- slum conditions, which was why they lay empty, and a lot were in a poor state. DIY utilities had their limits and dangers: one cable ran from the electricity board head to supply all 60 flats in Pelham Buildings. On a cold winter’s night, the outside insulation of that cable would be too hot to hold. Terry Fitzpatrick nearly had his head blown off trying to replace the main fuse after the London Electricity Board removed it.

BHAG also had to step in to take control of squats after profiteering by mini-gangsters and dodgy characters to charge rent for squats… With nowhere new to squat, and conditions getting worse, some of BHAG’s momentum was lost.

The editorial collective of Race Today which had helped set up BHAG had become increasingly distanced from it. Members were concerned that BHAG as a provider of housing would lose its political direction. For them, ‘all it could succeed in doing was recreating in a squalid ghetto block some of the feudal relations of the Asian village’. Race Today saw BHAG as ideally

“A body of people who would promote the independent organisation of the black working class to win, through a determined campaign, the physical, social space our community needed. We were not a group to make general moan about the neglect of the East End by the state’s welfare authorities.”

Race Today felt that BHAG’s membership needed to be built round political demands and not simply round those of the Bengali squatters which could be defused by GLC offers of rehousing on derelict estates.

The poor condition of many of the squats, even after DIY repairs, meant that the thrust of BHAG activity became more and more towards demanding council rehousing for the residents. A second generation of people asking to be moved out of the very same slum properties which tenants had fought to be rehoused from just a few years before. BHAG was learning from the experience of previous clearances in demanding local rehousing, while it used strength in numbers to negotiate, as the Faceless Homeless had.

In 1976 the Labour-run GLC Housing Committee had summarily dismissed the Bengalis squatters’ claims for rehousing. But the Tories who took over the GLC in 1977, came forward with a London‑wide amnesty for squatters ‑ guaranteeing them all rehousing. The GLC had realised how difficult it would be to evict several hundred Bengali families who had nowhere else to go, which would put massive pressure on Tower Hamlets Homeless Persons Unit and leave hundreds of houses would be left empty, open to more. Evicting then smashing up the houses was politically unpopular after Lambeth Council’s disastrous defeat trying just that, at St Agnes Place in 1977.

BHAG voted to endorse the amnesty helped register all the Bengali squatters it knew about. The GLC hired the Montefiore Centre for a whole day with a team of interpreters and the squatters poured through.

BHAG drew up a list of estates where their members would be safe from racist attack, and the new GLC in trying to arrange local rehousing.. Each estate was voted on by show of hands at a mass meeting and a list of 13 was given to the GLC with a guarantee from BHAG that no reasonable offer on any of those estates would be refused.

Walk west back down to Brick Lane, turn right and down to no 59 (mosque)

A symbol of the immigration in East End, and the religious changes migration has brought.

Built as a Hugenot protestant church, then taken over by Methodists, and later the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. Ironically in the light of this last, in 1898 the former chapel became the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, and the self-styled ‘fortress’ of religious Orthodoxy of Anglo-Jewry. Since …. it has been a mosque, serving the Bengali community that now dominates the area.

Religion is often a double-edged sword for migrant communities. On the one hand it can act both as a comfort and a centre, binding people closer together in strange environment, allowing them to feel support and solidarity of people like themselves; and continuity with their life in the place they came from. But religion also often marks them out as different, ‘other’, alien; and is used to target them as outsiders, or even subversives, terrorists. The Irish and Catholicism, Jews and Judaism, Bangladeshis and Islam: the threat of the foreigner has commonly been bound up with their worshipping the wrong god(s), which continues today. The  British Establishment has often attacked groups holding to a different religion as undermining social order (remember the building of Christ Church in Commercial Street); in response, being targeted can drive migrants, or their children, into more fundamental and radical forms of belief. While some younger or second generation migrants become influenced by the secular society around them; others take on even more hardline forms of worship than parents – both these processes are currently underway among the Bengalis to some extent.
Religion is also used as a means of control within migrant communities to reinforce traditional hierarchies in uncertain situations.

The radical Eastern European Jews seem to have been unique here, in that they already had, or rapidly developed, a strong overt secular strand within their ranks, which was expressed in provacative atheism and outrageous public rejection of the tenets of the Jewish faith.

Thus this building, as the Great Synagogue (Machzzke?’ Ha Dath), became a target for the strong Jewish anarchist and socialist anti-religious sentiment in the early 1900s. On one occasion this led to a riot. It was occasioned by the Anarchist balls, deliberately held on Yom Kippur, the most solemn of Jewish festivals, which even marginal Jews generally respect. Young political Jews flaunted their contempt for tradition by marching in column to the Synagogue, smoking or brandishing ham sandwiches as gestures of defiance and rejection of their creed. The service over, angry worshippers, sometimes in full regalia, would rush out and attacked the atheists with any weapon they could seize.

Walk Round corner to Princelet Street

In 1904, the annual skirmish between religious and anti-religious Jews erupted into a full‑scale riot. Round the corner at no 3 Princelet St (then called Princes St), in premises once used by Jacob Adler and his troupe for the first ever Yiddish theatre, the Socialists had established a Volkskuche (People’s Restaurant), which supplied cheap meals and was, therefore, heavily patronised. Come Yom Kippur, this became the focus for the Yom Kippur battle. The East London Observer reported what followed:

“Thousands of Jews were walking along the streets, when they were met by a body of Socialist Jews, who had driven a van containing food along the streets. All the Orthodox Jews were fasting and they at once resented this unseemly display. The Socialists being driven into their club responded by throwing glass bottles out of the windows. Several cases of minor injury occurred and the disorder thus started to spread quickly. Within half an hour the whole area round Princelet Street was in a state of great agitation. Excited groups of Orthodox Jews were parading the streets threatening the Socialists with dire penalties for their insults and stones were thrown at the home of prominent Socialists… It is alleged that the Socialists pelted a Synagogue which stands adjacent to their club, and that they had arranged a concert for the day of fasting – invitations to which they had sent to the principal Rabbis”.

The historian Rollin told a slightly different story:

“I was making my way towards the Club with a young woman comrade in Princelet Street, where a threatening crowd had gathered. As we approached some men in front sprang at the girl like tigers, threw her to the ground and started beating her, whilst I was hurled against the wall and pinned there. The Club members, hearing our cries, rushed to our defence and brought us in. The girl was torn and bleeding and laid semi-conscious on the floor … We sent a messenger begging help from the Anarchists, who were holding their ball in a hall at Rhondda Grove, Bow…”

This message brought Arbeter Frainter Sam Dreen and a score of young bloods to the rescue: they jumped a train to Gardiners Corner, and rushed up Brick Lane in time to relieve the beleaguered Socialists. They apparently beat off the invaders, as a large force of police arrived and quickly dispersed the crowd, arresting some men and boys in the process.

The magistrates attributed the cause of the disturbance to the so-called orthodox. Of the eight brought up for trial, two Socialists who declared that, being non-religious, they could not observe Yom Kippur, were summarily discharged; and the bench commented that it was deplorable ‘that a class of persons who for centuries had been distinguished as the victims of the fiercest persecutions should, when in the one free country of the world, turn upon those who disagreed with them on religious points, their own co-religionists, and stone and persecute them’.’

But Rollin suggests that there may have been another motive for the trouble: the Volkskuche prices, such as bread, a penny a piece, soup threepence a plate, sixpence for soup with meat, were half those charged by local private restaurateurs, who naturally resented this ‘unfair’ competition. Under the guise of protecting religion, the latter had prepared an attack on the Volkskuche on Yom Kippur, led by hired thugs.

Walk back to Brick Lane, turn right, walk up to Buxton Street

The repeal of the Spitalfields Acts (see above) led to or coincided with terrible poverty in this area : resulting in at least some collective social crime in response. In Autumn 1826, 500-600 strong groups met in Brickfield, Spicer St, (now Buxton St), to cook food stolen from shops en masse. They also ambushed animals going to Smithfield & Barnet markets & drove them to the marshes. The Horse Patrol were sent in to break up the party.

Walk up to Cheshire Street, and east down to the corner of Kerbela Street

Racism & racist attacks:

From the 1960s racist attacks against Bengalis in the East End began to mount: increasing in 1970 as the “skinhead era” arrived. The increase in attacks by young people, often from the area, against Pakistanis and Indians was a significant aspect of this new phenomenon.

Skins in Brick Lane, 1978

“Paki-bashing”; seems to have been first recorded on April 3 1970 when several daily papers mentioned attacks by skinheads on two Asian workers at the London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green. On April 5 The Observer claimed that Tosir Ali was murdered on April 7, and Gulam Taslim documented 36 cases of racial attacks in this period. On April 26,1970 some 50 youngsters went on the rampage in Brick Lane and five Pakistanis were injured. It was in this year, as well, that the discussion of self-defence began, and mass meetings of the Asian community were held in different parts of Tower Hamlets. There were meetings with MPs and the police, and demands for action.

In Tower Hamlets at that time it was generally felt that little of this wave of racial harassment was directly attributable to extremist political groups.

But: there was a clear link to fascist/far right groups in the area, who had been active for decades in this part of the East End.

In the 1930s, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists claimed 4,000 members in Bethnal Green. Mosley’s post-war fascist outfit, the Union Movement, used to meet in Kerbela Street, off Cheshire Street, in the late ‘40s.

Cheshire Street and Brick Lane later became a prime meeting point of the National Labour Party, which had formed an East London branch in a Cheshire Street pub in 1958. This NLP and later merged into the original British National Party in 1960. The BNP held regular meetings on this same spot and nearby locations in the Cheshire Street and Brick Lane district in the early 1960s, and their paper Combat was sold there and regularly featured East End issues.

This BNP was a constituent of the National Front in 1967, a merger of several rightwing groups into what was to become the largest far right organisation in Britain for decades.

Outside the National Front HQ, 1978

During 1976, National Front activity in the vicinity of Brick Lane increased, as the NF attempted to gain a base in East London; it based its tactics on provocative newspaper sales in Brick Lane, the heart of the Bengali area. “The National Front has been concentrating on utilising bands of white youths to give verbal support to Front members selling newspapers in the lane. An Advertiser reporter recently saw NF supporters swearing and spitting at Asians who walked past members selling papers near Bethnal Green.”

The NF later (from 1978) had its national HQ in Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch, only half a mile away from the multi-racial community around Brick Lane.

The more overtly nazi (though smaller) British Movement was also active in Bethnal Green and Hoxton).

The role of the National Front and the British Movement in the area exploited the widely held feelings of powerlessness and inability to effect change. They have entered into a vacuum left by the collapse of a strong socialist movement based on vision and principle, and by the weakness of organised religion, Jewish and Christian.

Both built upon the small but important tradition of fascism which has survived in the Bethnal Green and Shoreditch areas since the days of Mosley. They also organised the existing race hatred, enabling many disturbed and alienated young people to see the Asian community as scapegoats and victims.

Resistance to racism

In 1976 the Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London was set up as a broad-based body to draw attention to the inadequacy of the protection offered to Asian people by the police and the authorities. The great increase in racial attacks in the area had been catalogued by the Spitalfields Bengali Action Group. Attacks increased further with the killing of two students from the Middle East who were attending Queen Mary College in the East End.

On the day that John Kingsley Read of the National Party made his infamous “One down – a million to go” comments in Newham on the Chaggar murder, ARCAEL organised a mass meeting in the Naz Cinema in Brick Lane. The meeting was chaired by Mala Dhoride, and addressed by Darcus Howe of the Race Today Collective, Trevor Huddleston, then Bishop of Stepney, and Dan Jones, Secretary of Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council. It was followed by a 3,000 strong protest march to Leman Street Police Station demanding action to “keep blood off the streets’. Self defence patrols were developed by the local Bengalis with help from black newpaper Race Today. ARCAEL to some extent had taken the path of black self-organisation Race Today advocated, rejecting the older Bengali businessmen of the Bangladeshi Welfare Association, whose line was to trust police and appeal for help to government.

During this period, the Asian community and other anti-racist groups began to occupy the National Front selling site in Bethnal Green Road, an occupation which had been inspired by the comment by Chief Superintendent John Wallis at a public meeting of the Council of Citizens of Tower Hamlets that the only way for anti-racists to get rid of the National Front was for them to arrive earlier! When they followed his advice, they were removed by the police on the grounds that a reach of the peace was likely to occur.

From the police, local Bengalis largely experienced at best apathy, or actual collusion with racists. Cops would escort racists around, and basically tended to arrest any asian opposing racists…. Symbolically, a British Movement graffiti slogan had remained for some months on the outside wall of Bethnal Green Police Station.

The Bengali community self-defence groups had an effect: racial attacks calmed down for a while.

But in 1977, there were more racist attacks: gangs of white youth from neighbouring estates roaming Brick Lane targetting asians. In 1978 events stepped up: beginning with the murder of young Bengali clothing worker Altab Ali on May 4 in Adler Street, Whitechapel. This “triggered a massive wave of protest throughout East London”. 7000 marched in protest from here to Downing Street.

On June 11th (following considerable Press coverage of GLC plans for housing Bengalis in what were described as “ghettos”) 150 youths rampaged through the Brick Lane district, smashing windows, throwing bottles and lumps of concrete, and damaging shops and cars.

June 18, in response,  saw an anti-racist march, organised by the Anti-Nazi League and the Bengali Youth Movement Against Racist Attacks (a short-lived alliance between three of the major Bengali youth organisations in Tower Hamlets, all of which had started in 1976) Some 4,000 people, black and white, took part in this march. But the following Sunday there were further violent incidents, many of the attacks by white racists taking place in side streets. However, during the whole period, many of the demonstrators against racial violence and other antiracists were themselves arrested: some 50 anti-racists and less than 10 National Front or British Movement supporters, were arrested.

On September 24, 1978, a large anti-racist demonstration was held in the East End to “defend Brick Lane” against the possibility that a National Front march might come close to the district. Some 2,000 anti-racists blocked the entrance to Brick Lane, although in fact the NF had gone via side streets to a meeting in Hoxton. During the course of the day, there was a good deal of criticism of the Anti-Nazi League who had organised the Brixton Carnival Against the Nazis in Brockwell Park, Brixton, drawing 100,000 people far from the action…

In the early 1980s, the National Front lost support as the tory government nicked their thunder… But locally a lot of good work was done to prevent racist attacks, though police activity seemed mainly aimed at defusing self-organised self-defence (never popular with the state). Local or national state support for Bengali political and cultural projects helped draw much of the community away from the self-organised militancy.

But racist grouping never went away. In the later 80s, from the various splinters that the NF fell apart into, a new British National Party began to emerge as the largest far right group. Through 1990-93, a renewed struggle over nazi papersales in Brick Lane, mainly organised by Anti-Fascist Action and its allies, saw stand-offs and pitched battles between fascists and anti-fascists; BNP papersellers were chased off; pubs used by fash before papersales – including The Sun pub- blockaded.

Meanwhile, the continuing tradition of Bengali youth mobilising for self-defence produced organisations such as Youth Connection,  a young Bengali action group, in the early 1990s.

Although locally the racial attacks situation calmed down alot, hard right propaganda was still bearing fruit for Brick Lane in 1999: on 24 April that year, nazi sympathizer David Copeland planted a bomb here (a week after bombing Brixton), aiming at the multi-racial mix of the area, something he hated. Seven people were slightly hurt in his attempt to to kickstart a race war. A week later his bomb in a gay pub in Soho killed three people.

More recently control of social policy and the focus of welfare, housing etc, has again become an issue, as older white working class communities claim to see migrants as getting a better deal, bigger flats and so on. Also resentment of ‘middle class do-gooders’ from outside championing migrant communities against local white working class – not just an East End perception.
Leaving aside myths (and not a few white residents have thought Bengalis shouldn’t be getting anything), the extent to which outside ‘do-gooders’ have responded to migration by supporting Bengalis is open to question… Although since the 1970s, there has been a notable alliance of community leaders with Labour politicians, which has led to some dubious developments…

Some see it as not so much an individual competition for work, as a community competition for welfare, housing, cultural and social resources (or at least the perception of those, locally): not so much a case of ‘they’re taking our jobs’ as they’re taking our flats.

But you’d be hard pressed to deny that those on high who make social policy, have, for 160 years and more, used the East End as a laboratory for social experiment, from which national social policy especially on housing welfare, etc, has been often guided. As to how much the state either locally nationally, or the ‘middle class’ has taken side of foreigners against white working class – this is debateable. 1970s Bengalis would have laughed at this idea: but in recent decades some commentators have seen change, with the promotion of political measures and institutions that have consolidated rights of migrants while increasing sanctions against ‘white working class’ if they question it – to the extent that the political situation in the East End (as elsewhere, though to different extents?) is dominated by quote ”a political class, drawing power from its operation of state services and mobilised around the ideology of cultural tolerance and social and economic inclusiveness and with a mission to integrate subordinate culturally specific communities into a common national system.”

While this is matter of debate, its partly true that there is an exclusion of white working class… But it is in fact also partly mirrored by how the kind of community leaders, activists, organisations that have made alliances with local and national state and benefited most have done so by hierarchy and power relations firmly in place in the migrant communities, and pledging to keep order against unruly and politically or religiously subversive elements among their “own”…

 

Walk back west down Cheshire Street to Brick Lane, south to Quaker Street, west down here and across  Commercial Street into Elder Street, down to Folgate Street, then west to Spital Square

Parallel to the housing struggles described above, other processes were at work in the area around buildings…

Conservation as gentrification: the Spitalfields Trust.

The Spitalfields Trust was founded as a campaigning group with a mission to preserve ‘18th century Spitalfields’; mostly large local houses threatened with demolition and development.

The trust themselves were well-connected, and media savvy:

“In early days this took form of art‑historical activism, of squats, activism, of squats, occupations, and sit‑ins undertaken by the trust’s members as they showed ‘greedy’ developers, bungling municipal authorities, and housing associations like Newlon that, still unaware of the vital distinction between ‘housing’ and true ‘houses’, planned to erect new buildings where listed (but decayed) eighteenth‑century houses still stood. In those days, the trust’s members kept their sleeping bags rolled in case another emergency came up. ‘Denied even a hot bath’ as Douglas Blain, the secretary of the trust, has put it, they developed the unlikely look of squatting hippies, communicating with Press through nearby telephone boxes, and applying the time honoured local tradition of the soup kitchen to themselves. John Betjeman came down to visit ‑people were invited to join him for drinks at home’ in a half‑demolished and squatted house. One of the most cherished photographs from this time shows the almost indistinguishable faces of Mark Girouard and Colin Amery staring out from within the padlocked wrought‑iron gates of a threatened school hall in Spital Square. This was certainly a ‘Top Person’s squat’,
(Patrick White)

Their squatting to preserve Georgian houses started in Elder St with two houses that Newlon Housing Trust planning to demolish for rented housing…

Their policy after occupying houses to prevent their demolition was to raise money to buy, restore and then sell on these old Georgian, houses.

“From these romantic beginnings the trust went on to bring credit facilities into an area that had been ‘red‑lined’ by banks and building societies. It emerged as a campaigning property company with charitable status, able to buy houses, and then to repair and resell them under covenants designed to ensure that they would be refurbished with a care for the minutest period detail.”

They published a newsletter with available houses, advising people to “go through the trust to avoid undesirable price competition”. Most of houses filled with middle or upper class, members or connections of the Trust, family, sympathisers etc, some as second homes. Anyone who bought or obtained a house stood to make huge profits, as prices rose astronomically.

The Trust’s vision was head-on incompatible with the struggles of Spitalfields residents, mainly Bengalis, for cheap housing and with the clothing trade that sustains them… The town houses would have been ideal for large Bengali families, who have always had a hard time getting social or even private housing big enough.

The Trust took some houses directly out of public ownership (helped by the council who gave them their houses in some streets, and refused to take over private houses which could have housed Bengali families, eg Tarn and Tarn houses, leaving them to be sold privately), some of which were already squatted (eg by BHAG) and some which were part of plans by residents to implement viable schemes for social housing.

Many of the houses had had clothing workshops in them, which the Trust obviously lost when restoring them to their ‘original use’, – ironically, as many had been weavers houses and had old weaving rooms in them, the multi-use housing/work of Bengali occupants had in fact been closer to ‘restoration’ in social terms than the Trust’s.

“The Spitalfields Trust resents the charge that it has merely reduced conservation to gentrification, claiming in its own defence that it has never evicted a tenant and that it has gone out of its way, when buying houses that were in ‘unsuitable’ industrial use for conversion back into private homes, to find alternative premises for displaced enterprises.’ “

The Trust did pay lip service to clothing trade, including buying some land to build workshop space to replace that lost in their restorations.

The process of the Trust and its allies taking over houses was accelerated by a recession in the clothing trade in the 1980s: more buildings with workshops became empty.

Influenced by the Spitalfields Trust’s success at rehabbing houses, developers who owned houses sold them off for huge profits, eg Tarn and Tarn, who owned 40 houses, were refused planning permission to knock them down and build an office block, so they sold them off for homes around 1981-82 (slowly, so as to maximise their take). All this led to huge price hike in prices.

This had also left any schemes trying to get social housing built up against it – facing huge increases in land values, making it harder to get things going. It hiked prices, which had a knock-on effect in neighbouring areas too…

“But if it takes conservationists, avant‑garde artists, gays, and other Bohemian or single‑minded types to put up with the years of chaotic living that are needed to re‑open dishevelled areas like Spitalfields, the estate agents and financiers are never far behind. Like the first loft dwellers in Manhattan, these early settlers are the pioneers of a larger revaluation they may detest and even manage to [deter?] for a bit, but that is soon enough sweeping over their cars. West of Commercial Street the sanitisation already looks complete. To the east in Fournier Street sensitively refurbished houses have been coming on to the market at prices approaching £500,000. In the late seventies the Spitalfields Trust may have had to hunt for eccentric willing to buy into a decayed immigrant area without such public amenities as parks or tolerable schools but, in reality, as hindsight would soon show, it was handing out personal fortunes to its chosen purchasers, and it is not surprising that questions have times been asked (and not just by frustrated would‑be purchasers) about the Trust’s way of selecting buyers.”

“As the anniversary meeting of the Trust was told by an early and now dissenting member, Raphael Samuel, the conservation of Georgian buildings and the total clearance of local ways of life turn out to be two sides of the same coin.”

Since the 1980s Tower Hamlets Council has been encouraging big business to move in and buy land for offices…

But Brick Lane and the streets around it have also seen a massive hipster and art influx since the 1990s, which have hugely changed the ethos of the area. (To some extent, this is one of the central nexuses of the colonisation of working class London, particularly a vast swathe of East London, a process of gentrification that is helping to create an unstable and febrile precariousness for the lives of many of us…)

“… in 2007, Tower Hamlets Council designated Brick Lane a tourist area, with the converted Truman Brewery and more recent retail activities marked out as part of its “creative and cultural focus”. The introduction of a new range of activities and actors to the wider area has led to the displacement of established businesses, such as those in Banglatown. The report vividly maps the turnover of shops within the same category (that is, changes from one kind of food offering to another). So along Brick Lane, a niche economy has come to the fore, with many of the restaurants now selling fusion foods or offering vegan options oriented to either the tourist market or a changing demographic that includes an expanding student population as well as middle-class consumers. Few of the traditional curry houses revamped their look or re-worked their menus to appeal to the latest trends. 

Historically the upper floors of restaurants were places of work, but due to the demand for more housing and the lucrative residential market, Brick Lane has seen a huge increase in planning applications to change the class use of upper floors so they can become dwellings. The dramatic shifts in residential property prices accompanied by steep increases in housing rentals suggest that such alterations will further add to the influx of higher-income residents or Air B&B guests, accompanied by the dispersal of existing residents to suburbs in London’s more affordable peripheries.”

The Sunday Brick Lane market, once an early morning resort for cheap clothes, food, tools, junk and nicked goods, a vital resource for the subsistence economy for many across the city, has been transformed into a playground for trendy weekend jaunts by the toffee-nosed. The economy of the area – admittedly in decline by the 1990s – could have been regenerated for the benefit of the communities who lived in the area, but instead the concentration has been largely on replacing them.

This has increased the pressure on those less affluent folk who still live here; especially as council and housing associations collude to slowly remove social housing from the area and replace it with private housing to service the middle classes wanting a pad in trendy east End and prop up the tourist industry

It remains a zone of contention and transition, with many of the same old processes being enacted – the bulldozing of the rookeries to clear ‘unprofitable’ and sometimes troublesome residents is echoed in the demolition of council blocks to be replaced by developments called ‘Kensington’ and ‘Sloane’ Apartments. Names are a bit of a giveaway, eh…?

It is Ground Zero for Hipster projects, many of them vanity affairs like the Cereal Killer Café, often funded by inherited wealth. All of this in a backdrop of graffiti, which is everywhere in the area now, so that any wander round is jammed with tourist ticking off guidebook-marked ‘street art’. Brick Lane is not so much a land of beer and blood any more as a land of (spray) paint and cereal…

We’ll finish here. If you want to retire to a good pub, the Pride of Spitalfields in Heneage Street is worth a pint

 

Today in London industrial history, 1975: Workers occupy Crosfield Electronics, Holloway

At clocking out time on March 6, 1975, 300 workers at Crosfields Electronics factory in Archway were told they were to be laid off as from that moment. Some, thinking there was no alternative, accepted the redundancy money. Others, however, decided not to take this kind of treatment and occupied part of the factory on March 26. They began a sit-in which they kept up, 24 hours a day, for the next two months.

Crosfield Electronics was a British electronics imaging company founded to produce process imaging devices for the print industry. The firm was notable for its innovation in colour drum scanning in its Scanatron (1959) and later Magnascan (1969) products.

Crosfields produced photo-scanning equipment for the print and newspaper industry, developing the first digital scanner for the printing industry in the mid 1970s. They had a factory at 766 Holloway Road, on the corner of Elthorne Road (possibly now where Whittington House is today?).

The company was bought in September 1974 by the De La Rue Group – a big multi-national company. The workers were assured there would be no redundancies, But De La Rue had decided to run down and close Holloway Road and transfer production to its Westward factory in Peterborough. The 300 redundancies might only be the first step in a gradual shutdown of De La Rue’s London Workings.

In March 1975, 300 employees at Crosfields Holloway plant were informed that they were to be made redundant in accordance with management’s decision to transfer production to the company’s factory at Peterborough.

On March 26th, some of the workers began a a sit-in with the intention of saving their jobs. The fitting-shop building which was to be imminently closed, was occupied. Workers from other parts of the factory assisted in barricading the building. Around 30-40 workers were involved, a mix of male and female employees. They occupied the whole workplace, some bringing their children into the factory during the occupation.

Many of the workers involved had previously experienced similar redundancy – some three, four or even five times.

1970s Britain saw a large wave of factory occupations by workers, as restructuring and decline caused massive upheaval, threats of closure and management attacks on wages and conditions.

The sit-in lasted 49 days.

These were far from the first jobs in North London lost in this way. 30,000 Jobs, for instance, were lost in Islington alone between 1966 and 1971. The government was offering subsidies to firms which moved development areas outside the capital, and there had been an enormous flight of industrial capital from London. At the same time there were few major developments in manufacturing in London, and no plans for any.

For many who lost skilled industrial jobs, they were unlikely to find new ones, and ended up seeking lower paid work in the service industries.

The attempt to close down production at the Holloway plant should be seen in context of two growing trends at the time: a shrinking of the UK manufacturing sector, partly as a result of restructuring and ‘rationalisation (notably after takeovers of smaller firms by larger, often transnational companies)  – and a particular move to close down factories in London and move production elsewhere, often to cut wages and costs.

There was a notable rising rate of redundancy in London, and new manufacturing industry was not opening up to replace pants that were closing. What happened to Crosfields’ workers illustrated vividly the fate of employees at many smaller firms which were subjected to ’rationalisation’ when incorporated into bigger companies by take-overs and mergers. Many workers were faced with the choice of redundancy or moving out of London to keep their jobs.

The question was asked at the time, Why was this plant being shut down? Was it because of economic difficulties? Was it because of lack of orders? Was it because of ’cash flow’ problems? Had Crosfields been a bad acquisition for De La Rue? Or was it because Crosfields had, over a period of time, become a highly organised factory, with high trade union membership…?

Lynne Segal and Alison Fell interviewed some of the twelve women involved in occupying Crosfields about their fight:

“How many women worked here?
— About 90, in the whole factory.
How many are here now?
—There’s only about 12 of us fighting it. Occupying. What were your exact jobs?
— We were classed as wirewomen – wiring is when you use a soldering iron and make up chassis.
Have many of the other women been able to get jobs?
— No, there’s very few of them working. I meet them outside walking around.
The ones who have got work, where have they got it?
— They’ve not got it in wiring, there’s nothing like that left in London, you have to go away outside.
Are you all from Islington?
—Well, I’m from Islington, most are Islington or area.
—One woman who left’s working in a cafe round the corner. She was a deputy supervisor —wages must have been £75 a week. She’s lucky if she’s getting £30 now. I wouldn’t let the governors see me come down in the world like that.
—Some are working in the hospitals and taking home less than £20. Some are charwomen.
Have any of the women moved to Peterborough?
—No, there were only about ten out of 300 offered jobs in Peter­ borough. That was a lot of rubbish, them saying it.
—Really they just weren’t interested, they just wanted to get rid of all this building.
You’d had a few fights here to get your wages up before the occupation, hadn’t you?
— We had good money here because we had a good union and they fought and got us good rates. I think we were the best paid factory for this area round here. And listen, we’d have been up to equal pay in April, because that’s when it was to start from. But you see they have got us out, they gave us redundancy in March.
When you first had notice of redundancy, what did you feel?
—Oh, it was terrible, terrible. That’s the reason why a lot of the women went, you know, they were getting harrassed, they were getting a bit pressurised to get out.
—I think there was a lot of confusion because you must remember this came right out of the blue, nobody was expecting it.
—At the end of the day, they got you into a meeting and then they sent the line managers to tell the workers they were going to be redundant because the factory was closing down. It was shocking. People cried.
Did you spend a long time casting round to think what to do?
—There was no time
—it was late on when we were told, everyone was clearing the shop. There was a bit of bribery if you went straight away.

—I believe a lot of the managers were getting bonuses to get the shop cleared quickly.
Did any of you have families who reckoned you shouldn’t fight it, that it was a losing battle?
— No – my husband asked me two questions; ‘Had you a good job there?’ I said I had a smashing job. He said, ‘Were you happy?’ I said I was happy in that job. He said, ‘Then it’s worth fighting for.
So get back there.’
What about problems with kids and childminding now?
—My children are at school.
—Mine are grown up.
—Those with younger children used to pay to have them minded, it used to come from the woman’s wage. Now they can’t afford it. They find it hard to get down here and hard to manage.
When some of you decided to stay and fight, did you feel isolated?
—No. It doesn’t worry us. They call us things. ‘Militants.’
—They were traitors to walk away, those who left. Because we all voted not to Accept redundancies.
Do you get criticised by neighbours and friends?
—Yes, I was called a militant.
—No, my personal friends say ‘I agree with you.’
What about the women who left?
— I don’t see them. Even if I see them, love, I don’t speak to them, I hold my head up high.
Some women must be really pleased you’re fighting, thinking about their own jobs?
—Aye, I think it’s good. I feel happy fighting it. I think I would have
been miserable if I’d walked away with my tail between my legs.
How long do you think you can hold out for?
—Don’t know. If it takes a year, a year and a half.
—You see, if you don’t fight to stop them taking the jobs out of
London, they keep doing it. So you have to do something to draw the line somewhere.
What are you surviving on economically?
—The union is giving us some. £5.
—When donations come round he gives us some money.
Why can’t you get the rest made up by Social Security?
—See, you can’t —before you get redundancy money you must lodge your cards with the Labour Exchange. The governors have put the stop around – even the married men can’t get any for their wives and children.
—Crosfields slipped the word down to the SS offices. So to anyone who comes along they say you must lodge your cards, you’ve got to take your redundancy slips to show that you’ve accepted redun­dancy —so that would mean your fight was finished.
How do you manage on £5 a week?
—When I was working I saved. We just have to use our savings. —We have to cut down too.
Do you think you’ve got stronger and more confident as women since you’ve been occupying?
—See, I wear trousers to work now. I feel I’m one of the boys now. —Aye, we’re all pals now. We’ve got a great friendship, that we never had when we were working, with the women and the fellows. We never spoke to anyone much before, just saw them.
How do you think this affects your husbands?
—My husband says he saw more of me when I was working, because we come here evenings now.
Who makes the tea and the meals?
—The women all do a bit. The women have been doing most of the cooking though. We’re always washing dishes and cleaning up.
—We’ve tried to get the men to do it too.
[During the occupation a large notice appeared on the wall, stating: ‘If you have some very good reason for not washing your cup, you may leave it here.’]
What do you see as exactly what you’re fighting for?
—Our jobs back. If I wanted redundancy money I’d have walked away at the beginning. We all want our jobs back, there’s plenty of work —I was in the middle of a job.
—I think it’s better to have your job than to be on the dole.
Will you all stay as long as the occupation lasts?
—Yes, we can’t back out now.
—We must stay till the end.
—And just think how these governors have been dirty, in a lot of ways. They’ve probably blacked us. 
What will you do if you finally get defeated?
—We don’t think of defeat, we’re hoping to win.
—We’re talking about a victory party —I’m going to buy a new
dress for that. Why not, I’m no defeatist.
—One man says to me why don’t you take your money and go? But we’re hoping to win.
(Spare Rib, no 37 (July, 1975), pp. 9-10., interview by Lynne Segal and Alison Fell)

The workers raised a weekly levy to supply food to those in occupation. The dispute was well supported by fellow trade unionists. Lorry drivers refused to cross picket lines. Electricians refused to disconnect the electricity supply.

Crosfields occupiers

Deputations to MP’s, ministers and councillors proved that these merely passed the buck from one to the other, and did nothing to help the occupiers save their jobs. The independent Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) had a meeting with the parties in April, but no agreement was reached. Instead, the police force were used to escort finished products out of the factory in the middle of the night, and social security benefit was denied to workers’ families. The firm launched tortuous legal processes to serve writs on those in occupation.

On May 5th the employers secured a High Court originating summons claiming possession under RSC Order 113. The Summons was heard on May 9th, just four days later. A Possession Order was granted to the company, delayed only slightly by an appeal on a question of law regarding the way the summonses had been served. However, the consummate legal servant of capital, Lord Denning, ruled that there was nothing wrong with the methods used.

De La Rue used the added leverage of threatening to sub-contract out its sheet metal production, laying off more Crosfields workers.

The Crosfields workers were faced with the agonising decision of whether to attempt to remain in defiance of the court order, or to cut their losses and leave. In the end, they decided on the latter, in the face of the strength of the state forces employed against them, and because of insufficient time to rally support from wider sections of the trade union movement.

After long negotiations, shop stewards finally put it to a factory meeting that morning, that the seven reinstatements and the increased redundancy pay offer they had wrung out of the management should be accepted. The vote carried it.

Lynne Segal and Alison Fell went back to find out what the women occupiers felt:

“—They agreed to take seven, all together, back – one wireman, an electrical inspector, one labourer, two wirewomen, a plumber. What about the new redundancy offer?
An extra £175 for every year worked. It’s all right for the people who’ve been here 10 or 15 years, not the others.
How do you feel about it all?
—It’s sad, we could cry.
—We’re all sad, because there are people who fought who won’t be getting any vacancies. The convenor’s not getting reinstated. It wasn’t money we were fighting for, it was our jobs.
Do you think it’s all been worthwhile?
—Yes! We put up a good fight. We nearly bankrupted him!

—We occupied this building for eight weeks — tell me how many could do that?
Do you think you’ll be out of work for a long time?
—Yes
—I’ll try one of these government re-training things for redundant women. Huh! Fourteen pounds a week.
Will you see each other again?
Of course we will. We’ve got all the names and addresses.”

While many factory occupations in the 1970s were successful, the sheer economic power of De La Rue robbed the workers of what security they had won – they lost the fight for their jobs. As Spare Rib put it: “Despite support from other sections of the factory and from the Labour movement locally, the odds were still completely unequal; De La Rue’s cynicism in all these doings was bulwarked by the profits and power of its status as a multi-national combine, and by the laws of the land. The workers were negotiating merely with their whole lives and futures.”

De la Rue was eventually taken over by Fujifilm Japan and named Fujifilm Electronic Imaging, now FFEI Ltd. following a management buy-out in 2008.

A Short History of UK Public Order Acts

The proposed policing Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts bill currently stirring up large scale opposition is just the latest in a long line of repressive legislation aimed at restricting protest and limiting the effectiveness of political campaigning.

Whether or not the next stages of the Bill are postponed for a few months, as seems likely now (largely due to the fierce opposition to some of its clauses, displayed on the streets this week) – it will probably re-appear. Pulling legislation for a while till fuss dies down when people are looking at other things, then bringing it back often works.

The sections of the Bill that have aroused the fiercest criticism include:

  • Widening the range of conditions that the police can impose on static protests, to match existing police powers to impose conditions on marches; including impose the power to make conditions such as start and finish times and maximum noise levels on static protests. The police already have the power to impose such conditions on marches.
  • Broadening the range of circumstances in which police may impose conditions on a protest
  • Restating the common law offence of public nuisance in statute
  • Preventing blockading of entrances to Parliament
  • Creating a new offence of “residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle”.
  • Amending the existing police powers associated with unauthorised encampments to lower the threshold at which they can be used. Amendments would also allow the police to remove unauthorised encampments on (or partly on) highways and prohibit unauthorised encampments moved from a site from returning within twelve months.
  • Increasing penalties for criminal damage to memorials – sparked obviously by collective removal of slaver Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol last year.

There is a long history of government action trying to control and shut down demonstrations and direct action. There is an equally long history of resistance…

Here is a short summary of some of the most prominent public order laws and tendencies in policing and repression. It is not comprehensive… Many innovations on other areas of policing and the law are not covered here, nor are the parallel developments in undercover policing and spying on activists and campaigners.

The Riot Act

English kings passed a series of Riot Acts in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries – in response to rebellion and protest. Unrest in the wake of the Black Death and the punitive laws passed to prevent serfs taking advantage of the subsequent labour shortage (by demanding higher wages or leaving to find better pay) led to Acts in 1361 allowing justices to demand sureties from people involved in protest, and constables or local officials to arrest protestors & hold them pending the arrival of a justice. None of which helped the authorities much in the face of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt.

Henry V passed a Riot Act in 1414, making taking part in a serious riot punishable by a year in prison. This was possibly sparked by the Lollards Revolt of January that year.

Later, king Henry VI renewed the Riot Act in 1495 and 1503, after he faced a series of revolts against excessive taxation in Yorkshire and Cornwall.

A Riot Act was introduced in 1549, which made it high treason for 12 people or more to assemble and attempt to kill or imprison any member of the King’s council or change the laws, and refuse to disperse when ordered to do so by a justice of the peace, mayor or sheriff ordered them to do so. This was prompted by mass unrest of the years 1548-9, when rebellions against the growing enclosure of open land spread across southern England, climaxing in an armed rebellion in Norfolk.

This Act was renewed by successive monarchs (though penalties were reduced in the 1550s).

The famous Riot Act of 1714 again authorised local authorities to declare any group of 12 or more people to be unlawfully assembled and to disperse or face punitive action. The act’s long title was “An Act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters”, and it came into force on 1 August 1715.

The introduction of this Riot Act was  sparked by a period of civil disturbances including the Sacheverell riots of 1710, the Coronation riots of 1714 and the 1715 riots in England. The preamble makes reference to “many rebellious riots and tumults [that] have been [taking place of late] in diverse parts of this kingdom”, adding that those involved “presum[e] so to do, for that the punishments provided by the laws now in being are not adequate to such heinous offences”.

The act was specifically aimed at implementation by local officials, who could make a proclamation ordering the dispersal of any group of more than twelve people who were “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together”. If the group failed to disperse within one hour, then anyone remaining gathered was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy, punishable by death.

The proclamation could be made in an incorporated town or city by the mayor, bailiff or “other head officer”, or a justice of the peace. Elsewhere it could be made by a justice of the peace or the sheriff, undersheriff or parish constable.

The wording that had to be read out to the assembled gathering was as follows:

Our sovereign lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King.

The Riot Act was read and thus implemented at some of the most turbulent moments of insurgence and radical agitation: in the St. George’s Fields Massacre of 1768, during the Gordon Riots of 1780, at the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 (though this is disputed) and the Cinderloo Uprising of 1821 as well as before the Bristol Reform Bill Riots at Queen’s Square in 1831.

But for the authorities the Act in practice proved impractical and unwieldy. The ‘failure to  disperse within one hour’ deadline caused confusion. Rioters often believed that the military could not use force until one hour had passed since the reading of the proclamation. Hence demonstrators at the Massacre of St George’s Fields kept on provoking the soldiers present, thinking they couldn’t shoot yet. The Act also had to be read out to the gathering concerned, in theory be heard (above crowd noise etc, though people’s ability to hear was generally ignored) and had to follow the precise wording detailed in the act; several convictions were overturned because parts of the proclamation had been omitted, in particular, leaving out “God save the King”.

Using the Riot Act didn’t save many of the wealthy and powerful being targeted in the 1780 Gordon Riots, and it too several days before troops could effectively re-take the streets from “His majesty, King Mob’.

Original Red Scare

If the Gordon Riots of 1780 put the fear of the Mob into London’s rich, this was nothing to the scare that was to follow in the following decade. The French Revolution of 1789, and the overthrowing of the monarchy and guillotining of several hundred royals and aristos had the British ruling class shitting itself that something similar could erupt here. They saw the evolving movements campaigning for reform of the political system in Britain as a potential revolutionary movement in embryo, and introduced new laws to repress it, mainly aimed at publications and meetings.

Thomas Paine’s classic book ‘The Rights of Man, and the massive interest in it from the artisan and working classes, led to the book’s banning, and Paine having to flee the country to avoid prison or a death sentence. Spies paid by the Home Secretary’s Office were infiltrated into radical groups, particularly into the fertile and expanding London Corresponding Society, and every method was used to disrupt them: landlords of pubs where they met were threatened with loss of their licences; agent provocateurs tried to take control of their activities.

But popular opposition to the war against France led to riots against military recruitment, and a panicked government arrested LCS leaders, who had spoken out against the War, and radicals who had met in Scotland to set up a British Convention (revolutionary alternative government..), The Scots radicals were transported, but the LCS treason trials backfired, resulting in high profile acquittals.

This only led to further government repression… The law of Habeus Corpus, which guaranteed the right of a prisoner to a trial, was suspended in 1793. This ‘relaxation’ of the law would allow for numerous pro-reform activists, publishers issuing radical texts, and others influenced by the French Revolution, to be imprisoned, including members of the LCS. Several were to remain in detention for a number of years until the lack of a trial was challenged.

The Act against Unlawful Combinations and Confederacies was passed in 1799, aimed at restricting the activities of radical secret societies. Membership of the LCS, United Irishmen, United Englishmen, United Britons and United Scots were all banned by the Act. To prevent similar societies springing up, it was made illegal for any society to require its members to take an oath. Societies were also required to keep lists of members available for inspection. A magistrate’s licence was required for any premises on which public lectures were held or any fee-charging public reading room (many of the LCS chapters and other radical groups met in pubs and coffee houses). Printers were closely regulated, because one of the main problems in the Government’s view was that seditious pamphlets were widely circulated and untraceable. Anyone possessing printing equipment was required to register, while all printed items were required to carry the name and address of the printer on the title-page and/or the final page and printers were required to declare all items they had printed to magistrates and retain copies for inspection.

During the passage of the Bill exemptions were introduced to avoid this broadly-drafted law affecting the publishing of newspapers that Parliament itself had ordered to be printed, or causing hassle for weirdo clubs like the Freemasons, who required members to swear oaths upon joining. In the end any Masonic lodge existing at the time of passage of the Act was exempted, so long as they maintained a list of members and supplied it to the magistrates.

The Act was not particularly effective, as radical political organisations continued in more secret or less formal ways.

London Corresponding Society rally on Copenhagen Fields, Islington, 1795

Crowds meeting for political purposes were also dispersed. LCS tactics notably included the ‘monster meeting’ – huge rallies on open spaces on the edge of the city. The later meetings were ordered to be dispersed by the Home Secretary, using forces of Volunteers, run by local worthies and concerned middle class citizens, set up ostensibly to resist invasion by France, though only ever used against home grown radicals. These militias were often farcical (the only fatalities they ever experienced was from friendly fire), but they expressed the organised class hatred that would later be institutionalised in the police.

Throughout the Napoleonic Wars agitation around working conditions continued; despite two Combination Acts, passed in 1799 and 1800 prohibiting trade unions and collective bargaining by British workers. The Pitt government of the time feared Jacobin influences could cause large scale strikes; the juggernaut of industrial change was imposing more and more unbearable conditions in factories, and imposition of work discipline and loss of rights to organise were needed to drive more productivity. Although repealed in 1824, restrictions on union organising remained heavy after that.

The Six Acts

After the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars ended the pressure for political reform revived; large demonstrations calling for changes to the franchise began to be organised around the country. After a demo at Spa Fields erupted into rioting in 1816, and poverty and starvation led to the march of the blanketeers and the Pentrich Uprising, legislation aimed at political movements and ideas was again introduced.

These took the form of the Six Acts:

  • The Training Prevention Act, now known as the Unlawful Drilling Act 1819 made any person attending a meeting for the purpose of receiving training or drill in weapons liable to arrest and transportation. Military training of any sort was to be conducted only by municipal bodies and above. [This was because radicals were actually practising with pikes in preparation for an uprising…]
  • The Seizure of Arms Act gave local magistrates the powers, within the disturbed counties, to search any private property for weapons and seize them and arrest the owners.
  • The Misdemeanours Act attempted to increase the speed of the administration of justice by reducing the opportunities for bail and allowing for speedier court processing.
  • Most relevant to today’s proposed bill: The Seditious Meetings Act required the permission of a sheriff or magistrate in order to convene any public meeting of more than 50 people if the subject of that meeting was concerned with “church or state” matters. Additional people could not attend such meetings unless they were inhabitants of the parish.
  • The Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act (or Criminal Libel Act) toughened the existing laws to provide for more punitive sentences for the authors of such writings. The maximum sentence was increased to fourteen years’ transportation.
  • The Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act and increased taxes to cover those publications which had escaped duty by publishing opinion and not news. Publishers were also required to post a bond for their behaviour.

The Habeus Corpus law was also suspended again in 1817.

The pinnacle of repression at this point was reached in August 1819, with the charging of a crowd meeting to hear speeches on political reform at St Peter’s Field in Manchester, which was attacked by a mounted force of Yeomanry, ordered by the Cheshire magistrates to arrest radical orator Henry Hunt. Up to 18 people were killed and several hundred injured.

No legal justification had been found to ban the Peterloo meeting beforehand, despite the rising climate of radical agitation, and an air of imminent trouble obvious to all. If the Riot Act was read (as the Cheshire magistrates later claimed) to the crowd, it was possibly afterward and in nobody’s hearing; no warning was given before the charge.

Nevertheless the government and local authorities backed the Massacre to the hilt, and followed it up by ratcheting up repression, and arresting and sentencing almost every leading radical figure to imprisonment. The enraged atmosphere among working people following the Manchester events almost backfired on them, however; uprisings and plots for revolution in London, Yorkshire and Scotland were foiled.  Peterloo was possibly the defining moment of the 19th century – thinking it was smashing a radical meeting, the reactionary establishment in fact ensured that the movement for political reform had martyrs, a central uniting moment to refer to; a moment of legend that still arouses passion.

Move Away From the Street

Use of troops, yeomanry, militia or the newly-founded Metropolitan Police in 1829, the authorities continued throughout the 19th century to consider street protest and organised political action as a direct threat to its existence.

Many tactics were employed, generally under existing laws (though readings of the Riot Act did become fewer):

Police also used the law to attack political meetings on streets and in open spaces.

Attempts to prevent demonstrators from entering Hyde Park led to riots in 1855.

Reform Riots, Hyde Park, 1866

The development of Speaker’s Corner, at the edge of Hyde Park, arose as it became the focus of a battle over the right to speak publicly here. In October 1855 a carpenter addressed a meeting at modern speakers corner, not being arrested (because he had not asked police in advance) .. he did the same next Sunday… and over next the few weeks was joined by militant and radical speakers and cops intervened to quell “riotous behaviour’ (people getting together). Police supervision prevented any more meetings till 1859, when a large crowd gathered to demonstrate support for the French emperor Napoleon III’s invasion of Italy… This led to the Garibaldi riots… After the reformers tree in Hyde Park became the centre of a 1866 meeting for political reform, (its branches were torn off and it was set on fire, reducing it to a charred stump) it became a symbol of the right to meet and speak freely.

After much struggle, a space for political meetings was allowed but 150 yards away on the corner of the park, at Speaker’s Corner.

But many areas also evolved their own traditional Speakers Corners. Often in the centre of town or suburb, on an open space or at a monument, landmark or junction. Radicals, socialists and reformers would have to take turns with other, often christian evangelists, or fight to take the pitch first.  In the late 19th century, the struggle for free speech for political ideas was transported to these local speaking pitches. Police harassment of speakers, especially socialists and anarchists, was a weekly feature of these outdoor meetings. Often police simply used the common law offence of obstruction of the highway to arrest speakers.

Just some examples in London: In Dod Street, Limehouse, in 1885, local Social Democratic Federation supporters used the waste land as a speakers corners. Police repeatedly arrested the speakers. Supported by the other socialists they persevered, suffering a police attack on 20th September 1885, when 8 socialists got nicked. When the case came to court the blatant bias of the magistrate caused a mini-riot in the court. The following Sunday, an alleged 50,000 people flocked to Dod Street: the cops from then on leave the meetings alone.

Bell Street, Marylebone was another centre of a long struggle over free speech with the police. In July 1886 socialists Sam Mainwaring and Jack Williams were arrested for obstruction when addressing a crowd in Bell Street. A year later William Morris was summonsed to court for addressing an open-air meeting at Bell Street sponsored by the Marylebone Branch of the Socialist League. The summons claimed he ‘Wilfully [did] obstruct the free passage of the public footway and Highway at Bell Street, Marylebone, by placing yourself upon a stand for the purpose of delivering an address thereby encouraging a crowd of persons to remain upon and obstruct the said Highway and footway at 12 noon.’ With arrests, fines & jailings, the pitch was closed down in July, but the Marylebone branch of the League started another nearby. Most local speakers corners saw something of this kind – an organised attempt by police to prevent dissemination of radical ideas.

Bloody Sunday 1887 was in some ways the peak of 1880s attempts by police to bash and arrest socialists off the streets… Banning political meetings in Trafalgar Square only incited larger crowds to attend demos there, which the police simply used overwhelming force to disperse, with extreme prejudice.

Local speakers corners remained an arena of dispute into the 1890s, for instance at Wanstead flats, which saw the arrest and imprisonment of local anarchists in 1891-2 and Peckham the following year.

The Riot Act being read during the 1911 transport strike

Public Disorder

Police action against suffragettes and post-World War 1 unemployed hunger marchers mostly relied on harassment, direct violence and assault, rather than modifications to the law (legal innovations regarding suffragettes were more notable in allowing them to release hunger striking women from prison when their health was threatened and then re-arrest them when they recovered, under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act’).

In the 1930s, the rise of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), their violence against Jews, and the staunch opposition to them from anti-fascists, led to calls for controls on demonstrations.

The Public Order Act 1936 was ostensibly drafted against the BUF, which its clauses against marching in uniform were clearly aimed at, but much of it was also really aimed at preventing physical anti-fascism. The victory of East Londoners in preventing a BUF march at Cable Street in October 1936, despite the attempts of the cops to push through their barricades, was worrying to the government, partly because it was only one of a series of mass mobilisations against fascism in London and beyond.

The Act banned the wearing of political uniforms in any public place or public meeting. It also required police consent for political marches to go ahead (now covered by the Public Order Act 1986). The Act also prohibited organising, training or equipping an “association of persons … for the purpose of enabling them to be employed in usurping the functions of the police or of the armed forces of the Crown”, or “for the use or display of physical force in promoting any political object”.

Fascists in Hyde park, 1834.

In terms of the BUF, it may in fact have had the indirect result of actually improving their fortunes. The party’s forced abandonment of paramilitary and armed tactics improved their relations with the police and, by making it more “respectable”, increased the BUF appeal among traditionally conservative middle-class citizens, who became the party’s main base in the years after the Public Order Act 1936 was passed.

But a powerful reason for the introduction of the Act was the autonomy it gave to police chiefs to act against demonstrations, on their own initiative, bypassing police authorities, who were increasingly becoming controlled by elected Labour politicians, who were less likely to authorise repressive action. Tory central government saw more reliability for control of disorder in giving the police their head. (The 2021 legislation in some senses again grant more autonomy to police discretion to crack down.)
There’s some good background to the Public Order Act in this account of the BUF and opposition to them.

Ironically, given the fears of the government that loony lefty police authorities would prevent police banning demos & busting heads, in 1936, the Labour Party welcomed the ban on uniforms and paramilitary organisations, and in the end supported the Public Order bill in parliament, though some MPs disliked the new power of the police to determine the route of marches and processions.

[Obviously Keir Starmer would probably go for the current bill if he thought it wouldn’t undermine his, er, popularity (?), after all was fine with the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill… ]

Some Labour MPs even spoke of ‘dictatorial powers’ for chiefs of police. Labour radical Aneurin Bevan vigorously defended the freedom of heckling, which he feared the bill would erode: ‘As there is so little humour left in politics, do not let this right be taken away.’ And while most Labour amendments were rejected, at Labour’s request the government withdrew a provision which would have given the police the authority to regulate or ban the use of flags and provocative slogans in demonstrations. Still, within Labour circles, the Public Order Act remained controversial. Especially as the authorities used the new legislation particularly to regulate and ban left-wing manifestations. The Public Order Act did not end the presence of the BUF on the streets of British cities. Although the movement lost much of its popular appeal in the final years before the outbreak of the Second World War, it was still able to organise public meetings and demonstrations.

Bastard Squad

Demo defending the Mangrove 9

Until the late 1970s, the police approached tackling public order without any specialist training or equipment… But from the mid-1960s, specialist units were created to take on public order situations ,especially demonstrations and strikes – the Special Patrol Group. Set up as a para-military unit of the Metropolitan police to provide a centrally-based mobile squad for combating public disorder and crime. The SPG gained a notorious reputation through the 1970s, being involved in the killing of two young Pakistani men in 1973, (who had been holding toy guns, demonstrating at India House), in the raids on the Mangrove restaurant and Metro club in Notting Hill, in in 1974 when Kevin Gately died during a demonstration against the National Front in Red Lion Square, in mass operations in Lewisham in 1975 over a spate of ‘muggings’, in policing the Grunwick dispute of 1976-8, and the mass mobilisation against the fascists in Lewisham in August 1977.

Southall and the death of Blair Peach in 1979 brought this to a peak. Peach was killed during an SPG operation against an anti-fascist demo in April 1979; the resulting outcry led to inspections on SPG lockers, which revealed extra-curricular weaponry and National Front regalia among officers. Quite apart from doing the state’s public order job, police often represent the layer of rightwing, moralistic, usually racist and misogynist upper working class/lower middle class which hates foreigners, lefties, poofs and sees women as fair game. A set of ideas the state is happy to sponsor so long as it doesn’t get too blatant at the wrong times.

Before the introduction of the Public Order Act 1986, policing public order was based on various relevant common law offences, and the Public Order Act 1936. Several factors influenced the introduction of the Public Order Act 1986. Significant public disorder, such as the Southall events in 1979, the innercity riots in Brixton and wider afield in 1981, and the miner’s strike 1984-85 – in particular the Battle of Orgreave in June 1984.

The Police & Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 codified and increased some of the police’s powers relating to stop and search, controlling public order and intelligence gathering, all of which provisions were aimed at making the kind of challenge to authority & police as expressed in 1981 riots more difficult, as well as making action against strikers and demonstrators easier. Some of the provisions in the Act were specifically aimed at legitimising actions the police had taken in 1981 but on dubious legal grounds (such as mass searching of premises on the mere suspicion that evidence of a crime might be within – see the Brixton riot of July 14th 1981)

The Public Order Act 1936 was used extensively against the flying pickets during the 1984/5 miners’ strike. Preventing mass picketing and movement of miners around the country to picket other pits was the crucial battleground – the authorities main aim was to prevent a repeat of the victories strikers had won in the 170s through mass picketing.

The mass disorder during the miners’ strike led to the government concluding that new public order arrangements needed to be made. Instead they oversaw a new regime where specialist uniforms, helmets and riot shields, as well as other equipment, were available to the police and significant training was developed to help officers control public order situations. This new style of paramilitary policing rapidly became the norm, and this modernised style of policing needed a new legal structure to support it. The SPG was upgraded, rebranded as the Territorial Support Group.

Even prior to the Miner’s Strike the Law Commission had recommended that the law on public order be modified, and following the strike the Government introduced a Bill into Parliament that in due course became the Public Order Act 1986. The Law Commission had concluded that public order laws as they currently stood, comprising a mix of common law and statutory offences, was inadequate and ineffective, and that a comprehensive statute was required to bring the law up to date; The Public Order Act 1986 was the result. This formed the basis for what most people nicked on demos and riots are charged with today.

The Act as originally drafted contained five main offences relating to public order: riot, violent disorder, affray, threatening behaviour and disorderly conduct:

Section 1 of the Act creates the offence of riot. For a riot there needs to be at least 12 people involved who must be present together and must be acting with a “common purpose”. They must use or threaten unlawful violence and this must be of such a level as would cause a person of reasonable firmness to fear for their personal safety. This is a test that occurs on a number of occasions in the Act. Riot is an indictable only offence and carries a maximum sentence of ten years imprisonment. It is the most serious public order offence under the act.

Violent disorder: Section Two of the Act. This requires the involvement of at least three people and again has the requirement that there is a use or threat of unlawful violence. The reasonable person test again applies. Violent disorder can be tried either at the magistrates or the Crown Court and has a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment.

The most serious public order offence that can be committed by a person acting alone is affray under Section Three of the Act. This is an offence that can be tried at the Magistrates’ Court or Crown Court and has a maximum sentence of three years imprisonment.

The final two offences under this part of the act can only be tried at the Magistrates’ Court. These are threatening behaviour and disorderly conduct. The maximum sentence for threatening behaviour is six months imprisonment and disorderly conduct is non-imprisonable. These offences differ from the more serious ones in that the requirement that the defendant used or threatened unlawful violence is not present, and the reasonable person test does not apply.

The 1986 Public Order Act also contains sections very relevant to the current legislation we face today, in Part 2 – Processions and assemblies:

Section 11 – Advance notice of public processions requires at least six clear days’ written notice to be given to the police before most public processions, including details of the intended time and route, and giving the name and address of at least one person proposing to organise it; creates offences for the organisers of a procession if they do not give sufficient notice, or if the procession diverges from the notified time or route

Section 12 – Imposing conditions on public processions, provides police the power to impose conditions on processions “to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community”

Section 13 – Prohibiting public processions a chief police officer has the power to ban public processions up to three months by applying to local authority for a banning order which needs subsequent confirmation from the Home Secretary.

Section 14 – Imposing conditions on public assemblies provides police the power to impose conditions on assemblies “to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community”. The conditions are limited to the specifying of:

  • the number of people who may take part,
  • the location of the assembly, and
  • its maximum duration.

Section 14A – Prohibiting trespassory assemblies added by section 70 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, to control raves.

Section 16 – Public assembly: Originally meant an assembly of 20 or more persons in a public place which is wholly or partly open to the air.
The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 amended the act to reduce the minimum numbers of people in an assembly to two, and removed the requirement to be in the open air.

There was a Campaign against the Police Bill in 1986-7, but it was small and not very effective. Fairly limited groupings of anarchists, socialists and campaigners organised a vocal campaign and even held illegal marches that breached the terms of the Act when it came in (in January and April 1987). But the campaign did not catch fire or receive widespread support and momentum.

The other notable changes in the 1980s that affected public order involved anti-trade union laws. Along with tightening rules about ballots for strikes and political funds, a series of anti-trade union laws introduced by successive tory governments in the 1980s/early 90s brought in bans on secondary picketing – ‘sympathy strikes’, or supporting other workers on strike. Police had powers to impose restrictions on numbers on picket lines, reducing the impact of strike action and facilitating scabbing.

The incoming New Labour government in 1997 did not so much as amend the tory anti-union or public order legislation, happily inheriting the powers to fuck over workers and repress protest if they needed to.

The Criminal Justice Bill 1994

If opposition to the Public Order Act had been limited, the next massive legislation addressing public order was to spark much larger resistance.

Among many other repressive sections attacking travellers, squatters, ravers and anti-roads protestors, Part V of the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill was subtitled ‘public order: collective trespass or nuisance on land’. It redefined trespass  – in terms of where it could be applied, and in relation to particular groups that the state regarded as deviant or dangerous at the time, notably new age travellers, the outdoor rave movement, and environmental and animal rights protesters.

This also aroused the ire of groups like the Ramblers Association – who feared the definition of ‘aggravated trespass’ could be applied in a hostile environment to their actions, for example defending rights of way against being stopped up by a landowner.

Section V outlined a new definition of ‘aggravated trespass’ under section 68 of the Act. Section 61 increased police powers to remove trespassers on land, replacing previous powers in the 1986 Public Order Act. Sections 63 and 65 applied specifically to raves, codifying directions to leave land. Section 69 provided the police with the power to stop people whom they suspected were on their way to trespass. Section 77 empowered local authorities to remove unauthorised campers from land.

Opposition to the CJB coalesced into a powerful coalition of ravers, squatters, travellers and any more, who produced a huge wave of protest culminating in three massive demos in London, the last one ending in a riot in October 1994. Local demos against the Bill also faced attacks from police. While not preventing the passing of the Act, this diverse movement ensured that resistance to it and its implementation was strong and continuous, in a way that previous legislation had not really seen.

Conclusion

Are there lessons of previous legislation that can help with those trying to oppose the 2021 Bill?

Public outcry is all very well, and publicising the clauses in the Bill is always useful at making people aware. But how likely is it we can prevent it passing? Unlikely. Even if Labour maintain their shaky opposition, pretty much all the tories will vote for it. It becomes a question of how to resist the new law in its implementation. More probable is some cosmetic changes will be made and it will pass. Labour have – as we have seen above – supported the 1936 Public Order Act (although anyone could see it would also be used against the left), mostly failed to vote against the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill, and failed to repeal other public order and union laws when in power…

Repressive laws pass. It’s vital not to let activity diminish or get depressed, and to find ways to continue our activity, to defend people targeted and stand together to prevent the police using their power when ever we can. to learn how to subvert the law. Yes law can be challenged in court, but also the ways that people learn to duck and dive in the face of legal restrictions are crucial. The main lessons of struggles against the 1994 Act are not to let ourselves become divided into ‘peaceful’ and ‘violent’ protestors, splitting ourselves to do their work for them. Too much energy was spent in the mid-90s debating methods – in fact greater unity comes from an acceptance of diverse and multi-headed tactics.

The Riot Act, the Public Order Acts and the CJB never prevented us and those who came before us from fighting for – and winning – social change.

Today in London Black herstory, 1979: Organisation for Women of African & Asian Descent hold National Black Women’s Conference, Brixton

“Nearly 300 black women met together in Brixton on March 18 to take part in the first ever National Black Women’s Conference.

It was an historic occasion, both in that it was the first time that Asian, Caribbean and African sisters had got together in such numbers, and from so many different areas, to discuss the issues and campaigns concerning us; and in that it marked an important stage in the develop­ment of an autonomous black women’s movement here.

The conference was organised by the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), which was set up in February 1978 and hopes to develop into a national umbrella group made up of local black women’s groups and individuals who are active in anti- racist, feminist and community campaigns.

A number of talks were given, raising such issues as racism and sexism in immigration laws and education, the racist use of Depo- Provera, black women’s participation in campaigns against “SUS” (Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act, which is widely used by police to harass and arrest black people, claiming that they are “persons sus­pected of loitering with intent to commit an arrestable offence”);and “Sickle Cell”(an hereditary blood disease, suffered mainly by black people, and widely ignored by the NHS). We also discussed the establishment of black women’s refuges and supplementary schools. All those who attended, from the elderly black woman of 60 to the young black schoolgirl, played an active part in the day’s discussions.

In addition to the talks, poetry and short play, sisters had the opportunity during the breaks to buy books, posters and badges on black/feminist issues, to view the photo exhibition on black women in Britain, and to listen to progressive music by or about black women.

The atmosphere and concerns of the conference were recorded by OWAAD sisters, who filmed the entire day on video. We hope to have the film ready for hiring out to interested groups within the next few weeks. The talks given will also be available soon, in an illustrated pamphlet, and we plan to produce a regular newsletter.”
(Spare Rib,
June 1979)

On Sunday 18 March 1979, around 300 black women from all over Britain met at a conference at the Abeng Centre, in Brixton, South London. Attracting a variety of individuals, bringing together existing local black women’s groups and encouraging the formation of more, the conference is often hailed as marking the start of the Black Women’s Movement in Britain.

The conference was organised by the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), which had been formed a year earlier, with the aim of establishing an organisation that would unite smaller groups and individuals into a collective movement. Acting as a forum, OWAAD helped black women from come together to plan, discuss and issues concerning them in Britain , and organise support for liberation struggles across the world. OWAAD held another three conferences, produced a bi-monthly newsletter, FOWAAD, and was successful in mobilising women behind practical protests. Underpinning the women’s political organisation was the assertion of a collective identity as ‘black women’.

The organisation specifically united students from West Indian, African and Asian countries with women who had grown up as migrants or children of migrants in Britain. Experiences of racism and involvement in racial politics were important aspects in the political consciousness of many of those organising under OWAAD. In 1948, passenger liner Empire Windrush arrived in London carrying 492 Jamaicans, responding to the call of the 1948 Nationality act for citizens of the commonwealth to claim British citizenship and work for the ‘motherland’. Migration to Britain occurred mostly from the West Indies, India and Pakistan.

Although certainly not the first non-white population, migrant workers and their families became increasingly visible, contributing to the emergence of modern British race relations. Political movements sprang up to combat racism and inequality, and express emerging concepts of Black Power and black liberation. In parallel with this, black workers found themselves fighting to establish themselves both in the trade union movements (often themselves rife with racism) as well as fighting discrimination from employers. At the same time, the Women’s Liberation movement was also erupting, as women began to organise themselves against male supremacy.

The women who founded OWAAD found themselves facing oppression on various fronts – as women, as black people, many as workers – caught between the various movements, none of which adequately addressed their needs and desires. The black women’s movement evolved an intersectional approach to find their way forward.

OWAAD was formed in 1978 when women in the UK African Students Union initiated a meeting at Warwick University. Recognising growing numbers of black women organising locally, they discussed the formation of an organisation that would take a more national position. Those present were nearly all involved in black organisations and community groups. They asserted that as black women they faced a ‘triple oppression’, concerning their race, gender and class, and required their own organisations to fight on all three fronts.

One of the founding groups whose work contributed to the building of OWAAD, the Brixton Black Women’s Group, later wrote an account and analysis of OWAAD’s development, the problems that it faced and how it dealt with them, and its ultimate demise.
We reprint this below.

The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent

A critical look at the growth, contradictions and eventual demise of Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent in the late-1970s/early 1980s, as well as the lessons to be learnt from it, by members of the Brixton Black Women’s Group.

The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), a now defunct group begun in 1978, sought to bring together Black women from a number of different backgrounds and political perspectives in Britain. It was an important chapter in the history of Black women organising.

OWAAD initially provided a national link between Black women in Britain. But the task of uniting so many diverse and differing elements, particularly in the absence of a fundamental grounding and appreciation of the concrete experiences of each particular grouping, proved too much. Its demise in 1982 was important however, because of the opportunity it presented to analyse and assess and hopefully to learn something about where we are as Black women organising.

Growth of OWAAD

In February 1978 African women who were becoming active in the African Student’s Union (UK) launched the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent. These origins do not reveal the far-reaching implications of its birth and development It was not the first or the only Black Women’s organisation. In other areas African women, such as ZANU Women’s League were forming separate caucuses to their national liberation organisations. Black women resident or born in England were beginning to meet in study groups; still others had begun self-help groups like the Manchester Black Women’s Co-op[1]; others were spearheading the ‘Stop Sus’ campaigns. OWAAD performed a different function. It presented as a possibility a chance for Black women from all over England to meet with each other, share ideas and give help and support to what each were doing.

The guiding forces behind the first OWAAD meeting were women who had already been active in the few local groups there were. In the earliest months, African women students from Ghana, Ethiopia and Eritrea, for example, were prominent in the discussions about how best to organise a network federation of Black women. After a short while, women activists from the indigenous Black community became involved, and the proposal for a national Black Women’s conference was developed. As the organisation of the conference progressed, it soon became clear that the main thrust of the conference was to be the position of Black women in Britain.

Few of us expected the 250 women who turned up at the first conference. We in the Brixton Black Women’s Group (BWG) had made informal links with other women organising, but did not imagine there were so many ready and eager to begin to organise and articulate around the specific oppression of Black women. The conference discussed a wide range of issues around health education, the law and immigration; as we saw these to affect us. The women who came were greatly inspired and went away to form Black Women’s groups in their own communities in places like Hackney, east London, west London, Southall and others around the country.

With this growth, we realized the need for a newsletter to ensure links were maintained with women who were intensifying their activities in their communities. There were many important issues and campaigns that had to be fought. The newsletter FOWAAD was launched to ensure that women from OWAAD knew what other women were doing, and could be called upon to give practical support. An example of this was the protest over the use of virginity tests at ports of entry. As soon as we were alerted to the use of this offensive practice on Asian women, OWAAD organised a sit-in protest and picket at Heathrow Airport. This later culminated in a demonstration in central London against State harassment organised by women from AWAZ (Asian Women’s Movement) and Brixton Black Women’s Group.

In other cases, women from OWAAD gave support to women on strike (for example Futters[2]); women involved in education battles against sin-bins and expulsions; women fighting the Sus laws; and those facing deportation. OWAAD had all the energy and vibrancy that the Black Movement needed at that time.

By the end of the second conference of 1980, the organisation, which was becoming very large, had developed a structure which we had hoped would facilitate the widest participation by both groups and individuals. Committees responsible for the coordination of the different aspects of OWAAD’s work were set up. These were the newsletter, calendar and diary, media, and so on; each was then accountable to a large collective coordinating group, which was the final decision-making body. Ostensibly, there were no appointed leaders or spokeswomen.

Because the organisation was made up of groups, campaigns and individuals, leadership was exercised according to the demands of each situation. Between the second and third conferences, some contradictions started to surface. Some were structural, the umbrella structure proving unwieldy; others were centred around Black women’s sexuality; whilst still others dealt with the complexities of putting the political principles of Afro-Asian unity into practice.

By the third conference, these cracks in OWAAD presented themselves visibly as major rifts. Meanwhile, the internal contradictions of some local groups led to their demise. Moreover the third conference, held in 1981, coincided with the uprisings in the Black communities nationwide. Consequently, much energy, time and organisation was devoted to the coordination of legal and political defence campaigns. The urgency of the situation reinforced the drift away from involvement in women’s groups.

At the conference itself, the major points of friction were over sexuality and the general line of organisation. Both of these were political questions which it was impossible to discuss properly, let alone resolve, without any agreed political framework to guide the debate, and any necessary re-organisation. The impact of the breakdown of political consensus was particularly acute at this time. Consequently, OWAAD, as an organising body, was left with virtually nothing for the year. Attempts were made to draw the organisation together and to reconstitute the coordinating committee with the few groups and individuals that continued to attend meetings. The result was the fourth conference in 1982 which was inevitably a debacle. Few of the older founder members were left. Moreover, the theme of this conference – ‘Black Feminism’ – brought angry criticism from newer members, who did not understand the history behind the theme, and/or were ‘hostile to feminism’, and therefore saw its choice as a retrogressive step.

The failure both to discuss the differences and develop a way forward for OWAAD was illustrative of our inability to explain the historical trajectory of OWAAD and to integrate a feminist analysis into our practice, whilst retaining socialism as our major foundation stone.

Since then, several attempts have been made to revive OWAAD, but the organisation is in fact now dead.

Contradictions

The demise of OWAAD is very important because it exemplifies in specific terms, the general difficulties that Black women face when organising. In its very early history, an issue which appeared to us a relatively small, became crucially important, since it highlighted the way in which concrete political situations affect the specific kind of analysis developed by a group. The issue at hand was that of Afro-Caribbean and African unity. This became important in itself because, whilst we all recognized such unity as an objective reality, we were unprepared to deal with the kinds of differences between us, which resulted from our concrete experiences.

At one level, such differences of approach revolved around the form of struggle we could wage. There were sisters from the African continent who were involved in liberation struggles there, which they wanted us to focus on. On the other hand, those of us from the indigenous Black community saw the need to integrate these issues into our overall work. We were also concerned to keep a focus on Black political struggle in Britain and the Americas. How could we all come under one banner? How could our primary fight against racism and sexism be reconciled with our African sisters’ fight?

Differences over emphasis raised analytical questions such as the place of Black Consciousness[3] in situations outside Europe, the Americas and apartheid States. What we were beginning to learn very quickly, was that the concept ‘black’, had very different meanings for those of us living in white-dominated societies and regions, compared to those of us from societies which were ostensibly independent. Whilst all of us were dominated by imperialism, the manifestations of this domination were obviously very different in the two types of situations. In our attempt to develop a political analysis and practice which recognized the anti-imperialist base of all our struggles, we had failed to take account of the subjective impact of specific situations and their practical implications. Thus, the fact that our aims and objectives were all-embracing, might have avoided rather than confronted the problem.

Paradoxically, it was the recognition that we had to be more specific on our platform, coupled with the involvement of even more local women, that led to our concentrating on Black women’s lives in Britain, that a second, but related, contradiction emerged.

In focussing on Britain, it became clear that an organisation of African and Afro-Caribbean sisters could not take up the issue of racism without responding to the questions being raised by Asian sisters. The aims and objectives were seemingly contradictory, even when applied to the British situation. In one sense, we were all-embracing, but in another, more practical, way we had not widened our base consciously to include all of those who could and should be involved.

It was not until the Winter of 1978 that OWAAD became the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent. Perhaps it was because the issue of Afro-Asian unity had not been there from the beginning that it was problematic. More fundamentally, perhaps, it was problematic because our political line, whilst basically correct, was still unable fully to realize itself in our practice. Just as our practical focus had led to the de facto exclusion of African sisters, so too was our line to prove unable adequately to deal with cultural differences within the indigenous Black community. There seemed to be a fear that recognizing such differences between us would lead to a breakdown or denial of the objective unity which contemporary British racism and historical colonialism imposed on us. Thus, when some sisters raised the cultural aspects, differences between us were seen by others as divisive.

Consequently, the unwitting exclusivity of OWAAD’s focus, which resulted from the numerical strength of Caribbean sisters in the organisation, became symbolic of our inability to grasp the fact that recognition of cultural differences can be a political strength which helps us to transcend the divisions which our colonial and neocolonial masters (and mistresses) and their agents attempted to foist on us.

Sexuality

Another issue that played a major part in exposing our differences was that of sexuality – the questions of our relationships with men, with other women and society at large. From the first conference there had been questions asked about the absence of a debate on sexuality. We who had been founder members of OWAAD attempted to defend ourselves, and thereby deflect the criticism, by showing how we had attempted to widen the definition of Black women’s sexuality by relating it to the way in which imperialism structured women’s lives.

Our argument was that imperialist relations structured and determined not only our role in production – in factory and field – but that these relations also determined the emotional, sexual and psychological aspects of Black women’s lives. Consequently, we could only understand our sexuality in terms of the interplay between, on the one hand, class and race relations, and on the other, those relations between men and women. It was inevitable, therefore, that the specificity of our social, psychological and emotional dependence on men would lead to a different kind of feminism from that of white, European women. The struggle for a new and self-defined sexuality was therefore part of the anti-imperialist struggle, since such self-definition, centred around the nexus of relations of production and relations of gender, involved a challenge to both our traditional cultures and cultural imperialism.

The potentially explosive issue of sexuality was now taken out of the realm of sexual activity or sexual preference, and into the wider more ‘politically respectable’ terrain of gender relations.

This was, however, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, many of us felt (and still feel) that this was a positive development for two reasons. Firstly, we felt that we had begun to place gender relations and women’s oppression onto the political agenda of black organisations. This was certainly a progressive step since, as feminists, we knew that revolutionary analysis and practice had to address itself to the fact of women’s oppression and particularly, to the structures and processes which reproduced the conditions of that oppression. Secondly, we also felt that a full understanding of women’s sexuality could only be gained in relation to, and as an aspect of, the total complex of social relations of class, race and sex. Such an approach could keep us from falling into the trap of making sexual orientation the basis of organising, or the basis of divisions between us. On the other hand, however, this approach served as a guise NOT to discuss the construction of sexual orientation (rather than sexuality in its broadest sense) at all. We thereby rendered sexual preference to the realm of the ‘private’, even though our argument was that ALL aspects of life were social. There was, therefore, an inconsistency in our approach.

The fact of the matter was that we were unsure how to deal with an issue that, more than anything else, showed the weaknesses which became exposed when oppressed women try to organise around both the ‘traditional’ areas of struggle and those issues specific to our oppression as a sex. Stated bluntly, we became the unwitting victims of our own and our communities’ ‘homophobia’.

It was felt that sexual activity, as it came to the fore, was too sensitive to be discussed publicly. The question was constantly posed as to how could we ‘waste time’ discussing lesbianism, heterosexuality and bisexuality when there were so many more pressing issues. It was, besides, a weapon the brother could use against us, as supposedly illustrative of our lack of seriousness. Political men who had witnessed the disintegration of the Black movement and felt threatened by a vibrant Black women’s movement could, and did, use it against us. Perhaps the favourite and most effective line of attack against Black women organising has been, and still is, that we are all ‘frustrated lesbians’. And Black ones at that! A charge which was effective in the sense of undermining our sense of legitimacy, since it nurtured either our own belief that such issues were irrelevant, or our lack of confidence in raising these issues at a political level. Moreover, the irony in this situation was that it was supremely illustrative of the dependence on men, which we argued was a part of women’s sexuality and oppression.

Another popular way of undermining Black women organising consisted of accusations about ‘dominant, middle class bourgeois women’, who are isolated from the ‘woman on the streets’. We succumbed and continue to succumb to the fraudulent and divisive analysis that ‘women on the streets’ could not discuss, articulate and somehow begin to fight their oppression. The argument goes that because we are organised, we are no longer ‘typical’ of Black women; and therefore, the campaigns and issues we take up are misguided. This was based on the assumption that we are middle class because we are all supposedly the recipients of higher education. It would be facile to attempt to refute this notion by giving a head count of how many of us had done so. But two points do need to be made. Firstly, since when were we in the business of attacking Black people for gaining access to higher education. It seems somewhat contradictory to accuse us of selling out or being irrelevant when some of those same people are actively engaged in the struggle to ensure that Black children ‘achieve’ in the education system. Secondly, since when did access to education and the fact that we may occupy ‘middle-class’ jobs automatically lead to petty-bourgeois politics. Our opponents are guilty of conflating two issues in the attempt to absolve themselves of the responsibility to challenge women’s oppression. But at the time these kinds of attacks seriously undermined the early unity of OWAAD.

At a practical level, events such as the uprisings[4] had an enormous effect on many women. Black women took a leading role in some defence campaigns. Women were arrested and involved on the streets. Many had fathers, brothers and lovers who were arrested, while others had to contend with their homes being broken into and destroyed in the aftermath. Despite this, the input of women – as women – somehow became marginalized. Part of the reason for this was that when women became involved in defence campaigns, we could not devote the time to our own women’s groups, and many felt they should not. Consequently, the strength we gained from our women’s groups, did not play the major role it should have done. Why was this and what input should we have made?

What these developments pointed to was some uncertainty about what we were struggling for – or more correctly, what our priorities were. Overt feminism, that is, raising the question of women’s specific oppression, seemed sometimes inconsequential, eclipsed by the larger Black struggle. These ideas went back to the heyday of the Black movement, when it was felt that women’s issues or ‘the woman question’ was a secondary matter that could divide the struggle.

One other difficulty that OWAAD highlighted was the internal weakness in our organisations and groups. Many of us had rejected the male idea of leadership through the totem pole. The backward idea that had existed in the Black movement was that leaders were singularly the baddest, toughest towards their own comrades; and that leadership was the prize after a cockfight. What could we put in its place that was less destructive and individualistic?

OWAAD provided the alternative of co-operative organisation without positions of leadership to be fought over. Working through committees provided women in OWAAD with the supportive ground to develop their political consciousness. However, it left too much space for dissension – for political shifts from the anti-imperialist base. It was open for any small group to attempt to take over the organisation and try to move it in a different direction.

The problems highlighted here seem large. It might cause some to wonder how OWAAD lasted so long, and how Black women are still able to organise. It is clearly because the problems of women organising are not insurmountable; and we still need to form strong organisations. We should, however, learn some lessons from the demise of OWAAD.

Lessons

The first of these involves the need to develop political unity without minimizing the differences between us as Black women, whether these be of a cultural or tactical nature. Such differences have come about as a result of the different colonizing influences we have experienced. These need not and should not continue to be viewed in a negative way, but rather accepted and made use of, so long as there is no major difference in ideological perspective.

The oppression we have suffered (and continue to suffer) as Black women, whether in Britain, the Americas or Africa, serves to keep us divided, but this oppression must also be the objective basis of our unity. We must learn to appreciate our different cultures, understand our different experiences and distinguish between these differences and objective political differences. It is from this perspective that we can then attack the various forms of oppression which divide us. Only in this way can we facilitate our continued growth as Black women and thus be in a better position to react against the source and substance of our oppression in a strong, informed and concerted fashion.

Another important lesson to be learned from OWAAD’s demise must be the acceptance that we must continue to stress the importance of keeping the question of gender relationships on centre stage. This will inevitably involve an understanding of the relationship between sexuality and women’s oppression; but the traditional resistance amongst the Black community to such an examination, must not prevent us from publicly declaring the need to look at the construction of sexuality; and to publicly support lesbian women.

Similarly, our focus on gender relations is the only way in which we can ensure that the question of Black women’s oppression is not relegated to a secondary level of political consideration. As Black socialist feminists, it is incumbent upon us to point out that women’s oppression is inextricably bound up with the issues of race and class; and that it is right and necessary to tackle all three simultaneously, and with equal determination.

However, having declared the inextricable links between sex, race and class, we have the responsibility to carry through the political arguments with regard to feminism. This means that the thrust of our work will have two strands. On the one hand, we will continue to organise autonomously and address the issues we face as Black women. On the other, we must bring a feminist perspective to the work of our comrades in mixed, progressive Black organisations. In this way, we will be raising the consciousness of the Black community within the context of the totality of Black socialist politics.

Brixton Black Women’s Centre (BWC) is at 41 Stockwell Green, SW9. The BWC aims 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.

In the near future we intend to develop a craft centre; a girls’ project; a film group; regular women’s socials; relaxation sessions. If you have any ideas and/or want to participate come and join us. For further information, phone 01-274-9220.

Originally published in Feminist Review, No. 17, 1984.

Notes

1 – Manchester Black Women’s Co-op: Set up in the late 1970s, by “the late Ada Phillips, Kath Locke and Olive Morris who was at that time a student at Manchester University and a founder member of The Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD). […]”. It maintained a political and campaigning outlook as well as doing practical work, and reformed itself as Abasindi Housing Co-op a few years later:

“The Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative] was established to create a self-help educational programme within the community geared especially to the needs of young mothers. From this basis of concern there developed an office skills training programme and opportunities for young people to become involved with various community based initiatives. In turn, this situation exposed the author and other young women to a range of political actions on behalf of the community.

During 1979 the members of the Black Women’s Co-operative undertook a lengthy and critical review of the organisation’s achievements and developments. The women concluded that in spite of some of the activities, the project was not as effective as it should be in significantly involving black women in the development of their community. Hence the need to widen the Co-operative’s activities and areas of interest. Furthermore, it was agreed that the group should show itself to be both autonomous and self-determining.

With these objectives in mind, the membership decided to reform as Abasindi. On the 1st January 1980, Kath Locke, Duduzile Lethlaku, Yvonne Hypolite, Maria Noble, Popgee Manderson, Madge Gordon, Abena Braithwaite, Shirley Inniss, and the author were among the local women who founded the Abasindi Women’s Co-op. Two of the women were born in this country of English and Nigerian parentage and the others were from Barbados, Trinidad, Aruba, South Africa and Jamaica. For a number of years, Abasindi was based in the Moss Side People’s Centre, formerly St. Mary’s Primary school and now the site of a privately run children’s nursery. The People’s Centre at that time also housed a number of community groups including the Moss Side Adventure Playgroup, The Family Advice Centre and a project for young people. Approximately one year after Abasindi was formed, Moss Side’s reputation as an inner city area with particular social problems was the subject of much media attention. This was in 1981 when alongside cities such as Bristol, Birmingham, London and Liverpool; it became the site of four days of social disturbance.”

2 – Futters: South Asian women went on strike in 1979 at a Harlesden factory, Futters, a family owned light engineering firm that was only a couple of miles from Grunwicks; the dispute was in protest at low wages, poor working conditions, inadequate toilet facilities and victimisation of union activists.

3 – Black Consciousness: Originally the Black Consciousness Movement developed in apartheid-era South Africa as a radical black movement opposing apartheid, which rejected the idea of garnering white liberal opinion and support, and determined to develop a black-led autonomous political rebellion against not just apartheid, but ‘white values’. The Black Consciousness Movement helped bring cohesiveness and solidarity to the black anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, despite itself being banned and repressed, and the murder of its leader Steve Biko by SA police in 1977.
The BCM were both influenced by and had influence on black power movements in the US and beyond, and the term ‘black consciousness’ is used in the text here in a wider sense, to clearly mean a set of ideas centering black experience and black action to free themselves from oppression, rather than any reliance on winning white approval or courting whites to change things on their behalf.

4 – ‘The uprisings’: known in the more mainstream media as the 1981 riots that broke out around the UK in Spring-Summer 1981, beginning in Brixton in April, many provoked by police violence and racism.

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More reading

Material relating to OWAAD has been well preserved at the Black Cultural Archive in Brixton: a collection of organisational papers was given to the archive by a founding member, Stella Dadzie.

‘The Heart of the Race’, a classic book, containing testimonies of women involved in the 1970s UK Black Women’s Movement and OWAAD, has recently been re-published.

Amrit Wilson, Finding a Voice: struggles of South Asian women

Bethany Warner’s dissertation, The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent: constructing a collective identity’ is also well worth a read.

Here’s a brief film discussing OWAAD’s campaigns

 

 

Reclaiming the Night – Police Attacks Are An old Tradition…

The murder of Sarah Everard in South London, the arrest of serving police officer Wayne Couzens for the killing, and the police attack on a vigil for Sarah, on Clapham Common on 13th March, have again thrown male violence against women into the front of public consciousness. At least until the mainstream media and male commentators forget the ‘issue’ and move on. For women, it is never out of their minds.

For many police, despite several decades of diversity training, women reporting male assault are still a nuisance. And organised protest against male violence, like much protest, is a challenge to their institutional control of the streets, to be squashed. old laws or new laws, Covid or not, a collective of angry women asserting their right to walk without fear have to be put back into fear. The only police response to anger about male violence is – more male violence.

The attack and arrests at Clapham Common are not the fist time angry women’s protest against abuse by men has been subjected to assault by the boys in blue. In October 1978, a Reclaim the Night demo in London was attacked by police in Soho.

Reclaim the Night in the UK was born in Leeds. The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, were inspired by news of co-ordinated women-only ‘Take Back The Night’ marches against male violence and sexual harassment, held across towns and cities in West Germany on the 30th April 1977.

In every sphere of life women negotiate the threat or reality of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. Reclaim the Night articulated the demand for the right to use public space without fear – as a civil liberty, as a human right.

There are an estimated 47,000 rapes every year, around 40,000 attempted rapes and over 300,000 sexual assaults. 95% of women don’t feel safe on the streets at night, and 65% don’t even feel safe during the day. 73% worry about being raped and almost half say they sometimes don’t want to go out because they fear for their own safety.

Leeds women formed a Reclaim the Night Group after reading the report of the night demos in Germany and discussing action against male violence at the “Revolutionary Feminist” con­ference in Edinburgh in July ‘77. The series of women murdered in West York­shire by the Yorkshire Ripper acted as a spur to action. Peter Sutcliffe sexually attacked and murdered thirteen women across Yorkshire between 1975 and 1980. Women in the area were angry that the police response to these murders seemed slow and that the press barely reported on them when it was mainly women involved in prostitution who were murdered. But when a young student woman was murdered, the press and the police seemed to take more notice. The police response was to tell women not to go out at night, effectively putting them under curfew. This was not a helpful suggestion for any women, those working late shifts or night shifts, or those involved in prostitution who often had no choice about whether they went out at night or not. Feminists and a variety of student and women’s groups were angered by this response and also by the sensationalising of the serial murders, which they felt hid the real fact that all too many women are affected by male violence and that this was in fact common. The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist group called for women to march in cities across the UK on the night of 12th November 1977 against rape and for a woman’s right to walk without fear at night, they advertised this in national newsletters and publicised it to women’s groups. Hundreds of women took back their cities on that night, marching with flaming torches through centres and back streets alike. They made the point that women should be able to walk anywhere and that they should not be blamed or restricted because of men’s violence.

“There’d been a need for a new area of action radical enough to really fire people.”

The Reclaim The Night march was founded women a voice and a chance to reclaim the streets at night on a safe and empowering event, to put the issue of women’s safety on the agenda for this night and every day.

The Leeds group decided to fix a date for a march which they published in WIRES, the National Women’s Liberation Newsletter. They also sent letters to women’s centres and publications calling for support. The idea caught on.

In November 1977 there were actions by feminists in Leeds, London, Lancaster, Bristol, York, Newcastle, Brighton and Manchester.

The first Reclaim the night action in London in 1977 focussed on images and spaces that objectified women, like sex-shops and adverts. For many in the women’s liberation movement, reclaiming the public space not only meant reclaiming it from male violence, but also from the constant objectification many women experienced: “it was the clarity of revolutionary feminist analysis on pornography that influenced the march in London, ensuring it went round Soho and protested about pornography.” Those marching in London’s 1977 Reclaim the Night stuck stickers on sex-shop windows stating ‘THIS DEGRADES WOMEN, THIS EXPLOITS WOMEN’ alongside chanting: Yes means yes No means no However we dress Wherever we go.”

Participants described the action in London:

“The first Reclaim the Nights were more spontaneous, anarchic, smaller, less safe – And for those of us who were on them, no orderly march could ever rnake us feel so high, so strong. In London, we were eerie, whooping, and and humming menacingly – we rushed at policemen and strip joint owners, making them back off — we ran where we wanted…”

This is the best high-flying demo I’ve EVER been on! Hundreds of women wailing and dancing through the streets of Soho. “Sexist crap, sexist crap, SEXIST CRAP!” startling bystanders.

The manager of The Pussy Parlour tight-jawed, face flesh quivering as he scrapes stickers o” his windows. “What does this mean?” he hisses at me as I take his picture. “Can’t you read?” 1 say. THIS DEGRADES WOMEN, THIS EXPLOITS WOMEN.

One woman is running ahead squirting windows with water, followed by others slapping stickers on with such exuberant violence you think the windows must break and hope they will.

A man steps out of fluorescent lit doorway and gets his chest squirted then slapped with a sticker

Not like any other march. No stewards, cowed by police, cajoling people to keep the ranks. No. We are all over. Humming, buzzing, shouting. A real woman’s march – a rampage. Surging, droning, chanting. Women Fight Rape.
Yes means yes
No means no
However we dress
Wherever we go.

Flame-lit faces of people who have found the spirit to fight a mammoth war. One woman stops another to get a light for her
torch. A young black man comes over, blows out the torch and turns to run off to his smirking mates.

She belts him over the back with it and it re-ignites, burning a hole in his jacket. Women’s laughter in the torchlight. Men looking at the jacket under the streetlight.

It is a measure of how confident men feel of their unconditional right to abuse women that so many of them step into our group and smugly insult individual women. Sometimes other women rally round in defence and the men wander off.

One delightful woman has a bag of maggots for sprinkling on the offending males.

It is so fluid this “march” – very fast at times, running around at, over cars, stopping traffic. I think police are not used to running. They come along behind ripping down stickers, muttered comfortingly into radios – little gestures, by stiff spectators.

Around the event, before and after, there are objections: that it should’ve been held locally, not in Soho; that it might be confused with a Mary Whitehouse-type campaign; an ex-prostitute told me she didn’t agree with it because she thought it would be bad for the business of the prostitutes in Soho. I’m sure there were more that I didn’t hear. But this event isn’t the be-all and the end-all, the definitive Perfect demonstration. It should be a starting point, an inspiration, a learning experience, a step forward. It does not preclude other actions. Women’s liberation is about supporting other women. Let’s do it.

Whatever politicking went on to do with the organisation of it (and I wasn’t in on it) it was a blow-out to be there. It was wild. There. There, where normally we walk silently, stewing inside, keep­ exhilarating just to MOVE, expressing our disgust to ourselves. It was our feelings, instead of the eyes-down-look-like-you’re-going-somewhere walk, the woman alone walk. We ran and jumped, and argued and stretched ourselves.

At the end we meet in Leicester Square. And all the piggy men. I sense a sporting violence from them.

“Wot you doin’ ‘ere? You ain’t even ugly.” (This man got bopped in the face.)
“I should come here to pick up my chicks.” (A denim-clad slickster.) Horrible, slimy men.

May the day come when sex shopowners and stripclub owners can’t buy insurance, are af­raid to do business for fear of their plate glass being smashed, for fear of their plushy interiors being messed up, for fear of their own crummy lives. I saw fear in the eyes of those traffickers. They are afraid of our rage. They should be.”

A year later, there was another Reclaim the Night in London, held on 31st October.

This time, a police attack on the demo in Soho ended with 16 women arrested.

Halloween had been chosen partly as 31/10 had been called as an international day against violence against women., but also in celebration of the idea of witches as symbol of women’s power. Women dressed as witches.

The walk was peaceful and happy until large numbers of police arrived, truncheons drawn, and began hitting out wildly, causing many severe injuries. They also arrested 16 women, beating up not only demonstrators but at least one ‘bystander’.

Anny Brackx commented on the event in women’s liberation magazine Spare Rib and made some suggestions about future actions:

“Hallowe’en was Reclaim the Night International. In Edinburgh for “stance women ‘Reclaimed the Meadows’ — notorious for sexual assault. Dressed as witches they swarmed across the park and down to the city centre, singing and shouting. But in London the march was disastrous.

The words women’s liberation movement seem to make a little red light flash these days at Scotland Yard. Every so often they must mark out an area as subversive, which they then keep an eye on and try to wear down by frightening people into passivity. But may be the police raid on a London National Abortion Campaign benefit is not connected with the police brutality a few days later against women trying to reclaim the night from male domination and violence. I shouldn’t be surprised though if Astrid Proll’s feminism had set them sniffing around.”

A poem about the action and arrests, which also appeared in Spare Rib:

Out in the open
31 October 1978

This is Halloween
And we stroll in fancy dress and masks and make up
to reclaim the night for women
to walk when we like where we like
without being afraid
till uniformed arms reach out
at random without warning
with relish on their boyish faces
under their protective helmets
and I see police truncheons making contact
with our bodies and our heads:
down up down up down up
as blood careens down women’s cheeks
along the soho street of strip clubs and porn shops

tonight on brewer street
they do not seize me or my friend
we must seem like passersby
not young enough to conform to the troublemaker image:
I am after all of grandmother age
And they are of course mothers’ sons
who drag us to the ground and kick us
hold us by the throat
twist our arms behind our backs
pull us by the hair
and carry one of us spread-eagled and without her shirt:
they do not let us cover her with her coat
but they round us up at random
into their waiting vans

suddenly I am reminded of all I have heard
from survivors in my family
of gestapo roundups of scapegoats and dissenters
on the continent four decades past
and I am sick with fear and foreboding

Later on in the central police station
I see hatred of us
on older police officers’ faces
before they fingerprint us illegally
before they refuse telephone calls to solicitors illegally
before they slap across the face
some of the sixteen arrested women
and lock them in the cells till four o’clock in the morning

seven hours later in the court’s waiting room
while the sixteen are being charged with varying offences
I see some of the same law men from the evening before
arms crossed soft spoken amused patient
watching
us

Down up down up down up
I do not forget truncheons moving into flesh
our flesh
because I know this launches the backlash
we have felt was imminent
the more we step out of our stereotypes –
this displays patriarchal hatred of us
out in the open
at last

now that the precedent has been set
for open warfare on women –
first with the suffragettes and now with us –
the next move is ours
or the final solution will be theirs:
we are an endangered species
who walk to reclaim the night
astra 19.11.78

The police attack the 1978 Reclaim the Night march

The police attack spurred some thinking about the success and achievements of the Reclaim the Night actions, on Anny Brackx’s part:

What happened made me think about our politics and practice, and specifically the way we confront male violence, with or without blue helmets. I started reading some early feminist writings: Carol Hanisch’s ‘Critique of the Miss America Protest’ (Nov.’68) was especially useful but also depressing. It seems we haven’t learnt much in ten years,

Here are some Questions all this threw up for me, which some of us are beginning to discuss:

  • We definitely need better pre-action planning. The problem is how to be organised, without falling into the rigid party discipline trap, which stifles individual imagination and diminishes personal responsi­bility. Is it ever worth getting arrested? What happens if we get split up? How do we deal with each other’s reactions to violence?
  • What was inspiring about Reclaim the Night —for women watching as well as those taking part—was that our presence itself was a political act — women making the night safe by their togetherness. Before, we had got away with acting spontaneously — we took everyone by surprise.
    This time we didn’t, and we won’t next time if we don’t sit down and do some thinking about male violence: how we can subvert, counter or avoid it.
  • A sexshop centre is an obvious target as a symbol of the exploita­tion of women. But what about reclaiming our local areas for women?
  • We need to clarify whether our actions are designed to reach as many women as possible, or whether they are mainly confronta­tions with male power. Sometimes they cancel each other out; we might have to choose or separate them out —mass propaganda events, and zap-guerilla actions.
  • We shouldn’t get stuck in a rut (Reclaim the Night can become a ritual too). We must continue to devise different ways of operating as our feminist consciousness grows and changes. There’s a lot we can learn from the non­ violent tactics of the ’60s, and from the suffragettes …. There a real so many ways of exposing rapists and consumers of porno­graphy. They often operate in
    the dark, and that’s no accident. Let’s expose them: photograph them going into pornshops, identify rapists, paint the word over their houses and workplaces.”


The first six of the cases of the sixteen arrested women in the 1978 Reclaim the Night resulted in their acquittals.

In Marylebone Magistrates Court, Ethel Findlay, charged with obstructing the police, produced a photograph of a policeman hitting her while she was on the ground. This, and her verbal evidence, caused Magistrate, Sir Ivor Rigby, to say that PC Donald had “not only given untrue evidence but had deliberately lied.”

Jean Fraser, Andrea Webb and Jane grote – acquitted

When Jean Fraser was being tried, it was pointed out that one police officer. Sergeant Lamb, had come to court wearing a male chauvinist pig tie. Later the defence barrister. Marguerite Russell, asked to see his notebook and forced him to admit crossing out a sentence in which he des­cribed hitting women over the head. The magistrate stopped the case, saying he had heard enough
—and that the police evidence was inadequate. He did the same when finding Andrea Webb and Jane Grote not guilty.

Marian Laurens was acquitted on two charges of assaulting police. In evidence, a policeman said she had called him a ‘cunt’. Her barrister explained that no feminist would use this word as an insult, and the magistrate took the point. “Since the demonstra­tion was protesting against exploi­tation of the female body I find it unbelievable that she should have used this epithet.”

Mary O’Brien, who took off her jumper in a personal protest against the pornography on sale, was cleared of a charge of insult­ing behaviour when it was pointed out that there was no ‘public’ around to insult. She was fined a nominal £5 for assaulting a policeman, having offered no defence.

A few weeks later, more cases were heard by three different magistrates.

The threatening behaviour charge against Barbara Hughes was dropped, but she was found guilty of obstruction and fined £25, although the police produced no corroborative evidence. The court heard how Barbara was carried by police, spread-eagled, naked to the waist — her clothes having been torn off her. Two women told how they’d twice tried to cover her up but each time a policeman shook her violently so that her coat fell off. Judith Skinner was also fined £25 when found guilty of insult­ing language and behaviour. Again, no corroborative evidence, and the prosecution counsel refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the photographs shown or to agree to the sequence of events established and accepted in previous cases. The magistrate, Christopher Besley, assumed that women had attacked the police. although no evidence of this was produced by the prosecution.

He ruled out of order any attempt to give evidence of the severe injuries inflicted on the women, and also admitted he was “as deaf as a post”.

The charge of threatening behaviour against Em Lawless was thrown out of court as the magis­trate “could find no evidence of intent”.

The prosecution had to withdraw the case against Ann Taubman after the arresting officer discovered she had left her notebook at home in Orpington! Fortunate really as she claimed to have arrested Ms Taubman at 9.55pm in Brewer St when the procession did not leave Leicester Square until after 10pm. Jill Posener was found guilty of assaulting a policeman and fined £50 despite the extreme vagueness of the policeman as to the details of the alleged assault. As the defence pointed out, he replied “I don’t know” at least 15 times during cross-examination. Val Cook, Sarah Mosedale and Sally Collings were all found guilty of obstructing the highway and given a year’s conditional discharge. Two of them had to pay £50 court costs.

By putting each case before a different magistrate, the trials resulted in an immense discrepancy in what each has allowed in court and a very different set of verdicts from the first cases in front of Ivo Rigby. Individual police­men, having given evidence in one case, then went on to contradict themselves in another; their previous evidence was ruled admissible in the later case. An application that all these cases be heard by one magistrate was refused at the beginning.

Police evidence through­out was uncorroborated and bore little resemblance to the situations described by each of the women and witnesses, yet most of the magistrates chose to believe the police.

The November arrests were followed by another Reclaim the night through Soho on January 20th 1979:

“Over 2000 women walked through Soho on January 20, ‘Reclaiming the Night’ there for the fourth time. With torches and who’d never done it before found this national event jubilant and energising; and we showed that — with numbers and fairly tight organisation — we could march without being attacked by the police…”

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London Reclaim the Night marches went on throughout the 1980s, but tapered off in the 1990s… However, Reclaim the Night was revived in London in 2004, and continued into the present.

Looks like they’re needed more than ever.

Today in London riotous history, 1878: crowd tear down enclosure fences, Eelbrook Common, Fulham

Eelbrook (variously also spelt as Hillebrook, Hellbrook, etc) Common in Fulham was open marshy land for centuries, Fulham people grazed animals there. The Common had seen the usual disputes over use associated with common land: in 1615 there were strictures issued against people grazing animals here outside of the permitted times of year. Attempts to ‘improve’ the Common had usually failed; in 1656, Parliamentary General Edmund Harvey, having bought the manor when the Bishops were driven out during the Commonwealth, made an ‘abortive attempt’ to enclose it (agreeing to pay 50 shillings a year for it), which collapsed when he was jailed after the restoration of the monarchy. Some slices were sold off and enclosed in the 18th century: John Powell bought a chunk for £100 in 1773.

By the 19th century it had been reduced to 13 acres, and was a playground for poor kids by day and said to be a haunt for prostitutes and their clients by night. Respectable folk allegedly kept away.

In 1878 the Lords of the manor, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, planned to enclose it. Already that year a section on the north side Common had been detached by the Metropolitan Railway Company, for the laying of a new line; so folk were angry.

At a meeting of the Fulham District Board of Works, one Dr. Pickersgill proposed a notion calling upon the Vestry surveyor to pull down the fence; but after a long debate the matter was adjourned to the next meeting of the Board on the 20th March.

As it turned out, in the meantime, local inhabitants took the matter into their own hands…

A public held meeting at nearby Beaufort House (presided over by, amongst others, Lord Ranelagh, Lieutenant-General MacMurdo and the Liberal-Radical politician Sir Charles Dilke) got rowdy and a section of the crowd, including women and children, marched to the Common and burned the fences: This committee had been content to pass a motion against the recent enclosure, asserting that there was ‘was ample evidence that it had been used as common land for centuries’. “‘ However many of the inhabitants were unwilling to leave the matter at passing resolutions.

On leaving the meeting ‘a large number of parishioners’ made their way to the common where they broke down the fence, which ran for some 1,200 feet.

‘When the meeting broke up, almost everybody seemed to be going the same way. One or two cries of “Down with the fence” were raised, but there was no response, yet it seemed strange that so many should be going in the direction of Eel Brook Common… Suddenly there was a sharp crack, which announced the work of demolition had begun. Then there was a responsive cheer, and a rush forward.

Men, Women and children were engaged in the work of breaking down the fences and piling the wood up into large bonfires. Soon half a dozen fires were blazing and drawing comments from the crowd. ‘Some told how for years they had daily walked along the footpath, [on the common] others speculated with quiet satisfaction on the cost of the fence, variously estimated at from £50 to £100’. The police on arriving tried to capture one of the demonstrators but stepped back when it appeared the crowd “were prepared to riot”.

After the destruction of the fences, the alleged leaders were feted by the crowd, under the eyes of the police. A contemporary newspaper account in the English Labourer’s Chronicle of March 23rd, 1878 reported:

” A gentlemanly dressed young man took round his hat for beer money for the active destroyers of the fence, even asking the policemen themselves for a contribution.”

The Commissioners gave up on their plan to enclose the Common. Which remains open space today, free for all to access.

The action at Eel Brook Common has to be seen in the context: the 1860s and 1870s saw a series of protests and riots against enclosures of open space across the London area, including at Epping Forest, Peckham Rye, Wandsworth Common, Plumstead Common, Wanstead Flats, Chiselhurst Common… Most of these would end in victorious preservation of rights of access to the space in question.

Eel Brook Common was for a number of years a popular socialist speaking spot: for example, the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League held open-air public meetings here in the 1880s. In September 1917, an anti-war meeting was held here; Tom Cox (later a local councillor) urged the opening of peace negotiations with Germany; he was shouted down by a hostile crowd.

Sources: The Times, 15th March 1878.

English Labourer’s Chronicle, March 23rd, 1878

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Not every battle against enclosure was won – far from it. The victorious struggle over Eelbrook Common was echoed a few years later, when disputes arose over buildings on Town Meadows, Fulham, between the river and modern Town Mead Road. Also known as Fulham Marsh, Fulham Meadows, the 77 acres of land here, lying between from the Creek and Broomhouse Dock was traditionally lammas land. Locals had grazing rights for livestock starting every year on Lammas Day (Aug 1st) for 6 months.

In 1888, some meadows fronting Carnwath Road were enclosed by residents to be sold off for building. Other local residents protested they had grazing rights and broke down the fences. Fulham Vestry investigated the issue, confirmed the lammas rights had existed since 1448 at least, and asked the London County Council to sponsor a bill to either convert the meadows into an open space or buy land elsewhere for one. This fell through, however. The issue grew fractious and divided the area; a Fulham Vestry Reform Association arose, for whom the common land issue was one of a number of beefs with the Vestry, along with other issues like the (presumably corrupt) system of issuing works contracts, and local charities… Eventually this group stood for election and merged with others into local Progressives on the Metropolitan Borough Council).

In December 1890, the Chair of Fulham Vestry’s Lammas Rights Committee went to the Town Meadows, accompanied by several workmen, cops and horses. They entered the enclosures and grazed a horse on all the disputed land – staking a claim over the lammas rights. The Vestry was then sued by one owner for criminal damage to fences. This claim ended up in the High Court, and on 22 Feb 1893, the Court ruled for the owner; Fulham folk lost their common rights. The land was built over.

Spotlight on London’s historical anarchist spaces: Centro Iberico

Centro Ibérico was an important meeting space and community centre, run by anarchists in London through the 1970s and early 1980s. It became a focal point for an international class struggle based anarchist movement, and an organising centre for supporting anarchist and other political prisoners through the Anarchist Black Cross.

The origins of the Centro as an anarchist space can be traced to a meeting between Miguel Garcia Garcia and Stuart Christie in a Spanish prison…

“My first meeting with Miguel García García took place in the mid-1960s in la primera galleria of Madrid’s Carabanchel Prison. He was in transit to another penitentiary and was in what was known as ‘periodo’ – a fortnight of sanitary isolation, ostensibly to prevent or limit the spread of disease. I was the practice nurse (practicante) for the 7th Gallery, a position that gave me the run of most of the prison and allowed me to liaise with comrades in different wings, especially
with isolated transit prisoners or prisoners in solitary confinement.
Miguel passed through Carabanchel on a number of occasions over the years, going backwards and forwards between penitentiaries and Yeserias, Spain’s main prison hospital in Madrid.

Miguel and I struck up a close relationship, one that was to endure for a decade and a half until his death in 1981. What particularly impressed me about him on our first meeting was his undoubted strength of character — forged by his experiences in the Resistance as an urban
guerrilla and ‘falsificador’, and in Franco’s prisons — and the extraordinary quality of his spoken English, a language he had acquired entirely from English-speaking prisoners. No other political prisoners I came across during my three years imprisonment in Franco’s jails had
Miguel’s mastery of language, or his skills as a communicator. Our conversations centred on how to expose the repressive nature of the Francoist regime and raise the profile of Franco’s political prisoners in the international media, something I was in a position to do given my
relatively privileged position as a foreign political prisoner and the access I had to the outside world through my by then extensive network of friendly functionaries in Carabanchel itself.
In 1967, following receipt of a personal pardon from Franco, I was released from prison and, on my return to Great Britain, I became involved with the resuscitated Anarchist Black Cross, an anarchist prisoners’ aid organisation. The focus of our activities was international, but Franco’s prisoners were, naturally, because of my history and the continuing and intensifying repression in Spain, top of our agenda. The case of Miguel Garcia Garcia, one of the Anarchist Black
Cross’s most prominent correspondents, was one that we regularly pursued with the international press and through diplomatic channels.

Released in 1969, after serving twenty years of a thirty-year sentence (commuted from death), Miguel came to live with me in London. It took him a little time to acclimatise to the profound social and technological changes that had taken place in the world since his arrest as a young man in the Barcelona of 1949, changes that were even more profound in the ‘tolerant’ and ‘permissive’ London society of 1969. In fact, so great was the trauma that he literally was unable to speak for some months. The shock of his release had triggered a paralysis in some
of the muscles in his throat, and, through Octavio Alberola, then living under effective house arrest in Liege, we arranged for him to see a consultant in Belgium about his condition.

The time with Octavio was well-spent and brought him up-to-date with what was happening within the European movement and the role of the International Revolutionary Solidarity Movement, which operated under the banner of the Grupo Primero de Mayo, a continuation of the clandestine anarchist Defensa Interior (DI), which had been tasked with the assassination of Franco.
The First of May Group had recently emerged from the sabotaged (by Germinal Esgleas and Vicente Llansola) ruins of Defensa Interior (DI) as an international, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist revolutionary organisation, structured to carry out spectacular direct actions. It
took its name from the first operation carried out on 1 May 1966 when members of the group kidnapped the ecclesiastic adviser to the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican, Monsignor Marcos Ussia. Soon the group began taking in a much broader area of attack targeting, in particular, the US and European governments for their complicity in the imperialist war in Vietnam.

Back in London, mainly with the moral and financial support of comrade Albert Meltzer, my co-editor of Black Flag and the driving force behind the revived Anarchist Black Cross (ABC), Miguel entered into a dynamic new phase of his life as the International Secretary of the ABC and a pivotal figure in the libertarian resistance to the Franco regime. With Albert he embarked on lengthy speaking tours of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, West and East Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark and Italy, talking to a new generation of radicalised young Europeans about anarchism, international solidarity and, of course, the need to confront tyranny with practical cooperation and direct action.

It could be said that the result of one of Miguel’s early talks — in a crowded meeting room at the offices of Freedom Press in London’s Whitechapel High Street in February 1970, shortly after his arrival in Britain — was to give rise to the so-called Angry Brigade, Britain’s first urban guerrilla group. Miguel’s voice was still weak so I had to do much of the talking for him, but as the evening wore on and the story of his adventures and deprivations at the hands of the Francoist authorities unfolded, that and the fact that his revolutionary spirit and determination remained clearly undiminished, it was clear he had made a deep emotional impression on the fifty or so young people in the audience. Here, in front of them, in person, was someone who had been in direct confrontation with a fascist state, who had been totally involved in resistance struggles, and who had paid a heavy penalty. Nor was it a purely historical struggle. Franco remained in power and a new internationally coordinated anarchist action group, the First of May Group, was carrying on that struggle.

At Freedom Press that February night in 1970, the significance, the importance of the First of May Group, and the tradition it — and Miguel — sprang from, was not lost on the people crammed into the small room to hear Miguel Garcia’s story. Among those present were some of the core activists later convicted in the historic ‘Angry Brigade’ trial: John Barker, Hilary Creek, Jim Greenfield and Anna Mendelson.

Miguel’s flat in Upper Tollington Park, near North London’s Finsbury Park, soon drew visiting anarchists from all over the world. It also began to attract police attention once Miguel launched (with Albert’s help) the Centro Ibérico and International Libertarian Centre in London…”
(Remembering Miguel Garcia by Stuart Christie)

Around the time Miguel Garcia came to London, a group of Spanish Communists, who had been running a meeting place in a parish church hall in Holborn, styling it the Centro Ibérico, moved out to bigger premises and changed the name (According to Luis Monferrer Catalán the space they set up was the Centro Machado in 1968 in Notting Hill Gate).

Miguel started a new Centro Ibérico from the church hall, the Parish Hall of Holy Trinity, Kingsway (directly opposite Holborn station) and also launched an International Libertarian Centre, “a cosmopolitan venue that became a magnet for anarchists everywhere; it
had been many years since there was such a thing as an international anarchist club in London, and its success was entirely due to Miguel’s powerful personality… it was an added bonus that we retained the old connections with visiting Spanish workers that the CP had carefully built up…” (Stuart)

“I warned him about the problems of serving drink there, pointing out the acting minister was Dr Donald Soper, famously an advocate of total abstention. He belonged to the neighbouring Methodist centre and was standing in for the Anglican vicar, who had the usual small
congregation. Miguel assured me, “I know priests. You don’t have to tell me, a Spaniard, about these holy fathers, as they call themselves. I will offer him a glass of wine and he will agree to everything”.
Fortunately Dr Soper never came to the hall while we were there, possibly having other things to do on a Sunday, so this interesting theory was never tested.
The last of Spain’s exiled confederal families gathered there. They had made themselves quite an interesting community in London, keeping together like an extended family. The majority had settled around Portobello Road, Notting Hill, where the original CNT-MLE offices had been, though with the growth of families they extended to the suburbs.
The “Centro” was able to put them in touch with a new generation arising in Spain and with Resistance activists, but the ghost of the years of ossified bureaucracy and passivism had not finally been laid, here or elsewhere.
The hall became popular with the Spanish community generally, resident and visiting, and Miguel made them so much at home that we had to have two halls, one Spanish-speaking and the other a babble of tongues. The Spanish accepted the fact that it was an anarchist centre, even those who had grown up under Franco who tried to obliterate the memory of anarchism and the Basque and Catalan tongues. It would have made [Franco] sick to hear anarchism expounded not only in English and German, which he wouldn’t have minded on the grounds they deserved it for permitting heresy, but in Castilian, Catalan, Basque and even Galician, the
language of his native province which, incidentally, he hated most of all.”

Visiting speakers included Jose Peirats, the historian of Spanish anarchism, author of The CNT in the Spanish Revolution who gave a lecture in June 1971 in the parish hall to 200 people: “The libertarian [movement] was well represented (some 150 or so of those present) ranging from exiles of thirty years – and their children and grandchildren – to immigrant workers and students, visitors on a temporary basis and new exiles. The rest of the 200 included some communist critics.”
(Black Flag, v.2, n.6, June 1971)

“Before long we were having separate meetings for gallego (Galician) speakers. When it was proposed, I remember telling them in my usual rambling way about Lloyd George at the Versailles conference who had read, or glanced at, a scientific article asserting the Galicians
were the same people as the Welsh. He opposed the retaining of Galicia by Austria saying he objected to “his Welsh people” being under the domination of “Huns” not realising Galicia in Spain was not Galicia in Austria/Poland. An American woman who happened to be present told me afterwards that her parents had fled from Roznow (in the other Galicia) and Lloyd George’s mistake ruined thousands of lives when Poland took over from Austria, which made the anecdote less amusing.
Another casual visitor wanted to know more about the Angry Brigade, almost as soon as that expression was heard. It was hard to answer his questions, even if I hadn’t suspected he was a police agent. Like many of an authoritarian frame of mind, he thought it a centrally directed
conspiracy, and that I was a sort of PRO to its Central Committee. He actually used terms like “political wing of your armed struggle”. Miguel said to me in Spanish, “Ask yourself. Who would want to know so much?”
The visitor reddened and I suppose he understood. Would a spy have blushed? But he never commented. It didn’t matter because all I knew and had to say was already expressed
in the pages of Black Flag, and occasionally picked up by the mainstream press. From the tenor of his questions the inquisitive visitor sounded more to me like an emissary from the IRA or Sinn Fein trying to pick up allies — the “troubles” were just re-re-starting. When he did refer to Ireland he referred to the danger of fascism, and the Nazi-clerico-fascist groupings in what he called the Free State (an expression only used by diehard Republicans or diehard Tories, neither of whom recognised the legitimacy of the Republic). According to him, only our co-operation with nationalism in the North could prevent the spread of fascist nationalism. I didn’t agree with Miguel that we were dealing with a police spy or agent-provocateur but the political
argument sounded dodgy.
Another not particularly welcome guest was a young German who came just as I arrived, from working late on Sunday, to help with the sweeping-up after the meeting and who, between discarding his cigarette ends on the floor while I was doing it, raved at me for my alleged support of the Baader-Meinhof ‘Gang’ of which he knew only the reported press garbage.
At first patiently (for me anyway) I told him he failed to understand the clash between anarchists and Leninists that was going on in Germany.
(“But I am a German, of course I know what is happening in my time” — “I bet your father never said that ” — “Ah, you are a racialist”). Somewhat hot and impatient with clearing up his dog-ends after a day’s work and answering tired old pacifist cliches I finally shouted “Piss off” and
chased him out. Ted Kavanagh commented drily that it was a very witty reply and restored my good humour, but the outraged student went away to denounce me in a pacifist paper as a “middle-aged, middle-class man who only believes in violence”. To be considered “middle-class” by an earnest student when you’re pushing a broom after him would excuse a
belief in violence, even if it left one or two more besides.
On the other hand there were so many wonderful people who came along that it would be impossible to try to mention them all. I felt proud to have gained so much respect and affection which more than compensated for the hatred I seemed to generate from those outside of the movement and class for which we fought.
Amongst the activists were some Irish Anarchists trying to build up a class struggle movement in Ireland and get away from the old routine of workers in the North fighting each other for the slums and routine jobs, and in the South yielding to apathy. They did great work for the Black
Cross for prisoners abroad, but soon after brought down on their heads the full vindictiveness of the Republic for daring to try to break the mould of Irish politics.” (Albert Meltzer, I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels)

The Anarchist Black Cross had been set up in London in the late 1960s, by Stuart and Albert, to offer practical support for the many anarchist comrades who had been arrested in Spain, resisting the Franco regime; usually charged with “banditry and terrorism”. Groups like Amnesty International would not support these activists as they were engaged in active ‘violent’ class struggle, and Amnesty’s policy was, and generally remains, to decline to defend those accused of crimes of violence, whether they committed them or not. This meant they defended those innocent of fighting the State and only those victimised for their innocuous beliefs were helped. This included editors and publishers, scientists and philosophers, but never workers. The
Communist Party raised large amounts for their own members through various front organisations but the resistance, certainly in Spain, was out in the cold.
The Black Cross publicised the cases of Spanish anarchist prisoners, and supported them and their families financially; later, its activities spread around the world, and ABC groups sprang up all over the place over the next 40 years… It continues today.

In July 1972, Black Flag reported “Over the last four weekends we have met comrades from France, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Canada, U.S.A., Jamaica, Australia, South Africa and even some from London… We are doing our best to transform the Centro Iberico meetings into an international centre which will have its own premises… also a place where, separately, Spanish immigrant workers can meet.”

Haverstock Hill

Albert Meltzer, striking a pose in the Centro 1976.

In June 1973, the above desire for their own premises was made concrete: the Centro Ibérico moved to a large basement, at 83a Haverstock Hill, near Chalk Farm, Camden. To this important space came many extraordinary people, including survivors from innumerable political upheavals.

“… The printing press [on which Black Flag and other anarchist material was printed] was used by Ted Kavanagh and Anna Blume in a huge basement at Haverstock Hill, [after the demise of the Wooden Shoe bookshop], which otherwise was the rehearsal room of a pop group. The
group were on a weekly rent from the bookmaker’s shop above, replacing a religious youth group (from a neighbouring church or synagogue, I do not know which). Their leader/parson/rabbi or whoever was concerned had leased it from the shop above when it was a greengrocer’s and the basement was virtually uninhabitable. They repaired it well but when the shop changed hands to become a bookmaker’s the guru opposed both change
of user and the betting licence. As Mammon won, they either went or were evicted and the pop group took over. After a year or so it found itself no longer in harmony with the scene and Ted was left on his own.
Without notifying the landlord of change of plan and letting him think it was still the same pop group (he never appeared), we made it into the new International Libertarian Centre/Centro Ibérico, an anarchist club to which came wonderful young people from all over the world as well as survivors from innumerable political upheavals….” (Albert Meltzer)

Social gatherings were held on Saturdays and Sundays. Veteran anarchist insurrectionary, artist and performer John Olday launched a regular cabaret night: “John Olday’s Anarchist Cabaret opened with a swing at the International Libertarian Centre with three performers putting over a strong political cabaret act – with strong overtones of Berlin of the twenties – supported by others; with added support in the next cabaret a fortnight later (they are taking place alternate Saturdays). Still in its early stages and bearing marks of improvisation, the political comment in song is making its impact and despite some weaknesses may develop into the nucleus of what we hope will be Anarchist Theatre…” (Black Flag v.3, n.9 [March] 1974)

Emilienne Morin and her daughter Colette Durruti, 1973.

Visitors included the Spanish militant and historian José Peirats, and Emilienne Durruti, partner of Buenaventura Durruti. Another regular at the Centro Ibérico was ETA leader Pedro Ignacio Pérez Beotegui, also known as ‘Wilson’, who was involved in the planning of the December 1973 assassination of Franco’s protégé and deputy, prime Minister Carrero Blanco.

“When the centre had established contacts in Spain, one of the most pressing demands upon it was for contraceptive fitting or abortion. It was illegal in Spain, and pregnancy for unmarried girls was a disaster. As soon as the sexually liberated got in touch with an organisation
fighting oppression, that was the first thing they asked of it. We had to accede to the demands of a steady trickle of young women who turned up at the door, with the fee for an operation and the return fare, nothing more. They never realised they had also to pay a doctor’s
fee, nor had they reckoned on the extra few days’ stay required. It became a standard requirement for the Centre to find a room, and raise the extra fee, and it was embarrassing for me that I always needed to take them by car and arrange matters with the clinic. The receptionist never said anything, but I wonder what she thought seeing me coming in
week after week with a different senorita.
At one time Miguel approached a socialist feminist group to see if they would co-operate, as they had many resources we lacked, as well as access to funding. They were most hostile. They claimed we were encouraging private medicine. I do not know if they expected the young
women to wait until Spain had a National Health Service, defiant of the Catholic Church into the bargain, but it would have taken a lot more than nine months, and the penalties they faced for motherhood were severe.”

Miguel Garcia was the heart of Centro Ibérico; according to Stuart Christie the Haverstock Hill space was “entirely [Miguel’s] creation and he spent his whole time nurturing it, cutting himself off from any paid employment, even though he was well past what should have been retiring age anyway.
Through Albert, however, he did extract a small pension from the British government.”

Albert Meltzer chatting in the Centro, 1975.

[Miguel] had a way of making you think that. He turned the basement into an internationally
known place to go if you needed help in London; somewhere to find a welcome, food, a bed for the night, or a place to squat. He also brought people together from all over the world, becoming the birthplace for many affinity groups that were active in Central and South America, and Europe.
In 1970-71 Albert was working in Fleet Street as a telephone reporter/copy-taker for The Daily Sketch, a right-wing British national tabloid newspaper, and after much discussion and argument — and believe me Miguel could be extremely argumentative and pugnacious — Albert finally convinced Miguel to write his memoirs. And so it was that the typescript of what was to become Franco’s Prisoner was hammered out between Miguel and Albert and typed up in a disused back room of one of Britain’s foremost Conservative populist newspapers — and paid for on the time of Associated Newspapers.

Miguel Garcia chatting in the kitchen at the Centro, 1975. He wore that pyjama jacket in the style of a housecoat or smoking jacket!

The book, Franco’s Prisoner, was published in 1972 by the Rupert Hart-Davis publishing house, [which had originally commissioned Stuart’s book The Christie File, but reneged on the contract at the last moment because of the allegedly contentious nature of the material.]
As well as providing wide-ranging advice from abortion to legal aid to squatting, Miguel played a key role in many of the international defence campaigns run by the International Anarchist Black Cross at the time, including those of Julian Millan Hernandez and Salvador Puig Antich in Spain, and Noel and Marie Murray, two members of the Dublin Anarchist Group sentenced to death in Ireland for their alleged part in killing an off-duty Garda officer during a bank robbery in Dublin, in 1975.

Salvador Puig Antich had been a regular visitor who accompanied Albert and Miguel on some of their speaking tours around Britain. Returning to France in August 1973 to take part in a conference of young activists to set up the anarchist defence group known as the MIL (Movimiento Ibérico de Liberación), Salvador Puig Antich was involved a series of
spectacular bank expropriations across Catalonia and Southern France. In September 1973, however, Puig Antich walked into a police ambush in Barcelona’s Calle Gerona in which he was wounded and a Francoist policeman was shot dead. Puig Antich, 25, was garrotted in Barcelona’s Modelo prison on 2 March 1974.

After the military coup in Argentina on 24 March 1976, Miguel persuaded a lot of people to ‘lose’ their passports so that comrades fleeing to escape the Junta could adopt a temporary identity change. In June 1976 he installed a printing press in the basement at Upper Tollington Park, on which he printed a number of anarchist books in Spanish, including Anarquismo y Lucha de Clases (the Spanish translation of Floodgates of Anarchy, written by Albert Meltzer and myself) that he distributed in Spain. As well as printing identity documents, he also got together a group of young Spanish comrades in London to produce their own anarchist paper Colectivo Anarquista.”

In the late 1970s Miguel returned to his native Barcelona where he fulfilled one of his life’s ambitions – to open his own bar. La Fragua, a former forge at No 15 Carrer de la Cadena in Barcelona’s Raval District… As with the Centro Ibérico, La Fragua became a Mecca for anarchists and libertarians from all over the world…

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Phil Ruff, who was centrally involved with Centro Ibérico, has sent us an account of the centre at Haverstock Hill:

The Centro

I first heard about “The Centro” – Centro Ibérico/International Libertarian Centre – when it first opened in June 1973, through an announcement in Black Flag. I was still living in Birmingham then, but was already in contact with Albert Meltzer (1920-1996) and Miguel Garcia Garcia (1908-1981), because the Birmingham Anarchist Group was very active in the campaign of solidarity with the new wave of anarchist resistance (MIL-GAC) in Catalonia. The Centro was really Miguel’s baby, but Albert paid all the bills and usually carried the can too!

Phil Ruff in the kitchen at the Centro, 1976 with a copy of Marcus Graham’s Man! (Cienfuegos Press, 1974).

The Centro occupied a large basement underneath a bookmaker’s shop at 83A Haverstock Hill, London NW3, half-way between Belsize Park and Chalk Farm tube stations. The front door was just round the corner in Steele’s Road. When you opened the front door there was a small room to the left, where John Olday (1905-1977) lived in bohemian squalor. To the right a steep flight of stairs dropped down to the basement premises. At the bottom was a large room used for meetings, film-shows and for a brief period John Olday’s “anarchist cabaret”. Parallel to the stairs, abutting the meeting room, was a smaller room which housed an offset printing press belonging to Ted Kavanagh, an Australian comrade (born in Melbourne, 1936), on which he printed Black Flag. Between the print room and the stairs was a short passage leading to a small kitchen, facing the meeting room. The Kitchen opened out on one side to a tiny courtyard and outside toilet. The wall opposite the courtyard was used to display anarchist papers and a few books. At the far end of the room was a low counter, behind which sat Miguel Garcia and a gas cooker, on which Miguel would whip up delicious paella. Miguel also dispensed red wine and cans of beer to customers, though never actually bothering to acquire a drinks licence.

As the name suggests, the Centro was a focus for visiting activists from Spain and Portugal, the older generation of CNT exiles in London who had taken part in the civil war, and a steady stream of women seeking abortions unavailable in Franco’s Spain and people needing a place to stay or wanting advice on squatting or finding jobs. Miguel helped unmeasurable people in this regard. The “International Libertarian Centre” bit of it covered everybody else; not just British anarchists but comrades from all over the world, becoming in the process the birthplace for many affinity groups that were active in Central and South America, and Europe.

My first visit to Haverstock Hill was not long after the Centro opened. It was a film night, showing a British film “Praise Marx and Pass the Ammunition” (Maurice Hatton, 1970), starring a pre-Sweeney John Thaw as a sex-mad Trotskyist struggling to come to terms with the May ’68 uprising in Paris. The place was quite crowded for that; a mixture English, French, Spanish, Argentinean, Italian, German and Danish comrades.  It wasn’t always like that though. After I moved to London in the summer of 1974 (aged 22), I accompanied Miguel on endless trips from Finsbury Park to Haverstock Hill, almost every night until it closed in September 1976, to open up the Centro so that someone would be there if anyone dropped in. Often it was just me and Miguel looking at the paint peel off the walls and having a drink, but if someone did drop by Miguel would immediately make them welcome, cook up a paella, and start weaving his magic. He was without doubt a great communicator and would have made a wonderful hostage negotiator. Everybody left the Centro feeling they were Miguel’s best friend, and ready to slay dragons.

Stuart Christie (1946-2020) and Brenda Christie (née Earl, 1949-2019)

The Centro also provided a venue for meetings of the Black Flag group, which when I joined it in 1974 consisted of Albert Meltzer, Miguel Garcia, John Olday, Ted Kavanagh, Lynn Hudelist, Iris Mills and Graham Rua (a New Zealander, Graham died on 14 January, 2020), plus Stuart and Brenda Christie, who were living then in a flat near Wimbledon Common under Brenda’s maiden name as “Mr and Mrs Earl”. Stuart’s acquittal in the “Angry Brigade” trial in December 1972 was bitterly resented by Special Branch, and they vowed to get him by fair means or foul.  Also, a failed attempt by Spanish and French police to implicate Stuart in the 1974 abduction of a Spanish banker in Paris by the GARI, in solidarity with anarchist prisoners in Spain, meant that a lot of police attention, as well as interest from several European security agencies, was focused on what went on in the Centro. Ted and Lynn took this as good reason to move to Australia and open a bookshop. And around May 1975 Stuart and Brenda also deemed it prudent to move out of London, opening a tea-shop in Yorkshire; followed not long afterwards by Iris Mills and Graham Rua, who moved up to Huddersfield. The Black Flag group in London was reduced to Albert, Miguel, John Olday and myself. John fell out with Miguel shortly afterwards and retreated upstairs to his tiny room to concentrate on his idiosyncratic bulletin, “Mit-Teilung”. From then on the bulk of the editorial work fell to Albert and myself; sending copy up to Stuart and Brenda (“Marigold”), who between them took care of the typesetting, layout and despatch.

One funny incident at the Centro, after Stuart and Brenda had departed to Yorkshire, involved Jaime Pozas de Villena (died, 14 Feb. 2017), a leading figure in the “ácratas” student revolt (1967-1969), First of May Group and CNT, who had been in prison with Miguel Garcia and Luis Edo.  I arrived to find him with his trousers down, in a distressed state, injecting himself in the bum with penicillin. He and several other young dudes had all unfortunately been struck down suddenly by a dose of the clap – contracted it was said from the same young lady! She was later exposed as an informant for the Spanish Embassy in London; one of the more unconventional means of targeting the Spanish resistance! Miguel was doing his best to supply wine and sympathy, but he obviously thought it was hilarious.

Other groups often rented the meeting room in the Centro. One was called Solidarity for Social Revolution (a split from Solidarity I think – someone with a better memory and more interest in leftist esoterica than me will know all about this). My only interest was that among the people who turned up to the meetings were two veterans of the Communist Party in the old Jewish East End, Joe Jacobs (author of Out of the Ghetto, 1978) and his pal Arnold Feldman, who invariably escaped to the kitchen to swap tall stories of bygone struggles with Miguel over a few glasses of wine. Another memorable character who often dropped in with Albert Meltzer was Joe Thomas, “Father of the Chapel” in Fleet Street and a copy-taker on The Guardian, who for years was the lone ranger of Council Communism in London. One afternoon Joe got into a long conversation with Albert and a vibrant French lady of a certain age about Spanish labour struggles. After the French woman eventually left to catch her train, Joe turned to Albert and remarked in awe that the lady seemed to know a lot about the Spanish anarchists. Albert erupted into fits of laughter – she should do, he said, her name is Emilienne Morin – she used to be married to Buenaventura Durruti!

Steele’s Road: Phil Ruff outside the almost historic front door to Centro Ibérico, April 2018.

The Centro was eventually forced to leave Haverstock Hill in September 1976 after the landlord, who owned the betting shop upstairs, wanted to turn the basement into a swish gambling club. I remember him coming down the stairs to conduct negotiations with Miguel, with a huge minder in tow, who looked like an extra from central casting for a remake of The Krays, whom he introduced politely as his “lawyer”! He received poetic justice in 1979, when the gambling club was raided by plain-clothed detectives of the anti-terrorist squad investigating the “Person Unknown” case. The bouncers on the door, thinking the cops were rival villains, turned the raid into a full-scale brawl; an interesting indication of how quickly police intelligence falls out of date. The anarchists were long gone!

Afterwards we moved briefly to a dreary church hall in North London before transferring to a classroom in a squatted former school at 421 Harrow Road – but it was never the same after leaving Haverstock Hill.

Miguel eventually moved back to Barcelona to open an anarchist bistro (La Fragua) in the historic Barrio Chino, but kept-on his flat in Finsbury Park as a refuge. He died of TB in a London hospital in December 1981 and was cremated in Muswell Hill.
Philip Ruff

Philip Ruff is the author of “A Towering Flame: The Life & Times of the Elusive Latvian Anarchist Peter the Painter” (Breviary Stuff Publications, 2019). Available from: https://www.breviarystuff.org.uk/philip-ruff-a-towering-flame/

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John Olday performing at his “anarchist cabaret”. Philip Ruff: “I have absolutely no idea how that grand piano ever got into the basement down the Centro’s steep stairs!”

Postscript: According to Albert Meltzer, “we lost the old Centre in Haverstock Hill… through the carelessness of John Olday. He returned to Germany from Australia, where he promoted gay cabaret of the German Twenties type, and found to his surprise that in his twenty years absence from the anarchist scene the Springer Press had made him famous. The opening of the German police files from Bismarck to Hitler, had encouraged academics to write about the German movement they had previously ignored. Olday was cast as the link between the old and the new on the basis of being the only German they knew, by reason of his copious if little known writing, who would fill the gap between the anti-Nazi resistance and the renaissance after the war.

He accordingly found entertainment work in Germany, even on the nonconformistic gay scene, utterly impossible and came to England. He had a small amount of cash which soon ran out (for some reason he could or would not take the pension or social security to which he had to be entitled) and contacted me to see if I could help. I put him up in a room of the Haverstock Hill club, explaining it was officially uninhabitable because of the rats in the cellar. When the landlord found out he was living there, because of his complaints to him about the rats, we all got evicted. The landlord was outraged to find we had been running a club, because of the profits he realised he was missing, and once we were out applied for a licence ostensibly in the name of what he thought was an “already running Spanish club”. As it was at the height of the “Persons Unknown” case it got raided a few weeks later by police looking for arms, surprised to find cigar-smoking punters playing baccarat instead.”

The Centro Iberico squatted school in West London

Other spaces became the focus for the small groups of class struggle anarchists around
Black Flag and ‘Anarchy’ magazine… A London anarchist centre was planned and eventually opened in Wapping, as the Autonomy Centre. Meanwhile, in Brixton, the former Sabaar
Bookshop was squatted again and re-launched as the anarchist 121 Bookshop.

Centro Ibérico itself continued to meet weekly for a while at the Community Centre, Archway Rd., London N19 (a converted church directly opposite Highgate Tube).

Then (as Phil Ruff says above) it was later set up in West London, at 421 Harrow Road alongside the canal, in a former school. It was occupied sometime around 1977 – that year, Miguel Garci wrote about the activities there in Black Flag: “[…] The CNT locals are mostly open all day, but particularly frequented in the evenings. Each union is producing its own bulletins, in addition to which some produce newspapers, as well as the national and regional newspapers. Then too there are numerous local publications of the grassroots type – for this purpose as many offset lithos and especially duplicating machines as possible are needed. There are many comrades who learned to use a litho thanks to the Centro Iberico in London: supplying lithos and duplicators will help preserve that traditional diversity of publication that always characterised our movement in Spain – and keep alive our many years of international co-operation.” (Black Flag, v.5, n.2, 1977)

Events held here included a centenary commemoration of the birth of Joe Hill, on 7 October 1979, and an Anarcha-feminist conference in December 1979, according to notices in anarchist mags of the time..

“An anarchist feminist weekend is planned for December 7, 8, 9 at the Centro Iberico, 421a Harrow Rd, London (Westbourne Pk nearest tube) for women only. There will be workshops on: video, self defence, ‘creative destruction”, as well as discussion workshops on internationalism, on ‘living and work situations‘ and others. Poetry, films and other entertainment are also planned, and a creche, food and accommodation are available. In conjunction with the weekend there will be an open discussion with both men and women on ‘Sexism in the Anarchist Movement‘ on Saturday, 8 December, 7 pm, at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London W Cl . This is seen as an attempt to discuss the problems of sexism through direct contact with men and women, rather than dealing with it in a separatist way. Refreshments, a film show, and anarchist feminist literature. Women attending the Centro Iberico workshops over the weekend should bring sleeping bags.” (Freedom, November 1979).

After the demise of the short lived Autonomy Centre in Wapping, the Harrow Road Centro hosted the anarcho-punk gigs by the Mob, Conflict, Poison Girls and the Subhumans, as well as industrial art-performance posers Throbbing Gristle), which had been held at the Autonomy Centre… Gigs ended in 1982 sometime, possibly when the building was evicted?

“The Spanish anarchists lived in the classrooms upstairs and allowed us to convert a former assembly room downstairs into a performance space. A stage was built using old cookers from the kitchens covered with carpet retrieved from skips. Although the Centro was evicted at the end of 1982, for a few month during the spring and summer it  was used once a week for anarchist punk gigs.”

There’s lots more on the punk gigs at the Harrow Road Centro on the Kill Your Pet Puppy site, and some photos here and here

Until recently graffiti of the First of May anti-Franco anarchist group (who were closely linked to the Angry Brigade) could be seen on the wall of the school on Portobello Road.

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Dedicated to the memory of Miguel Garcia Garcia, Albert Meltzer and Stuart & Brenda Christie

Miguel Garcia leaving the kitchen at the Centro, 1976.


Related items worth a read

Miguel Garcia’s Story, edited by Albert Meltzer and published by the Miguel Garcia Memorial Committee in association with Cienfuegos Press, 1982.

Remembering Miguel Garcia, Stuart Christie.

Franco’s Prisoner, Miguel Garcia Garcia.

I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels, Albert Meltzer.

There’s a list of events at the various incarnations of the Centro Ibérico gleaned from the anarchist press put together by the Kate Sharpley Library.

Common Land and Squatting in London Fields, Hackney: A Historical Wander

Hidden Histories: Common Land and Squatting in Hackney

Intro
This walk was made on 17 July 2011 by about 40 people, some of whom had personal experience of squatting in the London Fields and Mare Street area of Hackney, London, from the 1970s to the present. It was researched and organised by Melissa Bliss with contributions from others including Past Tense.

This seemed like a good time to highlight the squatting history of the area: the government had recently signalled its intention to criminalise squatting; the Olympics, only 12 months away then, had led to a massive increase in property speculation; and the London Fields area was experiencing rapid social and structural change.

We selected 8 sites on the walk which showed different aspects of squatting in different decades. There were many other squatted sites we could have chosen so this walk is not comprehensive.

This account is not comprehensive and we are always looking for more information about this area.

Two more radical history walks were done around the same time in other parts of Hackney, (one from Dalston to Stoke Newington, and another around Stoke Newington), put together by some of the people involved in this walk: we are working on re-constructing them, and will post them up on this blog at some point.

A brief history of squatting in the London Fields area

Squatting in London Fields goes back decades. The earliest references we found were in the late 1960s but it is likely there was individual and organised squatting before then.

London Fields has experienced a high level of squatting for several reasons:

•  Housing need caused by poor housing and rising rents which priced people out of private rented accommodation

•  Loss of housing through bombing and neglect

•  Intensive top down planning intervention – wartime requisitioning, slum clearance and compulsory purchase – leaving whole areas to become run down and left empty

•  Deindustrialisation as businesses moved further out of London leaving empty industrial buildings such as factories, workshops and warehouses

•  Organisation among squatters which led to large scale squatting and, for some, licensing

By the end of the Second World War Hackney had lost about 5,000 homes and 7,000 people were on the housing waiting list. The London County Council (LCC) accelerated its slum clearance programme, buying up properties and moving people out of London. The Metropolitan Borough of Hackney used compulsory purchase powers to buy up properties which had been requisitioned during the War: 1,767 properties, containing 3.317 homes, including around the west side of Mare Street .

Hackney’s population has declined since the 1910s until 1981. Between 1931 to 1961 it declined by about a third. Despite this there was also considerable homelessness due to poor housing stock and rising rents. Organised squatting increased in the 1960s.

During the 1970s there were continual struggles around housing centred on homelessness, slum clearance and redevelopment plans. Rapidly rising house prices in the early 1970s led to a shortage of cheaper private rented housing and speculators leaving properties empty.

The Greater London Council (GLC) and London Borough of Hackney (LBH) had plans to develop the Broadway Market and London Fields east side areas respectively to preserve local employment. But they proceeded so slowly that the areas were blighted and many properties were left empty. Squatters moved in.

Organised and individual squatting increased. Public sector landlords and property owners responded in a variety of way: smashing up properties, licensing squatters or encouraging squatters to regularise themselves in housing co-ops or housing associations.

Smaller changes like the removal of caretakers from housing estates by the early 1970s allowed squatters to move into flats undetected.

From the mid 1970s the GLC took some moves to regularise squatters by getting them to form housing coops.

In 1977 the Conservatives regained control of the GLC and started selling their housing to individuals through the policy of homesteading and housing associations. They also gave squatters an amnesty and offered them tenancies in hard to let properties.

In the 1980s LBH suffered a number of crises including severe funding cuts from central government and, perhaps most crucially, when GLC was abolished, being forced to take on the GLC housing stock, much of which was in poor repair. This doubled LBH’s housing. Cuts in funding from central government and internal council crises meant the council was unable to deal with its housing. In 1981 Hackney had 2,300 empty properties.

During the 1990s the Council was able to regain more control over its property. Many homes had been lost to right to buy and funds were coming through from central government and the European Union to redevelop the area.

In the 2000s squatting continued in the area but in a less organised way and more commonly in industrial buildings. As the area became gentrified, land values increase and less properties were available for squatting. There were also occupations in protest at the ways in which regeneration was being brought about, in particular with the sale of Council properties to property developers and speculators.

Squatting continues in the area but mostly in building awaiting redevelopment, often from industrial to residential uses.

LONDON FIELDS LIDO

1998 – 2003 

The Lido was built 1932 by the LCC, partly as compensation to Hackney for military use of Hackney Marshes during the First World War. Like many other lidos in London it lasted well till the late 1970s when it was transferred by thy GLC to LBH. It then began to be run down by the Council, closing finally in 1988 amid plans to turn it into a car park.

In 1990 Tower Hamlets managed to bulldoze Victoria Park lido and replace it a car park. This spurred local people on to continue to fight to save London Fields Lido, even standing in front of a bulldozer in 1990 to prevent demolition. Local people led campaigns to reopen the Lido and cleared away vegetation. The children’s paddling pool which was closed in 1999, was reopened by local people for summer seasons.

In 1998 the Lido was squatted for housing, a café and communal events. London Reclaim the Streets held their weekly meetings here for a while. In August 1988 there was the Carnival of the Dispossessed, a benefit for Reclaim The Streets. The Lido was squatted for a second time 2002-2005. Here’s a nice story of that time from Ms Marmite Lover.

[Your past tense typist remembers the time well. Especially the benefit for RTS mentioned. Which might have been much less pleasant… A couple of days before, the deep end of the empty pool reflooded up to a depth of several feet, as the drain leading from the lido had become blocked. Since the deep end was the prospective stage for the upcoming gig, this was bit of a problem, unless a floating stage was an option…  Your friendly neighbourhood squat plumber/radical historian was woken from his sleep in a far off part of south London, grabbed his drain rods and was rushed to the spot, and after some expert rodding the somewhat skanky watter drained away, in time for the pool to dry out and the gig to take place.]

LBH, rather late in the day discovered an enthusiasm for the Lido it was eventually evicted, and finally reopened it in 2006. it is now a source of pride for the Council which uses it frequently to promote the borough. But it would not be here now except for the concerted campaigns by local people and squatters.

Walk through London Fields and Trederwen Avenue to Brougham Road

BROUGHAM ROAD

1970s – ?1987 Housing

Dave Morris spoke about Brougham Road, using this text he wrote in 2008

“Well I was squatting in 64 Brougham Rd from 1974-1980. I was a postman in Islington. The house was very run down, with an old outside toilet and a sink for a kitchen. But we decorated the inside with posters, murals, press cuttings and inspiring slogans etc.

I shared the place with Alan, a really decent and quiet young bloke who became an alcoholic in the late 1970s. Alan once got nicked when drunk at a train station wearing my post office jacket and wheeling about a post office trolley with bags of letters on it. This led to a raid on the house and some laughable police hysteria about him and me being in an anarchist train robbers gang… I testified in court that I had known nothing about it (and that probably nor did Alan), but he still got 6 months suspended (Mentioned in Albert Meltzer’s autobiography, I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels). After I left I think he went downhill, and last I heard he tragically got run over by a bus.

The other bloke we shared with was Des Kelly from Ireland who I recall was writing a book… I have a mad photo of him trying to ride his bike UP our staircase. I did bump into him in Hackney 15 years later but can’t remember what he was doing them.

Spanish Elizabeth was next door I think. Zoundz folks moved into my place or next door after I left. I vaguely recall a guy (Bruce?) living at No 66 who did animation and who told me he was working on an amazing path-breaking new film called ‘Star Wars’.. it didn’t sound to me like it would get anywhere with a crap name like that…

There was a very strong Broadway Market Squatters Association (with maybe 50+ homes in it from the area) which met regularly for mutual solidarity and campaigning. I remember we decided to boycott an amnesty offered by the GLC (London Authority) to squatters if we would accept licenses… the Association saw it as a sell out and divide and rule – we were all pretty militant and independent. But eventually many did accept licenses and then formed housing co-ops in order to keep together and survive.

There were lots of radical feminists in the area, many squatting – I admired them a lot.”

There’s a link to a great article on the 1970s London Fields women’s squat scene, written by a participant.

“Some were involved in the Women In Manual Trades group. Former German urban guerrilla Astrid Proll did apparently spend some time in the area and many people in the area helped form the Friends of Astrid Proll to campaign for her after she was arrested.
Astrid’s sojourn there inspired a song by Nik Turner of Hawkwind fame

I think a building which had been squatted at the south end of the street sometime in the early 70s became a collectively run playcentre..

There was a revolutionary socialist guy who was a tenant in the tower block at that end of the street and had had some run ins with NF fascists.. I vaguely remember getting involved in anti-fascist stuff in the area, painting out nazi slogans etc…

There was a good community, with squatters, tenants, feminists, anarchists and all age groups and nationalities all mixing and getting along pretty well.

There was famous graffiti on a wall at the end of the street by the market which survived for over 10 years: Broadway Market is not a sinking ship – its a submarine.’ It has been restored in recent years, but unfortunately gentrified a lot. It was amazing to go back there last year after decades away and visit Tony’s cafe which had been there when I was there I think, been evicted in order to be ponced up, and then re-occupied as a high profile squatted political centre opposing gentrification in the area (by some anarchists and ‘Hackney Independent’ activists.. see the Hackney Independent website for full info on this).”
Dave Morris

More about Brougham Road

At some point the streets west of London Fields passed into the hands of the GLC – possibly after the Second World War. The GLC had plans to redevelop the wider Broadway Market area to encourage employment but left properties empty for a long time.

The east side of Brougham Road was squatted from at least the early 1970s. Some became licensed through Patchwork Housing.

A building was occupied and run as a nursery by a black group, becoming the Market Nursery, whose patron was Benjamin Zephaniah. The Market Nursery is still going in Wilde Close.

Behind Brougham Road was the old Dalston Bus Garage (on the site of a military barracks) which closed in 1981 and was replaced by Ash Grove bus garage. The bus garage was occupied by travellers in 1981-82. This may have been “uber hippy travellers the Ukrainian Mountain Troupe, who had occupied an abandoned bus garage near Brougham Road in Hackney” according to Alistair of Kill Your Pet Puppy…

This area was later redeveloped as housing by LBH: Suffolk Estate (1960s-1971) and the Regents Estate (1980-88), Grand Union Crescent & Dublin Avenue (1980s).

LBH approved the GLC’s development plans for the Broadway Market Area in 1975 but not much happened other than the building of Ash Grove bus station on Mare Street and Ada Street Workshops (1992).

Walk along Brougham Road and Benjamin Close to Broadway Market. No. 34 is straight ahead, No. 71 is to the left.

BROADWAY MARKET

1970s – 2000s

Main speaker: Jim Paton

Broadway Market used to be a thriving shopping street and market. This declined until the 1970s when many of the shops were closed and the properties shuttered with corrugated iron. Some of the properties were owned by the GLC and LBH but some were privately owned (for example, in 1983 Prudential Insurance owned no. 53-61). The GLC’s plans to develop the area stopped other development happening.

Flats in the blocks around Broadway Market were also left empty, rented under the hard to let scheme and squatted including Warburton House and Jackman House.

The Council has various schemes to revive the area but little came of them. The GLC built Ash Grove bus station on Mare Street and the Ada Street workshops in the early 1980s.

In the early 2000s LBH was determined to revive the area by selling of the shops and flats above. Some leaseholders were able to buy their properties but many were sold at auction to overseas investment companies at less than market prices. Two sales were particularly contentious.

No.34, Francesca’s Café, was run by Tony Platia for over 30 years. He asked the Council if he could buy the property several times but was turned down. In 2004 the building was bought by Dr Roger Wratten along with the properties on either side of the café and other properties and land in the local area (including 2, 4, 6, 30, 32 Broadway Market; land to the rear of numbers 26-36 Broadway Market; 27 Marlborough Avenue). It seems that Wratten grew up in No. 36 next door.

Tony was evicted at the end of 2005 and the property was occupied to prevent the building’s demolition and as a protest against the wholesale sell-offs. The café was finally evicted in February 2006.

Tony now runs a juice stall in the market (which started in 2004). No. 34 still stands derelict.

No. 71, Nutritious Food Gallery, was run by Spirit who lived above with his family from 1993. When he starting renting it from LBH, the building was semi-derelict and he spent his own money doing it up and running a successful food shop. As leaseholder Spirit should have been given the first option to buy the property. But in 2002 when he went to the auctioneers and left a cheque he believed he had bought he building. But it was later sold at the auction to an offshore investment company for less money than he had offered. This company then raised his rent by 1200% with the clear intention of getting him out. Spirit attempted to pay this rent but ran into arrears and was finally evicted in October 2006.

No 71 is now the FIn and Flounder, a posh fish shop
[At this point on the 2011 walk, ‘some words’ were exchanged with the hipster fish shop owners who had bought Spirit’s old shop. Some people on the walk knew Spirit and took the piss out of the fishy folk. But are such middle class who buy into gentrification just tiddlers, just prawns in a larger game? Cod knows…]

Walk through Broadway Market & London Fields to the Warburton Estate garden

WARBURTON HOUSE & DARCY HOUSE

1970s – 2000s

Darcy House was the LCC’s first block in Hackney (1904), on the site of Dr Carbureting’s Asylum (1830s-1850s) and Pacifico’s alms houses for Sephardic Jews (about 1851). Warburton House was built slum clearance in 1935-38.

The Warburton Estate is typical of several estates in the local area (like Goldsmiths Row and the Haggerston Estate). Under the GLC it became run down and flats emptied. Some were squatted and some were let under the Hard To Let scheme.

2011: It rained heavily.

Walk through Mentmore Terrace, Sidworth Street to junction with Lamb Lane

LONDON FIELDS EAST:
Mentmore Terrace, Sidworth Street, Lamb Lane, Gransden Avenue

Sidworth Street was the site of a V2 bomb during the war and in the 1960s and 1970s industrial unties built. In 2010 one block (13018) was squatted as Urban HapHazard Squat. Some building around Sidworth Street and Mentmore Terrace are currently squatted, some with the knowledge/permission of the property owners.

Properties round here bough by local council after WW2 (bomb damage & slum clearance) and in the 1970s. During this time there were several traveller sites on Lamb Lane, Gransden Avenue and   Mentmore Terrace. In the 1980s a site on Gransden Avenue/London Lane was being considered as a permanent local authority traveller site.

Walk down Lamb Lane (note Elizabeth Fry Way) & Mare Street

195 MARE STREET: NEW LANSDOWNE CLUB

2009 (September) – 2010 (August) Communal / social centre

This building was built in about 1697, probably for a wealthy merchant, Abraham Dolins. It is the second oldest house and third oldest building in Hackney (after St Augustine’s Tower and Sutton House). For the first 160 years (1697-1860), it was a merchant’s family home. For the next fifty-odd years (1860-1913), like many big houses around this area, it was turned over to institutional use. It became the Elizabeth Fry Refuge for Reformation of Women Prisoners. It housed women released from jail where they learnt the skills to go into domestic service. For ninety years (1913-2004), it became a liberal/radical social club – the New Lansdowne Club. During this time a new building was built out the back with a bar and a stage. After a long period of decline it finally closed in 2004.

In 2005 it was bought for a Vietnamese community and cultural centre but stood empty since then.

In 2009 the building was squatted as a very active social centre. Events included London Free School, benefits, skills sharing and film nights.

In May 2010 this company went bust and ownership passed to the Dunbar Bank which finally evicted the centre in August 2010. Currently (July 2011) on sale   for £1 million.

“Opened at the end of 2009, it got evicted in August 2010. In the meanwhile, it hosted a considerable amount of weekly workshops and skill-sharing, but also theatre plays, gigs, movies, benefit parties, meetings, art exhibitions and performances, gardening and even a pantomime! The building is one of the oldest house in Hackney, its front part is the oldest (grade II listed) and there is a more recent back part that includes a stage. At the time squatters moved in, it was owned by some developers company who simply wanted to demolish part of it and build flats. But the developers got bankrupt and their bank, Dunbar Bank, took over. They evicted the squatters, redone the facade and nothing else, and are now selling it out…”

NAUTEANESS – 197 Mare Street

2011

This was then squatted and open on Sundays – we dropped in to get dry, drink tea & play music. An ex-diving shop, it was owned by property developers. [Not sure what happened after this- Ed]

Some people went on to Well Furnished11 Terrace Rd, opposite Well Street

Well Furnished was unfortunately evicted not long after (26th of August 2011). It was “located in Well street, Homerton, a vibrant area where locals seem to have established strong links with each other. The St John Hackney Joint Charities Trust owns a lot of properties on this street and have decided to increase the rents by up to 300%, forcing people to leave their buildings. The WellFurnished collective occupied some of these buildings in early summer 2011, and organised lots of events: benefit cafes/dinners/gigs, exhibitions, painting/dancing/yoga workshops, meetings etc.”

Walk down Mare Street to London Lane / Belling Road

LONDON LANE/ELLINGFORT ROAD

1980s – 1994

The Victorian terraced housing in this area was not built to a very high standard. After the Second World War the Council compulsorily purchased some buildings in the area.

In the mid 1970s LBH planned to create an Industrial Improvement Area between Mare Street and London Fields in an attempt to stem the loss of employment. The Council compulsory purchased more buildings and got rid of existing residents and businesses. It was not keen to hand housing over for short life in case it slowed down development.

Squatters moved into the empty buildings and travellers into the yards (the earliest reference we found was to 1979 but may have been earlier). Artists organisations Acme and Space persuaded the Council to hand over some buildings for studios and living but many of the other properties were squatted. Space leased a building in Martello Street since 1971 and Acme had buildings on Martello Street and Mentmore Terrace.

In 1985 the Council proposed demolishing all the buildings in Ellingfort Road, London Lane and Mentmore Terrace. Between 1885 and 1992 some of the short life housing co-ops left and more houses were squatted.

In 1995 the Council announced its intention to create a fenced off industrial area between Mare Street and the railway, taking in London Lane, Ellingfort Road and Mentmore Terrace. In 1997 the Council got EU funds for this scheme but it was bitterly opposed by local people who wanted a mixture of housing and small scale workspaces.

Some of the squatters had by now acquired ownership of their properties.

Some of the people living in the two streets, both squatters and people in housing co-ops, got together to form a housing coop to take on the redevelopment. In the end eight houses were handed back to the Council for development for live/work units and the rest remained as a co-op.

A former resident said “21 Ellingfort Road was the home of two Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Sister Belladonna and Mother Mandragora. Sometimes they hung out on the street in full habit and no one batted an eyelid and came home on the 55 bus in full habit too. We once went to the ‘pub with no name’ next to the hackney empire in full habit to a gig”.

Walk up Mare Street to the Town Hall

Past:
282 Richmond Road, squatted in 2002 as a community art space

Great Eastern Buildings on Reading Lane built for railway workers) deteriorated, run as a hostel, squatted ?around 2005.

270 Mare Street – former Methodist Hall

1988 and 1995–1996

Spikey Thing with Curves

no 270 was possibly originally the Mothers’ Hospital of the Salvation Army 1884-1913, then a Mission Methodist Hall.

In March 1988 it was occupied after the mass eviction of many squats on the Stamford Hill estate.

In 1995 and1996 it was squatted as a social space, Spikey Thing With Curves. A large mural was painted on the outside and parties were holed there.

HACKNEY TOWN HALL

The Town Hall was the site of many demonstrations against Council policies. In the 1980s squatters were many and organised, and about 90% of squats in council properties so there was regular conflict:

  • 1987: “Hackney Squatters Army””disrupted every monthly council meeting
  • 1988: Stamford Hill Estate evicted, Town Hall & Methodist Hall opposite occupied by evicted squatters.
  • May 1989:The Town Hall was occupied after squatted centre Lee House eviction was resisted.
  • In 1993-94 Council started cracking down on squatting, offering short life & tenancies to some, evictions to others.
  • A 1994 protest against the Criminal Justice Act here ended in arrests and heavy charges.

Some info handed out on the walk:

Totally Independent (Newsletter of Haringey Solidarity Group) Issue 20 Summer 2011

Leaflets from Hackney Housing History project

Links

The Radical History of Hackney blog

Kill Your Pet Puppy: many interesting pages, this one on Brougham Road

Lost Boys of the Lido | Ms Marmite Lover:

Hackney Society: New Lansdowne Club

The New Lansdowne Club in 3D