A Wander in Bohopia: A Radical History Walk around Bloomsbury

This walk is based on research originally done for a radical history walk which took place in Bloomsbury on 22nd April 2006, which started at ‘The Square’ squatted Social Centre, in Russell Square. The walk was organised as part of the London Zine Symposium, an annual festival of fanzine culture. There were about 70 odd people to start with, but traffic and tourism being loud, it being a West End Saturday, people had trouble hearing us, and we lost quite a few as we rambled around (including one of the walk organisers who had to go back to the centre to play a gig!) By the end it had worn down to 20 or so, and our voices had gone. Good fun was had by all though. Especially the coppers accompanying us, at the start at least, who panicked when we moved off thinking the walk was a cover for an action of some sort, and could be seen scuttling around like headless chickens for a while. They quickly got bored by anecdotes of the Christian Socialists, and buggered off.

Some things should be established from the start: this is not The History of Bloomsbury. Still less is it yet another list of famous painters, poets, writers and other creative bohemian types who have fluttered through WC1. If that’s what you’re looking for… look elsewhere, there are enough books, films etc about it. However, it cannot be avoided, that the bohemian, artistic atmosphere of Bloomsbury was a crucial attraction for many of the political radicals who have lived here, and fitted with their vision of how better societies could be created and should be run. For many bohemian radicals Bloomsbury both attracted them AND reinforced their visions. Eric Hobsbawm asserted that “No hypothesis which seeks to link ideas with their social background can be proved to everyone’s satisfaction”; but your background shapes your ideas significantly, even if only by defining what you struggle hardest to escape.


Past Tense publishes ‘historically’ oriented texts like this one, not because we want to live in the past, or as some sort of academic archeology, but because we desire a different present and hope to be part of building a future free from class divisions, hierarchy, and social relations based on property, wealth, and wage labour. We’re not historians; our interest in history is partly for inspiration and a link to people like us in the past, partly for a search for the origins of the world we inhabit, and partly to keep the story of struggles for a better existence alive. Exploration of ideas, shared experiences, ways of working and living freely together, are vital parts of this struggle, and discussion of ideas and movements of the past are central to why we study history, as is the geography of the areas we live work and play in, and understanding how they evolve, and are altered by social change. While we have used the term ‘radical history’ in the past to describe projects we have been involved in, some of us at past tense are dissatisfied with it, both because the word ‘radical’ is broad and open to many interpretations, and because focussing on ‘history’ blinkers us a bit when what we’re interested inhabits many other fields as well: urban geography, philosophy, economics and much more.

Remembering events, personalities, and battles of days gone by is hollow and meaningless if not linked to social change in our own lives, and just as our contributions to present theoretical and practical debate should be critical of ideas we disagree with, we extend this to our delves into the past. While some historians believe in objectivity, refusing to comment critically on the ideas of past times (and while its true that you can’t impose the ideas and values of today on people living through times when those ideas and values hadn’t developed), its also fair to say that movements of the past were not monolithic, and a wide variety of ideas emerged, changed, evolved and conflicted. We don’t hold with shying away from being critical of ideas we disagree with; but we also see that its important to remember that a broad array of social movements in past centuries, with widely diverse ideas and tactics, contributed to improvements in people’s lives, to freeing up of ways of living. As a result we feel it’s worth both celebrating the achievements of Emmeline Pankhurst, for example, AND being critical of her slide into nationalist chauvinism… and so on.

As as result some of the ‘stops’ on this walk are brief factual descriptions of people or events linked to a particular street or house; others expand more into discussions of political factions or activists and what they thought, and examines some broad themes that this opens up. This may leave the text somewhat uneven, and certainly concentrates more on some subjects than others. We don’t apologise for this, but if people find it inadequate, we are also always open to further discussion of anything in our work, and eager to learn about strands we’ve missed (as well as any corrections of glaring errors… of which we promise there must be some in this text). Also, all texts like this are works in progress, full of unfinished research, hastily drawn conclusions, statements based on snippets found in one source, which we couldn’t confirm elsewhere. At some point, despite the endless joy you may find in dusty archives, you have to set a deadline as to what you’re going to actually publish, and all such deadlines are arbitrary, leaving some threads slightly unwove. Further revisions subject to yet more delves into the ideas of the Fabians and co will have to wait for a later reprint, or may turn up on the web.

We hope you enjoy this walk, even better if you use it to physically navigate round the streets of WC1. To do this may take quite a while, which is why we have split it into two parts. Here’s part two… However the two walks kind of have thematic unity – it should be considered as a whole, in itself.

A fit place for the nobility and gentry

Unlike much of Central London, Bloomsbury is not very old, it was only really built up on a large scale from the 16th century. Before that, it was mostly fields and farms. It has no real industrial history to speak of; and although it was bordered by poorer neighbourhoods, its inhabitants have been mainly well-to-do up until the 20th Century. Two main themes emerge when examining Bloomsbury’s radical past:  reformers, socialists, feminists and so on, but of mostly middle class background, and a working class presence by invasion – encroachment by riotous crowds against particular wealthy locals. The class background of most of Bloomsbury’s broadly progressive residents is vital to understanding their politics, attitudes and activities.

A map of early Bloomsbury

The area has been fairly posh since it was built, developed mainly between the 16th and 19th centuries by aristocratic landowners, the Wriothesleys (Earls of Southampton), and later the Russell family, the Earls (later Dukes) of Bedford (who also owned large parts of Covent Garden, and areas south of Camden Town, as well as having large country estates). As the area grew, the central streets of Bloomsbury came to be filled with tenants of these aristocratic landowners, most of them upper and middle class folk.

The fourth Earl of Southampton first started to develop the area around his mansion (in modern Bloomsbury Square) in the 1650s, pioneering a trend for hereditary landlords to develop news streets by employing speculative builders; new houses for Lords, knights and other worthies began to spring up. By 1665 the area was already described as “A fit place for the nobility and gentry to reside”. The 1666 Great Fire of London brought well-to-do refugees seeking new, safer housing out of the City – the next twenty years saw houses spread along what is now Great Russell Street.

According to local resident J. P. Malcolm,  “Squares, and spacious streets of the first respectability are rising in every direction; and the north side of the parish will, in a few years, contain an immense accumulation of riches, attracted by the grand structures in Russell Square now almost complete….”

19th century Bedford Estate gatekeepers

Inheriting the estate in 1669, the Russells, the Earls of Bedford, named the new streets of their estates after their various titles and estates, and banned the building of pubs and shops, which they thought would lower the tone of the neighbourhood. In fact they not only attempted to control the atmosphere of their streets: they imposed barriers on who could even pass through it. Upper Woburn Place, originally a private road for the Dukes, had gates in the eighteenth century, and from the early 19th Century, parts of the Bedford Estate had gates at all entrances. Uniformed gatekeepers were employed by the Russells to keep out undesirables; only those with tickets issued by the Estate, (silver discs, embossed with the Bedford coat of arms, obtainable by tenants or certain other privileged people for a guinea deposit), could pass down the roads. Empty cabs, or carts, drays, wagons, cattle and exercising horses were banned from entering; gentlemen’s carriages, cabs with fares and persons on horseback were allowed through. For decades the Bedford Estate managed to prevent trams and omnibuses from being run through their streets. Private Acts of parliament banned hackney cabs from ‘standing for hire’ within 300 feet of some of the Estate’s poshest squares.

The Bedford Estate’s continued attempts to maintain the wealthy and ultra-respectable character of Bloomsbury must have been to some extent influenced by the sharp (and growing) contrast of this prosperous island with the neighbourhoods that surrounded it. St Giles to the south-west, Holborn to the south-east, Clerkenwell to the east, ‘Fitzrovia’ to the west, and, later, parts of St Pancras and Agar Town, to the north, all had an overwhelmingly working class population by the 19th Century; many of their streets were labeled as slums, rookeries or criminal haunts by the better-off classes. No doubt the increasing sense of being surrounded by the poor, desperate and possibly rebellious must have had some bearing on the gradual flight of the rich westward, to areas further from the dark threat of mob violence. The successive invasions of Bloomsbury in 1765, 1780 and 1815 by riotous crowds (see below) may only have been the sharp reminder of a deeper held fear and loathing… The increased control over open spaces, building on fields used for rowdy recreation, fencing off of squares’ gardens, can be seen partially as responses to both the class violence of the London Mob, AND the widely perceived ‘immoral’ nature of unlandscaped space – two sides of the same coin to the wealthy. The gates were popular with the mainly up-market tenants of the Bedfords; in fact some residents were pushing the Estate to toughen up the social control, petitioning the Estate to get rid of local streets that housed “wicked and disorderly people of both sexes”, lowering the tone of the Russells’ vision: the building of New Oxford Street through the St Giles Rookery would later obliterate some of these unrespectable streets.

Gradually opposition to the Dukes’ gates built up: they were obviously unpopular with cabbies and poorer folk, and even some local official bodies. Eventually in slightly less forelock-tugging times, private gates across streets in a busy capital became unsustainable. Legislation ended this restriction of access, in 1893, and the gates came down. The Duke’s posh tenants, still keen to keep the riffraff out, campaigned for the gates’ retention, writing letters of protest, but happily in vain.

Around this time the 11th Duke began to sell of parts of the estate, regarding it as unreliable as a source of income, especially as better off folk had been migrating west to posher pastures like Belgravia, Bayswater etc., since the turbulence of 1780. This process had already begun in the 1830s: the Bedford office, who ran the Estate, found demand for ‘first rate’ houses was declining – as a result they increased their control over the Estate property in a desperate attempt to preserve Bloomsbury’s character as “the gentleman’s private residence.” Land for the University of London and the British Museum had already been sold off. Fortunately for the Dukes, many 99-year leases in Bloomsbury began reverting to the Bedford Estate in the 1920s and 30s, just as the expansion of University College meant the Estate was able to cash in by leasing buildings to them (especially around Tavistock Square). New University buildings like Senate House, SOAS, and Birkbeck College were also built on Estate lands between 1932 and 1951. The Estate does still own some residential property converted to office and small hotel use and private housing.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, Bloomsbury has in some ways been on the slide, socially: there are much less of the rich who once dominated, and ever-increasing numbers of students halls and hotels, some posh, but many slightly seedy. Perhaps getting rid of the gates DID lower the tone of the neighbourhood! In the late nineteenth century, Henry James mocked “dirty Bloomsbury”, VS Pritchett referred to the area’s “spiritless streets”; Ford Madox Ford to its “dismal, decorous, unhappy, glamorous squares.” Music hall jokes abounded about Bloomsbury landladies renting to actors, poets and other dubious types – a real step down in class. Comparing successive versions of the Booth poverty/affluence maps for Bloomsbury shows the re-colouring of streets (colour in Booth’s maps was used to indicate the social class of the people living there). For example, in 1889, Little Gower Place (now part of university College London, then south of, and parallel to, Gower Place) had been inked ‘light blue’ [denoting “Poor. 18s. to 21s. a week for a moderate family”], but only nine years later in 1898 had become ‘dark blue’ [“Very poor, casual. Chronic want”].
 Houses let to one tenant a decade or so before were being sub-divided and let to several families.

Space, respectable and unrespectable uses of it, and control of it, gating or fencing it off, for the benefit of some (the rich), and to the exclusion of others (often, though not always, the poor) is the first theme of this walk: from the entire area, to the gardens in certain squares, to hotel gardens…  to housing and squatting… Aristocrats can no longer fence off whole neighbourhoods, but wealth and power still locks us out…

Walk one

(Walk Two will follow shortly)

START: Russell Square underground station. Walk westward down Bernard Street to the North-East corner of Russell Square.

Cross the road, walk into the gardens in Russell Square.

Russell Square was founded by the fifth Duke of Bedford in 1799, and when built was the largest square in London. It is still owned by the Bedford Estate, though leased to Camden Borough Council. The houses were the work of James Burton, the most successful property developer at that time. His workforce was so large, that in 1804, when Napoleon threatened to invade Britain, Burton raised a 1000-strong regiment (with architects and foremen being installed as officers), to protect the borders of the new town they were building in the event of the French army turning up. As to whether brickies and carpenters were happy to join this private army, its doubtful they had much choice…

From the beginning the Square was the ultimate des-res: Rowland Dobie described in 1830 how Russell Square “has, from its first formation, been a favourite residence of the highest legal characters; and here merchants and bankers have seated themselves and families, the air and situation uniting to render it a pleasant retreat from the cares of business”. The Bedford Estate made every effort to preserve this character, introducing not only the infamous gates, but also Watch Boxes, small semi-private police huts, (staffed by the Estate’s own dedicated beadles, private cops in effect) were erected on all four of the Square’s edges; a visible deterrent to “street nuisances”, ie plebs and other undesirables, which included anyone on one of those new-fangled contraptions, bicycles. The Estate Office even unsuccessfully tried to have cab ranks that had been built up here kicked out in 1886 – presumably thinking they lowered the tone.

But with the iron hand goers the velvet glove: scared somewhat by robberies, illegal prizefighting and other rowdy working class pursuits, the ‘comfortable classes’ set up various projects here to encourage wholesome diversions and moral uplifting of the poor, and most importantly “polite contact’ between the classes. These included soup kitchens and an annual flower show in Russell Square, which became very popular.  Flower shows as social cement and moral stiffeners!

It’s not known how much the Estate’s privatisation of space was contested in Russell Square, or Bloomsbury generally. Much small scale resistance, such as legging it through the old Estate gates, jumping over the Street gates or the railings in the Squares at night, to hang out, fuck, drink in the gardens, surely went on, but is probably not recorded.

The Square’s high-prestige reputation was satirised in fiction, by Thackeray, who used the square as the location for the family homes of both the Sedleys and the Osbornes in Vanity Fair; published in 1848 but set in 1815; and later in the nineteenth century by journalist and author Edmund Yates, who described what was often seen as a typical resident, a merchant with more money than class: “a merchant-prince―a Russell Square man―a person of fabulous wealth, who…lived but for his money, his dinners, and his position in the City; a fat, pompous, thick-headed man, with a red face, a loud voice, a portly presence, and overwhelming watch-chain” (Edmund Yates, The Business of Pleasure, 1879).

Since the 1950s the gardens in the middle of the Square have become a cruising ground for gay men looking for a spot of outdoor sex: as a result the square is now locked at night to keep out what  Camden Council described as “undesirables”. Gay campaign group OutRage! responded by calling for a gay sex “zone of toleration” as a way of reducing public complaints and police harassment, arising from gay cruising in the Square at night, (modelled on the “tolerance zone for gay sex” that operates in parks in Copenhagen and Amsterdam with the agreement of the police and city council).  “The Council increased the lighting in the Square and cut down the thick shubbery, making the sex more visible. No wonder public complaints have increased.” OutRage! suggested that the Council could make the gardens more discreet by turning off the lights and planting dense bushes around the outer perimeter of the Square, the borders of the flower beds, and the sides of the café. “One third of Russell Square could be sectioned off with a high fence and thick shrubbery”, explained John Beeson of OutRage!. “Entrance to the area would be marked with a warning sign. A similar system has worked well in the main parks in Copenhagen.”

Nice try, although it doesn’t seem to have seized the Council’s imagination, for some reason…

Open spaces, including squares, have been the focus of dispute for a thousand years in London. Often they were gathering places for the outcast and for rebellious or radical mobs, places for illicit sex. The poor, the outcast, the sexually promiscuous, the homeless etc, have faced numberless attempts to exclude them by better off residents or City authorities, including campaigns to end fairs, build on wastes, fence off squares, arrest and drive out beggars, tarts, gays etc, as well as to landscape ‘waste’, which was thought to have a civilising effect on people who used it. Moorfields (off Moorgate), a traditional place of bawdy recreation, outdoor sex and banned games (like football!) as well as a meeting ground for rebel crowds, was landscaped in the 1590s in an attempt to bring order to an infamous ‘uncontrollable’ area. In Bloomsbury itself disorderly spaces like the Long Fields that used to border on Great Russell Street, (see below) were gradually replaced by fenced off streets and gardens for the use of the gentry; these disputes are reflected into the 1940s in the conflict over the Montague Street Gardens.

Originally access to the gardens in many of the squares on the Bedford Estate – Gordon Square, Tavistock Square, Woburn Square, Torrington Square, Bloomsbury Square – was restricted to the Duke’s rich tenants. Still today many posh Squares in central London are fenced to exclude the likes of us… although angle grinders, hacksaws and boltcutters could solve that…

Walk back down to the corner of the Square, walk a few yards west to nos 21-22

‘The Square’ Social Centre once occupied this building in the old University College London School of Slavonic Studies

This fine occupied space flourished for several months from the winter of 2005 through to the following Summer. “When the Square was first occupied… everyone was overcome with excitement. The building was a dream – from its central position to its glorious fascia; from its large ground floor rooms to the labyrinthine former bar of a student’s union in the basement.” The Square was constantly teeming for the next few months, with packed out benefit gigs, parties, meetings, an info shop, offices and organising space for radical anti-authoritarian groups, as well as a friendly drop-in and coffee shop.

There were many and varied events, including meetings/reports back on the student riots in France, the London Zine Symposium, with stalls, talks, walks and bands; a Mayday Weekend, with talks and discussions on ‘The Future of Anarchism’, an excellent meeting with films and speakers from campaigners against deaths in custody and mobilisations for anti-war and anti-deportation demos and a remarkably successful meeting on ‘Radical Academics in the Neoliberal University’ which packed 100 people into the 80-capacity meeting room.

“What really occurred at the Square, though, was a community – a virtual community … The building became a focal point for all sorts of groups, organised or otherwise, who – holding their meetings in the same building, rather than the pub – had a rare contact with each other, creating many friendships and challenging many assumptions. This hive of activity was also a space which proved extremely

The Square resists eviction

stimulating for those few kids who came in search of politics rather than a cheap party. It was frequented by members of anti-fascist group Antifa, Aufheben, the Anarchist Federation, the WOMBLES, the Industrial Workers of the World, a whole mess of punks and even the occasional insurrectionist. One could always find an interesting conversation.”

The centre was sadly evicted in June 2006 despite some resistance from the squatters and supporters initially forcing the bailiffs to back off. Many of the core group that had run the space were also suffering slightly from “exhaustion – physical, emotional and political. People were just tired, and wanted a summer in the sun, not barricaded into a building. Others felt the social centre had drawn to its natural conclusion given the limits that had been placed upon it, and wanted summer for reflection and reformulation of the project. Still others were concerned that the symbolic weekend of resistance, which burnt so brightly, would be diluted by days and weeks of events for events’ sake.”
More on the Square squat

By the byways, an ex-UCL student thought they might have been part of a previous barricading of the very same Slavonic Studies building in its university incarnation,  during a UCL day of student occupations in 2001…

Walk over the Gardens or round to the south east corner of Russell Square, across the road to the corner of Russell Square and Southampton Way.

The building right on the corner (what no?) was squatted in 1969 by the infamous London Street Commune, who had just been evicted from their first and most high profile home/centre, 144 Piccadilly

Squatters leaving the house in Russell Square



‘Hippies from the London Street Commune roamed the city early today seeking a new home after their eviction from 144 Piccadilly. A large group tried to take over a house in Russell Square and others had the gate slammed in their faces at a house in Endell Street, Covent Garden, where 50 squatters were already in occupation.

A spokesman for the Endell Street squatters said: “We are turning away everyone from Piccadilly. They are an undisciplined mob.” ‘ [the Guardian, 22 September 1969]

Cross over Southampton Rows to the east side, turn right, and walk southeast to no 102 Southampton Row,(now an empty shop being refurbished).

In the late 1960s-early 70s, Indica Bookshop was based at no 102. This was the leading Underground hangout; it sold new age stuff, records, books, underground papers. Indica was run mainly by Barry Miles, who came from an old CND, jazz scene, arts school background. Indica was summed up as “Hip capitalism in a good cause”, at a time when social rebellion, drug use, rock n roll and new age money-making co-existed merrily in a contradictory mish-mash of an underground scene.

Indica moved here in March ’66, having been founded 3 months before… Miles had worked at Better books in Soho, which had hosted some of the earliest ‘underground’ happenings, poetry readings and other weird shit… He John Dunbar (art critic of the Scotsman) and Peter Asher (“one of the few upper-class rock ‘n’ rollers”) founded Indica (named for Cannabis Indica, though they didn’t tell everyone that at the time!) as a gallery-cum-bookshop, promoting avant-garde literature and art. Through Asher, his sister Jane’s boyfriend, Paul McCartney, and later other Beatles, became involved in helping out (mainly with money! although McCartney supposedly painted some shelves when they moved in) – John Lennon famously met Yoko Ono here at one of her performances (altho was this at the gallery or here? The bookshop moved to here and Indica gallery continued in Masons Yard for 2-3 years.)

According to Miles they had no idea what they were doing, especially no idea how run Indica financially and relied on donations from McCartney and others; though the gallery was selling lots of paintings to US art dealers, they lost money, and were ripped off, hand over fist.

International Times (it), the top underground paper of the day, had its office in the basement 1966-68. Launched (in October ’66) partly in imitation of New York’s legendary Village Voice, the original aims of the paper were fairly limited: “24-hour city, sex and drugs and rock n roll… being able to look weird and not being thrown out of your flat because you had long hair…”  “the idea was to have an international cultural magazine”: it aimed to link up people in London, mainly, in alternative undertakings in theatre, movies, fashion, rock ‘n’ roll, poetry, literature. “The only politics in early ITs was extreme libertarianism…the individual’s right to do with his or her mind and body whatever he or she wanted to do. Sexually, drugs, reading, no censorship, smoke anything, inhale anything, inject anything, it’s you life baby…” As with other ground-breaking publications the office became about more than producing it, but evolved into something of a social and organising space. “People were coming in and going out of the IT office all the time, it was like a continuous party… bringing in news, typing in another room, telephone ringing…”

Memories differ about the early success of the paper: Miles wrote “We probably printed 15000 of the first issue and there weren’t many returns… [it] went up to peak in May 68 around 44,000…” But Sue Miles reckoned the “the original print run was 2500 and at least 1750 never left the cardboard box…” Its impact was maybe wider than its actual sales, especially as the underground scene was adept at self-publicity.

When it was raided by police in March 1967, the cops removed everything; the editorial team “scattered to the metaphoric hills” (Mick Farren). In their absence it was taken over by Mick Farren, Mike McInnerny and Dave Howson. They whipped up support in the alternative scene. John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins organised a spectacular benefit event at underground club UFO. Farren, as UFO doorman, regularly skimmed off a percentage from the door takings to pay for the paper; as there was no formal mechanism for raising money to pay for it. A piece of street theatre put together in protest at the raid involved a coffin symbolising the death of it carried in procession through Tottenham Court Road, Charing Cross Road, Trafalgar Square to the Cenotaph, then onto the Circle Line and round to Notting Hill, then the main underground barrio.

In the end no charges were brought against the paper. After this the old editors returned, which led to conflict with the team who had taken up the burden in the crisis. The oldies thought the new blood had gone too hippy rebel, they wanted a return to a more conservative style and format. There were internal numerous problems, including disputes between British and US staff (whose approach differed), problems when Bill Levy became editor (according to Alex Gross “he had no deep desire to deal with other people. He preferred to bring out the paper from his own apartment”. Levy was forced out after original founder John Hopkins got out of prison and pushed through a re-organisation of the paper’s ownership, turning it into a workers co-op… (Which turned out to be a disaster apparently).

It had outgrown its base at Indica. To add to it’s problems no printer in London would touch it (as printers could be prosecuted for dodgy content), the paper was being printed in Carlisle!

Others in the underground took a critical view of it: pro-Situationist agitators from King Mob invaded Indica and occupied the paper’s office: “going and breaking in there and scaring the wits out of them… Our basic statement was that they were agents of the Spectacle and they were all going to be co-opted.” (Dick Pountain)

In late ’67, Nigel Samuel got involved in helping out /funding it. Samuel was a rich playboy, son of ‘socialist’ property mogul Howard Samuel, bit of a mad lost soul (his dad drowned himself when he was 13), with lots of cash, keen to give it away, (some of the time), but according to Sue Miles, “absolutely and genuinely out to fuck the politicians. He was actually politically motivated”. With Samuel’s support, wages got paid properly, and it‘s debts were underwritten, but also this meant (according to the slightly biased Farren, who gradually got pushed out of the paper at this time) that paper sales were no longer taken as a guide to good product, and it started to lose contact with the underground and the growing hippie scene. In March 1968 it moved to Betterton Street; where it peaked in sales and influence around May during and after the French events (during which most of the editorial team were in Paris). After that it gradually declined, going through another occupation/takeover, this time by the London Street Commune, as well as further divisions, a prosecution for Conspiracy to corrupt public morals and conspiracy to outrage public decency, over printing gay personal ads (they were the first UK paper to do so – and it paid the bills for a while!)  The paper survived for two years on profits of dealing of hash, till business manager Dave Hall got busted selling to an undercover cop – in the it office! Rival underground and not-so-underground papers were also stealing its thunder. it was “in disarray” by the early 1970s, though it continued publishing sporadically through the 70s and 80s and was even revived in the 90s.

Indica Bookshop collapsed under its debts at the end of 1968.

Footnote: when it was being set up, and sometimes later, meetings were held occasionally in Cosmoba the italian restaurant round the corner in Cosmo Place…

Every issue of it can be found at the International Times Archive

Cross the road, walk down Bloomsbury place to Bloomsbury Square. Stop on the North side

Southampton House, London residence of the Earls of Southampton in the 15th-16th Centuries, stood here on the northeast side of the Square, the big house and gardens stretching all the way up to Russell Square.

Bedford House, seen from where Bloomsbury Square is now

Southampton House later became Bedford House, when the Dukes of Bedford inherited it and most of the land around here. Virtually all the streets in this area are named for the Duke’s family name of Russell, after their wives, their country estates, etc. A good case for a workers’ renaming commission when the revolution comes (or sooner)!

The Dukes were pretty much all-powerful in Bloomsbury for a couple of centuries; besides the gates they built to block entry to some streets, they also ordered the New Watch house built around 1694, (and enlarged twenty years later) on land they donated for the purpose, off Southampton Row. It served virtually as a private police station to protect their property against crime. However despite this, in the  eighteenth century, Bloomsbury Square was a popular spot for robbing the rich, possibly  down to the proximity of rookeries like St Giles that robbers could escape quickly to. Footpads regularly set upon well-to-do residents and visitors in their sedan chairs and coaches; in 1751 the Countess of Albemarle’s coach was held up by seven men who relieved her and some friends of two watches and seven guineas.

Bloomsbury Square remained private, its gardens for the use of residents only, right up to World War 2, when its railings were melted down for armaments, allowing non-residents to enter the square for the first time. In 1950 the Square was officially made public.

The 4th Duke of Bedford (like most of his family) 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. In May 1765 8000 silk weavers from Spitalfields, armed with bludgeons and pickaxes, besieged and attacked Bedford House three times, after the Duke engineered the defeat of a bill in the House of Lords designed to protect the London silkweaving trade by placing high import duties on Italian silks. The weavers had campaigned for the Bill, as part of their ongoing struggle to maintain decent wage levels. This was a time of high food prices & unemployment, and the weavers were well used to airing their grievances through demonstrations and rioting. Bedford’s extensive interests in the East India Company, which was engaged in importing cheaper Indian textiles, also undercutting the weavers’ livelihoods, would have made him an even more hated target.

On 6th May thousands of them paraded in front of St. James’ Palace with black flags, surrounding the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, and questioning the peers as they came out, concerning their votes. On 15 May, they attacked the Duke of Bedford’s coach outside Parliament, then, having been dispersed by cavalry in Palace Yard, they marched to attack Bedford House: “he sent away his jewels and papers, and demanded a party of horse… and as was foreseen, the rioters in prodigious numbers began to pull down the wall of the Court; but the great gates being thrown open, the party of horse appeared, and sallying out, while the Riot Act was read, rode round Bloomsbury Square slashing and trampling on the mob and dispersing them; yet not till two or three of the guards had been wounded. In the meantime a party of rioters had passed to the back of the house and were forcing their way through the garden, when fortunately 50 more horse arriving in the very critical instant, the house was saved… The disappointed populace vented their rage on the house of Carr, fashionable mercer, who dealt in French silks and demolished the windows.” (Horace Walpole)

Continued rioting by the weavers all month kept London in such a state of general alarm that the citizens enrolled themselves for military duty. “Monday night,” says a contemporary newspaper, “the guards were doubled at Bedford House, and in each street leading thereto were placed six or seven of the Horse Guards, who continued till yesterday at ten with their swords drawn. A strong party of Albemarle’s Dragoons took post in Tottenham Court Road, and patrols of them were sent off towards Islington and Marylebone, and the other environs on that side of the town; the Duke of Bedford’s new road by Baltimore House was opened, when every hour a patrol came that way to and round Bloomsbury to see that all was well.”

Walk clockwise round to Victoria House, on the east side of the Square.

“… Did unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assemble on the 7th of June, to the disturbance of the publick peace, and did begin to demolish and pull down the dwelling-house of the Right Honourable William Earl of Mansfield…”

Lord Mansfield: “the leading exponent of British imperialism”

In the 18th century, nos 28-29 stood where Victoria House now stands. In 1780 this was the residence of Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench: William Murray, Lord Mansfield. Mansfield was widely feared & hated at the time (the spikes on Kings Bench Prison walls were known as Lord Mansfield’s teeth); he was an innovative lawyer who helped to adapt English law to the needs of a growing commercial empire, in alliance with powerful men of business. In return he grew very rich. “He invented legal fictions that enabled English courts to have jurisdiction in places where English law had not yet been introduced…he took the usages of commerce…and …made them into law…” (Peter Linebaugh).

More immediately, as Linebaugh points out, Mansfield had served at the Old Bailey for 11 years, being known for his severe judgments, sending 102 people to the gallows, 448 to be transported and 29 to be branded. He would be known by the poor as one of their greatest enemies.

On the night of 6-7th June 1780 his house was attacked & burnt out by the Gordon Rioters. The riots started out on June 2nd, as a protest against a proposed Parliamentary Bill to give more freedom to Catholics, but rapidly outgrew their sectarian origins to become a general insurrection of the poor against the rich and powerful.

The Judge had already been beaten up outside Parliament on June 2nd, and because of his reputation, the rioters were widely threatening to attack his house. On June 6th a magistrate and a detachment of guards came to protect him. Mansfield suggested they hid out of sight so as not to wind up the rioters. Soon after a crowd several hundred strong marched here from Holborn, carrying torches and combustible materials. They battered in his door, and he legged it out the back with his wife. The crowd tore down the railings surrounding the building, threw down all his furniture, curtains, hangings, pictures, books, papers and chucked them all on a huge bonfire. They then burned his house.

His whole library including many legal papers was destroyed. Interestingly, just as at the burning of the Duke of Lancaster’s Palace in the 1381 Peasants Revolt, the crowd declared nothing was to be stolen, they were not thieves… A survival of a strand of rebellious moral highmindedness, although unsurprisingly, while silver and gold plate was certainly burned, several of the poor folk present were later found guilty of helping themselves to some of the Judge’s possessions. And why not.

The troops arrived (a bit late!), the Riot Act was read, and as the crowd refused to disperse, they shot and killed at least seven people and wounded many more. When the soldiers had gone, some of the rioters returned, picked up the bodies, and marched off, carrying the corpses in a bizarre procession, allegedly fixing weapons in the hands of the dead, with a man at the front tolling Lord’s Mansfield’s stolen dinner bell in a death march rhythm!

“The attack on his house was …an attack upon the leading exponent of British imperialism.” (Peter Linebaugh).

Gordon Rioters also marched to Hampstead to burn Mansfield’s other house, Ken Wood House on Hampstead Heath. They were allegedly delayed by the landlord of the Spaniards Inn, (on Spaniards Road), who plied them with free beer to give the militia time to arrive and save the house.

Three rioters, Laetitia Holland, John Gray and Charles Kent, convicted of involvement in the Bloomsbury Square attack, were hanged here on July 22nd in sight of the ruins of the house. Gray, a 32 year old woolcomber, who walked with a crutch, was seen demolishing a wall in the house with an iron bar, and later making off with a bottle of Mansfield’s booze. One-legged Kent was also seen by a witness  “bringing out some bottles, whether empty or full I do not know”. Laetitia Holland was sentenced to death for being found in possession of two of lady Mansfield’s petticoats. Others charged after the attack included Sarah Collogan, who got a year after being found wearing a gown previously owned by the judge’s neice; Elizabeth Timmings, tried for possessing five china dishes from his lordship’s tableware, and Elizabeth Grant, found in possession of a copper pot and plate-warmer (these two were acquitted).

Mansfield is generally credited with giving the court judgement in 1772 that made slavery illegal in England… Although he seems to have personally found slavery distasteful, in an official capacity, he was reluctant to rule against the property rights of slave-owners, and he tried his hardest to give the slave owner who brought the case the chance to free the slave concerned and drop the case, so a precedent wouldn’t be set. In the end, as the slaver refused to drop it, Mansfield was backed into a corner, since he could find no legal justification for slavery to exist. In fact the ruling didn’t outlaw slavery, it only really meant slavers couldn’t take slaves from Britain to the colonies; in effect existing slaves remained slaves, and continued to be taken from Africa to the plantations in the Carribbean.

Mansfield’s black niece: Ironically, given the slavery judgement, Victoria House was home to a free black woman: Lord Mansfield’s great-niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay. Daughter of Captain John Lindsay, a naval officer, and an African woman, Maria Bell, who he had met in the Caribbean during the Seven Years War 1756-63: it’s not clear whether she was free or enslaved when they began their relationship. Scandalously against social mores of the time, Lindsay brought both mother and child to England, leaving his daughter in Mansfield’s care. There is no recorded word of what became of Maria Bell. But Dido was raised together with her cousin, Elizabeth, as a Lady, with education in literacy and music; she seems to have been treated as an equal, to the shock of well-to-do society. Some visiting worthies, especially loyalists guesting at Kenwood House during the American War of Independence, were uncomfortable when an illegitimate black woman sat down to eat with them at dinner!  Mansfield had great affection for her and appointed her his secretary; he left her money in his will (her father left her nothing), though much less than her cousin, the daughter of his heir. But he also explicitly stated that she was free. Mansfield was somewhat conflicted, as they say: or in the words of Kim Sherwood, “a man who could act according to his conscience singularly where he could not always for a nation [whose] rulings in slavery cases present an inner struggle of revulsion towards the ‘odious trade’ and reluctance to undermine England’s economy or stray from common law…” Hmmm. After his death Dido Belle married John Davinier, a Steward to a rich family, and they lived in Pimlico, raising three children, at least one of whom had a classical education. Dido died, aged 43, in 1804. In a final twist on racism and black-white power relations, her “last known relative has been uncovered as a white South African who lived free under Apartheid.”

Continue round the Square (or cut through the gardens) to no. 17

On 7th October 1979, the ex-Royal Pharmaceutical Society building here was squatted by 30 people. A luxurious and beautiful place by all accounts, (with oak pannelling, spiral staircases, a library and a concert hall) it had been empty 3 years, being owned by the Department of the Environment. The well-organised and together bunch of squatters, artist types with lots of energy, had the idea of setting up a co-op. One of the main movers was a German lefty named Bernhard (a mate of then ‘King of the Squatters’ Piers Corbyn… Piers of course has since returned to fame as a loony Covid-conspiraloon), who brought his particular branch of German organisational flair: there were a number of strict vetting procedures for people wishing to move in, to prevent the place being lunched out, graffitied etc. This sparked a verse in the popular squatters song of the day, Piers’s Restaurant, (inspired by the folk song of the day, Alice’s Restaurant):

“If you want a luxury squat
With Bernard and his lot
With all the rules you must conform
Soon you will wear the uniform.”

(the last line was apparently sung in a stereotyped German accent!)

Most of the rest of the song has been lost in the mists of time…

The building was squatted a couple of day before the General Election of May 1979: an editorial in either the Times or the Guardian cheered the squatters for their initiative and enterprise, saying it was exactly the kind of spirit the new Tory government should reward. Err yes…

The Squat however only lasted a couple of months.

Walk across Great Russell Street, and north up Bedford Place to no 40

1790s radical John Thelwall lived here, probably from 1806 -12, and ran his Seminary here for speech therapy and elocution, (of which he was a pioneer)… He had been an early member of the London Corresponding Society, a radical lecturer and orator; in 1794 he was tried with Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and others for treason, but acquitted. However he dropped out of the radical reform movement after the trial, worn out, though he later got back involved in the resurgent reform movement around 1818, editing a paper called the Champion.

Walk back down to Great Russell Street

From the earliest days of the development of the Bedford’s Bloomsbury estate, this street was “inhabited by the nobility and gentry, especially on the north side.” However, some of their immediate surroundings were anything but genteel…

“Nothing but the Whip”

Cartoon of St Pancras Fields (St Giles Fields) by George Cruikshank

The fields to the north of Great Russell Street, behind Montagu House and these other posh houses, at one time extending up beyond modern Russell Square, were known in the 16th Century as Southampton Fields, though also and more popularly, the Long Fields. Still undeveloped until after 1800, they were infamous as the haunt of “depraved wretches” (Dobie), who loved fighting “pitched battles”, and other disorderly sports – especially on (still officially holy) Sunday! Kite-flying, dog-fighting, and naked swimming and nearly naked running races were also popular, as well as organised duelling for the more aristocratic.

Just as some residents supported the street gates keeping out undesirables, and called for dodgy alleys to be blocked off, some well-to-do neighbours of the Fields pressed for ‘something to be done’ about this unrespectable open space, characterised as “waste and useless”, because the pleasures taken there were not useful orderly and polite (with the exception of some nursery grounds near the New Road to the north, and a piece of ground enclosed for the Toxophilite Society, [who practiced archery] towards the north-west, near the back of Gower Street) . Many Bloomsbury residents thought people should be banned from gathering, and even walking, there: others clearly wanted the whole ‘waste’ built over. A Mrs Nash, writing to the Bedford Estate in the eighteenth century, said that “everyone knew” what went on in the fields, and that if it was allowed to carry on “we must all leave our homes”. An anonymous whinger denounced the “vile rabble of idle and disorderly persons, who assemble there to play cricket, and such like pastimes, to the no small danger, and hurt, of harmless people, who either walk for air or business” and called for some serious action, especially against nudity: “Another nuisance of a most shameful nature I shall speak to, and that is running races, almost stark naked… Such abandoned miscreants can never be reclaimed, without a severe execution of the laws… Nothing but the whip, or battoon, that is the cudgel, will do with the vulgar.” The Duke’s private police, the beadles, should, said this complaint, be increased in number and powers, and out dealing with such people, as well as moving on vagrants and poor folk making a nuisance of themselves selling fruit and so on… In 1766, the High Constable of Holborn and his officers entered the Fields, to find “upwards of two hundred and fifty dog-fighters, bullies, chimney sweepers, and sharps…” When they tried to put a stop to a dog-fight, the hooligans set their dogs on them.

Later the ‘wastelands’ were put to more respectable purposes, when Burton the builder’s private volunteer army, raised under the threat of invasion by Napoleonic France (but, like all Volunteer militias of the time, partly driven by the well-to-do’s fear of revolt at home) drilled on the Fields in 1801. The fields were gradually built over between the 1770s and the early nineteenth century.

Walk down great Russell Street to Montague Street, turn right, and walk down to the gates leading to the gardens (just beyond Ruskin Hotel, east side, half way up on the right)

After the Second World War, in response to the housing crisis and the subsequent mass squatting movement, the Government requisitioned houses, to temporarily house many who needed homes… Hotels in the east side of Montague Street, which had stood empty since before the War, were requisitioned for emergency housing, usually for those whose homes had been destroyed in the war. The people rehoused there formed a strong community, as told in the very fine film Their World This Time (well worth seeing). Many of the inhabitants were socialists of one stripe or another, sharing the powerful mood of the time that they had been though the War, suffered many hardships, the depression of the 1930s, the Blitz, etc, and felt they deserved a better world – hence the film’s title. As the film

The gates into Montague Street gardens

relates, a community built up there; concerned about the danger of traffic to their kids, they formed a Committee, which campaigned and petitioned the Council to let them use the huge communal garden out the back of the houses. The Council leased them the Garden, which they used for a few years. However the posh hotels, which also backed on to the garden, were offended by their kids using the space, and after some lobbying managed to get the Council to confiscate the Garden. (Again, as with the ‘Long’ or Southampton Fields, with the fenced off squares, the endless fight between open space for all or for the exclusive use of the better off rears its head) Since then it has been once again a private open space for the hotel guests.

You can just see the garden if you look through the Gates: about time the gates came down we think! And we could requisition all the street’s hotels for the West End homeless while we’re at it.

Retrace your steps down Montague Street to no 29a 

The Bedford Office, who have administered the Bedford Estate (the Dukes’ property in Bloomsbury) for centuries, is based here.

Turn right onto great Russell Street, walk down to the Gates of the British Museum

Montague House, which used to be the home of another local aristo, Lord Montagu, was sold off in 1753 to house the collections of scientist and physician Hans Sloane; it reopened as the British Museum in 1759. Great Russell Street itself began to lose some of its lustre as one of the most desirable addresses in London after the original building was pulled down for the erection of the present Museum building in the late 1840s.

Troops camped in the grounds of the British Museum during the Gordon Riots

In June 1780, the military used the Museum gardens as a camp in the aftermath of the Gordon Riots, in response to the invasion of this area and to scare off any more potential rebels. Troops also camped there later in 1815 during the crisis at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in response to riots of hungry unemployed ex-soldiers and the poor. In April 1848 crowds of marchers assembled for a Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common; on the continent meanwhile many countries were in the grip of revolution. The British government feared the Chartists would launch an uprising, and fortified central London against riots, bringing in troops and police and swearing in middle class volunteers as special constables. The British Museum was thought to be under threat of attack, and in a letter to the Home Office, the director of the Museum, Sir Henry Ellis,  asked for the protection of 200 special constables. He added: “Please to remember if it should by any accident happen that the Building of the Museum fall into the hands of disaffected persons it would prove to them a Fortress capable of holding Ten Thousand Men.”

The Museum is of course a huge storehouse of mainly looted imperialist treasures from all round the world, acquired by British aristocrats, soldiers, explorers and scientists, often while imposing the Empire by military force on various peoples. Such folk get knighted and elevated; Gordon rioters get shot. Better a rich thief than a poor one, clearly.

A cartoon satirising the spending of money on the Elgin Marbles, suggesting the money would be better spent on relieving poverty

Just some of the disputed items:
• the Elgin Marbles: chiselled off the Acropolis in Athens in the 1830s and shipped to Britain; Greece has been asking for them back for decades.

• the Benin Bronzes: more than 1000 brass plaques from the old royal palace of the African kingdom of Benin. Seized by the British army in the “punitive expedition’ of 1897 and given to the Foreign Office, 200 of them ended up here; Nigeria claims they should be returned.

• Ethiopian tabots, or traditional tablets of law, looted by British soldiers during the 1868 ‘expedition to Abyssinia’; claimed by Ethiopia.

• the Achaemenid/Oxus treasure, from the time of the first Persian Empire; bought under dubious circumstances by a British soldier; claimed by Tajikistan.

• Mold’s Golden Cape, a gold ceremonial dress dug up in Mold, Flintshire, which many Welsh folk belongs back in Wales.

• the Rosetta Stone, a key to the translation of hieroglyphic writing, captured by British troops from Napoleon’s scientific-imperialist French expedition there (they’d nicked it themselves), then brought to London and donated to the Museum; Egypt would like it brought home.

At least Aboriginal human remains stolen in 1838 were returned to Tasmania by the Museum.

More on the dodginess of the museum collection

The old reading room at the British Museum

The Museum has been described as the “true heart of Bloomsbury”; maybe it is the spiritual heart of one of the many Bloomsburys. The old British Library Reading Room, has become mythologised in the history of the Left as the place where Marx researched much of Capital; it was also used by Lenin, John Ruskin, GB Shaw, among other left luminaries. Another frequent visitor in the 1910s was birth control pioneer Marie Stopes, reading everything about sex she could find, as research for her book Married Love, published in 1918, pretty much the first sex manual to put women’s pleasure as a priority.

Walk down Great Russell Street to no 35 

The National Unemployed Workers Movement, the campaigning organisation of the unemployed from 1921-1946, had its HQ here from 1932 to 1933.
The NUWM, formed in 1921, campaigned around unemployment, opposing attacks on the unemployed, occupying factories to persuade workers to boycott overtime to create more jobs for doleys, as well as doing much relief and welfare work on a local level. However after a more diverse beginning, they were increasingly dominated by the Communist Party, leading to a more centralised structure and concentration on hunger marches and national stunts.
The most important event of this era was the Fourth National Hunger March (September to November 1932), which was a reply to the National Government’s benefit cuts. Although well attended, it was also the most violent, with police attacking marchers repeatedly. (See Great Ormond Street, below).

On the corner of Bloomsbury Street, near the British Museum, this is a pleasant but unremarkable mid-Victorian building now in use as a Bureau de Change.

Walk down Great Russell Street to no 52-57

The flats at 52-57 Great Russell Street

Helen Graham House (next to Starbucks, opposite the crossing to Museum): from Summer 1884 to 1887, at what was then no. 55, Eleanor Marx, Karl’s daughter, a socialist and trade unionist, lived here with Edward Aveling. This was a great scandal at the time as they were not married. (Eleanor had previously lodged nearby in Great Coram Street). They were members of the pioneering socialist organisation, the Social Democratic Federation, and then part of the large minority that split away, disillusioned with the authoritarianism, racism and opportunism of the SDF’s founder HM Hyndman, to form the Socialist League. They founded the Bloomsbury branch of the League. At least one of the meetings of the ‘cabal’ that forced this split was held here at the Marx-Aveling home.

Although Eleanor did see her open co-habitation with Aveling as rejecting “immoral bourgeois conventionalities”, she wasn’t really a campaigner for Free Love. She DID view women as being the most oppressed in the capitalist society of her day, but didn’t believe it was best addressed on a domestic or personal level, focussing instead on collective solutions – especially to the struggles of working class women.

Setting up home with Aveling, Eleanor discovered that she hated housework. Uniquely among Marx’s family (and the middle class generally then), she had no servants – she couldn’t afford it, and again, unlike Marx and most of his family, she was reluctant to continually tap Marx’s well-financed mate Friedrich Engels for cash. She attempted to support herself writing essays and reviews, lecturing on Shakespeare, and teaching.

The Bloomsbury branch of the Socialist League, which grew to 80 members at one point, met for a while at the Eagle and Child coffee house in Soho’s Old Compton Street; but they also held events at other nearby venues, including the Athenaeum Hall, 73 Tottenham Court Road, where they put on an evening of Musical and Dramatic Entertainment. Eleanor also lectured in Bloomsbury’s Hart Street (now Bloomsbury Way), in Neumeyer Hall, for the annual socialist commemoration of the Paris Commune in March 1885 (a speech praised even by the SDF’s HM Hyndman, no mate of Eleanor, who called it “one of the finest speeches I ever heard”. At another Commune commemoration, held at the ‘Store Street hall’ off Gower Street in March 1888, she spoke on a platform with Hyndman, William Morris, Kropotkin, Annie Besant and John Burns. Interestingly Eleanor and Aveling also celebrated an earlier sometime Bloomsbury resident, Shelley, in two lectures on ‘Shelley and Socialism’ in 1888, later published as a pamphlet. [Interestingly, Shelley and Mary Godwin lodged at no 119 Great Russell Street, in 1818, having previously lived  in Marchmont Street for a while in 1816. Both these houses are now long gone… For more on Shelley’s ideas see Marchmont Street, in our second Bloomsbury walk…

But if the Socialist League was united mainly by opposition to Hyndman, it was divided by many principles and tactics. Eleanor and Aveling, as well as others of the membership, especially in the Bloomsbury branch, were in favour of parliamentary representation and campaigning in elections, a minority position in the League, which increasingly became dominated by anarchists or anti-parliamentary socialists. From the start Eleanor and Aveling were hostile to the anarchists, not only politically, but because they saw them as easy meat for the many police spies sniffing round the broad socialist movement. Growing internal differences manifested as bitter faction fighting and attempts by the Bloomsbury branch to capture the League for their position; at the SL’s fourth annual conference their resolutions proposing the standing of candidates in local and parliamentary elections, and for moving towards uniting with other socialist groups were defeated. The widening split to led to their eventual departure in 1888 (they were suspended after it emerged they had put up local election candidates jointly with the SDF that April, and had encouraged joint membership, breaching League policy), after which they reformed themselves as the Bloomsbury Socialist Society, which helped to organise the first British May Day demo in 1890. The Society met weekly at the Communist Club in Tottenham Street from 1890 to 1893 (at least, maybe earlier and later).

Eleanor was very active in trade union work, especially with the Gasworkers Union and with striking East End matchgirls in 1888; and while on the one hand the Bloomsbury ‘faction’ undoubtedly intrigued and supped on parliamentary illusions, they also rejected the purist attitudes of the SL towards workers striving for immediate improvements in their day to day lives, which isolated some socialists from much working class organisation.

Eleanor’s long-time lover Edward Aveling was a cad, as they used to say; infamous in the secularist and socialist circles the couple moved in, for philandering, poncing (and sometimes embezzling) money and never repaying, two-timing Eleanor and generally behaving anti-socially. At the same time he genuinely dedicated his sharp mind to both Darwinism and Marx’s ‘scientific socialism’. Shaw called him “an agreeable rascal… who would have gone to the stake for Socialism or Atheism, but with absolutely no conscience in his private life…” “In revolt against all bourgeois conventions, Aveling did not replace them by any moral concern, but simply filled the vacuum with his own egotism…'” (EP Thompson) His amoral attitudes gradually alienated many fellow socialists – for instance William Morris, who worked with Aveling closely in 1883-6, was by late 1887 calling him a “disreputable dog”; though they had fallen out politically by then.

For all their shared life, unmarried in defiance of bourgeois convention, he later secretly married someone else, after other affairs, and a despairing Eleanor, who had long defended Aveling against the criticisms of fellow socialists, killed herself at her home in Sydenham in 1898, by swallowing prussic acid. Aveling himself died later the same year.

NB: Eleanor may have been down on the anarchists; she was more complimentary about the Fabians, many of who were personal friends, though she thought their politics misguided, and even the Christian Socialists, who she considered sincere, though again she called their mix of Christianity and socialism “ludicrous”.

Walk west down to Bury Place, turn left and down to:

no 34, Russell chambers, Bury Place: Bertrand Russell lived here 1911-16. In many ways he sums up the contradictions of Bloomsbury: pacifist, socialist, tireless campaigner against war and later nukes – as well as a pioneering philosopher and mathematician… But… descended from the local landlords, the dukes of Bedford; grandson of the first Earl Russell (former Prime Minister John Russell), he later became Earl himself. Wonder if he had to pay rent here (and at Gordon Square, where he lived later)? Russell was bound up in the bohemian and left-leaning circles of Bloomsbury: a member of the Fabian Society, influential through his philosophy and politics on residents (many of the Bloomsbury Grope were taken with his philosphical ideas).

Walk back up Bury Place to Little Russell St, turn left and walk down to the back of St George’s Church

This is the church in the background in Hogarth’s famous 1751 engraving, Gin Lane… Why not bring a bottle of gin on your walk and have a healthy slug here? It’s not as potent as the infamous 18th century moral panic in a bottle, but it’ll still hit the spot.

Troops were hidden inside the church, on 6th June 1780, in a plan to intercept the riotous crowd marching on Lord Mansfield’s house… well obviously THAT didn’t work! (see Bloomsbury Square, above).

Continue up Little Russell Street to Museum Street, turn left and then left again, into Gilbert Place, and down Gilbert Place to no 10 (halfway along on south side)

This was a hangout of class struggle anarchists (the best kind!) in the 1960s. The Christie-Carballo Defence Committee met here around 1964. Scots anarchist Stuart Christie had travelled to Spain, and teamed up with Spaniard Fernando Carballo in an abortive attempt to blow up Spanish fascist dictator Franco; they were both arrested and sentenced to 20 years in jail. The Defence Committee which was set up on their behalf managed as part of a widespread protest to get Stuart freed in 1967. This group, (connected to a London Anarchist group which met here around 1965) together with Stuart and veteran anarcho Albert Meltzer evolved into the revived Anarchist Black Cross, and anarchist paper Black Flag, which had its office here, c. 1969-73. They were renting, then squatting for a while, but moved out (around June 1973?) when a private detective agency moved into another part of the building! Around this time, people associated with this group launched the famous Centro Ibérico anarchist meeting place in premises in Haverstock Hill.

Walk back down Gilbert Place, left at Museum Street, right into Little Russell Street, and down to Coptic Street, to no 7 (over the road from Pizza Express)

The shop at no 7 Coptic Street is long gone…

Veteran anarchist Albert Meltzer had a bookshop here c. 1964 -68,The shop also housed Coptic Press, run by Albert, Ted Kavanagh and Martin Page. This was an anarchist press, reprinting anarchist and surrealist pamphlets, as well as producing commercial reprints of interesting, out of print material. Stuart Christie started work in both the bookshop and press on his arrival in London after being freed from Spain in 1967 (see Gilbert Place, above): “I had been working less than a week at Coptic Press when a detective called at the shop to see Albert. He asked to speak to him in private. They went to the pizza bar across the street, where the detective asked Albert – whom he had only identified as the managing director – if he knew anything about his new employee Stuart Christie. Assuming the airs of a company tycoon – very easy at the time, since he had a weight problem – Albert stiffly replied, ‘He came with good references.’ The detective asked him if he knew that I had just completed a prison sentence. ‘What on earth for?’ ‘He was sentenced to twenty years in a Spanish prison.’ ‘That can’t be the same person, he’s not old enough – he’s only twenty-two.’ The detective sighed in that worldly wise manner, more indicative of sympathy than impatience, reserved by patrol constables for absent-minded motorists who leave their car doors unlocked. ‘The trouble with you gentlemen is that you never read your papers,’ he said. He gave a brief account of my crime and punishment.’ I don’t know why you are worrying,’ Albert said in his grandest manner. ‘I thought the police encouraged old lags to go straight. Surely this will be a chance to rehabilitate?’ ‘But he’s a terrorist!’ protested the detective. Albert looked suitably shocked. ‘I wish you would put this down in writing. I couldn’t take the risk of acting without that.’ But the policeman wasn’t falling for that one. ‘My word should be good enough.’ He refused to give his identity and details of his complaint. ‘I’ve told you and you can find out more for yourself. It’s no secret, sir.’ His tone was deferential. He had not checked up to find that Albert Meltzer was as committed to anarchism, perhaps more so, than his erstwhile terrorist employee – certainly he had been active since well before I was even born. The press was cultivating the image of the anarchist as youthful and hippie, and burly, balding, middle-aged Albert hardly fell into that category.”

… though the Pizza Express where Albert received his advice from the secret police remains

The Coptic Street bookshop was a focus for the class struggle anarchist group around Albert and Stuart, who in November 1967 formed the Anarchist Black Cross, as a support group, for publicity, fundraising and solidarity for anarchist prisoners, mainly in Spain but later all over the world. The Black Cross did excellent work for years… this also led to the founding of the long-running anarchist paper Black Flag. During interesting times in London, eg when big demos taking place against US embassy over Vietnam, anarchos from London, other parts of UK and Europe frequented the bookshop, came to find crash space etc. The Press later moved to Pentonville Road.

Walk up to Streatham Street, turn left, down to corner of Bloomsbury Street, cross over onto the west side.

Somewhere here, a low number, 4 or 6 Bloomsbury Street, or something, (a double fronted building, on the left hand side as you walk up… next door to Bookmarks we think) was squatted for quite a while, around 1979-80… 15 people were living here, including several musicians. It was here that two characters, having been sampling some exotic substance or other, entertained themselves by shooting at passing rush hour traffic with popguns which fired little union jacks… Until they were suddenly surrounded by an armed response unit. No sense of humour, the Old Bill.

Walk north up Bloomsbury Street, to the Bloomsbury Street Hotel, on corner of Great Russell Street: Formerly the 630-room Ivanhoe Hotel

In June 1914 Olive Bartels succeeded Annie Kenney as London organiser of the suffragette Womens Social & Political Union, then engaged in an all-out campaign of sabotage and rebellion against the government in pursuit of winning women the vote. The police were on the hunt for WSPU activists, and Olive, while living in Ivanhoe Hotel, in disguise as a widow, wasn’t overtly in touch with organisation, in fact she kept in touch by ‘underground’ methods, which included coded messages passed by ‘office girls’.

The Bloomsbury Hotel

The Hotel was squatted in September 1946, as part of the post-war squatting wave. Empty for some time, it had been used during the war to house Irish labourers repairing bomb damaged buildings.

At the end of WW2 there was massive homelessness around the country – a pre-war shortage of housing had been made worse by the destruction of houses through bombing and a total halt in the building of new housing. Demobilisation of thousands of servicemen jacked this up into a crisis… As a result there was mass squatting of empty houses, and army camps and depots, around the country. In September this spread into London: on September 8th Duchess of Bedford House in Kensington was occupied by over 1000 people; within the next 2 days other buildings in Kensington, Abbey lodge near Regents Park and Fountain Court in Pimlico were also squatted. The Ivanhoe was squatted on the 10th. All were luxury housing or up-market hotels left empty during a housing crisis… The Communist Party was heavily involved in these London actions, though there has been argument over how dominant they were in the squatting movement nationally, initially they rubbished the early autonomous squatters; they then jumped on the bandwagon when it became obvious how strongly the movement was taking off, tried to take things over and repress independent activity. Sound familiar?

While the squatting in the camps was more the practical meeting of a basic need, the London actions were more political propaganda acts, launching a campaign to force the Government to requisition empty private housing for those in need. It did trigger some squatting of smaller houses in the London suburbs.

Hotel Ivanhoe Squatters

The squatters here used a diversionary tactic to get in to the Ivanhoe… One group drew police who were on their back off to another building some distance off, while another group moved in on the hotel (possibly though according to James Hinton, they got in through an underground tunnel the police had no idea was there). 12 families broke in through boarded up doors; by this time the cops had got wind and turned up, blocking up the doors and reboarding them, to stop other squatters getting in. An attempt by others to force their way in was prevented by the police.

The Police put a cordon round the hotel; although food and bedding could be thrown in from the outside by supporters, people could not go in or out, so the squat became a siege. There were confrontations between supporters outside and cops, here and at other buildings: horses were used here to disperse large crowds blocking the streets (usually by sitting down). Within a few days five Communist Party members involved in planning the squats had been arrested for conspiracy and incitement to trespass. CP member and squatting activist Johnny Marten was nicked on September 12th for talking to the squatters from outside the hotel: according to the Evening News, “he was then escorted by the police to Tottenham Court Road police Station. Followed by a crowd, some of whom shouted ‘is this what we won the war for?’ ” Court orders were obtained against all the squatted buildings, they seem to have left voluntarily after this, reports in the press said there were just 13 people left at the end, they left in taxis paid for by the CP.

Turn left, into the western stretch of Great Russell Street, stop at end of Dyott Street

In the late eighteenth century, the Capper sisters lived at the north west end of Great Russell street. Tenant farmers of the Duke of Bedford, they rented the farmlands north the street. These eccentric respectable folk took a dim view of the rowdy sports, and worse, beyond their fences on the Long Fields, and claimed their land was regularly trespassed on by local yoof who liked to bathe in their ponds and fly kites there.
Unlike others of their discomfitted middle-class neighbours (see above), though, they took matters into their own hands, venturing onto the Fields to combat immorality. Esther Capper “rode an old grey mare, and it was her spiteful delight to ride with a pair of shears after the boys who were flying their kites, in order to cut their strings. The other sister’s business was to seize the clothes of the lads who trespassed on their premises to bathe.” (Albert Smith, Book for a Rainy Day).

Detour down Dyott Street to junction with Bainbridge Street

“Intricate and dangerous places”

This was the heart of the St Giles Rookery, a notorious slum for centuries, a harbour for rebels & criminals: “one dense mass of houses, through which curved narrow tortuous lanes, from which again diverged close courts – one great mass, as if the houses had originally been one block of stone eaten by slugs into small chambers and connecting passages. The lanes were thronged with loiterers, and stagnant gutters, and piles of garbage and filth infested the air.” (John Timbs, Curiosities of London).

Largely contained between Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury Street (then Charlotte St) Broad Street and St Giles High Street, the rookery was known for the poverty of its residents already by the end of the Seventeenth Century (when the area was fairly recently built up), it declined through the 18th. a “most wealthy and populous parish”, social upheavals in Tudor times seem to have first led to its notoriety as a nexus of the unruly poor. Attempts were made here (and widely elsewhere) to control the migration of undesirables into the parish: in 1637 it was ordered that, “to prevent the great influx of poor people into this parish, the beadles do present every fortnight, on the Sunday, the names of all new-comers, under-setters, inmates, divided tenements, persons that have families in cellars, and other abuses.”

The St Giles Rookery

But as those who could afford to move gradually drifted west to newer, more prosperous estates, the houses they left became subdivided and sublet and relet, often on short leases, creating complex patterns of ownership that made repairs and maintenance a logistical nightmare and defeated authorities’ efforts to enforce legal standards. The inhabitants became poorer and overcrowding rocketed. the late 1700s, the parish was  “said to furnish his Majesty’s plantations in America with more souls than all the rest of the kingdom besides.” (ie large numbers were sentenced to be transported to the colonies) and for producing a disproportionate percentage of those who hanged at Tyburn (as well as several of the “Jack Ketches”, the public hangmen who “turned them off”)

The most notorious streets were Jones Court, and Bainbridge Street, according to Mayhew: “some of the most intricate and dangerous places in this low locality”, a haunt of coiners and thieves, costermongers (pedlars and street hawkers) , fish-women, newscriers, and corn-cutters. A bull terrier was said to stand here, trained to bark if a stranger approached; it was later taken away by the cops and destroyed. Jones Court, Bainbridge Street and Buckeridge Street were joined together by cellars, roofs yards and sewers, making it easy for fugitives to escape the authorities; and filled with booby traps: hidden cess pools etc. Also infamous was Carrier Street (which ran north to south in the rookery): Mother Dowling’s lodging house & provision shop stood here, frequented by vagrants of every sort. Cellars became so integral a part of life here that ‘a cellar in St. Giles’s’ became a byword for living in extreme poverty.

The rookery mostly consisted of a warren of cheap lodging houses, “set apart for the reception of idle persons and vagabonds”, where accommodation could be found for twopence a night:

“there was, at least, a floating population of 1,000 persons who had no fixed residence, and who hired their beds for the night in houses fitted up for the purpose. Some of these houses had each fifty beds, if such a term can be applied to the wretched materials on which their occupants reposed; the usual price was sixpence for a whole bed, or fourpence for half a one; and behind some of the houses there were cribs littered with straw, where the wretched might sleep for threepence. In one of the houses seventeen persons have been found sleeping in the same room, and these consisting of men and their wives, single men, single women, and children. Several houses frequently belonged to one person, and more than one lodging-house-keeper amassed a handsome fortune by the mendicants of St. Giles’s and Bloomsbury. The furniture of the houses was of the most wretched description, and no persons but those sunk in vice, or draining the cup of misery to its very dregs, could frequent them. In some of the lodging-houses breakfast was supplied to the lodgers, and such was the avarice of the keeper, that the very loaves were made of a diminutive size in order to increase his profits.”

Notorious pubs were prominent, each said by outraged commentators to be the HQ of gangs of beggars thieves and pickpockets: the Maidenhead Inn, the Rats Castle, the Turks Head, all in Dyott Street, and the Black Horse.

Of the Rat’s Castle, the Rev. T. Beames, in his “Rookeries of London,” (a classic outraged ‘expose’ of life in the slums) said: “In the ground floor was a large room, appropriated to the general entertainment of all comers; in the first floor, a free-and-easy, where dancing and singing went on during the greater part of the night, suppers were laid, and the luxuries which tempt to intoxication freely displayed. The frequenters of this place were bound together by a common tie, and they spoke openly of incidents which they had long since ceased to blush at, but which hardened habits of crime alone could teach them to avow.”
 Gin shops also abounded: one in four houses in St Giles was estimated to be selling spirits in 1750.

Modern Dyott Street

The area contained a large poor Irish population, said to be three quarters of the population in some streets, so much that it was nicknamed little Dublin, or the Holy Land. They gradually displaced older groups like the Hugenots who had moved here in the 1680s… Most of the Irish were labourers, originally arriving to work the harvests, later flocking to the building and brewing trades. In 1780, the majority of the 20,000 odd Irish people living in London were residents of St Giles. Besides the Irish, by the 1730s this area also housed a noticeable black community, known as ‘the St Giles Blackbirds’, many ex-slaves, some on the run from their ‘owners’, some former sailors or ex-servants.

In 1780, several Gordon Rioters were nicked in the rookery with loot, including Charles Kent and Letitia Holland, hanged for the attack on Lord Mansfield’s house (see above), apprehended in Bambridge Street.

Well-to-do commentators saw the rookery through a lens tinted with their own prejudices: the above quote from John Timbs, describing the streets of the rookery as if they “… had originally been one block of stone eaten by slugs”, brackets the residents with termites or other insects; a dehumanisation of the poor that is a regular feature of observations on the lower classes by the better off. There are fewer verminous paragraphs to describe landlords or middlemen (often ‘house-farmers’ leasing from the rich and making tidy sums from subdividing the garrets) who benefitted from overcrowding their houses for their own profit.

In an early act of development as social engineering, New Oxford Street was built between 1844 and 1847, partly to break up the rookery by demolishing some of its most notorious alleys and tenements. Several of the most infamous streets disappeared, leaving some 5000 of the poor homeless; while the Duke of Bedford, owner of 104 of the demolished houses, received £114,000 in compensation (a huge sum then.) Driven from their homes, but needing to stay near their work or sources of casual labour, the rookery dwellers found lodgings nearby, causing a 76 per cent increase in population in some streets. Many such schemes to improve London’s main roads were also used in the 19th Century to break up areas of poverty and lawlessness the authorities found threatening. The building of New Oxford Street, together with the later construction of nearby Shaftesbury Avenue through other notorious parts of St Giles, began the reclamation of this long-infamous area for respectability.

This was however only the opening skirmish of a long process of architectural class restructuring. Thirty years later, further social cleansing took place in St Giles, this time under the guise of actual cleansing of insanitary housing. St Giles had already seen an influx of refugees from slum clearances in nearby areas of Holborn, the City and the Strand in the 1860s, and was more and more jammed to the rafters. Under the terms of the 1875 Artisans Dwelling (or Cross) Act thousands of residents in overcrowded London slums were evicted, and the buildings demolished. The result of sustained lobbying by housing reformers, notably the Charity Organisation Society, the idea behind the Act was that crap housing could be cleared, in an organised way for the first time, on the orders of the local medical officer, compensation paid to the owners, and then the land would be sold to a developer on the proviso that they would build decent working class housing. Another of the many and varied attempts by coalitions of the worthy to kickstart a general improvement in the condition of housing for the poor, which they also believed would have a positive impact on their morals, way of life and prospects for secure employment… Many of these reformers knew that it was the owners or middlemen making the money who should shoulder much of the blame for slum housing, and that many of these sat on local Vestries and thus were able to defeat attempts at real change. The Act was a disaster, however, making overcrowding much worse. Partly this was because excessive compensation was paid to the landlords, for land which was then not to be used for commercial use, so the value dropped heavily; meanwhile, because compo was based on rental receipts, land owners in areas likely to face action under the Cross Acts rammed more people into their properties, and lied through their teeth about the value of houses. And while the poorest were usually those evicted (in St Giles, those displaced were ‘waifs of the population, poor labourers, hawkers, thieves and prostitutes, many of who were “lying out in the streets” or found space in already crowded neighbouring buildings), where replacement ‘model dwellings’ were built, (which took years, and in some cases never happened), they were not the type of people allowed, or who could afford, to move in. Although the Peabody Trust built 690 tenements to replace demolished slums in Great Wyld Street and Drury Lane, there was no accommodation for barrows and donkeys belonging to costermongers, the majority of the evictees, and the rents were too high. The net effect was to increase overcrowding in the area, as most of the cleared worked locally and were unlikely or unable to move far. This kind of well-intentioned reform rewarding the property-owners and making things worse for the poor seems to have been a regular feature of late-19th Century philanthropy. Local Medical officers also openly used the Cross Act and other sanitary reform legislation to forcibly rid their manor of people they saw as scum, with little pretence of rehousing them – in St Giles in 1881, the Medical Officer reported that he saw no possibility of improvement while many of those evicted remained in the area , and that he “was pleased to have got rid of them.” Some 8000 people were driven out of the area in the 1870s.

Some of those cleared in Great Wyld Street (now Wild Street, off Drury Lane), were unwilling to simply play victim, and took up squatting: “they made a forcible entry into Orange Court, and were turned out of the empty houses after they were compensated by the Board of Works.”

Originally a major gallows stood in St Giles, later moved to Tyburn. Even after that, St Giles remained for long the last stop on the road from Newgate to Tyburn, a symbolic route of procession for those condemned to be hanged. Here they could have their last drink to keep up their courage; originally, in the 17th Century, at the Bowl tavern, on the corner of St Giles High Street and Endell Street (roughly where Dudley Court is now), later in the 18th century, the custom passed to the Angel, in the High Street, next to the church. Later still other pubs in Holborn and Oxford Street took up the custom.

The presence of the Rookeries of St Giles, Drury Lane and Seven Dials, clearly acted not only as a ‘neighbourhood threat’ to Bloomsbury’s well-heeled; but also as a local spur to the consciences of wealthy reformers and radicals there; we know his work in the Drury Lane slums influenced socialist vicar Stewart Headlam’s ideas, for example.

Recuperating the slums: a club called the ‘Rookery’ where the rookery was socially cleansed

Walk down to the western end of Bainbridge Street (where the YWCA building now stands)

“a great day for the Rookery”
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The Dominion Theatre

A large brewery used to occupy the land where the Dominion Theatre stands, between this end of Bainbridge Street and Great Russell Street, backing onto some of the ‘darkest spots’ of the Rookery. On October 17th 1814, this was the scene of a disaster which is said to have turned into a free festival: “the great porter vat, which stood 22 feet high and contained 3555 barrels (or 135,000 imperial gallons)… the talk of the town when first erected… burst, flooding the Rookery.” Other vats burst as the debris collapsed, and several flimsy garret walls collapsed under the tremendous force of thousands of gallons of dark beer, killing several inhabitants. But the rookery-dwellers weren’t likely to pass up such an opportunity, as described by local chroniclers Gordon and Deeson, (with typical loaded language: again, note the immediate likening of the residents to verminous animals): “Like rats out of their holes came the mob and lapped at the porter as it ran along the gutters, or cupped their hands and poured it down their throats…” The more enterprising grabbed whatever containers they could to collect the porter for later consumption, “even the children, in the scantiest of rags or more more frequently nothing at all, ran out to do their share with spoons… it was a great day for the Rookery.” In court it was held to be an Act of God! More here

Walk back down Bainbridge Street, to the junction with Streatham Street

Standing here in Streatham Street are the oldest remaining “Model Dwellings” in London, (older ones existed, but were all destroyed in WW2 bombing). They were built in 1848-49 by Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, and opened in 1850 with the expressed aim of rehousing evictees from the St Giles Rookery during the clearances for New Oxford Street.“The Duke of Bedford supplied the site at a nominal ground rent of 1½d per foot” (given the compo he’d been granted from the demolition of the rookery, he could afford a bit of largesse.)
That only the most respectable of the rookery poor should be rehoused was the usual policy of such schemes,  housing, based on the  general belief then that there were two types of poor folk: those who wanted to work and improve themselves, achieve respectability etc, and the feckless, semi- or outright criminal lumpens who would never amount to anything. The trouble with slums and rookeries was that the deserving had to live amongst the undeserving, thus exposing them to drunkenness laziness and all the other traits of the feckless. People’s environment was inseparable from their behaviour: “filthy habits of life were never far from moral filthiness”, as the Health of Towns Committee Report in 1840 put it. The obvious solution was to elevate the deserving and give them decent housing: under proper controls of course. Streatham Street was an early pioneer of this, although the model was adopted across London and the country as the nineteenth century went on . The vast majority of the slumdwellers evicted from St Giles were excluded; 42 of 48 households in 1851 were ‘headed’ by working men in respectable trades; unmarried working women were largely barred, and a fairly high rent kept the casual poor out. On top of this there were strict controls on the behaviour of tenants to make sure levels of decency and morality were maintained (offenders could always be evicted and pushed back into the slums). The early pioneers of Model Dwellings and other social housing reform believed that the architecture even, the physical environment people lived in could either sap their moral will, keep them held in poverty, or be adapted and changed to mould them into better more hardworking citizens (the Streatham Street Buildings architect Henry Roberts even published a pamphlet on ‘Home Reform’ to “instruct the poor on their own elevation” as Robin Evans put it) The layout of Model dwellings was specifically designed to have what was thought to be a beneficial moral and social effect. One of the main aspects of slum life they aimed to change was overcrowding – families having to share a room, where they slept, ate and did everything together; often even more than one family might live together in one room. Housing reformers were keen to give these poor families more space; however their pressing reason was not privacy, but that this way of life was in itself immoral. Not only did it encourage immodesty and improper sexual relations (a subject of  pathological obsession and innuendo for the Victorian middle class), but in a more complex and nebulous way, they thought that it formed part of a collective, communal life that should be done away with. Life publicly shared, in housing, the street, the pub, and other places of amusement, was itself somehow inconducive to respectability and self-reliance; the Model Dwellings were designed to separate people as much as possible – children from parents, one family from another. Physical space was designed to keep people apart – stairwells and other physical barriers between flats and doorways – in fact separate sanitary arrangements were built in at extra cost to reduce ‘immodest’ contact. Part of the plan was definitely a reinforcing of the patriarchal family unit, split off from a shifting wider communal society or even extended family.

The trouble was, that many of the intended recipients, even those as could afford it, didn’t always want it. The aims of the housing reformers were openly stated, and large numbers of the poor resented the attempt to improve them, and either resisted moving in (Model Dwellings, early on, sometimes stood half empty amidst overcrowded slums), or resisted and subverted the harsh rules if they did take up residence. Reformers complained that families often continued to all sleep together in one room even when another lay empty, doors stood open as people socialised, among other practices brought from the rookeries into the new moral blocks.

Turn into Dyott Street again, walk down, then left down Great Russell Street, and right at Adeline Street, to Bedford Square

So many judges and lawyers lived here in the 18th and 19th centuries it acquired the nickname Judgeland.

Walk round the west side of the Square: stopping at:

Passmore Edwards

No 51: John Passmore Edwards lived here, mid-19th Century. Originally a Chartist, he later became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, of the Crimean War, and corporal punishment. He made a fortune in publishing, and used it to found 24 free libraries, 2 hospitals and other charitable works. Co-founder of charitable Passmore Edwards Settlement with Mary Ward, (now the Mary Ward Centre, still used as a community centre; see Tavistock Place and Queen Square) He refused a knighthood twice.

No 50: Home of Baron Denman, a lawyer who became Solicitor-General then Lord Chief Justice. Denman represented leading radical and freethinking publisher Richard Carlile at one point in his trials for printing blasphemous texts… but a rightward drift, or “migration to office and persecution” of lawyers who “appear before the public as counsel for the defence of public liberty against infamous persecutions” (as Guy Aldred put it) is a strong trend for young radicals. Denman later prosecuted people who rioted at the funeral of king George IV’s estranged wife Queen Caroline, although he himself had argued her legal case against the king, and as Lord Chief justice he presided over many prosecutions of radicals including Chartists, and prosecuted the publisher of Shelley’s complete works for blasphemy! The hypocrisy and majesty of the Law!

Thomas Wakley

no 35: Surgeon Thomas Wakley, pioneer medical and social reformer, lived here. A friend of radical journalist William Cobbett, with whose radicalism he was in sympathy, in 1823 Wakley started the medical weekly The Lancet, and began a series of attacks on bribery and corruption in the medical profession. To opposition from hospital doctors he published reports of their lectures, exposed malpractices, leading to a number of law-suits, but gradually winning support among fellow doctors. He also attacked the whole constitution of the Royal College of Surgeons, and became a coroner, as part of a campaign to reduce coroners’ power; his judgement that a young soldier’s death had been caused by brutal flogging helped to end flogging in the army. In 1828 Wakley became involved in the campaign for parliamentary reform, an extension of the vote, the removal of property qualifications for parliamentary candidates, the repeal of the Corn Laws, the abolition of slavery and the suspension of the Newspaper Stamp Act. He was elected MP for Finsbury in 1835, and his maiden speech attacked the decision to convict the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Wakley was the main spokesman for the campaign to have these transported trade unionists reprieved and worked so hard on their case that, when their freedom was celebrated in 1838 by a vast procession through London, he was the guest of honour. Wakley was one of the main opponents of the repressive stamp duty on newspapers. As part of this campaign, Wakley published six issues of an unstamped newspaper called A Voice from the Commons in 1836. He was also a passionate opponent of the 1834 Poor Law, and in 1845 helped to expose maltreatment of inmates in the Andover Workhouse.
Wakley was later one of the few members of the House of Commons who defended the activities of the Chartists, though he didn’t agree with all the six points of the Charter.

Walk round to no 6, on east side of the Square

“heavy on mankind”

John Scott, Lord Eldon, Lord Chancellor from 1801-6 and 1807-1827, lived here (no 6 seems to have been an official residence of Lord Chancellors)… a bad bad bastard! Early on in his political rise, as Attorney General, Eldon brought in the Act suspending Habeus Corpus in 1794, allowing people to be imprisoned without trial, and acted as chief prosecutor in a treason trial against leading members of the radical reform organisation, the London Corresponding Society  – though his case was so weak and his speechifying so hysterical, they were famously acquitted. Appointed Lord Chief Justice and later Lord Chancellor, he became a crucial wedge of the most repressive government in modern times, which repressed numerous working class movements, and quashed several revolts and conspiracies, including the Despard Conspiracy, the Black Lamp, the Luddites, among the most famous. Eldon was a notorious advocate of hanging for the most petty offences, an ardent opponent of the abolition of slavery in the Colonies. “He is a thoroughbred Tory… There has been no stretch of power attempted in his time that he has not seconded: no existing abuse so odious or so absurd, that he has not sanctioned it. He has gone the whole length of the most unpopular designs of Ministers… On all the great questions that have divided party opinion or agitated the public mind, the Chancellor has been found uniformly and without a single exception on the side of prerogative and power, and against every proposal for the advancement of freedom.” [William Hazlitt, Spirit of the Age, 1825.]

Eldon was a great hater of radicals on principle – in 1816 he denied the revolutionary poet Percy Shelley custody of his children after the death of Shelley’s wife, because Shelley was an avowed atheist. (Although he also may have had a personal spite: Shelley was also fond of eloping with his future wives, and Eldon’s own daughter had angered him greatly by running off secretly to marry some down at heel architect).

Shelley achieved a measure of revenge by portraying Eldon satirically in his Masque of Anarchy, where the Chancellor appears in a procession of caricatured repressive powerful figures:

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

(the little children playing around Eldon’s feet may be a dig over the loss of custody of his kids…?)

Sydney Smith said of him “Lord Eldon and the Court of Chancery sit heavy on mankind.”

The riots against the passing of the Corn Laws

Eldon’s house here was attacked in 1815 after the passing of the 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, making the Laws wildly unpopular with the poor. Eldon was widely seen as being instrumental to the passing of the Corn laws, (although this may not have been true).

On March 6th 1815, after the Corn Laws were passed, Eldon was pursued from the house of Lords to his house by a mob who attacked the building, hanging a noose from a nearby lamppost in the hope he could be persuaded to wear it. They broke all the windows, using iron railings as crow-bars to wrench an entrance, and destroyed the house. Soldiers of the British Museum guard, arrived and drove out all the intruders, except two who were taken into custody on the spot. Eldon told them: “If you don’t mind what you are about lads, you will all come to be hanged.” A rioter replied, “Perhaps so, old chap, but I think it looks now as if you would be hanged first.”
Sadly not, as the troops chased off the crowd.

The two arrested men were sent before a justice of peace, but the soldiers refused to be witnesses against them.

A garrison of 50 soldiers was stationed here for 3 weeks, since “persons in the front of the house from time to time using menacing language and threats, whenever from the streets they saw any persons in the house.”

Eldon’s house, and convenient lamppost…

Whether or not Eldon was involved in the passing of the Corn Laws, he was, it’s fair to say, an evil bastard, whose looks would have been improved by a hemp necklace…

Walk down to no 11, on the north-eastern corner, on the junction with Montague Place

This building was occupied 27th February 2011 as an ‘Anti-Cuts Space’ by UCL students… evicted March 3rd by bailiffs who came through the roof…

Walk north into Gower Street

There were many squats in Gower Street the late 1970s… Including the Rectory of St George’s Bloomsbury. When this was squatted, it was found to have a working telephone already connected; the word got round quickly and soon there were queues, literally around the block, of squatters from far-off lands, including many from Oz and Kiwiland, waiting to use the free phone. This must have cost somebody, hopefully the orrible church, £1000s.

Walk up Gower Street, left into Chenies Street, and right into Ridgemount Gardens

Although the Bedford Estate was forced to remove its gates across Bloomsbury streets in 1893, that it remains committed to social control in WC1 can be seen up this quiet back street. The gardens on the east side of the road are locked off, for residents’ use only; the plentiful signs on the railings ban even these lucky keyholders from playing ball games, riding bikes, exercising dogs, and even playing music (ironically regarding this last, opposite one of the signs, a plaque on nos 25-36 commemorates Bob Marley’s living in Ridgemount Gardens in 1972! Wonder if he was allowed to sing…?) See photos of signs…

Despite the signs, it wouldn’t take much to jump the fence and have a lie down, share a couple of sarnies and a bottle of pop, or even have a quick game of cricket/unicycle practice/belt out an Elvis number, or give the whippet a run, if you felt like it…

Walk north up to Torrington place, turn right into Gower Street, then cross over to no 78

Between February and July 2005, this was squatted and became the Institute for Autonomy, an anti-capitalist social centre. Created in a disused university building that lay empty for over 5 years. The Institute for Autonomy aimed to be an open space for daily development towards autonomy. It was organised by open assemblies. Run by a collective made up of University of London students and other assorted refugees from Ex-Grand Banks Social Centre. The IFA, located close to the university/student area became used by a variety of political groups as well as hosting various labs (hacklab, screen printing, photolab, infoshop/bookstall) held a cafe three times a week offering top-quality food attracting workers, students and lecturers from around the area. It also housed upwards of 15 people and provided housing for people who were on their way to attend the anti-G8 actions in Gleneagles.

The Institute signified a move for the mostly Wombles-based squat centres of Tufnell park etc, merging with student activists at central London colleges… it was to be succeeded by the larger squat in Russell Square, ‘The Square’, and formed part of a chain with the later Bloomsbury activists involved in uni occupations, supporting workers eg cleaners at the Universities, and opposing cuts…
More on the Institute for Autonomy

Cross back over, back into into Torrington Place, then turn left into southern end of Huntley St, walk over to nos 1-9, on the west side

The former squatted blocks, Huntley Street

In February 1977 these 5 blocks of 54 empty police flats, empty for 4 years, were squatted. Soon 160 people were living here, including evictees from squats at Cleveland St, Trentishoe Mansions & Cornwall Terrace. One block was allocated to women and children from a hostel for battered women; a ground floor flat became the office of the Squatters Action Council and later the London Squatters Union. 3 days after the flats were squatted, the Health Authority, who owned them, announced that they were to be used to house nurses and doctors from neighbouring University College Hospital.

After the Health Authority obtained a Possession Order in July 1978, the flats were barricaded, a watch was set up around the clock on the roof. But the squats were infiltrated by two undercover cops, “Nigel and Mary”, posing as homeless, who managed to get themselves on the roof rota one morning, up turn the cops…

On 16th August 1978, in what was then London’s biggest mass eviction, the houses were evicted by the Special Patrol Group; in all 650 coppers led by ex-bomb squad supremo, & nemesis of the Angry Brigade, Roy Habershon. They sealed off the street & send in bulldozers. All 5 houses were cleared despite some resistance from the barricaded buildings. It turned out they had been tapping the phones, taking aerial surveillance pictures, and so on… 14 people were nicked, charged with ‘resisting the sheriff’ contrary to Section 10 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. 12 later got off, but Piers Corbyn and Jim Paton were found guilty… (Although Jim wasn’t even present at the eviction!)

More on the Huntley Street squatters

here you could stop for a pint at the Marlborough Arms, at the corner of Torrington Place and Huntley Street, a hangout for the squatters at the time, who held some meetings here.

Walk north up to the corner of Huntley Street and University Street

In front of you is the Cruciform Building of University College Hospital. In 1992-93, Wards 2-3 were occupied, in an ongoing attempt to resist the ‘merger’ of UCH, Middlesex Hospital and the Elizabeth Garret Anderson Hospital.

the old Cruciform University College Hospital building, with the new UCH behind…

Walk down University Street, turn right, cross the road, up to the north end of Gower Street
, cut through Gower Place, Gordon Square to Tavistock Square

To Bloomsbury Jobcentre Plus, formerly the DSS office (Tavis House, 1-6 Tavistock Square): in October 1989, DSS workers here in alliance with those from several offices thoughout London, staged a one day walkout in protest at being told to snoop on claimants for the purpose of compiling lists for the poll tax.

Eliza Cook

Tavistock House, which stood on on site of the current BMA Building in Tavistock Square: Builder James Burton lived here while developing the Bedford Estate. Later, Charles Dickens lived here…
… as did, at another time, Chartist poet Eliza Cook. This nineteenth-century author and poet, born in Southwark on December 24th 1818, advocated political freedom for women and believed in self-improvement through education, cleverly called “leveling up”. She was a strong supporter of the Chartist movement, and wrote many poems celebrating working people but condemning poverty and hardship of their lives, which made her popular with the working classes of both England and America. 

Her first volume, Lays of a Wild Harp, appeared in 1835, when she was only seventeen. Encouraged by its favourable reception, she began to send verses anonymously to the Weekly Dispatch, the Metropolitan Magazine, the New Monthly Magazine, and The Literary Gazette. After a time she confined herself to the radical Weekly Dispatch, where her first contribution had appeared under the signature ‘C.’ on 27 Nov 1836 and she became a staple of its pages for the next ten years. Its editor was William Johnson Fox and its owner was James Harmer. She lived for a time at Harmer’s residence, Ingress Abbey, in Kent, and wrote certain of her works there. Her poem The Old Armchair (1838) made hers a household name for a generation, both in England and the United States. In that year, she published Melaia and other Poems.

Her work for the Dispatch and New Monthly was pirated by George Julian Harney, the Chartist, for the Northern Star. Familiar with the London Chartist movement in its various sects, she followed many of the older radicals in disagreeing with the O’Brienites and O’Connorites in their disregard for the repeal of the Corn Laws. She also preferred the older Radicals’ path of Friendly Societies and self-education. From 1849 to 1854 wrote, edited, and published Eliza Cook’s Journal, a weekly periodical she described as one of “utility and amusement.” Cook also published Jottings from my Journal (1860), and New Echoes (1864). Her works became a staple of anthologies throughout the century.

Cook stood for political and sexual freedom for women, and believed in self-improvement through education. This made her a great favourite with the working-class public. She was a close friend and lover of the famous American actress Charlotte Cushman. In 1863, she was given a Civil List pension income of £100 a year. She died in Wimbledon on September 23rd, 1889.
There’s a great post on Eliza’s Chartist poetry here and a blog on her here

Tavistock Square (as with many other Bloomsbury Squares) used to have strict social controls: servants were barred, and children’s games were harshly regulated. And like most local squares, only residents were allowed in until the 20th century (only Mecklenburgh and Bedford Squares maintain this exclusivity these days). The Square is in some ways a peace garden, with separate memorials to the dead of Hiroshima and to Conscientious Objectors, among others, congregrating around a statue of Gandhi,

Cross to Woburn Place, straight over, carry on down Tavistock Place to Marchmont Street; turn right and walk down the east side of the street to no 66:

Gays the Word Bookshop

As we have already mentioned, the Bedford estate for a long time restricted the building of shops in Bloomsbury, to keep up the tone of the neighbourhood. Even when forced by demand to zone Marchmont Street as a shopping area, they tightly controlled the appearance of the new establishments, forcing shopkeepers to choose shopfront designs from a prescribed catalogue. (As late as 1926, the Poetry bookshop, when it relocated to 38 Great Russell Street was also forced to repaint its art deco shop sign, considered too bright and futuristic by the Estate, who ordered it repainted white like the rest of the block.

Its doubtful whether Gay’s the Word would have snuck through this snooty net in earlier decades. It opened here in January 1979. Inspired by lesbian and gay bookstores in the States, a small group of people from Gay Icebreakers, a gay socialist group, founded the store in 1979. Initial reluctance from Camden Council to grant a lease to the bookshop was overcome with help from Ken Livingstone, then a Camden councilor.

Gay books weren’t generally available in ordinary bookstores, and for a while most of the bookshop’s stock came mainly from the vibrant US gay publishing scene. It was only in the ‘80s that lesbian and gay publishers like Gay Men’s Press, Brilliance Books, Onlywomen Press and Third House were established in Britain.

Organisations using the shop as a meeting place over the years have included Icebreakers, the Lesbian Discussion Group (still going after 27 years), the Gay Black Group, the Gay Disabled Group and TransLondon.

From the beginning, Gays the Word has been more than shop – the space has served as a community and information resource for lesbians and gay men. Hundreds of people drop by every week to pick up the free gay papers, hang out in the back, drink tea or coffee or check out the free noticeboard detailing numberless gay organisations and upcoming events. Sadly the piano, centrepiece of the musical evenings of the early days has since vanished…

In 1984, Customs and Excise, assuming the shop to be a porn shop, mounted a large scale raid and seized thousands of pounds worth of stock, including works by Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Christopher Isherwood and Jean Genet. Gay’s the Word’s Directors were eventually charged with conspiracy to import indecent books under the Customs Consolidation Act 1876: under a loophole this Act allows prosecution for obscenity for IMPORTED books that would be totally legal if published in the UK, as it doesn’t admit for a literary or artistic defence. A campaign was set in motion and the charges were vigorously defended, supported by well-known writers including Gore Vidal himself. A defence fund raised over £55,000 from the public.

In 2007 rising rents and the effect of internet book-buying, the bookshop faced possible closure. It launched a campaign to stay open which got huge press coverage and a massive worldwide response: its future, for the present is secure. Hurray!

Walk a few doors down to Marchmont Community Centre

The Anarchist Communist Federation (since abbreviated to the Anarchist Federation) used to meet here, from the late 1980s to the mid-90s I think. In May 2011 activists planning radical resistance to the government’s austerity program also gathered here.

Walk down to the alley that cuts across north end of Brunswick Centre on Marchmont St to Handel St, then walk down to junction with Hunter Street. Turn right down Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, Grenville Street, turn left into Guilford Street, down to Millman Street, and turn right

Walk down Millman Street to no 9:

The shooting of PM Spencer Perceval

John Bellingham, assassin of PM Spencer Percival, was lodging here in 1812. A small-time merchant, he had been working in Russia, where he was imprisoned over a disputed debt; in his view this was due to misconduct by the British ambassador, and when he managed to return to England he tried to claim redress from the British government, but despite repeated efforts, got nowhere. His grievances built up in his head; eventually he decided to take his claim go the top; attending the House of Commons, on 11th May 1812, armed with a pair of pistols, he waited till the Prime Minister walked by, and shot him dead. For which he was hanged, a week later. At first the authorities feared the shooting was the signal for a popular uprising (there was mass industrial unrest in the midlands and north of England at the time), and even after it became clear the assassination was the product of a lone grudge, troops were stationed on the edge of London during the hanging just in case…

For a day the country was in turmoil. Popular elation was undisguised. Crowds gathered outside the House of Commons as the news seeped out, and as the assassin, John Bellingham, was taken away there were repeated shouts of applause from “the ignorant or depraved part of the crowd”. The news that Bellingharn was probably deranged, and had acted from motives of private grievance, was received almost with disappointment; it had been hoped that another, and more successful, Despard had arisen. When Bellingham. went to the scaffold, people cried out ‘God bless him’, and Coleridge heard them add: ‘This is but the beginning.’ It was thought inopportune to give Perceval a public funeral.’

Although Perceval was not as orrible a bastard as the some of the other leading politicians of the early nineteenth century, he had made a fortune as a lawyer, cutting his teeth in the repressive prosecutions of radicals and reformers in the 1790s; he set his face against political reform early, and was a lifelong defender of ‘Old Corruption’ against unruly plebs and the influence of the French Revolution. So no loss really.

Walk down to no 70

Peter’s Bookshop opened here in 1935, an offshoot of Peter’s Bookshop in Hammersmith; both shops were associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain. Funnily enough the Peter in question was Peter Murphy, a Cambridge friend and later secretary of dodgy coup-plotting royal, Lord Mountbatten; Murphy advised the old rightwing bastard on communism, being a Party member himself. He supplied the cash to launch the bookshops, which were run by CP members… Oh the odd relations of upper class lefties and righties in the 1930s – never ceases to amaze. There’s lots of wild conspiracy theory speculation on the internet about Mountbatten, Murphy, their sexuality and whether the former held rightwing or left wing ideas, coup plots, Irish politics and so on, but we really don’t have the space.

Walk south down to Great Ormond Street, turn right, and walk to no 23 (just beyond the end of Lamb’s Conduit St)

The national offices of the National Unemployed Workers Movement were located from 1931-32 (see Great Russell Street, above)

On 3 October 1931, the NUWM offices were raided during a National Administrative Council meeting, At this time the NUWM was involved in heavy campaigning against austerity measures; unemployed demos had ended in fighting with the police in several cities. In the days leading up to the raid, there had been riots in Glasgow, and large demos to London prisons where unemployed activists were being held. Leading activist Wal Hannington recounts:

“On Saturday, 3rd October, the National Administrative Council of the N.U.W.M. met at the headquarters of the movement; our offices were on the first floor of a building in Great Ormond Street, Bloomsbury, and during the afternoon session of the N.A.C. a knock came at the office door, and a police officer stated that he wanted to have a word with me. Thinking that it was some inquiry in connection with particulars of a demonstration, I went outside the office on to the landing and found myself confronted by two uniformed police inspectors and four plain-clothes detectives. I quickly took in the situation, but before I could retreat into the office they grabbed me and stated that they had a warrant for my arrest.”

He served a month for inciting a breach in the peace for a speech on an unemployed demonstration.

The offices were raided again on 1 November 1932. Several detectives rushed up the stairs, nicking Hannington, having a warrant for him yet again… They searched the offices… Hannington was taken to Bow St police Court, and charged with “attempting to cause disaffection among members of the Metropolitan police” due to a speech he had given at a hunger march demo in Trafalgar Square where he referred to pay cuts among the cops and appealed for them to unite with the unemployed… He later got two years in prison.

Walk back down to Lambs Conduit Street, turn right, and walk up to near the top, close to Theobald’s Road

No 7 Lamb’s Conduit Street once stood here. This was a building associated with anarchist and socialist groups… It was the temporary postal address for Marxist-anarchist hybrid the Socialist League, in December 1890. After William Morris left, many of the subscriptions stopped leading to bit of a funding crisis. League journal Commonweal reverted to a monthly and the spacious headquarters were given up.

7 Lambs Conduit Street was also occupied by John Turner’s Socialist Cooperative Federation Stores. From 1895 to 1898 this was the editorial address of the anarchist journal Freedom.  No. 7 was destroyed by wartime bombing in May 1941.


That’s the end of our first Bloomsbury walk…

If you fancy a pint or three at this point the Lamb on Lambs Conduit Street is a reasonable pub.

But if you want to continue wandering Bloomsbury’s radical past, here’s our second walk around the area, focussing on the area’s rich history of feminism, and the heavy presence of education, or more specifically ideas of education as the path to a freer society…..


Today in London radical history, 1792: working class political reformers found the London Corresponding Society

In the last three decades of the eighteenth century, pressure for reform of the political system grew throughout Britain. The electoral system was entirely designed to reinforce the power of the dominant class, the aristocracy; only a tiny fraction of the population had the vote, mostly wealthy, all men; constituencies were designed so as to get the favoured candidates of the powerful landowners elected. Many towns and cities had no MP. Many constituencies had tiny electorates; some had literally no residents.

From the 1760s on, a growing and broad movement gradually evolved, campaigning for changes to this corrupt and loaded political system. The main demands were for a wider franchise, more representative constituencies, secret ballots (to prevent the wealthy and powerful openly influencing the vote), and more regular elections to parliament.

In its origins this movement was based largely on the now economically confident middle class, often well-educated and wealthy, but excluded from social status, from political power and influence nationally, and dependent on the political patronage of the nobility. Political power denied them, they faced heavy taxation, as the aristocratic parliament increasingly targeted the middle class for revenue raising.

A political culture of debate, discussion of ideas and grievances, and a growing and noisy press, helped solidify resentments into a movement for reform. Hostility to the blatantly corrupt and self-serving elite built steadily through the 18th century, voiced by muckraking journals, in the coffeehouse clubs and discussions, through a century punctuated by riotous eruptions.

The middle class movement for reform expressed its campaign for reform through a rhetoric of rights and liberty, often couched in the language of traditional English freedoms, lost rights being denied by the monarchy and aristocracy, ‘freeborn Englishmen’ should be free from arbitrary tyrannical government…

While this reform movement was based in the rising middle class, much of its rhetoric chimed with the grievances of classes and castes lower down the ladder, who had their own issues, many of them economic and social… Among the artisans, workmen, shopkeepers of London and other British cities, the reform movement helped trigger the beginnings of a self-organised political culture, which would help form a nineteenth century working class movement. However, for many of the leading reformers, the economic needs of political enfranchisement of the labouring classes was never really a priority.

The reform movement ebbed and flowed through the 1760s, 1770s 1780s; demagogues and spokesmen like John Wilkes attempted to direct it, partly in their own interests. A six-point program was drawn up which summed up the demands of the reform movement:

  • Universal manhood suffrage
  • Constituencies to have equal population
  • Annual Parliaments
  • Payment of MPs
  • Abolition of the property qualification to become an MP
  • The secret ballot.

This program would remain at the central core of the movement for political reform for decades. Another development that would help alter the direction of the reform movement was the emergence of the philosophical doctrine of natural rights, originating in the thinking of John Locke – the idea that all men were born with inalienable rights to life, liberty and property. Locke’s philosophy was drawn on by radicals like Richard Price to develop a political program of civil liberties for all, a voice in the government of the country for all. (Obviously ‘all’ still meaning ‘only blokes’ at this stage…)

A Whig party in Parliament represented some of the more moderate positions of the reformers, but the powerful interests of the upper classes successfully resisted any shift.

External political developments would jack the reform campaigns onto new levels. The American War of Independence ended in a political settlement which seemed to embody many of the ideals the middle class reformers were striving for – representative government, political equality, but by responsible men of wealth and property, free from the shackles of aristocracy.

And then the French Revolution of 1789 added a whole new spice to the pressure for reform. The French Third Estate’s early success in curbing the power of their monarchy won them many admirers among British reformers, who saw a common cause; the formation of the National Assembly and subsequent proclamations of the universal Rights of Man aroused great enthusiasm among some elements of the reform movement.

At the same time, the increasing violence of the struggle between the revolutionaries and the aristocracy in France provoked increasing fear and loathing among the British monarchy and establishment; they not only supported the French aristos, but took more and more of a dim view of their own home grown reformers, reasoning that those campaigning for social change might take a leaf out of the neighbours’ book and end up challenging, even deposing, their own king George…

The French revolution had sparked furious and wide-ranging debate and discussion among British reformers, from the dinner parties and salons of the more refined, to the debating societies of London’s taverns and coffee houses.

From this ferment, from the reform campaigns, the sympathy for the French Revolution, the artisans and workers beginning to combine and question their own position, emerged a network of radical organisations, particularly in the growing cities of an industrialising Britain; at the heart of this network was the London Corresponding Society.

The initiative to form the London Corresponding Society came from shoemaker Thomas Hardy; he and several ‘wellmeaning, sober and industrious’ friends had been politicised by economic hardship & influenced by the American & French Revolutions as well as the reform pamphlets of the Constitutional Society. Meeting at The Bell Inn, on Exeter Street, off the Strand on 25 January 1792, they had initially gathered to talk about the poverty and hardship facing working men in their daily life; however, they also discussed plans Hardy had drawn up for a London reform society. Their discussion led them to the conclusion that fundamental political reform in Britain, opening up the franchise to the lower orders, was necessary before any government was ever going to seriously consider measures that would improve working people’s lives. Reform was the route to social and economic change.

On the suggestion of Hardy the organisation adopted the name the London Corresponding Society. Hardy and eight others of those present joined up immediately; a ninth joined the following week. Hardy who became secretary and treasurer.

The founder and first Secretary, Thomas Hardy, later recalled the first meeting:

“After having had their bread and cheese and porter for supper, as usual, and their pipes afterwards, with some conversation on the hardness of the times and the dearness of all the necessaries of life … the business for which they had met was brought forward – Parliamentary Reform – an important subject to be deliberated upon and dealt with by such a class of men.”

Hardy (who was also Treasurer) went back to his home at No. 9 Piccadilly with the entire funds of the organisation in his pocket: 8d. towards paper for the purpose of corresponding with like-minded groups in the country (hence the group’s name).

Political debating clubs were not new: there had been an increasing number springing up through the 18th century. But what made the new Society groundbreaking was that its subscription fees were low enough to allow working people to get involved. From the first, their emphasis was on corresponding with likeminded groups in other towns (hence the name): “..Its was a definite step forward in the rise of the political consciousness of the masses when they no longer felt that they were engaged in an isolated effort” (Robert Birley)

Within a fortnight twenty-five members were enrolled and the sum in the Treasurer’s hands was 4s. ld. Six months later more than 2,000 members were claimed.

The LCS continued to meet at the Bell until June; by this time contact had been made with similar societies that had emerged in Sheffield and Norwich.

Similar groups grew up in Manchester, Leeds, Derby, Leicester, Coventry, Newcastle, Bath, Rochester, Hertford, among others.

The Corresponding society’s basic demands were aimed at Parliamentary reform: universal suffrage & annually elected parliaments. They attacked the system of rotten boroughs with few or no residents being represented by MPs, while large developing industrial towns were not represented at all. These last were reasonably widespread complaints among more moderate reformers. But the LCS also developed ideas well ahead of their time: proposing that MPs should be recallable by their electorate.

And crucially the LCS also recognised class antagonism: their demands for reform were aimed at the working class & lower middle class, because they knew the aristocratic elite had a vested interest in obstructing change. The class basis of the organisation was described as “tradesmen, mechanics & shopkeepers.”

The LCS saw parliamentary reform as partly a step towards legislating for a more just society: an ‘honest parliament’ would enact popular legislation, notably an end to enclosure of land by the wealthy & the throwing open of common land already enclosed, as well as legal reform to make justice cheaper & more available to the poorer classes.

The Society organised carefully. As new members joined, the Society would split into new divisions, which spread around the capital, meeting in pubs and coffee houses. The divisions contained between 16 & 45 members; they divided into two on reaching 45. Each division sent 2 delegates each to a General Committee. The divisions & the General Committee met weekly.

By September 1792 the Society claimed to have 5000 members. However, active membership was much smaller than the numbers often claimed on paper, and membership would ebb and flow massively through the 1790s, as divisions lapsed or broke up, through repression by the state, both overt in terms of arrests and trials, and covert, through constant penetration by Home Office spies, and regular pressure put on landlords and coffee house owners to bar the reformers from meeting in their premises (often with the threat of loss of their licence if they refused.)

The Society’s main source of support was drawn from London’s artisans – Spitalfields silk weavers, shoemakers, watchmakers, tailors and cabinet makers being particularly noticeable. But membership varied widely in class and background, many being lawyers, booksellers, printers, shopkeepers, clerks and some doctors. If anything, many of the leading voices in the LCS were not artisans, though some of the founders and better known activists were from an artisan background. If the LCS did have a substantially artisan focus, its ideas did not represent or emerge from the capital’s labouring poor, though the large Society events like the monster meetings of the mid 1790s may have attracted some of this class.

On a day to day local level, LCS branches focussed primarily on education and discussion of ideas; weekly meetings often consisted of books being read out loud and discussed.

In this form the LCS represented part of the birth of the autodidactic working class club culture that would dominate the politics of the ‘lower orders’ for the next century. The Society was also crucial to the development of forms of protest and communication, through its mass meetings and outdoor speaking – following the example of religious preachers like the Methodists.

In March 1792, the LCS issued a manifesto, written by its first president, the lawyer Maurice Margarot (who was later arrested and sentenced to be transported to the penal colonies for his radical activities); this manifesto inspired the forming of other like-minded societies outside London.

London Corresponding Society pennies, cast in 1795

The Society sent messages of fraternity & support to the revolutionary Convention in France, the elected assembly which was pushing forward the French Revolution. Though the LCS were divided as to whether they supported for the ‘excesses’ of the Revolution, such as the massacres of aristocrats in Paris in September 1792, they championed the Revolution against the foreign armies intervening to restore absolute monarchy in France.

The initial popular interest in the ideas of the LCS, and the radical turn the French Revolution took (with the deposing of the monarchy and terror launched against the aristocracy) scared the British establishment into launching vicious repression against the reformers. The influence of the LCS, other pro-reform groups, and the radical writings of Thomas Paine and other reformers, seemed to many in the establishment to indicate a growing potential for a revolutionary movement arising from the democratic groupings in Britain. The more radical the direction the French Revolution took, the more paranoid the British government became.

The ruling class’s counter-measures took several forms – overt and covert, official and unofficial. There were threats to introduce repressive laws that restricted liberties; LCS divisions were subject to comprehensive spying by paid informers, putting together a picture of a revolutionary society prepared to overthrow the state… (in many cases exaggerating the threat to make it look like they were combatting an existential threat – you gotta earn your pay somehow when you’re a spycop, huh?); magistrates threatened the licences of publicans in whose premises the democratic or reformist groups usually met

In 1791 and 1792, and again in 1794, ‘loyalist associations’, reactionary groups supported by the authorities in most cases, campaigned against reformers and attacked those suspected of supporting pro-reform organisations. Patriotic ‘Church and King’ mobs attacked houses or radicals and non-conformists. Many towns & rural areas saw witch hunts against individuals suspected of ‘disloyal’ attitudes.

LCS delegates Maurice Margarot & Joseph Gerrald were sent to a British Convention in Edinburgh in December 1793: an attempt to unite democratic societies, & step up activities towards achieving universal suffrage & reform. The Convention was broken up by force by the authorities, and Gerrald, Margarot, & three Scots, Muir, Palmer & Skirving, were arrested, and sentenced to transportation to the Penal Colonies. Publishers printing radical tracts were prosecuted. Thomas Paine was outlawed and his writings banned.

Increasing repression and the workings of agent-provocateurs combined to push some elements of the Corresponding Society into more extreme positions. In April 1794, a spy visited the rooms of a LCS-linked radical group, the Lambeth Loyal Association, and found that they seemed to be drilling in military formation, possibly getting ready for an uprising…

On May 2nd  1794, a Constitutional Society dinner hosted some members of the LCS: John Horne Tooke & others present made speeches which the government later presented as seditious & republican. This sparked repressive moves by the government. Ten days later, Thomas Hardy was arrested. On May 15th a Secret Committee of both Houses of Parliament was elected, which suspended the law of Habeas Corpus on May 23. John Horne Tooke and LCS lecturer John Thelwall were shortly also nicked. All three were charged with treason.

In June 1794, Hardy’s house was attacked by a ‘church and king’ mob: his wife Lydia died in childbirth as a result of the attack.

Many LCS members were frightened off by the increased repression, but others joined the organisation out of solidarity. Britain had entered the war against revolutionary France; this quickly became unpopular. In the summer of 1794 there were riots against military recruitment, and attacks on ‘crimp houses’ (recruiting centres) which the LCS in reality had little or no part in, but added to the sense of paranoia among the ruling class.

Hardy, Tooke & Thelwall were tried for treason in November 1794, but the evidence was weak, feeling against government spies was high & they were all acquitted, to popular rejoicing: charges were dropped against other radicals. There were great celebrations, but Hardy & Tooke both largely dropped out of political activity after this.

The LCS, whose membership and influence had been suffering under the repression, began to revive in late 1794 and early ‘95. A journal, the Politician, was started in December 1794: it wasn’t a success & they abandoned it in the spring. But the Society was growing again: from 17 divisions across London in March to 70 or 80 in October. The unpopularity of the war gained them increasing influence.

In 1794 and 1795 the Corresponding Society began to hold monster meetings, huge rallies calling for reform, an end to the war and to repression, on the open spaces at London’s edge – Marylebone Fields, Copenhagen Fields, and St George’s Fields…

A caricature of the Copenhagen Fields October 1795 monster rally

On the 26th 1795 a mass meeting on Copenhagen Fields in Islington saw them at the peak of their strength: as many as 150,000 people attended. The scared authorities banned meetings of more than 50 people, & strengthened the powers of magistrates. Despite widespread protest around the country these measures would lead to the decline of the democratic movement, and encouraged local repression by magistrates. Many potential supporters were put off joining. Also at this time, divisions developed in the LCS over the question of religion, with a growing trend of deism influenced by Paine’s Age of Reason. An attempt to publish a magazine in 1796 failed, increasing the Society’s debts. Disillusion was also setting in with revolutionary France, as it became clear that with the fall of the Jacobins in 1794, the most corrupt sections of the bourgeoisie had taken power.

Thomas Evans, later the founder of the Spencean Philanthropists, became secretary of the LCS in 1796: he and other leaders at this point proved more radical than many of the membership…

Scared by the almost unprecedented navy mutinies at the Nore & Spithead in 1797, the authorities attempted to prove the LCS had been involved in inspiring the revolts – without turning up much evidence. But John Bone, an LCS member, was busted with copies of a ‘seditious’ handbill distributed to soldiers at Maidstone. As a result, on July 31st 1797 at an LCS public meeting the platform of speakers was nicked by Middlesex magistrates. On its last legs, as members dropped off, the whole LCS committee was nicked at its April 19th 1798 meeting – this marked the effective end of the Society.

The onslaught of government repression from 1794 to 1798 drove many of the Society’s members and supporters into inactivity, exile, into keeping away from meetings and keeping their heads down. 1000s had attended meetings and joined over six years, but the LCS had been reduced in its last days to a handful.

The arrests of 1797 not only put the fear into the majority; a number of the Society’s leading activists were imprisoned.

Some, however, were determined to continue with radical activity, and if organising legally and openly was now impossible, then they would meet in secret. And a number had come to the conclusion that peaceful campaigning for what they saw as their rights was not going to win them any reforms; the only open road was insurrection and revolution.

A caricature of the arrest of LCS committee members in April 1798

Small groups of ex-LCS activists and members of other radical societies around the country began to meet in groupings under the name of United Englishmen or United Britons. The name was partly inspired by the United Irishmen, Irish nationalist republicans who had been organising towards freeing Ireland from British control, with who the British radicals were now increasingly co-operating. Irish and British rebels now began to discuss plans for a co-ordinated uprising against the British government.

However the Irish insurrection erupted, without a corresponding insurrection in England. Support for the Irish rebellion did not materialise as the United Irishmen had hoped; but support in England was even thinner on the ground, and revolution was never on the cards. The small groups of United Englishmen were also penetrated (as the LCS had been) by spies backed by magistrates and the Home Office, and any plots were completely monitored and the plotters quickly rounded up. Many of the UE members and former Corresponding Society campaigners were detained, some without any charge, from 1798, and detention for most lasted months or a couple of years.

And some of the LCS detainees became involved in the abortive revolutionary plots of Colonel Despard

The political reforms the London Corresponding Society formed to fight for were not won in the lifetime of the organisation. Many came only decades later.  But former LCS members carried the torch into the 19th century, and were involved in campaigning down the years. Ex-LCS activists were central to the post-Napoleonic War agitation for change, in the extreme radical groups like the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, and much more. Crucially, the ideas the LCS and the radical and reforming societies of the 1790s promoted spread wider and wider, as the industrial revolution forged a new working class in Britain, a class that increasingly became conscious of itself, the exploitation it faced, and the possible solutions… The legacy of the London Corresponding Society echoed down the decades, into the auto-didactic working class radical club scene, the unstamped press agitation, the National Union of the Working Classes, Chartism, and beyond…

Today in London radical history, 1821: A meeting founds an Owenite Community in Clerkenwell

In the early 19th century, factory owner and social reformer Robert Owen developed a broadly Utopian utopian socialist philosophy. Owen came to influence an increasing number of followers and successors, especially among the growing working class and artisans. Owen’s ideas theorised a radical reform of society, along the lines of co-operation of those producing goods by their labour, from which they would benefit collectively, rather than the fruits of their labour merely enriching the capitalists, while the producers lived in poverty.

Owen and those influenced by him – often labelled Owenites – directly led to the development of the cooperative movement, although by the later nineteenth century, co-operative production had largely been replaced by co-operatives at the point of consumption…

Many Owenites were also involved in early trade unionism, and in political movements for reform (though Owen himself took a dim view of political organising).

The Owenite movement also undertook several experiments in the establishment of utopian communities organised according to communitarian and cooperative principles. One of the best known of these efforts, which were largely unsuccessful, was the project at New Harmony, Indiana, which started in 1825 and was abandoned by 1829, which Owen himself was closely associated with.

More on Owen’s ideas here

In the 1820s, London became a stronghold of Owenism, which flourished among the capital’s artisans and the growing working classes.

One early Owenite project was a short-lived commune, generally known as the Spa Fields Owenite Community.

The community was established in a number of properties at around Spa Fields, Clerkenwell, just to the north of the City of London. The community was based on Owen’s cooperative ideas, but was the immediate brainchild of Scotsman George Mudie (b. 1788), whose main claim to fame was his invention of the word ‘Owenism’ for the collection of co-operative ideas centred on Owen’s theories.

On 22 or 23 January 1821, a group of printers met at Mitchell’s Assembly Rooms, London, to discuss Mudie’s proposals for a community, and at this meeting a committee was appointed. The following day a constitution was drawn up stating that ‘The ultimate object of this Society is to establish a Village of Unity and Mutual Co-operation, combining Agriculture, Manufactures, and Trade, upon the Plan projected by Mr Owen of New Lanark’. The co-operators met thereafter at the Medallic Cabinet, 158 The Strand, to raise money. The plan was soon formulated to create a “Co-operative and Economical Society” of 200 families.

Mudie had almost simultaneously launched an Owenite journal. ‘The Economist’, partly to sell to raise funds for the new community. In the first issue, issued on 27 January 1821, a Prospectus for the proposed community was published, noting: ‘The great majority of the members will continue at their present employments—each male member paying one guinea weekly to the general fund’, for which he would receive board and accommodation for himself and family, sickness benefit and a share in communal property and capital. In the second issue of The Economist it was announced: ‘Poverty must continue, while Production is confined within the bounds of Consumption.’

The new Co-operative and Economic Society went on in the third issue of the Economist to discuss the merits of barter as a means of matching up people’s wants with supply of goods, but it was argued that considerable saving in expenditure would be forthcoming in the proposed community, as goods could be bought at wholesale prices. Each member was to contribute towards shares in units of five shillings and ‘to facilitate the distribution of goods, and for other social purposes, as many of the members as can conveniently quit their present residences, do live as nearly as possible together, in one or more neighbourhoods’.

The male members of the Society had to contribute a guinea to the central fund. There would be a communal kitchen and dining hall, plus there were plans for a school as well. The committee calculated that the community would save around £8,000 per year through its own manufacture of various items that it would use. Mudie believed that the community would be able to become independent. A London builder submitted plans for communal premises, and a lawyer, who was also a member of the Co-operative and Economical Society, advised that the co-operative body could come
within the provisions of protective legislation for friendly societies.

During this period the chairman was George Hinde and one prominent member was the printer Henry Hetherington, active in the ‘war of the unstamped’ and later publisher of the Poor Man’s Guardian, an influential radical unstamped newspaper. However, “disillusionment soon set in at the lack
of progress-a letter from ‘A Few Co-operative Economists’ pointed out that ‘four strangers who jointly bought a sheep at Smithfield had done more than all the meetings during the course of twenty
issues of The Economist.’

By November 1821 a commune had been established in houses at the corner of Bagnigge Wells Road (now Kings Cross Road) and Guildford Street East (now Attneave Street), Clerkenwell. The inhabitants became known as the Spa Fields Congregational Families. 21 families lived in a community, pooling resources and wages, ran a printing press (on which the Economist was printed) , and had a mini-health care system.

Unlike most other Owenite communes the residents, who were typically artisans such as cobblers and haberdashers, did outside work and did not work on the land.

Domestic arrangements were communal and the establishment included a hall used for eating and other activities. Rents were fixed-room charges were to range between two and four shillings weekly, including taxes and the use of dining room, stores, kitchen. Members decided, however, not to pool their incomes. A scale of weekly expenses was drawn up with maintenance for a man and wife at 145 5d; single men would also be obliged to pay 145/5d — the same charge as for a married couple-
because of the ‘communal value of a wife’s industry’.

Other features included a school, dispensary and a cooperative store, from which it was intended to set up a store from which the public were to be allowed to buy goods,

The women worked from 6am to 8pm, and the children were also kept busy “without a moment’s intermission”. The community advertised various services that they would provide, such as cobbling, painting, haberdashery, etc., and they also announced that they would be opening a school run on approved Fellenbergian lines.

The community also set up a “monitor” system whereby each monitor looked after one person and acted as his “confessor”. This was a typically Owenite feature – part of the personal monitors’ role was to admonish ‘bad behaviour’, ie enforce moral codes of behaviour…

The small size and the reduced degree of separation from the outside world were not strictly in keeping with Owen’s own views on such communities: he tended to favour larger communes, and a more detached approach from society.

Some indication of the range of skills of this small group of London co-operators is given in a notice inviting orders for work in ‘carving, gilding, and for boots and shoes, gentlemen’s clothes,
dressmaking and millinery, umbrellas, hardware (including stoves, kettles, etc), cutlery, transparent landscape window-blinds, and provisions’.

The community ran from 1821 to 1824. But George Mudie found himself working very hard to maintain the community, and this affected the quality of his paper, the Economist, and his other job as editor of the Sun [not the scum-sucking Murdoch rag of today, an earlier radical paper.] The publication of the Economist ceased in March 1822 and the community continued for another two years.

The commune was said to have ended when Mudie was forced to leave or lose his outside editorial job, so it seems to have relied heavily on Mudie’s organisational ability to hold it together.

The reasons for its demise are not known. Robert Owen himself had no direct involvement in the Spa Fields Community. Mudie later criticised Owen, alleging he had failed either to back the experiment, or even undermined it, which Mudie suggested had caused its eventual failure. He felt Owen had grown arrogant and refused to tolerate anything but slavish obedience, and had become sidetracked by abstract philosophical questions and attacks on religion… “Even if I had not differed from some of your tenets as to religion and morals and even if I had not been too practical a man for the waste of time consumed in never-ending metaphysical disquisitions and discussions …I was, and am, too
much of a politician not to be aware, that the utmost result of your ‘Views and objects’ would only be the institution of a sect… and even that has not yet taken place; while the cause of co-operation, if it has not been entirely ruined, has been retarded by your mischievous efforts… Now, Sire, and believe me that it gives me real and heartfelt pain to speak thus plainly to one whom I once fervently admired, esteemed and loved—I well knew, what indeed you will find, if you enquire, is well known to every man of any intellect, who has ever been closely connected with you, or who has closely observed your tactics—I well knew that you will act only with blind worshippers.”

Mudie continued to give weekly lectures in London on the subject of co-operation, and later immersed himself in another community, at Orbiston, Scotland, run by Abram Combe, but could not agree with Combe and also left this community after a year or so.




Today in London policing history, 1983: Colin Roach dies in Stoke Newington Police Station

Who Killed Colin Roach?

Colin Roach died of a gunshot wound he received in the foyer of Stoke Newington police station on the 12th of January, 1983. The precise time of death was never established, but it was somewhere between 11:30 and midnight.

Colin Roach

On January 12th, Colin, 21, unemployed, black, asked a friend to drive him over to Stoke Newington High Street to visit his brother. His friend thought Colin seemed ‘petrified’, and on the journey he talked about someone who was going to kill him.
Colin got out of the car in the High Street and then walked into Stoke Newington police station. Concerned, Colin’s friend went to get Colin’s father, who lived in Bow. His concern was justified – as Colin walked into the front entrance of the police station, a sawn-off shotgun was pushed into his mouth and he was blown away. The police claimed that he did it himself.

His friends insisted that though he was worried about something following his release from a three month jail term a week or two before, he wasn’t suicidal nor a suicidal type. He’d spent the day normally enough visiting friends, buying parts for his car etc.

Colin’s father James arrived at the police station, looking for his son, at 12:15 pm. The front doors were taped off as a crime scene, so he was taken to the rear of the station and led to a room upstairs. Mr Roach was then questioned until 2:45 – only then did the police reveal that his son was dead. James Roach was held at the station until 4:45 am and was not permitted to see Colin’s body.

He was then taken home by the police, who then searched Colin’s bedroom. James’ wife Pamela, who had just been informed of her son’s death, was forced down into a chair by a policewoman who gripped her around the neck, when she stood up in alarm at hearing the police turning Colin’s bedroom. The officers left the Roach household, having found nothing of significance, and without offering apologies or condolences.

The Context

Colin’s death was hardly a unique incident: relations between police in Hackney and much of the local community had been close to broken down for a number of years; to the point where the natural assumption of a sizeable section of the community was to assume the police had themselves killed Colin.

‘The community hated us and we hated them. It wasn’t a black thing. It wasn’t as complex as that. If you went out in uniform or plain clothes you could feel the hatred’.
Detective Constable Declan Costello.

‘The officers involved in these atrocities can do this because they are not accountable to anybody. They cover up their crimes by picking on the weak – unemployed and uneducated people who do not have any knowledge of the law. There are no rights for black people, and if you are poor it’s worse; as far as the law is concerned you have no place in society. You are a dog; when they kick you, you move’.
Hugh Prince, victim of Hackney police.

Police had been accused of targeting black people locally for several years.

The informally named “sus law” allowed police to stop and arrest anyone they thought was acting suspiciously. Many in the black community felt they were being unfairly targeted. Wrongful arrests, unlawful use of force, racial abuse, raids on people’s homes and use of stop and search. Sus was targeted at young Black people overwhelmingly by police, mainly white, who took little trouble to conceal an often racist hostility to the local Black population.

Just a few examples:
In May 1971, Aseta Simms died in Stoke Newington Police Station in suspicious circumstances.

In December 1978, Black teenager Michael Ferreira was stabbed during a fight with white teenagers in Stoke Newington. His friends took him to the nearby police station, where the cops seemed more interested in questioning them than assisting Michael, who died of his wounds before reaching hospital.

This incident led to the setting up of Hackney Black People’s Defence Organisation.

On 24th April 1979 Hackney resident Blair Peach was killed by police, hit over the head during a protest against the National Front in Southall. Peach was killed by an officer from the notorious Special Patrol Group. The SPG’s lockers were searched as part of the investigation into the death, uncovering non-police issue truncheons, knives, two crowbars, a whip, a 3ft wooden stave and a lead-weighted leather cosh. One officer was found in possession of a collection of Nazi regalia. The failure of the police to properly investigate the murder of Blair Peach – and their general harassment of youth, led Hackney Teachers’ Association to adopt a policy of non-cooperation with the police.

November 1979: A conference of anti-racist groups in Hackney called for the repeal of the “sus” laws that allow police to stop and search anyone they are suspicious of. In 1977 60% of “sus” arrests in Hackney were of black people – who made up 11% of the borough population.

February 1980: Five units of the notorious paramilitary Special Patrol Group began to operate in Hackney with no consultation. When the Leader of the Council criticised the police for this, Commander Mitchell responded by saying “I don’t feel obliged to tell anyone about my policing activities”.

In response, Black youth became hostile to police and began to resist racist violence, physically if necessary. Although incidents were common, resistance reached a high point locally with three days of rioting in Dalston, Stoke Newington and Hackney during the 1981 anti-police uprisings.

In November 1982, Hackney Black People’s Association demanded an independent public enquiry into the conduct of the police in Hackney. Their concerns were specifically about corruption, and violence against black people.

The Colin Roach Campaign

The morning after Colin’s death, the newspapers were filled with the suicide of a black man in Stoke Newington police station. The police had issued a press release was issued at 1:30 am – while James Roach was being questioned and an hour before he had even been informed of his son’s death. The family, accompanied by a Tower Hamlets councillor who they knew, went to the police station to try to find out more about Colin’s death – and were treated with suspicion and hostility.

In response Colin’s friends organised a demonstration for 14th January. About 90 black and white youths gathered outside the police station with placards and asked for an explanation from the police superintendent. This was refused. Some of the demonstrators then blocked the traffic on Stoke Newington High Street: as a result, 50 police officers poured out of the station and attacked them, arresting eight people.

Hackney Committee for Racial Equality called for a public enquiry into the incident, Hackney Black People’s Association called for one into local policing. Local councillors and leftish MP Ernie Roberts started making noises about Colin’s death.

A meeting of ‘community leaders’ was called the next day. Police gave their account of the incident, including a post-mortem report which supported their argument that Colin had shot himself. Local police commander Bill Taylor said the police had called the meeting to be ‘as open and helpful as we can’, to ‘allay misunderstandings’. He was challenged by community activists and leaders, though local MP Clinton Davies tried to quieten down the questions, insisting all contentious issues should be left to the inquest.

The community leaders left asserting that ‘several questions still needed answers’. Somewhat unimpressed by police statements and by what passed for community ‘leadership’, local youth staged another demonstration outside the police station on January 17th. Police eventually launched a baton charge, making 19 arrests. The crowd dispersed but remained in the area in small groups for some hours. The same night a public meeting at Hackney Black People’s Association, attended by 150 people, formed a Support Committee for the Roach family. The meeting demanded an independent public enquiry into Colin Roach’s death.

A march from the town hall to the police station was arranged for the following Saturday. The march attracted 500 people who observed a two minute silence outside the police station. The stewards’ calls for a peaceful demonstration were ignored by a part of the crowd. ‘Scuffles’ broke out as the demonstration dispersed. Perhaps coincidentally a jeweller’s shop window was smashed nearby and several thousand pounds worth of stock taken. A large group of youths ran down Stoke Newington High Street breaking windows. In the subsequent fighting two police were injured and 22 people arrested.

The Roach Family Support Committee organised further demonstrations over the next few months, which were also met with severe police reactions and arrests. Eighty people in total were arrested outside Stoke Newington police station during the six protests, including an elected councillor and Colin’s father, James. Three hundred people attended Colin Roach’s funeral.

The campaign’s demand for an independent public enquiry was fobbed off by William Whitelaw, the Home Secretary, who initially said that the coroner’s inquest into the death would perform the same function, but then later admitted that its scope was much narrower.

In May 1983, the inquest jury agreed 8-2 that Colin Roach had committed suicide. However, the jury also criticised the conduct of the police, especially in their dealings with the Roach family. Police relations with the family were referred to the Police Complaints Board (since replaced several equally ineffective brandings, all just as fucking useless) who ruled that no officers would face any disciplinary action.

The Roach Family Support Committee in response set up its own Independent Committee of Inquiry, examining the death of Colin Roach and the wider issue of policing in Hackney. In 1988, it published a 313-page book, ‘Policing in Hackney 1945-1984’.

The Independent Committee of Inquiry’s report included:

– Testimony from witnesses (surrounding Colin’s death,the subsequent demonstrations and policing generally)
– Challenges to the inquest process and its findings
– Accounts and criticism of police action
– Details of the community response to the police
– Criticism of the accounts in the media of Colin – Roach apparently having mental health problems and this contributing to his death
– Rebuttals of suggestions in the media that the justice
campaign was ‘extremist’
– The history of policing in Hackney from 1945-1984
including policing anti-fascism, previous police racism, etc.
– An examination of the wider issue of police accountability

The Independent Committee of Inquiry concluded that the inquest’s verdict of suicide was not actually proven, and that there was evidence to suggest other explanations. For example, the weapon was never forensically linked to Colin Roach. He was not wearing gloves, but the gun did not have his fingerprints on, nor could it have been concealed in his bag. Two different police officers claimed to be the first to discover gun cartridges in Colin’s pockets (which again had no fingerprints on them).

The report also called for organisations in Hackney to ‘break links’ with the police until a proper inquiry was held and the issues around Colin’s death and wider police racism and abuse were resolved.


The death of Colin Roach and the response to it overshadowed the community and the police throughout the rest of the century.

An annual demonstration took place every January to remember Colin and other victims of local police racism and violence continued for several years through the 1980s and early 1990s, the ‘We Remember’ march (a tradition continued now more widely by the United Friends and Families Campaign’s annual march every October).

Policing remained a central concern for Black people locally. Colin’s death sparked a campaign for breaking contact with and defunding of the police, which came close to becoming longterm council policy.

In July 1982, Hackney Council set up a Police Committee. A Support Unit was also established which monitored crime and policing and published reports critical of police powers.

Hackney Council then resolved to withhold its statutory annual contribution of £4 million to the Metropolitan Police. Which predictably generated more outrage in the press. A month later it was determined that this was not legal and so the contribution was actually paid.

In 1984, Keith Newman, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, criticised Hackney as an area in which ‘extreme activists seek to represent practically any police intervention as harassment’, singling out the campaign for an independent public inquiry into the death of Colin Roach as an example of this. Anthony Kendall, the Leader of Hackney Council, attacked Newman for his ‘irrelevant and irresponsible political views’ which demonstrated ‘just how dangerously unaware he is of the real facts of life in areas like Hackney’.

Obviously, as the 1980s went on, left labour Councils gradually became more and more moderate, and Hackney was no exception; anti-police rhetoric gradually got toned down until it vanished altogether under New Labour…

Meanwhile, Hackney Teachers Association (a branch of the National Union of Teachers) began discussions about non-cooperation; this had started during the Justice For Blair Peach Campaign, but came to the fore after the death of Colin Roach. One third of Hackney schools ended up excluding the police from their premises in the 1980s. The Police Out of School Policy became widely supported by teachers, parents and kids.

Police violence and community resistance continued; with incidents like the arrest and beating of Trevor Monerville in 1987, which left him with brain damage; and the death in custody of Tunay Hassan in Dalston police copshop a few months later.

Mounting anger again came to a head, and Hackney Community Defence Association (HCDA) was formed to providing the victims of police crime with a campaigning voice – a self-help group for the victims of police crime. HCDA investigated allegations against the police, provided mutual support for victims and campaigned against police injustice. HCD went on to name many officers involved in racism, violence, and drug-dealing and corruption. (A post for another day)

Along with Hackney Trade Union Support Unit and other local activists, HCDA launched the Colin Roach Centre on 12 January 1993 (the tenth anniversary of Colin’s death) as a local action & resource centre.


Much of this was cheekily nicked from other places. including reports from the time, and from the excellent Radical history of Hackney blog and their article for Datacide