Today in London’s anti-racist history: resistance to a fascist march in Thamesmead, 1991

The Southeast London ‘suburb’ of Thamesmead was built on land once forming about 1,000 acres of the old Royal Arsenal site that extended over Plumstead Marshes and Erith Marshes. Thamesmead was born in the 1960s, when the then Greater London Council developed plans for a new town to be built, to relieve London’s housing shortage and create a ‘Town of the 21st Century’. The name Thamesmead was chosen by a Bexley resident in a ‘Name Our New Town’ competition. The first residents moved to Thamesmead in 1968.

Thamesmead was designed around futuristic ideas, and indeed, looked impressive at first from a distance. Efforts were made to solve the social problems that had already started to affect earlier estates. These were believed to be the result of people being uprooted from close-knit working-class communities and sent to estates many miles away, where they knew nobody. The design of the estates meant that people would see their neighbours more rarely than they would have done in the terraced housing that had been typical in working-class areas. The solution proposed was that once the initial residents had moved in, their families would be given priority for new housing when it became available.

Another ‘radical’ idea of the GLC division architect Robert Rigg thought sounded funky was drawn from housing complexes in Sweden, where it was believed that lakes and canals reduced vandalism and other crime, mainly among the young. Rigg designed various water features, including a lake and pre-existing canal to impose a calming influence on the residents. Well done, there, worked out well…?!?

The area had been inundated in the North Sea Flood of 1953, so the original design placed living accommodation at first floor level or above, used overhead walkways and left the ground level of buildings as garage space.

The first flats were occupied in 1968, but problems developed rapidly. Early on flats suffered from rain penetration problems. Walkways stretched between its blocks of housing and later between sections in North Thamesmead. But the walkways quickly became littered and abused, and became considered safe places to walk. Pathways set out for people to walk on were laid with little regard to how people would really move about, so some were ignored in favour of more direct routes over grassed areas.

When the GLC was abolished in 1986, its housing assets and the remaining undeveloped land were vested in a non-profit organisation, Thamesmead Town Limited (TTL). TTL was a private company, though its nine executive directors were local residents; they periodically submitted themselves to re-election.

Split between two boroughs, Bexley and Greenwich, Thamesmead became somewhat frozen, under-resourced and bleak: “The Town Centre, clearly marked on sign-posts, is cynically named. Actually it’s just a few acres of Safeway on the very edge of town, a skerry incapable of supporting human life, torn from the nearest flats by a main road, and more than two miles from Thamesmead’s middle. In the late Eighties a gabled clock tower was added so that, from the river, it looks like an old market town. The clock stopped at twenty past two some time ago.”

The most significant design failure was the almost complete lack of shopping facilities and banks: only a few “corner shops” were initially built at Tavy Bridge. From the start Thamesmead was cut off from Abbey Wood, the nearest town with shopping facilities, by a railway line; however a four lane road bridge was built over the railway in the early 1970s. The area was then cut in two by the A2016, a new four lane dual carriageway by-pass of the Woolwich to Erith section of the A206 (although this road only got as far as the industrial part of lower Belvedere: the extension to Erith was opened in 1999). Still, residential building continued, this time on the other side of the A2016, which cut this part of Thamesmead off from rail travel to central London. The planned underground station never arrived.

Over time more facilities developed, with a Morrisons supermarket and retail park near Gallions Reach. Bus services were improved and residents can now easily reach Abbey Wood railway station.

The conditions on the estate bred many problems… some ongoing.

London like other uk cities had a number of similar areas, sometimes out on the edges, often, as with Thamesmead, older white residents or those living in adjacent areas had been white flighters a few years earlier, leaving inner city neighbourhoods for new towns, partly because there were ‘too many foreigners moving in’.

The estate’s population was always overwhelmingly working class, initially mainly white, drawn from older areas across South London, but increasingly afro-caribbean and later African communities. Many of the industries in surrounding areas which had employed Thamesmead residents closed down, went out of business or moved in the 1970s and 80s, and unemployment rocketed. The estate became to some extent a dumping ground where families were rehoused, without resources or much chance of leaving. “Thamesmead was abandoned, half-finished. The people who live there, imprisoned by the ring-roads and the roundabouts with exits that lead nowhere, can’t easily escape. They say they live on Thamesmead, not in it, as if it’s an island, a penal colony.”

The area was riven in the 1990s by racial tension – mainly harassment of black residents by a number of their white neighbours, but complicated by a youth gang culture which to a limited extent crossed ‘race’ lines but also mingled with racists at the other end. Racism among some white Thamesmead inhabitants was supported and aggravated by the influence of organised fascists, centred on, but not limited to, the British National Party, then a small neo-nazi grouping, who then ran an infamous bookshop in nearby Welling, set up in 1987. This shop was linked to the spread of violent nazi ideas, and an upsurge in racist attacks, in large areas of South East London and North Kent, and wider afield; but the organised right was also able to meet and operate from a number of other places, such as the Abbey Mead Social Club, a haunt of BNP and the British National Socialist Movement. BNP ‘faces’ drank in the Horse and Groom Pub in Charlton, attempting to whip up racism among Charlton Athletic fans. In Thamesmead itself, racism centred on the Wildfowler pub, where a number of local racist residents and friends hung out. Black people were effectively barred from the pub. Harassment of black residents, beatings knife attacks, were a regular occurrence around the area.

But the influence of the BNP and other overt fascists was a matter of debate at the time – not only because racism among many white residents was more ingrained, but also because the climate of national policy, media and government approaches had played a significant part in creating both a climate of hostility to minorities, and a sense of abandonment and despair which turned into anger, resentment, and fuelled gang violence as well as the blaming of ‘foreigners’ for taking our jobs and houses blah blah. Failures of state and left responses to these developments generally only compounded the situation.

In early 1991 things came to a head in Thamesmead. On February 21st 15-year old Rolan Adams and his younger brother were walking home to Abbey Wood across the estate from a local youth club, when they were attacked by a gang of young white racists, from a Thamesmead gang calling themselves the NTOs – standing according to them for Nutty Turnouts, though others claimed it really meant ‘Nazi Turn Outs’, (they were also known as the Goldfish Gang, or later just the Firm). Rolan was stabbed in the neck and died.

A few weeks later, on May 11th, Orville Blair was stabbed to death outside his home in Thamesmead; some claimed this was a gang murder, not racist at all, as Orville Blair may have been at some point associated with the NTO. Some of the NTO were interviewed at this time, claiming they were racist and had black members, and were at war with rival gangs, notably the ‘Woolwich Mafia’, a predominantly black but multi-racial gang from neighbouring Woolwich, which had allegedly not only been trespassing on their turf, but also winning allegiance from Thamesmead black kids (very likely out of fear?)

But the second murder ratcheted up an already fierce tension on the estate. Around100 racist attacks were reported in the area in the first few months of 1991. Several black families, including some who had vocally opposed racism or confronted the NTOs, asked to be rehoused off the estate and were moved. The Hawksmore Youth Club, which had attempted to organise anti-racist events, was firebombed – and then helpfully closed down by the council, giving the arsonists a pat on the back.

A campaign had arisen in the area, following the murder of Rolan Adams. A packed public meeting was held (police representatives were angrily ejected from this meeting, as people had little confidence in the figleaf of police protection). A militant and angry demonstration was held on 27th April, which saw some 1000-1500 people march round the estate, and then marched on to the BNP bookshop: “When we reached Welling, the anger erupted, and hundreds brought the march to a halt… The Nazis kept wisely out of sight, and it looked for a moment that we we’d all go home with a brick out of their wall as a memento, but the police and others came to the rescue…”

It was among local black youth that the initial angry response had developed, but increasingly a plethora of organisations got involved, with the stated aim of supporting anti-racism in Thamesmead and opposing both BNP influence and the wider culture of racism. Anti-racism and anti-fascism were growing in support generally, but these diverse movements were riven by many factions and splits; some organisations wanting to rely on police and state solutions (flying in the face of the these institutions ‘ involvement in creating the problems and encouraging racial violence), others fronts for left groups, opportunistic at the very least and inconsistent cynical much of the time; there were others who labelled all white people as the problem, and ignored the anti-racist feelings or actions of any white working class people in Thamesmead and elsewhere, which did tend to add to the widespread alienation and increasing division. Meetings tended to end up as dogmatic rows between different factions, and campaigns quickly could become paralysed by this. Actions proposed by some would always be denounced by others, sometimes on sectarian grounds, sometimes simply to be seen to be saying something; though there were genuine political differences and some useful critiques, but amidst all this, much energy that should have been directed at defeating fascists and opposing racism was spent in backbiting. Anyone who spent time involved in opposing fascists around this era is likely to recognise these dynamics.

In Thamesmead specifically at this point the angry campaign meetings organised initially by local black youth had become a debating ground for various groups, including The Greenwich Action Committee Against Racist Attacks (Gacara for short  – a local group monitoring and campaigning around racist attacks borough-wide), trotskyite left group the Socialist Workers Party, Anti Fascist Action, (an alliance of socialists and anarchists who advocated physical  resistance to fascism – beating them off the streets – well as politically winning white working people away from racist ideas), as well as the National Black Caucus, a black political grouping. Arguments had begun to prevent action. Anti Fascist Action noted: “One local pub in particular, the Wildfowler, was identified as a meeting place for the racists and the fascists who inspire them. Immediately after [the first campaign meeting on the estate] a posse went down to the pub to let the landlord know the score and to challenge what was described in the meeting as an unofficial colour bar. It was a successful first step in a campaign aimed to either get the fascists out of the pub or to close it down… the pub should be a facility for everyone in Thamesmead, or it should be a facility for no-one…
However, before any of this could happen, some of the people from the meeting, including some of the people from the Socialist Workers Party who had made rousing speeches about fighting racism ‘by any means necessary’ set themselves the task of talking everyone out of the idea of going to the pub at all… They lost the argument… It showed that they could be very good in meetings but not so handy when it comes to putting words into action… some of these characters will even go to the lengths of actively dissuading others from taking action…”

The pub drink also illustrated which side the police were keen to take: “despite the fact that there was no question of violence or disruption – it was a peaceful drink, the first time in a long while that blacks could have a peaceful drink in the pub – the police very soon appeared and emptied the pub of anti-racists. Then, out on the street, they set out to provoke incidents with the local youth – they were itching to wade in and make arrests.” All too often the cops were happy to let racists carry on as you were but batter and nick anyone who attempted to resist this, whether ‘violently’ defending themselves against racist attack or peacefully occupying a pub.

Others involved in the campaign at the time grew aggravated at the diversion of anger into tokenism: “The campaign meeting in the week after the march brought out many of the problems. The Socialist Workers Party’s only contributions were to propose an anti-racist concert in June and a pocket of the Tory-controlled Bexley Council… They tried to rubbish any talk of self-defence as terrorism.” However, Anti- Fascist Action’s stance also took some flak: “AFA talked about defence purely adventurist and elitist (‘we will protect you’ terms – which leaves the local community dependent on their mobilisations…” This critique, from a small, black-led trotsykist splinter called the RIL, does caricature AFA’s position, but had an element of truth, in that AFA tended to concentrate on physical intervention in specific arenas, but this didn’t always help with building a longer term more grounded resistance. Which all would admit is more complex than shouting slogans and running away. However, AFA criticised most of the other groups as posturing without any sense of how to draw white working people, the fodder for BNP propaganda, away from racist ideas. Which was always true and has remained so – catastrophically so in some parts of Britain. Gacara were braod based, but had links to the labour Council in Greenwich, who many though bore some responsibility for the shite conditions on the estate which fuelled much of the violence there. Almost everyone involved in the Thamesmead campaign noted that the people mostly ignored were the local black youth who had started the fightback, who (as elsewhere) found themselves marginalised by the squabbling lefties. In response some set up the Thamesmead Youth Organisation, which gathered some of the most active local youth and tried to combat racism while demanding that the local councils improve facilities…

While some in the NTO Thamesmead gang denied that they were inspired by the BNP, the BNP did want to get involved… The growth of the BNP from nazi fringe loons to the bigger racist populist organisation they would become was only really just beginning then; and they were still less concerned with public relations and concentrated on legitimising racist violence and playing on fear to build up hatred. They saw the two deaths and the wider attacks as evidence for their campaign that ‘multi-culturalism doesn’t work’ – black and white people couldn’t live together. Their nasty rhetoric may or may not have always directly inspired racist attacks, and they were not directly involved in all cases of racial violence (though they were in some), since racism was widespread throughout local white working class populations, and violent expressions of it didn’t necessarily need the BNP’s hand… But the BNP seized joyfully on the situation, beginning to spread their nazi propaganda around, and announcing a ‘Rights for Whites’ march through Thamesmead for May 25th, claiming they had been ‘asked by white residents’ to defend them against ‘black muggers’. The ‘Rights for Whites’ theme was a big BNP push, as their propaganda made a big thing that ‘white British people’ were being oppressed in their own country and had no rights while ‘blacks, gyppos, pakis and other darkies’ were getting special treatment in terms of housing, jobs, human rights etc. This was blatant nonsense, since white racism still allowed discrimination on all levels of society, and official equalities policies masked hatred of minorities in the police, local government, national policy. However it had an appeal to a disgruntled strata of working class whites, wondering where the jobs had gone and left adrift by social change – as well as to the empire-nostalging and eugenically-inclined, of various classes…

The BNP Demo on May 25th was opposed by a strong contingent of anti-racists and anti-fascists. Even top cops in the Met pointed out that allowing the march to go ahead was deliberate provocation; this didn’t prevent them from using a fair bit of trunch on the day to protect 150 or so BNP members (around its realistic away crowd then) from a much larger angry crowd of anti-racists. A number of fascists who turned up late were caught and battered by anti-fascists. But despite a decision taken in the campaign meetings to physically attempt to confront the BNP march, on the day the main campaign organisers (by now backed by the SWP and National Black Caucus) backed off from this and led people in the opposite direction, just as the BNP march was entering the area, and ignored protests that this was against what had been decided.

“This decision was not supported by all present – on addition to AFA and a substantial number of local youth, Searchlight supporters and even some individual members of the SWP refuse to go along with the last minute about face.”

Thamesmead being designed like it was, there are a hundred back ways, alleys, bridges, paths, which could have been used to bypass the police and confront the fash; in the end only part of the crowd attempted to do so. Bar a bit of running after stray Nazis and some provocative kids, the day came to a frustrating end.

Anti Fascist Action’s position was that this was a wasted opportunity and had strengthened the hand of the BNP: “The issue facing anti-fascists in Thamesmead is a clear one: do we want a token campaign which expresses our opposition to the BNP and racism, but does not actually confront the fascists, or do we insist on concrete action against specific targets?” This question had come up before and would come up again. The BNP in South/Southeast London certainly felt stronger, and would try to build on this through the summer of 1991, standing in a council by-election in Camberwell in July, and stepping up a regular presence in Bermondsey.

Their bookshop/HQ in Welling would remain, despite regular demonstrations demanding its removal – the fash were helped by tory Bexley Council, who steadfastly opposed racism by, er, refusing to do anything at all about the shop. Although there were constant arguments among anti-racists and wider about how much racist violence in Southeast London was caused by its presence, or whether the BNP were a symptom of a wider racist culture there, there is little doubt that the flood of fascist propaganda the BNP had put out continued to have an effect, encouraging serious racial attacks. In any case, racist attacks and racist murders increased. 16-year old Asian Rohit Duggal was murdered by a gang of ten white men in July 1992; In July 1992, Rohit Duggal was stabbed to death by a white youth outside a kebab shop. The killer, Peter Thompson, was found guilty of murder. He was said to have links to a racist gang around Neil Acourt, who carried out a number of attacks on black youths in 1992-3. The attack came a year after the stabbing of another man outside the same shops. Police said there was ‘no evidence of a racial motive’, which was bollocks, but then Neil Acourt’s crim dad had several dirty cops in his pocket, so…

Kevin London, a black teenager, claimed he was confronted in November 1992 by a gang of white youths, including Acourt’s mate Gary Dobson, who was armed with a large knife. The claim came to light only after the killing of Stephen Lawrence. No charges were laid.

In one week in March 1993, two men were stabbed in Eltham High Street, with witnesses describing members of the Acourt gang. The following week, a white man, Stacey Benefield, was stabbed in the chest. He identified David Norris as the attacker and Neil Acourt as being with him. Norris was the only man tried. He was acquitted.

Acourt and Dobson would of course become notorious, as in April 1993, they together with several other white men, murdered Stephen Lawrence in Eltham. This killing did focus a national spotlight on southeast London and would lead to the Lawrence Inquiry and far-reaching public relations changes to how the police allow themselves to appear.

The campaign against the BNP bookshop would reach a peak with a massive demonstration to Welling in October 1993 which would end in a police ambush and serious fighting, between police and demonstrators. 31 demonstrators were arrested and several jailed. Eventually overwhelming pressure led to Bexley Council being force to set up a planning inquiry and the shop closed down.

The Socialist Workers party, after years of telling AFA and other anti-fascists that Nazis were a tiny irrelevant fringe, shortly after Thamesmead began to change their position, and re-founded the Anti-Nazi League, which they had also been movers in back in the 1970s. The ANL made a big splash, carried lots of lollipop placards, and ran around a lot.

Anti Fascist Action deserves a more considered epitaph, but this isn’t the place. Another time.

Racism and fascism seems to be alive and well.

A postscript

Only one man was convicted of murder for the attack on Rolan and his younger brother Nathan, who escaped with his life. Mark Thornburrow was jailed for a minimum of 10 years. Four others were given community service for violent disorder. Mr Adams said there was unwillingness by police and prosecutors to go after anyone else for the killing.

In 2014 it was reported that the Metropolitan Police had admitted to Rolan’s father Richard that its now disbanded Special Demonstration Squad had spied on him and other members of the family and campaign, as they did on other black justice campaigns.

It’s unknown if any of the information collected on Rolan Adams’ family was harvested by any of the three spycops described by Peter Francis, an undercover cop working for the SDS who infiltrated Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), an anti-racist front for the trotskyite Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party) which, along with the Socialist Workers’ Party-run Anti-Nazi League, had largely organised the Welling demonstration in October 1993, there were police spies operating that day – on both sides.

Seven of the ten police spies then (admitted to be) active from the SDS were “sufficiently embedded in the right political groups to supply intelligence in advance of the demonstration.”

As well as Peter Francis (spying on YRE as Pete Black), another SDS police officer was involved at a high-level with the SWP-controlled Anti-Nazi League. Interviewed for Rob Evans and Paul Lewis’s book, ‘Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police’, Francis observed the actions of his colleague as the riot developed: “There was a moment when I am a SDS officer going forward with my group, and there’s another SDS officer in the Anti-Nazi League running backwards, calling on the crowds to go with him away, trying to get people to follow him.”

The book also claims, in the same chapter, that an undercover cop was involved with Combat 18, a so-called ‘neo-nazi’ group, later widely regarded as a Special Branch honey trap for unsuspecting right-wing activists, and claims: “A fourth spy was actually inside the BNP bookshop. For some time, he had been a trusted member of the party. He and others were expected to defend their headquarters in the event the crowd broke through the police lines and started attacking the building. ‘He was bricking it,’ Black says. ‘We had to protect the bookshop that day as Condon (the Met’s commissioner) knew that there was an undercover police officer in there.'”

Nice to know Special Branch were on both sides… how much the four respective SDS operatives manipulated the struggle around racism and anti-racism, remains unclear, but SDS spies rarely limited themselves to collecting intelligence. Certainly there was speculation at the time of the march that the Met had desired a violent confrontation to allow them some extra leeway for breaking heads. The October 1993 Welling ‘riot’ was suspected by some of us suspicious types at the time to be set up to play into police hands – though conspiracy theories are always to be avoided if possible, you can’t help wondering now whether the SDS were serving a wider police agenda in having the demo walk into a police riot. SDS head Bob Lambert certainly helped the Met out with info from the undercovers concerned when the Stephen Lawrence enquiry into police and other institutional racism was threatening to make them look very bad indeed. Perhaps all the details will come out in the Undercover Policing Inquiry – though given the current police obstruction tactics preventing anything on the Inquiry front from moving forward at all, probably not.

There is more interesting background to the racist gangs, links to crime families, and corrupt relations with the police, here

The above was written partly from personal recollections, though some bits of ailing memory were refreshed from Wikipedia, Anti Fascist Action’s magazine Fighting Talk, CARF magazine, Gacara Report 1992-3, and Revolutionary Internationalist. On May 25th 1991 your writer was a spotter on a bike riding round the estate to keep tabs on the movements of fash and police and report back to anti-fascists. Other memories and views would be welcomed.

Rolan Adams’s grandmother, Clara Buckley, was also the mother of Orville Blackwood, killed in Broadmoor High Security Hospital in August 1991. A powerful woman who never gave up fighting for justice. 

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London suffrage history: Dora Montefiore barricades her home against bailiffs, 1906.

On 23rd May 1906, Mrs Dora Montefiore barricaded her home, at no 32 Upper Mall, Hammersmith, against the threat of bailiffs entering her house to seize goods. A leading campaigner for women’s suffrage, Dora had refused to pay income tax, so long as women did not have the vote, and a court had ruled that her possessions should be taken to pay the amount owed.

As Dora later wrote, in a chapter in her 1927 autobiography, From a Victorian to a Modern, devoted to her tax resistance and the “Siege of Montefiore”, this wasn’t the first time her goods had been ‘distrained’ for non-payment of income tax:

“I had already, during the Boer War, refused willingly to pay income tax, because payment of such tax went towards financing a war in the making of which I had had no voice. In 1904 and 1905 a bailiff had been put in my house, a levy of my goods had been made, and they had been sold at public auction in Hammersmith. The result as far as publicity was concerned was half a dozen lines in the corner of some daily newspapers, stating the fact that Mrs. Montefiore’s goods had been distrained and sold for payment of income tax; and there the matter ended.

When talking this over in 1906 with Theresa Billington and Annie Kenney, I told them that now we had the organisation of the W.S.P.U. to back me up I would, if it were thought advisable, not only refuse to pay income tax, but would shut and bar my doors and keep out the bailiff, so as to give the demonstration more publicity and thus help to educate public opinion about the fight for the political emancipation of women which was going on. They agreed that if I would do my share of passive resistance they would hold daily demonstrations outside the house as long as the bailiff was excluded and do all in their power outside to make the sacrifice I was making of value to the cause. In May of 1906, therefore, when the authorities sent for the third time to distrain on my goods in order to take what was required for income tax, I, aided by my maid, who was a keen suffragist, closed and barred my doors and gates on the bailiff who had appeared outside the gate of my house in Upper Mall, Hammersmith, and what was known as the “siege” of my house began.

As is well known, bailiffs are only allowed to enter through the ordinary doors. They may not climb in at a window and at certain hours they may not even attempt an entrance. These hours are from sunset to sunrise, and from sunset on Saturday evening till sunrise on Monday morning. During these hours the besieged resister to income tax can rest in peace. From the day of this simple act of closing my door against the bailiff, an extraordinary change came over the publicity department of daily and weekly journalism towards this demonstration of passive resistance on my part. The tradespeople of the neighbourhood were absolutely loyal to us besieged women, delivering their milk and bread, etc., over the rather high garden wall which divided the small front gardens of Upper Mall from the terraced roadway fronting the river. The weekly wash arrived in the same way and the postman day by day delivered very encouraging budgets of correspondence, so that practically we suffered very little inconvenience, and as we had a small garden at the back we were able to obtain fresh air.

On the morning following the inauguration of the siege, Annie Kenney and Theresa Billington, with other members of the W.S.P.U., came round to see how we were getting on and to encourage our resistance. They were still chatting from the pavement outside, while I stood on the steps of No. 32 Upper Mall, when there crept round from all sides men with notebooks and men with cameras, and the publicity stunt began. These men had been watching furtively the coming and going of postmen and tradesmen. Now they posted themselves in front, questioning the suffragists outside and asking for news of us inside. They had come to make a “story” and they did not intend to leave until they had got their “story.” One of them returned soon with a loaf of bread and asked Annie Kenney to hand it up over the wall to my housekeeper, whilst the army of men with cameras “snapped” the incident. Some of them wanted to climb over the wall so as to be able to boast in their descriptions that they had been inside what they pleased to call “The Fort”; but the policeman outside (there was a policeman on duty outside during all the six weeks of a siege) warned them that they must not do this so we were relieved, in this respect, from the too close attention of eager pressmen. But all through the morning notebooks and cameras came and went, and at one time my housekeeper and I counted no less than twenty-two pressmen outside the house. A woman sympathiser in the neighbourhood brought during the course of the morning, a pot of home-made marmalade, as the story had got abroad that we had no provisions and had difficulty in obtaining food. This was never the case as I am a good housekeeper and have always kept a store cupboard, but we accepted with thanks the pot of marmalade because the intentions of the giver were so excellent; but this incident was also watched and reported by the Press.

Annie Kenney and Theresa Billington had really come round to make arrangements for a demonstration on the part of militant women that afternoon and evening in front of the house, so at an opportune moment, when the Press were lunching, the front gate was unbarred and they slipped in. The feeling in the neighbourhood towards my act of passive resistance was so excellent and the publicity being given by the Press in the evening papers was so valuable that we decided to make the Hammersmith “Fort” for the time being the centre of the W.S.P.U. activities, and daily demonstrations were arranged for and eventually carried out. The road in front of the house was not a thoroughfare, as a few doors further down past the late Mr. William Morris’s home of “Kelmscott,” at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Cobden-Sanderson, there occurred one of those quaint alley-ways guarded by iron posts, which one finds constantly on the borders of the Thames and in old seaside villages. The roadway was, therefore, ideal for the holding of a meeting, as no blocking of traffic could take place, and day in, day out the principles for which suffragists were standing we expounded to many who before had never even heard of the words Woman Suffrage. At the evening demonstrations rows of lamps were hung along the top of the wall and against the house, the members of the W.S.P.U.speaking from the steps of the house, while I spoke from one of the upstairs windows. On the little terrace of the front garden hung during the whole time of the siege a red banner with the letters painted in white:

“Women should vote for the laws they obey and the taxes they pay.”

This banner appeared later on during our fight, so it has a little history quite of its own.

The members of the I.L.P., of which there was a good branch in Hammersmith, were very helpful, both as speakers and organisers during these meetings, but the Members of the Social Democratic Federation, of which I was a member, were very scornful because they said we should have been asking at that moment for Adult Suffrage and not Votes for Women; but although I have always been a staunch adult suffragist, I felt that at that moment the question of the enfranchisement of women was paramount, as we had to educate the public in our demands and in the reasons for our demands, and as we found that with many people the words “Adult Suffrage” connoted only manhood suffrage, our urgent duty was at that moment to gain Press publicity up and down the country and to popularise the idea of the political enfranchisement of women.

So the siege wore on; Press notices describing it being sent to me not only from the United Kingdom, but from Continental and American newspapers, and though the garbled accounts of what I was doing and what our organisation stood for often made us laugh when we read them, still there was plenty of earnest and useful understanding in many articles, while shoals of letters came to me, a few sadly vulgar and revolting, but the majority helpful and encouraging. Some Lancashire lads who had heard me speaking in the Midlands wrote and said that if I wanted help they would come with their clogs but that was never the sort of support I needed, and though I thanked them, I declined the help as nicely as I could. Many Members of Parliament wrote and told me in effect that mine was the most logical demonstration that had so far been made; and it was logical I know as far as income tax paying women were concerned; and I explained in all my speeches and writings that though it looked as if I were only asking for Suffrage for Women on a property qualification, I was doing this because the mass of non-qualified women could not demonstrate in the same way, and I was to that extent their spokeswoman. It was the crude fact of women’s political disability that had to be forced on an ignorant and indifferent public, and it was not for any particular Bill or Measure or restriction that I was putting myself to this loss and inconvenience by refusing year after year to pay income tax, until forced to do so by the powers behind the Law. The working women from the East End came, time and again, to demonstrate in front of my barricaded house and understood this point and never swerved in their allegiance to our organisation; in fact, it was during these periods and succeeding years of work among the people that I realised more and more the splendid character and “stuff” that is to be found among the British working class. They are close to the realities of life, they are in daily danger of the serious hurts of life, unemployment, homelessness, poverty in its grimmest form, and constant misunderstanding by the privileged classes, yet they are mostly light-hearted and happy in small and cheap pleasures, always ready to help one another with lending money or apparel, great lovers of children, great lovers when they have an opportunity, of real beauty. Yet they are absolutely “unprivileged,” being herded in the “Ghetto” of the East End, and working and living under conditions of which most women in the West End have no idea; and I feel bound to put it on record that though I have never regretted, in fact, I have looked back on the years spent in the work of Woman Suffrage as privileged years, yet I feel very deeply that as far as those East End women are concerned, their housing and living conditions are no better now than when we began our work. The Parliamentary representation we struggled for has not been able to solve the Social Question, and until that is solved the still “unprivileged” voters can have no redress for the shameful conditions under which they are compelled to work and live.

I also have to record with sorrow that though some amelioration in the position of the married mother towards her child or children has been granted by law, the husband is still the only parent in law, and he can use that position if he chooses, to tyrannise over the wife. He must, however, appoint her as one of the guardians of his children after his death.

Towards the end of June, the time was approaching when, according to information brought in from outside the Crown had the power to break open my front door and seize my goods for distraint. I consulted with friends and we agreed that as this was a case of passive resistance, nothing could be done when that crisis came but allow the goods to be distrained without using violence on our part. When, therefore, at the end of those weeks the bailiff carried out his duties, he again moved what he considered sufficient goods to cover the debt and the sale was once again carried out at auction rooms in Hammersmith. A large number of sympathisers were present, but the force of twenty-two police which the Government considered necessary to protect the auctioneer during the proceedings was never required, because again we agreed that it was useless to resist force majeure when it came to technical violence on the part of, the authorities.

Some extracts from interviews and Press cuttings of the period will illustrate what was the general feeling of the public towards the protest I was making under the auspices of the W.S.P.U.

The representative of the Kensington News, who interviewed me during the course of the siege, wrote thus:—

Independent alike in principles and politics, it is the policy of the Kensington News to extend to both sides of current questions a fair consideration. Accordingly our representative on Tuesday last attended at the residence of Mrs. Montefiore, who is resisting the siege of the tax collector, as a protest against taxation without representation.

On Hammersmith Mall, within a stone’s throw of the house wherein Thomson wrote “The Seasons”; of Kelmscott House, the home of William Morris, and within the shadow of those glorious elms planted by Henrietta Maria, the consort of Charles Ⅰ, a bright red banner floats in front of a dull red house, inscribed: “Women should vote for the laws they obey and the taxes they pay”….

Certainly as mild a mannered a demonstrator as ever displayed a red banner, refined of voice and manner, Mrs. Montefiore, who is a widow, would be recognised at once as a gentlewoman. We were received with charming courtesy, and seated in the dining-room proceeded with our work of catechising.

Primarily we elicited that Mrs. Montefiore resented the term suffragette. “It emanated, I believe from the Daily Mail, but is entirely meaningless. The term ‘suffragist’ is English and understandable. What I object to most strenuously is the attempt of certain sections of the Press to turn to ridicule what is an honest protest against what we regard as a serious wrong.”

“So far, what has happened?”

“The tax collector has been, with the sheriff, and I have refused them admittance, barred my doors, and hung up the banner you saw outside.” Then questioned as to the reason for her action, Mrs. Montefiore explained:

“I am resisting payment of, not rates, but the Imperial taxes. I pay my rates willingly and cheerfully, because I possess my municipal vote. I can vote for the Borough and County Councils, and on the election of Guardians. I want you to understand this; my income is derived mainly from property in Australia, where for many years I resided. It is taxed over there, and again in this country. I never objected to paying taxes in Australia, because there women have votes both for the State Parliament and for the Commonwealth. There women are not disqualified from sitting in the Commonwealth Parliament. One lady at the last election, although unsuccessful, polled over 20,000 votes.”

“You were not one of the ladies who created a disturbance behind the House of Commons grille?”

“No. I was, however, one of the deputation to Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and I listened to his very unsatisfactory answers. This action of mine is the rejoinder to Sir Henry’s reply. He said we must educate Parliament — so we thought we would, in my active resistance, give Parliament an object lesson. Remember, it was the first Reform Bill that definitely excluded women from the franchise. Prior to that Bill they possessed votes as burgesses and owners of property. We only seek restitution. After the Reform Bill certain women in Manchester actually tested their right to be registered as voters, and the judges decided against them. Mr. Keir Hardie, who is our champion, deals with this in his pamphlet.”

“You are selecting certain candidates to further your cause in Parliament,” we suggested.

“Certainly,” was the reply. “The women employed in the textile factories at Wigan ran a candidate of their own at the last election, and I addressed vast meetings at every street corner at Wigan. I have received many messages of sympathy and encouragement from the women and the men in Wigan.”

“Have you taken Counsel’s opinion on your resisting action?”

“No, I am relying on the justice of my cause.”

“What is the next step you anticipate?”

“I believe their next weapon is a break warrant. I have had my furniture distrained on and sold twice already in this cause. Of course, I am only a woman. I know the law, as it stands, is stronger than I, and I suppose in the long run I shall have to yield to force majeure, but I shall fight as long as I am able. Only,” the lady added with a plaintiveness that might have appealed to the most implacable anti-Woman Suffragist, “one would have thought that men would have been more chivalrous, and would not force us to fight in this way to the bitter end for the removal of the sex disability.”

“Do you look for assistance from any, and which, political party?” we asked. Mrs. Montefiore shook her head.

“Our only policy is to play off one, against the other. I am a humble disciple of Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy, who, now 73 years of age, has for 41 years been a worker in the woman’s cause. She has witnessed fourteen Parliaments, but has never seen a Cabinet so inimical to Woman’s Suffrage as the present. Every time the franchise is extended the women’s cause goes back; her hopes are far less now with seven millions on the register than they were with half a million. Gladstone was the worst enemy woman’s suffrage ever had.”

In conclusion Mrs. Montefiore said: “We claim that the word ‘person’ in Acts of Parliament connected with voting should include women. We believe that action goes further than words. I am taking this action to bring our cause before the public.”

Without committing ourselves on the question of the cause itself, we could not resist expressing the hope that the lady’s devotion to it had not entailed hardship or suffering. She smiled bravely, and said: “I have received much sympathy and encouragement, and many kindnesses.” We ventured one more question: “Are you downhearted?” The answer was a smiling “No!” and we left Mrs. Montefiore’s residence impressed at any rate with the sincerity of her belief in, and her devotion to, the cause she has espoused.

The Labour Leader of June, 1906, had the following:—

“No taxation without representation” is one of the cardinal doctrines of the British Constitution. But like many other ideas of British liberty it exists more on paper than in reality.

It has been left for the modern generation of suffragettes to point out that one whole sex subject to all the taxes which are imposed, has yet absolutely no representation on the body which determines and passes those taxes.

The siege of “Fort Montefiore” is the tangible expression of this protest.

On two previous occasions Mrs. Montefiore has had her goods seized for refusing to pay income tax.

This year she determined upon more militant tactics. Some eight or nine weeks ago she was called upon for the income tax. As she persisted in her refusal to pay, a bailiff was summoned. Mrs. Montefiore’s reply was to bolt and bar her house against the intruder, and to display a red flag over her summerhouse, with the inscription: “Women should vote for the laws they obey and the taxes they pay.”

Fort Suffragette, as Mrs. Montefiore’s house may be called, is an ideal place, in which to defy an income-tax collector; and a few determined women could hold it against an army from the Inland Revenue Department. It is a substantial three-storeyed villa in a narrow road (Upper Mall, Hammersmith).

A few feet from the front the Thames flows by; and the house is guarded by a high wall, the only access being through a stoutly built arched doorway. The “siege” began on 24th May, and up to the present the bailiff has not succeeded in forcing an entry. Meanwhile, important demonstrations have taken place outside, and the crowd has been addressed by various speakers, including Mrs. Montefiore, who has spoken from an upper window of her house.

On one of these occasions Mrs. Montefiore alluded to the Prime Minister’s reply to the recent deputation on Women’s Suffrage, in which he advised them “to educate Parliament.” She was giving Parliament an object lesson. “They had had enough abstract teaching,” she said, “now a little concrete teaching may do them good, and they will see that there are women in England who feel their disability so keenly that they will stop at nothing, and put themselves to every inconvenience and trouble in order to show the world and the Men of England what their position is, and how keenly they feel it”… A resolution was carried declaring that taxation without representation was tyranny, thanking Mrs. Montefiore for her stand, and calling upon the Government to enfranchise women this session.

Susan B. Anthony was one of my dear and valued friends in the suffrage movement, and I received from New York the following interesting communication with cordial wishes for the success of my protest:—

Appeal made yearly by Susan. B. Anthony to the City Treasurer, Rochester, New York, When paying her property tax.

To THE CITY TREASURER, ROCHESTER, N.Y.

Enclosed please find cheque for tax on my property for year ending May, 1902, with a protest in the name of ten thousand other tax-paying women in the City of Rochester, who are deemed fully capable, intellectually, morally and physically of earning money, and contributing their full share towards the expenses of the Government, but totally incapable of deciding as to the proper expenditure of such money. Please let the record show as “paid under protest.”

Yours for justice to each and every person of this Republic.
MARY S. ANTHONY.

TO THE COUNTY TREASURER.

Enclosed find County tax for 1904. A minor may live to become of age, the illiterate to be educated, the lunatic to regain his reason, the idiot to become intelligent — when each and all can decide what shall be the laws, and who shall enforce them; but the woman, never. I protest against paying taxes to a Government which allows its women to be thus treated. Please so record it.

MARY S. ANTHONY.

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Dora’s house on the Thames the tow path remained ‘under siege’ for some six weeks during the summer of 1906, and became the centre of widely-reported daily demonstrations and speeches of solidarity from suffrage groups converging from all over London. Newspapers at the time labelled this as ‘The Siege of Hammersmith’, (though Dora’s house was also known among suffragists as ‘Fort Montefiore’!) The house, surrounded by a wall, could be reached only through an arched doorway, which Montefiore and her maid barred against the bailiffs. For six weeks, Montefiore resisted payment of her taxes, addressing the frequent crowds through the upper windows of the house.

The ‘siege’, in reality mostly a stand-off without much in the way of actual attempts to distrain her goods, ended on 3 July 1906 when bailiffs broke in using a crowbar, while Dora was out, (in fact supporting suffragettes on trial at Marylebone police court). The bailiffs confiscated silver cutlery and other household items to the value of the income tax owed, some £18. Dora had already deciced not to resist: “Towards the end of June, the time was approaching when, according to information brought in from outside the Crown had the power to break open my front door and seize my goods for distraint. I consulted with friends and we agreed that as this was a case of passive resistance, nothing could be done when that crisis came but allow the goods to be distrained without using violence on our part.

Dora’s maid, also a suffrage campaigner, was in the house, though decided not to resist the incursion… A few days later Mrs Montefiore bought back everything that had been taken, at the auction in Goldhawk Road, paying around £20… while a suffragette demonstration outside protested.

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Born Dora Fuller, the eighth child of Francis and Mary Fuller, in 1851, Dora’s father was a wealthy land surveyor and railway entrepreneur. She was educated at home at Kenley Manor, near Coulsdon, and then at a private school in Brighton.

In 1874 she went to Australia, where she met and married George Barrow Montefiore, a wealthy businessman in 1881. Her husband’s death in 1889, projected her into the feminist movement: she discovered that she had no rights of guardianship over her own children unless her husband had willed them to her. Angered by this, she became an advocate of women’s rights and in March 1891 she founded the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales. This would be the first step in a lifetime of political activism.

Returning to England in 1892 she worked under Millicent Fawcett at the National Union of Suffrage Societies, and joined the Social Democratic Federation and eventually served on its executive. She also contributed to its journal, Justice. Dora had originated the idea of the Women’s Tax Resistance League in 1897, which encouraged women to refuse to pay tax until they got the corresponding civil rights they felt taxation should confer…

While living at Upper Mall, she also became attracted to the ideas of William Morris, who lived just a few minutes walk down the river at Kelmscott House.

Shortly after the ‘Siege’, in October 1906, Dora was jailed in Holloway Prison, for demonstrating illegally in the lobby of the House of Commons. She was accompanied to the Prison by a group of supporters: ‘My brothers and sisters were mostly apathetic about or hostile to my militant work, so I determined to send for no-one of my own relatives, but I was surrounded by many good friends and fellow-workers who had come to give us a word of cheer’.

Shortly after this, she broke with the Pankhursts. Montefiore disagreed with the authoritarian and centralised way Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst ran the WSPU, making decisions without consulting members, and objecting to the small group of wealthy women like Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence who she felt were having too much influence over the organisation. However, she remained close to Sylvia Pankhurst, who shared her belief in socialism, which Emmeline and Christable Pankhurst had moved away from. Montefiore was not alone in her opinions of the leadership of the WSPU. In the autumn of 1907, Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Margaret Nevinson and Charlotte Despard and seventy other members of the WSPU left to form the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). Dora Montefiore also joined the WFL.

Montefiore was first and foremost a journalist and pamphleteer, penning a women’s column in The New Age (1902–6) and in the Social Democratic Federation journal Justice (1909–10). She later wrote for the Daily Herald and the New York Call. Most of her pamphlets were on women and socialism, for example, Some words to Socialist women (1907). Montefiore was also interested in an international approach to women’s suffrage and socialism and travelled a great number of congresses and conferences in Europe, the United States, Australia, and South Africa.

In 1907 Montefiore joined the Adult Suffrage Society and was elected its honorary secretary in 1909. She also remained in the Social Democratic Federation. Montefiore’s biographer, Karen Hunt, has pointed out: “Within the SDF she developed a woman-focused socialism and helped set up the party’s women’s organization in 1904. An energetic although often dissident worker for the SDF until the end of 1912, Montefiore resigned from what had become the British Socialist Party as an anti-militarist.”

In 1913 she was briefly imprisoned in Dublin for leading a campaign to transfer the children of poor Irish workers to foster homes in England during the Dublin lockout of striking workers. In 1915 and 1916 she worked with Voluntary Aid Detachments and French cooks in the Pas de Calais running ‘Cantines des Dames Anglaises’ for French soldiers resting from the trenches. After the war she was one of the co-founders of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

After the death of her son in 1921 (from the affects of the mustard gassing he had suffered while serving on the Western Front during the First World War), she joined his widow and children in Australia. In the summer of 1924 she attended the Moscow International Congress as a delegate of the Australian Communist Party. In 1927 she published her autobiography, From a Victorian to a Modern.

Towards the end of her life Dora moved to Crowborough and then Bexhill and Hastings for her health. She died in 1933 at the age of 83, and was cremated at Golders Green, Middlesex.

Thanks to marxists.org, Spartacus.net, and David Broad’s account of his grandmother’s ‘Siege’…

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London radical history: the Hebrew Socialist Union founded, Spitalfields, 1876

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

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

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

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

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

As a result, a lively and active socialist and trade unionist scene was to grow in the East End, especially in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. It was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the baker. A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

But a core Jewish community was already living in the East End, having begun to coalesce in the 1870s, even before these forced migrations, and socialism was already leavening within it…

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

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

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

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

Aaron Lieberman left for America, where he was sadly to kill himself in 1880; but he had in fact proved an important influence on the growing Jewish socialist movement in Russia, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe through his writings in the journal Vperyod, which helped form Jewish socialist movements in those countries.

And brief as its life had been, the Hebrew Socialist Union had laid some foundations for the movements of Jewish radicals, socialists, anarchists, and trade unionists, which continued for decades. Jews formed the basis of East End tailors unions, the movements against sweating in the clothing trades, the groups around the papers Poilishe Yidel and Arbeter Fraint, and thus of the strong East End anarchist movement before World War 1, and later of the Jewish membership, a vital strand in the Communist Party long into the 20th Century. 

Tis always worth reading: William Fishman’s classic East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914… and  Anne J. Kershen‘s Uniting the Tailors: Trade Unionism Amongst the Tailoring Workers of London and Leeds, 1870-1939 is also worth checking out.

For a righteous modern Jewish radical organisation get on down to Jewdas

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s entrepreneurial history: ‘pretend weavers’ get in some collective aggressive begging, 1765.

In the 1760s, the silk weavers of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green were engaged in a protracted multi-fronted struggle, sparked by a fierce slump in their trade, widespread smuggling of fine cloth, and social and technological change in silk production. The disturbance and agitation around silk work involved vertical cross-class industry lobbying for protectionist measures to be imposed to support the trade, but also vicious class warfare between masters and journeymen, over wage levels and increasing mechanisation which was driving down pay and conditions. The second of these was complicated by attacks by hand loom weavers on some using newer machine looms, and vice versa.

All these struggles involved high levels of organised violence; on several occasions through the decade huge demonstrations filled the city, attacking Parliament and targeting ministers seem to be blocking the silkweavers’ interests; at other times secret clubs, proto-unions, formed armed gangs to sabotage the work of employers deemed to be paying too little, and of workers considered to be ‘rate-breakers’.

Amidst the ebb and flow of weavers’ aggro, with their economic hardship and their collective protest the talking point of London, some elements, most likely from a – class? caste? layer? – a couple of degrees lower of the social scale thought this was an opportunity to make a little cash:

‘Upwards of 500 fellows assembled in a riotous manner near Battle Bridge, the bottom of Grays Inn Lane, and insulted several persons, both on foot and horseback, passing by, from many of whom they extorted money; they pretended to be weavers, but it appeared at length that no weavers were among them.” Gentleman’s Magazine, 19th May 1765.

On the face of it (and this is pretty much all we know), this seems like a bit of sharp practice from what was seen loosely as the fraternity of beggars, villains and slum-dwellers, the inhabitants of London’s rookeries. Only a few days before, for several days, the East End silkweavers had besieged parliament, demanding new tariffs on imported cloths that were undercutting the silk manufacturing trade. Crowds of weavers had roughed up anti-protectionist ministers and aristos, and attacked the house of the Duke of Bedford, a leading politico and seen as the main mover in refusing to pass measures aiding the weavers. Why not get in on the act, while sympathy among some Londoners for the weavers’ economic plight was high, and while the authorities were to some extent on the back foot, dealing with angry crowds…?

Extortion is as old as the hills, and collective extortion of the wealthy by the less well off a long-established tradition. In the 18th century social crime was at a high level. If anti-social crime can be summed up as robbing everyone without any pretence of attempt at class consciousness or consideration of whether they are better off or worse off than yourself – then you could describe social crime as the poor stealing from the rich, knowingly helping themselves; for many, poaching, smuggling, but just as much pick-pocketting, burglary and other forms of robbery, could not only be a means of survival in a time of vast inequalities of wealth, upheaval and industrial development, enclosure of land… Poachers, for instance, often saw themselves as taking back what was fenced off and denied them, but had once been ‘all men’s birthright’. Smuggling was considered almost victimless, by virtually all classes – united in enjoying both the cheaper goods and thumbing your nose at hated government regulations…

Of course, some of the optimistic glow around ‘social crime’ is also to some extent backwards projection on the part of us modern types. We like the idea of Robin Hood because the myths built up around him play to our own prejudices. Highwaymen, for instance, are dashing figures when described by your history walk leaders, dandies with fine manners freewheeling through the woods, Adam Ant taking your purse but kissing your giggly hand… Whereas in reality blokes like Dick Turpin were nasty fuckers. Turpin, for instance, was probably a grass, maybe a psycho, definitely a bastard who would never have hung if he hadn’t shot a neighbour’s pet cockerel in a rage (so an animal abuser as well!)

The ‘500 fellows’ who exploited the silk-weavers struggle for a quick buck – 500? really? I bet it was less. Rumour only expands numbers when it comes to a ruck. ‘Pretending to be weavers… no weavers were amongst them?’ How does the writer know? Were any arrested? Interviewed? The journo definitely got down into the crowd and did a sociological survey – not. It is possibly true – but also possible that some weavers or ex-weavers, apprentices even, were among this crowd. On balance, artisans like the silk-weavers considered themselves to be a cut above your casual labourer or rookery-dweller, but the line between regular work, irregular employment, and crime was thin, and easily broken where wages were low, trade was seasonal or easily disrupted, where mechanisation was changing the expectations of solid employment at one trade for life. A fair number of silk weavers, or their partners, or their children, ended on the gallows at Tyburn, through the century, having turned to robbery in desperation. For many in the 1760s, a decade of depression, high food prices and political and trade upheaval, social mobility was all one way – down. And we know that at least one group of silk-weavers went from organising to maintain wage levels, to violent warfare against their employers, ending in a protection racket. The ‘cutters’ of the Conquering and Bold Defiance, a society of East End weavers, began by slashing the silk on looms where the accepted wage rates for piece-work were not being paid. By 1768 they had refined this to threatening employers, extracting a levy on the masters: be a shame if this nice silk got cut, guvnor, how about a quid for the weavers’ benevolence fund…

And why not? Overwhelming force was always there the other way, organised and collective ruling class expropriation of the land, the wealth created by the workers and peasants, was ingrained and constant. The terror of the gallows, the prospect of hanging for theft of a tiny amount (say, for nicking a silk hankie), the shadow of Newgate – violence was being used to discipline the lower orders into accepting new and harsher social relations. Some comeback on that was only fair… To get together, pretend to be poor weavers and then basically engage in a bit of mass aggressive begging, shows intelligence and cunning – it’s what you need to survive, duck and dive, think up a scam, carry it out, move on to another…

And it wasn’t the last time… mass class struggle opens up avenues for what some more straitlaced lefties might consider ‘lumpen’ elements to get a slice of the action. During the winter of discontent, when the lorry drivers strike was paralysing road transport, as mass pickets blocked roads across Britain – somewhere in Scotland, “a kind of drunken, beer can ‘collective’ of semi-alkies spread across a road and, on the tap, took some money from working drivers in imitation of the pickets!” 

We’ll drink to that…

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For more on the silk-weavers of London’s East End, their struggles and especially the 1760s, see Bold Defiance

On the Winter of Discontent: To Delightful Measures Changed

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London legal history: a jury finds the killing of a copper to be ‘Justifiable Homicide’, 1833.

On the repression of a radical rally, the killing of a policeman, and the inquest verdict… with a digression to take in recently exposed former spycop Andy Coles. Oh yes, there’s a link. 

In May 1833, the National Union of the Working Classes called a mass open air meeting, to be held on Monday 13th May to take place on Coldbath Fields, now the site of Mount Pleasant sorting office, at the junction of Rosebery Avenue and Farringdon Road. The meeting would end in a police attack on the crowd, the stabbing of a policeman, and a controversial inquest verdict…

When the Metropolitan Police were first formed, and first took to the streets in 1829, they were widely reviled. It was a time of rising working class protest and organisation. For 60 years movements had been building for reform of the class-biased political system years, and were reaching a peak; both middle class and working class organisations were pressing for reform. However, for decades a strand of radical and insurgent thinking had run through working class politics – a large minority of activists not only felt they had the right to political representation, but that the working class would not achieve it through peaceful lobbying or petitioning. Violent repression of rallies like Peterloo in 1819; government crackdowns and laws to band protest, radical papers and speeches; a network of police spies and agent provocateur/saboteurs burrowing into reforming groups to destroy and divide them…

Many thought opposition such as this could only be overcome by an armed seizure of power. A much wider group of radicals thought armed self-defence against attacks by the militia or constables was justified.

Regularly targeted by the authorities, radical activists were from the start suspicious the ‘New Police’ would be another weapon used against them. And were to be proved right.

But even beyond radical movements, the majority of working class people in many of the rapidly growing cities, especially London, saw the police as a threat; knowing, that the police were being set up to control them in the defence of property, and hating them for it. From the start the Constabulary’s were abused and attacked in the street, labelled with such fun nicknames as ‘Raw Lobsters’, ‘Blue Devils’ and ‘Peel’s Bloody Gang’. Early officers were physically assaulted, others impaled, blinded, and on one occasion one was held down while a vehicle was driven over him.

While the Police had a wider brief to get the teeming industrialised masses under control, radicals and political reformers WERE specifically on their radar. And in particular, the insurgent wing, and its potential to attract support from the very poor, and the shifting hydra that was labeled the ‘London Mob’.

In 1833 the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) was close to the top of the New Police’s list of concerns. The NUWC had arisen as an alliance of groups of London trade unionists, many of whom were also sympathetic to the ideas of the co-operator 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 get together and do things for themselves: some in the NUWC said the workers should organise themselves separately, in their own movements and unions. In London their support was mainly among artisans, who had formed the backbone of the capital’s 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.

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.

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. NUWC stalwart William 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 radical elements came to the fore, launching a 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).

By May 1833 there had been three years of intense campaigning, riots, the Reform Bill, with the sense of betrayal of working people that it brought; there had been abortive plots to gather and launch armed revolt. The splits over the use of force and what kind of society was envisaged had weakened the NUWC; many of the ‘moderates’ had left. But the remaining elements of the organisation were determined to keep up the pressure… Some were arming, and drilling in preparation for an uprising.

A NUWC rally was announced for May 13th on Coldbath Fields in Clerkenwell, and was seen by some as a first step towards a revolutionary seizure of power. Resolutions for the rally included proposals for seizing the bank of England and the Tower of London… This was naïve; but the overconfidence on the radical side was mirrored by a fear in government circles. There was a determination to put down the radicals. The upcoming rally on Coldbath Fields was seen as a ripe chance, and the police were prepared to smash the rally by force. The meeting was banned, which led many not already distancing themselves from the NUWC to withdraw.

However on the day itself, several thousand still attended the demo. While the NUWC committee sat in the Union Tavern [still a pub today on King’s Cross Road], people began assembling outside in Coldbath fields, including a body from the NUWC with a banner reading ‘Death or Liberty’. Meanwhile large numbers of police were assembling in Grays Inn Road from where they were deployed in stableyards around Coldbath Fields. At around 3pm the committee left the tavern to address the assembly, by now between one and two thousand strong. The chairman had barely started speaking when the cry of ‘Police’ went up from the crowd. The police, between 1700 and 3000 in number, had formed up across Calthorpe Street before advancing on the meeting, while others came up another side street. In the words of the Gentleman’s Magazine the police having ‘completely surrounded the actors and spectators of the scene…commenced a general and indiscriminate attack on the populace inflicting broken heads alike on those who stood and parleyed and those who endeavoured to retreat’. New Bell’s Weekly Messenger also writes of the police attacking those assembled: ‘The Police came on and used their staves pretty freely…many heads were broken.’

During the assault three policeman were stabbed; PC Culley ‘ran about thirty yards and upon reaching the Calthorpe Arms [still a pub today on Gray’s Inn Rd] he seized the barmaid by the wrist and exclaimed “Oh, I am very ill”’. These were his dying words. One man, George Fursey, was sent for trial on the charge of murdering PC Culley and wounding PC Brooks. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

There then followed a local inquest on the death of PC Culley; it was convened in an upstairs room of the same Calthorpe Arms, close to the site of the demonstration. The inquest jury of seventeen men consisted largely of bakers from the Grays Inn neighbourhood. Summing up, the coroner called upon the jury to return a verdict of wilful murder. The jury retired and after half an hour sent a message to the coroner saying that sixteen of them were agreed on a verdict condemnatory of the police. The coroner protested and urged them to reconsider. A short while later their final verdict was delivered:

‘We find a verdict of justifiable homicide on these grounds; that no riot act was read, nor any proclamation advising the people to disperse, that the Government did not take the proper precautions to prevent the meeting from assembling; and we moreover express our anxious hope that the Government will in future take better precautions to prevent the recurrence of such disgraceful transactions in the metropolis.’

Reading between the lines, it appears that the jury’s view was that the demonstrators were deliberately penned in and ambushed by the police.

Again the coroner protested, locking them in the juryroom to try to change their minds, but the jury remained firm and insisted on their verdict; he could dismiss them and appoint another jury but their verdict would stand. They said that they were neither in favour of the meeting nor against the police, just the way the police behaved. As the foreman put it: ‘Mr Coroner we are firmly of the opinion that if they had acted with moderation the deceased would not have been stabbed.’

Local people evidently thought no expense should be spared in celebrating this popular victory; “When the inquest ended small impromptu torchlit processions carried the jurors to their respective homes. The Milton Street Committee arranged a free trip up the Thames to Twickenham for them. In July it was a free trip to the London Bridge Theatre to see A Rowland for Oliver. Each member of the jury was presented with a pewter medallion which bore the inscription ‘In honour of men who nobly withstood the dictation of a coroner; and by the judicious, independent and conscientious discharge of their duty promoted a continued reliance upon the laws under the protection of a British jury’. Funds were raised for a memorial. On the first anniversary of the verdict a procession took place from the Calthorpe Arms to St Katherine’s Dock. It was led by a specially commissioned banner, the funds for which had been raised by a Mr Ritchie, the landlord of the Marquess of Wellesley in Cromer Street, Grays Inn Lane. After reaching St Katherine’s Dock the procession boarded the Royal Sovereign for a return trip to Rochester, complete with free food and drink. A pewter cup was presented to the foreman of the jury with the inscription ‘…as a perpetual memorial of their glorious verdict of justifiable homicide on the body of Robert Culley, a policeman, who was slain while brutally attacking the people when peacefully assembled in Calthorpe Street on 13th May 1833’.”

Despite the wave of support for the jurors, the attack spelled the end for the NUWC, which began to fall apart. However, its influence helped give birth to Chartism. Both the London Working Man’s Association and the London Democratic Association emerged from same groups, neighbourhoods and individuals in London as the Union, and they were crucial in kickstarting Chartism in the late 1830s. But the NUWC’s inherent divisions over class, whether workers could co-operate with the middle class, over the use of persuasion and campaigning, or force, over the ultimate aim (just equality? or power for the workers as a class?), were inherited by the larger later movement, and continued to divide Chartism throughout its existence… And are indeed questions alive and kicking in our own movements and struggles today…

Postscript 1: Both the the Union Tavern, where the NUWC Committee met, and the Calthorpe Arms, where the inquest was held, are not only still a pub today, but has had more recent radical associations. London Class War used to meet in the Union Tavern in the 1990s, and a number of anarchist and anti-capitalist events and actions were planned upstairs at the Calthorpe in the 2000s, in the same room the jury held out in.

Postscript 2: (Bear with me. It makes sense in the end )

The government of the day, and the police acting to destroy the NUWC rally, had been greatly aided by the spies they sent in to infiltrate, report on and if possible disrupt the movement, and other radical groupings. This was a huge industry, even then, though many were informers, not specifically policemen. In our own time, we are still facing the issue of police penetration of community and activist groups, political movements and campaigns for justice and accountability (most notably for people killed by racists, and in police custody). However, long years of investigations by activists have uncovered the highly trained undercover police officers who have spied on us, lived with us for several years, and in many cases preyed on activists sexually, some fathering children. Police units like the Special Demonstration Squad, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit have spent billions gathering info on activists, attempting to provoke actions that can then lead to arrests, and encouraging abuse of women and miscarriages of justice. Now they are spending millions more obstructing any substantial process in the Undercover Policing Inquiry set up after public outrage became too angry to ignore.

But if they won’t tell activists who spied on us and release our Special Branch files to us, we will continue to uncover the undercovers ourselves. And here is where another strange echo of the early 1830s crops up. Just four days ago another ex-spycops was exposed – Andy Coles, once known as Andy Davey, when he infiltrated the animal rights movement in the 1990s. A man known to this writer.

Coles sexually exploited at least one woman, then aged 19, leading to a relationship; though he also launched unwanted advances on others. But since vanishing from South London animal rights circles in 1994, he had risen, oh he’s risen. He has become a Conservative councillor in Peterborough. A school governor. An expert on child protection and best of all, Deputy Police & Crime Commissioner for Cambridgeshire. Well the last until today, when he was forced to resign after the outrage at his grooming of a teenager into a sexual relationship forced him out. ‘Jessica’, the woman he abused, is now to sue the Metropolitan Police for colluding in her being groomed.

However, bizarrely, Coles fancies himself as a writer. He pens meaningful political poetry – of a quality that only be described as ‘McGonagallite‘. And he did have plans to write a novel, provisionally titled However Roguish a Man, though this may have been shelved. The subject: undercover policing as used against the radicals of early 1830s London! Strange that this should surface on this anniversary of the practical commonsense of a London jury recognising police provocation for what it was, eh, Mr Coles?

The plot summary is masterful, and so apt, drawn from Andy’s own exciting past:

“The working title for my novel about political unrest and policing in the era of the Reform Act 1832, when revolution was on the air and the great stink of London was just discovering the necessary inconvenience of being policed by an organised group of “Raw Lobsters”.

Beginning in the 1820’s, rural poverty was driving agricultural labourers to violence, burning hayricks and threatening the landowners and farmers who were turning to the new threshing machines instead of manual labour. Captain Swing letters abound and the wealthy are in fear of their lives.

At the same time a coal meter in Yarmouth finds his income is halved and the job he bought for 70 guineas no longer provides the annual income he needs to keep his wife and children. Looking for a new start he travels to London and is recruited into the Metropolitan Police.

The government needs to know what is going on in the new poor areas of London. Is riot and insurrection coming to the shores of Great Britain from the stews of Paris? Will the new King be deposed through bloody revolt? Fearful for the monarchy and the rule of the privileged classes in power, reform of the political system is contemplated by radicals and reformers, but bitterly resisted by traditionalists and those in rotten boroughs who will lose their seats in Parliament.

The Home Secretary demands that the New Police provide information on the new political unions that are springing up, and the Commissioners, Rowan and Mayne, depute divisional Superintendents to send men to the meetings to find out what is going on.

This is the story of one of these officers who penetrated a radical organisation, and what happened to him as a result.”

Whether Andy Coles has managed to work on what promises to be a fine historical epic recently, we aren’t sure – however, with the storm breaking about him, one post gone, and others surely soon to follow, he may get more free time to work on it. Since we are also very interested in the subject of police infiltration of radical movements, both down to our personal experience, and our studies of history, we await the appearance of However Roguish a Man. With baited breath.

PPS: Later the same evening I published this, Andy Coles took his writing blog down. Possibly misinterpreting our literary criticism. Mysteriously, the Peterborough Writers Circle, where Andy claimed to have first read his fine poem Aleppo, has also had its blog taken down simultaneously! Wasn’t a one-man band was it?

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Yesterday and today, in London history: Dockers refuse to load munitions for anti-Soviet forces, 1920.

When World War 1 came to an end, in November 1918, there were millions of men in uniform across Europe. After the initial nationalist fervour and pro-war enthusiasm that had seen mass enlistment in the first year or two, the war fever had largely abated. Mass slaughter, the stalemate of trench warfare, the horrors of soldiers’ experience – trauma, disease, cold, horrific wounds, as well as vicious military discipline, punishment of those who refused orders, were unable to fight any more… Many of those on the many fronts across the continent had been conscripted.

After over 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded, all most of those in the respective armies wanted to do was go home. Long years of fighting had largely engendered a widespread cynicism and disillusion – with the war aims, with the high command, with pro-war propaganda…

Out of this war-weariness, and inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, (itself a product of army mutinies and revolts from a population enraged by the privation and poverty the war had aggravated), French and British army mutinies had erupted in 1917-18. Revolts, mutinies and uprisings among her allies left Germany mostly fighting alone by the beginning of November, and German mutinies had played a major part in Germany’s decision to open talks about ending the war with the allies…

But celebrations of peace were somewhat premature. And the British government, for one, was determined not to end the fighting, but to carry on the war – but against former ally, Russia.

After the October Revolution had overthrown the liberal government there, the new Bolshevik government had fulfilled one of the main aims of the revolution – to pull Russia out of the war.

This in itself enraged France and Britain, as it left Germany free to move large forces to the western front. But the overthrow of tsarism and then the bourgeois Kerensky government, and the beginnings of social revolution across Russia, also scared the pants off governments worldwide. And the leading allied nations were among the most worried. What if workers across Britain took Russia as an example? There had already been a huge upsurge in workplace organising, strikes, and social struggles as the war progressed… The British and French establishments were determined not only that radicals inspired by the Soviet upsurge be repressed, but to organise military intervention in Russia, to support the anti-revolutionary forces already fighting a civil war there, and if possible help them restore a more acceptable regime and crush working class power.

By this time of course, in Russia itself, the processes were already at work that would hamstring working class control and produce a Bolshevik dictatorship which would largely destroy any real communist potential within 3 years… However, it was all one to the western powers.

Plans to mobilise some of the millions conveniently still under orders and turn them against Russia were already underway long before the Armistice between Germany and the Allied powers was signed on 11 November.

An agreement had been drawn up in December 1917 between France, Italy and Britain to act against the Bolshevik regime, subsidise its opponents, and prepare ‘as quietly as possible’ for war on them.

Between February and November, British troops had already been sent to invade parts of Russia. Clauses within the peace agreement itself make it clear that troops were to be moved across Europe to the east, and ensured that free access to the Baltic and Black Sea for French and British navies would ease plans to invade Russian territory.

And immediately after the ‘peace’, plans were stepped up, along with a concerted propaganda campaign against ‘bolshevism’ in the press, designed to whip up support for military intervention.

But the plans involved reckoning on thousands of soldiers as pawns, and that British workers would have no view or no say in the matter. This was to be a serious miscalculation.

In the early months of 1919, there were still over a million British soldiers still in uniform, some in France but many more in army camps in this country. Many were expecting immediate demobilisation now the war was over; this expectation turned to frustration and then to eruptions of protest. Attempts to delay demobilization in order to facilitate intervention in Russia were certainly going on, but bureaucratic delays and simple problems of scale were also for sure causing backlogs and a slow process of sending soldier home. But in January 1919, a number of mutinies, protests and demonstrations in army camps in southern England and around London, demanding immediate demobilisation, broke out, causing serious alarm in government circles; especially as industrial unrest was increasing. Mutinies, links between discontent in the armed forces and on the home front had led to the Russian Revolution and to revolutionary uprisings still then raging in Germany, Hungary and elsewhere… The soldiers’ protests led to a swift acceleration of demobilisation, in order to scotch further rebellion in the ranks.

It also did make the government think more carefully about conscripting soldiers into an intervention force for sending to Russia. Clearly squaddies were not necessarily going to be happy to be pawns this time. Public opinion in Britain was also heavily against intervention in Russia…

The soldiers strikes of January certainly scotched the idea that a mass military force could be sent to help smash the Russian Revolution. But it wasn’t the end of the British government’s plans to support the ‘white’ armies fighting against the Bolsheviks.

And just as soldiers put their twopennorth in, organised workers would also have something to say on the matter.

From the early days following the Russian Revolution, British socialists of various stripe were enthused by the idea that workers were taking control of a major world power, and inspired by the thought of this spreading worldwide. The clear attempt by the British authorities to aid in smashing the revolution (while at the same time coming down hard against strikes and socialist movements here) drew fierce opposition from the British left.

In early 1919 the Hands Off Russia movement was born, an umbrella group uniting almost all sections of a (usually fairly fractious) left, to build resistance from within to any military campaign against Russia.

In fact, it united the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party, the Industrial Workers of the World (the British version of the famous ‘Wobblies’), the London Workers’ Committee (the capital’s equivalent of the Clyde Workers’ Committee – the shop steward-based organisers of the Red Clydeside era) and Sylvia Pankhurst’s (anti-parliamentary communist) Workers’ Socialist Federation A great deal of support was also given by George Lansbury’s Daily Herald (left labour) and its associated Herald Leagues, also then at their height.

As well as vigorous campaigning, some in the movement recognised that large amounts of munitions and other materials were likely to be needed for any Russian war. Even after the authorities reluctantly drew back from sending large forces of men to fight, they promised arms and other military supplies to the white Russian armies. This would have to be transported through the docks.

The Hands Off Russia movement involved lots of trade unionists and socialist activists: and especially in London, they had strong links with dockworkers in the East End; socialism and unionism was strong in the docks, and dockers were particularly militant around this time. The Hands Off Russia Campaign made a point of holding meetings around the docks, not just because there was a good receptive audience, but because these were workers who might be able to actually hold up the supply of munitions to the Russian reactionaries:

“Many of the comrades could be seen outside the London docks and shipyards selling ‘Hands Off Russia’ literature and our members were also selling inside. Day after day we posted up placards, stick backs and posters on the dockside, in ships and lavatories.” (Harry Pollitt)

Harry Pollitt, later Communist Party supremo, then a member of the Workers Socialist Federation, was an East End socialist activist, involved in this campaign. According to Pollitt after Lenin’s ‘Appeal to the Toiling Masses’, a call for international solidarity with the Soviet state – reprinted in Sylvia Pankhurst’s paper, the Workers Dreadnought, but banned by the Home Office – he kept hundreds of copies inside his mattress to avoid seizure if he was raided. Pankhurst handed out 1000s of copies around the docks and the East End. Pollitt credits Melvina Walker, a leading WSF member, as an important and tireless propagandist in the agitation against intervention: “She toiled like a Trojan. If on a shopping morning you went down Chrisp Street, Poplar, you could rely upon seeing Mrs. Walker talking to groups of women, telling them about Russia, how we must help them, and asking them to tell their husbands to keep their eyes skinned to see that no munitions went to help those who were trying to crush the Russian Revolution.”

The campaign slowly built up, including a one-day strike against intervention in summer 1919, co-ordinated with workers in other western countries, though only patchily supported. British aid to the reactionary forces continued. But subversive efforts to sabotage this process were at work…

In February 1920, Hands Off Russia meetings were widely reporting rumours recently printed in the Workers Dreadnought (though originally hailing from the German communist paper Rote Fahne) that the recent defeat of the white Russian reactionary general Yudenich had partly been due to the fact that British guns supplied to his forces had had parts removed – by workers in British armaments factories.

In March and April, learning that barges in the London docks were being loaded with munitions destined for ships bound to supply anti-Soviet forces, Hands Off Russia activists approached dockers to ask them not to load them. According to Pollitt, they seemed to ignore his pleas.. but an old docker approached him and told him not to worry. As the barges reached the ships in the North Sea, several cable ‘mysteriously snapped’, and much of the cargo was lost in the sea!

This was the immediate prelude to the best known action around this issue – the dockers refusal to load munitions on the Jolly George, in May 1920.

On 10 May, as the ship Jolly George was being loaded with a cargo labeled ‘OHMS Munitions for Poland’ in the East India Dock. Poland was at war with the Soviets and Polish armies had advanced deep into the Ukraine. The dockers at work there realised it was destined for the white Russian Armies. By this time, much of the guns had gone on board; but the coalheavers refused to stock the ship up with coal, unless the munitions were removed. While this situation led to a stand-off on the dockside, a deputation of dockers went to visit the Dockers’ Union general Secretaries, Ernest Bevin and Fred Thompson, and received assurances that the union would back a strike if the cargo remained on board.

The following day, the export branch of the Dock, Wharf and Riverside General Workers Union passed a resolution calling on the Transport Workers Federation and the Labour Party to support them in preventing the Jolly George from sailing… The Jolly George could not sail. Four days later the munitions were unloaded back onto the docks.

The dockers were not necessarily all in sympathy with communism, though many were inclined to some form of socialism. The Hands Off Russia had, however, tapped into a general feeling of revulsion at the idea of further warfare, and a sense that any cause the government was supporting was worth opposing… Without a doubt, the January 1919 mutinies and the campaign against the shipping of munitions helped to prevent the smashing of the Soviet Union (even if the dreams and aspirations of the Russia workers were soon to be channelled into the dead ends of repression, the Kronstadt massacre, state capitalism, Lenin, Stalin and 70 years of gulag and betrayal… Interestingly, the Jolly George incident was long-remembered in the Soviet Union -commemorated by the stamp shown at the beginning of this post, printed in 1970).

For the moment, though, the actions of the dockers in May 1920 struck a blow that had huge significance.

According to Harry Pollitt, as the unloaded cases of munitions sat on the dock, on May 15th, “on the side of one case is a very familiar sticky-back, ‘Hands Off Russia!’ It is very small, but that day it was big enough to be read all over the world.”

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London transport history: 20,000 busworkers strike, over planned privatising of some routes, 1987.

Plans for an attempt to introduce private tendering on some London bus routes, linked to plans for major cuts scheduled to take place over the following five years, sparked a 24-hour bus strike, on May 10th, 1987, in which 20,00 bus workers took part. The Thatcher government’s decision to open up London’s bus routes to private operators was a part of the comprehensive campaign to offload state-administered industries and infrastructure wholesale onto the private sector. Now, of course, mostly achieved, but in 1987, still a battleground whose outcome was uncertain.

Workers on London’s buses, as elsewhere, were aware that an essential element of this was an attack on wages and conditions – crews working longer hours for less money. This was the only way a bus service was likely to be profitable and thus attractive to the private sector. In London, however, services were not entirely deregulated, as they were elsewhere (under the 1985 Transport Act) – contracts to run a number of routes were basically up for auction for a specified term. For a number of reasons related to London’s position as capital, population, economy, this model was judged more appropriate than the wild west approach allowed to open up in the rest of the country (which led to chaos at bus stops, and, eventually, huge price rises in some cities).

The process of privatising London’s buses began with the creation of London Bus Ltd, which immediately began reducing wages and increasing hours. As one bus-driver, Graham Burnell recalled:

“I was a driver at Kingston and Norbiton garages from 1975 until 1990 … Unfortunately in June 1987 Norbiton became the first London bus garage to become a low cost unit where all routes were put out to tender and were won by reducing the drivers’ pensionable pay to £3.20 per hour whilst the London fleet rate was £4.17 per hour. We were also given decrepit vehicles to drive and the 39 hours week became 45 hours. Instead of the economical operation of a garage each end of the route i.e. Sutton and Norbiton, the tender trap meant all buses must come from one operator and consequently Norbiton ran empty buses to and from Sutton and West Croydon as positioning journeys whereas previously all buses ran in service. Our pay cut helped pay for this uneconomic operation.”

During the strike, an arson attack destroyed a double decker bus in Shepherds Bush Bus Garage.

The dispute continued to trigger stoppages and protests for several days after the one-day strike. On May 22nd, 20,000 workers were called at short notice to their garages for emergency meetings by their union, paralyzing most bus transport in the capital.

There were further bus strikes throughout the summer that year: on 21st August buses in the Norbiton area were again hit by strikes against the proposed competitive tendering as 2300 engineers stopped work.

None of which prevented the tendering process taking root. Undeniably, from the perspective of bus workers, in the years since, wages have been reduced. Employees are required to work longer hours, the infrastructure has been damaged (large numbers of bus garages have been closed down and replaced by depots with “third world” facilities). Technological changes first wiped out conductors completely since 1987, resulting in a more isolating, stressful and sometimes dangerous job for drivers. However, statistically, the tendering approach, as opposed to the fuller de-regulation applied in the UK more widely, has been associated with a rise in the numbers using buses, and in the general profitability of the contracts. This may well have something to do with the economic uniqueness of London as compared to almost everywhere else.

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Reports on some more recent strikes among London bus workers can be found here

……. here 

……………..here

……………………….here

……………………………..and here……

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s conspiratorial history: Thomas Blood tries to nick the crown jewels, 1671.

We all used to learn at school how Thomas Blood tried to steal the crown jewels from the Tower of London in 1671. But strangely, this is only the tip of the iceberg of this mysterious man’s story…

Thomas Blood (also known as Thomas Ayliffe, and Thomas Allen) was probably born around 1618, the son of an Irish blacksmith.

Not much is known about his early life. The first that is really known is that he was involved in the English Civil War on the parliamentary side, where he appears to have been involved in espionage. He was rewarded for his services with large estates in Ireland (very likely seized from rebels or pro-royalist forces during the Cromwell’s campaign of genocide and repression there), and was appointed a member of a Commission of the Peace.

However, when the monarchy was restored in 1660, Blood lost his lands and his position, like many another parliamentarian veteran. He began to associate with plots against the restored king:

“Upon associating a little with the malcontents, he found his notions exactly justified, and that there was a design on foot for a general insurrection, which was to be begun by surprising the castle of Dublin, and seizing the person of the Duke of Ormond, then Lord Lieutenant. Into this scheme he entered without any hesitation; and though many of the persons involved in the dangerous undertaking were much his superiors in rank, yet he was very soon at the head of the affair, presided in all their councils, was the oracle in all their projects, and generally relied on in the execution of them. But, on the very eve of its execution the whole conspiracy, which had been long suspected, was discovered, His brother-in-law, one Lackie, a minister, was, with many others, apprehended, tried, convicted, and executed; but Blood made his escape, and kept out of reach, not withstanding the Duke of Ormond and the Earl of Orrery laboured to have him secured, and a proclamation was published by the former, with the promise of an ample reward for apprehending him.”

Escaping to Holland, Blood made contact with former republicans, exiled opponents of king Charles, and remnants of the Fifth Monarchy movement. The 1660s and 1670s saw a number of plots and conspiracies, plans for uprisings or assassinations. But most of them were heavily penetrated by spies working for the English government, and Blood realised this early on. He fled to Scotland, where he again became involved in a planned rising against the king in 1666, but this was disastrously routed by soldiers, and Blood had to flee again.

Blood next surfaces in an attempt to kidnap the powerful Duke of Ormonde, an Irish aristo, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, at Dublin Castle, who had already marked him down as being involved in the earlier Irish plot. Blood’s plan was to seize Ormonde from his carriage while he drove through London:

He actually put his design in execution on 6th of December, 1670, and very nearly succeeded… The terrified Duke was pulled from the coach by Blood and an accomplice and thrown onto the horse of another henchman – who rode as far as Tyburn before the cry went up that the nobleman had been kidnapped. Ormonde was dragged from his coach, bound to one of Blood’s henchmen, and taken on horseback along Piccadilly with the intention of hanging him at Tyburn. The gang pinned a paper to Ormonde’s chest spelling out their reasons for his capture and murder. However one of his servants gave chase on horseback, and with his help Ormonde succeeded in freeing himself and escaped.

However Blood was not recognised, and “himself and his associates escaped, though closely pursued. An account of this transaction was immediately published by authority, together with a Royal Proclamation, offering a reward of one thousand pounds for apprehending any of the persons concerned.”

This brings us to the event in 1671 for which Blood is best remembered; the theft of the Crown Jewels.

“He proposed to those desperate persons who assisted him in his former attempt to seize and divide amongst them the Royal Insignia of Majesty kept in the Tower of London —- viz. the crown, globe, sceptre and dove —- and as they were blindly devoted to his service, they very readily accepted the proposal, and left it to him to contrive the means of putting it into execution. He devised a scheme of putting himself into the habit of a Doctor of Divinity, with a little band, a long false beard, a cap with ears, and all the formalities of garb belonging to that degree, except the gown, choosing rather to make use of a cloak, as most proper for his design. Thus habited, he, with a woman whom he called his wife, went to see the curiosities in the Tower; and while they were viewing the regalia the supposed Mrs Blood pretended to be taken suddenly ill, and desired Mr Edwards (the keeper of the regalia) to assist her with some refreshment. Mr Edwards not only complied with this request, but also invited her to repose herself on a bed, which she did, and after a pretended recovery took her leave, together with Blood, with many expressions of gratitude. A few days after, Blood returned and presented Mrs Edwards, the keeper’s wife, with four pairs of white gloves, in return for her kindness. This brought on an acquaintance, which being soon improved into a strict intimacy, a marriage was proposed between a son of Edwards and a supposed daughter of Colonel Blood.

 The night before the 9th of May, 1671, the doctor told the old man that he had some friends at his house who wanted to see the regalia, but that they were to go out of town early in the morning, and therefore hoped he would gratify them with the sight, though they might come a little before the usual hour. [In this enterprise Blood had engaged three accomplices, named Desborough, Kelfy and Perrot.] Accordingly two of them came, accompanied by the doctor, about eight in the morning, and the third held their horses, that waited for them at the outer gate of the Tower ready saddled. They had no other apparatus but a wallet and a wooden mallet, which there was no great difficulty to secrete.

 Edwards received them with great civility, and immediately admitted them into his office; but as it is usual for the keeper of the regalia, when he shows them, to lock himself up in a kind of grate with open bars, the old man had no sooner opened the door of this place than the doctor and his companions were in at his heels, and without giving him time to ask questions, silenced him, by knocking him down with the wooden mallet. They then instantly made flat the bows of the crown to make it more portable, seized the sceptre and dove, put them together into the wallet, and were preparing to make their escape when, unfortunately for them, the old man’s son, who had not been at home for ten years before, returned from sea at the very instant; and being told that his father was with some friends who would be very glad to see him at the Jewel Office, he hastened thither immediately, and met Blood and his companions as they were just coming out, who, instead of returning and securing him, as in good policy they should have done, hurried away with the crown and globe, but not having time to file the sceptre, they left it behind them. Old Edwards, who was not so much hurt as the villains had apprehended, by this time recovered his legs, and cried out murder, which being heard by his daughter, she ran out and gave an alarm; and Blood and Perrot, making great haste, were observed to jog each other’s elbows as they went, which gave great reason for suspecting them. Blood and his accomplices were now advanced beyond the main-guard; but the alarm being given to the warder at the drawbridge, he put himself in a posture to stop their progress. Blood discharged a pistol at the warder, who, though unhurt, fell to the ground through fear; by which they got safe to the little ward-house gate, where one Still, who had been a soldier under Oliver Cromwell, stood sentinel. But though this man saw the warder, to all appearance, shot, he made no resistance against Blood and his associates, who now got over the drawbridge and through the outer gate upon the wharf.

 At this place they were overtaken by one Captain Beckman, who had pursued them from Edwards’s house. Blood immediately discharged a pistol at Beckman’s head; but he stooping down at the instant, the shot missed him, and he seized Blood, who had the crown under his cloak. Blood struggled a long while to preserve his prize; and when it was at length wrested from him he said: “It was a gallant attempt, how unsuccessful soever; for it was for a crown!” Before Blood was taken, Perrot had been seized by another person; and young Edwards, observing a man that was bloody in the scuffle, was about to run him through the body, but was prevented by Captain Beckman.”
(Newgate Calendar)

Locked up in a cell at the Tower, Blood insisted he would speak to no-one about the attempt unless it was the king… Possibly intrigued by this bold request, Charles II did in fact interview him. After this conversation, even more bizarrely, Blood was pardoned, and his confiscated estates restored to him, together with a pension. For a while he hung around the court, apparently high in the king’s favour… This raised eyebrows among many who had come into contact with Blood (especially Ormonde, who was outraged). But had Blood told the king something that helped him escape punishment… threatened an uprising of fifth monarchists in revenge of he was executed? or was Charles just capriciously attracted to the roguish bluster of the Irishman…? It is still unclear and likely to remain so.

Blood survived a number of years, seemingly part of the court, sometimes working for powerful figures, sometimes involved in murky plots. His patron for a while was the Duke of Buckingham, who was seen as an opposition figure within the court, (it has been suggested that Buckingham may have been behind the Ormonde kidnap plot) but Blood fell out with Buckingham, and jailed on charges of libeling him in 1679. Though he managed to get bail, he died shortly after, in August 1680.

Blood clearly had little allegiance to any religion or political group unless it suited his own ends. Was he just an adventurer, but Blood could also have been in the pay of some powerful figure. Many suspected him of being a spy – but a spy for whom? A double agent? He did tend to stay with rebellious groups until they were about to be eradicated or arrested. Perhaps he was always an infiltrator working for the government? In our own time we have seen numerous undercover operatives, involved in political and campaigning groups. And there have been hundreds of government agent provocateurs in the history of radical politics, betraying or even initiating uprisings or rebellious actions so as to destroy and divide movements. Blood could have been one – or he could have been something more complex, somewhere between wide boy, infiltrator and rebel.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London radical history: fighting in Camberwell (and elsewhere) during the General Strike, 1926

In May 1926, nearly 2 million workers all over Britain joined a General strike, called in support of a million miners, locked out by mine-owners for refusing to accept wage cuts of up to 25 per

cent, after the ending of a Government’s coal subsidy. The General Council of the TUC didn’t want to call the Strike, but were pushed into it, afraid that large numbers of workers would take action themselves.

Nine days later, afraid of the losing control of the situation, in the face of massive working class solidarity, the TUC General Council called the Strike off.
The TUC General Council’s policy, of hesitation, lack of preparedness and capitulation, doomed the General Strike to defeat – a defeat that left long echoes. Most immediately, many of the strikers were forced to accept lower wages and worse conditions; union activists were victimised; workplace agreements and union recognition were badly hit by a boss class on the up. The miners in whose support the Strike was called were eventually starved into submission.

A national struggle; reflected, of course, in thousands of local areas, small scale battles and differing conditions on the ground. Locally Trades Councils or Councils of Action co-ordinated the union branches and workers involved in the Strike. Union branches and workplace militants quickly organised picketing, attempting to assert control over food distribution, and transport, to try to paralyse the state.

To take just one locality as an example: in Camberwell, then a metropolitan borough in South London.

Camberwell Borough Council fully supported the Government against the strikers, it was cooperative with the Emergency Powers Act and its functionaries, and it appointed the Treasurer and Town Clerk as the officers in charge of food and fuel. This contrasted with other local boroughs, eg nerighbouring Bermondsey, where a left-wing Labour local Council supported the Strike and refused to co-operate with the Government.

Camberwell Trades Council organized the Strike locally. A letter to the TUC from G.W.Silverside, General Secretary of the Dulwich Divisional Labour Party, reveals some of the activities of the Trades Council as the dispute began. He explains that at a local Labour Party meeting on May 3rd, the first day of the General Strike, it was decided to collect money and distribute literature. Also the question of the possibility of duplication [of leaflets etc] aroseand Mr. Silverside explained that he had been in touch with the Secretary of the Camberwell Trades Council who informs me that there are three duplicators available and that they are prepared to duplicate anything that may be necessary.”

According to a post-Strike Report by the Trades Council: only a fortnight before the strike, [we] obtained a roneo duplicator and a typewriter. When the possibility of a strike loomed up we made three tentative preparations for this eventuality, viz:
(a) We enquired for an office, which we might take for a month as a minimum.
(b) (b) We obtained a lien on a hall where we might have a large meeting and would run no danger of the hall being cancelled by opponents.
(c) We made arrangements for a Committee meeting to be called the day after the general Strike began, if it did so begin. On May Day we thought the importance of demonstrating was sufficient to warrant us paying for a band, banner bearers etc, and for us to give a lead in having a good turn out. This we had organised and we secured a fine response from Camberwell workers. Whilst on route to Hyde Park came the news of the General Strike declaration – truly a fitting send off, thus demonstrating to the rich loafers in the West End out power and solidarity.”

The Strike Committee organised effective picketing of workplaces. Tramwaymen and busmen, who made up 3000 of the 8000 workers affiliated to the trades Council, were solid, as were roadmen of the Borough Council also came out, (bar one depot where men were reported working.) Tillings Bus Co., however, of Peckham, a major local employer, was a black spot: large numbers of police specials were stationed to ensure these buses were never stopped from running.

Reports which came to the Strike office as to the need for pickets were transmitted to the Strike Committee concerned at once by an organised messenger network.

The Trades Council concluded that: “we were not ready. We quickly improvised machinery… Everything had to be found on the spur of the moment, and we rose to the occasion fairly well in our own estimation., considering the difficulties of lack of our own premises, voluntary workers, and having to set up, equip and run an office after the Strike had commenced.”

In the Borough of Camberwell as it was then, two strike bulletins were produced, the Camberwell Strike Bulletin and the Peckham Labour Bulletin – both from Central Buildings, High Street, Peckham.The South London Observer of Saturday May 15th reported that a man was convicted in court of selling the Peckham Labour Bulletin. The paragraph headed “French workers refuse to blackleg” was thought by the court to be provocative. Police Inspector Hider in his evidence stated that it would cause “a certain feeling among certain people”. [A feeling of fear among scabs, possibly?] Inspector Hider also saw copies of the Camberwell Strike Bulletin also produced at Central Buildings on a duplicator by Eddy Jope, who denied any connection with the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’.

There were huge public meetings in support of the strike at Camberwell Green, as well as at Peckham Rye and at the triangle near the Eaton Arms, Peckham. An eye-witness account describes the police activity during a public meeting at Camberwell Green as terrifying. He was ten years old at the time. He had been taken by his father and was standing on the edge of the meeting only to see waves of police with drawn truncheons marching on the people, who broke and ran after repeated baton charges.

There was street fighting in Camberwell between police and strikers and their supporters virtually every day of the strike. On May 5th, strikers halted commercial vehicles in the streets & trashed them. Trams, a vital form of transport in London, were in the main kept off the roads, despite a huge effort to run them by the OMS, the government’s anti-strike corps, manned by middle class volunteers, & backed by police .

Altogether there were 12 attempts to run trams from Camberwell Tram Depot to New Scotland Yard – resulting in crowds of pickets and supporters attacking scab trams, smashing their windows and pushing them back inside, preventing them from running. Newspaper reports that women pickets stopped trams running by putting kids in front of the vehicles seem to be rightwing propaganda spread at the time (by the South London Press, which was resolutely opposed to the Strike) – there is no evidence for it! Not that the South London Press is still producing rightwing propaganda 90 years later. (Oh wait.. it is!)

Buses were also stoned in Camberwell on Saturday 8th May, which despite being the weekend was a day of strike mass activity all over London. Mass meetings were held in many areas, (though in some areas frustrated – as in Victoria Park, occupied by the military to prevent meetings there). In Wandsworth the left wing Councillor Andrews, a member of the Council of Action, was arrested after addressing a meeting at the Prince’s Head pub, Falcon Road. (When the local Council of Action tried to organise a meeting there the following day, the police banned it). On the 8th Strikers were also baton charged by police in Battersea and Paddington; fought the police in Deptford Broadway, (which was ‘rendered impassable by a dense crowd’) and in Lambeth, Sidcup and numerous other areas. There was also fighting in Camden Town in the evening.

Camberwell Borough Guardians (the local bigwigs then responsible for any distribution of benefits) also took a hard line during and after Strike – issued ‘Not Genuinely Seeking Work’ forms to stop strikers getting any relief (the dole).

After the TUC General Council called off the strike, there was confusion in the area, as almost everywhere, people couldn’t believe that some form of victory hadn’t been achieved. Crowds of workers gathered at the Tram Depot, not knowing what to do. Many wanted to continue the Strike and the TUC General Council were widely denounced.

At the end of the Strike Camberwell Trades Council sent £10 to the Miners from the funds collected during the Strike, continued that support as the miners fought on alone after the TUC sellout.

As the scale of the sellout became clear, employers took advantage of the capitulation to drive back against union activists and strip away gains won over years of struggle. Many workers had to sign a form on future conditions of service, hours and wages before being allowed back to work. Some never got their jobs back at all.

Following the defeat of the Strike, the Government brought in the Trades Disputes Act, known as ‘the blacklegs Charter’, which outlawed all General or solidarity strikes and prevented many civil service workers from affiliating to Trades Councils. Camberwell Trades Council formed a Trade Union Defence Committee to oppose the Act – without a lot of success.

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Since the defeat of the General Strike the events of May 1926 have entered into the mythology of the working class and the left in Britain, most notably the  selling out of the miners by a TUC General Council desperate to prevent the Strike from moving out of their control. However, more fundamental problems with the way the strike was run at grassroots level in fact doomed it to end in a government victory. More than simply being a conscious betrayal by the union leadership, the Strike was hamstrung from the start by the nature and structure of the trades councils and union branches, the dedication to the miners’ cause and to the ideal of class solidarity notwithstanding, and by workers’ willingness to remain within these structures.

For a more detailed discussion of how the Strike was lost, and a round-up of local action in London during the Strike, check out Everywhere and Nowhere.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in Publishing history: leftwing tabloid, News On Sunday, launched, 1987.

In the mid-1980s, sick of the right-wing bias of the press, a group of Uk leftwingers decided, instead of complaining about it, they would set up our own newspaper: “a radical, campaigning tabloid that would speak truth to power.”

Thus was the News On Sunday born. It lasted 6 weeks.

Below we reprint an account of the birth and death of News on Sunday, which we have unscrupulously nicked from the Big Flame history blog. Sorry, but theft comes natural. The account does emphasise former Big Flame members’ role in the paper, but others were involved…

“Possibly the most ambitious project to come out of Big Flame was News on Sunday. The aim was to set up a radical campaigning tabloid Sunday newspaper, to challenge the right-wing domination of the media. It was created, and launched on 26th April 1987. We raised £6.5 million. And lost it all in 6 weeks, though continued to publish for a further six months – funded by the TGWU in partnership with the eccentric millionaire Owen Oyston.

The idea came from Ben Lowe, and was first set out in the Big Flame discussion bulletin in 1978. His idea was to go beyond the ambitions of newspapers like Socialist Worker and the Morning Star and establish a paper that was a popular tabloid – selling in the newsagent alongside the mainstream press. His belief was that, if we could establish sales of 100,000, it could be commercially viable. He was to be joined by Alan Hayling (a long-time Big Flame member who had been a TV producer before going to work at Ford on the assembly line), who fronted the project, built alliances and co-ordinated the raising of the funding that made it possible.

By this time Big Flame had dissolved but this was certainly a project inspired by the ideas of BF. Many other projects inspired by left-wing groups did happen then, but News on Sunday was probably unique in the scale of its ambition, as shown by the £6.5 million needed to make it happen.

Alan and Ben brought together a range of people on the left, inspired by the idea of taking on the mainstream media rather than just complaining about it. All working for free, and with no promise of any reward, a rather good pilot edition was produced in the Autumn of 1985.

With persuasive market research – on the basis of the dummy edition – and a strong business plan, Alan persuaded Guinness Mahon (a City of London merchant bank) to take it to the city. But the mainstream City investors could not understand it. “Where do the founders make their money?” was a common question. I don’t think we ever consider making money out of it – not beyond a basic salary. That wasn’t our motivation, we wanted to change the world. To most city investors the lack of a financial incentive was just weird and they were out. (It was the equivalent of going on Dragons Den and asking for a large amount of money, but then saying they could have 100% of the shares.)

I was one of the group known as the Founders (though I stepped down when I was employed on the paper). Although the newspaper was owned by the shareholders, the Founders held a Golden share, designed to protect the values of the paper and prevent a takeover by the likes of Murdoch or Maxwell.

We also, over many months, set down the political charter on which the newspaper was to be based. This was intended as the guiding principles. The idea was that just as every journalist on the Mail knows, almost intuitively, the Mail angle on any story so would any journalist on News on Sunday know the angle to approach news from. In practice, though pinned up around the office, it was largely ignored and people went with their gut feeling – which was sometimes a radical and alternative interpretation and sometimes wasn’t.

The Independent had just succeeded in raising the investment it needed and it always struck me that there was a far less clear gap for that newspaper than for a radical Sunday tabloid. It seemed very unfair that the city had been prepared to back it simply because of the experience and the authority of the management team, but not to back our project. Sadly, they turned out to be right.

The money was raised from trade unions, from individuals and – the majority – from local authority pension funds. To my mind this was the Big Flame approach at its best – building bridges, working imaginatively and with great ambition. And there was no subterfuge. We laid out very clearly, in the Charter, what the paper was about. Core to our argument was that it could only succeed commercially if it was genuinely radical. I always described it as a left-wing version of the Mail on Sunday. I remember Ron Todd (General Secretary of the TGWU, who invested £550,000) questioning the position on Ireland, which called for British withdrawal. He was won round after Alan pointed out that this was exactly what a recent Daily Mirror editorial had called for.

I remember well the party on the night where the offer closed and we had succeeded, we had raised £6.5 million. So many on the left had told us it could not be done but we had worked with the system and raised the money. It was an incredible moment.

If that was the Big Flame approach at its best, we were about to see the approach at its worst. The revolutionary left, Big Flame included, was oppositional. It campaigned against things. We had no experience of organising anything except political struggles. I could check with ArchiveArchie but I doubt there was a single article in the Discussion Bulletin, over more than a decade, on how to manage an organisation.

Shortly after publication, as the crisis hit, a ‘company fireman’ called Roy Barber was called in to sort things out. I remember him being very puzzled. “I get called into companies in crisis and normally I find de-motivated people who are really not very good at their jobs. Here you have highly motivated and talented people – and yet you are heading for bankrupcy.”

Those involved will point to many explanations of what went wrong. Some say it was because John Pilger (involved during the dummy period) was pushed out, some that it was because of his behaviour. Some that we should have been based in London, not Manchester. Some blame Alan Hayling. Some blame Keith Sutton, the man we hired as editor (after he produced the strikers’ Wapping Post during the Times newspaper strike). Some blame the advertising agency with their inflamatory slogan “No tits but a lot of balls”.

I believe we created an environment in which it was impossible to succeed. It was full of endless meetings, back-biting, lack of clear responsibility and a sense of blame if you got things wrong. The debate over “No tits” became so heated that there were groups of people who wouldn’t talk to you if they suspected you of supporting it. You had to watch what you said and who you said it to. It was, with hindsight, what you would expect if you put a group of 80s lefties in charge of running an organisation. And I include myself in that.

When Vanessa Engle (who worked as an editorial assistant at News on Sunday) was producing the BBC2 programme on the newspaper, she asked when I knew it would fail – imagining I would say 26th April 1987, the Sunday of the first issue, when we realised how low the sales were. I replied that it was two months earlier. It was the end of a heated day of meetings when we had decided to pulp £85,000 of posters that were ruled unacceptable. I walked round the block and wept, for I knew then the newspaper could not succeed. It wasn’t even that I liked the posters. But I knew an organisation that was capable of agreeing to commission and spend this amount of money, and then – in its schizophrenic decision-making structure – decide to ditch it, could not succeed.

We, those who set up the newspaper, took over the management and hired a group of journalists. I often think it would have better to do the opposite, to hire a group of managers and take positions as journalists. Many of us knew how to write, as we showed in the dummy. And we knew very clearly the radical angle we wanted to put on the news. We had no idea how to manage.

The result is best expressed in the title of the book about News on Sunday, “Disaster” (by News on Sunday journalists Peter Chippendale and Chris Horrie). The advertising – the TV ads and posters – that survived the internal rows was feeble. An argument with retailers over the % of the cover price they received resulted in lack of enthusiasm on their part. And the paper itself, in my view, lacked the radical political bite that we had envisaged – and had succeeded in producing in the dummy.

The paper only rarely lived up to our hopes and was often hard to distinguish from competitors like the Mirror and the People. I remember one shameful cover story ‘exclusive’ proclaiming that a convicted rapist was to be freed because his victims had been found to be prostitutes. The article, from any radical perspective, should have been asking why that made any difference. It was published from this angle because we had got hold of the transcript, not yet made public, and so were first to reveal this information. (And, in fact, the transcript revealed that the judge still regarded him as guilty but he got off on a technicality.)

On Ireland I did manage to get a freelance journalist commissioned form the North, who could give the nationalist perspective and had great connections with the Republicans. Her first artic le, published in one of the pre-publication dummies, was hard hitting. But then I discovered it was, word for word, the same article as she had written for An Phoblacht, the Sinn Fein weekly newspaper. She couldn’t understand why that was a problem and wouldn’t agree to write different articles for us. It would have made News on Sunday an easy target for some.

After the SAS killed 8 IRA men in an ambush I did write an editorial asking whether eight more mourning families would make peace more likely. To my astonishment Keith Sutton published it. (I had joined the project partly because of my desire to be involved in journalism but this was the only thing I ever wrote for News on Sunday.) But after that the Ireland coverage reverted to the media norm of British troops versus the terrorists.

By the time of launch the costs had ballooned to the point where News on Sunday needed to sell 800,000 to break even. This was a long way from Ben’s original hope of 100,000 but, given the market research sales predictions of over 1 million, didn’t seem at the time to be a problem. It would be interesting to see what we would have created if all our plans had been based on a break even at – say 250,000. A tougher business person could have insisted on it.

In week 1 it sold barely half a million and we knew it would go down from there, as all new launches did. Owen Oyston, a Lancashire multi-millionaire who had made his money in estate agency, was already an investor and stepped in to try and rescue the paper.

The 1987 general election was imminent and it seemed for a time that if the newspaper, funded by Labour local authorities, went bankrupt in the middle of the campaign it would be a gift to the Tories – as a great example of “loonie lefties” in action. Oyston went to see Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party. I don’t know what happened in the meeting but Oyston believed he was promised a knighthood if he could keep the paper going until after the election. With the TGWU he put in more money and the bankruptcy was delayed until the week after the election. The paper staggered on for four more months, owned and funded by Oyston and the TGWU.

I was by then Finance Manager and I remember bizarre trips to his mansion (where bison wandered the gardens) to have payments approved. Oyston was a strange character, for whom the newspaper – fresh off the press on a Saturday night – would be delivered by models from a local agency. He is better known now for the prison sentence he was to serve for rape.

I also came across a list of payments to local politicians, including £3,000 to somebody who is now a prominent North-West MP. It may have been perfectly legitimate but, when he discovered I had a copy, he went to great lengths to get it back. It was a sad end to have him in charge of our great idealistic project. I eventually left the newspaper, before it went bankrupt a second time, after refusing to sign the cheque to the model agency for ‘consultancy’. The head of the agency was later to go to jail with Oyston. It was a very seedy business.

The Golden share had proved to be no protection. Faced with the financial crisis and an ultimatum from Oyston (“give up the golden share or the paper closes”), the Founders had no alternative but to give in and hand over control.

After I left News on Sunday I set up a training business, now called Happy Ltd. When I am asked what motivated me to start Happy, I always refer back to News on Sunday. The greatest irony for me was that, for all our ideals, it was a far worse place to work than IBM – the great capitalist monolith where I worked in my year off. I left determined to find out how to create a company that was both principled and effective – and a great place to work in. I learnt most of what I know about how not to manage at News on Sunday.

We had great dreams. We would show it was possible to engage with the capitalist system and create an alternative within it. We succeeded in raising millions and, if we had succeeded, we could have set an example for others to follow. Instead we made it virtually impossible for a similar project to get funding again (though the actual amounts the pension funds lost was dwarfed by the losses caused by the crash of October 1987.)

And we didn’t even manage to create a publication that was especially radical or challenging. And, to me, that was down to our lack of ability in how to manage and organise to get the most from our people.

It could have been a truly great legacy of Big Flame. In fact those of us involved from BF did not play any separate role and certainly didn’t have a caucus of any type. We did have strong views on what should go in the Charter, meant to be the guiding document for the publication, but had no common view on the key question of how to build an organisation that could create a great paper – or the experience to make this happen.”

Henry Stewart, September 2010

Note on Big Flame

Big Flame were a Revolutionary Socialist Feminist organisation with a working class orientation in England. Founded in Liverpool in 1970, the group initially grew rapidly in the then prevailing climate on the left with branches appearing in a number of cities. One of the key sentences in the platform published in each issue of the newspaper was the statement that a revolutionary party was necessary but that “Big Flame is not that party, nor is it the embryo of that party”. This had the advantage of distinguishing them from some small groups who saw themselves as much more important than they were, but posed the problem of the ‘party’s’ real reason for existence.

They published a magazine, also entitled Big Flame, and a journal, Revolutionary Socialism. Members were active at the Ford plants at Halewood and Dagenham. They also devoted a great deal of time to self-analysis and considering their relationship with the larger Trotskyist groups. In time, they came to describe their politics as “libertarian Marxist“. In 1978 they joined the Socialist Unity electoral coalition, with the International Marxist Group.

In 1980, the anarchists of the Libertarian Communist Group joined Big Flame. The Revolutionary Marxist Current also joined at about this time.

However Big Flame was wound up in about 1984.

Much more on them here

For the fun of it: a TV ad for News On Sunday. Yes, it is bad.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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