Today in London policing history, 1990: cops attack striking Bacton Fashions workers, Hackney

Food delivery couriers in the IWGB union have challenged Labour’s Philip Glanville, the mayor of Hackney, to meet them and negotiate over their demands for a safe parking area in the Dalston, East London, after the mayor denied that an immigration raid on couriers in the area was a result of the couriers’ campaign for free parking space where they can wait for orders.

Eight riders were arrested in Dalston for “immigration offences” in January, just two days after protests were held outside Hackney Town Council demanding safe parking spaces.

London’s Metropolitan Special Constabulary (LMSC) said that the arrests were part of “a joint operation” involving “Hackney Police”. Philip Glanville, however, denied that the Council were complicit on the raids, and claimed they had “gone above and beyond in working to ensure that drivers have safer conditions” and that they were “liaising directly with the drivers and their representatives on their concerns.”

The IWGB union’s Couriers & Logistics Branch dispute this, and in response issued a statement to Granville: “As a majority BAME and migrant workforce who work entirely in public space, delivery riders are already disproportionately targeted by police and immigration enforcement in their personal and daily lives. As you know, this is a community of riders that has also already been subject to, for months, a concerted effort by the police and civil enforcement officers to force them out of their workplace. You should understand, therefore, that the riders’ parking campaign and the issue of immigration enforcement are inextricably linked.

“If you are serious that Hackney Council does not support immigration raids linked to enforcement action, we urge you to come to Ashwin Street to meet with riders, to negotiate on our demands about building a free and safe working environment for couriers in Hackney.” The couriers went on to reject Glanville’s claim that the council had sought to ensure safe working conditions for couriers, saying they had “yet to see any evidence of this”.

Parking at the Bentley Road car park in Dalston will cost £2 an hour from March onwards, which the couriers described as “an unacceptable cost for low-paid workers who can receive as little as £2 an hour during shifts”. The additional cost may force couriers to go back to their previous waiting place, on Ashwin Street, where there has been a concerted attempt to move them off, including through the use of £65 council fines, following plans for the regeneration of a nearby road. The IWGB have previously condemned this as “gentrification in action”, and in their statement to Glanville they said that Bentley Road was much more “isolated and dangerous especially at night” for couriers “who already endure disproportionately high levels of abuse, assault, harassment and theft”.

Financial support for the IWGB Couriers and Logistics Branch can be donated here


This kind of a ‘holistic’ approach to targetting lowpaid migrant workers is hardly new to Hackney, however – as a strike from more than 30 years ago illustrates… a tale of policing, and immigration raids being used to attack migrant workers (many refugees) on behalf of bosses and the repressive regime the workers had fled…

Bacton Fashions in Somerford Grove, Dalston, was a clothing sweatshop employing up to 90 workers. It was located in an industrial unit along with other clothing sweatshops. Workers from the different firms used the same entrance to go to work.

Like much of East London, Hackney was home to many clothing factories – often small, employing often migrant labour, on low pay in poor conditions. The 1991 census figures showed that 12,000 manufacturing jobs solely in the clothing industry in 1981. Many of these jobs were in the textile sweatshops which were dotted around the borough.

Most of Bactons workers were Turkish or Kurdish, had been living in Britain for less than a couple of years and were waiting for a Home Office decision on their rights to remain in the UK. Within the factory there were some members of TGWU’s new 1/1312 textile workers’ branch. The branch, formed at the initiative of the political organisation, the Union of Turkish Workers, with the assistance of Hackney Trade Union Support Unit and Service Workers Advisory Project (SWAAP) had recruited almost 600 workers locally.

A series of small-scale strikes had led to a union recognition agreement being signed at Dizzi Limited in nearby Well Street. There were regular leafleting sessions of factories and meetings on workers’ rights at community centres.

The workers at Bacton Fashions had many complaints about low pay, long hours, terrible health and safety conditions, no holiday or sick pay, victimisation, continuous lay-offs without pay and a management prepared to act dictatorially.

The workers themselves were not completely defenceless as they included some that had brought revolutionary traditions from the cities and villages of Turkey and Kurdistan. The previous year (1989) over 4,500 refugees had come to Hackney fleeing the war in Kurdistan. They joined, at least, another twenty to thirty thousand Turkish speaking workers in east London. Almost none of these workers were unionised and no major union had thought to change this. For example, none had ever appointed a Turkish speaking official.

When eight workers at Bacton Fashions refused to accept being ‘laid off’ they began picketing. Appeals to other workers to respect their picket line were met sympathetically, but little else. The employer, Mustafa Dill, was sufficiently embarrassed to re-employ the workers and to agree to lay off pay during slack periods. However, he kept breaking his word and there were almost daily walkouts over the next few weeks, as agreements were reached then broken once again.

Bacton Fashions itself was located in an industrial unit along with other clothing sweatshops. Workers from the different firms used the same entrance to go to work

During the Bacton strike, it became a regular practice at the end of the working day for workers from all the firms in the industrial unit to join with the strikers and jeer and handclap the boss and his managerial team as they left work. There was no violence, although tensions were clearly running high. Up to 400 people were involved in this daily humiliation of the boss and managers.

Demands from union branch members for the TGWU to make the strike official were refused, requests for strike pay was therefore ignored and strikers were instructed that they couldn’t even make financial appeals on TGWU headed notepaper.

There was no attempt by the union official, Brian Theobald, to spread the dispute to other factories or to use what was happening to recruit other workers into the TGWU. He came to the picket line on a small number of occasions and took no part in strike meetings.

On February 26th 1990 the evening picket of about 100 people was attacked by the paramilitary Territorial Support Group of the Metropolitan Police. There was a fierce fight, during which the police were initially chased from the scene, before re-grouping and attacking the pickets and their supporters.

Four pickets (all Kurdish refugees) were arrested and charged with riotous behaviour and actual bodily harm. They faced possible deportation if convicted.

Around 150 people picketed Dalston police station until 5am in the morning.

The next morning (27.02.1990) no one from any of the factories located in the same building as Bacton Fashions crossed the picket line, forcing Bactons to close.

The police attack came almost exactly a year to the day after police raided a number of factories in Hackney (on 27/2/1989) and arrested 38 Kurdish and Turkish workers. By the next day, seven had been deported and a further fourteen were under threat. This action came in the wake of a wave of raids across North and East London.

A protest against deportation raids in Hackney, 1989

The February 1989 raids had in fact themselves sparked the formation of the 1/1312 textile workers’ branch in the first place.

A campaign to defend “The Bacton 4” was launched at a demo of 400 on April 7th. The campaign helped to secure ‘not guilty’ court verdicts for all four arrestees when their case came to trial in October 1990. It emerged that Special Branch had visited Bactons and showed the security guard photographs of recent demonstrations in London against a visit of Turkish leader General Evren – these photos apparently originated at the Turkish Embassy.

One striker Tekin Kartel, later received a five figure sum in damages for what had happened to him.

Bactons was eventually forced to close permanently, only to re-open under a different name and at a different location later. Picketing and a refusal by workers to work there led to its closure again.

As Mark Metcalf of the Colin Roach Centre put it:

‘Police Hurt during factory protest’ (Newspaper clipping). Nice slant you’ve got there.

While the workers lost their poorly paid jobs they achieved a degree of success showing the employers that they could not do everything they wanted and needed to take the workers needs into account when making decisions. The workers established a pride in fighting back; they closed down the factory and demonstrated they had the power to not only damage the employers’ profits but get rid of it!

All in all, the strike was not well supported by the local trade union movement and the TGWU’s conduct didn’t impress the workers in local clothing outfits. Branch membership fell dramatically and recruitment became much more difficult.

However, local textile workers would strike again. On January 3rd 1991 over 2,500 London textile workers took solidarity action with their fellow workers on general strike in Turkey on the same day. Factories in Shacklewell Lane, Somerford Grove, Victorian Grove, Tyssen Street, Tudor Grove and Arcola Street were virtually empty as workers refused to cross picket lines.

Once again, police took the opportunity to attack migrant workers on strike. Police vans were driven at speeds of over 70mph to the Halkevi community centre on Stoke Newington High St, and officers jumped from the vehicles to race into a crowd of around 120. Five people were grabbed and when friends tried to stop their arrests, around 20 police officers drew their truncheons and batoned people to the ground, arresting them as they fell. One woman went to St Barts Hospital with a broken leg.

At 2pm a crowd of 150 went to protest outside Stoke Newington police station and when in protest 30 sat down, on the other side of the road to the station, the police paramilitaries of the Bow TSG rushed across the road and violently arrested dozens of people. Others fled, but were pursued by the police in all directions.

62 people were arrested with four being taken by the police to Homerton hospital. Access to the casualty department was denied by police at the entrance.  29 people were charged with  serious public order offences. Many arrestees were beaten whilst in police custody.

Local police monitoring & defendants support group, Hackney Community Defence Association, set up support for the arrested. HCDA identified the January 3rd arrests as pure revenge for the police loss of face over the confrontations at Bactons:

“The facts speak for themselves. TSG officers have an image of themselves as an elite force, and they behave as if answerable to nobody but themselves. There is a certain inevitability that wherever they go, trouble is sure to follow.”

Two of the arrestees, Haci Bozkurt and Baki Ates, both 34 and from Stoke Newington, received a great deal of press coverage when their cases eventually came to trial five years later. Both had been granted political asylum after fleeing Turkey to escape police violence and persecution, when they were arrested for protesting about police arrests and violence, and charged with violent disorder. At Highbury Corner magistrates court in May 1991 no evidence was offered against Mr Bozkurt. Mr Ates was acquitted.

Turkish and Kurdish refugees (like other communities) in Hackney experienced policing as a repressive and violent force; that the police supported employers, acted as frontline troops for immigration deportations, and also tried to attack political refugees on behalf of vicious regimes from other countries was hardly a surprise. Racism and hatred of ‘foreigners’ at a ground level in the force served as the street level strongarm of blatant support for capitalists at a higher level, and the barely hidden hand of secret policing (which often co-operated with/acted as a proxy for repressive regimes…)

That Special Branch had intervened on behalf of the Turkish regime was hardly unique either. Only a couple of years after the events described above, Hackney Trade union Support Unit, which had played a part in assisting the Turkish and Kurdish workers to set up the TGWU branch, and Hackney Community Defence Association, which had helped defend the arrested strikers, together with other local activists, set up the ground-breaking Colin Roach Centre, named for a man who died in a local police station 10 years before), as a meeting and organising space. Police, and specifically Special Branch, would continue their multi-faceted/multi-agency defence of existing power relations, & attempts at repression of those trying to challenge them: Mark Jenner of the Branch’s Special Demonstration Squad was infiltrated to spy on the Colin Roach Centre, due to HCDA/TUSU’s involvement, and the Centre’s affiliation to Anti Fascist Action (AFA). Jenner used this connection to infiltrate trade union activists and reported on their organising back to the SDS, who passed some of this info to blacklisting organisations working to target trade unionists and workers on behalf of employers (he also spied on AFA and other groups).

Police act for the bosses – Never forget it.


Nicked from the Radical History of Hackney, some bits owe thanks to Neil Transpontine and Mark Metcalf.



Today in healthcare history, 1990: Ambulance workers dispute settled

In 1989–1990 British ambulance crews took on the tory Thatcher government in a dispute over pay– the largest action by health workers since the 1982 nurses strike.

Overtime bans and strikes lasted from 7 September 1989 to 23 February 1990. Ambulance workers’ pay had fallen behind that of firefighters, with which it had been linked in 1985: the five ambulance workers unions rejected a government pay offer of 7.5%, who instead demanded a 25.8% rise.

The dispute started in September with an overtime ban but as this failed to bring the employers to agreement, action was upped: crews began to refuse to attend non-emergency calls in November. The government brought in the Army, the police and recruited volunteer ambulance crews to cover callouts.

Ambulance provision in the United Kingdom was organised on a local basis by regional ambulance services. The pay and conditions of employees in the emergency services had been agreed by the Standing Commission on Pay Comparability in 1979, which recommended a pay increase of 25.8% (bearing in mind annual inflation was around 16%). Despite this, ambulance workers had gone on strike in 1981–2 over pay, (emergency cover being provided by the police). This strike led to a new salary scale being agreed in November 1985, which linked pay to that of firefighters.

By 1989 the Fire Brigades Union had won favourable pay settlements which broke the link and ambulance workers’ pay had fallen to 11% less than firefighters. The ambulance workers, represented by five different trade unions, increasingly felt forgotten and ignored, and that their service was being run on the cheap.

The full original set of demands were:

    • £20 a week increase to bridge the gap between ambulance staff and the fire service;
    • A formula to determine pay in the future;
    • An overtime rate for overtime work;
    • A reduction in the working week and 5 weeks’ holiday;
    • Better pay and holidays for long service;
    • An increase in standby pay.
    • Restoration of the link established in the 1985 settlement

The unions also pressed for funding to train their members in paramedic skills. Ambulance personnel tended to be treated as the poor relations of the NHS, and also compared to the other emergency services. During the dispute Health Secretary Kenneth Clarke expressed this, labelling them as merely ‘van drivers’.

Ambulance drivers’ pay had been pared to the point that their basic was rarely enough to live on, and they become reliant upon overtime payments to make ends meet.

The unions were pushed into the action by the strength of feeling of the workers from below. In May 1989 the government had offered a 7.5% pay rise; the unions recommended that their members accept this but it was rejected by a large majority of ambulance staff.

Ambulance service crews voted on 7 September by a 4:1 majority to implement an overtime ban and a ban on rest-day working from 13 September. Ambulance services had developed a reliance on workers doing these additional hours to provide non-emergency services like the transport of patients between hospitals. The services responded by hiring private taxis to transport patients or asking patients provide their own transport.

The Thatcher government was determined not to award further pay increases, and also strongly wanted a victory over the unions to bolster its case for planned Health Service reforms (involving heavy cuts in services and marketisation of healthcare). Health secretary, Kenneth Clarke, rejected a union proposal to enter arbitration on 22 September, which led to the collapse of negotiations.

Prior to this there had been some tension between the different unions representing the ambulance crews and the officers. However, in late September ambulance service officers and controllers voted to join the overtime ban from 4 October, and the unions agreed to co-ordinate joint action. Roger Poole was selected as chief negotiator for the workers in the dispute and eventually came to represent members from five separate unions.

However, by early October the pressure of missing out on overtime payments was biting, and there was a feeling that either the dispute had to be escalated to force a conclusion, or the overtime ban would have to end.

In an attempt to restart negotiations, in mid-October unions refused to carry out some clerical work and non-urgent patient transfers (in previous overtime bans, doctors had responded by labelling all transfers as urgent, overloading thinly stretched ambulance services)  and some crews began lock-outs and sit-ins at depots. A public petition in support of the ambulance workers was launched that eventually attracted 4 million signatures. In response the Government put the Army on standby from 30 October to provide ambulance services if needed.

In November emergency ambulance crews their service to emergency 999 calls only and refused to provide patient transfer services. The government then threatened to suspend crews who refused to carry out non-emergency work or to dock their pay. The unions reply was to adopt a policy that if any member was suspended then all members in that ambulance service should declare themselves as suspended. By 7 November, some 2,500 ambulance workers in In London, responsible for 455 ambulances in 71 depots, were suspended.

The Unions asked that these members continue to provide an emergency service, though they would be unpaid, but the government thought this would be bad publicity, and ordered the police and army in to provide emergency coverage. The first army ambulances were deployed on 8 November in London together with police and volunteer ambulance crews. This marked the first occasion that army ambulances had been used since the Winter of Discontent.

The union negotiators were fighting a publicity war, attempting to use the undoubted popular support for the healthworkers as leverage against the government; they also tried hard to keep a lid on grassroots action from below and prevent all out strikes or wildcat actions, and worked hard to prevent serious solidarity action from other unions in support for the dispute. As Roger Poole stated earlier on in the strike, “We don’t want solidarity strikes from other workers” .

But their attempts to keep down ambulance workers’ autonomous activity were increasingly unsuccessful: anger from below was seething and local escalations of the strike began to erupt across the country.

In Glasgow ambulance crews voted, by a narrow margin and against the advice of their union officials, for an all-out strike from 1 December, including the withdrawal of an emergency response. After two days, Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind arranged emergency ambulance cover from 30 army ambulances working from Territorial Army drill halls, in combination with police-manned ambulances.

Rifkind claimed that ambulance crews in Edinburgh had also refused to respond to emergency calls, although this claim was rejected by the unions.

There were some attempts to widen strike action beyond the ambulance crews. Ambulance crews went down to building sitesat Canary Wharf in docklands and persuaded steel erectors to come out on strike in sympathy on December 6th, then turned up on the day to make sure they stood by their decision (300 came out). On the same day Hammersmith council workers linked up support for the ambulance crews with support for the councils’ own striking nursery workers (council workers also came out in Hackney on unofficial strike that day, as did hospital workers at the Elizabeth Garret Anderson hospital in Soho). Around the same time there were solidarity actions by bus workers at Hanwell garage, and workers at Homerton and St. Bartholomews hospitals. Ambulance crews themselves also made links with strikers at Luton, joining a Vauxhall carworkers’ picket line.

By mid-December the Army were also providing emergency ambulance services in Lincolnshire, Hertfordshire, Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, while in Surrey Royal Navy and Royal Air Force drivers were also used, alongside ambulances single-crewed by ambulance service managers.

Union bigwigs expressed their usual hate and fear of the rank and file taking this kind of action: Roger Poole denounced the ambulance workers going on wildcat strike.

As was pointed out by some supporters of the strike, at the time: “Trade Union officials and politicians demagogically talk of People Power, but conveniently ignore the fact that in East Europe People Power at least involves taking over the streets some of the time. The only acceptable form of People Power the bureaucrats praising the ambulance workers want is an obedient crowd clapping their demagogic cliches which they shout to them from on high through a microphone. We’ve heard all their usual “We shall win” rhetoric before, the ‘we’  referring to themselves – professional representatives hoping to make political capital out of a defeat that they help to bring about, since they always do their very best to throw up obstacles to the poor winning any of their battles. After all, their role would be at stake if there really was a movement with a chance of winning… With friends like Poole and co. workers don’t need the Tories’ new anti-wildcat strike laws.”

On January 13th, 75,000 people demonstrated in support of the ambulance workers in central London.

In January, the whole dispute was escalated nationally. In response to an attempt by the unions involved in the strike to tempt the government to return to negotiations by dropping some demands (abandoning the demand for a cut in working hours, and for more leave and long service perks), the government refused to budge. So then Crews were instructed to refuse calls put through by the ambulance service and to only respond to calls made directly by the police, medical services or the general public. The unions gambled this would require the deployment of more army ambulances and thus hopefully swing public opinion behind them.

A Day of Action in support of the dispute was called for 30th January 1990; unions called for the public to demonstrate support for the strike by lining the streets at mid-day.

January 30th saw 10s of 1000s go on strike for the day, and, loads of people from different sections of the working class joined in common actions. For instance, ”the St.Johns Wood ambulance crew on wildcat strike organised the blocking of Kilburn High Road for half an hour: Irish, blacks, O.A.P.s and others joined in, and perhaps as many as 200 had fun stopping the traffic. The cops were obviously furious but, because of their “nice” image of apparent support for the ambulance workers (whilst raking in loadsamoney doing overtime scabbing on the strike), they had to swallow their pride and merely resort to verbal haranguing, rather than their usual physical form of intimidation. An ambulance woman threatened with arrest managed to shame the cop into withdrawing. Bus drivers in Kilburn, though, were worse than the cops – they tried to plough into people. Yet at the same time several hundreds of bus drivers in South London took half or the whole of the day off. In fact, some of them have been on strike in solidarity with the ambulance workers on and off, days or half-days here & there, for a couple of months now (of course, this Good News is hardly ever mentioned in the media – it might actually encourage people; hence the near-total silence in the media about the dispute since Jan.30th). There were doubtless loads of other places where people stopped traffic – for example, the centre of Liverpool and of Newcastle came to a standstill, and in London Old Street and Euston Road were blocked.”

January 30th however, did reveal how limited the reality of ACTIVE support for the strike was… The ambulance men had a vast well of passive public support, but only small numbers in just a few arenas were prepared to turn passive goodwill and sticking a few quid in the collecting tins into taking an active part… Tory anti-union laws, a general feeling of passivity, lack of confidence – lack of experience of or belief in victory – all played a part in this. A decade of mostly heavy defeats of organised workers had bit hard.

Some supporters of the strike, and of autonomous working class action generally, asked some hard questions about the strike, the unions, the potential for wider active action, in a leaflet produced and distributed to ambulance pickets in early February 1990… their thoughts ranged from the immediate strike to other thoughts and arenas…


          Judging by the statement of that mass-murderer Kenneth Clarke, the man behind the cuts in the NHS which lead to thousands of deaths mostly amongst the poor, that the deal now being worked out by the Union leaders and NHS bosses shows “the dawning of a new commonsense”, ambulance crews can now look forward to the traditional insulting sell-out, doubtless to be hailed as “the best offer we could hope for under the circumstances” by well-healed bureaucrats who were never in favour of the dispute from the outset. What the ambulance crews are going to do about it, though, remains to be seen. Resign themselves to the deal whilst moaning about the bastard bureaucrats, or something better? Any new initiative from the base will only develop from a reflection of the strengths and failures of the struggle so far. What follows – written before the present talks at ACAS – is intended as a contribution to this reflection. “What is to be done?” is a question that can only he answered – initially at least – by the ambulance crews themselves.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


– South Yorkshire miner, during the ’88 NHS strikes (when two Yorkshire pits were picketted out).

     There are many independantly-minded workers who are good at formulating the problem – “When we struggle together we need to go directly to other workers, unmediated by the Union hierarchy, to persuade them to strike for us and for themselves”. But when it comes to actually doing something – well, the risky moments have been few and far between. Many fear their  Union as much as the bosses: e.g. during the Wapping dispute (’86 – ’87) several sacked printers talked about going directly to printworkers in & around Fleet St. and urge them to go on strike. But they bottled out because putting up an unofficial picket line could have led to being blacked from the Union for life, weakening their chances of a future legit printing job. It’s unlikely, though, that ambulance workers would face a similar threat from NUPE, despite Poole’s menacing diatribe against the wildcat strikers. In the end, it’s a cop-out to blame the Union or this or that bureaucrat for the failure of struggles ~ submission to the Union that insures the “sell-out”. Complaining about officials is all too easy – unless it’s a prelude to action.

     The Union bureaucrats only want a moral image for the NICE ambulance workers, with token appeals, petitions & opinion poll ratings about public support not because they’re Bad Leaders (‘Sell-Outs’) but because it’s their social role. When shop stewards complain that Poole “is still suppressing any move to strike action. He’s even looking to our bosses” or that he’s “duped shop stewards in London into voting against strike action” (both quoted in Socialist Worker,10/2/90) they are deliberately obscuring the fact that the bureaucrats  function necessarily leads them to pursue interests independently of those they represent. Not just because they are not subject to immediate recall by the base, but more essentially because as professional mediations between capital and labour, they must inevitably act like bosses: like when lefty leader Rodney Bickerstaffe called security guards to chuck out ambulance workers who’d tried to speak to him at the TUC headquarters. And that’s why, in the various health strikes, NUPE and COHSE have consistently divided off the workers from each other (as many healthworkers are well aware).

     Trouble is, submission to the divisive effects of Trade Unions'(and bosses’) cynical organisation of workers by role and category, always leads to demoralisation.  Why have so few healthworkers practically supported the ambulance staff? (and few ambulance crews have posed to other healthworkers that if they really took their support seriously they too would only do emergency work). Indeed some healthworkers, despite claiming support, are only too eager to grab the opportunities for extra overtime which the dispute has created. Course, it’s no good just moralistically finger-wagging, since it doesn’t get to grips with the history of why people feel they can’t win, and attack the cynicism which comes from accepting defeat. I heard of one bus driver in Notting Hill who wouldn’t support the ambulance staff because they hadn’t supported the miners in ’84. Miners themselves don’t generally go along with this bullshit type of excuse: on Jan.30th in a great many pits throughout the country, during the day shift, all those who safely could, downed tools for varying periods of time. On the other hand, I’ve heard of a Kent miner cashing in on the dispute by working shifts with the St. John’s Ambulancemen. And I’ve met one ambulanceman who used this fact as a reason not to try to get solidarity actions from miners. It’s these divisions which are the most depressing. When yesterday’s striker/rebel/lucid critic becomes today’s scab/conformist/professional ideologist, doesn’t it make you feel suicidal (whilst dreaming of slitting their miserable throats sometime in the future, of course)? Indifference and resignation to this horror makes bastards out of individuals who, at one time, were genuinely Good People: they become everything which in the past they detested in others. Being betrayed by these ex-friends is always the most traumatic of all.

     One of the reasons for all these divisions is that no-one really thinks authority can be defeated. After years of failure this is understandable, if only because no-one wants to look for some causes for these defeats other than to blame the various enemies (e.g. the Law, the cops, the media, the Union bureaucrats, the passivity of other sections of the working class). Since such enemies will always exist when people challenge authority in some way, the only function such blame serves is to resign oneself to defeat rather than look at how to combat the enemies better. In the meantime, the life or death question facing the poor in the U.K. – “How are we going to prevent the Thatcherite Economy (let alone global capitalism) completely fucking us over?” – has yet to lead to a practical answer.

     The Labour Party – and all those who pin their hopes on a Labour victory which is by no means assured – have a pat answer of course: Vote Labour! (they will save us! Hallelujah!). Never mind – as one ambulanceman pointed out – that the great reforming Attlee Labour government of  45 – 51 sent troops in to crush the ambulance strikers; never mind the troops sent by the last Labour government, including Tony Benn, against the firemen; never mind the fact that Labour has pledged itself to maintaining the outlawing of sympathy strikes; never mind that Labour’s policies are about the same as those of Thatcher’s ’79 election manifesto (they’ve already bluntly stated that their first priority will be to get the Economy right, and that social concerns will come second); never mind all this – Labour will make things better – rather like praying for rain. But any reform of the State which would be of partial – and inevitably temporary – benefit to the poor could only come if the rulers (Left or Right) felt threatened by a massive explosion of autonomous class war. As de Klerk stated in South Africa, “Reform is needed if we are to avoid revolution”. Since we in the UK are as far from any revolutionary situation as Soweto was in May 1976, the rulers can get away with blatant repression. Reform is only resorted to when it’s the only means of asserting social control (that’s why the South African rulers released Mandela: they know his calls for discipline, an end to looting and an end to the theft and burning of cars, his calls for an end to classroom boycotts, etc. are their best bet of getting blacks to submit to the commodity economy there). But in this country autonomous class struggle hasn’t threatened the market economy with anything like as much consistency as the uprisings of the South African blacks. So far, class struggle here has been defeated mainly from within, especially by submission to the prison of Trade Unionism.

     There are historical reasons behind this submission. In the 70s – height of the inspiring “British disease” which still haunts the CBI, Trade Union rules & structures were sufficient means to carry out a United fight against the rules of profit, to go-slow, refuse overtime, work-to-rule, phone in sick and not be disciplined, strike or whatever. Whilst there was always hostility towards the top Union bureaucrats (e.g. lefty Jack Jones got duffed up following the deal he’d arranged to sell out the dockers’ strike of ’72), up until the ’74 Labour victory, workers on a rank and file level, could generally use shop stewards to fight for their own immediate interests – or, at least, to ignore or by-pass those shop stewards who were more compromised with the bosses. Within the framework of the Union, miners in ’72, organised on a rank & file level, won their fight with the Coal Board by going directly to workers in the Birmingham area and getting them to go down with them to picket out Saltley Coke depot (if only miners in ’84 had gone round Sheffield appealing directly to workers to come down to Orgreave instead of leaving it to Scargill to appeal on TV to people to support them). Also within the framework of the Union, in ’72 dockers forced the government to U-turn and release shop stewards and others from Pentonville prison. Though the ‘revolutionary’ atmosphere was more an unfulfilled promise than a reality, these victories did encourage resistance everywhere to the point when, in ’74, Heath, the P.M., called an election based on “Who rules? The Government or…?”, which he lost. With the Labour victory, though, all the social democratic illusions of the working class in Labour and the Unions were sufficient to dampen down any mass class struggle for over 4 years. The incorporation of the Unions onto management boards and a much greater integration of stewards into the Union/State hierarchy helped suppress rank and file opposition. Looking to shop stewards to lead the struggle lost much of its previous rationality. For instance, there were a far greater number of senior stewards on 100% facility time, paid for by the company/State dept., leaving them as remote from the sharp end of an intensifying workers’ alienation as the Union bureaucrat behind his/her desk. However, beneath the Social Contract between Unions and State, a constant subterranean resistance to wage labour was forever causing misery for the bosses. Eventually all this bubbled over into “The Winter Of Discontent” (’78 – ’79), most of which was fought by the base – and won – completely within a Trade Union perspective, despite the years of Union – Government collaboration. Whereas in the 6Os over 9O% of strikes had been wildcat, in the 70s Unions generally made such strikes official, taking on the image of protecting workers’ interests even when, they were de-railing them. The Winter of Discontent saw workers taking the Union into their own hands but not going beyond the Union. And, generally speaking, shop stewards couldn’t put up obstacles to a struggle run by the base (of which, many of these stewards were still a part). With Callaghan, the Labour P .M., labelling strikers as “free collective vandals” and other sections of the bourgeoisie moaning about truckdrivers “taking managerial decisions” (Sunday Telegraph), Trade Unions seemed like the ruling classes’ “spectre of communism”, to the point where Thatcher could label Trade Unionism as the enemy, subsequently entangling the working class in all sorts of laws, falsely labelled as “anti-Union” laws. In fact, those laws have made Unions more overtly the enemy of the class struggle than ever before: fear of sequestration of funds has turned Unions into overt cops. And the new anti-wildcat strike law is making the process even more blatant: witness shop stewards at Fords threatening to discipline anyone going on wildcat strike – and this before it’s become law. Or the way EPIU at Fords is scabbing against the EETPU in a tit-for-tat retaliation for EETPU scabbing at Wapping, really just a cynical desire for recruits, justified out of submission to the Tories’ strike ballot laws (democracy moves in a mysterious way). Or the way Ron Todd (TGWU boss) went personally to the Liverpool docks last year to get the dockers there to call off the strike even though a ballot had made it completely legal. The examples are endless.


     Not just the TUC (Thatcher’s Unofficial Cops), not just this or that leader or Union, but Trade Unionism as such has been a major reason for the failure of the class war here. When, for example, the 1984 striking miners blocked off the Humber Bridge during the dockers’ strike of that year, a great opportunity to break beyond Trade Unionism and develop a direct encounter between two different fronts of the class struggle was missed. However, it wasn’t the NUM or the TGWU in themselves which blocked off this chance of a potentially subversive meeting, but the miners’ and dockers’ reflex to trust only their “own” trade or to look to their own leaders, or stewards/branch secretaries for the initiative for such a meeting. In an epoch when the blackmail of unemployment wasn’t so threatening because it was relatively easy to get another job and social security was an automatic right, workers could win their struggle merely by looking to their ‘own’ trade. In 1978 Ford workers could massively defeat the State’s 5% wage rise limit simply by having a totally solid strike and a token 5-man picket which absolutely refused to even talk with outsiders. But for such Trade Unionist attitudes to continue during an epoch when the “every sector for itself” stance has led to painful defeat seems like some stubborn Death Wish. It’s not that many striking workers have not shown courage and dignity it’s just that will alone is not enough. There’ll be no successful breakthroughs until rebellious workers see the necessity of breaking through Trade Unionism, until they stop looking to the Union for initiatives and look at how to extend their own self-organised initiatives.

     A few see the way forward as being the intensification of shop steward organisation. But since 1979 the number of shop stewards has risen from about 300,000 to 350,000 – and to what effect? Shop stewards generally just represent the lowest common denominator of those they represent: when a minority are militant the shop steward will tend to express the moderation of the servile majority. If the majority are in struggle, the shop steward will often participate in the most radical acts of the active section of the strikers. Though their real contribution is neither more nor ness than this active element, their greater access to contacts, phones, equipment, etc. often make them seem like indispensable leaders. But when there’s a downturn in any particular struggle, their privileged position will often be used to contribute to the ending of the strike. Basically, shop stewards, regardless of their own personal integrity, are trapped within the representative role of their authority position: they will swim with the tide, generally going where the majority goes, showing about as much consistency and coherence as an alcoholic on speed. When it comes to practical initiatives, rare is the shop steward so unconcerned about maintaining their status as to step out of line with what the – mostly passive – majority want of them. And if they do – it’s not because of their position as shop steward. In the end doing something is started by a minority, whether that includes shop stewards or not. If a shop steward is looked to as a benevolent authority, someone who can protect workers against vicious management fingering, it’s also indicative of the extent to which workers become dependant on them, even up to the point of coming to them with all their problems, treating them like a social worker, when, likely as not, these stewards will also have a fucked-up daily life they’re desperate to talk about, but which their specialist position forces them to bottle up.

     To break the impasses, it’s useful to consider the examples of others, not as an ideal to be aimed for, but as something worth adapting to different circumstances. A critical knowledge of other people’s struggles helps to convince us that the danger is not overwhelming; that there will always be more security in organising some innovative subversive activity than in repeating past mistakes.

     For instance it’s worth looking at some of the struggles in France. Like, for instance, the French railway workers’ strike of ’86 – ’87. There, over a month before the strike, a 31 year old class-conscious train driver put out a petition calling for a pledge from other drivers to an indefinite strike, listing the various demands. It was asked that this petition/pledge be reproduced and passed round by those in agreement. It received an overwhelming response, so later a leaflet was produced by other train drivers, 2 and a half weeks before the strike, also to be reproduced and passed around: it clearly set out the strikers’ demands, stating exactly when the strike would begin, asking the unions involved to support the strike, threatening them if they didn’t. The strike began without a single command from the unions  and developed partly by means of daily assemblies of strikers held in each station, in which no particular striker held any greater power than any other. Where delegation seemed necessary, it was subject to immediate recall by the assemblies. Of course, many exemplary actions – such as sabotage – were carried out without discussion in the assemblies, and sometimes against the wishes of the majority. But, without wanting to make out that assemblies and co-ordinations are some insurance for active commitment, they did provide an environment of direct communication which made manipulation difficult and provided the strike with some continuity, although it must he said that there was often a lot of suspicion towards ‘outsiders’ and a lot of division amongst strikers along the lines of their different work roles and later developments of co-ordinations in France sometimes had a reactionary content – e.g. railway workers striking in support of a ticket collector who’d shot and killed a guy who’d aggressively refused to pay his fare. So they’re no fixed model – just worth adapting.

     The ‘co-ordination’ has travelled to the UK – but without the original zing of its inception. The London tube drivers of ’89 were the first to use the term co-ordination but the co-ordinations had specific characteristics related to the fact that the UK suffers under the most draconian labour laws in the whole of Europe (east and west). They were a semi-clandestine organisation defying LRT management and unions alike (particularly ASLEF). Its clandestinity could he very broadly imitated when the recent law against wildcat strikes gets underway. As a body they were devastatingly effective – at one moment doing a kind of syncopation with Tendon bus crews and main line rail terminal staff in order to paralyse London (May 15th ’89, while June 22nd. was the most comprehensive stoppage of traffic movement in London since the 1926 General Strike). In the beginning, bureaucrats (mainly ASLEF) were ordered out of meetings and the coordinators were basically anti~party in the sense of ignoring them. But later Trotskyists began trying out their entryism routine and the coordination faltered in other ways when the national railway strike got underway with full union (NUR) control and ASLEF moved in again on the tubes, with coordinators relinquishing something of a direct democracy to union officials. Even so, the coordinators snapped back into focus when the usual union sell-out deal was handed down and mad-as-hell drivers at a final strike meeting ferociously refused (“listen motherfucker!”) to talk to any of the professional liars of the media – a response not heard since the heady days of the miners strike of ’84. However, the co-ordination had its limitations: it was an intense heart-felt expression of a sectional skill but wasn’t actually opened up to other underground workers.

     Other bits of fertile ground for  coordinations  have been the building trade and the North Sea Oil platforms – but, generally speaking, these have been dominated by shop stewards making decisions behind the backs of the strikers – and have been basically coordinations only in name. Practical development of coordinations remains so far a tiny minority escapade in the UK. Rigid union centralism has regained ground bit by bloody bit. Recent strikes have not been very inspiring affairs and are much orchestrated by bureaucrats acting like public relations personel in tandem with companies like “Union Communacations Ltd.”, taking their theatrical cue from Saatchi & Saatchi which, whilst abstractly influencing passive public opinion, reflects an absent passionless life, where, on the simplest level, picketting is just some routine duty, hardly a lived experience. Hardly the supercession of the sabotage and violence of the miners strike or the Wapping dispute which, though defeated and trapped in the Union form nevertheless, in their rage, really did point to something more than a ‘fairer’ nicey nicey media-cultivated version of the same old order.

“I reckon it will fizzle out – people will just trickle hack to work. The building societies, finance companies, will see to that”
– Camden ambulance worker on unofficial strike, January 30th.

     Whilst, if it does fizzle out, it won’t just be debts that’ll force ambulance workers back, but the Unions as well, it’s also a reluctant form of Thatcherite ideology ringing through peoples  minds that stops them pushing on: “Whatever happens, I’ll find some way to survive within the hell of the market economy, alone, if necessary.” In the end it’s this survivalist fantasy that makes people “trickle back” from the class struggle – putting a tough face on defeat. Why “fantasy”? Because most of the poor know, within their hearts, that every defeat for the struggle is another blow to their lives, another nail in their coffin, another victory for brutal Market Forces, where who sinks or swims is largely down to chance &/or money (Kings Cross, Zeebrugge, Piper Alpha and Hillsborough are just the most obvious examples). Others say “We’ll get them next time” – but that’s generally just bravado – because each “next time” becomes more half-hearted, wearier and warier of committing yourself too far because of the expectation of defeat, the expectation of the pain of high hopes dashed. Sure, despite 10 years of demoralising defeat, we’re not going to roll over and die – as the ambulance crews have shown. But if the ambulance dispute is not to be just another tombstone on the road to hell, and if we’re truly going to get them “next time” (over the next couple of years or so) then each and everyone of us has to analyse the limitations of the present and past struggles – and of our own relation to them – in order to draw practical conclusions for “the next time”.

     It’s this that has made me put this out: it’s so utterly depressing to see another lot go down without at least doing something to try to alter the apparently inevitable course of events. Sure, a text is easy – and it’s not meant to be a substitute for practical risks (unlike the texts put out by Leftist parties and groups, which striking workers are suspicious of with good reason, since these leaflets are always saying “Do this!”, mainly with the aim of trying to get recruits or giving the Party some public image of apparent relevance). At the same time being a spectator of the class struggle, and just commenting on its limitations after the event or from afar, is an impotent role, about as smug and inconsequential as all the vanguardist fantasies of the political sects. So that’s why I’ve put this out. If it gets people – including me and my friends – working out actions they could do – then it’ll not be in vain.

Completed on 22nd February 1990

     P.S. A Camden striker said on TV last night (22nd Feb.) that Roger Poole was completely “out of touch” with the crews, and that the dispute in reality was not so much about pay but about the whole future of the NHS. If the ambulance workers made direct appeals to other workers on the basis of attacking the Government’s run-down of the NHS, then we truly could begin to see the blossoming spring of a united class struggle in this miserable country! The Merseyside crews look like showing the way forward. Who can guess what magic moments may lie ahead?”

Magic moments… or not… Something of the pressures that caused greater divisions and put up barriers discussed in the leaflet above, started to undermine support for the strike within the unions involved.

The unions were spending large amounts of their funds in paying strike benefits to ambulance crews in dispute (the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) alone had paid out almost £1 million while both the Transport and General Workers’ Union and GMB had gone into debt). Some non-ambulance crew members of these unions started questioned why such large amounts were being spent on action which affected only a small portion of the membership.
The costs were so high that a pay dispute for ancillary workers, some of the lowest paid in the health service, was postponed because of a lack of funds.

The tory government attempted to mobilise public opinion against the strike in the traditional way – by lying about the ambulance crews. The press were briefed on alleged incidents where ambulance crews had refused to respond to emergencies, including claims, later proved false, that a crew in Becontree had refused to respond to a call about a newborn baby found in a ditch; that another crew refused to attend a call-out to a man with a severed foot and that one West Midlands ambulance station refused to provide emergency coverage for 48 hours. This tactic got them little traction.

Opinion polls conducted during the strike showed public support of around 80% in favour of strikers, including support of 75% among conservative voters. At its highest, only 10% of the public supported the government. In fact the unions had paid close attention paid to public opinion during the dispute, conducting polling throughout the strike to judge this, and coming down hard on wildcat activity which it felt was bound to lead to bad publicity (though generally didn’t, in the event).

A government indication that it was considering a revised pay offer in early February proved just a stalling tactic, as they were holding out and hoping for public opinion to turn against the strike.

Again, the unions escalated the strike further on 15 February – members were instructed not to follow any orders issued by senior ambulance service managers. At this point the British Army was operating in 18 ambulance service areas.

The two parties were finally brought together for conciliation talks by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. A joint industrial council was formed to consider a deal. Talks initially broke down over the issue of back-pay for suspended workers, which the government refused to countenance, but this was eventually conceded, and talks resumed on 22 February.

In the early hours of February 23rd 1990, after negotiations that lasted throughout the night, a deal was struck between the unions representing ambulance workers (NUPE, COHSE, NALGO, GMB and T&GWU) and the Department of Health.

A pay rise of 16.9% over two years was agreed; the government also agreed to a £500 per year bonus to ambulance crew members with additional medical training, an extra 2 per cent for productivity, increases in London Allowance, and funding to develop the new role the paramedic for the future. The increases were to be backdated, with part of it paid as a lump sum.

Roger Poole, chief negotiator for the Joint Unions, claimed “Today we have driven a coach and horses through the Conservative government’s pay policy!”

However, for many of the ambulance crews, the deal left something to be desired. A major component of the pay claim that year had been the establishment of an annual pay formula linked to the pay systems of police and fire-fighters. But this was dropped during the negotiations.

Put to ambulance workers for ratification; a vote approved the deal by 4:1; members of NUPE, the largest ambulance union, voted 85% in favour on a 74% turnout. Although the pay formula had been dropped, many of those involved had gone as far as they could go at that point. A partial victory felt a bit like a victory still…

Ironically the very building where that deal was struck in the early February morning of 1990 – the Department of Health’s Hannibal House – came to be used as a training centre for London Ambulance Service at which student paramedics are trained at the start of an innovative three-year course.

The strike led to greater recognition of the skill involved in the work of the ambulance crews and began their transformation into today’s multi-skilled paramedics, central to the NHS, with all staff playing a key strategic role, while having a pay determination system looked on with envy by others. One participant later wrote; “Positive change has happened and maybe 89/90 was the birth pains for it.”

Beyond the impact on the job of ambulance crews, there’s no doubt, the strike was one of the most successful of the later Thatcher era. Although there had been other victories in the 80s, they felt few and far between, and an air of general depression had settled on trade unionists and many among the wider working class. If only a partial win, the ambulance dispute seemed a positive sign. And as it was taking place, the movement against the poll tax was just beginning to shape up into a major battle (if in the community arena, rather than that of the workplace), which would also end in victory, of sorts… A sense that tides were turning…


We remember: The Rotunda, once London’s leading radical meeting space

We remember… The Rotunda

The basis of this text was originally published in 2012, when the ‘Cuts Café’ squatted a building on the corner of Stamford Street and Blackfriars Road to use it as a campaigning centre against the government cuts and austerity onslaught… (we printed a brief account of the Rotunda, to distribute free at the Cuts Cafe squat centre).

We loved that the empty offices had been squatted for action! – not just because we passed that building regularly for years and thought it should be squatted (but were busy with other things!) … but also because they were reviving a powerful radical connection on that very corner…


No 3 Blackfriars Road, a now-demolished building which stood on the road’s west side, near the corner where modern Stamford Street now meets it, was once known as the Rotunda; for a few short years nearly two centuries ago, this was the most influential radical social and political meeting space of its era…

The front of the Rotunda

First founded as a ‘Freethought Coliseum’ and debating club, with a capacity of 1000 people, sometime in the 1780s, the Rotunda stumbled through various owners and numerous uses, until it was taken over by Richard Carlile in 1830, when it entered a brief golden age.

Carlile was a leading radical and freethinker in the 1820s and ’30s: famous/infamous, depending largely on how religious or orthodox you were politically, as a publisher and printer. He sold radical books and newspapers, concentrating on questioning religion, then a powerful influence over most people’s lives. Carlile was repeatedly jailed for re-publishing banned political works like the works of Tom Paine, and anti-religious texts, in a time when blasphemy laws were used regularly to silence anyone questioning christianity.

Carlile had also been at the forefront of the ‘War of the Unstamped Press’, in response to crippling government taxes on newspapers, designed to repress a huge explosion of radical and cheap newspapers aimed at the growing working classes. A huge movement evolved to produce, sell, smuggle these papers, evading a massive official effort to close them, through the 1820s and 30s… Carlile, and hundreds of others, were jailed, often over and over again, during this struggle, which ended with a victory, of sorts, with the reduction of the stamp, thus opening the way for a cheap popular press. From which we still benefit today (??!!)

Richard Carlile

Through the late 1810s, and the 1820s, Carlile had operated from several shops in Fleet Street, becoming one of the main focus points for a freethinking, radical self-educated artisan culture very powerful in London at this time… a culture that fed into the turbulent and rebellious working class movements of the 1830s and ’40s.

In the late 1820s, Carlile had been eclipsed slightly as the most notorious rebel and blasphemer; he was bankrupt, his book sales were declining, and the radical movements that had erupted after the Napoleonic Wars were temporarily fallen into decline.

But Carlile had a gift for thinking big and doing the outrageous… In May 1830 he spent the vast sum of £1275 (he was skint, so he borrowed the whole sum!) to rent the Rotunda as a venue lectures on atheism (although a fair chunk of this went on cleaning and a paint-job, as the building had got somewhat run down)… The Rotunda’s location played some part in Carlile’s choice of venue, being 200 yards north of Rowland Hill’s chapel (on the junction of Blackfriars Road and Union Street, where the famous Ring later gave birth to modern boxing), a leading centre of religious revivalism of its day. Carlile and his collaborator Robert Taylor saw the Rotunda as the perfect counter-blast to this famous chapel.

This was to be a public place where the disenfranchised and the disaffected could express their collective discontent. Landlords of pubs, taverns and other buildings often either refused radicals bookings, or had pressure put on them by the authorities to stop hiring places to such causes… No longer, Carlile thought, would the radical community be vulnerable to this. Carlile also hoped the Rotunda too could provide the ‘centre’ and a ‘heart’ for the real representatives of working people.

The small lecture theatre at the Rotunda

The Rotunda was to achieve this through popular dissemination of knowledge. A ‘war’ against the ‘ignorance of the whole country’ was central to his aims for the venture. He believed that working people needed, and wanted, a venue for ‘free, open and fair discussion’, but also a place of general instruction and learning for themselves and their children. Intellectual exchange unhindered by religious dogma or political orthodoxies, the ‘necessary purgation and purification of the public mind’, were necessary to build a movement capable of bringing in an inevitable new order of society. Carlile maintained that it was free discussion that was the ‘only necessary Constitution—the only necessary Law to the Constitution’.

It was not through direct political education that Carlile and his Rotunda allies initially envisaged effecting the necessary changes to society, but through science and reason… Carlile pledged that there would be ’no priestcraft, no despotism to deceive the people’.

Robert Taylor. the Devil’s Chaplain

In cahoots with Carlile, as least for a while was the ‘Reverend’ Robert Taylor, a former Church of England clergyman, who blended ultra-radical politics with a fierce opposition to religion. He was twice convicted of blasphemy, the first time in 1827 on an indictment for a blasphemous discourse at Salters’ Hall and on another for conspiracy to overthrow the Christian religion. Sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, at Oakham gaol he met fellow-prisoner Carlile; after they were both released they went on a four months lecture tour in May 1829.

At the Rotunda, Taylor preached in to large audiences dressed as a clergyman. Two ‘sermons on the devil’ in June 1830 gained him from Henry Hunt the title of ‘the devil’s chaplain.’ He was described him “over the middle size, inclined to be stout, and of gentlemanly manners”…

Taylor’s Rotunda lectures were multi-media extravaganzas, enhanced by 12 zodiacal emblems painted on the dome overhead, and a large board carrying greek ‘hieroglyphs’, a mechanical pointer, an expensive illuminated globe and a clockwork orrery… he was also sometimes accompanied by a female chorus playing guitars. His ‘Divine Service’ was offered on Sundays: a burlesque on bible, it usually started with readings from scripture, expanding into a satire on the Anglican service.

Taylor, unlike Carlile, leant strongly on theatre as a means of propaganda and saw it as a powerful lever of social change… They also disagreed on the demystifying power of satire and ridicule. Taylor’s Rotunda performances featured more and more burlesque and buffoonery, while Carlile always inclined to the more serious and moral style of lecture.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

In 1830, southern England was rocked by the Swing riots: agricultural labourers smashed and burned threshing machines in a mass movement of riotous rebellion. The reputation of the Rotunda can be seen in the fact that Government ministers of the time blamed the Swing Riots on the influence of the Rotunda: this was certainly untrue, in that the revolts were sparked by immediate grievances. But the Rotunda was certainly feared by the powers that be. Taylor put on a play enthusing about the riots: called ‘Swing, or Who are the Incendiaries?’; but a year late the authorities got their own back, jailing Carlile for 30 months for defending the rioters in print.

The Establishment vs The Rotunda

In the early 1830s, there was growing pressure for parliamentary reform. A rough alliance of middle class and working class co-operated in pressing for a wider franchise, more representative constituencies, and other measures, to limit the power of the aristocracy… For a couple of years polite political reform, riotous workers and radical demagoguery all seemed to be part and parcel; of course in the end the 1832 Reform Act would later give the vote to the middle classes, who promptly ditched their plebeian allies with a fond fuck you all… Still it was a time pregnant with possibilities.

In November 1830, at the height of the Reform agitation, armed crowds met at the Rotunda, waving radical newspapers and attempted to march to Parliament:

“On Monday night (8 Nov 1830) a meeting was held at the Rotunda in Blackfriars road… an individual exposed a tricoloured flag, with “Reform” painted upon it, and a cry of “Now for the West End” was instantly raised. This seemed to serve as a signal, as one and all sallied forth in a body. They then proceeded over the bridge in numbers amounting to about 1,500 shouting, “Reform” – “Down with the police” – “No Peel” – “No Wellington.” They were joined by women of the town, vociferous in declamations against the police.”

The Duke of Wellington, then Prime minister, was the arch-champion of the most reactionary tories of the time, dead set against any political reforms or concessions to change of any kind. The class conscious workers movement especially considered him one of their main enemies. Note the flying of the French tricolour, the emblem of the first French Revolution, then still used by English radicals who took part of their inspiration from the events of 1789 in France. It was only really superseded as the main workers flag by the red flag in the later 19th century.

“The mob proceeded into Downing-street, where they formed in a line…  A strong body of the new police arrived from Scotland yard to prevent them going to the House of Commons. A general fight ensued, in which the new police were assisted by several respectable looking men. The mob, upon seeing reinforcement, took to flight.

The refuse of the mob, proceeded in a body, vociferating “No Peel – down with the raw lobsters!” At Charing Cross, the whole of them yelled, shouting and breaking windows. They were dashing over heaps of rubbish and deep holes caused by the pulling down of several houses, when a strong body of police rushed upon them and dealt out unmerciful blows with staves on heads and arms.

In the evening another mob made their way to Apsley House, the residence of the Duke of Wellington, hallooing, in their progress thither, disapprobation towards the noble duke and the police. They were met by a strong force of the police, who succeeded in ultimately dispersing them. During the conflict many received serious injuries.

At half-past twelve o’clock, a party were in the act of breaking up [a paling], for purpose of arming themselves, when a body of police made a rush forward and laid unmercifully on the rioters, making many prisoners…”

The Duke Of Wellington considered the battle for the future of society as one of “The Establishment Vs The Rotunda.”

Two days later, the military besieged the Rotunda at ten o’clock at night trying to provoke another fight; they ordered Carlile to open the doors, but he refused, so they eventually buggered off.

More riots would follow the House of Lords voting down the Reform Act in 1831.

The National Union of the Working Classes

Despite the popularity of the Rotunda’s lectures, Carlile always had problems coming up with the rent for the Rotunda. Carlile tried to solve this by opening the space up to other groups, mostly radials, even ones he had previously quarrelled with or had serious political differences with.

In July 1831, he attempted to address this problem both financially and politically by letting part of the building to the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC).

The National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) held mass debates at the Rotunda; according to leading London reformer (and police informer!) Francis Place: “I have seen hundreds outside the doors for whom there was no room within.”

The NUWC had arisen as an alliance of groups of London trade unionists, many of whom were also sympathetic to the ideas of Robert Owen. However they largely rejected Owen’s belief that political reform was irrelevant, that the working class should organise only on the economic level. The NUWC instead maintained that political action was vital, that universal male suffrage, winning the vote for working men, would in the end bring about economic equality. They saw class relations as fundamental to society, and that in order to win their rights workers had to organise for themselves: some in the NUWC said the workers should organise themselves separately, in their own organisations. In London their support was mainly among artisans, who had formed the backbone of the reforming and radical movements, with a strong tradition of self-education, self-employment, apprenticeship and independence.

Membership of the National Union of the Working Classes totalled about 3,000 in London, they were divided into local ‘classes’ of 80 to 130 people, mostly in then solidly working class areas like Lambeth, Bethnal Green, Hammersmith and Islington. But their influence was greater than membership numbers suggest: especially through papers like the Poor Man’s Guardian, which were read widely among artisans and the emerging working class. In government and official circles, fear of the power and influence of the NUWC was, however, probably wildly out of proportion to its real power.

Some leading lights of the NUWC were George Foskett; William Lovett, later a moderate Chartist leader; Henry Hetherington, (who printed the debates in his ‘Poor Man’s Guardian’, the leading unstamped newspaper) William Benbow, James Watson and John Cleave, all three of who ran radical newspaper and book shops in London. Many had been linked to the ‘War of the Unstamped’ (see above). Most of these, and much of the membership of the Union in general, helped to create, or became involved in, the Chartist movement, a much larger expression of working class desires for reform, greater rights and power. The NUWC in many ways was a sort of proto-Chartism, though strong in London, where Chartism’s greatest strengths were in the new industrial cities of the north and midlands.

A caricature of William Benbow in his printshop

It was at the Rotunda that William Benbow first advocated his theory of the Grand National Holiday. Benbow argued that a month long General Strike would lead to an armed uprising and a change in the political system to the gain of working people. Benbow used the term “holiday” (holy day) because it would be a period “most sacred, for it is to be consecrated to promote the happiness and liberty”. Benbow argued that during this one month holiday the working class would have the opportunity “to legislate for all mankind; the constitution drawn up… that would place every human being on the same footing. Equal rights, equal enjoyments, equal toil, equal respect, equal share of production.” Benbow’s theory was published in a radical newspaper, the Tribune of the People, and in a pamphlet, The Grand National Holiday of the Productive Classes (1832).

From 1831 to 1833, weekly NUWC meetings and debates were held at the Rotunda; on and off; during this time there was an intense agitation nationally for reform, and many of these were heated discussions, as the Union was from the start to its end divided. There were arguments over definitions of class, over strategy and tactics, over the uses of violence, over whether to ally with the (then stronger) middle class political reform movement, or the more progressive wing of the Whig party.

Especially after the 1832 Reform Act gave voting rights to middle class men, but not the working class, some elements of the Union came to the conclusion that the lower classes would have to rebel to obtain their ‘rights’. There was a strong sense that the middle class reformers had used the threat of working class uprising as a stick to force the aristocracy to share power with them, then shafted their proletarian allies.  Benbow made a speech celebrating the great reform riot in Bristol in 1831, but was opposed by other members of the NUWC Committee… Some NUWC members made plans to arm themselves in self defence against police attacks on rallies, which jacked up the government and bourgeoisie’s fear of the Union. By 1833, the moderates were beginning to desert the NUWC and the more desperate elements came to the fore. Their plan to launch a Convention of the People (a scary notion for the upper classes, coming straight from the most radical phase of the French Revolution) led to a rally on Coldbath fields in Clerkenwell, which was kettled and attacked by police. In the fighting a policeman was killed.

The NUWC began to fall apart after this, but its influence helped give birth to Chartism. Both the London Working Man’s Association and the London Democratic Association emerged from same groups and individuals in London, and they were crucial in kickstarting Chartism in the late 1830s. But its inherent divisions over class, whether workers could co-operate with the middle class, over the use of force, over the ultimate aim (just equality, or seizing power for the workers as a class), were inherited by the larger later movement, and continued to divide Chartism through its existence… And many are indeed questions alive and kicking in our own movements and struggles today…

Carlile, meanwhile, had other problems… including a growing rift between him and Robert Taylor. Carlile disapproved of Taylor’s levity and clowning, and his wild behaviour, heavy drinking, and consorting with what ‘serious’ radicals saw as unsavoury characters, although he admired his ability to hold mass audiences. Taylor’s spoofs on religious services became wilder and wilder, he dressed as a bishop, parodied church services, and made more and more outrageous blasphemous comments on christian rituals or the scriptures. As a result he was hauled up in court in July 1831 for preaching blasphemy, found guilty, and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in Horsemonger Lane gaol, with a hefty fine. His friends raised a subscription for him in September 1832.

This jail sentence actually caused a real split between Carlile and Taylor. Carlile thought radicals jailed for their ideas should be stoical martyrs: upstanding, unbending and morally correct. But Taylor was an unsatisfactory freethought martyr: he whined, wrote to the Prime Minister trying to get his sentence reduced, and got caught smuggling brandy into his cell.

Besides the NUWC, other noted radicals of the period graced the stages of the Rotunda: William Cobbett delivered a series of lectures on the French Revolution; in late 1830, the Irish ‘Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell chaired several NUWC meetings on the situation in Ireland.

Carlile’ s willingness to open the doors to a diverse range of radicals was not just from ideological motives – it also helped pay the huge rents and expenses. “Faced with the significant sum of £1000 per annum to keep the building open, Carlile also charged admission to the lectures and performances….

The Pythoness of the Temple

But even with the NUWC in residence, Carlile continued to struggle to pay the bills, and by late 1831 had rented the theatres (when not used by the NUWC) to a circus, a concert company and, on one occasion, a man exhibiting a ‘Phenomena of Nature’: a horse with seven legs. Given Carlile’s previous barbs regarding the flippant nature of popular entertainment, it must have stung deeply to see his prized venue reduced to a forum of trivial spectacle. Nevertheless, such performances kept the Rotunda open, allowing him to plan his next move…

In September 1831, he announced the arrival of a ‘new Jesus Christ who was to lecture at the Rotunda on Thursday evenings under various titles of ’Shiloh, ‘messiah’ and ‘Sion’. John ‘Zion’ Ward, a fifty-year-old crippled former shoemaker of Irish descent, had progressed through Calvinism, Methodism, Baptism, and Sandemonianism before becoming a follower of prophetess Joanna Southcott. In 1825, he experienced a ‘revelation that he was the new Shiloh, or Joanna Southcott’s spiritual offspring’ , aka Jesus Christ (though he had formerly been Satan). Ward’s millenarian Rotunda sermons, with titles such as the ‘Judgment Seat of God’, Balaam’s Ass and Fall of Man, enthralled Rotunda audiences. Ward adopted the mantle of Robert Taylor with ease, as his performances were also strong on countertheatre and melodrama; his lectures blended ‘rationalism, republicanism and chiliastic mysticism’. But despite attracting crowds of up to 2000 at the Rotunda, Ward left London to continue on their roving lecture circuit. Carlile was forced again to search for a star attraction.

But by January 1832, large placards were seen around London announcing a ‘new occupation of the building’: “a return to Taylor and Ward’s brand of Rotunda radicalism, only this time, sensationally, in female form.” Dubbed ‘Lady of the Rotunda’ and ‘Isis’ (derived from the romantic myth of the Egyptian Goddess of Reason), Eliza Sharples’s identity was concealed for many months to protect her family, a ‘mystery’ also designed to whip up interest and controversy, and in true Carlile-style was “promoted as intensely as an opening night at the theatre”, timed to coincide with a date auspicious to all radicals: the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Paine.

Eliza Sharples

From a middle-class household in Lancashire, where she had largely educated herself and adopted freethought ideas, Eliza had come to London on hearing of Carlile’s imprisonment in 1831, visited him in prison, and became his (unmarried) lover. Convinced that Sharples would also invigorate Rotunda radicalism (and thereby his financial fortunes), Carlile took the bold step of evicting the NUWC from their headquarters in the larger theatre.

Eliza’s lectures became a ’regular strain of abuse of Religion, priests and all institutions.’ In the tradition of Taylor, Ward and Carlile, Sharples used the Rotunda platform to denounce the priesthood, mock religious superstition and pour scorn on established authority.

This aroused fury among conservatives and Christian evangelicals… The very fact that a woman was lecturing in public was considered ‘unfeminine’ in itself –the ‘blasphemous content’ of her talks compounded this. A correspondent to The Times, with a classic mix of misogyny and accent snobbery, labelled her a “female who exhibits herself in so unfeminine a manner… so utterly illiterate is the poor creature, that she cannot yet read what is set down for her with any degree of intelligibility…with her ignorance and unconquerable brogue…her ‘lecturing’…is almost as ludicrous as it is painful to witness.” Another report contemptuously described her as the ‘Pythoness of the temple’, branding her message as ’rubbish’ and suggesting retirement from the public sphere back to a domestic role, where, they supposed, she would more fittingly occupied as a “housemaid, or servant of all work, in some decent family…”

Sharples took up Taylor’s theatrical approach for his popular performances, for instance appearing wearing a ‘showy’ dress for her lectures, “stepping onto a stage strewn with the radical symbols of white thorn and laurel leaves”. On a stage previously occupied only by men, in a venue that was otherwise publicly associated with the rough, unrespectable elements of radicalism, appeared a woman in respectable dress, who then asserted the most unrespectable radical ideas… This was shockingly great theatre and provocation.

Richard Carlile had always aimed to establish the Rotunda as a space that catered for and attracted women, as other previous radical meeting spaces had failed to do. Police spy Abel Hall had reported large numbers of women attending Taylor’s lectures.

But Sharples tenure as a speaker at the Rotunda only lasted a few months. By February 1832, Sharples reported that over £1000 was needed to keep the venture open, to cover rent, taxes, lights, repairs, servants and to keep it in ’good order’. The Rotunda had teetered on the brink of closure ever since the imprisonment of Carlile. At the end of April 1832, facing an ever-widening financial burden, Carlile and Sharples took the dificult decision to end their tenure at the Rotunda.

Sharples would continue to work tirelessly in the freethought movement, publishing a secular magazine, Isis (no really!), and continuing to lecture on religion. She formed a link between the freethinkers of the 1820s-30s and the later large British secularist movement that evolved in the 1850s-70s, giving a home to the young Charles Bradlaugh, later to become a leading member of the secularist movement and a Radical MP, after his commitment to free thought led to alienation from his family.

Eliza McAuley

Eliza Macauley

Shortly after Sharples’ tenure ended, the Rotunda again came under female management, when Eliza Macauley, a former actress and Christian turned Owenite preacher, took it over. In August 1832, Macauley established the Surrey and Southwark Equitable Exchange Bank on the model of Owen’s own National Equitable Labour Exchange, which operated a system whereby workers deposited their goods, and an exchange note was then issued, allowing the member to purchase goods in return. Macauley’s Exchange also allowed women to ‘add their industry to that of their husbands’ by issuing exchange vouchers for women’s labour.

The South London Rational School at the Rotunda

Macauley also used the Rotunda premises to lecture on the equality of the sexes, financial reform and the superstition of established churches; women were admitted free. Macauley’s decision to lecture on a Sunday roused protestations from local Christians… She also planned to open a school of education and science for adults and an infant school in the Rotunda., but, the venture did not succeed and she became mired in debt. In 1835, Macauley wrote her memoirs from the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison.

The demise of Macauley’s endeavour saw the Rotunda again return to an outlet of popular entertainment.

However, in 1842–43 the premises’ once again became a focal point for radical lectures. Again with a strongly Owenite connection with strong and a leading female presence. Harriet Martineau, radical-liberal, was reported lecturing at the Rotunda in November 1842. The Rotunda’s established history as a gender-inclusive venue for knowledge and instruction was also rekindled, as an Owenite Hall of Science opened there, providing classes to boys and girls, making no differentiation of subject matter based on sex.

Carlile, more of an individualist than a co-operator, took this development with wry amusement, joking that the ‘Socialists’ had taken over his Rotunda. ‘The Social Thieves of Lambeth’, he despaired, ‘have possessed themselves of my Rotunda! How I envied the rogues of Sunday!’ However he broadly approved that the Rotunda was again working for ‘public purposes’, noting that his friend George Holyoake, secretary to the Lambeth Branch of the Rational Society, was due to lecture there the following day. Holyoake wrote to Carlile, advising he had ‘elicited some warm cheers for you this morning at the Rotunda’.

The South London branch of the Chartist movement also held meetings there throughout 1843, with the ‘largest gathering’ since they ’obtained possession of the Rotunda occurring in July that year.

According to The Times of 17 August 1843, the Rotunda was crowded out after placards declared that the part of the queen in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, then playing there, was to be taken by “Miss Mary Ann Walker of Chartist celebrity” – a famous female Chartist (“notorious”, if you read the mainstream bourgeois anti-feminist and anti-Chartist press) When the queen appeared on stage and was clearly not the person expected, a cry went up of “No, no! That ain’t Miss Walker.” Despite an apology and explanation from the stage manager that the placards had been a hoax, the crowd howled and laughed through the rest of the play.

In late 1843, leading Chartist Bronterre O’Brien was lecturing there, and a soiree was held in his honour in the Rotunda’s large theatre in January the following year. In January 1843, the Examiner reported a meeting to appeal for the Repeal of the Corn Laws, which attracted a gathering of some 1500 people.

Holyoake proposed a subscription plan to allow the premises to be turned into a ‘Philosophical Institute’, with Owenite lecturer Emma Martin as director.

“Despite his reticence about the socialists and his Rotunda, Carlile might well have approved. As Barbara Taylor mused, the funeral sermon. Martin penned upon learning of Carlile’s death in 1843, which contained caustic attacks about the established clergy and Old Corruption, would have ‘warmed his own heart’.”

But though the subscription effort raised the required amount of £250, the landlord intervened in the plan, refusing to lease the building for ‘atheistical purposes’.  The curtain had gone down on the most radical and blasphemous social space of its era…

Huge corporate developers St George have since engorged the site of the Rotunda with their erection of One Blackfriars, a skyscraper boasting 274 luxury flats, a “lifestyle hotel’ (whatever the fuck that is), and more sterile public space empty of meaning –

… But somewhere there’s a riotous crowd arming for uprising; and a man dressed as a bishop is mocking the absurdities of religion.

From the past to the present to the future: we have hung out on a lot of corners – that’s one of ours.

Originally published 2012, revised 2022


• Read more on the Rotunda, in
a past tense pamphlet,
Which you can order here

Virtue Among Equals: Bloomsbury Radical Herstory, (Walk Two)

Start: Euston Square underground station

This follows on a bit from our earlier Bloomsbury radical history walk. We didn’t really want to split the walk up, but it was so long it became unwieldy, so we divided it thematically. This walk tends to focus on two threads: feminism or feminists who lived or worked in Bloomsbury, and radicals of one stripe or another whose focus was on education and self-improvement. These two criss and cross and sometimes intertwine. You could do this and our previous Bloomsbury radical walk together, mix and match, although it might take you all day to physically walk all of it!

Walk down to the front of University College London

University College London (UCL) was opened in 1826, originally created in the early 19th century by a group of relative freethinkers. At the time London had no university, and Oxford and Cambridge still excluded anyone who was not an orthodox Anglican, or from the ‘right’ background. Inspired by Jeremy Bentham, a number of non-conformists, Catholics, Jews and others, got together and set up UCL as a University open to all regardless of faith and at a reasonably moderate expense. Critics called it the “Godless College”, and the “Cockney College”,  outraged at the idea that not only people of dubious religious ideas might get higher education, but also sons of businessmen and merchants (lowlife).
This furore was mocked by the poet Winthrop Mackworth Praed, clearly a total snob:
“Come, make opposition, by vote and petition,
To the radical infidel college…
Let them not babble of Greek to the rabble,
Nor teach the mechanics their letters…”

A cartoon satirising UCL and the ‘March Of intellect’ – the idea that education. science and progress were the way forward

Reactionary opponents, including the ultra-rightwing Duke of Wellington, set up Kings College in the Strand as a more orthodox rival. Later UCL also broke new ground in women’s education, being the first university in Britain to grant degrees to women on equal terms with men.

Ironically, not only is UCL these days pretty elitist (with a third of students coming from private schools), but in recent times the student union’s Atheist and humanist Society has faced repression by the student union over its displaying of pretty mild and dull cartoons mocking religion on its facebook page… About time the Godless was put back into the College!

All my Life I’ve Been Benth Out of Shape

Jeremy Bentham is generally revered as having inspired the creation of UCL… Bentham was clearly a complex character, developing both humanistic philosophy on the one hand and inhuman designs for institutions on the other…

Bentham had a massive influence on Bloomsbury liberals and activists that followed, many that lived here and also through his disciples like JS Mill, who in turn was guru to many of the Christian Socialists and suffragettes, and through the educational approach of UCL (whose founders were Bentham’s acolytes), and other institutions founded here.

Jeremy Bentham is often regarded as the founder of classical utilitarianism, designing  “the principle of utility”, which states that any action is right insofar as it increases happiness, and wrong insofar as it increases pain. He rejected the idea of inalienable natural rights—rights that exist independent of their enforcement by any government—as “nonsense on stilts”, opposing it with the proposal that the principle of utility to law and government should be the basis of legal rights, and that the right end of government is the maximisation of happiness (hilarious). During his lifetime, he attempted to create a “utilitarian pannomion”—a complete body of law based on the utility principle. The Scottish historian John Hill Burton was able to trace twenty-six legal reforms to Bentham’s arguments) and Bentham continued to exercise considerable influence on British public life.

Bentham held many views considered radical in Georgian and Victorian Britain. His writings on homosexuality were so liberal that his editor hid them from the public after his death. Bentham suggested the decriminalisation of homosexuality, as the severity of punishment was totally out of proportion to the ‘harm’ inflicted by the ‘crime’. He was also an early advocate of animal welfare, as beasts’ capacity to feel suffering gives us reason to care for their wellbeing: “The question is not can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?”. Bentham supported women’s rights (including the right to divorce), the abolition of slavery, the abolition of capital punishment, the abolition of corporal punishment, prison reform and economic liberalisation.

Holding that greater education would lead people to more accurately discern their long-term interests, and seeing progress in education within his own society, he supported democratic reforms such as the extension of the suffrage. He also advocated for greater freedom of speech, transparency and publicity of officials as accountability mechanisms. A committed atheist, he argued in favour of the separation of church and state.

On the other hand – Bentham also had a ludicrously mechanistic mind: he listed the 12 pains and 14 pleasures on his pleasure/pain axis, in order to illustrate his ‘felicific calculus’, a way of estimating the moral status of an action.

Bentham’s plan for the Panopticon

In many ways he was totally out of step with the radical traditions that derived from the ferment thrown up around the American and French Revolutions, and the reform movements in Britain that took inspiration from them. He wrote tracts in the late 18th century mocking the American struggle for independence. As noted above, he decried the tenet of ‘natural rights’. His conviction that government could be, should be, the instrument of forging a moral and just society, derived from his mechanistic approach to ‘the greater good’, led him deeper into the dark side, to theories of how to ensure people behaved themselves… Influenced by John Howard’s ideas on prison reform (see Great Ormond St, below), Bentham tried to apply utilitarianism to the design of penal institutions… This led to his infamous proposal for the Panopticon, a modern prison arranged so inmates were constantly under surveillance by their jailers, separate and silent, and their morals and behaviour controlled so as to enforce passivity and obedience. The Panopticon itself was never put into actual practice (the disregard of this big idea, given that he had spent 16 years working on it, made Jezza very bitter, and possibly led to his growing idea that interests of the powerful could and were combining and conspiring against wider public interest, in this case, against him…!) However, Bentham’s ideas did permeate into penal policy, and he co-operated with Patrick Colquhoun in designing early modern policing methods. But Bentham didn’t just see the Panopticon as only being a blueprint for prisons; he though the surveillance/control model could also be applied to all sorts of other institutions, like schools… His Panopticon did foreshadow much of our modern social structure, increasingly watched, scrutinised, and monitored…

Bloomsbury’s liberal-utilitarian axis has often thrown up such split personalities – radicals concerned with real practical change on one hand, but determined to reinforce class and control on the other. The many and contradictory emphases on the nature of education and its role in social change, as we shall see, express this over and over. Bentham’s panopticon maybe the most extreme: Knowledge can be spread, the ignorant/prisoner can be informed/reformed, but under vicious control and conditioning…

Is Bentham’s pickled head still stored in a UCL vault? Bentham requested in his Will that his body should be dissected by UCL students, preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet and called this his “Auto-Icon”. His disciple Dr. Southwood Smith reassembled his skeleton, and UCL acquired his body in 1850, keeping it on public display ever since, but with a wax head.

“Auto-Icon” of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).

For some years his head, with glass eyes, reposed on the floor of the Auto-Icon, between Bentham’s legs. However, it proved an irresistible target for students, especially from UCL’s rival, King’s College London, who stole the head in 1975 and demanded a ransom of £100 to be paid to the charity Shelter. UCL finally agreed to pay a ransom of £10 and the head was returned. On another occasion, according to legend, the head, again stolen by students, was eventually found in a luggage locker at a Scottish Station (possibly Aberdeen). The last straw (so runs yet another story) came when it was discovered in the front quadrangle being used for football practice (allegedly again by Kings College students), and the head was henceforth placed in secure storage. There’s still time for a game of ‘football with the severed head’ up Gower street.

NB: if you want walk to go in to see head, then enter the UCL grounds at Porter’s Lodge (between Grafton Way and University Street). You arrive at an open courtyard. Head for the right hand corner, furthest away, and there’s a ramp entrance to the South Cloisters, Wilkins Building. The Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon is just inside.

The University now dominates Bloomsbury: a material manifestation, if you will, of the role education has played in the development of ideas, politics, philosophy in this area. As we shall see in this walk, Bloomsbury has been a fertile ground for discussion of education and theories of education as the path to a freer or fairer society have been rife through the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, the growth of UCL, the Society for Useful Knowledge and the Mechanics Institute, the Workingmen’s College and the Working Women’s College, the work of the Victoria Press (coming from the Society for promoting the Employment of Women), down to Mary Ward’s work and beyond… What part of the development of possible freer futures would be played by education? and how to expand of access to education and knowledge to people denied it? The student occupations of UCL in 2010-2011 continue the debate, as, in opposition to the work of 150 years in WC1, access to higher education well be about to contract and shrink, or come with a guaranteed monkey of tens of thousands on your back.

Walk up Gower Street to Gower Place

William Godwin

Libertarian philosopher William Godwin lived here, late in his life, from 1825 to 1833. His important work though was written when he lived nearby, in Somers Town, in the 1790s. By the time he moved to Gower Place, the heady days of his fame and influence were in the past, and he was pretty skint.
Godwin’s association with Bloomsbury in fact dates back to 1787, when he unsuccessfully applied for a post at the British Museum.

Though largely forgotten now, Godwin’s ‘Enquiry Concerning Political Justice’, was very widely read and hugely influential when it appeared in 1793, raising philosophical arguments aroused by the French Revolution to whole new levels. Involved in the late 1780s-early 1790s in reforming circles, around groups both inspired by the French Revolution and working for radical reform in Britain, (such as the Revolution Society, the circles around Thomas Paine and the London Corresponding Society), Godwin took a different radical and philosphical direction. Though his solid belief in education and its power to free people, chimed with strong theme in Bloomsbury radicalism, he came to doubt the use of organisations and oppose all government, or political effort of any kind! “A man surrenders too much of himself” in political organisations or associations… In some ways he foreshadows anarchism and extreme laissez faire capitalism… though there’s no evidence he influenced any later thinkers of the 19th Century libertarian movement. Historians and Godwin: AL Morton said that Political Justice “concentrated all the typical ideas of the time into a single work permeated with utopian feeling” – though in fact he was widely at variance with many of his contemporaries.

Godwin’s background was in hardline Calvinism, and though he discarded the Calvinist doctrine, he retained the way of thinking: logical, deductive, disdaining of sentiment and experience; he also took from this upbringing his ardent belief in the perfectability of humankind. Its obvious too that the history of persecution of dissenters influenced his view on links between state and church… Many of the central ideas of Political Justice as coming from Godwin’s background in the rational Dissenting movement, to the point where disagreeing with the traditional view of Godwin, he places his ideas in that context, rather than that of the philosophical debate arising from the French Revolution. (Also, though, in some of his philosophical cul-de-sacs, like that concerts and theatrical performances would die out in a free rational society, etc, for allegedly opposite motives he arrives at very similar conclusions to puritans…).

After a failed early career as a dissenting minister, Godwin became a journalist and writer; while he was immersed in the ideas and way of life of the Rationalist Dissenters, he also came under the influence of french philosophers.

Godwin was on the fringes of movements for electoral and social reform at home, as well as groups in sympathy with the ideals of the French Revolution. While his inclinations were not really towards activism, but to discussion and change through development of ideas, his close friends like Thomas Holcroft and Joseph Gerrard were targeted by government repression of the reformers. He intervened in the trials of London Corresponding Society leaders Thomas Hardy, Horne Tooke, Thelwall and others, arrested and on trial for treason (basically for their political activities), with a powerful article in the Morning Chronicle which exposed the attempt to widen the high treason charge to mean any attempt to change society; an article credited by many with influencing the jury’s decision to acquit all those charged: a heavy defeat for the authorities.

‘Political Justice’ was begun in 1791, and finished in January 1793, changing as Godwin’s ideas evolved. The book is a hymn to progress, opposition to war, despotism, monarchy, religion, penal laws, patriotism, class inequality; in its place he exhorts the “human will to embark with a conscious and social resolve on the adventure of perfection.” He argues for absolute freedom in political and speculative discussion, against prosecutions for blasphemy or sedition; for abolition of established religion; and dismisses monarchy, aristocracy, elective dictatorship in the US style (new then). The book also condemned the pursuit of luxury, ostentation, wealth which corrupt virtue and degrade others, and thus ourselves; those who live in luxury are parasiting on the labour of others, and claiming that property is bequeathed by their ancestors as a justification is a “mouldy patent”. It is immoral for one man to have power to dispose of produce of another’s toil, and wrong for one to live in ease unless it’s available to all. Godwin opposed colonialism, advocating universal free trade in its place. Economics was his achilles heel though, he lacked any analysis of economics, or its role in social change. Holding that on the one hand it’s wrong for one man to have superfluous wealth while others go hungry, but equally wrong for anyone to deprive anyone of their property or wealth, takes no account of how wealth is acquired. Godwin thought property should remain sacred, not only so as to emphasise the personal virtue of giving it away, but also because for the poor to take the property of the rich by force would infringe THEIR self-determination.

In opposition to then widely held theories that people are determined by factors such as heredity, social position and environment, and can’t change themselves, Godwin asserted that man IS a creature of ‘his’ environment, but of conditions ‘he’ can change – education, religion, government and social prejudice. Godwin recognised that social inequalities and hierarchies ‘poison our minds’ from birth; these ideas he saw as the result of political and social institutions. He elevated education to supreme importance. Education and its possibilities dominating enlightened thinking then; but in contrast to other reforming thinkers of the time, eg the French philosophers, he argued against national standards of education: state-regulated institutions would stereotype knowledge and lead to beliefs that cease to be perceptions and become prejudices… No government should be entrusted with power to create and regulate opinions.

Godwin saw the malign influence of government everywhere, and thought its abolition would open up exciting chances… Government was wrong as a concept. Out of step with 18th century philosophers, or even the beginnings of 19th century liberalism in Condorcet’s plan for a national education scheme, and Paine’s ideas for pensions; Godwin dismisses all such schemes as infringement and constraint of the individuals’ will and virtue.

Godwin thought authority would gradually decay as education and reason triumphed. He was opposed to seizures of power or revolutionary upheavals. Change must be based on informed consensus and desire. He thought it ‘wrong’ to incite an ‘ill-informed’ mass to revolt – better to wait for virtuous ideas to spread than risk uncertain bloody uprising by ‘non-perfect’ people. There was a moral hierarchy in his world-view; those with essentially virtuous, ‘valuable’ minds are more worthy people.

His individualism was taken to fantastic levels: there was no room in the early editions for personal affection (though he softened on this later); he almost opposes performances of music or theatre because the co-operation of musicians, like all co-operation, was an offence against one’s own sincerity!

Read more on ‘Political Justice’

His opposition to state action did, “excuse him from attempting the more dangerous exploits of civic courage”: he escaped the repression that bore down on more active radicals. Although his attacks on monarchy were just as uncompromising as Tom Paine’s, tory Prime Minister William Pitt said Godwin should be left alone as “a 3 guinea book could never do much harm among those who had not 3 shillings to spare.” Though in fact ‘Political Justice’ sold for less than three guineas, this was truly damning: it was still a learned book for the educated, in contrast to the electric effect that Paine’s book had among the nascent working and artisan classes. In fact 4000 copies of Political Justice sold, a fair amount, a testament to the middle class eagerness for revolutionary and philosophical ideas at that time.

When Willie met Mary: Godwin’s relationship with Mary Wollstoncraft seems to have been a meeting of equal minds, according to his both own account, and others’; neither dominated the other, they experienced “friendship melting into love”, respecting each others minds and intellects and regarding each other with reverence and pride. They lived together unmarried (daringly unconventional then), in accordance with their principles in house in the Polygon, Somers Town, leading partly separate lives, as they frequented different social circles and friends, but overlapping, as they met on occasion by chance at the same social events! Only when Mary became pregnant did they reluctantly marry in March 1797. Tragically Mary then died giving birth to their daughter. Around this time Godwin did revise his idea of universal benevolence slightly, putting care for your family first… THEN others, as being the most effective way of securing general good.

Mary W hadn’t had much time for ‘universal benevolence’ – she more practically claimed that “Few have much affection for mankind, who first did not love their parents, their brothers, sisters and the domestic brutes who they first played with.” In other words, radical ideas come from love close to home, from emotional ties; in total contrast to Godwin.

After Mary’s death Godwin became personally unhappy – his ideas were also increasingly attacked and silenced, or became irrelevant, as reaction triumphed. Many of his associates had been transported, jailed, persecuted, others drifted to the right. In later years he ran a publishing firm and library that went eventually bust and ended up relying on the charity of friends and sympathisers, especially his son-in-law, the poet Shelley.

Political Justice’ did for a few decades from the 1790s influence a younger generation, most famous among them the romantic poets, Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth (for a while), and most of all Shelley. They were inspired by his vision of a “free community from which laws and coercion had been eliminated, and in which property was in a continual flux actuated by the stream of universal benevolence.”

But by Godwin’s death in 1836 the book’s initial fame had already declined and he was almost forgotten.

Read more on Shelley’s ideas when we get to Marchmont Street, below…

Walk along Gower Place to the Katherine Lonsdale Building

Kathleen Lonsdale

UCL’s first woman professor was Katherine Lonsdale (1903-71), a highly distinguished crystallographer, one of the first two women Fellows of the Royal Society in 1945, first women President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. She was also a Quaker, and pacifist war-resister, who was sent to jail in 1943 for refusing to register for civil defence or war duties, or to pay a fine imposed for her defiance. UCL Kathleen Lonsdale Building in Gower Place is named after her.

Walk back to Gower Street, turn left and walk down Gower Street to Chenies Street

Anna Jameson

Anna Jameson (born Anna Brownell Murphy) 1794-1880, lived here in the 1820s.  Born in Dublin, she married a Mr Jameson, but separated from him – a daringly radical act then. She became a writer and art critic to support herself,  got involved in philanthropy, then in anti-slavery campaigns and women’s rights activism. She was very influential on a younger group of feminist activists active in the mid-Victorian women’s rights circles centred on the Langham Place Group, from which emerged projects such as the English Womens Journal (the first regular English feminist publication), particularly Emily Faithfully and Barbara Leigh Bodichon. See Coram Street, below…

Read More on Anna Jameson 

Walk southwest down Gower Street to Store Street, wander down a bit

In 1791-2, pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft lived somewhere here, shortly after she wrote her influential book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, held by many to be the founding literature of feminist theory. Largely self-educated, she wrote other several books and essays, including A Vindication of the Rights of Man, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, and History and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution. All her works emphasised education for women, companionship with, rather than subservience to, men, and employment for single women.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 to a middle‐​class family in England. Her father Edward squandered his money on disastrous projects and became an abusive drunk who violently beat his wife Elizabeth. Mary slept outside her mother’s door to protect her, and her father’s violence and domination had a strong impact on her ideas.

To escape her troubled home life and make money to survive, Wollstonecraft became an attendant to a widower and then a governess to a rich Anglo‐​Irish family (a traditional role for ‘distressed gentlewomen’). She also ran a short-lived school for girls in Newington Green. But Wollstonecraft dreamed of becoming an author, and took up the pen, to powerful effect.

Mary Wollstoncraft

Mary became part of intellectual and radicals literary circles in London, meeting with varied writers ,thinkers, philosophers and activists, including Richard Price, Thomas Paine, William Godwin and others. Many had their origins in Dissenting and non-conformist sects of Protestantism, especially the Rational Dissenters, who believed in the primacy of reason in tandem with scripture, instead of tradition and what they believed to be superstition, and argued for the separation of church and state, the rejection of church hierarchies and even the denial of the doctrine of original sin.

The primary focus of Wollstonecraft’s writings was to challenge the existing order, where women were relegated to being second class citizens, and to oppose it with a theory of society in which women were treated as rational, autonomous beings, capable of independence and virtue.

Women were specifically treated as lesser beings in Mary’s time, legally, socially, and economically. This was backed up with philosophical justifications in religious and historical texts going back to Greek philosophers. Women were viewed as irrational and intellectually hollow beings who merely existed for the sake of beauty and procreation, based on their supposed lack of rationality and their physical and emotional frailty.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft articulated an account of the natural equality and liberty that all women deserved. Most of the piece is focused on the education of women. For Wollstonecraft, education was the key to women’s liberation.

Wollstonecraft stressed education as crucial to the free development of any individual, based on the Lockean idea of people as born without any prior knowledge, and that everything we become is a result of our upbringing and education. Wollstonecraft suggested that “the effect of an early association of ideas” has a vital influence on who we grow up to become. This idea of humanity as a creation of nurture not nature, led Wollstonecraft to believe that there is no justification for hierarchies and that “God has made all things right.”

During Wollstonecraft’s life, women’s education was starkly different from men’s. Lower class women (like most lower class men) received little or no education at all; some middle and upper class women were taught ‘womanly’ skills like sewing, singing, and conversation, for the amusement of men. Mary Wollstonecraft rejected this narrow view of what a woman could and should learn: “the most perfect education…is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attach such habits of virtue as will render it independent.” As we are born knowing nothing, and the mind is shaped by education, women’s oppression was not natural but completely arbitrary; women had not been given a chance to pursue the same goals as men.

In her A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Wollstonecraft replied to Edmund Burke’s famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, rejecting Burke’s view that social and political progress could only be achieved slowly with rigid adherence to tradition, and maintaining institutions like monarchy, hereditary aristocracy and class divisions. Wollstonecraft instead rejected monarchy and hereditary privileges as upheld by the Ancien Regime, proposing that France should adopt a republican form of government. By abolishing hereditary privileges, a fairer society in which all compete on an equal footing would be born.

Humans, with their capacity for reason, elevate themselves above animals. Reason allows for thoughtful reflection and, most importantly, self‐​improvement. Wollstonecraft described reason as “the simple power of improvement, or more properly speaking the discerning of truth.” Reason allows us to pursue and maintain virtue, which was, for Wollstonecraft, the primary goal of life: the adherence to reason unhindered by passions, coercion, or the opinions of others. Someone cannot be forced to become virtuous, they must be free to make use of their faculties without external coercion.

Virtue can only be achieved by those who enjoy freedom, so “political associations are intended only for the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man”, ie, the foremost urgent concern for any political being is to create and maintain a society that allows for the moral flourishing of independent individuals, a society of equals. Our nature as rational beings entitles us to liberty, “the birthright of every man.”

Arbitrary power, servitude, domination of some people by others, creates dependence and subordination, slavish behaviour on the part of the dominated, while freedom from arbitrary power cultivates independence and equality. Wollstonecraft’s often compared women’s situation to slavery. Dominated individuals are not in control of their own destiny, and therefore cannot achieve a semblance of virtue, even in the best of circumstances.

She took the view that marriage was hardly better than slavery, leading women to behave slavishly; “whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands, woman will be cunning, mean and selfish.” Wollstonecraft thought that it was “vain to expect virtue from women until they are in some degree independent of men.”

In contrast, Wollstonecraft advocated personal independence, “the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue.” both independence of mind – the power to think freely and unhindered by others – and civil independence – the power to survive economically and freedom to make their own way in the world.

Education for women was the key to this change. If Women were educated “like a fanciful kind of half being,” taught to care about their looks, charm, and manners instead of learning how to discern truth, formulate ideas and arguments, and become resilient people, then men would always be able to maintain their own positions of power, and women would remain inferior beings. Women needed education to enable them to free themselves, and while they remained subjugated, anyone who condoned this inequality could not achieve virtue and freedom either: “virtue can only flourish amongst equals…among unequals there can be no society”. This wasted women’s potential: “Many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practiced as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry”.

Wollstonecraft argued both for women’s right to own property, as well as the ability to make contracts, in order to have the option to earn an income separate from their husbands, all of which the law then did not allow, and for women play a role in government, both as representatives and voters.

Her stress on education was rooted in her own experience: she had to educate herself, while coping with a brutal drunken father who she had to defend herself and her mother against, and also working to support herself and her sister. But the Vindication was very much of its time, firmly based in the ideas of late 19th Century philosophy and radicalism – reason and education are seen as the basis for change to a freer and more equal society. Mary had been active in radical circles in London since the late 1780s, and associated with the radical democratic circle of writers and activists that included Thomas Paine, from the late 1780s. Her ideas of equality arose from ideals of perfect companionship, and fellowship (in contrast to the individualism of Godwin and even of Thomas Paine), but based on freethinking and clearheaded beings who had agency. But though some of the ideas contained within the Vindication had been suggested before, (eg Baron d’Holbach had written of the necessity of education for women), it’s lasting importance lies in the conscious articulation of these ideas by a woman, for women, in print, for the first time.

After living in Store Street, she spent two and a half years in revolutionary France. She had supported the French Revolution from the start, linking question of women’s subjugation to the revolutionary movement, even pushing the French convention to explain lack of recognition of the rights of women…

In August 1796 she began a free unmarried relationship with William Godwin, proto-libertarian writer and historian (see above, Gower Place), who she had first met at a dinner while living here in 1791. When she found herself pregnant in 1797, she married him, against her principles and better judgement, and they moved into The Polygon building, in nearby Somers Town. But the same year she died shortly after giving birth to her daughter, better known later as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

Wollstonecraft’s vision of a world in which women are treated as rational and autonomous beings inspired a wide variety of thinkers within the early feminist movement. many 19th century feminists and suffragists read and admired Wollstonecraft’s work. But her revolutionary, republican and egalitarian beliefs, and her staunch personal freethinking and lifestyle led more moderate women activists to downplay her. Early British suffrage activists thought her beliefs n free love, having a child unmarried, etc, were dangerously radical and reference to her ideas would leave them open to attack by male opponents, and by aristocratic women for who felt equality was for some women, but not all. For decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, feminists tried to ignore Mary W’s legacy, though she was increasingly celebrated in the 20th century.

In another of the many local feminist resonances, women’s publishers Pandora Press was started in Store Street in 1983…

Walk back up to Gower Street, and torn right; walk on down the east side, stop at no 2

Millicent Garret Fawcett speaks

Millicent Garrett Fawcett lived at no. 2. Daughter of a businessman, she worked for women’s suffrage for over 50 years; joining the Langham Place Circle, and was a founder member of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1867, and later becoming president of the National union of Womens Suffrage Societies, 1907-1919.  Fawcett consistently led the wing of the late 19th Century feminist movement that not only rejected alliance with specific political parties (contrasting with Emmeline Pankhurst’s early position, see above); she also supported the campaign for ‘social purity’ that many late nineteenth century suffragists advocated. She campaigned together with much of the women’s movement for repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which forced examination for sexually transmitted diseases onto prostitutes (who could be jailed if found to have passed on STDs, or refusing to be tested), but not their male customers. The Acts were eventually repealed.

Though initially supportive of the militancy of the Women’s Social & Political Union, including prison hunger strikes Fawcett increasingly disagreed with the Pankhursts over their ‘violent’ tactics, especially deliberate property damage, which she thought were alienating MPs and the ‘voting public’. She favoured lobbying, education and gradual winning people over by persuasion, and focused efforts on Bills in Parliament, such as the 1912 attempt to give votes to all heads of households.

However, in common with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, she supported the War effort in World War 1, believing suffragette support for the War would lead a grateful granting of the vote for women in response. The NUWSS contained probably more pacifist feminists than the WSPU; as a result the organisation’s support for the War was less strident, and unlike the WSPU they continued to campaign for the vote throughout the slaughter. [Note here: many pacifists were kicked out, though, when they tried to push the NUWSS towards an anti-war position: in April 1915, Ray Strachey, a leading acolyte of Millicent Garret, wrote to her mother:We have succeeded in throwing all the pacifists out… They wanted us to send a delegate to the Women’s Peace Conference at the Hague, & we refused. Then they resigned in a body – and they included the majority of our senior officers and committees! It is a marvellous triumph that it was they who had to go out and not us – and shows that there is some advantage in internal democracy, for we only did it by having the bulk of the stodgy members behind us.”]

After the granting of the franchise for women under 30 in 1919, the NUWSS became the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, working mainly for a lowering of women’s voting age to 21 to match men. But Millicent Fawcett (who gave up the presidency in 1919) gradually grew disillusioned with other NUSEC demands and resigned from its Board. She died in 1929 in her house here.

Walk back up Gower Street, cross over to west side, continue up then turn right down Keppel Street, left into Malet Street, then down to Birkbeck College:

The London Mechanics Institution was founded in 1823. (now Birkbeck College)

The Mechanics Institution movement was an early attempt to create widespread learning opportunities for workers looking to learn about the scientific and technical principles on which their work was based. Many of the institutions had their own libraries and artisans and workers could pursue specifically designed vocational courses through lectures and other programmes of study.

George Birkbeck, then Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Anderson’s Institution in Glasgow founded the movement in 1800. Following the creation of the London Mechanics’ Institution in 1823, institutions were quickly established in towns and cities across Britain including Aberdeen, Dundee, Leeds, Lancaster, Newcastle and Sheffield, Birmingham, Devonport,  Liverpool, Manchester, Norwich, Portsmouth, and Bristol. By the mid 19th century there were over 700 institutions in Britain.

At the start of its existence the membership numbered over a thousand, each paying a subscription of five shillings every three months.

Birkbeck and the Mechanics Institutions movement were supported by individuals and organisations who could believed in the importance of work-based education; many were influential figures in the Liberal Utilitarian scene strong in Bloomsbury, (which also gave birth to University College) including Lord Brougham and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. which promoted and actively supported the Institution movement through its publications.

The movement had its critics – it was roundly attacked by both Tories, who distrusted the idea of educating workers at all (where would it all lead?) and denounced the Institutions as hotbeds of radicalism (“I had rather see my servants dead drunk than I would see them going to the Mechanics’ Institution” wrote one critic.) but also from below, by radicals who saw the institutions as merely paternalistic attempts to further exploit or bamboozle the workers.

The Institutions did make an impact on the development of technical education, but it was widely perceived that it hadn’t quite hit the market it was aiming for; partly, like the Working Men’s College, it was felt that the class attending them was socially slightly out of kilter with the name. An 1858 report noted that “Mechanics Institutes are no longer Institutions for mechanics; some enrol a small number of artisans, whilst others register none… though they are still called Mechanics Institutes, they are places for the resort of shop men and the middle class.”

Lack of elementary education to base their work on, shortness of cash (the Institutions had no state support), and other factors hindered their effect. Some Institutions went on to become libraries, reading clubs, providing occasional popular lectures and locations for literary pursuits frequented by the middle and upper classes, or Working Men’s Colleges. The London Mechanics’ Institution here later transformed into Birkbeck College, now part of the London University and still provides part-time higher education to mainly working adults. Other Mechanics’ Institutions evolved into  Technology Colleges or continued to offer evening classes in art, commerce and the sciences until they were eventually absorbed into the emerging technical education system that occurred in the later stages of the 19th century.

Walk north down Malet Street to the front of ULU

The University of London Student Union building here was occupied January 27 1969, by students protesting against the closure of the London School of Economics, saying they want to establish an LSE in exile until their own college was reopened.

Three days before, students with pickaxes, crowbars and sledgehammers, had smashed several sets of steel gates at LSE which had only just been installed, saying they made the place feel like a concentration camp… LSE Director Walter Adams, who ordered the gates to ‘improve security’, closed the school and announced it would remain shut until he was satisfied order can be maintained.

Relocating to ULU, the LSE rebels barred the entrances, and stuck posters on the doors and walls, with slogans like “Occupied for Student Action” and “LSE in exile”.

One student, who refused to be identified by the cameras, said: “It is very difficult to say how long we are going to be here. We need a base from which to work and this is why this base was taken in the first place.” He said so far only sociology lectures had been held in the ULU. Another rebel student blamed Dr Adams and the governors for closing the school: “They hold the power, not the revolutionary students of LSE. They closed LSE, we would like to open it.” He accused Dr Adams of trying to restrict their academic freedom by putting up the security gates.

A statement from the Occupation:

“The facilities can be used by anyone joining us. We are using the duplication facilities in the Union office on the ground floor, and they can be used by anyone wishes to circulate any kind of document. There is no control over free expression. This goes for the rest of the building  so far only partly explored. The only thing which needs to be organised in common is defence and basic survival  food and sleep. Inside the building, we are all responsible for resisting any bureaucratic organisation of activities: discussion, decoration, planning for agitation, music.

Remember there is a swimming pool. If anyone tells you what to do, report them to the security committee. IT IS FORBIDDEN TO FORBID. EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED. The Security Committee”

According to Dick Pountain, then active in pro-Situationist provocateur-group, King Mob: “When King Mob was going at full blast, after the LSE sit-in there was a sit-in at the University of London Union and we got involved in that. It lasted several days. Everyone was sleeping on the floor and all that. The New Left crowd tried to run it. We gave Robin Blackburn [lefty academic, New Left theorist and then member of the trotskyist International Marxist Group] a really bad time, howled him down, told him he was a wanker. They were very worried this, we might damage things, don’t scratch the paintwork, so a bunch of people went and bust open the swimming pool and had this huge swimming party. The whole thing was very fraught because you’d got this mass of students, the New Left people telling them to be serious and responsible, and King Mob telling them to get their rocks off, let it all hang out, etc. It was very iffy, because the great mass in the middle were swaying both ways. Only a minority supported us; the majority wanted to be quiet and respectable, but these two guys came out of the crowd and joined in with us and said, ‘We’re with you.’ They were a couple of art students from Goldsmith’s and one was called Fred Vermorel and the other was called Malcolm Edwards. They both had long, dirty khaki macs, a couple of impoverished art students. And of course Malcolm went on to finer things and became Malcolm McLaren, and in a lot of ways the whole Sex Pistols scam was the putting into practice of a lot of Situationist theories. It was a betrayal of it in the sense that it became part of the ‘Spectacle’, but he did really shock the bourgeoisie of the whole country, which is something that King Mob never did.” (Days in the Life’)

According to McLaren: “When we took over the ULU building, Chris Gray and the Situationist mob decided that the only interesting part of the student union was the kitchen, which they took over immediately and rifled the fridge. He just thought it was fantastic that he could fry all these steaks simultaneously. I remember them all cooking and thinking this was brilliant.”

Walk to Byng Place, turn right into Gordon Square, down to no 55-59:

Bertrand Russell lived here (probably after August 1916 to at least 1918), see more on him below…

Walk down to no 51 Gordon Square

Lady Jane Strachey, painted by fellow Bloomsburyite Dora Carrington

Lady Jane Strachey, posh suffragette, lived here. Between 1900 and 1910, she was immersed in feminist activities, particularly in the workings of National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies of which she was a Committee member. She recruited her daughters into suffrage activities and leading the female members of her family in the 1907 ‘Mud March, the first of the big demonstrations demanding votes for women (“a very wet and dreary day… three thousand women made [their] way from Hyde Park Corner to Exeter Hall… long skirts trailing on the ground…”) The march was organised by her daughter Pippa, who followed closely in her mother’s footsteps (becoming the secretary of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1907). Lady Jane and her husband were both from aristocratic families heavily involved in British imperialist rule in India, in which she and her daughters saw no contradiction, and her suffragette and feminist work sat side by side with class prejudice and racial conservatism.

Her daughter-in-law, Ray Strachey wrote what has been regarded as a classic account of the mid-19th/early 20th Century British women’s movement, The Cause, published in 1928. (Illustrating the incestuousness of Bloomsbury aristo-political relations, Ray’s aunt, US feminist Alys Pearsall was also at one time married to philosopher and anti-war campaigner Bertrand Russell, a descendant of the dukes of Bedford.)

Strachey’s book is interesting, as much for the way it writes about 19th Century feminism and what it prioritises, as anything else. Following her own biases she heavily edits her history of the Women’s movement, barely mentioning Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, (and not locating her ideas at all in the context of their time), while lauding liberal thinker John Stuart Mill, who she portrays as the architect of much of the activity of mid-late nineteenth century feminism, as well as concentrating almost exclusively on political and philanthropic action, while almost ignoring women whose activity was in the arena of sexual freedom (more coverage is given to those whose campaigning veered towards sexual puritanism). Its possible that part of the reason for this comes from her own background – her mother pretty much abandoned her and her siblings to move to Italy with a new lover, and lived a bohemian ‘romantic’ existence; Ray rejected this influence and maybe took a dim view of feminists she saw as belonging to a romantic strand or, like Mary W, lived as sexual rebels against the conventions of the time. Possibly as a reaction against her mother’s way of life, she admired above all Millicent Garrett’s “lack of passion or enthusiasm, the constant emphasis on reason which others found so daunting…”

Her book also stops short of mentioning the debates of the feminists of the 1920s, post-suffrage, in which issues of challenging the daily social economic and cultural oppression of women were being brought to the fore… Her elevating of JS Mill is part of an attempt to firmly locate the women’s movement in a liberal, pragmatic tradition, with an emphasis on political activity, realism, and moderation, as well as devotion to the family… She also makes a clear decision to dwell on the acts of middle and upper class women, justifying this by explicitly dismissing working women. After a passage on the struggle to pass factory acts limiting hours and improving conditions, she states that “The sufferings of the industrial and labouring classes had no direct effect upon the Women’s Movement. The working women whose lot was so harsh had no thought that they themselves ought to be able to change and control their conditions.” Meaning as women, not just workers… and lathers on more condescension: “They did not know a new social conscience was awakening to their needs… Sanitation, Education, Factory Inspection, and Old Age Pensions… were far beyond the range off their ideas.” Working class people and especially women, just aren’t clever enough, my dears, we, their betters, need to act on their behalf. In fact large numbers of the WSPU were working class women… although I’m not sure about the ratio within the NUWSS, which Strachey adhered to.

Walk back down, to the southeast corner of Gordon Square, turn left, the right down Woburn Place, and walk down to Coram St, turn left & walk down to the Holiday Inn.

Emily Faithfull

no 9 Coram Street once stood on this spot. Another feminist publishing centre in the area; in 1860, Emily Faithfull founded the Victoria Press, a women’s printers & publishers, here.

Emily Faithfull was associated with the Langham Place circle, the first real grouping of the 19th Century Women’s movement. From this group emerged (among many other projects) the English Women’s Journal, later the English Women’s Review, England’s first women’s rights magazine and the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, of which Emily was a member. The Society aimed to open up trades to women at a time when women of all classes were routinely blocked from many jobs. The Langham Place group was mainly composed of, and broadly aimed to represent, middle class women attempting to break out of male control of their lives. Emily learned type-setting, and founded the Victoria Press in March 1860, training and hiring other women as compositors. This however aroused hostility from the male-dominated Printer’s Union in London, which barred women from access to compositor’s work, claiming they lacked the mechanical ability and the intelligence for the job. Faithfull however persevered, and her press continued for years. All the staff were women – printers, compositors, writers etc, which was pioneering then. The Press produced not only the Englishwomen’s Journal, but also published the weekly ‘Friend of the People’ in 1864, and Victoria Magazine, 1863-80 (which also promoted the employment of women). Both the Press’s success, and the respectability sought by some of these early feminist projects, was acknowledged by Emily Faithfull being appointed Printer and Publisher in Ordinary to queen Victoria in 1862.

Women printers and typesetters at the Victoria Press

Emily though had to distance herself from the Press in 1867, after she was cited in a divorce case and suspected of being a lesbian (shock horror! Shouldn’t have done her any harm with queen Vicky though, who famously pressed for laws against gay men but refused to believe lesbians existed.) She continued to be active in women’s publishing and printing, helping found the Women’s Printing Society in 1874, and in trade unionism. She was one of the first women to join the Women’s Trade Union League, founded in 1875.

The Victoria Press later moved to Farringdon Street.

After suffering for many years with asthma and bronchitis, Emily died on 31 May 1895 in Manchester aged sixty.

Read copies of the Englishwoman’s Journal 

Walk down to Herbrand St, turn right, left into Bernard St, walk down to no 32

Sophia Jex-Blake, pioneering medical woman and feminist, lived here 1874-7. A founder of the London School of medicine for Women (see below, Hunter Street), she had been influenced early on, as had many of her feminist contemporaries, by the ideas and practices of the Christian Socialists. As a child she was ‘stormy, tumultuous, and unmanageable’ (Strachey, 1928), qualities which stood her in good stead for the struggles she later faced against the medical establishment. Her parents were evangelical Anglicans with traditional views on education, who took some persuading to let her to study at college, and only gave their approval to her becoming a maths tutor if she agreed to work for free!

Sophia Jex-Blake

Teaching in the United States, Sophia had met Dr. Lucy Sewell, the resident physician at the New England Hospital for Women, and decided she would rather be a doctor rather than a teacher. British medical schools refused to accept women students, but she finally persuaded Edinburgh University to allow her and her friend, Edith Pechy, to attend medical lectures. Although reactionary male students tried to physically prevent them attending lectures or examinations, Jex-Blake and Pechy passed their examinations, but university regulations only allowed medical degrees to be given to men, so the British Medical Association refused to register the women as doctors. The case attracted widespread publicity, which prompted Russell Gurney, a pro-women’s rights MP, to push through Parliament a bill empowering medical training bodies to educate and graduate women on equal terms to men. Sophia qualified as a doctor in 1877.
 Sophia then joined with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in getting the Medical School for Women set up: she hoped to head the school but when someone else got the job, Sophia moved to Edinburgh where she established a successful practice and played an active role in the local Women’s Suffrage Society.

Down Bernard Street to the corner of Russell Square, turn left

On your left is the Kimpton Fitzroy Hotel (previously the Hotel Russell; but it changes its name reg’lar, so may be called summat else by now!)

Nos 1-8 Russell Square used to occupy the northeast corner of the Square, where the hotel now stands. In the mid-19th Century no 5 was home to Frederick Denison Maurice, a leading Christian Socialist, and Chaplain of nearby Lincolns Inn. Broadly speaking  the Christian Socialists of the mid-late 19th Century worked for a fairer and more equal society; the ‘movement’ included individuals such as the novelist Charles Kingsley. Their motives are slightly open to question, though; while they believed society should be organised more fairly and justly, they were also concerned to divert working class energies away from collective revolt and self-organisation, and towards more individual self-improvement through education. And the to what extent they saw society really changing is also debateable: to Maurice, proposing a new economic structure based on a fair distribution of wealth, his social democracy would inevitably retain a Church, a monarch and a gentry: the class structure would largely remain the same.

Kingsley and other early Christian Socialists had been involved in the moderate wing of Chartism, though the more rowdy elements of this movement scared them quite considerably. They also (like many another reformer) saw immorality and lack of virtue as holding the poor back; Kingsley criticised the Chartists thus: “Will the Charter make you free? Will it free you from slavery to ten-pound bribes? Slavery to beer and gin? Slavery to every spouter…? That I guess is real slavery, to be a slave to one’s own stomach, one’s own pocket, one’s own temper… there can be no true freedom without virtue… be wise and you must be free, for you will be fit to be free.”

As Stuart Christie pointed out, some of this may be broadly true, but it’s “insufferably patronising”; no that’s not REAL slavery, mate. Plus the middle class had the vote, the power, and many of the wealthy were bigger “slaves” to their stomachs and  their pockets – having bigger pockets (and usually bigger stomachs). Kingsley could only see a ‘free society’ as a reward or privilege for good behaviour, bestowed on the deserving by, well, the proper authorities.

JM Ludlow is credited with originating the term ‘Christian Socialism’, he said Socialism would have to be Christianised, or it would topple Christianity: however the label was not universally approved even by those broadly part of the Christian Socialist ‘movement’: E. Van-Sittart Neale opposed its use, believing the socialist reference would alienate Christians who distrusted socialism, and the Christian bit would put off non-religious socialists.

Several early Christian Socialists, for example Maurice, Kingsley, JM Ludlow, Thomas Hughes, Van-Sittart Neale, got involved in the Co-operative movement, in fact Maurice’s socialism seems to have meant solely Co-operation:

“Anyone who recognises the principle of co-operation as a stronger and truer principle than that of competition has a right to the honour of being called a socialist.” To him, Socialism was “the assertion of God’s Order.”

The influx of middle class Christians into the Co-operative movement reached the point where the pioneer Co-operator GH Holyoake, a long-time secularist, was complaining in 1880 that Christians had “captured” the movement, and suggested that he had been gradually forced out of his leading position because of his atheism, which embarrassed the new Co-operative leadership… Realistically however, his gradual freezing out was probably as much to do with his more social and communal vision of how the movement should develop. The original (essentially secular, it’s true) Co-operative movement ethos was that Co-operation was “the gateway to the communal state”, but by the 1850s commercial aspects had gradually come to overshadow the moral and social aims. (Though these survived to some extent in some areas well into the 20th Century) In fact the early Christian socialists would probably have agreed with Holyoake; their vision of the movement, like his, aimed at co-operation at the point of production, but this gradually fell second best to equal shares in the profits from distribution. E. Van-Sittart Neale had devoted much effort to the Society for Promoting Working Men’s Associations, which worked to create workers’ or craftsmen’s co-ops; but by 1854 it had collapsed. (According Walter Sylvester Smith, “as a socially Utopian movement, co-operation was all but abandoned in 1854.”)

FD Maurice’s theology was, for the time, slightly more radical than his social views: he was repelled by the doctrine of damnation and rejected the orthodox idea of humanity as basically depraved. He saw heaven and hell as being co-existing states, meaning unity with, or separation from, Christ. His refusal to believe in hell-fire and damnation got him dismissed in 1846 from his post as professor of English Literature and History at Kings College, London. He later became Professor of Moral theology at Cambridge, a very successful teacher by all accounts, where his influence on pupils such as Stewart Headlam and others led to a revival of Christian Socialist ideas and the idea of a socially conscious church in the 1870s, to greater effect (at least on the Anglican Church’s conception of Christianity) than Maurice’s own direct efforts.

Frederick Denison Maurice

Maurice issued a series of ‘Tracts on Christian Socialism’ in the 1840s, which seemed to have little impact at the time; but in the next two decades his ideas permeated widely among mainly, though not exclusively,  middle class, circles. His main immediate impact was in practical ventures, notably the Working Men’s College, which he launched in 1854 in nearby Red Lion Square, designed to contribute to education for working men. Ironically it’s structure was modelled on Kings College (who had sacked him), was based very much on Oxford and Cambridge, and more ironically still, the clientele are initially said by Walter Sylvester Smith to have been “more bourgeois than proletarian”… How true this is, and to what end the bourgeoisie joined,  may be open to further research. Certainly a number of distinguished figures lectured for free; people such as William Morris, of bourgeois origins, though working in arts and crafts, and already beginning the revolt against industrial capitalist society and class divisions that would lead him 30 years later to communism. The disillusioned middle classes, seeking for purpose and value in lives they felt to be slightly empty, were strongly attracted by the idea of breaking down class barriers through education. The curriculum emphasised humane studies,so drawing science and mathematics were taught from a liberal perspective. The College employed some notable teachers including the art critic and social commentator John Ruskin. The College underwent a number of significant changes over the years, creating an adult school in 1855 to prepare illiterate students to gain entry, and introducing technical subjects such as book-keeping, carpentry and plumbing. This approach was highly successful, attracting increasing numbers of workers which was reflected in the enrolments at the end of the 19th century, exceeding 1,000.

Maurice’s influence actually hangs over many of the progressive inhabitants of Bloomsbury; he did inspire significant numbers of younger, idealistic, well-to-do activists, including some who appear later in our walk: apart from Stewart Headlam (see below), William Morris taught at the Working Men’s College; and Maurice and the Christian Socialists had a particular influence on some of the leading figures of the mid-late nineteenth century women’s movement. Sophia Jex-Blake was closely associated with them; Emily Davies was drawn into Christ Socialist circles through her brother Llewelyn, a clergyman and follower and friend of Maurice. The Christian Socialists themselves were not explicitly pro-female suffrage (they weren’t really pro-universal MALE suffrage) but did admit women to their work and discussions as equals. Maurice recognised the right of women to determine their own lives according to their own thought and conscience (which may sound patronising now but was still shockingly extreme at the time). But his enthusiasm for women’s education had its limits: his response to the women fighting hard against male prejudice (expressed more than once as physical violence from male medical students) to train as doctors was “I hope… I have guarded myself against the suspicion that I would educate ladies for the kind of tasks which belong to OUR professions.”

Was the main function of Christian Socialism, in the end, to prick the consciences of the rich and middle classes about poverty, injustice and social inequality? They formed a small part of a larger trend of reasonably wealthy do-gooders who contributed funds and much energy on into ameliorating working class poverty; as with other groups and individuals who worked to improve the lives of the poor, how much of their work was motivated by desire for a fairer order, and how much by fear, concern that class war would erupt if something wasn’t done, remains a loaded question.

Maurice and his colleagues’ view that a more just society could only be created through education is a recurring theme among Bloomsbury progressives, from Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and his circle, on to the Fellowship of New Life. This view had both a positive aspect, education’s value as a way for people to break through social barriers, but also a tendency to express itself most often in elitist terms: educating people to behave better, and moral improvement, are necessary conditions for any real social change. Often those developing the theory had no doubt as to who was in a position to educate others…

Bloomsbury’s connection to the Christian Socialists continued, with Maurice’s disciple Stewart Headlam (see below).

In the same now-demolished terrace here was No 8 Russell Square: Emmeline Pankhurst & her children lived here, from 1888 to 1893. From a middle class background, but one steeped in liberal social activism, (her father was a councillor in Salford, and an Anti-Corn Law League activist; her mother supported women’s suffrage) Emmeline (nee Goulden) became active in the campaign for votes for women in the 1870s. In 1878 she married Richard Pankhurst, a radical Liberal Manchester barrister, author of the 1870 and 1882 Married Women’s Property Acts, and the first women’s suffrage bill in Britain. Gradually moving towards a form of socialist ideas, Richard and Emmeline moved to London in 1886, and to Russell Square in 1888.

Their house became a gathering place for socialists, Fabians, anarchists, suffragists, freethinkers, radicals of all sorts… Socialists Annie Besant, and Herbert Burrows, anarchists Louise Michel, Kropotkin and Malatesta, and Dadabhai Naoroji, the MP for Finsbury Central (the first Asian MP) were regular visitors among many others.

In 1888, a majority of members of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the first nationwide coalition of groups advocating women’s right to vote, voted to allow affiliation from organisations linked to political parties. This cause the NSWS to split into a number of factions. Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Franchise League, whose inaugural meeting was held here at her home on 25th July 1889. The League was seen as a radical suffrage group, because it also advocated equality in inheritance and divorce law, and campaigned on wider social issues; more traditional suffrage activists denounced them as the “extreme left” of the women’s movement. The group was short-lived however, divisions arose when, in 1892, Emmeline disrupted a public meeting by pioneer suffragist Lydia Becker (who had come down on the other side in the NSWS split); in 1893 the League fell apart. In the same year the Pankhursts moved back up north.

Emmeline and other suffragists later founded the militant Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903; they believed the existing pressure groups had failed, taking a too cautious approach, and a new militant organisation was needed… The WSPU went on to break new ground in direct action, with mass campaigns of criminal damage, window smashing and arson; many of

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928)

its activists were jailed several times, (including Emmeline and her three daughters, Christabel, Adela and Sylvia), and force fed in prison repeatedly when they went on hunger strike. Both their ‘militant’ activity and the more ‘constitutional’ wing of the movement built up considerable pressure for reform up to the outbreak of World War 1; women’s suffrage became almost the central issue in British society, dividing opinion and provoking violent repression, attacks from hostile crowds of men, as well as increasing support. When the first World War broke out, though, both the ‘militant’ and ‘constitutional’ suffrage organisations ended their campaign (now’s not the time, stand by our country, blah blah) and threw their considerable organising ability into mass support for the war effort: or whipping up nationalistic hysteria to help push thousands of men to march off to slaughter and be slaughtered, as it’s known in the trade. Emmeline and other leading suffragists pushed for compulsory conscription, denounced pacifists, strikers and other war resisters as betraying the national interest; on at least one occasion Emmeline grassed up leaders of a strike and got them drafted and sent to the trenches. A small minority (including Emmeline’s daughter Sylvia, who had already been expelled from the WSPU for her left-leaning ideas, and pacifists, mainly in the NUWSS) opposed the War and continued to fight for reform. But the large-scale involvement of women doing the jobs of men off dying in the trenches was quoted as an influential factor in the introduction of suffrage reform in 1918, when women over 30 won the vote.

Bloomsbury history in fact teems with early feminism; from Mary Wollstonecraft, through the Victoria Press, to Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Garret Fawcett, to the Womens Freedom League. This area, and the Square at its centre especially, became so associated with the suffrage movement, it crossed into fictional accounts; in Bloomsbury Grope tourist-goddess Virginia Woolf’s novel Night and Day, Mary Datchett works in a suffrage campaign office based in Russell Square.

In keeping with the mostly well-to-do nature of the area, most of these feminists were middle class. It wouldn’t be to denigrate their sincerity or militancy, or the viciousness of the repression they faced, to say their class backgrounds to a large extent coloured their ideas. For instance, Emmeline Pankhurst and her husband hired a servant to help with the children, so that “she should not be “a household machine” and could spend time fighting for Women’s Suffrage. Presumably then, the servant became the ‘household machine’. More than reflecting itself in their social relations, did their social position help to push the Pankhursts to assume autocratic control within the WSPU? To capitulation to class snobbery, as with Christabel Pankhurst’s later moral improvement campaigns against working class men’s ‘inherent disgustingness’, and to nationalism and war mongering when World War 1 came? Its hard to say with the latter case, as most contemporary socialists and radicals of both sexes and all classes, it has to be said, joined in the war effort supporting the slaughter of millions.

Emmeline’s early enthusiasm for socialism is often contrasted to her later Tory politics, but it would be interesting to know how much her increasing dislike of socialist groups and trade unions was influenced by the widespread hostility of many male trade unionists, and members of organisations like the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation, to the women’s struggle to assert themselves politically. (For example, when her husband Richard, a long-standing ILP member and worker for womens’ rights, died, a radical newspaper launched an appeal to support the Pankhurst family since their debts partly resulted from their political activity. Emmeline, however, refused to accept the money to pay for her children’s education, asking that the money should be used to build a socialist meeting hall in Richard’s memory. However when the hall was completed in 1903, she discovered that the Independent Labour Party branch that used it would not allow women to join. this and many similar examples of blatant inequality in the supposedly progressive movement gradually helped to push her out of it.) Traditional attitudes towards a woman’s role in society prevailed among men who in other ways were reasonably ‘progressive’, such that women’s suffrage groups had to on occasion fight physical battles to use ‘radical’ meeting places, and women workers were excluded from many trade unions and jobs… There were large numbers of exceptions to this, but the viciousness of the disapproval from what they may have at one time thought of as natural allies contributed to some of Emmeline and other WSPUers’ growing distance from the ‘labour movement’. (The WSPU has generally been characterised as a middle class organisation, but the majority of membership were working class women, especially in northern England, though also in London in areas like the East End, Lewisham and Woolwich; and there were several women of working class origins in the national leadership.While it’s also true that with no formal constitution, the WSPU could sometimes operate top-down, some historians have found evidence of greater democracy in many branches; others assert a democratic approach would not have been practical in its illegal militant activities… The last being an organisational question that rumbles on today…)

For many Bloomsbury radicals, genuinely committed to, and influential in, real social change,  progressive ideas often went hand in hand with elitism, authoritarianism, class prejudice, nationalism… It crops up with suffragists, Christian socialists, the Fabians; working class people deserve a better life, so long as they are hard working, respectable and sober, but they can’t create it themselves, or they need showing the right way, by educated people of good background, or the state/the proper authorities should organize it for/force it on them. From mid-19th Century Liberal individualism, pulling yourself up by yourself bootstraps, as embodied in the Christian Socialist-inspired Working Men’s College, through the early women’s movement, to the Fabian Society, Bloomsbury’s middle class radicals have always felt themselves to be part of that ‘superior set of people’ ready and fit to run things better for the general good. The Fabian link runs right up to the present, their ideas dominated the Labour Government elected in 1945, and shaped much of post-1945 social policy, and have continue to do so (many leading New Labour figures were members of the Fabian Society).

But there are tangled skeins of ideas here. There’s gradualism, those who believed in an equal society as an ultimate aim, but held change can either only be achieved by tiny steps, or must wait till people are properly educated or improved… the varied versions of this even mirrored in the ideas of William Morris, another sometime Bloomsbury face; contrasting with the immediate almost monomaniacal single issue pursuit of many of the Suffragettes. Both the reformists and those who set up communes to experiment with news ways of living in the here and now thought THEY were the practical ones… Groups like the Fabians did contribute to real reforms, which did change many people’s lives for the better in the long run, though they opposed and may have helped hold back more fundamental change. Were they then more or less ‘radical’ in practice than people like Morris, inspiring, genuinely desiring and working for a classless and wageless society but often shunning getting involved in day to day struggles as being meaningless without revolution – a distant dream often postponed?

All of these strands had some value… but in the end, there has to be a  transformation of our daily lives, and it has to come from us, controlled by us, not run for us by an elite… and the everyday revolt against the social conditions we experience NOW is part of that transformation; revolution is not a “glorious day” in the future, but a joyous dance of defiance, from the past through present and onwards…

Cross the road to the north side of the square, and walk west to the corner of Bedford Way (which used to be Upper Bedford Place), and down to the north end of the road

Stewart Headlam, socialist clergyman, lived here, at no 31 Upper Bedford Place, which must be long gone. If the old numbers were same as the Bedford Way numbers in 1938 (when the name was changed), the numbers went from 1 to 23 at least, running northwards, on south-west side, and from 32 to 53 running southwards, on north-east side… So no 31 was probably at the top, but not sure which side, although on balance probably on the northeast side.

Influenced by the ideas of the christian socialists Frederick Denison Maurice (see 5 Russell Square) and Charles Kingsley, (who both taught him at Cambridge), Headlam believed that God’s Kingdom on earth would replace a “competitive, unjust society with a co-operative and egalitarian social order.” 

Ordained and appointed curate of St. John’s Church, Drury Lane, he was shocked by the poverty there and was determined to do all he could to reduce the suffering of the poor. This led him to clash repeatedly with John Jackson, Bishop of London. He also met and befriended theatre people – actors, dancers etc – then widely shunned as highly disreputable socially (churchgoing theatre folk often concealed their profession from fellow parishioners). In 1873, moving to St. Matthew’s Church, Bethnal Green Headlam found conditions even worse than in Drury Lane. The vicar at the church, Septimus Hansard, was another Christian Socialist. 
In sermons, Headlam attacked the wide gap between rich and poor, warned the working class to distrust middle-class reformers(!) and presented Jesus Christ as a revolutionary and the new testament as a ‘Socialist Document’. His socialist political activities, friendship and political alliance with secularists like Bradlaugh and Foote, and vocal support for the theatre, especially ballet (NOTE: In fact the last was the most offensive to Bishop Temple of London (1885-?) (who seems to have had a special problem with male ballet dancers’ stage attire… don’t ask, I guess!) got him suspended from the curacy by the Bishop of London in 1878. The Church authorities managed to keep him from preaching in church for many years (apart from when friends lent him their pulpit).

However he toured the country preaching Christian Socialism, advocating a tax on land and the redistribution of wealth to end poverty – denouncing wealth as robbery and inconsistent with Christianity. No dabbler politically, he acted wholeheartedly on his beliefs, his clearly stated aim was to overthrow the establishment and society as then ordered and build the Kingdom of Heaven. He saw Christ’s reference to the Kingdom of Heaven as meaning a just society on earth: his Christianity centred not on the Bible, but on Christ, a Christ at injustice, greed, profit etc, whose miracles were all secular, aimed at relief of suffering and injustice. Practically he fought for an 8-hour working day, complete education for all kids, nationalisation of the land, fair wages… grassroots democracy in church, bishops elected by parishioners not appointed by the state, and  the rich. In 1886 Headlam joined the reformist socialist Fabian Society, and remained a member till his death in 1924; in fact they often met at his house here. He became a leading figure in Fabian circles, elected to the Society’s Executive Committee three times, helping to formulate policy and speaking at public meetings. He saw them as the only socialist body not condescending to or opposed to religion, though George Bernard Shaw recalled Headlam never much talked about religion at meetings!

Inverting Ludlow’s earlier statement about Socialism and Christianity, in his Fabian pamphlet Christian Socialism, Headlam declared that his main objective was not to convert socialists to Christianity, but to make socialists out of Christians.

Headlam was also an active member of the Land Reform League, the League for Defence of Constitutional Rights, National Association for the Repeal of the Blasphemy Laws, among others, and edited his own Christian Socialist journal The Church Reformer, from 1884 to 1895.

In 1894, 25 ‘Reverends’ were members of the Fabian Society, and 100 or so ministers identified themselves with Headlam’s Christian Socialist organisation, the Guild of St Matthew. Founded in 1877, and dominated by Headlam’s powerful personality, the Guild’s platform included Poor Law Reform, more equal distribution (in more extreme cases nationalisation) of the land, support for Trade Unions and Co-operation… Beyond this much divided and confused them. They couldn’t agree over immediate issues like the continuing prosecution and discrimination against secularists and atheists, and over more general policies like disestablishment of the Church; though there was general agreement that under socialism all Church landholdings would revert to the people (through the Government of course!), but totally divorcing the national Church from the state and removing the power it held over people’s daily lives was going too far for many, though some favoured gradual removal of church powers in gentle stages… The Guild reached 360 members at its highest point in the mid 1890s.

In contrast with many contemporary churchmen (and socialists, many of whom expressed puritanical disapproval of popular entertainment) he enthusiastically supported the theatre and opposed ‘puritanism’, His Church & Stage Guild, founded 1879, aimed to break down anti-theatre prejudice in the church and promote theatre as a form of worship. This Guild did link church people and theatre folk, meeting monthly, sometimes in Drury Lane theatre, and fought puritanical attitudes and prejudice for 20 years.Headlam took this support to new, and for many, shocking levels, supporting Oscar Wilde, finding half of the £5000 bail money set for him when he was remanded for criminal trial for sodomy in 1895. Later in 1897 Wilde visited Headlam’s Upper Bedford Place house, after release from Pentonville Prison, on his way out of the country. Headlam’s support for such a contraversial figure as Wilde cost Headlam’s Guild of St Matthew many members – he was also threatened by a reactionary mob, and his housemaid fled his house in horror! Headlam was later one of first 24 to receive a presentation copy of Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Headlam also worked to improve education for the working class, and was elected to the London School Board (the body which controlled public education) in 1888, with fellow socialist Annie Besant. School Boards were one of first places Fabian (and other reform-minded socialist groups’) practical influence was felt. Headlam & other progressives fought years of battles with conservatives over measures like abolition of fees, free school meals special classes for what were then seen as ‘retarded’ children, provision of swimming facilities, keeping class numbers smaller, raising teachers’ wages, building new buildings, requiring proper trade union rates for any contracts, acquisition of pianos for music classes… but especially the role of the church and compulsory religious teaching in schools! In 1897, dominating the Board for the first time, progressives enacted most of their reforms.

But the question of Religion in schools so tied up the progressive and conservative factions on that the Board was abolished in 1903.
 Elected to the London County Council in 1907, Stewart Headlam remained active in politics until his death in 1924. Personally he was said to be very honest and open, with a strong and magnetic personality; people either loved or hated him. He was also described as being as autocratic and stubborn in his organisations as his friend Bradlaugh was in the Secular movement.

We will return to the Fabian Society later on…

Walk north up to Tavistock Square, turn right, across Woburn Place into Tavistock Place, walk down to no 9

A drawing of the original Passmore Edwards Settlement

no 9 Tavistock Square was once the Passmore Edwards Settlement… later called the Mary Ward Settlement, founded by Mary Ward and John Passmore Edwards, rich charitable philanthropists, keen on doing good works for the poor, improving women’s education, for example supporting the foundation of Somerville College Oxford, and also encouraged women’s participation in local government and public service. What is now Mary Ward House was founded by her as an initiative in the late Victorian settlement movement, in which members of the middle class would go and live in a slum area and organise improving cultural facilities. Her fellow-committee members included Frances Power Cobbe and the Dowager Countess Russell, the then duke of Bedford’s mum (local big money is always useful – though she had to balance it with the influence and money of Passmore Edwards, who was an ex-Chartist, and took a dim view of the Russells: he wrote to her: “Personally I have a strong objection to paying rich landlords like the Duke of Bedford whose family has done so little for a district from which they gather such a rich rental”). Mary Ward worked hard to wangle financial support to keep the Centre viable. It certainly did useful work, working class people paid their small annual membership fee not only to pursue intellectual interests and learn practical skills, but to be part of a social and community network that included interest groups such as music, debating and chess societies, and self-help groups like the coal club, boot club, and mother and toddler groups. A poor man’s lawyer service, retraining facilities for the unemployed, and domestic economy classes for women were also part of the programme.

Mary Ward’s avowed aim was the “equalisation of society” – in practice this meant opening up opportunities for education, leisure and amenities still largely unavailable to working class people. Ward believed in value of culture, knowledge, experience for its own sake, and for all. Her original ‘settlement’ in University Hall in Gordon Square (1890-97) “had a religious aim”, but some of its more radical residents rented Marchmont Hall, (94 Marchmont Street) as an annexe. They had more secular and directly social and educational aims, and refused to pledge that they would follow Ward’s initial program: teaching “a broad religion and seeking after truth” (shurely a contradiction, Ed.) Not only did they hold debates on social issues, they also invited locals to join the Hall and help run it themselves; this seems to have been somewhat too radical for Mrs Ward, and caused a near split, which was resolved when she was persuaded to compromise… Class mixing and the spreading of ideas and culture was ok, so long as she was in charge! The new building here united the two projects in 1897 (the duke of Bedford donated the land, while Passmore Edwards paid the bills!). Mary Ward’s work here was crucial in the beginnings of the Play Centre movement in England, giving space to local children in the evenings, weekends and school holidays, and the first school for physically handicapped children was set up here in 1899.

Lecturers at the settlement included Keir Hardie, GB Shaw, Sidney Webb and other Fabian and socialist figures… Another socialist, Gustav Holst, was musical director, putting on concerts for the workers. The twin ideals were summed up as “continuous teaching by the best men available on history and philosophy of religion” and “an attempt to bring about some real contact between brain and manual workers.”

The Settlement relocated to nearby Queen Square in 1982, where it remains today as the Mary Ward Centre.

Walk down to Marchmont Street, turn right, down to the site of no 26 (possibly now under the Brunswick Centre?)

Radical romantic poet Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin lodged here after their marriage, in 1816. The building is long gone….

The descendant of well-to-do Sussex sheepfarmers become baronets who mixed in progressive Whig (liberal radical) circles, Shelley was to erupt politically well beyond his background, developing radical ideas that were constantly expressed in his poetry and other works throughout his life. He became a republican, anti-monarchist, an atheist (he was expelled from Oxford for writing an atheist pamphlet); he attacked nationalism, the imperialist wars that Britain was mired in for most of his life. He went beyond the demands for political reforms and universal suffrage advocated by the Whigs, attacking the property divisions that underlay class society; universal suffrage would mean little, he thought, without a redistribution of wealth and abolition of the privileged classes. Through reading William Godwin, he came to the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, and through his poetry runs a strong strand calling for equality between the sexes, denouncing men’s power over women, and (in the tradition of Mary W and William G) attempted to propagandise free love… Although the reality of his personal relations with the women in his life could be seen to undermine his theoretical feminism somewhat.

.. See below.

For decades, Shelley was “the only poet” for English radicals, especially the working class auto-didacts of the workingmens clubs. While polite society almost forgot his work for half a century, it was read and admired among the Chartists, artisans and socialists. Shelley was claimed as a socialist by later Bloomsbury residents Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling, who gave lectures and published a pamphlet on ‘Shelley and Socialism’. Paul Foot thought this was optimistic, reckoning Shelley to have been leveller, not a socialist (especially as the word and the socialist movement postdate his death…) But he suggests he may have moved in that direction had he lived longer, and claims his Notes on Queen Mab show he had almost grasped the labour theory of value (later a pillar of Marx’s thinking), marking him out from Paine and other radicals of the french revolutionary era, to whom property was sacred and the key to liberty. The Marx-Avelings may have iced the cake a bit, in an attempt to counter the growing worship of a castrated vision of the romantic poet (embodied by the Shelley Society), with his politics removed, some of his more radical works simply ignored, deprecated or censored.

Shelley wobbled between reformism and calls for revolution, sometimes these ideas co-exist even in the same works. As the yanks say, he was conflicted; he just couldn’t make up his mind. He hated the idea of violence, while at the same time recognising its necessity in some situations, like revolution; and he did advocate forced expropriation of property of the rich… He also veered between seeing the ‘people’ as their own saviours, and distrust of the ‘masses’… 
Paul Foot, in his ‘Red Shelley’, comes out and says that Shelley was happiest and most creative when he felt inspired by intense struggles; his greatest works directly came from observing the upsurges of popular rebelliousness and the repression they suffered. But he couldn’t or wouldn’t make a break with his background entirely; too often he fell back into hanging out with fashionable circles or isolating himself abroad. At the time he was living in Marchmont Street, he was at a low ebb, cut off from political inspiration and suffering poetic block…

Straight Outta Godwin

Shelley had been influenced by William Godwin’s ideas since he read ‘Political Justice’ at Eton, and was captivated by it, as had been Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge before him. For him, though, this affiliation lasted, until his untimely death. Shelley began to correspond with Godwin in 1811, met him, and gradually started to support his impoverished guru financially. HN Brailsford thought Shelley’s ideas very much derived from Godwin (as well as the French philosopher Condorcet), and his poetry belonged entirely to world of politics. To him, ‘Political Justice’ was the “milk of paradise” – his work, from 1812’s Queen Mab to Hellas (1821) was often an imaginative expression of its ideas. To Shelley, thought, ideas , passion, were more real than things of earth and flesh; he lived in philosophy and guided himself by it.

In Hellas, he preaches perfectability, non-resistance, a kind of anarchist individualism, the power of reason, the superiority of persuasion over force, universal benevolence, and that moral evils come from political institutions: straight outta Godwin, basically. Under Godwin’s influence, he asserted, sometimes, that change would come through education and gradual elimination of error, not revolution. As with Coleridge and Southey, Political Justice persuaded him to do nothing political, that action is futile, ideas and spreading them everything. (In fact Godwin himself actually talked Shelley out of forming a radical association in Dublin in 1812); he preached passive non-violent resistance to oppression, in the Mask of Anarchy, and Revolt of Islam, to the point of portraying rebels as living sacrifices, humane missionaries for redemption of man.

But he differed from his mentor, in expression as much as anything: what are cold intellectual ideas in Godwin are emotional and heartfelt in Shelley’s work, and abstract ideas became calls for action. He also didn’t see of change in society as entirely a gradual process of discarding of error, he did believe a sudden emotional conversion or revelation would occur.

Relations between philosopher and his romantic pupil took a rocky turn when the poet met Godwin and Mary Wollstoncraft’s daughter, Mary and they fell in love. Shelley had already eloped with one schoolgirl, Harriet Westbrook, to whom he was still married. So despite his ideas about free individuals, marriage, etc, Godwin played the conventional father, banning Mary and Percy from meeting, leading to THEIR elopement. Only after the unhappy Harriet’s suicide in 1816 he was reconciled. BUT he continued to take Shelley’s money throughout this estrangement. (Is that unprincipled? He could probably have justified it in terms of rational benevolence and so on.) Shelley never criticised him for this attitude, but he would have been on dodgy ground himself really. Another question for Godwin’s views on freedom to act, how does Shelley’s ability to take up and discard women with little thought for the effect on them, fit in; but when they kill themselves its ok because now it can all be made respectable with marriage…? All leaves a bit of a sour taste.

Mary and Percy Shelley

Walk back up to the alley on Marchmont Street that cuts across the north end of the  Brunswick Centre to Handel Street, then walk down to the junction with Hunter Street

Students at the London School of Medicine for Women

In September 1874 the London School of Medicine for Women was established here. At that time British hospitals & universities still refused to admit women as medical students. The school was launched by ground-breaking women physician Sophia Jex-Blake, who at this point had largely been frustrated in her attempts to embark on a medical degree. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson joined the staff soon after the School started. In 1877 the school reached an agreement with the Royal Free Hospital (then based in nearby Grays Inn Road) that allowed students at the London School of Medicine for Women to complete their clinical studies there. The Royal Free Hospital was the first teaching hospital in London to admit women for training.

Walk east down Handel Street, to entrance of St George’s Gardens

Octavia Hill and other social reformers helped to transform the semi-derelict churchyard here to make it an “open air sitting-room for the poor”.

The gardens are a lovely quiet place to sit and rest if you’re slightly knackered by wandering and history at this point…

Walk through St George’s Gardens to Heathcote Street, down Heathcote Street to to Mecklenburgh Street; turn right and stop at no 1.

Before and during World War 1, this building was a major anarchist centre. A number of young anarchists were living communally here around 1912, and possibly still during the War. They shared the housework equally among men and women (not always the case with many anarchist or socialist communes in the late 19th and 20th centuries). Though when Tom Keell, editor of anarchist paper Freedom, moved in, he was exempted from doing his share of the chores, as his ‘political work’ was held to be ‘too important’ (arf). In 1915-16, no 1 was known as Marsh House, (after Alfred Marsh, editor of Freedom from 1895 to 1913), and was the head office of the Anti-Conscription League, one of the most prominent pacifist organisations of the era, which organised resistance to young men being forced into the army; conscription was introduced in 1916 in Britain, young blood being needed to replace the hundreds of thousands of volunteers already dead or maimed in the First Great Capitalist War.

Among those who lived at Marsh House were Lilian Wolfe, Jim and Nelly Dick, and a Belgian anarchist, Gaston Marin, most of its members living as a commune. It was named after Alfred Marsh, an anarchist who had died of cancer in 1914. It was a meeting place for the anarchist movement in London, as well as serving as a centre for the Anti-Conscription League (a sort of anarchist response to the No-Conscription Fellowship). In his memoirs of that period Jack Cummins mentions Marsh House and the anarchist activities there: ” At times I went to an Anarchists’ Sunday school in Stepney and spoke to the children , a precocious lot of infants who discussed Free Love, Divorce, and any other subject that occurred to them. I wrote one or two things for the anarchist papers The Torch and Freedom. Some anarchists had taken a house in Bloomsbury, and lived there. The lower part of the house had been converted into a hall where we had entertainments and dances. Often I was M.C. at the dances, for dancing was one of my new loves…… I was not much at home over the weekends, for soon after tea I was off to Marsh House, the anarchists’ place in Bloomsbury for the Sunday night dance” ( The Landlord Cometh, 1981).”

According to Lilian Wolfe: “we shared the house-work and expenses and each had our own room. We had a social and dance every Saturday evening at which we did refreshments, which earned some cash for Freedom’s expenses. There were always well attended. The socials were held on the ground floor where there was a full-sized billiard room so there was good room for dancing… the rent was £90 a year.”

Walk south down Mecklenburgh Street to Mecklenburgh Square

Pre-1914 no 34 Mecklenburgh Square was shared by the Women’s Trade Union League, the National Anti-Sweating League and the People’s Suffrage Federation.

Walk down the east side of the Square into Doughty Street, walk down to no 29

Anarchism over breakfast

[NB: Some of the ideas here owe loads to the mighty Judy Greenaway, check out her writings, including ‘No Place for Women: Anti-Utopianism and the Utopian politics of the 1890s’]

The Fellowship of the New Life had a co-operative house here at no. 29 Doughty Street, ‘Fellowship House’, set up around 1890.

Founded by Thomas Davidson in 1882-3, as a ‘society for people interested in religious thought, ethical propaganda and social reform’, the Fellowship was joined by people such as future Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, the radical sexologist Havelock Ellis and socialist & pioneer gay liberationist Edward Carpenter. Other early members included Frank Podmore, ER Pease, William Clarke, Percival Chubb, Dr Burns Gibson, Hubert Bland…

In the original minutes the object of the organisation is expressed thus: members would join together “for the purpose of common living, as far as possible on a communistic basis, realising among themselves the higher life.” Manual labour was to be united with intellectual pursuits; education and improvement would be at the centre of the community’s life, and members would meet regularly for religious communion, lectures and study groups.

The group was almost immediately divided by one of the great polarisations of late 19th century liberal intellectuals: what would create a better way of life: practical social reform, or personal moral and spiritual self-development? This led to the ‘split’ that created the Fellowship’s more famous offshoot, the Fabian Society.

According to Edward Carpenter:  “Those early meetings of the New Fellowship were full of hopeful enthusiasms – life simplified, a humane diet and a rational dress, manual labour, democratic ideals, communal institutions.”
 The Fellowship held weekly lectures, alternately theoretical and practical, on subjects such as ‘Moral and Social Reform’. “Christianity and Communism’, and ‘The Moral Basis of the New Order’.

Another leading Fellowship member was the founder and mainstay of the Doughty Street commune, Edith Lees; sometime Fellowship secretary, feminist and Lesbian novelist, lecturer, a member of the Women’s Social & Political Union and the Freewoman discussion circle. her story Attainment, though nominally fictional, may well represent what life in the Fellowship Commune was like…

Communal life at Doughty Street was based on Vita Nuova, (New Life), the Fellowship’s proposed manifesto, which asked of members that they live openly, giving up prejudice, gossip, selfishness, and that they introduce discipline and regularity into their lives, critically reviewing each day’s work each evening.

Besides Lees, other residents here included future Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald, anarchist Agnes Henry (who “irritated everyone by discussing anarchism over breakfast”), a journalist called Lespinasse, and one Captain p-Foundes; but the house also guested a constant stream of visitors including many Russian anarchists (some of whom were Tolstoyan pacifist types).

According to Lees, Fellowship House promised residents all the advantages and obligations of a family without any of its drawbacks…” She “argued that women should reject servitude in the home as she and her comrades did.” However many socialist or anarchist communes of the time (and since!) ended up reproducing the same power relations between men and women, with women doing most of the domestic work… Did Fellowship House fall into this pattern as well? Judy Greenway says it “ran into familiar problems over money, housework, and personal incompatibilities…”

In Lees story, Attainment, despite the lofty aims, “Class and gender tensions emerge in the running of the household. Although they all praise the simple life and the delights of manual labour and… disagree with having servants, the housekeeping and bookkeeping eventually fall to Rachel (the main character); Rachel also brings with her a maid, Ann, whose practical experience and common-sense approach mean that she ends up doing much of the housework. Meanwhile, the men discuss the ‘boundless … courage’ they need to clean a doorstep. One says, ‘I literally blush all down my back and look up and down the street as if I meditated burying my grandfather under the step.’ ” The problem is not just that the men are transgressing gender and class boundaries with this kind of work, they are doing so in public.

Edith’s Doughty Street experiences dented her enthusiasm for the benefits of communal living, concluding in her reply to William Morris’s slogan ‘Fellowship is Heaven’ that “Fellowship is Hell: lack of Fellowship is Heaven.” 
In her novel, Rachel eventually leaves the collective household, rejecting both the “merger of domestic and political space”, and the “rule-bound way of life based on narrow idealism” (Greenway)… suggesting that ‘Brotherhood House’

“was frankly mere experiment, and was so involved in spiritual speculations and the grammar of living … that it rarely got to the marrow of me.”

Edith Lees and Havelock Ellis

But though Edith Lees rejected communal living, she remained committed to exploring alternative ways that men and women could live and relate. (Similarly Rachel in ‘Attainment ‘ decides to marry, but does not see this as retreating into conventionality: ‘I dare now,’ she says, ‘to live out what is real within me.’ ) Through the Fellowship she had met Havelock Ellis, who she left the commune after 18 months in 1891 to marry, in an open marriage in which she was able to enjoy her relationships with women.

Ellis also wrote about his wife’s lesbian love life in his writings on ‘Sexual Inversion’. Though their “living up to their principles was to prove difficult for both partners, emotionally and financially” (Judy Greenway), their open relationship worked for both, in its own way, until Edith fell ill, leading to her premature death in 1916.

The Doughty Street experiment didn’t long survive Edith Lees’ resignation… Though Agnes Henry, at least, continued to participate in experimental living situations, as well as remaining committed to radical politics. Ramsay Mac of course went on to lead the Labour Party into government and infamy…

Broader and more Indeterminate Lines

The inclination of many early Fellowship members towards immediate political action was a main sticking point from early on, leading in late 1883 to the stirrings that gave birth to the Fabian Society, which also met in houses around Bloomsbury in its early days (for instance Stewart Headlam’s house). As Frank Podmore (a moving force in the ‘secession’) put it, many Fellowship members aspired to a group built “on somewhat broader and more indeterminate lines.”

Or as future Fabian leading light George Bernard Shaw (not a Fellowship member, though he had come into contact with Davidson, almost certainly at an early Fellowship meeting, and claimed he had been “bored as he had never been bored before”!) put it: “certain members of [the Fellowship], modestly feeling that the Revolution would have to wait an unreasonably long time if postponed until they personally had attained perfection… established themselves independently as the Fabian Society.”

Shaw’s sarcasm aside, it’s easy to see that many people would balk at the rigid honesty and commitment demanded by the Fellowship’s program. Like William Godwin, and in some ways Christian Socialists like Kingsley, their program combined both naivety and elitism, in the idea of a development of a personal perfection that could be the only herald of a new society…

In reply to this the Doughty Street Fellowship members (like others who set up experiments in communal living) might well have countered that they were the practical ones, getting right down to working out on a day to day level how a ‘[new life’ could be created.

It would be interesting to know how much the two groups divided, were there crossovers, people who tried to work through both avenues? Did some folk work for ‘practical’ reforms with the Fabians but carry on with the Fellowship on a more personal level? Founder Thomas Davidson himself was critical of the Fabians, dismissing the kind of state socialism they came to stand for; he thought that even if socialists should ‘take over’ the state, “selfishness would find means to exploit and oppress ignorance, simple honesty and unselfishness,, as much as it does today”. Did the Fabians’ more cynically decide that ‘the masses’ would never reform themselves into virtue and would have to have a freer life organised for them?

Non-conformist minister and ILP member Reginald Campbell called the Fabian Society “aristocratic socialists… a highly superior set of people, and they know it thoroughly.” With their pragmatic and gradualist program, the Society was to long outlast and outgrow their parent organisation, eventually joining the Labour Party, and by orthodox accounts becoming a guiding force of reformist state ‘socialist’ ideas in Britain – up until our own times… Their influence in the Labour Party culminated in post 1945 Parliament, with Prime Minister, 9 cabinet ministers and a majority of the 394 Labour MPs members of the Society. The Fabians’ own claims would give it a huge influence on social change, especially between the 1880s and 1914, claims widely accepted by historians.

Though Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm disputes much of the Fabians’ impact, claiming much of their reputation is based on their excellent Public Relations, helped by the high number of journalists in their ranks: 10% of the male membership in 1892.

The Fabians emerged not from the working class or the radical-liberal traditions that dominated nineteenth century left movements, nor adhered to newer ideas like Marxism. They were at odds with most other socialist groups, opposed to even the popular idea of independent working class party, supported imperialism, and wobbled on important questions of trade unionism and workers rights etc. They lacked contact with workers; though the Society attracted an inflow of workers in 1892 after the ‘new unions’ upsurge, and many affiliated regional societies formed (which could in theory have formed the nucleus of a socialist party), the leadership blew it or couldn’t have pulled it off, and most of its provincial societies joined the Independent Labour Party, formed the following year.

But the Fabians were equally out of tune with Liberals, though permeation of the Liberal Party was pretty much their policy in their early years. In fact their anti-Liberal base drove away Liberal intellectuals and economists attracted to them early on, who developed the left wing liberalism that developed the ideas on which social welfare reforms of 1906 and 1911 were based (a strand which also began to reject laissez faire economics); the socially critical, left wing intellectuals like JA Hobson, WH Massingham, who even after the effective demise of the Liberal Party in the 1920s developed social democratic theory: leading on to Beveridge, Keynes, and Marshal.

Early Fabian membership boiled down into three main groups:

• members of the traditional middle and upper classes who had developed a social conscience or rebelled against/disliked modern bourgeois capitalism…

• self-made professionals, and civil servants: including journos, writers, professional politicos and organisers, managers, scientists… “brainworkers”.

• independent women, reasonably newly ’emanicipated’, often earning their own living, most often as writers, teachers, or typists…

‘New’ men or women, then, rising through social structure, or creating new ones; the new intellectual or literary or professional strata; mostly salaried middle classes, uncommon then but growing rapidly, an administrative, scientific, would-be technocratic elite. This group dominated the Fabian leadership, and Fabian theory; its social composition directly gave birth to the Fabian conception of socialism (especially the Webbs) to be administered by an enlightened professional managerial caste.

By the 1880s a separation between ownership and management was growing in private firms, with a corresponding huge rise in the numbers and importance of professional salaried managers, admin workers; there was also a steep growth in the civil service, journalism, and so on.

The Webbs were keen observers of this, and of the ethos of this emerging ‘caste’, especially efficiency, They thought middle class professionals would play a big part in achieving socialism, bigger in their eyes than workers. Ramsay Mac called for “a revolution directed from the study; to be one, not of brutal need but of intellectual development, to be in fact, a revolution of the comparatively well-to-do.”

The Fabian conception of socialism never theorised the working class as the only or even main agents of change, or based their views on class struggle. In practice they fell back on usual vague ideas of education, progress, enlightenment in all classes, the general growth of unselfishness and social conscience. Though in their elevation of the positive role of the state, they are opposite to Godwin, in other ways they echo him, in their vaguely expressed idea of a gradual evolution in rational self-interest and social consciousness among the right sort of people… The middle classes wouldn’t oppose socialism as they would perceive its necessity and reasonableness, and their own self-interest, in such a society, that “this form of social organisation really suited them just as well if not better than the capitalist.”

Fabian Society coat of arms, showing a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or a sheep in wolf’s clothing, or some nonsense

In another way too there was an echo of Godwin; both he and Fabians came possibly from new emerging classes or castes, strata that were literate and conscious, and somewhat at odds or not yet settled with existing structures. In both cases, some elements developed political demands or reforming passion, at least till they became assimilated into class structures. In Godwin’s case it was a dissident non-conformist  protestant bourgeoisie, in the Fabians case a new managerial/journalistic class; a minority in each case theorised a new society, but in both cases based this new society very much on themselves, their actual practice, and sense of their mission, their own importance, their role in this society.

Hobsbawm warns that “No hypothesis which seeks to link ideas with their social background can be proved to everyone’s satisfaction”, but suggests we have to see the Fabian Society “in terms of the middle class reactions to the breakdown of mid-Victorian certainties, the rise of new strata, new structures, new policies within British capitalism: as an adaptation of the British middle classes to the era of imperialism.”

The upsurge in public and private administration, science, journalism, professional writing and statistics/social sciences, from the 1870s on, did mean these people were in new and uncertain social positions, and hadn’t necessarily developed identification with existing structures or classes. There also was hostility and class snobbery from the old political and social upper classes towards salaried professionals, which you can see in the sneering at clerks and socially ambitious bourgeoisie in Late Victorian literature.

He says “the middle class socialism of the Fabians reflects the unwillingness, or the inability, of the people for whom they spoke, to find a firm place in the middle and upper class structure of late Victorian Britain.”

Which implies alienation, or not fitting in, both discomfort from from their side, and disdain from the existing structures; there may, though Hobsbawm doesn’t say this, also have been a sense of their own importance and abilities and a feeling of being unappreciated, and some element of knowing their own superiority over what they saw as a useless idle rich class.

Webb thought there were no practical reasons (though many historical and social ones) for this new class or caste to adhere to capitalism, especially the laissez-faire variety; THEY are crucial to the functioning of modern economy, both in the private and public sector, but neither private enterprise or the profit motive is crucial to THEM or their work…

BUT as Hobsbawm points out, the type of ‘socialism’ they were likely to be attracted to was then likely to aspire towards the technocratic, hierarchical, if meritocratic, based on management by an elite: fulfilling their vision of their own role in current and possible future societies. “So we can confidently predict that… [the manager] will remain for all time an indispensable functionary, whatever may be the form of society.” (from S. Webb, The Works Manager To-day, 1917.) 
This concept of socialism also goes some way to explaining the later enthusiasm of some leading early Fabians, like the Webbs and Shaw, for the Stalinist USSR; Lenin and the Bolsheviks also saw socialism as a question of management by the proper authorities, not of a real transformation of daily life organised from below.

All of which does provoke two questions – how much did the Fabians really speak for these castes, and did this sense of not fitting in, or not being appreciated, dissolve over subsequent decades, ie were these groups happier with rewards of capitalism and more integrated later? Clearly only a small minority of these new strata joined the ‘socialist movement’, though others expressed alienation in different ways.

We come back again to this sense of ‘bourgeois’ alienation and how those who experience it create and imagine alternatives. Individuals and groups from slightly older and more well-to-do background like Ruskin and Morris, and their disciples, resolved their dissatisfaction with modern capitalist modes of production by going somewhat medievally-craftsy, while Fabians embraced the social and structural changes, though did see the possibility of a new political order. Certainly William Morris had a vision of really different society socially and economically, while the Fabian vision is not immediately attractive. Morris was however influential on the Fellowship of the New Life and early Fabianism…

There was a lot of squatting in Doughty Street in the 1980s…

Walk south down to Guilford Street, turn right and walk west to Coram’s Fields

The Foundling Hospital was founded in 1739 by the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram. It was a children’s home established for the “education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children. From 1742 to 1926, abandoned children were brought up here in a charitable institution, something between children’s home and approved school.

After the Hospital moved out in 1926, a developer bought the land, and was involved in a plan to move Covent Garden Market here. Local opposition scuppered this, and after lots of campaigning and fundraising the land was bought, and is now a lovely park/kids playground with brill facilities for kids.

Cross over the road, and walk south up Lambs Conduit Street to Great Ormond Street, turn right and walk down

Stop at no 23: Prison reformer John Howard had his London residence here from 1777, until his death in 1790.

In the 18th century prisons were filthy, overcrowded and rife with diseases, inmates subject to routine extortion by screws, who made money supplying almost everything to cons. Many people were jailed for debt, for petty offences and could be kept inside for years (even after acquittal for those who couldn’t pay ‘discharge’ fees!) Inmates were held all together in big cells (unless they could pay for more comfortable accommodation).

An Appointment as High Sheriff of Bedfordshire for a year in 1773, led Howard into investigating and documenting conditions for prisoners, and campaigning tirelessly for reform, at first locally, then across England and later across the world. A spell as a prisoner of war in France may have impacted on his sympathy for inmates; his strong non-conformist christian beliefs emphasised charity and compassion, which he tried to put into practice. Howard not only thought many prisoners were kept inside when they should be released; he thought the conditions they were subjected to was not only inhumane, but was only encouraging them to further crime and immoral behaviour. He advocated improving prison conditions, giving inmates fresh food and water, giving them useful work, encouraging church attendance and religious teaching, and above all, separating them into their own cells, which he thought would not only help hold back the spread of the many infectious diseases then rife in prison, and cut down on cons bullying and robbing each other, but could also help them contemplate their crimes and see the error of their ways: “Solitude and Silence are favourable to reflection; and may possibly lead to repentance.” And reduce the risks of collective resistance, escape plans, and so on. Howard was though opposed to full-time solitary confinement.

His eighteenth century reports on ‘The State of the Prisons’ had a huge impact on prison reform, (inspiring changes to sanitation and jailors’ fees, though they were resisted by many prison warders and governors) and especially on prison design and function in the 19th century. Newly built penitentiaries in the early 19th century United States were based on his ideas, influencing the layout of English prisons such as Pentonville in turn. However his ideal of a compassionate approach with each convict to their own cell was perverted into punitive systems imposing separation and rules of silence, where isolation was used to control and repress, in a way he would probably have disagreed with.

His work influenced Jeremy Bentham in his theories about prison layout and how to ‘rehabilitate’ offenders, though Bentham took it in directions that lacked Howard’s compassion.

[Out of step with developing liberal theory as he often was, fellow Bloomsburian William Godwin took a more enlightened view of crime and punishment – while also advocating rehab not revenge, and opposing capital punishment, he believed you couldn’t coerce people into good behaviour, and dissented from Howard’s idea of solitary confinement on the grounds that virtue depends on social relations.]

Little Ormond Yard once ran south from Great Ormond Street, roughly where Orde Hall Street is now

The Working Men’s College

Somewhere here FD Maurice, John Ludlow and Charles Kingsley, together with a conference of delegates from Co-operative Associations, founded a night school for local working men that evolved into the Working Mens College (having been told by the rector of St George’s Bloomsbury that the area was so disorderly that even the police did not venture there at night).

Later (in 1857) the Working Men’s College moved (properly founded) to 44 Great Ormond Street, just over the road on the north side, expanding into no 45 later; in 1905 the College moved to Crowndale Road in St Pancras.

Continue west down Great Ormond St, to Queen Square. Turn right, and walk round to northeast corner, to nos 24-28

William Morris

Between 1865 and 1872, William Morris, artist, designer, poet, writer, and later active communist propagandist, lived here with his wife Jane, at what was then no 26. The Morrises actually moved here after the failure of the Red House commune in Bexley, a practical attempt by Morris and friends to build a ‘palace of Art’ based on their ideals of architecture, design and furniture.

The ground floor on no 26 was converted into workshops and offices for Morris’s furnishing business., whilst Morris and family lived on the first floor. It was in the scullery where Morris and Thomas Wardle first started experimenting in the revival of vegetable dyeing, starting with embroidery silks. Though Morris and family moved out in 1871, the firm stayed until 1881 when it moved to Merton Priory. Morris was also an active member of Maurice’s Workingmen’s College at this time.

Morris was in his most productive period here artistically, setting up the Firm, experimenting with weaving, designs, etc and writing poetry, which became very popular at the time. Though socialist biographer EP Thompson sees in his poetry and private letters how a private despair and rejection of bourgeois life was growing in him.  From the 1860s when he began to be successful, until the 1880s, Morris life was one of growing paradox: his whole arts-crafts practice was born in romantic revolt against modern industrial capitalism and its methods of production; but both the products and designs of the Firm, and his successful late 1860s poetry, were only accessible to, and increasingly appealed to, the very upper middle class born from profiting on the factory system. He spent a lot of time working for and dealing with these people, but despised them and the way they obtained their wealth and the power they held.

His poems of this era, especially ‘The Earthly Paradise’, became widely read among the middle classes, partly as a poetry of escape, beautiful and evocative and avoiding dealing with everyday realities (thus helping the mid-late nineteenth century bourgeoisie forget the economic consequences of capitalism); partly as it evoked a dying ember of Romanticism, expressing dissatisfaction with modern life, a yearning towards something heroic or transcendent, but without action or a link to real experience. The early Romantic poets – Wordsworth (in his youth at least!), Coleridge, and especially Byron, Keats and Shelley, were rebels against the society they saw around them, and dreamed of political liberty, even if their active expression didn’t always live up to the flights of their poetry. But late Romanticism had drifted into a backwater, a retreat from real life. “An indulgence of melancholy” Thompson calls Morris’s Romantic poetry, satisfying many among the middle classes who felt alienated from the age, but lacked the drive to do anything about it: “to give an ideal life to those who no longer had one.” (Lesconte de Lille) For one escapist reviewer it represented an inversion of homesickness, and that incurable thirst for the sense of escape, which no actual form of life satisfies.” This suggests something approaching the meaning of the German word ‘fernweh’, yearning to be travelling or far away, but with more angst, because travel is basically unsatisfying: it is a complete and permanent overthrow of daily existence that we truly desire. But the late Romantics no longer believed in changing life; they had settled for the idea that our deep aspirations were unfulfillable in real life, only the evocation of the beautiful in Art could approach it… The Earthly Paradise seemed to hit that chord; but Thompson identifies passages where Morris’ despair emerges through the beautiful phrases, even those which have been misinterpreted. “The idle singer of the empty day”, a line from The Earthly Paradise, was widely quoted and held to evoke a gorgeous sense of romantic otherworldly beauty; but actually suggests a hollowness and feeling of despair – a sense of life unfulfilled.

Even Morris’ best mate Edward Burne-Jones was a bit scathing about his friend’s poetry: “in dismal Queen’s Square in black old filthy London in dull end of October he makes a pretty poem that is to be wondrously happy; and it has four sets of lovers in it and THEY ARE ALL HAPPY, and it ends well…” (Which does actually sound a bit like his later fantasy fiction, after his Socialist League exit, written at another time in his life where disillusion had possibly set in, with his growing realisation that bringing a socialist society into being might be a long way off.)

Thompson suggests that Morris’ very success in art and poetry and this paradox pushed him towards his later conversion to socialism. He believes Morris was setting up love and human relations, in opposition to buying and selling, the cash-relations of his age; but feels that Morris didn’t in fact achieve this very convincingly. Possibly due to the stilted and failed nature of his own marriage.

Morris’ 1860s/70s poetry is now probably the least celebrated and most dated of his work. As Morris said of the “earthly paradise” 30 years latter: “There was more real ideal in News From Nowhere.” Which is true, because in the latter there’s a real sense of the building a real new world, not picturing an ideal rose-tinted one.

Morris ways in many ways similar and part of the Bloomsbury Bohopian trends of the 19th century, and yet at the same time broke free maybe more than any of his well-to-do contemporaries. Famously he later became an active propagandist for communism, and drew out his vision of a stateless society free from wage slavery, in his novel News From Nowhere and many other writings. Was there a specific set of factors that led him to see clearly while others remained in the various bourgeois swamps…?
 Although he left Bloomsbury in 1871, his influence continued to run strong in the area: he supported the Fellowship of New Life financially in the 1880s/90s, some of his views on art and society permeated Fabian thought. Though Morris had been influential on many early Fabians, and helped to bring some into the wider socialist movement, as the Society moved towards parliamentary views, they increasingly derided Morris’s continuing adherence to anti-parliamentarism, and his insistence that the essential antagonism of different classes meant only revolution could create socialism. He also clearly saw how the Fabian emphasis on a technocratic utilitarian benevolent state ‘socialism’ would be no socialism at all, and mocked the suggestion that industrial capitalism was moving in the direction of a socialist society in its tendencies towards centralisation. In the late 1880s and early 90s, Morris and the leading Fabians were more and more at odds; after his death Fabian grandees like GB Shaw were at pains to blur Morris’s ideas, reduce him to a naive eccentric, or claim him as one of theirs. In the end the Fabians were more in tune with the way society, and the ‘socialist’ movement, were to develop, though Morris’s vision has a strong pull…
 Morris’s Arts & Crafts philosophy also put down powerful roots – just wander down the Square to no 6, and you’ll find still based there today, an Art Workers Guild set up here, influenced by his ideas.

There’s more on William Morris in our radical history walk around Hammersmith

Walk round to no 29 (next door on the east side of square)

Now part of University College Hospital, this was previously the Working Women’s College, founded in 1864 by feminist activists Elizabeth Malleson & supported by George Eliot, Barbara Bodichon (a co-founder of the Englishwoman’s Journal) among others. Influenced by FD Maurice’s Working Men’s College (which had briefly admitted women when first started but then excluded them!), its first teachers included social reformer Octavia Hill, Elizabeth Garrett (later Anderson); its remit was

“to meet the needs of several classes of women who are at work during the day… The coffee-room, provided with periodicals and newspapers etc, will open every evening from 7 to 10, and will be made as far as possible the centre of the social life of the college.”

William Morris, then a neighbour, lent a series of his mate Burne-Jones’ cartoons to decorate the coffee room.

Elizabeth Malleson moved in the early feminist circles that fill Bloomsbury’s past. A supporter of women’s suffrage from her 20s, she joined the Ladies London Emancipation Society in 1864 (Emily Faithfull published its tracts); was a member of the Society for promoting the Employment of Women and a founder of the Ladies National Association in 1870, later playing some part in the National Society for Women’s Suffrage and the Women’s Franchise League…

Malleson later changed her mind about separate education for men and women and the College attempted a merger with the Working Men’s College in 1874, but the men’s College senior staff wouldn’t have it, so they renamed themselves the College for Men and Women and admitted men. Some teachers and students reacted against this and created yet another college called the ‘College for Working Women’ in Fitzroy Street, which was more successful than the College for Men and Women by offering a wide range of technical and academic subjects as well as ‘domestic’ subjects such like cookery, dressmaking and health studies. This College attracted students from a range of employment areas including domestic service workers, nursing, shop assistants and teaching. This is one of a very few institutes at this time that offered a dedicated programmes of study for women. The College for Men and Women closed in 1901 but the College for Working Women continues to this day; in one more twist it merged with the Working Men’s College in 1967!

No 5, and no 21 Queens Square were both homes of FD Maurice before he moved to Russell Square (see above).

No 3 Queens Square was head office of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement from 1922 to 1924. The NUWM reached a peak in early 1923 with over 100,000 members. Figures were boosted by the first National Hunger March (October 1922 to February 1923). Membership and tactics were increasingly dominated by the CPGB.

This was an early Georgian townhouse but the building currently on the site dates from around the 1960s.

Walk round to the Mary Ward Centre

This moved here from Tavistock Place 1982 (see more on Mary Ward, above).  As well as being an adult education college, (with the legal advice centre around the corner in Boswell Street) the Centre has been used as a meeting place by various radical groups for meetings.

Walk down to southeast corner, down Old Gloucester Street, to Theobald’s Road, turn right, and across the junction to Vernon Place.

Look to right, to site of no 29 Bloomsbury Square: Charles Knight, who, in 1826, lived at No. 29 (on this site), was one of the founders of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, (SDUK), which published cheap texts on mainly scientific subjects for the benefit of the rapidly expanding reading public. Set up by many of the same reformists who founded University College London, and led by Henry Brougham, a Whig politician who briefly became Lord Chancellor, the Society was founded in 1826 and active until 1848, with publications such as the ‘Penny Magazine’ reaching a peak circulation of around 200,000 copies a week – huge in those days. The SDUK had strong links with Mechanics institutes, and UCL (see above); in fact, the SDUK, UCL and the Institutes together formed different arms of the same Whig-Utilitarian-axis in the early nineteenth century…

Although its motives were fairly straightforward and worthy, the SDUK was attacked, even ridiculed; in particular by reactionary writers. Henry Brougham in particular was lampooned by satirists, including the cartoonist George Cruickshank and the novelist Thomas Love Peacock, SDUK caricatured in contemporary fiction as the Steam Intellect Society.

Another satire on ‘The March of Intellect’

This uneasy reception for educational projects illustrates what was a fierce debate at the time; education for the masses seemed dangerous in the politically volatile 1820s and 1830s, with many of the upper classes voicing fears that the working man was ‘getting above his station’, encouraged by naive Whig reformers.

Vernon Place: The headquarters of The Men’s Society for Womens Rights, founded in the 1860s, was somewhere here, around 1917. When it was founded women were barred from studying at university, becoming doctors and of course voting. The Men’s Society campaigned for women to be allowed all such rights, and fought sexual abuse of women and children.

Continue on down Vernon Place, which becomes Bloomsbury Way. Walk round the corner into Bury Place, and down to the junction of Barter Street

No. 144 High Holborn/ 493 Oxford Street was located here, at the corner of Bury Street almost opposite Holborn Town Hall.

The building on the sire of 144 High Holborn/493 Oxford Street

A previous building here housed the Offices of the Chartist Land Company from December 1846 to August 1851. The offices of the Land Bank, established in January 1847 as an auxiliary to the land company, were at 493 Oxford Street, a side entrance to 144. The bank closed in May 1851, the land company surviving until August.

With the Chartist movement demoralised by the rejection of the second great Charter of 1842, and many of its leaders on trial or in prison in the wake of that year’s general strike, Feargus O’Connor proposed a plan for resettling urban workers on the land.

The Chartist Land Plan originated in speeches made by O’Connor at Chartist conventions in Birmingham in 1843 and Manchester in 1845, but it was only after the London convention of 1845 that the Chartist Land Co-operative Society was formed. This was later renamed the National Land Company.

Its aim was to sell 100,000 shares, the money from which would be used to buy estates. These would then be parcelled out by lot among the members, who would receive between two and four acres each.

In four years, the National Land Company attracted 70,000 shareholders, raised more than £100,000, acquired a total of 1,118 acres (the first of which, Herringsgate [in some sources given as Heronsgate] near Watford, was renamed O’Connorville), but succeeded in establishing just 250 smallholders. Its other sites were at Lowbands, Snigs End, Minster Lovell and Great Dodford in Worcestershire.

Some see the Land Plan as doomed to failure, almost a pyramid scheme, which diverted the Chartist movement from its main political objectives. But land, and access to it, was a central plank of many radical movements in the nineteenth century, and the period of disillusion with lobbying, strikes and mass meetings that Chartism was going through, is paralleled in other eras, with slumps in political movements often leading into dreams of going back to the land… 

The scheme collapsed in recriminations by 1851, having failed to find a proper legal basis for its activities, and embroiling O’Connor in arguments about its finances.

Later the same building here housed the Women’s Freedom League. The League was founded in Summer 1907 by Charlotte Despard, Edith How-Martyn and Teresa Billington-Grieg. Previously leading members of the Women’s Social & Political Union, they and a number of others (broadly speaking, though not entirely, those more influenced by socialism) had become unhappy with the autocratic control that Emmeline and her daughter Christabel Pankhurst were increasingly exerting in the WSPU, as well as the powerful influence of a handful of wealthy women, such as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, within the organisation, as well as a new policy introduced by Christabel Pankhurst (without any consultation with WSPU members) which called for attacks on Labour Party candidates at elections as well as Liberals. After their attempt to introduce a new more democratic constitution was defeated by Emmeline Pankhurst (actually she ripped it up at a conference, and swayed the majority into sticking with the WSPU) they broke away.Initially, like the WSPU, the WFL was a militant organisation with a membership willing to break the law: over a hundred WFL members were sent to prison for refusing to pay taxes or taking part in demonstrations. But they opposed the WSPU’s campaign of vandalism against private and commercial property, especially its arson campaign. After 1910 the WFL in fact largely gave up militancy, instead encouraging resistance to the 1911 census and refusal to pay taxes. The Women’s Freedom League worked on women’s issues till it disbanded in 1961.

Women’s Freedom League members

Many of the early WFL members were pacifists, such as Charlotte Despard, and in contrast to the mainly pro-War lurch of the WPSU leadership, opposed World War 1 throughout. Despard, at this time a vegetarian Independent Labour Party member, during a long and active political life, was involved in setting up one of first child welfare centres in London; she later lived in Ireland and was active in Sinn Fein during the Irish War of independence; back in London by the 1930s, she was a leader in the unemployed movement in London. Theresa Billington Greig, meanwhile, became a writer on a wide range of issues; she was though increasingly critical of the single issue nature of the suffrage movement. While remaining “a militant rebel to the end of my days”, she came to doubt the militant suffrage campaign: she later wrote that she felt the campaign had degraded into “small pettiness… playing for effects and not results”; that “every interest and consideration and principle [had been] sacrificed to the immediate getting of any measure of suffrage legislation”; and that the alternating violent tactics and then injured innocence had been “political chicanery”. She also felt that the WFL had been largely a failure, that their refusal to fight for control of the WSPU before the split, and then failure to criticise the Union afterwards, left them just an echo of the bigger organisation; the League became mediocre.

The Women’s Freedom League headquarters moved to the (since demolished) 144 High Holborn in 1909. There was also an Emily Davison Club based here to protect her memory.

In the 1930s the Emily Davison Club was based in an upstairs room. Presumably this was connected to the Women’s Freedom League which was also in the building. The Club was used for political meetings and as a base for the Socialist Propaganda League, an obscure offshoot of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Walk down Bloomsbury Way to Museum Street; turn left and walk down to no 38 and 40

The Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, which as the name suggests supported suffragette activity in the 1910s, had its offices at no 38 in 1908, and 40, from 1909-1911 (they then moved to Westminster). The League included such luminaries as the novelist EM Forster and Thomas Hardy, poet John Masefield, the Earl of Lytton and the Bishop of Lichfield. Its work consisted of supporting pro-suffrage election candidates, supporting women’s groups in suffrage rallies etc. It disbanded in 1961.

The League consisted mainly of Liberal intellectuals, embarrassed and angered by the treatment the Liberal government was dealing out to Suffragettes. They largely disapproved of militant suffragette actions, (most, far from being pro-feminist, held very traditional views about women), and co-operated more with the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies than the WSPU. Men proved useful in various roles – disrupting political and election meetings women had been banned from due to previous disturbances, arranging invites for other meetings to suffragists; working class members  also enjoyed stewarding meetings and chucking out/roughing up the reactionary middle class students who often heckled Suffragette speakers.

Walk back up Bury Place to Little Russell Street to St George’s Church

On 13 June 1913, the funeral was held here of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who died after falling under the King’s horse, trying to disrupt the Derby, on June 4th (a myth has grown up that she deliberately threw herself under the hooves, but the plan was only to sabotage the race; the latest escalation in the militant suffragist campaign to win women the vote). Emily had been one of the most active of the militants, and had previously served nine prison terms for suffrage actions. She had hidden in the cellars under the House of Commons for 46 hours to avoid the 1911 census (another suffragist tactic: refusing to be censussed till they got the vote); she is also credited with being the first suffragette to set fire to a post box when that tactic was launched… for which she got six months. She gave no quarter inside either, being force fed several times in prison while on hunger strike, barricading herself in her cell, and chucking herself off a landing among other tactics. The Pankhurst-dominated leadership of the Women’s Social & Political Union are said to have kept her out of their inner circles, regarding her as a “very loose cannon”.

Her funeral was organised by the WSPU: 6000 women marchers, with brass bands played

Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral

Chopin’s Funeral March, a banner showing Joan of Arc, and three laurel wreaths placed on her coffin with the words “She died for Women”. Large crowds lined the route; although one protester threw a brick at the coffin, the onlookers were largely supportive.The cortege moved on to King’s Cross Station from where Emily’s body traveled to Morpeth for burial in the family grave.


We end our walk here… if your feet ache and your head is spinning, I’d suggest popping over to St Giles High Street and having a pint and a chaser at the Angel pub, traditional spot gig the condemned to have a last drink as they were trundled from Newgate to Tyburn to be topped… Thanks for following our ramblings & hope you have taken inspiration from these walks…


Written, researched, walked by past tense – the real godless college.

dedicated to Nina Wild: born in Huntley St, Bloomsbury 2-10-2008.



As noted in our first Bloomsbury radical history walk, a massive number of local streets, squares and thoroughfares are named after the Russells, the Earls/Dukes of Bedford, their landed estates, their various titles and estates, their wives, other aristos who they intermarried with etc etc…

Suggestions for the future (or immediate, fuck it!), renaming of squares and streets after some of its radicals instead:

Russell Square – should be renamed Pankhurst Square, we think. Despite the slightly dodgy political directions all of the fam but Sylvia eventually took…

Great Russell Street – Eleanor Marx Street seems fair.

Little Russell Street – Emily Wilding Davison Street.

Bedford Square: While it’s tempting to give it the name ‘Lord-Eldon-hanging-from-a-lamppost Square’, this is a bit of a mouthful. Could go for Wakley Square, though we are generally opposed to MPs getting their names on places; so we suggest Shelley Square, which would have galled Eldon, (plus Shelley also lived in Bloomsbury).

Bedford Avenue – Passmore Avenue. for John Passmore Edwards

Bedford Way – Headlam Place for Stewart Headlam.

Bedford Place – John Gray Place, for the Gordon Rioter hanged down in Bloomsbury Square.

Tavistock Place (the Russells were also Marquesses of Tavistock) – Jex-Blake Place, to remember Sophia Jex-Blake, a founder of the London School of Medicine for Women in neighbouring Hunter Street (since Elizabeth Garrett Anderson already has a local hospital named for her!)

Tavistock Square – Peace Square

Gordon Square, named (depending on which book you read) after Lady Georgiana Gordon, second wife of the sixth Duke of Bedford, or her father, Alexander Duke of Gordon. Suffragist resident Lady Jane Strachey is just too posh and pro-imperialist, so maybe Mud March Square after the infamously wet WSPU demo she was involved with.

So also Gordon Street: which could simply be renamed Gordon Riots Street.

Gower Street: From Gertrude Leveson-Gower, daughter of the Earl of Gower, and wife of the fourth duke of Bedford. Maybe rename it Garret Street after Millicent Garret Fawcett whose house was at no 2.

Gower Place: Godwin Place.

Gower Mews: Bob Marley Mews (since Bob lived round the corner)

Woburn Square – named for Dukes’ country seat at Woburn Abbey; Wolstoncraft Square, for Mary W.

Woburn Walk –  Emily Faithfull Walk.

Woburn Mews – Charles Kent Street, after another Gordon rioter hanged in 1780 for looting Lord Mansfield’s house.

Woburn Place/Upper Woburn Place – Despite his Christianity and Liberalism, why not call it Maurice Place after FD Maurice, sacked for refusing to believe in Hell and damnation.

Thornhaugh Street (after another Russell title, Baron of Thornhaugh) – Thelwall Street, for John Thelwall

Thornhaugh Mews – Anna Jameson Mews

Streatham Street (the Russells were also Lords of the Manor of Streatham, now in sunny south London) – William Morris Street

Herbrand Street – name of the 11th duke. Should be retitled Laetitia Holland Street, after one of those hanged in Bloomsbury Square in 1780 for looting Lord Mansfield’s house.

Also Burton Street: named for the developer who built much of the estate in the late 18th/early 19th Centuries. Maybe Rookery Street, to remember the people driven from their homes by the demolition of the St Giles Rookery, to the Dukes’ profit.

And for good measure, other aristo names round ere

Southampton Row – named for Earl of Southampton…. maybe International Times Way?

Montague Place  – named for Ralph 1st duke of Montagu (another heir of the Earls of Southampton): Meltzer Street (for anarchist Albert Meltzer and his Coptic St bookshop)

Montague Street – Marten Street, for squatter Johnny Marten from the Ivanhoe Hotel occupation

Mecklenburgh Square is named after dropsical old Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, who before her marriage was Princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.  – We propose Edith Lees Square.

Keppel street – the Keppels were Earls of Albermarle and ancestors of our own Camilla Parker Bollocks. The first Earl, Arnold Joost van Keppel, was a minor Dutch aristo, page of honour to king William III (the infamous king Billy), with who he came to England; he was created Earl of Albermarle, mainly for services rendered, ie he used to share the king’s bed when his royal anus was feverish (it was thought then that another body in the bed could help break fever). Or that’s the official story. Glencoe Street, recalling the 1692 massacre of Scots highlanders approved by king Billy?

Queen Square: named for Queen Anne (though weirdly the statue in the middle is probably NOT her, it’s George III’s other half, Charlotte). We suggest Elizabeth Malleson Square, commemorating the early feminist who co-founded the Working Women’s College here.

Marchmont Street: named for Alexander Hume-Campbell, Earl of Marchmont: Mary Shelley Street?

Brunswick Square: after more German aristocrats (possibly the Duke of Brunswick who led the early war against the French Revolution): Barbara Bodichon Square.

Great Ormond Street: named for the Dukes of Ormond; could be renamed John Bellingham Street, for the first, but hopefully not last, successful assassin of a Prime minister.

Ormond Mews – Hannington Street for the NUWM leader

Ormond Close – Agnes Henry Close

Gilbert Place: for Gilbert Holles, Earl of Clare. Stuart Christie Place

Finally: UCL should revert to its early nickname of the Godless College.

Also: we could change the names of all local pubs with dubious names: (NB altho we also understand how annoying random pub name changes can be…?)

eg: The ‘Marlborough Arms’, on the corner of Huntley Street and Torrington Place: as it was a hangout of the Huntley Street squatters how about ‘The Squatters’ Arms’? Or ‘The Crowbar”?

The Marquis of Cornwallis, Marchmont Street; remembering Charles Cornwallis, one of those old Empire stalwarts – a leading British general in the American War of Independence,  governor general of India, and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who oversaw the response to the 1798 Irish Rebellion and a French invasion of Ireland, and was instrumental in the Union of Great Britain and Ireland. (but a pragmatic one – he argued unsuccessfully that Catholics should be given the vote etc as part of the Act of Union, resigning along with Prime Minister William Pitt when mad king George refused to countenance it) How about a good anti-imperialist Irish name like The Wolfe Tone, for the 1798 Irish rebel leader?

The ‘Lord John Russell’ also on Marchmont Street; named for the offspring of the Bedford dukes, Whig and Liberal politician who served twice as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the mid-19th century. (Although, when the pub was originally named, the landlord was supposedly also called John Russell, so it was kind of an ironic joke.) Since Lord John was the grandfather of Bertrand Russell, the mathematician, philosopher and pacifist activist, we could call the pub the Bertrand Russell.

The Norfolk Arms, Leigh Street – all Dukes of Norfolk are wankers: lets call it the Robert Kett, after the leader of the Norfolk anti-enclosures rebellion in 1549.

The Queens Larder, Queen Square; This pub is named after Queen Charlotte, wife of mad King George III, who was being treated for his insanity at a doctor’s house in Queen Square. The Queen rented a small cellar beneath the pub to keep the special foods which King George needed. How about calling the Hadfield, after James Hadfield, attempted assassin of mad old george; he was condemned as mad himself but receiving less sympathetic treatment…

The Duke of York, Roger Street… Which Duke of York? Who cares! worth finding out tho???

Thanks to Jim Paton, Keith Scholey, Judy Greenway, and Stuart Christie (RIP)