Today in London striking history, 1965: Foyles bookshop strikers go back to work

In May 1965, the staff of Foyle’s went on strike for a month to demand payment of a living wage and the recognition of their right to join a union, and reinstatement of a dismissed employee and improvement in wages.

As a result of talks which took place between the parties, agreement was reached on a number of points and work was resumed on 25th May. Subsequently, however, there was disagreement over wage negotiations and this resulted in a further strike.

Below we reprint an interview we found with the Foyle’s worker whose sacking sparked the strike.

Sebastian Harding – How did you begin at Foyles?

Marius Webb – I was born in London. My father was English, from Battersea, and he was working for Battersea Council when war broke out. My mother had come to the United Kingdom from New Zealand via Australia. After the war, they decided that London was appalling and they should get out, so they came to Australia. But I left when I was twenty-one and came back by ship to Europe.

My first experience of London was the grim reality of staying with my aunt and uncle in Balham. One day, I saw an advertisement in the paper for a job at Foyles that paid £10 a week. During my University year I had a part in establishing a small bookshop in Melbourne called ‘The Paperback’ and I had also studied English at University so had a good knowledge of literature. I passed the interview and was told I could begin work on the following Monday.

I remember the first week at Foyles very well. The policy was that all new staff went directly into the mailroom. You sat around this enormous table and opened all the mail that came in. Someone would come up from transport area with a huge sack full of mail and dump it on the table. There were a couple of stout old ladies who managed the room and they would sort the mail out. Christina (Christina Foyle, owner of the Foyles business from 1963) was an avid stamp collector and, equipped with a paper knife, you had to open the invoices in a particular way so that the stamp was saved.

Bucket loads of money orders was what came in most most frequently. Talk about having a cash cow! We were at the fag end of the British Empire and people all over the world were members of the Foyles book club. They would send off monthly for a new book sent with a money order. Foyles also ran a book club which did reprints of famous books from the twenties and thirties. This was a considerable part of their business and so the mailing room was quite an operation.
It was good for someone new because you could speak to the people opening mail on either side of you. The mail room was the fulcrum of the whole place with approximately twenty people working there at one time.

Sebastian Harding – Can you describe Charing Cross Rd in the sixties?

Marius Webb – I loved it. I had come from Melbourne which was a recently planned city where every road was straight but London still had that ancient air. I loved Charing Cross Rd because it had such a distinct character. Everything south of Tottenham Court Rd station was just full of little bookshops and music shops, and I guess most of that has gone now. It had so much character and interest. Some of the smaller bookshops were unique and, of course, there was the proximity of the theatre where you could get in for nine pence in the Gods. London felt like a really creative force.

Sebastian Harding – Many have fond memories of the eccentricities of Foyles, did that affect working there?

Marius Webb – They did not trust staff with money so there were a number of queuing systems. The customer would queue up first to a till where a staff member gave them a note of the cost of their book. The customer would take a written piece of paper over to the till where they paid. This was incredibly naïve as it meant staff could steal quite easily and many of my colleagues did.

For instance, if their friend came in wanting to buy a book they would write down one shilling for a book worth a pound. Their friend would take it to the cash till, pay the shilling and then come back to their friend who would stamp their receipt and no one would be any the wiser!

I remember people would go up to the Art department, help themselves to a few books and then go down and sell them to the second hand department. Took them ages to work that one out! Many staff knew about regular shoplifters but there was an attitude of, “Oh that’s too bad.” I remember I once saw an old lady behind a stack. When I came round to see what was going on I saw she was sweeping a whole heap of books into a suitcase!

Sebastian Harding – Do you remember the interior of the store?

Marius Webb – None of the rooms in the building were large because it had been cobbled together from a group of buildings that had once served a whole series of other purposes. The ground floor had much higher ceilings and the ‘New Releases’ area of the store felt like a Victorian salon with cornices from an earlier life. I remember the windows were quite splendid which meant they were great for displaying books.

Sebastian Harding – Can you remember the people who ran the store?

Marius Webb – Christina Foyle’s husband, Ronald Batty, was the manager and he was quite formidable. I did not realise at first that he was married to her but he was a hands-on military sort of chap. He would sweep in and out, ordering the old ladies around and calling people out from the mail table and giving them orders to go to one of the departments. He was the General Manager, the Human Resources Manager, Chief Personnel Officer. Everything went through him as far as staff were concerned. There was an Australian called Mr Green who was in charge of new releases. He was very fancy but ultimately quite sad – he was gay and had obviously come to London to get away from Australia – very efficient but not very strong-willed.

Sebastian Harding – What began the chain of events that led to your dismissal and the strike?

Marius Webb – In my second week working at the store, I was assigned to the ground floor ‘New Releases.’ It was a terrific area to be in. I got to know authors like Len Deighton (writer of The Ipcress File), who would come in to see how their books were selling. One of the things that struck me from the outset were some of the more Victorian ways of the organisation. I remember arriving for my shift, running up the marble stairs and there would be two or three old ladies on their knees scrubbing the stairs by hand with rags. Coming from Australia, I was just appalled but that was actually quite typical of the London of those days –  the remnant of the old working class being kept in their place.

The other thing that I remember was having a surprise at the end of the second week when we got paid. We were paid nine pounds ten whereas the advertisement I had answered said quite clearly £10 a week. Dropping ten shillings does not sound like much, but when you are only getting paid ten pounds it is quite a lot. It did immediately make me question what sort of employer advertises a wage and then does not pay it. I was used to Australia where we had minimum wage and an eight hour day – these were things we accepted as normal.

As time passed, the style of management at Foyles became abundantly clear. The first thing that happened was an incident with a fellow from Sweden with whom I had worked with in the mail room. He had his own small art bookshop and had come to London to better his English and make some contacts. In the second or third week, I ran into him and he was wearing a dust coat and pushing a trolley and told me he had been put in the transport department, after originally applying to work in the Art Department.

I said “That doesn’t sound right. Go and talk to Mr Batty as it sounds like some sort of mistake.” Later that day, I saw him again and he had just been sacked. He explained the situation to Mr Batty and he was told: “Well you’re working in the Mail department and if you don’t like it you’re sacked.” I thought“Crikey! This is very strange.” This was a guy who wanted to make connections between Foyles and his own successful bookstore in Sweden, and there there was a good possibility it would have been beneficial to both parties. That chap’s dismissal was one of quite a few sackings that happened over my first month of working there, most workers did not have any comeback and it just became endemic.

I was getting increasingly concerned at the number of people getting dismissed and I mentioned it to my uncle. He was a draughtsman and the draughtsman’s union was one of the toughest. He told me I needed to speak to the Shop Workers’ Union (USDAW) which I had no knowledge of.

I met one of the organisers and he said, “You are entitled to this amount but they can still pay you what they like.” He told me to be careful that my employers did not hear I had been speaking to the union, as previous Foyles employees had lost their jobs as a result of this. He told me I could join up, but to have any influence I would need a lot of people to join.

A number of us became friends and every so often we would go to the Pillars of Hercules for drinks after work. One evening, I brought the subject up and we all agreed that the way we were being treated was not up to scratch and that we should  join the union together. There were about three or four of us at the start and we agreed to keep mum, but before long we had about twenty.

We needed to have union meetings and I was appointed to lead them even though I had not a clue how to run a meeting, and it was after one of these that I was ratted. One fellow who was a bit of a goody-goody and quite close to Mrs Foyle had been invited to a meeting. He was generally pro-management and, of course, he passed on the word to Mr Batty. Not long after that, I was called into Mr Batty’s office and told I had not been satisfactory and I had been late for work.

I rang the union and this guy told me to get my arse up to the offices real quick. They had an offset printer and we created some very simple leaflets and posters. We got down to Foyles the following morning so we could give out these leaflets to people as they arrived for work.

All the people coming into work were all my friends, so even if they were not members of the union, when they found out what had happened they decided to join the strike. The twenty people who were already part of the union joined me outside immediately and it was not long before we had fifty to sixty people. The union cranked out more leaflets and we were soon handing them out to every customer trying to enter the building. This had a devastating effect on business because 50% of customers said,“Oh in that case, I’m not coming in,” and this escalated very quickly. Then, because we had the placards in the street, someone phoned the newspapers and within an hour or two the Evening Standard had us on the front page.

The story was even reported in Australia and my auntie kept all the clippings from the local newspapers because she thought it was fantastic. For the first few days, there was a huge amount of media attention because Foyles was a well known institution so it was a good hook to hang the story on and the strike was led by young people. There was a lot of unexpected support from the customers, the authors and the publishers.

Sebastian Harding – What was the outcome?

Marius Webb – The strike actually lasted for just three days. At first the shop’s owners ignored it and tried to solve it themselves. At the end of the second day, Christina Foyle walked around the shop and apparently offered people £5 to stay and work the following day, but some people were so offended by this they came out to join the strike just to spite her. By the third day, the management realised they were in deep trouble because they saw from the tills what was happening.

They immediately convened a Foyles conference with the union, as well as further talks about the rates of pay and the conditions that people were working under. We were all quite pleased and back at work by the end of the third day, and I was put into a new department.

After four or five days, it became transparent that nothing had changed. They refused to change anything and so we had a meeting with the unions where they let us know they were not getting very far with their own negotiations. We decided that we needed to go on strike again and this second strike ended up lasting for six weeks. We had no idea it would last this long! This was about 50% of the workforce, around 100 people. The fact we stayed outside the shop, continually leafleting meant that eventually they had to resolve the issue. It was not hugely satisfactory, but we did get pay rises and a bit of respite from the continual sackings.

I remember there was one worker in the transport department who was a real cockney. He started out against the strike, then joined the union and by the time I left he wanted to be the union boss!

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Advertisements

Today and tomorrow in London’s radical history, 1659: locals fight with soldiers in anti-enclosure struggle, Enfield Chase

Enfield Chase was an ancient royal hunting ground some nine miles outside London to the north. Its many acres comprised arable and grazing land as well as a deer park and over the years legal agreements with tenants of the royal estate had granted rights of common such as grazing and wood collecting, which were of great importance to the local economy in an area with a very high rate of poverty, not that such rights benefited the very poor, who were unlikely to be commoners paying rents and taxes.

The chase was surrounded by villages and hamlets; Edmonton and Tottenham were close by and the largest was Enfield. There were also estates, manors and farms as well as large mansions and lodges. Small rural communities existed at South Mimms, Hadley, Potters Bar and along the road from Southgate to Cockfosters. Barnet provided the nearest significant town although London was only a day away.

By 1154 what had been known as the Park of Enfield or Enfield Wood had been converted into a hunting ground, or chase. It appears it was not known as Enfield Chase until the early 14th century. The royal land comprised the majority of the forest, though aristocratic families owned some areas and maintained hunting lodges on the Chase.

Royal forests were the creation of successive Norman kings, whose obsession with hunting trumped virtually all other imperatives where land use was concerned. Vast areas were declared royal forest, meaning wholly different laws applied and usual rights and uses were banned. Land owned by others, not just the king, could be designated thus.

As with many rural areas, from the 16th century, landowners began to enclose land, fencing off woods and fields, and excluding local residents from using its resources.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, much of the open land, commons or woods in England and Wales was enclosed for development, usually by rich landowners or sold off for house building. In many of the commons, local people had traditionally benefitted from customary rights of use, mostly grazing of animals & wood for fuel, but also often sowing of small plots on the fringes of commons for market gardens or feeding themselves.

But despite its name, common land was rarely if ever, land held ‘in common’: it was almost always land owned by the Lord of the Manor, on which over time other local people had come to exercise some rights. But these rights often had no legal weight, they were part of an unwritten social contract, of custom and tradition, allowances granted by landowners, often in the face of earlier individual or collective struggles.

As time went on the ‘commoners’, those with acknowledged customary rights, could become wealthy individuals themselves. Thus later struggles sometimes developed into struggles between different local rich or well-to-do persons. Gradually, as capitalism developed, slowly replacing a society of complex vertical social obligations & custom with one based entirely on profit, the impetus was on for landowners to replace traditional land use with intensive agriculture. This demanded the clearing of woodland & the exclusion of the poor from the commons.

Those deprived not only lost traditional ways of making a living, or in many cases ways of topping up incomes as labourers or craftspeople; they were experiencing the change in class relations at first hand, losing everything bar the ability to sell their labour… “In an increasingly legalistic age, an unwritten agreement counted for little in the face of the new law …”

But on Enfield Chase, as elsewhere, this process was not simply imposed on a docile population. Poor labouring people fought for centuries to resist enclosure, both legally through petitioning and court cases, and by direct action. Enclosure quarrels in Enfield provoked a petition in 1575 and riots in 1549, 1589, 1603, 1649 and 1659.

In 1589 forty women, wives of local farm workers, were named on a charge of riotously throwing to the ground the fence round the close of a certain Alice Hayes at ‘Joan Potters’ in the south of the parish. The Enfield women were particularly lively in defending their rights, possibly because the district was much affected by enclosures for the royal Chase.

A mob of women assembled again in 1603, at White Webbs, near the Chase, to maintain their right to gather fire-wood there. According to Vincent Skinner, a Middlesex justice, the women thought that wood should either be burnt in the King’s House or given to the poor, but not carried out of Enfield Town. As in other areas in the Stuart and Tudor period, authorities were not always unsympathetic to anti-enclosure protests, and local magistrates made an agreement to hear the women’s cause and to some extent supported their cause in subsequent petitions.

Such expressions of local feeling were not infrequent. In 1611 when enclosing a further one hundred and twenty acres the King gave an assurance to the Commoners that he would not enclose any more land.

Enclosures of manorial waste, either to extend property or for building, were common.

The upheaval that accompanied the English Revolution had a huge impact on land ownership and pressures for changes in land use. Increased demand for productivity for food production at a time of disruption and hardship due to the civil war led to more enclosures. And the seizure or land owned by defeated and exiled supporters of the royalist side opened up opportunities for those victorious opponents – as had happened during the 16th century reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries, political and religious change helped make some smart operators rich. While radicals like the levellers and diggers may have objected to enclosure from the point of view of the poor who it dispossessed, others of the parliamentary party were enthusiastic ‘modernisers’. To some extent the pre-civil war Stuart regime had in some ways been more conservative regarding land exploitation and common rights and often, when pushed by protest, tried to keep a lid on large-scale enclosure, in the interests of social peace. This meant the regime did sometimes reverse or rule against enclosures by large landowners (but didn’t prevent the Stuart kings from also enclosing land in their OWN interests, as Charles I did with Richmond Park in 1637, or maintaining the strict controls on royal parks and hunting grounds, eg the Game Laws – this was an issue on Enfield Chase).

The Civil War had in part been launched by what could (loosely) be described as the rising bourgeoisie, chafing against restrictions on their ambitious expansion and restraints on their ability to exploit resources. The parliamentary victory gave some vent to these interests; increased enclosure was part of the immediate result. But as the struggles on Enfield Chase illustrate, the upheaval of war also opened up land as the property of defeated royalists was confiscated, and also produced large numbers of soldiers and parliamentary supporters, some of whom with the financial means to buy up land that thus came on to the market, and to begin transforming it to make it more ‘productive’.

If the alliances on the parliamentary side in the War had produced a temporary unity of different class interests and widely divergent political outlooks, this had never been an easy marriage, and tensions had erupted throughout whole conflict, accelerating in the mid-late 1640s with the political struggles of the Levellers and New Model Army agitators, the religious ferment which produced hundreds of independent sects, the social upheaval that gave birth to radical critiques like the ranters, as well as to puritan new testament activists (like the Fifth Monarchists). By 1649-50 class interests and political viewpoints were widely diverging among former allies… and so you find very different attitudes to enclosure developing among people who had been comrades fighting side by side 5-6 years earlier.

As well as the former Army radicals and parliamentary republicans dabbling with buying land and fencing it off, famously the political and social upheaval also produced a radically opposed vision of how land, especially common land, should be used. The True Levellers or ‘Diggers’ perceived the increasing phenomenon of enclosure as an acceleration of a process that began with the expropriation of what had once been a shared resource, a violent theft by the ancestors of the landowning classes of their time, reinforced by all the power of feudal hierarchies, law, religion…

The original ‘Diggers’, broadly communist in outlook, formed around the political activist and theorist Gerrard Winstanley, and in April 1650 occupied common land at St George’s Hill, Weybridge, Surrey, to grow food collectively, with a ideology of sharing the earth’s resources, rejecting ownership of common land and social hierarchies in general. Inspired by this, other ‘digger’ colonies also appeared elsewhere, mainly in across South-east England. This scared and enraged local hierarchies in the neighbourhoods where they appeared, as such communities, although very small, were often formed from the very poor, the people being dispossessed by enclosures, and represented a threat to social order and local tradition, especially as the civil war had opened up large-scale social upheaval and questioning of long-held views; even a small group refusing to continue to observe the social order could spread, inspire, and threaten the status quo. The gentry in Surrey and elsewhere employed soldiers or ex-soldiers, hired thugs, or whipped up hatred of local labourers, to destroy their projects and evict them. Presenting such communities as an enemy and a threat even to others of the lower orders may have been easier to achieve, because the diggers’ vision, as expressed by Winstanley at least, did not simply envision a widening of common rights and access to the resources of common land, but a collective tilling of it, a breaking with tradition and custom to embrace a new relationship to land altogether. ‘Common rights’ would be swept away along with land ownership; the commoners in areas where diggers began to assert this could feel this as a threat to their own slender customary access to the commons, as dangerous as the threat from the lord of the manor’s greedy eye on possible profits from fencing off the land.

The ‘Digger’ movement was reflected in events in Enfield: in 1650, shortly after more anti-enclosure riots on the Chase in 1649, the Diggers were said to have a Colony in the area.

Digger groups apparently were active in both Barnet and Enfield. Some Diggers at Enfield were reputedly from squatting families who had come to the Chase during the war and just after. Squatting had been increasing in forests and on marginal and common land in many areas, for decades, where people could occupy it, as enclosures had increased and access to some areas was restricted. This process had accelerated with the disruption and famine linked to the Civil War; the demobilisation of thousands of former soldiers as the conflict came to an end left large groups of poor men and their families looking for ways to subsist. (It might be interesting to compare this to squatting post-World War 2).

Squatters may even have been tacitly supported by Parliament, both as a safety valve, allowing some cultivation and subsistence as an alternative to the possibility of mass protest – but also in the hope of disrupting traditionalist opponents of the new regime. Some of those with common rights, looking to tradition and custom, ‘how things had always been’, were also inclined to support for the defeated royalist cause, whose proponents still plotted and agitated against the new republic, both in exile, and clandestinely in rural areas. Discontent provided them with potential foot-soldiers; opposition to enclosure was a useful movement to exploit. Squatters’ occupation of common land could disrupt traditional local custom and social relations, so perhaps were seen as useful in generally undermining the existing accepted rights of access, etc.

Anti-enclosure rioting certainly occurred while Diggers were active in the Enfield area, although whether Diggers were involved with the disturbances is unclear. Fifteen men, including a furrier, cordwainer, weaver, butcher and group of labourers, were indicted for the 1649 disturbances. These men were possibly recently discharged soldiers, as they all had access to firearms; they were said to come from among the poorest of the local residents.

In May 1659, a major anti enclosure riot took place on Enfield Chase. Commoners tore down barns, burned fences on land that had been sold to speculators, and led their cattle into corn. This led to a pitched battle with militia.

The immediate cause of this enclosure struggle in 1659 was a scheme drawn up by Parliamentary commissioners, based surveys of the Chase conducted in the 1650. The surveys had been ordered by Parliament to lay down who legally held rights of proprietorship and rights of common. The commissioners’ results were used to allot ownership and codify customary rights, but deprived local inhabitants of many of their “privileges and advantages.” An outcry of protests from the Inhabitants erupted, who claimed that large areas of the Chase were being quietly taken over by ‘Intruders’, outsiders, who had blocked and turned long-used rights of way, had laid out impassable new paths, and were digging and despoiling even the small part of the waste which was allotted to the Inhabitants, who had recently suffered much destruction from a huge fire on the Chase.

Many of the ‘intruders’ were great officers in the Army: they included Adjutant General John Nelthorpe, Colonel Joyce (who had played a prominent part in capturing king Charles during the Civil War), and Colonel Webbe, who was in fact the Surveyor General – a handy post to hold if you were on the make in land speculation yourself… They had bought up ‘debentures’ – a kind of IOU issued to soldiers to show how much pay they were owed. Often (not just during the Civil War) army pay was months or even years in arrears. The Civil War parliament, stretched for cash, and facing army mutinies in the late 1640s, allowed debentures to be used as a down-payment on purchases of land (often land confiscated from royalists). This killed several birds with one stone – defusing rank ‘n’ file discontent, cutting its debts, rewarding its supporters at the expense of political opponents, as well as buying off ambitious officers. Poor soldiers were selling debentures at prices between one shilling and sixpence to two shillings and sixpence in the pound – money in the hand to hungry folk offering greater immediate value than the land on offer.

According to JM Patrick’s account of the events of 1659: “The troubles began about May, 1659, “several of the Inhabitants destroyed some of the new enclosures erected by these intruders, and drove in cattle upon the standing grain, “to the great loss and damage of the purchasers.” In their view the trespass was lawful, “the pretended purchasers having no title.” The Intruders complained to the Council of State, who ordered local justices to protect the Intruders and to make use of two troops of horse which were sent to aid them if needed.

According to the Inhabitants, when the troops arrived in Enfield, they were given strong beer and money by the Intruders. The soldiers then fell upon some of the Inhabitants, slashed several of them and their servants, and even attacked poor labouring men who passed that way. Naturally the victims fought back. The Intruders then made legal complaints about the injuries suffered by their side. At first the Inhabitants refused to give evidence against their neighbours; threats forced them to give some evidence, but they refused to maintain it on oath. As a result of the declarations of the Intruders, several of the Inhabitants were bound over. When the jury could not find a bill because of insufficient evidence, justice Hobert, one of the Trustees of the Chase, forced them back. They found an indictment against some men who had nothing to do with the riot but who had previously said that they would put their sheep and cattle into the new enclosures to test their title. The other accused persons were acquitted.

The Inhabitants’ triumph was short; for “there was a design by some of the said justices, who were purchasers and trustees and men concerned therein and judges in the cause upon the Bench, to find a bill against those persons to take off the courage of the proprietors and commoners from their claims to the common, that they might the better force the proprietors’ common from them in the said Chase!” To aid this design, the Intruders protested to Whitehall that the slow proceedings against the first offenders were encouraging others to imitate their misdeeds. Accordingly the Council of State urged the Justices to take speedier action.

Meanwhile the Inhabitants laid countercharges against the Intruders and their agents, and an indictment was found against several of them. A warrant was issued to apprehend three of the enclosers, but justice Hobert, who was “a great agent and stickler against the said proprietors and a great offender in the destruction of wood in the said Chase, called to see the warrant and had and did then tear the same in pieces.” The Inhabitants were thus left without legal remedies; they could not even look for their cattle in the Chase because of threatened violence.

The threat became actual. Soldiers hired by the Intruders shot several sheep and ate them, killed valuable cattle and challenged the commoners to fight. On July 10, some drunken soldiers shot at Inhabitants who were walking on the common. On the next day, a number of the Inhabitants, according to their own account of the fray, armed themselves with cudgels, mattocks and forks, and challenged the authority of the soldiers. Seventeen soldiers and their commander marched against them, fired, killed one man and wounded others. The Inhabitants then turned upon the soldiers, captured nine or ten, and took them before justice Rich. After examining their confessions and the testimony of witnesses, he sent them to Newgate prison. They admitted that they were hired for sixpence a day more than their ordinary pay and that they had no authority from their chief cornmanders. Such was the Inhabitants’ story.

In the Intruders’ accounts of the fray, the behaviour of the “country people” at Enfield was cited as a horrid example of.the depravity of human nature. Thirty soldiers, under proper orders and leadership, had been sent to oust the trespassing cattle in a peaceful manner. They were attacked by about a hundred and sixty country fellows; ten of their number fought for almost an hour and finally yielded, “being so mightily overpowered… So that, this bloody conflict being ended, a guard was put upon the prisoners till they had cleared the field of the dead bodies, which is said to be two men and one woman of the countrymen’s side, besides many wounded; and one soldier, the Sergeant, was carried off… in a dying condition.” “Out of his favour to these inhuman fellows,” Justice Rich sent the other nine prisoners to Newgate, “with their wounds bleeding.” 16 The Inhabitants then fell upon the enclosures, set fire to the hedges, burnt up the stackwood, destroyed a barn and demolished houses. Their example, it was said, might well “inflame the whole nation.”

A brief account, written from the Intruders’ point of view, appeared in the government organ, Mercurius Politicus. Clearly the Intruders were too well entrenched and too influential in the Law Courts, Parliament, Council of State, and Army, for humble yeomen, tenant farmers and other commoners to be able to resist them by “legal” means. The resistance of the Inhabitants was suppressed. On July 16, the House of Commons issued orders concerning the riot. These were read in the churches on the following day.  Now assured of their predominance, the Intruders trampled upon the rights of the small proprietors and commoners. They or their hirelings wounded some of the inhabitants of Edmonton and killed a mare in the Chase, “at the insolency of which soldiers and purchasers of Enfield Chase without title, the country stands amazed.” But amazement was all; some troops of horse, sent by Parliament, restored order.

There were no further disturbances. In August, 1659, the much enduring Inhabitants suffered twenty-three deaths in a severe outbreak of the plague. With the Restoration, the Chase was given to the Duke of Albemarle, but the enclosures remained. Subsequently, almost the entire Chase was converted to tillage.

The small yeomen, tenant farmers and others who had traditional rights over the Chase probably had the better legal and moral case. The unscrupulous behaviour of the Intruders seems to prove this. Nevertheless, the Inhabitants were undoubtedly ‘unprogressive’: their small property rights stood in the way of the efficient development of the productive resources of the Chase.

The encroaching moneyed interests had the resources and the drive to exploit and develop the Chase; the locals with rights of woodcutting and pasturage on the Chase, had neither the power, resources or inspiration to take full advantage of its productivity.”

This was a fundamentally different vision of how land should be used; as a whole the enclosure process formed a fork in the road. Capitalist development in agriculture would undeniably lead to greater food production, wool production, increases in imports, to massive profits; this produced vast increases in wealth for the owners of the land and onward to vast funds which financed both the industrial revolution and to the British Imperial project. This process also inevitably meant the exclusion of millions from access to rural resources, to the reduction of independent or semi-independent commoners to the status of day labourers, to a massive influx of the rural dispossessed into the cities to look for alternative ways to support themselves.

“A peculiar feature of the enclosure troubles at Enfield was that while the Inhabitants protested loudly against the Intruders, they seem to have made no effort to eject some poor families who settled upon the Chase. Possibly the squatters’ encroachment was abetted by the Intruders in their desire to weaken the claims of their opponents. Certainly the toleration extended to this group differs from the eagerness with which persons with rights of common joined local lords of manors to eject the Diggers from common land which they had occupied in 1649. Perhaps the Inhabitants of Enfield were too much exhausted by the agrarian conflict, the fire and the plague to take any effective action.

Shortly after the Restoration, the residents of Enfield, including tenant farmers, prepared a petition complaining that two or three hundred families had settled on the Chase during the late unhappy times; they were destroying the timber and, if not restrained, would become chargeable to the parish. Therefore the petitioners asked leave to bring in a bill to Parliament to enclose their common fields and to establish a fund for employing the poor. The economic transition from the common fields to private ownership was thus to be greatly furthered; but details about what, if anything, was done at this time are lacking.

The scheme for employing the poor was possibly inspired by William Covell, a preacher and landowner at Enfield. He was the author of a compromise solution for the agrarian troubles there: workers’ co-operatives were to be established and financed by wealthy benefactors in order to use the resources of the Chase not primarily for profits, but to satisfy the needs of the community and to raise its general standard of living. Though his plans were never carried out, they are significant in the history of radical social thought; they have interesting parallels in some of the ideas of the Diggers; and they exemplify an aspect of Puritan utopianism.” (Patrick)

The events of 1659 were far from the last battles over enclosure on Enfield Chase. With the restoration of Charles II in 1660 common rights were restored, although violence was still present on the Chase during the 1660s. In November 1660 the farms which had been set up during the English republic were subjected to a campaign of hedge breaking; several of those ‘Intruders’ targeted by the 1659 rioters complained their new properties were attacked.

The commoners themselves were looking to re-establish a flexible ‘customary’ use of the chase as can be seen in several examples. In the early 1660s Robert White beat a gamekeeper who was attempting to impound his sheep. No doubt White felt aggrieved at such actions now that the chase had supposedly been spared systematic enclosure. Presumably White felt that the chase was now there for the benefit of himself and other locals. Also during the 1660s commoners continued to use the Chase as a fuel reserve. William Fairweather and his son were caught chipping trees and had their tools confiscated. It was of course to no avail and it was reported that they were soon back at work. John Clerke, an Edmonton smith, was caught cutting trees. When told to stop by the woodward he disregarded the order and simply continued. In 1669 Richard Garret, Nicholas Thompson and Robert James were all warned by the underkeeper to stop lopping trees on the Chase. They struck the underkeeper and continued with their work.

No sooner had the common rights at Enfield Chase been restored by Charles II than the fate of the common fields were immediately put in doubt. Lord Rainton and other large local landowners in the parish petitioned for enclosure of the Enfield common fields in 1660. Although unsuccessful in this attempt Rainton was influential as a local large landowner as well as being the MP for Middlesex between 1681-85. His local authority allowed him to make several enclosures on the Chase sometime alter the restoration to the annoyance of the commoners. In 1672 commoners drove their sheep in Rainton’s enclosures destroying ten acres of wheat and oats, and a further ten acres of grass. One of the commoners, a Mr Joseph Collet, threatened to open all Rainton’s enclosures notwithstanding ‘all Mr Raintons injunctions and all his perjured witnesses’ The following year Rainton found himself involved in legal action against some of his more powerful neighbours, including the Duke of Albemarle who had taken offence at Rainton’s enclosing activities.

Over the following decades, between 1660 and 1700, about 100 squatter cottages were reported on Enfield Chase: the increasing dispossessed and disenfranchised poor, being driven out by enclosure, who had nowhere else to go, making a living from marginal land.

In 1676 John Hale, the clerk of Enfield manor court, complained to Charles II that people from South Mimms, Enfield, Edmonton and Hadley were “an abundance of loose, idle and disorderly persons … and make great havock and wast of your majesty’s best timber and underwood on Enfield Chase.”

Enclosure continued to occupy the minds of local people here. In 1689 the Enfield vestry resolved that ‘We, whose names are hereby subscribed inhabitants of the parish of Enfield, do hereby promise and agree to stand by each other, in the behalf of ourselves and the rest of the parishioners, in endeavouring to restore our rights and privileges on Enfield Chase. And that the charge that we, or any of us, shall be at about the recovery and setting of the same, shall be defrayed out of the parish stocks’.

There were 21 signatures attached to the resolution. This was perhaps the way in which many instances of enclosure resistance were initiated.

In 1691 the Enfield vestry agreed to Sir John Battle enclosing his common field land upon payment of £60 to the parish funds. Local people strongly disagreed with the acquiescence of the vestry who had not represented the wider community in agreeing to such a deal. The commoners would now lose winter grazing rights due to the deal struck by the vestry. This was unacceptable and the commoners had destroyed the enclosures by 1703, thus re-opening the land to common usage and prompting Battle to appeal to the vestry to enforce their earlier agreement.

In November 1703 the commoners of Monken Hadley opened a voluntary subscription to the threat of losing their common rights on Enfield Chase with each attaching their name. Petitions of course consciously brought commoners together to fight as a group. This involved setting out demands and targeting their audience.

Once organised commoners could exert pressure on their more powerful neighbours which could include influential landlords; thus in 1718 landlords petitioned against Major General Pepper, who had leased the Chase, and had enclosed 30 acres of waste to the detriment of their tenants who had right of common there. Pepper became a hated figure of landlords, farmers and commoners alike in north-east Middlesex, due to his enclosing and oppressive tendencies. When Popper asked for a commission of local gentlemen to help him to stop wood being stolen from the Chase not one person would come forward.

Like previous owners, the lords Cottington, Rainton and Palmer, Pepper found himself struggling to enclose, and keep enclosed, land previously used by generations of Middlesex commoners.

In the 1720s General Pepper was shot at, in what seems to have been an assassination attempt, or at least a heavy warning; he had been engaged in a long often fruitless war with poachers and ‘woodstealers’ who were generally supported by a large section of the local population, and had had a number arrested and jailed – some were eventually hanged.

In 1783, only a small common, a rough lot and a small wood remained unenclosed; even these disappeared when an enclosure act was passed in 1801. At first, efforts to improve the gravelly clay soil of the Chase had little success, for much capital had to be expended to clear, drain and marl it. Obviously the Inhabitants could not have afforded to develop it properly for themselves.

Despite the centuries of resistance, between 1777 and 1801, what remained of Enfield Chase was finally enclosed.

Enclosure didn’t mark the end of struggles here however…

Charles Lamb witnessed the firing of several barns and haystacks at Enfield in December 1830, in the wake of the Captain Swing riots and commented that ‘it was never good times in England since the poor began to speculate upon their condition. Formerly they jogged on with as little reflection as horses. The whistling ploughman went check by jowl with his brother that neighed. Now the biped carries a box of phosphorus in his leather breeches, and in the dead of night the half-illuminated beast steals his magic potion into a cleft in the barn, and half the country is grinning with new fires’.

After Swing there were further threatening letters at Enfield, into 1831. It’s worth noting that when the crop failed in 1830, Irish migrant labourers rioted at nearby Barnet,

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London riotous history, 1871: 1000s demolish enclosure fences on Wanstead Flats

Wanstead Flats is the southernmost portion of Epping Forest in Wanstead, East London. Epping Forest itself is a  a remnant of the once extensive Forest of Essex, also encompassing Waltham Forest and Hainault Forest.

On July 8th 1871, thousands of locals and people from the wider East End gathered to protest at the enclosure of the Flats, and destroyed the fences that had been put up around the land.

Historically the Flats were part of the royal forest – however, the proximity of this space to villages led people to turn out cattle and other animals to graze upon the unenclosed land. Over the centuries, this custom became tradition and was eventually recognised and granted as a right of common pasture. (Certain landowners and occupiers still have this right, granted them as part of the Epping Forest Act 1878, and cattle grazed freely until 1996 when the BSE crisis forced their removal).

Parts of Epping Forest were enclosed as parkland with large houses, which evolved from medieval manor houses. The most significant of these are Wanstead Park, dating from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, and the eighteenth-century Copped Hall.
As part of the Royal Forest of Essex, Epping Forest was one of sixty forests across England where Forest Law gave the Crown the right to hunt game across largely privately owned land.  Hunting across forest landscapes was an important demonstration of Royal and aristocratic power and a necessary practice for war.  Forest Laws recognised the earlier tradition of shared ‘common’ rights for forest dwellers to graze livestock and to cut firewood and turf.

Changing Royal interests and the rise of a professional army during the Georgian period saw Royal participation in hunting and the power of Forest Law dramatically decline. Parliamentary scrutiny of Royal finances following the Restoration saw the Royal Forest hunting rights across private land, known as Forestal Rights, begin to be sold.

From 1817, a series of Parliamentary Bills unsuccessfully pressed for the disafforestation of Epping Forest.  In 1851, following the sale of Forestal Rights, 3,000 acres of nearby Hainault Forest, another fragment of the Forest of Essex, was felled within six weeks. Six years later, the Commissioners sold half of the Royal Forestal Rights at Epping Forest, encouraging the illegal enclosure of some 4,000 acres of Epping Forest by 1865.

Local people’s long use of Wanstead Flats, and its general reputation common land, led to a strong attachment to the land there. This led to resistance when attempts were made to enclose or build on parts of the land.

There was deep resentment when Lord Mornington enclosed 34 acres in 1851-2.
In the 1850s Isaac Lake was a tenant farmer of Lord Wellesley on Aldersbrook part of the Flats. Wellseley, (Lord Mornington, nephew of the famous Duke of Wellington), the Lord of the Manor of Aldersbrook, ordered Lake to enclose 34 acres of land on the Flats.

Wellesley’s plan was to build a permanent cattle market on the Flats (to replace the huge open air cattle market which was held on this area of the Flats every spring until the mid 19th century… Cattle would be driven from East Anglia and other parts of England to supply the growing London market for meat. The cattle were bought and sold in “The Rabbits” pub on Romford Road (at the corner of Rabbits Road – the building is now a pharmacy).
The enclosure provoked a local outcry: one local farmer apparently drove his cattle onto the enclosed land, breaking down the fences, and was prosecuted.

The plan to build the market failed, and the market was built in Caledonian Road, Islington, instead. Lord Mornington died in ‘humble lodgings’ in 1857, so perhaps the scheme was a desperate attempt to restore dwindling family finances…

However, the 34 acres seem to have been fenced off and built on, despite an attempt by residents of Cann Hall and other commoners attempting to block him in the courts. This seems to have involved support from Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, of the quaker brewing family, who was later to take an active part in fighting other enclosures in Epping Forest…

The most famous episode in local defence of the Flats took place in July 1871, after Earl Cowley, cousin and heir of Lord Mornington, enclosed 20 acres of wasteland, (the last piece of unenclosed land in the Manor of Aldersbrook).

Fences were erected from Bushwood to Ridley Road by Earl Cowley’s agents.
But there was an angry response. An advertisement with the headlines “Save The Forest” encouraged working people to “Attend by Thousands” an open air meeting on Wanstead Flats on Saturday, July 8th 1871 to “Protest against the Enclosures”. The meeting took place, not initially on Wanstead Flats, where the Essex Volunteers were undertaking a review, but in the grounds of a building then called West Ham Hall.

So many people attended, estimated at 30,000 – so many that the meeting was by popular acclaim adjourned to Wanstead Flats after all, with some thousands of people making their way there. The meeting would end with crowds pulling down the enclosure fences.

Here follow some contemporary accounts of the demonstration and direct action:

“THE recent destruction of the fences surrounding one of the obnoxious enclosures on Wanstead Flats may have been an act of great imprudence, but it serves to illustrate the angry spirit with which the East Londoners are beginning to regard the continual encroachments which are rapidly depriving them of the broad open spaces to the free use of which they have been accustomed for so many generations. Perhaps there is no portion of the Metropolitan suburbs so largely frequented during holiday-time as are the yet unenclosed portions of Epping Forest lying nearest to the overcrowded districts of Whitechapel and Bethnal Green. On a fine Sunday evening thousands of working men, attended by their sweethearts or wives and families, may be seen proceeding along the Mile End Road in the direction of Wanstead Flats, a large open space, perfectly level and covered with verdure, close to the Forest Gate Station of the Great Eastern Railway. The distance from London is not great, the Flats being within five miles of the Royal Exchange, a circumstance adding considerably to the value of this portion of Epping Forest as a popular open-air resort. But it is on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons during the fine days of summer, that the Flats present their most interesting appearance, for on these occasions they form the playground of immense numbers of children from the myriad courts and lanes of Spitalfields, Shoreditch, and other densely populated districts in East London. No sight can be mare touching than that of the crowds of poorly attired little ones, some of them mere toddlers, who have dragged their limbs hither, regardless of hat stony pavements and dusty roads that they might have a few hours’ romping on the soft grass or load themselves with bundles of buttercups and daisies. It is no exaggeration to say that but for Wanstead Flats, and other open spaces near East London, the late terrible visitation of cholera, which decimated so many artisan families, would have been far more destructive in its results. But the pure, fresh air of Wanstead Flats did much to counteract the unwholesome influences of the fever-reeking atmosphere which still, despite every effort on the part of the sanitary authorities, too often pervades the humble homes of the East London labouring poor. But the Flats are apparently doomed. Earl Cowley’s enclosure is by no means the first of its kind; there, have been several others such as that, the fences of which have just been destroyed. Before Mr. Gladstone promised to take up the question of Epping Forest, the Crown rights over Wanstead Flats had been sold for 12,000l. by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. Nothing but the rights of the commoners remain, and these have been disregarded because there were none sufficiently wealthy to defend them. But the Corporation of the City of London having recently, through their purchases of land for their cemetery at Ilford, become possessed of the rights of common an Wanstead Flats, have announced their determination to defend the same at whatever coat. This is the first time that the system of enclosure has experienced any real check. Should the Corporation gain the day, the free use of Wanstead Flats will have become secured to the East Londoners; but the conflict will be a long and costly one, for the encroachers instinctively scent the danger which awaits them, that they may not only be prevented from making further enclosures, but, also be compelled to give up some of the land of which they have been too easily allowed to acquire possession. (The Weekly Graphic, 15 July 1871)

“A meeting to protest against this filching of the forest was held, on Wanstead Flats last Saturday. The people v. lords of manors; the people v. Chancellors of the Exchequer who decline to protect them: the people’s rights against all would confiscate them – formed the key-note of every speech. Let it be understood at once that as far as the proceedings at the meeting proper were concerned there was no violence. The powerful force of policemen, both horse and foot, which had been sent down to guard Lord Cowley’s obnoxious fence had nothing to do; and a large majority of the gallant fellows whiled away the calm summer evening by foot-races, jumpings, and athletic sports upon land which is still common. Others were placed on duty within the various doubtful inclosures, and others, again, hovered round the public meetings, of which there were several held upon the Flats.

WANSTEAD FLATS, it may be explained is the title of the portion of Epping Forest which is nearest to London, and is but a stones throw from the Forest-gate station of the Eastern Counties Railway, and some quarter of an hour’s walk from as crowded and busy thoroughfares as there are in the metropolis. The meeting of Saturday had been announced beforehand, and the possibility of lord Cowley’s new fence being removed “by resolution” had been not obscurely hinted at. A review of volunteers had been announced to take place on Wanstead Flats at the hour at which the chair was to be taken, so placards were issued that “in consequence of this, Lord Cowley’s last inclosure would be discussed in a field adjoining West Ham Hall, the residence of Mr. Tanner. This was not far from the Flats, but it was too far for the meeting. An amendment was moved the moment Sir Antonio Brady took the chair. Mr. Wingfield Baker M.P., advised and pleaded in vain.

“To the flats!”

“They’re oar own.”

“Wy should we be pravented meeting there?”

“Wot is there to be afraid of?

“Whose fault is it we have to meet at all?”

“Wot about Berkhampstead?” [This refers to the then recent and highly publicised case of Lord Brownlow’s attempt to enclose Berkhamstead Common, which had ended with his fences being removed by night, after the enclosure was contested legally].

“Where’s Lord Brownlow’s palings now?” – came from scores of lusty voices and when the amendment was put “that this meeting do adjourn,” a perfect forest of hands was held up in its favour.” 

“The committee under whose auspices the meeting had been convened were seated in a large waggon which had been fitted up with tables and chairs, and two or three other vehicles of a like character stood around, all crowded, and all without horses. What so fitting as that they should be dragged on to the Flats by the enthusiastic crowd? There was plenty of superfluous energy about, and a dozen willing fellows had harnessed themselves, and waggons, committee, chairs, tables, and paraphernalia were out of the field and jogging along the road at a steady trot in far less time than it has taken to read these lines. At the meeting there was plenty of good vigorous oratory; but it is not necessary to follow the speakers very closely. Resolutions were passed that an address shall be presented to her Majesty; that the Government shall be urged to pass a short bill this session to effectually prevent further inclosures; that thanks shall be rendered to the Corporation of the City of London ; and that copies of these resolutions shall be sent to the Prime Minister, to the chancellor of the Exchequer (loud and prolonged groaning followed every mention of Mr. Lowe’s name), and to every member of Parliament whose constituents are immediately interested in the preservation of the forest What was specially significant was the tact and temper displayed by the speakers and the plain influence of those qualities over the crowd. Strong as the police force was, it would have availed but little against the stalwart fellows who had just drawn in heavy waggons laden with heavy gentlemen over roads and turf, and had enjoyed the gentle exercise that proceeding gave then. A little swaying to and fro, a slight pressure in one direction – nay, a passive yielding to circumstances such as governs innocent spirit-rappers and table-turners who have a predisposition to believe – and the nearest paling would have fallen like a house of cards. But from first to last those present were adjured to give their enemies to handle against them. So the great demonstration began, continued, and ended peacefully. Earl Cowley’s fence remained intact when the meeting separated, and the extra police force were dispersed after nothing more stirring than a few hours pleasant pastime in country air.” (the Penny Illustrated Paper, 15th July 1871)

The Committee who had called the meeting were alarmed by the strength of the feeling. Fearful of the increasingly vocal calls for destruction of the fences on the Flats, they had tried to persuade the crowd not to march on the Flats… But the demonstrators were having none of it. As soon as the first speaker began, there was a storm of hissing, and shouts of ‘to the Flats’, followed by the manhandling of the carts, from which the gentleman leaders were speaking, up Chestnut Avenue and onto the Flats.

The official meeting on the Flats agreed to petition the Queen over the forest enclosures, then the leaders left, as did the large police detachment sent to guard the fences. Everything seemed to have passed off peacefully, but later that evening the mood changed. Very quickly, hundreds of yards of fence were reduced to matchwood:

“THE DESTRUCTION OF FENCES happened later in the evening. Close to nine o’clock an incident occurred which changed the whole aspect of affairs, and the fence around the inclosure at the side of the Flats near the Foresters’ Arms, and quite close to whore the meeting had been held, was destroyed in the twinkling of an eye. A man, while seated on a rail of the fence, was asked by a comrade to go home; he demurred, and his friend pulled at him to make him get down; the rail shook and in a moment half a dozen hands brought it to the ground. A dozen hands laid hold of the next; it gave way; in a minute there were fifty persons pulling energetically, then a hundred, then hundreds. The sound of the breaking up of the railing – for they were smashed into fragments as they were got from the posts – sounded like a continuation of the file-firing of the volunteers, and hundreds of people rushed up from all parts of the Flats and from the side roads and public-houses. In five minutes the fence around the inclosure was almost wholly destroyed.

A solitary constable galloped along the Ilford road after the police, and brought back at full speed fifteen or twenty mounted men, who rode on to the Flats. As no one was to be seen engaged in any overt act they could do nothing. In a few minutes the foot-police rushed back at the double, and were unmercifully “chaffed” by the crowd, who recommended them to take care of the fragments of the railings. In a moment a small body of working men, at a remote part of the inclosure, essayed to destroy a few rails still standing. The mounted officers leaped their horses over the remains of the fence and rode straight it the destroyers, who fled precipitately. One young man was apparently ridden down by an inspector, and while on the ground a body of the foot police laid hold of him. The crowd turned back, and, saying “they mustn’t have him!” attempted to rescue him. This movement was soon put a stop to by the very energetic efforts of the small body of horseman, who charged about on all sides. The prisoner was handcuffed and marched off, the crowd following him with the intention of rescuing him in this narrow road; the police frustrated this by suddenly drawing a line across the road and charging the mob coming along. In the melee that ensued some minutes were occupied, which gave time to a party of police to hurry the prisoner along the Ilford road and effectually secure him. In addition to the man then made prisoner, the police captured a boy, whom they also carried off in custody…” (the Penny Illustrated Paper, 15th July 1871)

The man arrested was a Whitechapel cabinetmaker named Henry Rennie. A pitched battle then took place, as the crowd tried unsuccessfully to rescue him. He was later prosecuted, and he was fined 5/- (25p – a fair sum for a working man then), which was paid for him by one of the Forest Gate organisers of the meeting.

“The police were utterly taken by surprise by what occurred. They were expecting something of the kind with regard to Lord Cowley’s fence at the other end of the fence adjacent to the Ilford Cemetery, and had a pretty strong force in reserve there. On Sunday they remained on guard. On Monday, also, they held their ground, it having been rumoured that some persons had determined to try the right of way by passing through Lord Cowley’s inclosure. the leaders, however, were not on the spot, and the rain, descending, dispersed the people who had gathered in expectation of another demonstration.” (the Penny Illustrated paper, 15th July 1871)

Police on Wanstead Flats, July 8th 1871

The demonstration attracted nationwide news coverage, much of it highly critical of the government. A few days later the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, came to view the Flats, after which his administration rushed through the first of a series of acts on Epping Forest, prohibiting further enclosures while a Commission investigated.

In the following month the Corporation of London, concerned at the pace of enclosures in Epping Forest, started proceedings against all the Lords of local manors who had enclosed land.

However, the campaign was just getting going. A pressure group called the Forest Fund, was established in Forest Gate, with local residents such as Charles Tanner, owner of West Ham Hall, forming a key part of the committee. The secretary was William George Smith, a County Court Clerk who lived in Odessa Road, Cann Hall. Smith played a major role in the popular campaign for Epping Forest, working tirelessly over the next few years, organising petitions to parliament from east London vestries (the main units of local government before Councils) and lobbying MPs and voters during elections.

In 1872 the Forest Fund organised a second demonstration on Wanstead Flats, timed to coincide with a further parliamentary debate on the future of Epping Forest. By this time the City of London Corporation had entered the fray, using their rights as Epping Forest commoners to bring legal action against the Lords of the Manor in the forest to stop enclosures. In doing so the City was seizing an opportunity to win popular support among Londoners. London’s government was increasingly seen as outdated for a modern city, and the City of London represented for many an undemocratic and unaccountable elite.

Election poster from 1874, with enclosures as the leading issue

From 1875, the Corporation of London negotiated purchase of land from all the manors of Epping Forest; and enclosed land was reopened for all, including Wanstead Flats. The events at Wanstead and the previous action of Tom Willingale at Baldwins Hill had prompted this – we will return to Tom Willingale in November…

A combination of the Corporation’s legal action and parliamentary action by radical London MPs finally led to the Epping Forest Act passed 140 years ago. But it was direct action by East Londoners that was the crucial spur…

One reason why the Flats attracted so much support was their popularity with Eastenders for recreation. The East End having a huge working class population with few gardens and a shortage of open space, Wanstead Flats and Epping Forest were often crowded with people looking to escape the crowded dirty city for a few hours. Festivals and fairs were often held there, as Arthur Morrison recalled:

“WHIT MONDAY ON WANSTEAD FLATS

There is no other fair like Whit Monday’s on Wanstead Flats. Here is a square mile or more of open land where you may howl at large; here is no danger of losing yourself as in Epping Forest; the public-houses are always with you; shows, shies, swings, merry-go-rounds, fried fish stalls, donkeys are packed closer than on Hampstead Heath; the ladies’ tormentors are larger, and their contents smell worse than at any other fair. Also, you may be drunk and disorderly without being locked up – for the stations won’t hold everybody – and when all else has palled, you may set fire to the turf.” (Arthur Morrison, Tales of Mean Streets, 1895.)

Twenty years after the direct action which saved the Flats were also the venue for a ‘free speech fight’, as anarchists holding open air public meetings there were targeted by police and local press.

In 1946-7, the Flats were also threatened, as plans to build on them to house thousands of eastenders displaced by WW2 bombing were drawn up. Protests against the plans forced them to be shelved (we will come back to this later this year…

… and Take Back Wanstead Flats campaigned against the temporary building of police operations bases for the run-up to and duration of the 2012 Olympics… photos here

Today in London riotous history, 1691: the occupants of the Alsatia sanctuary battle the sheriffs.

Was ever such impudence suffer’d in a Government? Ireland‘s Conquer’d: Wales Subdu’d: Scotland United: But there are some few spots of ground in London, just in the face of the Government, unconquer’d yet, that hold in Rebellion still. Methinks ’tis strange, that places so near the Kings Palace should be no parts of his Dominions: ‘Tis a shame to the Societies of the law to Countenance such Practices: Should any place be shut against the Kings Writ or Posse Comitatus?
(Thomas Shadwell, 
The Squire of Alsatia, 1688.)

Though now a sterile emptiness of offices, the area around the old Carmelite monastery at Whitefriars (originally located where Northcliffe House is now) was in medieval times a Liberty, an area of old outside the jurisdiction of City authorities.  Originally because it was church property, crimes were subject to church law, not civil law. A felon escaping to a Liberty ‘by ancient usage’ could claim sanctuary from the temporal authorities for forty days… After that in the main, they would have to give away their goods and be banished. Some crimes were excluded from right of sanctuary, (eg treason, menacing the safety of the crown, sacrilege… Burglary, highway robbery and some other crimes were later exempted too.)

As a result the area (as with other Liberties) grew to be a to some extent a refuge from prosecution, and later, a ‘rookery’, a no-go area of runaways, criminals, debtors and the rebellious poor, who defended themselves and each other against arrest and interference by the authorities. It was a jumble of winding streets and crowded rooms, becoming known as Alsatia, named after the no-mans land of Alsace, on the French-German border.

Claims were still made for sanctuary here long after the right had been abolished in law. Attempts to build decent houses on the site were frustrated, partly as it was still beyond the Lord Mayor’s and the City’s jurisdiction. Some respectable citizens still lived there, even aristocrats.  But most houses gradually became subdivided into tenements and overcrowded garrets.

The authorities would make occasional raids, but even when they did manage to force there way into the rookery, the inhabitants would often flee to other slums in Southwark, or the Mint, and return when the heat had died down; or else resist they would the incursion of the law by force.

Gradually Alsatia became inhabited by debtors, insolvents, criminals, refugees from the law: “a large proportion were knaves and libertines, and were followed to their asylum by women more abandoned than themselves. The civil power was unable to keep order in a district swarming with such inhabitants… Though the immunities legally belonging to the place extended only to cases of debt, cheats, false witnesses, forgers, and highwaymen found their way there. For amidst a rabble so desperate no peace officer’s life was in safety. At the cry of “Rescue” bullies with swords and cudgels and termagant hags with spits and broomsticks, poured forth in hundreds; and the intruder was fortunate if he escaped back to Fleet Street, hustled, stripped and pumped upon. Even the warrant of the Chief Justice of England could not be executed without the help of a company of musketeers.”

A number of neighbouring shops had back doors or cellar gates into Whitefriars, which allowed shelterers to escape into the area, if chased by bailiffs or creditors. In 1581 the widow Pandley was accused of having “a backdoor into the white fryers, and for receiving of lewd persons, both men and women, to eate and drinke in her cellar…” The famous Mitre tavern in Fleet Street (later at the site Hoare’s Bank) had a door which led into Ram Alley, “by means whereof such persons as do frequent the house upon search made after them are conveyed out of the way.” The Inner Temple, immediately adjacent to Whitefriars, was used by rogues to escape; it also had its own right of sanctuary. Sometimes even the lawyers fought off the sherriff’s men or debtors, as they jealously guarded their own rights.

Ram Alley (later Hare Place or Hare Court, parallel to Mitre Court, down from the footway to Serjeants Inn into the temple) had the longest record of infamy. In 1603, the neighbouring Inns of Court were “greatly grieved and exceedingly disquieted by the many beggars, vagabonds and sundry idle and lewd persons who daily pass out of all parts of the City into the Temple garden [through Ram Alley] and there have stayed and kept all the whole day as their place of refuge and sanctuary” making the place “a common and most noisome lestal” (dunghill).

A gateway in the eastern wall, standing in the centre of Kings Bench Walk was the main doorway from one to the other, an ancient wooden gate. This was temporarily closed on occasion, as when there were brawls in the rookery. The Alsatians, when faced with a posse in strength, or a file of musketeers, found other ways of legging it into the Temple, such as a broken wall in the kitchen garden, a door in the wall of the Kings Bench office, which was a frequent point of fighting between Temple lawyers and the slum-dwellers. It was often barred and bolted against the Alsatians, and repeatedly broken down. When the Temple finally ordered the Whitefriars Gate bricked up in July 1691, a desperate battle followed, as workmen paid to brick up door were attacked repeatedly by Alsatia’s inhabitants, who pulled down the bricks. A Sheriff and his posse waded in, but the riotous rookery crew fought them off; managing to grab part of the Sheriff’s chain of office, and killing one of the posse in the fray”

“1st July 1691: The benchers of the Inner Temple, having given orders for bricking up their little gate leading into Whitefryars, and their workmen being at work thereon, the Alsatians came and pull’d it down as they built it up: whereupon the sherifs were desired to keep the peace, and accordingly came, the 4th, with their officers; but the Alsatians fell upon them, and knockt several of them down, and shott many guns amongst them, wounded several, two of which are since dead; a Dutch soldier passing by was shott thro’ the neck, and a woman into the mouth; sir Francis Child himself, one of the sherifs, was knockt down, and part of his gold chain taken away. The fray lasted several hours, but at last the Alsatians were reduced by the help of a body of the kings guards; divers of the Alsatians were seized and sent to prison. (Narcissus Luttrell’s A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs from September 1678 to April 1714. Vol. 2, pp.259-260.)

The battle led to a mass raid by the authorities; seventy of the inhabitants were rounded up, and the supposed leader of the Alsatia Mob, ‘Captain’ Francis or Winter absconded, only to be captured nearly a couple of years later and tried for murder. He was convicted and hanged in Fleet Street in 1693.

27th April 1693: The sessions is now, where capt. Winter who headed the mob about 2 years since in White Fryars against the sheriffs of London, where 2 or 3 persons were killed, was found guilty of murder, and 2 persons swore at that time he proclaimed king James. (Luttrell, Vol. 3, p.86.)

Read the Ordinary of Newgate’s account of Captain Winter and his death.

Other more secret routes to and from Alsatia were blocked up after complaints from respectable neighbours; one example being a shop and house in Falcon Street, off Fleet Street, belonging to one Davies, a tailor: through which came “a disorderly crowd of outlawed persons which dare not show themselves abroad in the streets.”

In 1696, a tailor who tried to seize a debtor who had taken refuge in Alsatia, was grabbed by locals, tarred and feathered, then tied to the Strand maypole. There were more battles with the lawyers in 1697, but shortly after the authorities decided they’d had enough, and the Sheriff’s men cleared the rookery for good. Parliament also passed an act to tighten up the law in relation to chasing down of debtors

Its inhabitants no doubt dispersed to other rookeries and slums, maybe to Chick Lane, Turnmill Street or Saffron Hill…

Read loads more on Alsatia and other debtors’ sanctuaries

Today in London healthcare history, 1978: Bethnal Green Hospital staff launch Work-in

The Bethnal Green Hospital in East London served the local population as a community hospital valued for its continuity of care and accessibility to local residents. Hospital staff at Bethnal Green were told in October 1977 that the local Area Health Authority wanted to reduce services at the hospital to just care of the elderly. A campaign was mounted to safeguard its future.

In the early-mid 1970s, with pressures on the NHS mounting as life expectancy became longer, but global economic meltdown having a sharp effect on resources, successive UK governments made decisions which would have a long term effect on hospital building and closures. This would have a particular impact in London, considered to have a disproportionately high number of acute hospital services compare to the rest of the country, especially the north of England. The Labour government elected in 1974 adopted a policy of relocation of resources from the southeast to the north of Britain; in NHS terms this was focused through the Resource Allocation Working Party, set up in July 1975.

In reality, however, RAWP represented not a massive increase in resources to other regions of the UK – in the context of the recession, it meant merely that these areas were being cut slightly less severely than in London.

And cuts in London were to become very harsh.

The Bethnal Green Infirmary in London’s East End opened in 1900, built on land purchased from the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews.  The 4.5 acre site had previously contained a chapel – the Episcopal Jews’ Chapel – and had been known as Palestine Place.  The clock from the demolished Chapel was installed on the tower of the administration block.

The three-storey red brick building was designed to accommodate 669 patients and was intended mainly for the chronically ill (by 1901 it had 619 in-patients) and this remained so until WW1.

In 1915 civilian in-patients were moved to St George-in-the-East Hospital or to the workhouse in Waterloo Road and the military authorities took over the building for wounded soldiers – it became the Bethnal Green Military Hospital under the London District Command.  It had 709 beds for wounded and sick servicemen.  During this time a pathology laboratory was installed.

Only in 1920 did all the patients and staff return.  A wider range of services were added, including an Orthopaedic Clinic, established at the request of the Ministry of Pensions, to provide treatment for ex-servicemen with damaged joints. By 1929 Casualty and X-ray Departments and admission wards had been opened and an operating theatre was being constructed.  There was also a VD clinic (which closed in 1952).

The LCC took control of the administration in 1930, when the Hospital had 650 beds, of which 551 were occupied.

During WW2 the Hospital suffered minor bomb damage. In 1948 it joined the NHS as the Bethnal Green Hospital and came under the control of the Central Group of the North East Metropolitan Region.  By this time it had considerably fewer beds, just over 300.

In 1953 there were 313 beds, with an average occupancy of 260.

A geriatric unit was established in 1954.  In the same year the Group Pathology Laboratory was sited here and served the Central Group hospitals – Mile End Hospital, St Leonard’s Hospital, East End Maternity Hospital, St Matthew’s Hospital, Mildmay Mission Hospital, the London Jewish Hospital and the Metropolitan Hospital(all of which have now also closed).

During the 1960s a new dental hospital, a pathology institute and a School of Nursing and Midwifery were established.  In 1966 the Postgraduate Medical Education Centre opened.  In the same year the Central Group was dissolved and the Hospital joined the East London Group.

The Obstetrics Department closed in 1972.  In yet another NHS reorganisation in 1974, during the first wave of cutbacks in the NHS, the Hospital passed to the control of Tower Hamlets District, under the auspices of the City & East London Area Health Authority.  In the same year the Gynaecology department closed.

From 1977 the role of the Hospital changed from acute to geriatric care, with 167 acute beds closing and being replaced by 120 geriatric beds for the patients transferred from St Matthew’s Hospital.

When plans to heavily cut the hospital services were announced in 1977, a campaign to defend them and try to overturn the decision was launched. The hospital was still working to capacity, and its patients would have nowhere to go if its facilities were withdrawn, except to extend already over-long waiting lists.

As socialist doctor David Widgery noted, the cuts took “no account of social deprivation or incidence of disease in awarding resources, relying simply on out-of-date mortality rates. The result is a geographical interpretation rather than a class one, generating the lunacy of designating areas like Tower Hamlets, hackney and Brent as possessing more than their fare share of resources, which are therefore deemed suitable for siphoning off to East Anglia.” Widgery, a junior casualty officer in the hospital, was elected hair of the Save Bethnal Green Hospital Campaign.

A Tower Hamlets Action Committee was established with over 700 people attending the first meeting held on 24th November 1977. The campaign included support from GPs, regular picketing of the hospital, huge meetings and strikes and stoppages across East London…

On the 28th January 1978 over 500 attended a march from Weavers Field to the London Hospital to protest at the closures.

In March it was agreed that a regular picketing of the hospital should take place to highlight the plight of the hospital

On the 16th March 1978 at another huge meeting Bethnal Green Hospital was declared unanimously a “protected hospital”

A planned march against hospital closures in East London arranged by Plaistow Hospital campaign on 18th March was banned by the police due to events at the anti-fascist protest in Lewisham in August 1977.

10th March a 2 hour stoppage was staged in five East London hospital’s in opposition to the health cuts

30th March 1978: East London Hospital unions called strike action in nine hospitals for between six and twenty four hours, the Royal London and Mile End hospitals stop all routine work for 24 hours. Strikes had spread to local brewery workers, posties and printers. 800 campaigners marched to the Health Authority headquarters to protest.

102 East End GPs had signed a letter objecting to the cuts.

Meanwhile, the staff decided to ‘occupy’ the hospital.

On 1st July 1978 at 8pm, the time of the official closure, the hospital staff, applauded by a large crowd of local people and filmed by the News at Ten (ITV) put up a notice announcing the occupation of the casualty unit at Bethnal Green hospital. Detailed arrangements are made with medical staff, GP’s , the Emergency Bed Service (EBS) to guarantee admissions and safety. The first hospital casualty work-in in history began, with patients arriving at 8:02.

The only people to move out of the hospital were the administrators. Doctors, nurses and other staff continued to perform their duties, GP’s continued to refer patients, locals continued to attend the casualty department and ambulance drivers continued to respond to emergency calls.

While patients remained at the hospital, the health authority had a duty to pay staff salaries – and so the occupation took effect.

On the 30th July managers arrived at the hospital threatening staff with legal action, nursing staff instruct under threat of dismissal to move, medical staff who refuse to do so were “harangued” and threatened. The Bethnal Green Hospital work-in was called off on 30th July 1978 having treated over one thousand local patients.

An account of the campaign written shortly after the smashing of the occupation:

“The Green is a medium sized general hospital in a part of East London with notoriouly high incidence of illness and a community health service which is only now emerging from decades of neglect. It has about 280 in-patient beds and sees nearly 48,000 cases each year in its casualty and outpatient clinics.

It is no medical derelict; from the specialist hip replacement unit, its patients’ kitchens, reputed to be the best in East London to its excellent postgraduate Medical Centre it’s a busy working hospital with high medical standards and unusually good relations with general practitioners.

But, Enter The Cuts. The Tower Hamlets District not only have the national nil-growth ceiling now strictly enforced by the cash limit which was introduced as part of the IMF’s loan terms. It also has the RAWP (Regional Allocation Working Party) tax to pay.

RAWP is a classical social-democratic cock-up; designed to level up the regionally uneven levels of medical spending noted by socialist critics in the 1960s. Now in the 1970s it has become a formula for rationalising cuts. RAWP shifts still more money out of the Thames regions, long overdue fireproofing and internally financed pay increases for junior doctors further reduce the Tower Hamlets District coffers already ravaged by the rocketing supply costs, especially of drugs.

It’s a national story but East London is feeling the full impact first and hardest. The Tower Hamlets Health District are attempting to ‘save’ £2 million or 300 beds (beds aren’t strictly the things with mattresses on but a unit of medical currency). This abolishes at a stroke, 1 in every 3 acute bed in the district although last winter the existing beds were frequently chock-a-bloc.

The scheme was to smother the Green quietly, under the guise of a conversion, labelled temporary but likely to be permanent, to an all geriatric ghetto. This would achieve the rquired acute beds cut without involving the other better organised hospitals and care.

But the plan blew up in their face and the battle to save the Green has achieved the widest working class action against the cuts so far in London this year.

An increasingly vicious management succeeded in smashing the 24-hour casualty work-in which had run throughout July on 1 August by withdrawing staff and threatening senior medical staff involved with legal action. But it has proved a Pyrrhic victory and at the Council, the Community Health Council, the hospital and general unions against them and the East London public in angry mood.

There is now no chance of conversion to the all-geriatric unit unless at least some of the demands of the Campaign – retention of medical beds, open X-ray services, the Postgraduate Centre, a 9-5 Casualty Station – are met.

What is important to realise is the very slender basis from which the campaign was nursed. The Green has an unhappy trade union past and was clearly seen by management as a push over, especially since the all-geriatric future gave the impression that jobs would be safe.

For months a tiny committee of staff who wanted to make a stand, and local people, did careful groundwork, sat through visiting know-alls who would monopolise a meeting and not be seen again, petitioned GPs, tried to change the pessimistic mood inside the hospital. Only two years ago when the Metropolitan, a Hackney hospital opened in 1886, was closed, its secretary said, ‘The staff have been incredibly loyal and have steadfastly refused to strike and now it is us who face the chop’. The Green could easily have had the same obituary.

Carefully argued critiques of the plans were put into the complicated ritual of paper shifting called ‘consultation’ but at the same time Green campaigners knocked, wrote, and implored the entire local trade union movement to rise to the issue.

After two highly successful public meetings, the biggest the York Hall could recall, the Campaign called its first two hours stoppage on 10 March and in much trepidation. Myrna Shaw, NALGO shop steward remembers:

‘We stepped out of this hospital yesterday to give two hours to the community and in the true spirit of the East End we found the community waiting for us.

‘Anyone who could not be stirred by the sight must be dead. There were the massed banners of the trades councils and the trade unions. The Ambulance men were there and the Tenants’ Associations. St. Bartholomew’s turned up and St. Leonards, St. Mathew’s and St. Clement’s.

‘We picked up contingents from Mile End Hospital and The London on the way. Hospital chaplains marched – so did doctors, nurses, social workers, town hall staff, GLC staff, people from the breweries, local industries and teachers. Apologies to anyone left out.

‘If you lost your place in the procession it was hard to find anyone you knew when you went back. Best of all our own staff marched – from every Department in the Hospital’.

Behind that unity lay careful groundwork. 103 local GPs had been canvassed and stated that the closure was ‘a disastrous mistake’. The local community nurses stated ‘it would be difficult for us to cope with a large increase in our work load even if our staffing levels were increased’.

The social workers stated ‘The hospital has greatly enhanced the service we are able to give, its loss would greatly diminish it’. But the 1974 re-organisation scheme has established a pattern of medical autocracy which is virtually impossible to dent with reason and damned hard to affect with force.

After a three month reprieve which was clearly designed to defuse rather than encourage the supporters, instructions were issued for closure of the Casualty, the first step in the change of use, on 1 August at 8.00 p.m.

Once a closure date had been stated, down to the hour the phoney war was over. A Joint Trade Union Co-ordinating Committee elected by the East London Health Shop Stewards had been arguing out the implications of the Green’s closure for the general patterns of cuts in East London and tightening up its own organisation and communications.

When it called strike action, even at notice of days rather than weeks, the response was splendid. The day before the attempted closure nine local hospitals stopped simultaneous, St Barts and The London were solid for 24 hours, and many industrial supporters came out spontaneously too. 300 locals were outside the hospital gates as 8.00 p.m. arrived and at 8.01 a sign went up ‘Casualty OPEN under staff control’. Within minutes, long planned agreements with the ambulance and emergency bed service unions went into action.

Over the next few weeks, the Casualty, which the administration still insisted was closed, saw and treated more patients than in the same month the previous year. And the pickets outside the hospital now really had something to defend. The six point motion moved by Mrs Henrietta Cox of NUPE had done its work in each respect:

The staff of Bethnal Green Hospital declare that the Casualty Department will stay open. We declare we have no confidence in the DMT. We resolve to elect a committee representing all the staff to make sure casualty runs as usual. We call on ambulance staff, the BBS and local GPs to support us. We call on workers in other London hospitals to take any action necessary to support us. We call on our unions to organise supportative action. We ask the people of East London to support us!

It took the management a full month to break the Casualty work in. After early attempts to withdraw staff and victimise the other hospitals and ambulance men who defied their official instruction that the Green was closed, direct and legal pressure was put on the rebel consultants and nursing staff forcibly transferred within the district.

It is important to realise that a work-in is not a universal panacea. Its remarkable success at the EGA depends on the special cases of consultants in the very specialised women-treating-women field, for which no real equivalent alternative can be offered. But in most hospitals, consultants can be only too easily bought off with promises of new, perhaps better, facilities in other hospitals in the districts.

And such is the independent power of the consultant in the NHS structure that medical work simply cannot continue without their approval, even though they are are only on the premises for a small part of the time. Management, too, are learning from the EGA, especially in finding ways to pressurise nursing staff who are most vulnerable to hospital discipline.

The Bethnal Green work-in could never have worked without the very remarkable devotion of a consultant physician John Thomason and the hospital’s casualty officer, Kutty Divakaran.

But the Health Authority still hold the trump card: the ability to transfer staff. Short of running an alternative private health service, paid for by collection, within the hospital there was little to do but protest when an ‘Invisible Hounslow’ took place.

There was further strike and public protest on the day of the final forced closure. But the battle has now moved into a second phase, to prevent the conversion to the all-geriatric dumping ground so many staff and locals oppose because its notorious effect on morale and nursing and medical standards by insisting the remaining medical, postgraduate, X-ray, ECG and outpatient services stay put.

This time round it will be that much more simple to convince the Community Health Council, the Council and the statutory bodies who found the initial package plausible, of the real intent of the management; quite savage cuts in a area which is crying out for more resources. And to prevent the destruction of an excellent community-based hospital with no planned alternative.

Already there are ‘lessons’ galore. DMPs all over the country are finding increasing resistance to their attempts to enforce cuts. Not only are older community hospitals like St Nicks and The Green (which do need change but, with imagination, could find an important inner city role) being forced into closure, but completed new hospitals are unstaffed, and long promised and long needed facilities, such at Hemel Hempstead are postponed. 30 threatened hospitals joined a torchlit vigil on the 30th Birthday of the NHS in London alone.

Despite the BMA and Ennals, medical staff and unions are finding common cause and using sophisticated types of industrial action to force their case – at a time when the rest of the labour movement has its fists firmly in the pocket. Occupations live, it seems, in the NHS, if they have been forgotten in Clydeside. For the Bethnal Green battle and that of the EGA and Hounslow before it, will have to be repeated all over Britain as we descend further, further down the course established by Ennals, who is to British hospitals what Henry the Eighth was to British monasteries.

Here in East London the particular emotional significance of the hospital, and the genuine gratitude felt to the NHS, has given the campaign a moral pungency and unity which have done something to revive the flagging fortunes of East London labour whose greatest days seemed all to be in the Museum. With the steadfastness of the young Bengalis in Brick Lane, the limbering up of the docks unofficial committee and the fightback on the hospital cuts, the sleeping lion of East London labour is stirring.

If hospital workers just plead for passive support, it’s simply a case of wishing them well. But once the hospital unions take strike action or mount a work-in, the question becomes active. We are doing something, what are you going to do? Suddenly the all powerful authorities can look extremely isolated.

As for the politics of the situation, the weakness of the Communist Party is quite startling. Even ten years ago they would have delivered a formidable industrial punch but now their support is well-meaning, inexperienced and a bit airy fairy.

The left of the Labour Party, especially ousted councillors, have been excellent but must face the fact that it is a Labour minister, Roland Moyle who gave the Green the Ministerial Kick in the teeth. Even Mikardo, who has taken up The Green like the fighter he is, may oppose cuts in his constituency but voted for the package nationally. On the ground it has been independent trade union activists, local socialist feminist groups and the SWP who have run the campaign.

The lack of response from the hospital unions at a London level or nationally has been truly scandalous. Reviewing the annual conferences this year, it’s clear that the bureaucracy considers cuts were last year’s thing. It seems even possible that NUPE and the DHSS have an agreement, off the record, to let certain hospitals go without a fight.

Fisher has made not one visit to a hospital where his members are putting their necks on the block against the very cuts that he used to establish his own credibility as a campaigning union leader. The informal networks, Hospital Worker, and now the excellent Fightback co-ordinating committee based on the shell of Hounslow Hospital have been worth 100 times more than another Alan Fisher TV appearance.

The success of the cuts is not just a financial saving and a worse service. It is a code word for a social counter-revolution, a crueller, harsher Britain. The hospital service planned for us will consist of highly centralised (and incidentally absurdly expensive) units run more and more like factories to achieve maximum efficiency in ‘through-put’ and a few sub-hospitals for geriatrics and sub-normality practicing third world third-class custodial medicine. The sick who fall between those two stools will have to trust its luck to something called the community’ which is itself busy being destroyed.

It is this Dismal New World every cuts battles faces head on. And because of the degree to which the Labour Party has become the agent of financial capitalist orthodoxy, that even the most minor closure has to be fought up to cabinet level. The battle against the cuts, like the battle for the right to work, are part of a bigger battle to reshape the priorities of modern Britain. If it seems at times unrewarding, it is where real socialists should be building.

(taken from International Socialism, June 1977)

In the end, the surgical beds closed in 1978 and the remaining medical beds in 1979.

The Bethnal Green work-in may have been defeated in the most immediate terms. However, as the first occupation of a casualty ward, it received a huge amount of publicity, and encouraged a succession of hospital occupations and work-ins, from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson work-in onwards.

In 1990 the Hospital closed entirely.  Patients and staff were transferred to the newly opened Bancroft Unit for the Care of the Elderly at the Royal London Hospital (Mile End).

Here’s a short film on the later campaign to keep the rest of the Bethnal Green Hospital open, dating from 1984

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London transport history, 1995: the second Fare Dodgers Liberation Front tube party ends in arrests

‘For millions of us, riding on the tube is mostly a means of getting to work. Often it’s the most unpleasant part of the working day, and the bosses expect us to pay for it out of our own pockets! The bastards should be paying us! Every worker who’s not completely resigned to their miserable lot knows that a spot of theft and sabotage help to brighten up the working day. So lets extend this into the miserable journey into work – let’s refuse to pay their fares, and while we’re about it, let’s fuck up their advertising campaigns, their ticket barriers, their surveillance systems… Let’s use our imaginations!’

(Artful Dodger, Fare Dodgers’ Liberation Front news-sheet)

[NB: This post was written by a former cadre of the Fare Dodgers Liberation Front, South London commando… As originally posted there was a typographical error which may have caused offence, apologies to anyone who read that version, it’s been corrected. And the proofreading dept has been sacked. Again.]

In April 1994 London Underground introduced Penalty Fares for people caught travelling on the London tubes without a ticket. ‘Fare-dodging’ like this was a normal practice then – thousands would ‘jump’ the tube (and the bus). It was just part of daily life. Until the early ’90s it was pretty easy – very few stations had gates or barriers, many of the guards and workers couldn’t care less… Fare-dodging across a massive city where travel was in fact quite expensive (more expensive in some cases than now, definitely on the buses for instance) was necessary for people on the dole, on low pay – paying your way was not even viable for lots of us. But many more also far-dodged, just because they could get away with it.

This was pre-Oyster, pre-digital, pre-‘debit card as your travel pass’ days… It was like the wild west.

Even with the gradual introduction of barriers on the entire underground (a process midway at the time), there were so many ways of getting away with not buying a ticket. If your local station had a gate, the next one down often didn’t; or you could nip behind someone else when they put their ticket/travelcard through. This last was fine art – if you were nifty sometimes the person in front never even realised what you were up to… Other times they did and you could see the sympathetic grin, although there was occasionally the outraged double-take – “why should you travel free while I pay!?!” There was also the myriad portfolio of tricks based on the travel card – the (usually) daily ticket giving you a days’ travel for a set price… If you were only off underground late in the day, you could often buy one in the late afternoon/early eve for a quid (generally also supporting street homeless who tended to resell them), or get one free from a friendly face… Flash an old one at a guard too quick for them to really read it (a hugely satisfying version of his was the fact that some travelcards bought in newsagents had the date rubberstamped on then, but didn’t register the date until it went through a ticket machine. So if you used it on the day you bought it – stamped – but only on the bus, you could use it again only on the tube for another day, and get 2 days travel for the price of one! Eat your heart out Martin Lewis!) Another trick that sometimes worked was more labour intensive – for the gateless stations, use a travelcard for (say) 8 July, then pencil in a 1 or 2 in front, carefully, dot by dot (tickets then were dot matrix printed), and you had another day’s travel, so long as you only had to show it and they didn’t look too closely… This was art forgery, painstakingly undertaken by the great-grand-children of your monkish chroniclers…

Not paying was just a cultural norm, then. For some, like shoplifting, squatting, it was a weapon of economic struggle against capitalism; for many more it was a matter of survival, if you were on the dole, low paid, tube fares, rising every year – it became harder to travel around our own city. Beyond that, for thousands, it was, why pay, when you could get away with it?

Morals really had nothing to do with it.

All these and more, the many-headed schemes for just not paying your fare were costing London Underground millions.

In 1994 London Underground Ltd (LUL), having finally had enough of the cost of fare-dodging, introduced ‘penalty fares’. Under the London Regional transport (Penalty Fares) Act, anyone caught fare-dodging, travelling without ticket, or on the wrong ticket, by one of the Underground’s ticket inspectors, was to be fined £10 on the spot. (this was later increased to £20). Fare dodging on the bus was to be punished by £5.

LUL were relying on hiring extra ticket inspectors, operating sometimes in plain clothes, and relying on people’s fear of getting caught, not knowing when an inspector would get on the tube.

However, there were major loopholes in this system. Which many hardened faredodgers picked up on pretty quickly. And a small collective of troublemakers determined to publicise them, encourage faredodging and generally muck up the system…

The Fare Dodgers’ Liberation Front was created by a small group of communists and anarchists who lived in South London. A similar project, the Fare Dodgers’ Underground, sprang up in North London. We were tiny groups, not in any way representative of the thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of dodgers… and not trying to be; we were just provocateurs, agitating, stirring the pot…

FDLF propaganda pointed put some of the ways to avoid paying the penalty fares:

“A FEW THINGS YOU OUGHT TO KNOW ABOUT THE PENALTY FARES…”

Penalty fares are the latest attack by London Underground Ltd on its long-suffering passengers. Not only do they want to intimidate us into paying their outrageous fares, they want us to buy our tickets before the start of our journey as well! £10 is sod all for a business man but heart-breaking if you’re on the dole.

But don’t panic! The inspectors who are supposed to enforce this policy have almost no legal powers. They rely on bluff.

The most misleading aspect of the LU propaganda is the way it gives the impression that an inspector can make you pay a penalty fare. This is pure bullshit. The authority for introducing penalty fares comes from the London Regional Transport (Penalty Fares) Act 1992. The Act makes it clear that the only obligation on a person unwilling or unable to pay a fare on the spot is to provide a name and address. The inspector has no power to arrest you. They don’t even have the power to demand proof of identity! If an inspector refuses to let you out of the station this technically constitutes false imprisonment. In practice, you should be careful when you give a false name – inspectors have access to the regularly updates data base which seems mostly to rely on the electoral register. They will insist on checking out the name and address you give them, so it’s best to use one which actually exists. 

If you dispute the reason for being given the fine you can give your name and your reasons to the inspector or in writing within 21 days. A valid reason is that there were no facilities available for buying a ticket at the start of the journey. Surely a ticket window with a long queue is not really ‘available’? Nor is a ticket machine that won’t give change. Maybe you lost your ticket. This is the sort of tack you might try if you want to argue with these prats. Even if you don’t give any reason at all (and assuming they’ve got you correct name and address) the only means LU have of enforcing the penalty fare is by means of a County Court Summons. In other words, collecting their £10 will be similar to collecting the poll tax – almost impossible if we refuse to cooperate!

If you enjoy ridiculous court cases (and have go nothing better to do) it might be worth you going to court – you’ll cost LU far more than £10. A more realistic approach is just to ignore the summons.”
(FDLF leaflet)

We produced thousands of stickers, leaflets, news-sheets, which we spread around as much of the tube network as we could; including guides to how to fare dodge and good sound reasons why. We subvertised (before the word was invented?) hundreds of LUL’s posters trying to scare, shame or embarrass people into not dodging. It is still very easy to remove the rectangular tube ads, take ‘em home, alter them, then slip them back in. The Fare Dodgers’ Underground specialised in this… some sarky takes on LUL’s own anti-faredodging adverts celebrated fare dodging. Sadly only one pic of these has survived – we carried few cameras then, and it was before smart phones made snapping a pic and then slapping it on twitter the main way to record an action…!

Some of the best FDLF sticker ideas were thought up in the pub (usually Brixton’s Duke of Edinburgh, or the Landor in Clapham). We’d get pissed and chuck ideas for slogans around, and pretty silly it would get, sometimes… Some brilliant slogans for stickers came out of pints of Guinness though, eg ‘Why should others pay while we travel free?’ (a spoof on the anti-faredodging complaint ‘why should some people travel free while most pay their way’); ‘Stop the barbaric Trade in Live Commuters’ (referencing the campaign against live animal exports, then a massive issue)… ‘Can’t pay! Won’t Pay!’, and also ‘Can Pay! Won’t Pay!’…

Ticket-operated barriers, then spreading from a few stations in central London, gradually wider across the tube network, were the focus of our ire and creativity. A favourite FDLF sticker for sticking on barriers and ticket machines, read ‘General Ludd Says Smash this Machine!’ referencing the Luddites… old favourites from our early historical readings. Getting through without a ticket became a challenge. One of our posters claimed four people could get through the ticket machines in one go when they opened; which I think we tried but never quite managed! Two was easy, three possible… A few athletic souls like to vault over the gates, but this attracted attention, while slipping behind someone else could be done unobtrusively (sometimes the person you nipped behind didn’t even realise – though every now and again someone would turn round and get all busybody on you.)

We discovered and spread the word about the sensor low on the machine you can cover with your hand to make a gate stay open longer… also chewing gum could be used to jam up ticket machines…

Some of this can still be done… though it’s harder now, as then the gates weren’t everywhere, so you might only have to dodge through behind someone once on a journey.

The FDLF issued a set of ten transitional demands for the immediate improvement of travel on the tube network: unfortunately we can’t recall all of these… and much of our propaganda has been lost in various moves and clearouts! We can’t find the leaflet with the demands on… They did include:

  • Free travel on all tubes, trains and buses all the time;
  • Free toilets on all trains and tube station platforms;
  • Reinstate the litter bins on stations (which had been removed a few years earlier after IRA bombs had been planted in bins);

Tube parties

As a fun way of getting the message out we decided to hold parties on the circle line, which for the uninitiated is what it says on the tin – a circular tube line where trains go round and round (thanks 999…) A great place for a moving shindig… On May 21st 1995, armed with balloon, booze, stickers and leaflets about 30 of us boarded a tube train and held a mini-festival, moving through the train, dancing and drinking, handing out stickers and freesheets… A big laugh in fact.

After the success of this party, we resolved to do it again, on 28 June the same year. Fewer people turned up.

This time, however, the party ended up in two arrests… News of the party obviously got to the transport cops, who tracked the partygoers down and swarmed the festivities. One FDLFer was arrested for carrying stickers meant to put be stuck everywhere on the tubes; the actual charge is lost in the mists of time but was something of the order of “Possessing advertising stickers with intent to something or other”. He was eventually fined…

Another party attendee was arrested as well, but we can’t collectively remember what he was charged with… or what happened.

The FDLF, as we said, was never at heart more than a few people. But it seized the imagination of many more… Our stickers got plastered all over the tube network; the Big issue came looking for an interview, which we decided to do, although our attitude to all media outlets was – and remains – ambiguous. They put us on the cover (not our faces, obviously, no pictures guv). I am still slightly uneasy about that bit, wondering how much we were just massaging our own egos in the guise of ‘getting the word out’… re-reading our answers to their questions a lot of its was bluster and trying to conceal that fact that there were like 5 of us… hmmm.

But the most hilarious aspect of the whole agitation indicated that what kind of impact we had had, if briefly. If you were caught faredodging but claimed to have no money to pay your fine on the spot, the inspectors, having no power to detain you, had to get you to fill out a yellow slip with your address on, the charge, and how much you were supposed to owe them, which they would then demand off you later by post. The ever-so-slightly-weak link in this was that you had no incentive to give a real name and address. They could however check the address did exist, so a real place was useful… The FDLF alerted anyone reading our propaganda to this, and we may (I forget) have suggested that people use a creative false name and our postal address – care of 121 Railton Road, the once-famous 121 anarchist squat in Brixton (some of us FDLFers were involved in helping run the building).

Cue the arrival at 121, over the next few years, by post of a deluge of yellow slips, filled out in a variety of interesting monikers, from cheery folk with no intention of ever paying their fines…

London Underground also attempted to shame faredodgers and intimidate them into paying, with a concerted campaign of posters on the tubes and stations and adverts. These mainly harped on the embarrassment of being caught and the criminal record you could get from arrest. Much of which was nonsense. We set about subverting this campaign, in particular the ads on the trains.

 

The Fare Dodgers Underground proved especially adept at this, producing a series of fine fare-dodging spoofs, nicking some LU tube adverts and converting them with pasted on stories either about fare avoidance, overcrowding or other stuff (depending on the background images etc) & then putting back on the  tube. These penalty fare adverts were sometimes in the form of stories – e.g. there was one with a border made up of dummies and a slogan like ‘don’t be a dummy, pay your fare’, which was changed to something like ‘we’re squashed together like dummies and made to pay for the pleasure’.

The penalty for being caught dodging went up to £20 a few years later; largely because the £10 and the accompanying powers had not worked in the least.

Postscript: “Autistic wank for sad men and their acronyms’

While trying (mostly in vain) to collect info and reminiscences for this post, one correspondent active in our 1990s faredodging agitation wrote recently: “To be honest – although FDLF leaflet is good – in retrospect it all seems a bit of a wank for sad men and their acronyms. But nothing wrong with encouraging future wankers I guess :)”

The ex-FDLFer arrested on the second tube party also pondered on the real significance of our campaign: “Obvious self-criticism: Tube parties are a silly idea unless you’ve got the numbers not to be easily repressed! Always think about what you’re going to do if people get arrested. I could have got away with giving a false name if some idiot hadn’t… A more serious point is that it wasn’t part of any wider movement, it was really just some anarchos doing some pranks. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but we can’t really expect it to achieve very much.”

Both the points above re the real weight of our ‘campaign’ hold a lot of truth. We were tiny groups of politicos trying to tick our oar in, but the actual strength of fare-dodging lay in the fact that it was culturally a normal way of behaving, and for many, an economic necessity. At least we realised this, although, Class War-like, we tried for a laugh to inflate our numbers and pretend we were bigger and more organised than we were. This seemed fun at the time, and though it could be considered a bit pathetic if you stand back and compare our activities with the reality – so what? We said what a lot of people were thinking without pretending that we were ‘leading’ anything, or representing anybody. We kept it up for a while but drifted off to do other things when we got bored. All of us were also heavily involved in a myriad of (probably more significant) movements and struggles at the same time as the FLDF were active. As noted above – there was no evolution to a mass fare evasion resistance based on something beyond individual dodging, and if anything, London Underground eventually ground fare-dodging down – the penalty fares and the imposition of gates had a serious impact. Culturally, too, fare-dodging gradually became less openly acceptable, as it became more difficult to actually do. But a mass movement would have had to be constructed differently to reality; and minuscule groups of activists are not going to be the catalyst for that – or not on their own, at least. Fare-dodging was overwhelmingly in practice an individual act. A mass movement that could have reversed the LU crackdown would have had to be collective. Hard to cross that gap, though it can be done… At the same time, all sorts of social skivery and back alley survival techniques were being repressed as part of a long-term re-adjustment of UK social relations – basically eliminating many scams and loopholes, pushing back against a lot of the ways making a living between the cracks, or even better, avoiding work, evolved over time by millions of us. Making two dole claims, working on the side while signing on, co-habiting, squatting, etc, all was being more or less systematically squeezed. Resistance was sporadic, on a lot of these questions, as with fare-dodging. Many people accepted that scams were shortlived, loopholes bound to be closed, and moved on to new fiddles… Lots more could be written on this… Another time perhaps.

Since the 1990s the culture of London public travel has changed completely… via bendibuses (basically free if you used yer nouse), the introduction of oyster, the abolition of money fares (ie no ability to pay cash on the bus)… the new routemasters (also very dodgeable if you’re nifty). Fare-dodging on the tube still goes on – no stats, but in the last month I’ve observed young folk doing the old ‘dash through the gates behind someone’ trick several times. Which warms the cockles, as ever. Us old folk can nostalge but the needy are out there travelling for free. And will evolve their own methods…

PPS: An old FDLF stalwart writes: “An important point is that the use of personal payment cards for tube journeys (and other means of transport) has effectively decriminalised fare-dodging. If you manage to start a journey without tapping your card (no barriers, barriers open etc) and an inspector catches you then all you have to do is to show a valid debit/credit card – they have no right to accuse you of fraud or to impose a fine, all they can do is charge you an appropriate fare for your journey. In the same way, of course, Amazon Go technology decriminalises shoplifting, but that’s another story…”

Its worth noting that some places have given up collecting fares at all:
https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/luxembourg-free-public-transport/index.html

Today in London healthcare history, 1981: work-in launched at St Mary’s Hospital, against closure

In our continuing series documenting hospital occupations in the UK, of which a number took place between the late 1970s and early 1990s… As ever, any more info on this occupation anyone out there has would be great…

In 1981, 400 staff at the Harrow Road site of St Mary’s Hospital, in West London (which served the Paddington and Kilburn area) decided to organise an occupation and work-in to try to prevent the closure of several departments.

St. Mary’s had been under threat for the preceding four years; only the vigorous opposition of the staff had prevented its total closure. Rheumatology and Rehabilitation wards only opened in 1977 (the first in the District) had been shut in 1979, when the first serious financial cuts affected the NHS.

In 1981 the Hospital had 431 beds, but the Area Health Authority decided that there were too many acute beds in the District, and that the service would be concentrated at the Praed Street site and at St Charles’ Hospital.

Threatened with the immediate loss of the Casualty Department and 100 beds, and eventual closure, (with surviving services to be moved to the prestigious St. Mary’s Teaching Hospital in Paddington), staff declared a work-in on June 26 1981. In the course of this workers twice occupied areas of the hospital—the first time the administration offices were occupied for 13 days, and the second time a ward was occupied for five days, to prevent its closure. On both occasions court orders were used to evict the occupiers.

At a press conference in December 1981, Terry Pettifor, NW Convenor of the London Ambulance Service Shop Stewards, described the effects of the run down of the Casualty at Harrow Road (the major accident unit in the

District) and pointed out that the remaining casualty facilities in the District would be inadequate to cope with the number of casualties which could easily arise in an accident at the nearby Paddington Station or in a major fire. Three wards had already been closed by then.

Police and security guards were brought into the hospital at least four times to support management’s plans. A TGWU shop steward was sacked, and a nurse was suspended for a week, for attempting to prevent the forcible removal of patients from a ward.

At least one report claimed that “Throughout this struggle no more than token support has been gained from the unions involved – TGWU, NUPE, COHSE and the failure of the labour movement to evolve its own strategy on health care has been partially responsible for this state of affairs… The leadership of the TGWU – which has been most centrally involved in the struggle – has effectively washed its hands of any responsibility.
Despite policy won at the 1981 BDC it has consistently refused to mobilise its great industrial strength behind this key battle.”

Several trades unionists active in resisting the closure of St Mary’s were targetted, victimised and sacked by management… Rita Maxim, a TGWU shop steward who stood up to management all the way, was threatened with the sack for refusing to do two jobs; a telephonist was also sacked for leaving work at the end of his shift without waiting for a relief.

This occupation succeeded, at least temporarily, in preventing immediate ward closures, but by 1985 St Mary’s had just 166 beds. The Hospital was due to be closed once Phase 1 of the rebuilding of its mother hospital in Praed Street was completed but, due to financial pressures, it closed prematurely. The wards finally closed on 22nd November.

Services were transferred to the St Mary’s Praed Street building.

Part of the Harrow Road site was taken over by the Paddington Community Hospital, the rest was bulldozed and converted into flats, its canalside location making it an attractive proposition for the middle classes (though the developer apparently later went bust, so it never quite achieved its yuppie promise).

NB: In 1993, when the Accident & Emergency Department, at St Charles Hospital was due to be closed, campaigners resisting this move occupied the office of Chief Executive Neil Goodwin, based in the old St Mary’s building in Praed Street.

Today in London workers’ history, 1972: Briant printing works occupied to prevent closure

Who needs bosses? Workers could take over running things themselves tomorrow without even a hiccup…

The firm of Briant Colour Printing was established in the 19th century, owned by the Kitson  family. In 1968 the firm moved to a brand new custom built factory at 651-87 Old Kent Road, (close to the junction of modern Hyndman Street).

Briant’s Workforce was unionised and highly organised: they had fought for, and won, some of the best pay and conditions going, including getting Mayday off as a paid holiday in the late 1960s. Apparently the workers staged a 24 hour occupation in April 1971 to prevent the management sacking 60 staff, resulting in management postponing redundancies. They also had a long tradition of supporting other workers in struggle… including striking against the Industrial Relations Bill in 1971, and supporting striking miners and dockers in 1972.

Owner Timothy Kitson was a tory MP in 1970s, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Prime Minster Ted Heath). The hardcore autonomy of the Bryant workers was not just irritating to the firm’s management, it was personally embarrassing for him… Shame.

The Kitsons sold Briant in early 1972, to Derek Syder, with James McNaughton, of paper merchants Robert Horne (Briant’s biggest creditor) installed as Managing Director.

On June 21 1972, 150 or so workers were told the firm was going into liquidation. At a mass meeting same day, the workers decided to fight the closure: they secured the place, threw out the liquidating directors & declared a work-in to save their jobs. (One manager caught inside was not allowed to leave till money owed to the social club from management was paid up!)

The Times (24 June 1972) reported: ‘About 150 employees started the ‘work-in’ at the Briant Colour Printing company, Peckham on Wednesday after the management announced the company was going into voluntary liquidation… the workers yesterday showed their determination to stay by moving in bedding and food’.

The workers then ran the factory themselves, (until June 1973, when a new owner reopened it)  a going concern during the work-in, during which they attempted to pay themselves a wage (see below in the attached account for the limitations on this). During the occupation, they published their own paper, the BCP Workers News, on 24 hr rosters, with a 50 strong security crew on a 3 shift system. They managing the plant, sorted out supplies of paper and ink etc, organised liaison with clients… A Management committee was created from the workforce, also a procurement committee. They had local support – “A local militant OAP comes in to make the tea”. The work-in was reasonably successful: they had some problems paying bills, but no services were cut off.

The occupiers barred access to the plant to prospective buyers arranged by liquidators; any sale was therefore presented. Various legal stratagems to remove the occupiers were successfully resisted. A court later heard: ‘Possession orders were obtained against seven defendants in January 1973, but they were not enforced because the liquidator feared that the enforcement would result in an industrial fracas and the destruction of valuable machinery’ (Times 28 March 1977) .

Under occupation, Bryant printed lots of material for other disputes, including the Pentonville 5, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation… In July ’72, after the Pentonville 5 had just been jailed, they led first march to Pentonville Prison, diverting a march of their own to Clerkenwell Green. their staunch support of other workers was returned in kind with mass support for the work-in by other sectors.

The occupation was served with 1000s of writs and injunctions – all of which were burned outside the law courts on Bryant demos! A paper plant in Tower Bridge Road, owned by the Robert Horne group of companies was successfully picketed by the occupiers, for a month. Their logic was that Robert Horne – supplier of paper to Briant’s – was the chief creditor and was responsible for sending the firm into liquidation ‘The picket was very effective, reducing the flow of lorries into the factory, usually 40 to 50 a day, to one or two whose drivers were willing to cross the picket line’ (Times, 14 July 1972, 10 August 1972). These pickets led to the first deployment of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group.

There were even discussions with a prospective buyer, David Brockdorff, to agree a deal that would retain some kind of workers’ control: ‘The work-in has broken new ground by carrying into private enterprise the political basis on which the factory has been run by joint union branches. The plant will be run by a ‘management committee’ composed of representatives from three printing unions – the National Society of Operative Printers (Natsopa), the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (Sogat) and the National Graphical Association (NGA) – and managers put in by the new owner’ (Times, 14.12.1972)

This deal fell through and in May 1973 the company was bought by Peter Bentley, although it seems not everybody kept their job. Workers resumed normal capitalist operations on 3rd July 1973. But this was a false dawn – on 16 November 1973 the new owner closed the factory, sending the 50 remaining employees redundancy notices (some turned up for work to find themselves locked out), and installing security guards and alsatians to keep workers out.

We’re not sure if that was the end of the story – transpontine came across a reference to ‘vicious attacks [by police] on pickets at Bryant Colour Printing in 1974’ (this could be an error in dating by the author, or suggesting workers carried on the struggle after the lockout).

However, even if the occupation thus eventually failed to fulfil its original goal, to save jobs, it was seen by its participants as a success, partly because in the short term it did save jobs, and partly, and more importantly, because the participants felt that their taking action was an important element in the wider struggle against redundancies as well as an exciting learning process for themselves..

In 2002 there was a 30-year reunion in Clerkenwell for people who took part. Bill Freeman, a Communist Party activist, was a prominent figure during the occupation as ‘Father of the Chapel’ (the name for a printing shop steward).

Thanks as ever to Transpontine, the top South East London blogzine, in which a brief description of the occupation can be found…

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

The following account and analysis of the Briant Colour Printing occupation mainly rests on a 62 pages long chapter in a Danish book on strikes and factory occupations in Great Britain during the early 1970s (Knudsen and Sandahl, 1974), a chapter which primarily builds on nine interviews conducted with BCP workers in January 1973 and information obtained from ‘BCP News’, the newsletter that was published by the occupiers.

An outline of the occupation

When it was announced that BCP was to be closed the notice given to the 130 employees was extremely short. On 21 June 1972 the shop stewards (or fathers or mothers of the chapel as they were termed in accordance with traditions in the printing trade)) were called to a meeting at the management office at 1.45 pm. Here, they were told by the managing director and a person who presented himself as the liquidator that BCP was going into voluntary liquidation and was closing immediately so that all workers were dismissed and should not return to work. The worker representatives were told that the workers at a later stage would get as much as possible of the pay and holiday entitlement that the company owed them. The reasons given for the closure were that BCP had recently incurred heavy losses and that the main creditor, the paper wholesaler Robert Horne Group, was not willing to grant further credits or postponement of payment of debts.

After the meeting the shop stewards briefly discussed the situation with each other. They decided to call a meeting for the whole workforce and to put forward the proposal of an occupation. The idea of an occupation was not alien to them. They knew about the prolonged one that had taken place at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) and others such as the ones at Fisher Bendix in Kirkby and Plessey in Alexandria, and they had themselves taken the initiative to a one-day sit-in in April 1971 against a management proposal to reduce staff. In the atmosphere of chock and anger that characterised the feelings among shop stewards as well as the entire workforce, the idea of an occupation appeared as the only alternative to going home without a job and without pay for work already done. The meeting unanimously decided to occupy the premises. It all happened very quickly. Bill Freeman, a shop steward who was to become the formal as well as de facto leader of the occupation, formulated it like this:

“At 3 o’clock we had the factory completely under our control. There were guards by all doors, all windows were barricaded, and nobody or nothing could get out of or into the factory without our consent. At 1.45 they had told us to get out; at 3 we had thrown them out.”

The decision to occupy was a spontaneous decision; it was triggered by what was perceived as an utterly unjust and irrational management decision, a decision that provoked a strong sense of anger and of having been conned and let down. BCP was a relatively modern and technologically up-to-date print shop. In 1967 the firm had established itself in new buildings and with modern machinery at the Old Kent Road. Due to economic recession and increased competition the years 1970 and 1971 had been difficult ones for BCP, with a turn-over that was well below the capacity of the establishment. In July 1971, apparently after pressure from the Robert Horne Group, a change in ownership took place. A Mr. Syder, who already was established with several firms in the printing industry, bought the establishment for merely £27,750. In May 1972 a new managing director was appointed. The post was given to a person who had formerly been a director at Hornes. At a meeting with the shop stewards, less than two months before the liquidation announcement was given, the new managing director promised a bright future for the BCP including increasing turn-over and substantial investments in new equipment. Actually, things did look bright at that time. Turn-over in April-May 1972 amounted to £117,000 as against £70,000 in the same months the year before, and the order book stood at £139,000 compared to £47,000 one year earlier.

Against this background management’s contention that BCP was running at a considerable loss sounded odd to the workers. A subsequent attempt by the occupiers to analyse the financial situation of BCP led the workers to the conclusion that the deficit was due to the fact that assets had been transferred to the owner and his other firms. They believed the Robert Horne Group was behind these transactions and, ultimately, the decision to close BCP, perhaps because the group wanted to take over the piece of land at which BCP was placed. What was the real story behind the closure never became known. However, the impression that emerged and stabilised itself among the workers was that the alleged losses were not due to any lack of efficiency and productivity in the print shop or among its workers. Rather, they saw themselves as victims of cold, financial speculations. This interpretation also gained strength due to a particular event at the beginning of the occupation. Whilst the workers thought they had evicted all management representatives (except for foremen who were invited to stay), it turned out that one person had remained in the offices at the first floor of the building. He was found the next day where it also became evident that his task had been to destroy as much as possible of the documents that could shed light on the financial situation of BCP.

After the decision to occupy had been taken the next step was to form an organisation that could govern the occupation. A joint chapel consisting of all workers at BCP was founded and designed as the occupation’s highest authority. It was to function through weekly plenary meetings. The joint chapel elected an action committee that should serve as the joint chapel’s executive body. The action committee had to carry out decisions taken at the plenary, handle contacts with the press, the trade unions and employers as well as act here and now if anything should come up between the weekly meetings. The committee consisted of 12 persons, namely the six shop stewards and their substitutes. One of the shop stewards, Bill Freeman, was elected as chairman of the committee. Later in the process this organisation structure was supplemented with several sub-committees dealing with issues such as production, security, public relations etc.

The first days and weeks of the occupation were full of activities aimed at organising and consolidating the occupation. Although it was decided to call the occupation a ‘work-in’ and continue working, the main concern was to defend the premises against possible attacks from the police. Rotas were organised to ensure that the entrances were guarded at all times, and during the first weeks demonstrations and mass meetings were organised to show that the occupiers were not alone. Thousands of workers showed up at these events to show their solidarity. Other activities were aimed at organising facilities that made it possible to stay at BCP all day and night round: food, beds etc.

However, at the same time the BCP workers continued to work and use their skills as graphical workers. The work was of three types. Firstly, work went into making PR-material for their own action, mainly in the form of a newsletter that was printed in 80,000 copies at certain intervals. Secondly, work was freely supplied to other workers engaged in industrial action. As an example, they supported actions staged by the dock workers, not only by being active in the demonstrations and picketing organised by the dockers, but also by printing posters and leaflets in support of five dock workers who were jailed in Pentonville prison in July 1972 due to allegedly unlawful industrial action. Another example was the printing of a ‘victory bulletin’ for the UCS workers. Thirdly, production on a business basis to some extent continued. Orders that were being carried out at the time of the liquidation were completed, and customers were urged to place new orders. Some existing customers did so, and at the same time new customers, mainly trade unions and left wing organisations, appeared. However, the turn-over, amounting to less than £30,000 for the first six months of the occupation, was only a small fraction of full production.

For this reason, a further important task was to raise incomes that could sustain the occupiers. Two sources were particularly important. One was the trade unions to which the BCP workers belonged, the most important ones being the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT), the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants (NATSOPA) and the National Graphical Association (NGA). They all decided to declare the action staged by the BCP workers official and consequently paid out strike support. The other one was contributions from people who sympathised with the action, whether they came from  print workers in Fleet Street who had signed up for a weekly levy, or from people gathered at trade union meetings, tenants’ meetings, students’ meetings etc. Bill Freeman was enthusiastic about the support:

“Money has come from so to speak everywhere, from all parts of the country, from abroad, from people on the shop floor, shop steward committees, factories, from voluntary collections, tenants’ organisations, political parties, churches, pensioners, even school children have given money, anybody.”

Nevertheless, the occupation was costly to the workers. They had been relatively well paid until the liquidation and now typically experienced a reduction of their income to half of what it was before. In relative terms, some were hit harder than others for the joint chapel took the decision that under the new conditions everybody should earn the same. Among the people who left during the occupation, some 45 out of 130, most probably did so for financial reasons; others left because they were, or became, dissatisfied with the way the occupation was run, including the fact that it continued for such a long time.

The BCP workers at several times discussed their aim: what would be the preferred result of their action? Forming a co-operative was seriously considered, but rejected, among other things because it was expected that many costumers would be unwilling to use a firm that had become known because of the militant act of occupying. This would make it extra difficult to survive in an industry characterised by strong competition. The preferred result therefore became to find a new employer, a person or firm that would buy BCP with the intention of continuing production.

On the basis of their theory that the Robert Horne Group was ultimately responsible for the liquidation the BCP workers attempted to put pressure on this company. Their main weapon was to picket the Robert Horne factory and store in Tower Bridge Road. This took place in the summer of 1972. It came to violent scenes one day when the Special Patrol Group of the police beat up a dozen of workers who were picketing. The news of this attack spread rapidly, and when the London dockers held a mass meeting the next day at Tower Hill they decided to go and take part in the picketing. This resulted in a mass battle between about 1000 picketers and several hundred policemen. The picketing went on for over a month and proved rather effective as it prevented lorries from entering the factory. It had the effect that Robert Horne took up negotiations with the BCP action committee. In order to get the picketing lifted Horne promised a) to help find a new buyer for BCP, b) to grant a new buyer extensive credits, and c) to persuade the present owner, Mr. Syder, to transfer a substantial amount of orders to the new owner. The BCP workers also considered to attempt to force the Robert Horne Group itself to become the new owner, but the idea was rejected because they did not trust that this would be a stable employer.

In the autumn of 1972 negotiations took place between BCP and union representatives on one side and a prospective buyer, David Brockdorff, on the other. By December the unions announced that they had reached an agreement with Mr. Brockdorff, and they put pressure on the BCP workers to accept the deal, among other things by announcing that their financial support to the occupiers would now be withdrawn. The deal seemed to go some way to fulfil the demands of the BCP workers, among other things it envisaged a joint governance structure in which managers put in by the new owners should manage in cooperation with representatives from the three printing unions NATSOPA, SOGAT and NGA (Times, 14.12.1972). However, not all BCP workers were guaranteed employment, and mainly for this reason the deal was rejected by the workers. The negotiation process led to a strained relationship between the occupiers and the unions. As one of the workers put it:

“The unions want it ended as fast as possible, and I don’t think they worry much about what kind of pay and working conditions we get as long it is just gotten over with”.

By then the occupation had become more or less routine, and the days and weeks were increasingly experienced as waiting time, thus challenging the morale of the occupiers. One of the workers explained it in this way in January 1973:

“At times it gets depressing, it gets extremely depressing, especially when there are not many people here, late in the day, and for people who are guarding the buildings during the night…There are a couple of people here who appear to be rather depressed all the time, and they also talk about leaving. But most people only feel like that for shorter periods, and you try to keep the spirit up. In the daytime it is ok here, but after six or seven in the evening there are only a few people here…, and you don’t know what to talk about, if nothing new has happened, everything is very slow”.

In spite of a situation that could be felt like stalemate most workers decided to stay with the occupation. While the offensive to find a new employer had failed so far there was still a defence to put up. In February the liquidator achieved a court order against the members of the action committee for illegal occupation of the factory, with a demand that losses incurred by the factory due to the occupation should be compensated. The BCP workers decided that nobody should appear in court. Fearing that the committee would be arrested they elected a substitute committee, but first of all they reacted by printing and circulating a leaflet asking workers to take part in a demonstration outside the BCP premises on the day the committee was summoned to appear in court. On that day, 13 February, 3-4000 workers were gathered in defence of the BCP occupiers. Among those present were representatives from UCS, from the docks, car factories and from the newspaper print shops in Fleet Street as well many other places. UCS representatives pledged financial support from the UCS struggle fund, and electricians from Fleet Street promised that the newspapers would be totally paralysed if steps were taken to evict or arrest workers from BCP.
The legal system was applied again on 1 March when a new court order was issued, this time only addressed to Bill Freeman. Again the court order was ignored, and again the occupiers experienced that the police abstained from taking action against them.

In May the attempt to find a new owner finally made substantial progress. On 18 May the liquidator signed a contract stating that ownership of BCP was transferred to Peter Bentley. By the end of June an agreement was reached between Mr. Bentley and the chapels at BCP. The new owner offered employment to 58 of those 84 workers who had remained at BCP; the rest were offered jobs at other workplaces. Mr. Bentley promised that during a trial period of at least one year production would be maintained even if it would generate a loss. Under these conditions and under the slightly changed name Briant Colour Print, the print shop began to operate again on capitalist market conditions on 2 July 1973. The spirit was high among the workers. On their first working day they were heard singing and whistling at their jobs, thus celebrating that the long period of uncertainty and financial hardship was over.

However, once more the BCP workers were to experience that promises made by management cannot always be trusted. When at 10 pm on Friday the 16 November the evening shift had gone home from work the new owner sent in security guards who were instructed to make sure that the premises should not be occupied again. On the next day the BCP workers received a letter telling them that they had been dismissed.

After this long process of first uncertainty, then victory, and then defeat, the BCP workers were not prepared to begin a new collective struggle. For several months they continued to have a joint meeting every fortnight where they discussed their common experience and helped each other to find jobs elsewhere. In 2002 an invitation appeared on trade union sites on the internet in which Bill Freeman invited participants and friends of the occupation, including Tony Benn, to the 30th anniversary of the BCP occupation.

The motivation behind the occupation

In a recent article Gall (2010) attempts to explain why workers in some instances when faced with redundancies choose to occupy their workplace instead of behaving in the more mainstream way, i.e. to accept the redundancies while trying to get as much out of the situation as possible through negotiations over notice periods, redundancy payments etc. He identifies five characteristics that, if present in a given redundancy situation, push in the direction of occupation, namely:
–    collectivised nature of redundancy
–    immediate and unforeseen nature of redundancy
–    loss of deferred wages and compensation
–    pre-existing collectivisation
–    positive demonstration effect (from other occupations)

In the BCP case all these conditions were highly present. First, as the entire workforce was made redundant they were all hit in the same way and were facing the same problem, thus it was obvious to interpret it as a collective problem. Second, the redundancies were not foreseen and they were to be implemented without any notice whatsoever. Third, management’s announcement that deferred wages and holiday entitlement would be paid out at a later state, to the extent it would be possible, appeared vague and rather unconvincing. The second and third factors together were active in creating the sense of chock and anger that was predominant among the workers when they took the decision to stage an occupation. Fourth, workers at BCP were unionised and had a fairly strong tradition of acting collectively through their shop stewards, mainly though negotiations with management but also with a preparedness to down tools, one example being the brief sit-in the year before the occupation. Fifth, the workers knew about the series of factory occupations that took or recently had taken place in Britain, notable the one at UCS which received a lot of attention in the media. A few of the workers, one of them being Bill Freeman, had been active in supporting some of the other occupations and were very much aware of the occupation as a weapon that can be applied against redundancies.

Yet, as also pointed out by Gall (2010) even if these favourable conditions apply, as they certainly did in the BCP case, in most cases workers do not decide to occupy their workplace when faced with redundancies or closure. One reason for this is that many people do not perceive an occupation as a legitimate act as it involves breaking the law when workers take control over and to some extent use property belonging to the owners. Workers thus usually have moral concerns that work against the rational, tactical arguments that can be articulated in favour of an occupation. It must be presumed, however, that such concerns are weighed against considerations regarding the morality displayed by the employer. In the BCP case such a comparison of moral standards on the two sides were clearly visible. One worker had this to say about the behaviour of the owner, Mr. Syder:

“We found bills here for the big party he threw when his new swimming pool was inaugurated. I think the bill for the booze alone was £3-4000, he rented a tent, £4000! He had a bill on his Aston Martin from his mechanic, how much? £800! That man is nothing but a simple thief, and still he gets away with it, because he is all the time doing it in the legal way. There is nothing you can do, you know….And he says to us that this firm has to close, because it has been so much run down, you know. It is these people you have to work for, and have to respect, they even think. I mean, I have no respect for that kind of people, you know.”

The decision to frame the occupation as a work-in was also influenced by moral considerations. Bill Freeman explained:

“The occupation is more important than the work-in. The important thing is that you control their property and that they cannot touch it. But we decided to have a work-in because we found that it would be relatively easy for us to run a work-in, contrary to for instance for workers in the heavy industry, and because we thought it would be good for people to have something to do while being here. Plus the fact that it wins the sympathy of the broad population…When we say we demand the right to work and proves it by working it helps psychologically to win the support of the broad population.”

It was clear from the interviews that the BCP occupiers felt strongly offended, felt they were being treated with disrespect (Honneth 1996) and found their own action morally superior to the type of employer behaviour they had been exposed to. Prior to the occupation, the great majority of workers at BCP held rather conventional views about society, politics, law and order. With the decision to occupy the workers went beyond their own norms regarding law and order. In this process, moral outrage served as a driving force just as much more ‘rational’ and interest-based factors of the type identified by Gall (2010).

To a minority among the workers politics also played a motivating role. Within the workforce there was a small group of persons who saw themselves as socialist activists and found it important not just to struggle for own interests, but also to engage in other workers’ struggles. They interpreted the BCP occupation as not just a struggle to defend their own jobs, but as part of a wider class struggle. Bill Freeman, a member of the Communist Party, belonged to this group and described the political motivation like this:

“…we try to show other workers that you can fight an employer, and if we can do it we hope to be part of…UCS has shown it, other people have shown it, and if enough people take this form of action, we should, in due time, be able to build a movement which can completely overthrow this system. I hope so; that is what it is all about”.

If such a revolutionary perspective had not been present among a small, but influential part of the workforce, things might have turned out differently, as witnessed by these reflections by one of the lay workers:

“…most likely we would have left the place after a couple of hours of discussion, but luckily Mr. Freeman had a bit of experience from… other people’s situation outside this industry…Mr. Freeman has been in the executive of the chapel and has always been interested in industrial relations, also outside this trade. He knew about what had happened earlier, and he knew what could be done, or what you can attempt to do to defend jobs.”

With Bill Freeman as leader it was central for the BCP occupation not just to fight for own jobs but to link with other struggles at the time. It appears that the majority of the workers, even if not sharing the revolutionary perspective, supported this active class struggle approach. For instance, several of the interviewed workers expressed their enthusiasm about the close cooperation that developed between the dockers and the BCP workers. One said:

“It was fantastic. It is the first time I have seen two trades so closely connected… It has amazed me how much we actually got involved with each other, while normally, if a trade union has a problem, it fights by itself, alone, you know. We had meetings and demonstrations where the dockers took part, and we took part when they had their problems in the docks and had some blokes put in Pentonville prison”.

To sum up: the motivation behind the occupation consisted in a complex mix of instrumental and moral and political elements. However, one thing is the motivation to occupy, another is how workers manage to sustain an occupation over time, or, in the BCP case, how could the occupation be kept alive for more than a year? This is the theme of next section.

Sustaining the occupation

In particular three aspects merit attention when this question is addressed: the material and moral support received from unions, other workers and sympathisers in general; the significance of conducting the occupation as a work-in; and the specific forms of organisation chosen to govern the occupation.

Regarding the first aspect, the BCP occupiers were themselves very active in attempting to raise support from their unions, other workers and the trade union movement at large. They circulated their newsletter and leaflets widely and travelled up and down the country to speak at solidarity meetings. As described above they were rather successful in promoting their case, and in this way sympathy action as well as fund-raising were stimulated, both vital for the survival of the occupation. Collections of money that could supplement the funds granted by the unions were necessary to guarantee the subsistence of the workers, and, if we are to understand why the occupiers were never confronted with attempts to evict them, the recurring mass demonstrations outside the factory gates were probably a decisive factor. An important part of the total support came from the unions in the printing industry. Although the BCP workers felt that the support from their unions was only lukewarm and that “they could have done a hell of a lot more”, they would of course have been in a much more difficult situation if the unions had failed to make their industrial action official and support it materially.

As a second aspect, the fact that the occupation was organised as a work-in played a significant role in sustaining the occupation. The motives for making it a work-in have already been mentioned. Apart from the publicity argument which helped to raise sympathy and support, the work-in was significant in the sense that it helped making it attractive for workers to stay with the occupation. While the hopes of finding a new employer were frustrated several times there was still something to do within the premises. It was not just the defence of the buildings; there was also work to do, and in this way the occupiers could maintain their identity as print workers. So, in spite of depressing moods among those guarding the buildings during long and cold winter nights most workers felt that it was worthwhile to stay. After the first six months of the occupation the figure of 130 employees had only shrunk to about 100, and when it ended after 12 months there were still 84 workers taking part in the collective action.

In the beginning work mainly consisted in printing posters, leaflets and newsletters for the BCP occupation itself or in support of other workers in struggle. However, BCP also continued to receive commercial orders, partly from old customers, partly from new ones. Although most of the old customers stopped placing orders at BCP some continued to do so. Especially firms that needed reprints of material that existed in print ready form at BCP came back as it would be considerably more costly to have the work done elsewhere. Out of the total production about 60 per cent was commercial work where BCP printed tickets, posters, books, advertisements etc. as they had done before. On top of this, there was work that fulfilled mainly politically motivated orders: from trade union organisations, tenants’ organisations, community groups etc. Prices varied from full market price if the customer was a private firm or an established trade union, to nothing if the customer was a group without resources that the BCP occupiers sympathised with. Bill Freeman explained:

“If it is people in struggle like ourselves, without any money, then we just use the resources of the firm, and that is that. If it is somebody who can pay a little bit, then they just pay for the materials, our labour is free”.

The BCP workers took pride in being able to help other workers by doing what they were good at: printing. At the same time the work-in gave them confidence in their ability to produce without being managed by an employer. In the words of one of the workers:

“…with a sit-in you just occupy the buildings, but with a work-in, like the one we have here, we have shown that we can run the factory, you know. Maybe not so efficiently, you know, but with a little training, with a little time, there is no doubt that we can do it.”

Work was organised differently than prior to the occupation. Together with a representative from the action committee those of the foremen who had stayed on formed a management committee. This committee planned and coordinated production and established manning and time schedules. Functions that before was carried out by office and management staff, such as sales and accounting, were taken over by print workers. Workers’ influence over their work greatly increased while discipline was very much left to the individual workers. The latter was a source to some tensions between workers, as not everyone was equally conscientious in relation to the tasks that had to be done within the new work organisation.

The experience of the work-in was accompanied by lengthy discussions at the joint meetings of the concept of workers’ control. Was workers’ control a desirable goal? How should it be practised? Can it be practised in a capitalist society or only within a different political-economical system? Opinions varied, also when it was discussed more specifically whether the workers should try to buy the firm and form a cooperative. In the end, arguments that are sceptical towards such a solution won the day. Fearing that a cooperative would be blacklisted by other firms, one worker commented that “we would have the whole system against us – it would simply be downhill all the time”. Bill Freeman explained his position – a position that no doubt heavily influenced the decision eventually taken by the collective:

“It is not because we think that any other employer will be much better than the old ones, all employers are alike, you know. Basically, we don’t want an employer at all, we want to change the system – some of us, not all of us, want to change the system. But at the same time it is just unrealistic to try to run this place as a kind of socialist island in a capitalist sea”.

A third factor that was influential in sustaining the occupation was its internal organisation. The three layered structure described above consisting of the weekly plenary meeting, the executive committee (the action committee) and the chairman of the action committee appears to have functioned well in the sense that the organisation managed to solve the many problems and challenges that the occupation was confronted with. It happened in a way in which concerns for democracy as well as efficiency were taken into consideration.

One of the workers vividly explained how the joint chapel meeting, the weekly plenary, helped to integrate and to create a feeling of community:

“I have noticed that when you start a new week then Monday and Tuesday are ok, Wednesday is not so good, and on Thursday and Friday you start quarrelling a bit and everything begins to dissolve. Then on Monday there is a joint meeting and everything is picked up again. It is interesting, you know, everything is melted together again, and it is really very good…I would think that if two or three weeks passed without a meeting it would fall completely apart”.

He also stressed that the meetings appeared more important and exciting than prior chapel meetings. While chapel meetings were rather boring

“now everything is much more important, the joint meetings are interesting, we always get a report on the situation, about the financial situation, about how long we can continue and whether somebody has left the occupation. The meetings always succeed in becoming extremely interesting…Now everyone has something to say about how things should be run in these buildings…You are involved in much more, you are not just a number, you really have a real influence on everything”.

The next layer, the action committee met frequently, often on daily basis. The committee was in charge of implementing the decisions taken by the joint chapel. One of the shop stewards serving on the committee explained how the occupation had changed his daily work:

“I have not worked in the print shop at all during these six months. All my time has been devoted to contacting people, going out talking to people, and there is also a great deal of paperwork involved in it”.

Finally, the organisation consisted of a third layer, the chairman of the action committee who was the charismatic Bill Freeman. It is difficult to overestimate his role during the entire process. Although, as mentioned, his revolutionary views of society and the meaning of the BCP occupation were hardly shared by the majority of the workers, the interviews demonstrate that he was very much respected and looked up to by the workers. A worker, who presented himself as the oldest worker at BCP and as one who had been made redundant six times during his career in the printing industry, had this to say:

“…I have always tried to be an active trade unionist, but I mean Bill is somewhat different from the other shop stewards you meet, some of them don’t really care…When I came here five years ago and saw how the chapels were organised it warmed my heart, you know, really wonderful. Our chapter has always been a strong one. It made me feel really happy, right from when I started here”.

Another worker gave this description of Bill Freeman’s role in the occupation:

“…he is fantastic. He inspires people with so much self-confidence. Many times people have said: ‘We have lost, we are finished, nobody wants to buy us…and that’s it then’, and he says, ‘Well, if we can’t do that, then we will do this’. Never ever during the seven months have I heard him say we have lost. ‘If we stick together, one hundred per cent together, we cannot loose’, he says. It has been like that right from the start. He said, ‘We must win, and if we win, forget what we are doing for ourselves, it will be a victory for the entire people in this country, the entire working class…”.

Beyond success or failure: the occupation as a learning process

In instrumental terms the result of the occupation can hardly be described as a success, let alone victory. If we leave out of account the fact that some 80-100 workers had some kind of job and income during the one year of the occupation, and that some 50 jobs were maintained under the new employer for a period of four months after the occupation, the attempt to use the occupation as an instrument to save jobs failed in the long run.

However, this is not say that the struggle as such that BCP workers put up against redundancies can be categorised neatly as a failure. Saving jobs was the official, instrumental goal of the action, but it was not the only goal, and it was not the only thing that made the action meaningful for its participants. To many of the participants the occupation was first and foremost a protest, a piece of resistance demonstrating that the BCP workers simply would not accept being thrown out of work from one day to the next. Thus from this perspective the important thing was not the instrumental result of the action as such, but the fact that they were resisting. One of the workers, who, in the light of the conditions offered by Mr. Brockdorff, did not expect himself to maintain his job due his low seniority in the firm, put it like this:

“I think we won they day we started. That is my personal opinion. The day we rose up and did not walk out the door as sheep, I think we won then, you know”.

To people like Bill Freeman the sheer deed of putting up a fight against employers’ hegemony over work was also just as important as defending his own and his colleagues’ jobs. They saw the occupation as part of a wider movement that could eventually lead to fundamental changes in the country’s economic system. And even if such wider consequences should not materialise, the idea was that at least some employers might start reconsidering how they treated their workers. One of the not so militant workers felt that the occupation had already had a certain positive impact on industrial relations:

“…if we do not succeed the time has not been wasted, that is how I look at it. The time has not been wasted if we are going to be here for another six months and there is still no solution… Even if we have to walk out of here I am sure it must have done some good, somewhere, you know. Those in power cannot always win as easily as they would like.”

He continued to tell a story of how an officer in his union recently had been approached by an employer who said that he would have to sack some of his employees. He had then added that he did not want “to get another Briant Colour case” in his firm, and had asked the union officer how much he thought it would be necessary to pay on top of the normal redundancy payment to make sure that he could avoid trouble. Therefore:

“Well that’s fine, that’s what I like, that’s what I hope we achieve even if we loose here, do you see what I mean? As I said I am sure we have achieved something. Even if we loose here we have perhaps helped to save jobs in other companies because of this”.

BCP workers thus found themselves recognised and their action appreciated by other workers. In this sense they saw their action as a collective success. Another aspect concerned what taking part in the occupation had meant to them at a personal level. Many of the interviewed workers stressed that the occupation had been an important learning process for them. They had acquired new skills, new knowledge and a changed consciousness as to how industrial relations and society function. A shop steward told how the occupation had been “an education” for him in the sense that he was now much less naïve about how business people are prepared to treat workers. He also noted this about some of his fellow workers:

“People here at Briant, people I personally thought were untalented in the sense that they were only able to do their job, and only that job, they have surprised us by suddenly finding new talents. We have had people to do the accounts, you know, people who can go out and speak at meetings, you know. Things like that which we did not know existed at all in any of these people have sprung up. There are some people here now who feel that they would rather do something else than return to their old job”.

One worker, a middle aged bookbinder, also described how people had developed new skills, technically as well as regarding industrial relations:

“We have learned so much from it. These people up here in the offices have learned more during these six months than what they have learned since they left school…I mean I have learned a lot on the shop floor I must admit, but these people up here have literally learned more about so many things than they have ever learned in the trade. And of course this information can be passed on to any other workplace which finds itself in a similar situation”.

A young bookbinder gave this personal account of how his work life had changed during the occupation:

“Bill asked at one of the meetings if I would take minutes and then it developed from there. I began to usually take the minutes. In the beginning I still tended my old job on the shop floor, but gradually it became difficult to do both things, for there were many meetings at that time…Then I was more or less up here in the offices all the time, unless they really needed people downstairs. During the last two months I have helped with a number of different things up here. I have also gone out to a number of universities as a speaker, when they couldn’t find anybody else that could go. I have also helped with the mail and a couple of other small jobs…I could not really just sit down on the shop floor and wait for the things to happen…, I have to get involved”.

For some the occupation was a political education. Whether it was the oldest worker at BCP who said:

“This is the first work-in I have ever taken part in…, and I have learned a lot from it, a hell of a lot, about how people can stick together and things like that…I would do it again if I am made redundant again. I would not hesitate”

Or the young unskilled worker who stressed how more well known worker activists had inspired him:

“During the six months here I think I have learned more than during 13 years in the printing industry…I have met some fantastic people and I have heard some fantastic people speak at meetings…Like when they came down from UCS, they were fantastic. When they stood up and spoke you felt eight feet tall just by listening to them”.

Or the middle aged foreman who had rejected normal managerial attitudes:

“Let me put it like this: as a foremen you socialise with other foremen and managers, and if you do it long enough you get brainwashed into their politics, you tend to believe they are right regarding their conflicts with people on the shop floor…But in that respect I have definitely changed within the last three or four months. I have realised a lot about what is wrong with the system”.

The BCP workers all came out of the occupation with a changed biography. Not everyone may have learned so much and changed so much as described in the examples above. However, although uncertainty and hardships also formed part of the experience it was an exiting and inspiring event in the lives of all the participants.  A feature that was repeated again and again in the interviews was the pride with which they presented their action. It was their action, but at the same time they represented the mood of the time, a mood of liberation against forms of humiliation and oppression that were, and largely still are, part of working life in capitalist society. The occupation was influenced by that mood as well as it was reinforcing it. To use the expression of Malcolm Marks, an activist in the 1971 occupation at Fisher Bendix, it was “a mini-revolution” (Knudsen and Sandahl 1974, 12).

References

Honneth, A. (1996): The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, London, Polity Press.
http://transpont.blogspot.com/2009/08/briant-colour-printing-occupation-… (accessed 22.03.2011)
Knudsen, H. and Sandahl, J. (1974): Arbejdskamp i Storbritannien. Strejker og fabriksbesættelser i begyndelsen af 1970’erne, Aarhus, Modtryk.
Times, 14.12.1972.

This account was heisted from workerscontrol.net

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London anti-fascist history, 1974: the death of Kevin Gately, opposing National Front demo

On 15 June, 1974, Kevin Gately, an anti-fascist demonstrator and student at Warwick University, was killed during a demonstration in Red Lion Square, Holborn, London, in a clash between police and anti-fascist demonstrators opposing the National Front’s meeting at Conway Hall.
He was the first person to die in a public demonstration in mainland Britain for at least 55 years, (since the British Army shot two looters dead in Liverpool during the riots associated with a police strike in August 1919).

On June 15, 1974, the rightwing National Front had organised a march through London, ending at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square. The Front’s influence was growing; from their origins as a merger of three far right splinter groups in 1967, run by men with long histories in neo-nazi organising, the NF had played populist nationalism to the max. In an era where full employment and the hopes of the 60s were giving way to recession, unemployment and increased industrial action by workers, the NF whipped up fears that migrants were threatening the ‘British Way of Life’, taking white workers jobs etc. Ably abetted by tory and some Labour politicians and many a media front page… Refugees like the Uganda and Kenyan Asians were hysterically held up as scapegoats; workers fighting for better wages and conditions were also painted as a threat to order.

At this point, in the early 1970s, the Front was concentrating on trying to win middle-class support, among traditional Conservative supporters disillusioned with tory policies from a rightwing perspective: a demographic nostalgic for empire and everyone knowing their place.

Rightwing violence, racist attacks were on the rise. NF candidates were winning larger shares of the vote in elections. But many on the left were determined to oppose the Front.

The National Front planned a march from Westminster Hall, handing in a petition as they passed Downing Street, to their meeting in Conway Hall. The Front had been using Conway Hall for meetings during the previous four years, but anti-fascist pickets began in October 1973. On 15 June 1974, they planned a meeting entitled “Stop immigration – start repatriation”.

Freedom of expression was Conway Hall’s mantra – coming from a long history of freethought – but should this be extended to fascists? If most on the left were prepared to demonstrate their opposition to fascism, but not to physically fight it, a growing minority had come round to the position of ‘No Platform’ for fascists; while in practice this was “about denying the NF venues to speak and was not interchangeable with the opposition on the streets”. “Essentially ‘no platform’ was an extension of the successful anti-fascist strategy that had been developed since the late 1940s. As well as physically combating fascist agitation in the streets, one of the major strategies was campaigning for local governments and other institutions to prevent fascists from using public places to speak or meet. Between 1972 and 1976, the ‘no platform’ concept dominated anti-fascist strategy, supported by the Communist Party, the International Socialists and the International Marxist Group (IMG), as well as becoming policy for the National Union of Students (NUS), which was considerably influenced by the IMG and the CPGB. The ‘no platform’ strategy was not limited to petitioning local councils and institutions to deny the NF access to meeting places, but included physical opposition to the NF organising in public.” (Evan Smith)

However, how ‘No Platform’ was interpreted varied among the different organisations…

Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom) organised a counter-demonstration that was to end with a meeting outside the hall, which was supported by most of the larger groupings on the left – including the Communist Party of Great Britain, the International Socialists (now the SWP), the International Marxist Group (IMG) and many other groups within the labour movement.

Liberation, not intending to try to prevent the NF meeting, booked a smaller room at Conway Hall for a separate meeting, to be preceded by a march along a route agreed in advance with the police, starting at the Thames Embankment to avoid the route of the National Front march. The police agreed that both marches could end at Red Lion Square. An open-air protest meeting was planned on the north side of the square, to the west of the National Front meeting in Conway Hall, with an address by Syd Bidwell, then Labour MP for Southall.

However while Liberation and others were content to march in protest,  the International Marxist Group planned to organise a mass picket at the main entrance of the hall, to deny the NF access.

When the Liberation demo of around 1,200 people came from the east, having marched westwards along Theobald’s Road and turned into Old North Street to enter Red Lion Square, a police cordon blocked the way to the left, east of Old North Street, to allow the National Front march to reach Conway Hall.

The NF march of around 900 people approached from the west, marching down Bloomsbury Way to the west side of Southampton Row, accompanied by an Orange Order fife and drum band. The march arrived at Southampton Row around at around 5:50 pm, where they were stopped by the police.

A group mainly composed of the IMG moved to block the doors of Conway Hall. The police, with what Lord Scarman later described as a ‘concern… with maintenance of public order’, attempted to disperse the IMG contingent. The IMG members refused to be dispersed and according to Lord Scarman’s report, ‘when the IMG assaulted the police cordon there began a riot, which it was the duty of the police to suppress, by force if necessary’. The cordon was reinforced by members of the Special Patrol Group and by mounted police, who eventually forced the demonstrators back and then cleared the square, with liberal use of police truncheons.

During this initial violent clash between police and militant anti-fascists, lasting for less than fifteen minutes, Kevin Gately, a student from Warwick University, was fatally injured. Gately died from a brain haemorrhage, resulting from a blow to the head.

The following description of the moment of his death was published in the Guardian two days later:

“Kevin Gately, the Warwick University student who died after the violence in Red Lion Square, London, on Saturday, was left prone and motionless on the ground as the police drove demonstrators back. We saw his body emerge, rather as a rugby ball comes slowly out of a scrum, as the police cordon gradually moved forward. He appeared to have fallen whilst being involved in a fracas near the front line of the demonstrators who clashed with the police. Above him the police were engaged in a pushing match with a mass of demonstrators.

Both sides were packed tightly together and it seems to us inconceivable that he was not at least trampled upon. He was lying on the ground amid a litter of broken placards, torn banners and lost shoes. Almost immediately he was carried away by policemen holding his outstretched limbs. He appeared to be unconscious. But last night there was no clear evidence of why he collapsed in the first place. A post-mortem examination at St Pancras mortuary was adjourned until today after proving inconclusive. Further tests are to be carried out but the indications are that he died of a cerebral haemorrhage. The police maintained that there were no marks of physical injury but he must have been at the very least tightly crushed in the melee before he fell. And although we saw policemen making every effort to avoid standing on him as they struggled with the crowd he was carried by his arms and legs before being laid on a stretcher about 10 yards away. A bitter row over the police conduct at the demonstration started yesterday with demands for an inquiry and questions being tabled in the House. Mr Tony Gilbert, who organised the march for the Central Council of Liberation, said yesterday that Mr Gately, aged 21, had in effect been murdered by the police. “When you get police diving in with truncheons and horses and somebody is killed in circumstances like this I would call it murder.” Other Left-wing spokesmen accused the police of unwarranted brutality. Miss Jackie Stevens, a fellow student, said that she had been next to Mr Gately linking arms with him. Their line was the first in the march which turned into the police cordon by swinging left when they entered Red Lion square, instead of right. Organisers of the demonstration claimed that they had agreed with Scotland Yard to turn left and only found out at the last moment that they were being made to turn right. This was flatly denied by Scotland Yard. Miss Stevens claimed that the police had charged the marchers. “We tried to get through to Conway Hall. The police charged us and drew their batons. They charged into us with their horses. I fell. I was trodden on by a police horse and had my head kicked by a policeman.

“I find it very hard to believe that Kevin could not have been touched. There was blood all over the place, people screaming, and teeth all over the ground. It was horrific.” She said Mr Gately had never been on a demonstration before, and was not a member of any political group.”

There were other altercations nearby close to Southampton Row. Clashes between police and anti-fascist demonstrators went on for most of the day, with the end result being that ‘one person died, 46 policemen and at least 12 demonstrators were injured, 51 people arrested and the whole police operation had cost an estimated £15,000’. The CPGB and Liberation emphasised the peaceful nature of their march, quoting Gilbert as saying, ‘At least 99.9 per cent of the 2,000 people there were absolutely peaceful and they were attacked’.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Kevin Gately was born in England to parents of Irish descent. He had red hair and was approximately 6′ 9″ tall; contemporary photos show him standing out above the crowd because of his exceptional height. He became a mathematics student at Warwick University, and was in his second year in June 1974, three months before his 21st birthday.

An inquest at St Pancras Coroner’s Court later concluded that Gately’s death was caused by a brain haemorrhage resulting from a blow to the head from a blunt instrument.

In the days following the demo, there were calls for an inquiry into Gately’s death. NUS President John Randall said, ‘We now know that Kevin Gately died as a direct result of police violence’. By the end of the month, Lord Scarman had been placed in charge of a public inquiry, conducting a tribunal with witnesses throughout September 1974, eventually reporting in February 1975. Scarman’s report whitewashed the police actions and criticised the demonstrators, primarily putting the blame for the violence – and Kevin Gately’s death – on the IMG, and criticising the naivety of Liberation. The report was ‘unable to make any definition finding as to the specific cause of the fatal injury which Mr Kevin Gately suffered’.

The coroner’s inquest heard that the cause of his death was a subdural haemorrhage caused by a modest blow to his head, and the jury returned a verdict of death by misadventure on 12 July 1974 by a majority of 10-1. He was found to have a small oval bruise behind his left ear, and had collapsed shortly afterwards, only 10 feet from the edge of the police cordon. Possible causes for the injury were a blow from an implement, such as police truncheon, or from a projectile, or from being kicked after falling to the ground. His exceptional height led several newspapers of the time to allege that his death may have been the result of a blow from a mounted police truncheon. Neither a coroner’s inquest nor the Lord Justice Scarman inquiry were able to find evidence to prove or disprove this claim.

Gately was buried in Surbiton on Friday 21 June. The same day, 500 students marched through Coventry with black armbands. The following day, Saturday 22 June 1974, thousands joined a silent march retraced the route of the Liberation counter-demonstration from the embankment to Red Lion Square. The march was led by personal friends of Gately, followed by University of Warwick students and then by students from many other universities and colleges as well as contingents from many of the left wing groups that had taken part in the original march. This march also received widespread media coverage. There’s a very short snippet on youtube

The events of 15th June 1974 raised questions of how fascism was to be opposed – questions the Communist Party (CP) addressed by getting all the answers wrong. The CP had supported the counter-demonstration, claiming 5-600 who attended were CP members. In the Morning Star (the Communist Party newspaper) on 15 June, 1974, an article urged people to support the counter-demo, including an appeal by leading trade unionists, stating that the NF’s ‘poisonous ideas are a threat to all that is best in our society’. In the aftermath, the Morning Star declared that “blame for what occurred… must be placed where it belongs – on the authorities for permitting it, and the police for brutality”. The CP position was that the march by the NF was in violation of the Race Relations Act, and should have been banned. As London District Secretary Gerry Cohen wrote in the Morning Star, “The police, like the National Front, are on the side of the exploiting class. They operated on that side with thoroughness and with fury on Saturday in Red Lion Square. And Kevin Gately died”.

The CP’s stance – appealing to the repressive apparatus of the State, such as the police, the judiciary and the Home Office, to deal with fascists – showed some extreme naivety. Suggesting the police and the wider State could be persuaded to counter the NF, (despite long experience of the police’s hostility to the left, preparedness to use force against pickets, demonstrations etc, and growing evidence of police rank n file sympathy for NF politics), was a non-starter as anti-fascist strategy.

The logical extension of this liberal stance was that the CPGB also slagged off the IMG for aiming at confrontation with the NF. They took the view that the anti-fascist movement needed to appeal to the broader progressive and labour movements, “but what this small section of the march did was to make this more difficult”. Physical confrontation, they suggested, ‘played into the hands of all those in the key positions of establishment…aimed at destroying our basic democratic rights’. The CP seemed concerned to distance themselves from the physical opposition [As the CP hierarchy had also done organisationally on the 1930s in many cases, despite the widespread participation of CP members on the ground – check out Joe Jacobs book Out of the Ghetto for some of the conflicts within the CP in East London around this].

In a press release, the CP stated that, “At no time did our Party contemplate, nor did it take part in any discussions that contemplated of bringing about any physical confrontation with the police or anybody else at this demonstration’; tactics like the IMG’s blocking of the doors they called ‘the adventurist tactics of a minority’. According to the Party, there was ‘absolutely no reason why the police could not have contained the situation peacefully at all times’ and the police had ‘undoubtedly mishandled the situation”.

This blatantly ignored the reality of organising against fascism, whether in the 1930s, the 1970s, or today. It was physical confrontations that forced the British Union of Fascists onto the defensive at Cable Street and beyond; it was to be mass physical opposition later in the 70s that was to defeat the BF on the streets (if politically they were also undermined by the tories moving to the right under Thatcher). This analysis reflects the reality of later anti-fascist mobilising, in which the CP organisationally played little part. (In fact, the IMG would also not play as significant a role again, being eclipsed by other groups like the International Socialists, before declining and imploding…) Some parts of the state and the capitalist class will often happily allow fascist groups to grow, as a counter-weight to workers struggles, especially (as in 1974) when industrial struggles are rising and elements of the upper class feel a strong fascist movement can be used against the working class (or as possible footsoldiers in the event of a rightwing coup, which some were contemplating). In the event the NF were not necessary, as but that was not obvious in 1974. But given the widespread support for the NF among the police rank and file, and a more concealed preference for fash over commies at most levels of the British establishment, the CP’s demands were laughable.

Scarman’s report reflected the ‘nuanced’ establishment response – the police were ‘right not to ban the National Front demonstration’, but the Race Relations Act needed ‘radical amendment to make it an effective sanction’, the anti-fascists were ultimately responsible for the trouble and Kevin’s death, and the anti-fascist movement should ‘co-operate with the police’. The CP and Scarman had more in common than they disagreed on… Though the CPGB were critical of Scarman’s dismissal of the failure to ban the National Front march under the Race Relations Act, they also demanded that demonstrations that ‘conflict with the law…should be banned’. Yeah cause that’ll never be used against the workers, eh?

The CP seemed unable to see the contradiction between condemning the police’s actions and demanding that they be given more powers…

The NF’s electoral fortunes did not grow exponentially – their profile brought them “notoriety but no tangible gains”. In response the more street-oriented elements of the NF pushed the organisation towards more street marches and confrontation, and attempted to orient their politics more towards a working class audience. This NF campaign chimed with, and contributed to, an increase in violence against Britain’s black population, including racist attacks and murders. But this led to a broad culture of resistance to the Front, to the events of Wood Green, Lewisham and Southall; the Front were vastly outnumbered on the street.
In fact, in the aftermath of Red Lion Square, numbers at anti-fascist demonstrations increased dramatically and continued to rise throughout the mid-to-late 1970s. As Nigel Copsey wrote, ‘despite adverse publicity that the Red Lion Square disorder had generated for the left, more anti-fascists than fascists could be mobilised at street level’.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

At this time there were three Social Demonstration Squad undercover police spying inside the International Marxist Group, as well as at least 4, maybe 5, inside the International Socialists. That’s the ones that the Public Inquiry into Undercover Policing has admitted to so far… More are to come, we would guess. Undoubtedly, the SDS were probably infiltrating the National Front too, though this has not yet been revealed, and may not be. How much information did the police have on the IMG’s intentions beforehand…? Were there also undercovers marching with the NF? A later anti-fascist demo (at Welling in October 1993) saw at least four undercovers, some marching with anti-racists, and one (at least) inside the bookshop of the British National Party. There have long been suggestions that the Welling march was set up by the police, to ensure rioting, to try to discredit the anti-racist movement… We’re not sure, and probably never will be. Wonder if similar questions could possibly be levelled at the events at Red Lion Square in June 1974?

In the end though it doesn’t change the necessity for opposing fascism physically and no platforming fascists wherever they raise their heads.

In memory of Kevin Gately
18 September 1953 – 15 June 1974

Lots of this post was nicked from here

And here is an interesting account of left groups and opposition to fascism in the 1970s, which covers the decline of the CP’s influence in antifascist organising…

Today in London’s infra(re)structural history, 1845: New Oxford Street opens – built to socially cleanse the St Giles Rookery

No Through Road?

This is a brief introduction to some of the social engineering involved in the building of three new roads in London in the mid to late 19th century, exploring the areas destroyed to establish these streets and some of the motivations behind their creation. It is far from comprehensive and only concerns specific examples. However, much of the thinking, ideologies, geography and practice discussed here have been and are being applied to myriad other neighbourhoods throughout the world, certainly at that time, but more and more in the century and a half since. It is a work in progress of sorts… And calls up experiences we have had in our own lives much more recently.

In an early act of development as social engineering, New Oxford Street, in London’s West End, was built between 1844 and 1847, partly to break up the St Giles rookery, a notorious slum, by demolishing some of its most notorious alleys and tenements. Many such schemes to improve London’s main roads were also deliberately used in the 19th Century, to clear areas of poverty and lawlessness the authorities found threatening and troublesome. Part of the impulse behind these plans came from moral campaigns to reform people considered to be to some extent responsible for their poverty and criminality, or failing that, to disperse them and shift them elsewhere.

The area that was demolished for the building of New Oxford Street was the heart of the St Giles Rookery, for centuries probably central London’s most notorious slum, considered a cesspit of humanity, a harbour for rebels & criminals: “ one dense mass of houses, through which curved narrow tortuous lanes, from which again diverged close courts… The lanes were thronged with loiterers, and stagnant gutters, and piles of garbage and filth infested the air.” (John Timbs, Curiosities of London).

Largely contained between Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury Street (then Charlotte St) Broad Street and St Giles High Street, the rookery was known for the poverty of its residents already by the end of the sixteenth century (when the area was fairly recently built up). The character of this part of the parish of St Giles generally declined through the eighteenth. Once a “most wealthy and populous parish”, the huge social upheavals in Tudor and Stuart times saw a massive increase in people uprooting and moving, usually from the countryside into towns and cities. Poor folk coming to London to seek work seems to have first led St Giles to its notoriety as a nexus of the unruly poor; this influx of people with no settled place to live or job worried the authorities and the well-to-do, who feared the instability, crime and financial burdens of supporting them on the local parish. Attempts were made in St Giles (and widely elsewhere) to control the migration of undesirables into the parish: in 1637 it was ordered that, “to prevent the great influx of poor people into this parish, the beadles do present every fortnight, on the Sunday, the names of all new-comers, under-setters, inmates, divided tenements, persons that have families in cellars, and other abuses.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rookeries inspired great fear in the middle and upper classes. At the most basic level the idea of thousands of the poor, swelling together, desperate, with little to lose, always a threat to peace and social order even as individuals, liable to commit crime against their betters, spread disease…

The way the rookeries are described in contemporary writing exposes the kind of threat they saw in them. Well-to-do commentators saw the rookery through a lens tinted with their own prejudices, but always the view is from the outside, looking in, uncomprehending, totally without experience of the lives lived within.

Sometimes they are compared to forests, wild, scary impenetrable places with hidden dangers, as does writer and magistrate Henry Fielding: “Whoever… considers the cities of London and Westminster with the late vast addition of their suburbs, the great irregularity of their buildings, the immense number of lanes, alleys, courts, and bye-places; must think, that, had they been intended for the very purpose of concealment, they could scarce have been better contrived. Upon such a view the whole appears as a vast wood or forest, in which a thief may harbor with as much security as wild beasts do in the deserts…”

There are interesting echoes here, and in other 18th and 19th century writings about slums, of earlier perceptions, writings and fears – about forests and wild woods, and the people who sheltered there. From Robin Hood to disaffected levellers and fifth monarchists, woods were viewed in a similar way, as dangerous, almost impenetrable dark fastnesses, hiding wild beasts and even wilder people – outlaws, rebels, runaways and outsiders (likely to include gender & sexual non-conformists, certainly including escaped servants, serfs and slaves). Fairy tales and folklore reflects this, abounding with a fear of the deep dark woods. In the 16th and 17th centuries rookeries begin to replace forests as the main focus of such fears, as enclosure/agricultural change was increasingly taming and regulating the wilder aspects of countryside and forest. 

Alternatively, rookeries and city slums were compared to insect or animal colonies: John Timbs described St Giles as “one great mass, as if the houses had originally been one block of stone eaten by slugs into small chambers and connecting passages.” The very language dehumanises the inhabitants, labelling them basically slugs, termites or other insects; a dehumanisation of the poor that is a regular feature of observations on the lower classes by the better off. (There are fewer verminous metaphors used to describe landlords or middlemen, often ‘house-farmers’ leasing from the rich and making tidy sums from subdividing the garrets, who benefitted from overcrowding their houses for their own profit.)

In comparing slum dwellers to wild beasts, using metaphors like the slug reference, onlookers are suggesting the beasts have moved to the city. And similar reforming and reshaping urges would be used to control this: like enclosure, demolishing rookeries and building new roads was both profitable, and a taming of disorderly space… bringing order to chaos and inefficiency; light into darkness. 

Other commentators used medical analogies, seeing the slums as diseased or unhealthy body parts or organs, needing surgical removal. Architect Sydney Smirke described the city as suffering from “Corruption, stagnation, lack of communication, and the ‘noxious miasmata’ of disease” which required the scalpel of demolition, “the ‘very beneficial purgation’ that ‘a perfect symmetry’ would bring.” The ‘rotten core’ of London would be ‘cut out’. Disease was very much on London’s collective mind: Smirke was writing just two years after the first cholera epidemic, which had seen thousands die, often in the poorest areas, from drinking contaminated water, though this was not generally recognised until years later.

London’s streets were often also described as being maze-like, tangled and dark – difficult or impossible for strangers to navigate through (to read how common the comparison with the labyrinth was, check out this great article). The labyrinth from classical mythology seemed an obvious parallel for middle class commentators, given the inevitable reminder of the minotaur, the dark and wild beast lurking at the centre of the maze, part animal part man… A perfect analogy for the criminal poor, destitute and violent, the subhuman creatures who the writers saw as inhabiting the rookeries… As much as the invention of the Victorian respectable fear-mind as the minotaur was of the ancient greek mythologist.

Victorian writers saw and depicted much of slum London in terms of dirt – but linked this to immorality and transgression.

“Middle-class observers saw the urban environment that created impenetrable spaces as creating the conditions for the transgression of social boundaries through the bringing into greater proximity of different classes. The great metropolis and the industrial towns of Britain were in fact dirty, as human waste piled up in cesspools, soaked into the soil and flowed into the rivers. The filth of the city, and people who worked around it and on the streets, created classes of people who  were a dangerous and volatile Other to the domestic middle class.” (Strange Bodies and Familiar Spaces: WJR Simpson and the threat of disease in Calcutta and the tropical city, 1880-1910, A Cameron-Smith)

Mid-late nineteenth century writing, from sensationalist journalism to the ‘urban exploration’ of social reformers like WT Stead or Charles Booth, teems with filthy houses and streets, stagnant, overcrowded, labyrinthine courts and rooms. These environments are causably linked to the immorality and dire poverty of their inhabitants; though sometimes the environment, the ‘dirty houses’ themselves, are blamed for the condition of their residents, and sometimes it was vice versa. As Erika Kvistad points out, the obsession with dirt and darkness grew to the point where demolition of the slums came to represent a sort of exorcism of the threat from these areas:

“dirt was the point where scientifically driven social activism and superstitious horror met. They imagined poor homes as “bad property”, both the location and the source of moral uncleanness. The by then disproved miasma theory of disease persists in these texts both as a fact and as a persuasive metaphor. It allowed urban exploration writers to articulate both the fear of the squalid dwellings where poverty, disease and moral decay arise, and the fear that this badness might spread through the wealthier parts of the city. In this way, the demolition of filthy homes functioned not only as a social project, but as a form of exorcism… in many of the central texts of late-Victorian urban exploration writing, the obvious social problems that beset the poor areas of British cities, like inadequate housing, crime, and the spread of disease, become linked with the idea of certain living spaces as intrinsically bad.” (Erika Kvistad, Bad Property: Unclean Houses in Victorian City Writing, University of Oslo).

Dickens, in Dombey and Son, sums up the Victorian view of how environment infected inhabitants:

“Those who study the physical sciences, and bring them to bear upon the health of man, tell us that if the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portions of a town. But, if the moral pestilence that rises with them, and in the eternal laws of outraged Nature, is inseparable from them, could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation! Then should we see depravity, impiety, drunkenness, theft, murder, and long train of nameless sins against the natural affections and repulsions of man-kind, overhanging the devoted spots, and creeping on, to blight the innocent and spread contagion among the pure.”

An insanitary neighbourhood guarantees wicked and vicious residents, and this threatens to spill out to endanger the nicer folk in their clean streets.

The threat the poor posed to the rich became even more terrifying if they organised and acted collectively, either as gangs, or worse, as a mob. Outbreaks of disorder, riot and uprising were not uncommon in the 18th and 19th century. At their wildest, events like the 1780 Gordon Riots, when huge crowds latched onto a reactionary anti-catholic demonstration and launched five days of cataclysmic attacks on Parliament, London prisons, the houses of the rich, and other centres of power, scared the rich and powerful; many of those arrested and hanged were identified with London’s rookeries, seen as no go areas and centres of popular insurgency. In 1780, several Gordon Rioters were nicked in the St Giles Rookery with loot, including Charles Kent and Letitia Holland, arrested for the attack on Lord Mansfield’s house, who were apprehended in Bambridge Street.

After the French Revolution of 1789, this fear became heightened – what if the ‘mob’ could be harnessed by radicals, the violence of London’s poor allied to ideas of equality and liberty? – in Paris that had ended with aristocrats going to the guillotine.

Responses among the wealthy to this threat varied from the purely repressive, to more sophisticated thinking on social control, moral reform and alterations in urban environments to both neutralise the actual collective threat, and alter the lifestyles and ways of thinking of ‘slum dwellers’.

Some social reformers among the 19th century well to do saw slum clearance as part of the solution to this threat – this represented both a short and a long-term plan. Immediately dangerous and unhealthy slums were dispersed; in the longer term, the behaviour of the poor could be remodelled, channelled, made more law-abiding and respectable. These were broadly of the same  movements and circles (and and often specifically the same individuals) that had also worked to ensure factory acts and other protection legislation was passed, as well as advocated, raised charitable funds for and helped to create the first real social housing in London – the model dwellings – and also agitated against the destruction of open space and for its transformation into parks. For many of these social reformers, this work was a conscious mix of genuine concern for the conditions the working class lived, worked, played in, and an equally genuine fear and loathing of working people and disapproval of much of their culture. The philanthropy they passionately believed in was very much tempered with paternalism – they knew best and would alter the social conditions, and would improve the morals and behaviour of the lower orders. Some of the reformers who pioneered slum clearance thought a proportion of the inhabitants could be saved, if they were removed from the disorderly environment they lived in, though others were wedded to their immoral ways and were just unredeemable.

Others of the would-be redesigners of urban space were less concerned with reforming the poor. They just wanted the most disorderly of them to go away.

By the mid-19th century, St Giles’ notoriety had made it the focus of plans to redevelop the area – with both social control and improvement in east-west road traffic movement in mind.

As early as 1836 a Parliamentary Select Committee recommended demolition of several of the rookery streets: “By pulling down the aforesaid district, a great moral good will be achieved by compelling the 5,000 wretched inhabitants to resort and disperse to various parts of the metropolis and its suburbs.” St Giles location, around one of London’s most troublesome traffic bottle-necks, and its high death rates from disease, marked it for destruction.

There’s no doubt London was almost paralysed by traffic problems by the 1830s. The huge increase in the size of the city, its population, the business being carried on, the sheer tonnage of goods and people needing to be transported, was simply not reflected in much change to the capacity of the roads to contain it all. Much of the two intertwined cities of London and Westminster was laid out broadly as it had been in medieval times; neither adequate nor suitably grand and impressive as befitted the capital of what was becoming the most powerful empire on the planet. The sheer difficulty of moving through London, either on foot or by carriage, was notorious; wagons of goods could end up bogged down in the gridlocked narrow lanes.

Previous attempts to re-organise the chaotic jumble of streets and lanes along more systematic lines (such as Christopher Wren’s proposal to rebuild the devastated City of London according to a grid and radial pattern after the 1666 Great Fire) had been frustrated by the complex web of land ownership, occupation and long-established customs and communities. Central planning was scanty and widely resisted by the rich who owned much of the city; and the building of new roads were often carried out piecemeal. Some roads were built by privately by the owners of large estates, and property disputes blocked, delayed or significantly altered the creation of new thoroughfares. (Witness the aggro that accompanied the creation of the Duke of Bedford’s road through Bloomsbury as an example…)

By the 1830s, there was pressure to remodel the city to make travel and transport of goods more efficient:

“In 1834, architect Sydney Smirke took his readers on a ride through the west central districts of London, pointing out the lack of north-south roads, and showing that 200-year-old thoroughfares were still expected to take the traffic of a population that had tripled in size. His was a serious plea for the government to set up a centralised body to plan and finance the restructuring of the city: ‘No parliamentary measure could be more truly patriotic.’
In Smirke’s analysis, London was stagnating because insufficient money was made available by Parliament for reconstruction, while private property rights were considered to be so sacred that any public-minded schemes were compromised or simply abandoned.

Straight lines should push through convoluted, congested regions, stated Smirke, as he catalogued the ‘strange irregularity’ and ‘ill-directed lines’ of London thoroughfares. The kink in the road by St Giles church was ‘very objectionable’; Clare Market was ‘populous and ill arranged [and] the best mode of improving this district would be to open a spacious avenue through the centre of it.’ Smirke wanted to “obliterate the streets of the past and create a city that reflected the new-found power, wealth and mores of an ascendant middle class: ‘By some objectors we are told to “live as our fathers have lived before us,” who, being content to jostle through crooked and devious lanes, were fain to make their fortunes in blind alleys, with the internal satisfaction that their monies contracted no offensive taint from the foetid corrupt age, according to Smirke, and this has found its physical expression in the twisted streets of that era. The nineteenth-century city must, by contrast, be ‘laid out as to be wide, clear and regular’…

Straight lines and perfect symmetry were also required by those in charge of building sewers. Henry Austin, in 1842, spoke of the need for pulling down the whole of St Giles – not just the northern part – and ‘making a straight street, instead of a crooked line, from Bow Street to Broad Street’. This would facilitate interaction between ‘quarters of the town now separated by a labyrinth of lanes and alleys’. The image here is of the old, economically unproductive regions hampering commercial progress. Austin was involved in Edwin Chadwick’s sanitary movement and was doubtless influenced in his love of straight lines by the knowledge that such streets were best-suited for carrying sewage pipes.

According to the architects and engineers, London needed to have its crooked ‘no-thoroughfares’ replaced by straight broad streets.”
(‘Labyrinthine London’: writers, social reformers and the need for more ‘ordered’ streets in the mid-Victorian metropolis, Sarah Wise)

There was also the question of regulation and control. Rookeries had grown organically, haphazardly, largely uncontrolled, over centuries, and this was reflected in both the physical space and the legal ownership of the buildings. A mass of yards, winding lanes, alleys, dead end courts, lean-tos and sheds, and cellars, on sub-divided lets, complex leases and sub-leases, with many layers of ownership and residence. This made proving responsibility for any issue of possible dispute – rent, repairs, sanitation etc – almost impossible to navigate easily (just as the space was physically hard to find your way through). If this had served in less ordered eras, by victorian times there was an explosion of regulation, of rules, regarding all sorts of areas of city life, dealing for instance with buildings, and with people. The use of statistics and records was rocketing and becoming much more systematic.  A London-wide police force had been created to regularise and codify the imposition of law and order. Slums that were impassable, unknown, could not be allowed to remain so.

But rookeries were worse than unknown – they were like strongholds of the enemy, in territory that the bourgeois state and the wider bourgeoisie, where it manifested itself as a conscious class, could only see should be theirs, uncontested.

Aspects of rookery life were calculated to enrage a class that saw itself as entitled to rule, though also (to some extent) also liked to think of itself as both enlightened and interventionist.

Many slum-dwellers defied the law. A rough community solidarity against the law was a common feature of London’s rookeries.  “The police only rarely went into the rookeries; and if they intended to arrest, then only in large numbers. So there usually was plenty of forewarning; sometimes large numbers of the rookery population came on to the street to confront a police invasion… Living at such close quarters to each other also imposed a certain communal structure on daily life. Eyewitness investigators noted that the rookery communities were often tight-knit and mutually supportive; amid the terrible conditions of the rookeries, still a certain commonality and solidarity bloomed… Being so autonomous from regular police presence meant that the rookery thieving community evolved a sophisticated environment to protect their trade.”
This attitude of resistance involved both social networks of self-defence against the law. But it also led to alterations and adaptations to the physical environment (already hugely useful by the rookeries’ complex maze-like structures) to make incursion by authorities very difficult (see the description of the booby traps and escape routes of Saffron Hill, below).

For the authorities and the respectable commentariat of the time, this type of physical resistance to the power of the law was an assertion of outrageous autonomy. No go areas in the capital could not be allowed to continue to exist. (In a very similar process, dismantling the no-go areas in catholic/nationalist areas of Belfast in the early 1970s, set up to defend against riotous incursions by unionist sectarians was a priority for the British Army… and autonomous street culture in inner city areas like Brixton had to be attacked by the Special Patrol Group, because the police considered this a challenge to law and order, proto-no go areas in development…)

A “new, straight and spacious street

The building of New Oxford Street was specifically the result of the 1837-38 report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Metropolis Improvement. In discussing plans for what would eventually be New Oxford Street, this report refers to “the formation of a “new, straight and spacious street into Holborn, suited to the wants of the heavy-traffic constantly passing … provision would, at the same time, be made in a very great degree, for the important objects of health and morality”.

One of the consultant engineers for this report urged the Select Committee to follow a certain route for the road, because this would prove to ‘be the means of destroying a vast quantity of houses which are full of the very worst description of people.’

Work on New Oxford Street was begun in 1844, and the new road opened to traffic on 10th June 1845, though work wasn’t entirely completed until 1847. Several of the most infamous rookery streets disappeared during its construction, leaving some 5000 of the poor homeless; while the Duke of Bedford, owner of 104 of the demolished houses, received £114,000 in compensation (a huge sum then.) Driven from their homes, but in many cases needing to stay near their work or sources of casual labour, the rookery dwellers generally found lodgings nearby, causing a 76 per cent increase in population in some other local streets. The building of New Oxford Street, together with the later construction of nearby Shaftesbury Avenue through other notorious parts of St Giles, began the reclamation of this long-infamous area for respectability.

Not everyone was convinced of the effectiveness of demolition. Charles Dickens, for instance, was an early critic of the tactic of using road building to clear slums. He pointed out that far from reducing crime and letting in the light of ‘respectability’, the new road had only made worse all the conditions most likely to cause crime: “Thus we make our New Oxford Streets, and our other new streets, never heeding, never asking where the wretches whom we clear out, crowd … We timorously make our Nuisance Bills and Boards of Health, nonentities, and think to keep away the Wolves of Crime and Filth.”

The New Oxford Street scheme wasn’t the first proposal to remodel London in the interests of the rich and social exclusion.

One of the reasons cited in support of the proposals for the original construction of Blackfriars Bridge in the 1760s (apart from the transport and commercial advantages of new river crossings), was to help clear the lawless slums around the mouths of the river Fleet (especially the notorious Alsatia rookery) – it was thought opening up and redeveloping the area to the south would help.

In 1812, architect John Nash had reported to His Majesty’s Commissioner of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues, proposing new roads and grand vistas where a hotchpotch of roads and alleys then existed around Charing Cross, then considered the ‘hub’ of London life. For Nash, his development scheme offered the added bonus of bulldozing the Swallow Street rookery in Soho. An Act of Parliament in 1813 ensured the Nash scheme, for a major new road for the north of the capital and from the area around Haymarket and Charing Cross, would go forward. The rebuilding work went on to create great sweeping crescents, notably Regent Street, built between 1817 and 1823, designed by Nash specifically to separate the ‘Nobility and Gentry’ in their ‘streets and squares’ from the “narrow streets and meaner houses occupied by mechanics and the trading part of the community”. Nash’s new roads were organised in such a way as to ‘cut off’ access by the poor in their ghettos in St Giles, Porridge Island, Seven Dials and the mean streets near Haymarket and Westminster, restricting their direct access, making entering the posh streets west of Soho a long and tiring business. If later schemes emphasised the improvements in traffic flow and the movements of goods, the Regent Street/Charing Cross developments also had restriction of movement at their heart. Fear of the London crowds, the threat their very movement around the city inspired in the wealthy, was a major consideration in Nash’s plans. It is not insignificant that the years of its building saw a huge upsurge in the perennial movement for political reform, spiced with poverty and economic slump following the end of the 23 year war with France; the refusal of the government to even consider reform led to brutal repression as at Peterloo, to riots like the Spa Fields uprising, to plots for revolutionary insurgency and plans to assassinate the cabinet. Fears of riotous mobs and serious thinking on how to frustrate their ability to move through the city were not idle fancies.

The building of New Oxford St was, however, only the opening skirmish in a long process of architectural class restructuring, in St Giles, and wider afield in London. Other notorious London rookeries experienced major reconstruction schemes beginning in the 1840s, including Field Lane/West Street in the Saffron Hill area; parts of Spitalfields & Whitechapel removed to build Commercial Street, and the ‘Devil’s Acre’ in Westminster.

The creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855 stands out as a significant point, a major development in the story of metropolitan improvements in London. The Board effectively took over responsibility for planning and building new streets from the Commissioners for Woods and Forests; this was a huge step towards the centralisation of local government in London. The Board existed alongside the local vestries (based on the age-old parish system) , but took over responsibility for the entire capital’s main drains, sewage disposal, and street and bridge construction. In 1875, it was also given the power of slum clearance. This was the fulfilment of the dreams and schemes of a whole slough of writers and campaigners, for whom the fractured nature of planning derived partly from the lack of a grand over-arching authority which could override parochial concerns and beat down petty ownership, for the greater good…

‘Against the Incursions of the law’

Another neighbourhood particularly targeted by campaigners against the moral and social ills of the rookeries was the Saffron Hill area, around the modern junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road, to the north of the City of London.
The rookery had partially evolved from a medieval Liberty – land which in medieval times belonged to a religious institution, and thus operated under church laws and courts, not the regular law. This enabled some degree of protection from prosecution by the secular authorities, and liberties became places of refuge for those with an interest in evading the law. Long after the legal distinction had in fact been removed, such areas often maintained traditions and customs of sanctuary and sometimes became rookeries.
Saffron Hill had a well-established reputation for thievery and prostitution. The area was additionally ideally situated for illegal activity and refuge, sited as it was in an administrative borderland, where responsibility for policing was split between the authority of Middlesex, the City and the parishes of Clerkenwell, St Andrew Holborn, St Sepulchre’s and the Liberty of Saffron Hill. The few constables and watchmen in service generally limited their patrols to their own patches. Such criminal legends as Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Dick Turpin were all at times said to have been residents of Saffron Hill.
As early as 1598 (when the northern end was known as Gold Lane) Saffron Hill was described as “sometime a filthy passage into the fields, now both sides built with small tenements.” (John Stow). Much of Dickens’s Oliver Twist is set here – this is the neighbourhood of Fagin and Bill Sykes.

Saffron Hill in the 19th century

The rookery thieving community evolved a sophisticated environment to protect their trade. Much of the following evidence was only revealed through demolition during the later slum clearances to make way for the new railway and road through Clerkenwell: “Against the incursions of the law…there were remarkable defences. Over the years the whole mass of yards and tenements had become threaded by an elaborate complex of runways, traps and bolt-holes. In places cellar had been connected with cellar so that a fugitive could pass under a series of houses and emerge in another part of the rookery. In others, long-established escape routes ran up from the maze of inner courts and over the huddled roofs: high on a wall was a double row of iron spikes, ‘one row to hold by, and another for the feet to rest on,’ connecting the windows of adjacent buildings. … To chase a wanted man through the escape ways could be really dangerous, even for a party of armed police. According to a senior police officer… a pursuer would find himself ‘creeping on his hands and knees through a hole two feet square entirely in the power of dangerous characters’ who might be waiting on the other side: while at one point a ‘large cesspool, covered in such a way that a stranger would likely step into it’ was ready to swallow him up.” (Chesney)

The Fleet River, behind Saffron Hill

The river Fleet, now an open drain, running through the rookery, was also utilised: “though its dark and rapid stream was concealed by the houses on each side, its current swept away at once into the Thames whatever was thrown into it. In the Thieves’ house were dark closets, trap-doors, sliding panels and other means of escape.”
The area’s most notorious low lodging house was No 3 West Street, on the north-west side of the Fleet Ditch, and at the eastern corner of Brewhouse Yard (which ran north from West St parallel to Saffron Hill, roughly where Farringdon Road now crosses Charteris Street). No 3 had once been known as the ‘Red Lion Tavern’, but for the century preceding its destruction was used as a lodging-house, a notorious haunt of thieves, a coiners gang, illegal distilling, and prostitutes. It was sometimes called Jonathan Wild’s House, or ‘the Old House in West street’, and was said to have hidden prison escaper Jack Sheppard and highwayman Jerry Abershaw. The house was adapted to serve as a hiding place, being filled with dark closets, trapdoors, sliding panels, and secret recesses, including walled off dens in the cellar, which hid refugees from the law. Even when police surrounded the place, their prey would often escape. During one raid a constable went into one of the rooms to arrest a thief, and seeing him in bed, called for other officers; he turned his head and saw the man getting under the bed. From where he vanished: there “were two trap-doors in the floor, one for the concealment of property, the other to provide means of escape to those who were hard run; a wooden door was cleverly let into the floor, of which, to all appearance, it formed part; through this, the thief, who was in danger of being captured, escaped; as immediately beneath was a cellar, about three feet square; from this there was an outlet to the Fleet Ditch, a plank was thrown across this, and the thief was soon in Black Boy Alley – out of reach of his pursuers.” In the same house, there were other, almost surreal means of escape, clearly designed by criminal genius minds, with an MC Escher-esque touch: “The staircase was very peculiar, scarcely to be described; for though the pursuer and pursued might only be a few feet distant, the one would escape to the roof of the house, while the other would be descending steps, and, in a moment or two, would find himself in the room he had first left by another door. This was managed by a pivoted panel being turned between the two.” (The Rookeries of London, Thomas Beames, 1852.)

In one of the garrets was a secret door, which led to the roof of the next house from which any offender could be in Saffron Hill in a few minutes. The house was pulled down in 1844.

Neighbouring Chick Lane was home to organised criminal gangs like the Black Boy Alley Gang which carried on a struggle against the law in the 1740s, targetting several constables & magistrates for assassination from here. Several people were hanged in the law’s counter-attack.

The poor and criminal classes of these slums not only built ingenious methods of concealment and escape: they sometimes organised their own welfare systems. The ‘Hempen Widows Club’, run from near Black Boy Alley, operated as a self-help society of the poor, one of many, which had articles including: everyone had to be prepared to swear anything to save each other from being hanged, everyone was to be prepared to swear to be a substantial housekeeper in order to bail one another from custody and members in prison were allowed seven shillings a week out of the kitty.

As with St Giles, mobs from Saffron Hill were also identified as being involved in the Gordon Riots, especially the burning of the nearby Langdale’s Distillery. (For more more on this and on Saffron Hill, check out Reds On the Green)

And, it’s very likely, poor folk from here also took part in the Crimp House Riots of 1794, the Spa Fields Riots and many other riotous gatherings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

“Physical and Moral Evil”: The Clearing of Saffron Hill

Lord Shaftesbury, a leading upper class busybody, made special studies of overcrowding and conditions in Saffron Hill to report to the House of Commons, stating: “It is impossible to imagine the physical and moral evil which resulted from these circumstances.” Imagine it they did though, and their fears led to concrete actions against the slums.
Something approaching 20,000 people are thought to have been displaced in this area between the 1830s and the 1870s by a series of calculated demolitions (though historian Gareth Steadman thought this a figure exaggerated), undertaken by the City authorities, determined to shovel the poor out from the Fleet Valley, while at the same time creating new quick transit routes to improve trade and movement of goods through the City (eg from the Docks to the West End).

In fact the poor had originally concentrated in the Fleet Valley in the first place after being gradually forced out of the City itself, by earlier ‘improvements; large numbers moved there after the 1666 Fire of London.

The ‘improvements’ in Farringdon and Clerkenwell were long in germination (plans for a road along the lower Fleet valley were first drawn up by Wren in the aftermath of the 1666 Fire, though nothing came of it then), and development occurred in stages between the 1820s and the 1880s, but the continuous road from Blackfriars Bridge to Kings Cross, although built in fits and starts, represents a consistent thread of town planning as social engineering, a continuous plan to destroy the poorest and most ‘infamous’ areas. And as John Gwynn had advocated in London and Westminster Improved, Illustrated by Plans, 1766, also allowing at the same time for ‘a noble, free and useful communication’ between Surrey and Middlesex, and of ‘amazingly improved’ property along the way.

Holborn Viaduct under construction, 1869

The slum clearances included various stages: the building of Farringdon Road, (legislated for in the 1840s, though not finished until 1856), the laying of the first section of the Metropolitan Line, the construction of Holborn Viaduct in 1861 (this development alone displaced 2000 people), the enlarging of Smithfield market, the laying of Charterhouse Street (1869-75), of Clerkenwell Road (finished 1878), and finally Rosebery Avenue (1889-92).

Some of the more supposedly ‘deserving’ residents of the demolished slums were rehoused. The City managed to build dwellings for 200 individuals and 40 families when Holborn Viaduct was erected, but not even skilled artisans, never mind the very poor, were eventually placed there (“they are occupied by clerks, who keep pianos in their rooms…”). Model Dwellings built by Model Dwelling Companies and Housing Associations rehoused some 1160 people from the Clerkenwell Road area in the 1870s – though this road also passed through more ‘respectable’ artisan areas and had displaced some of those considered on the ‘worthier’ spectrum of the working classes. But as with clearances in other areas of London, the relatively high rents and strict social control imposed by the improving landlords excluded most casual labourers and their families. Effectively throughout the century thousands of poor working class and ‘lumpen’ elements, especially unskilled and casually employed, were shifted from one slum to another as inner London was gradually socially cleansed.

Clearance of undesirables was in some cases the main aim, and use of the land thus cleared only secondary. Some of the cleared land remained unused for years; Farringdon Waste, created where part of the Saffron Hill rookery stood, lay unbuilt on for several decades. The vicar of Cripplegate complained that “within the City of London there are sites amply sufficient to prevent the poor from being overcrowded – sites which for years have remained unproductive, which will long remain so, because the Corporation of the City of London has shovelled out the poor, in order mainly to lower the poor rates of the City parishes…” Ironically as several areas of empty land remained undeveloped, they themselves became partially re-colonised by elements regarded as undesirable, the focus for ‘unruly behaviour’. Congregations of boys and other idlers became a nuisance. By the 1860s the ‘Farringdon Street Wastes’, or ‘The Ruins’, as the sites were known, (now occupied by nos 29–43 Farringdon Road, adjacent to modern Greville Street) had become a well-known gathering place for ‘betting men’, and steps were taken by the City authorities to remove them.

Commercial Street: The Wicked Quarter Mile

Another notorious rookery was the area around modern Commercial Street, Spitalfields, between Brick Lane and Bishopsgate. A mass of narrow alleys and dark yards; many of the buildings here were overcrowded, teeming with the poor; a good number were lodging houses, dosshouses, where the hungriest of the homeless scrounged a living, and of these most were identified by the police as haunts of criminals, thieves, prostitutes and other undesirables.  A double bed would cost 8d, a single 4d and when the all the beds were taken a rope might be fixed down the middle of the room with residents sleeping against it back-to-back for 2d. Those without the money for their lodgings were evicted nightly.
Commercial Street was built in the 1840s, partly as a way of breaking up this dangerous area, filled with the poor & desperate, to “let in air, light, police, and most important of all, disturbing the inhabitants from their old haunts.” Commercial Street’s commercial value was in fact exaggerated:  for twenty years as it didn’t extend far enough northwards to be of much use as a highway; but this wasn’t its main aim. 1300 poor people were evicted, and many of the most infamous areas knocked down. Each side of the new thoroughfare, tenement blocks were build by Model Dwelling Companies, (Rothschild Buildings and Lolesworth Buildings to the east, Wentworth and Brunswick Buildings and Davis Mansions to the west) sponsored by middle class housing reformers, built by pioneering Housing Associations like Peabody. Although an important motive for their construction was a desire to improve working class living conditions, and thus help stave off class violence and rebellion, and drag the immoral poor out of the gutter, in the long run the new Dwellings failed in their purpose. Rents were deliberately set high enough to make sure only most respectable of working class could afford it; certainly excluding the very poor who mainly inhabited the rookery.

Thus thirty years later Flower and Dean Street area, off Commercial Street, was still considered a ‘rookery’, and described as “the most menacing working class area of London”. The area between Wentworth Street and Spitalfields market was labelled the ‘Wicked Quarter Mile’, by outsiders.
The 1870s saw a revived campaign of middle class reformers to demolish it, a huge propaganda war waged at portraying the inhabitants as immoral, ‘unsavoury characters’ criminals, prostitutes etc. This was a time of great fear among the middle classes, after the Paris Commune rising, that the disorderly poor would, if not controlled/pacified by charity and coercion hand in hand, rise up and destroy them.

Repeated attempts of charity, police, religion, sanitary reform and coercion having constantly failed to control the Flower and Dean Street area, only demolition would do. But it took the Jack the Ripper murders to provide the push that led to the demolition of the “foulest enclaves” of Flower & Dean Street. Three of the ripper’s victims had lived lives of dire poverty in the street, and the media storm the killings roused focussed a spotlight on the area. The Four Per Cent Dwelling Company bought up the north-east side of the street and built Nathaniel Dwellings; on the north side of Wentworth Street, Stafford House was erected (thanks to the guilt-ridden landowners the Hendersons, in an attempt to banish the bad publicity the murders were spreading). Through the 1890s other blocks went up in the old rookery, between Lolesworth and Thrawl Streets.

Ironically a century later, these model blocks off Commercial Street became run down and decayed themselves, and were in turn labelled slums, and the same process would be repeated: plans were laid to scatter the residents and build new housing for a better class of inhabitant. (Only this time the tenants’ resistance would change the outcome…)

Workhouse inmates breaking stones for road-building, Bethnal Green


St Giles again: Cross-purposes

Thirty years after the original building of New Oxford Street, further social cleansing took place in St Giles, this time under the guise of cleansing of insanitary housing. St Giles had already seen an influx of refugees from slum clearances in nearby areas of Holborn, the City and the Strand in the 1860s, and was increasingly jammed to the rafters. Under the terms of the 1875 Artisans Dwelling (or ‘Cross’) Act thousands of residents in overcrowded London slums were evicted, and the buildings demolished. The result of sustained lobbying by housing reformers, notably the Charity Organisation Society, the idea behind the Act was that bad quality housing could be cleared, in an organised way for the first time, on the orders of the local medical officer, compensation paid to the owners, and then the land would be sold to a developer on the proviso that they would build decent working class housing.

Wild Court, Drury Lane, before the social cleansing

Many of the social reformers who agitated for and sponsored such legislation knew well that it was the owners or middlemen making the money who should shoulder much of the blame for slum housing, and that many of these landlords sat on local Vestries and thus were able to defeat or delay attempts at real change. Thus the Cross Act was a disaster, making overcrowding much worse. Partly this was because excessive compensation was paid to the landlords, for land which was then not allowed under the Act to be used for commercial use, so its value dropped heavily; meanwhile, because compensation was based on rental receipts, land owners in areas likely to face action under the Cross Acts rammed more people into their properties, and lied through their teeth about the value of houses. And while the poorest were usually those evicted (in St Giles, those displaced were ‘waifs of the population, poor labourers, hawkers, thieves and prostitutes, many of who were “lying out in the streets” or found space in already crowded neighbouring buildings), where planned replacement ‘model dwellings’ were built, (which took years, and in some cases never happened), they were not the type of people allowed, or who could afford, to move in. Although the Peabody Trust built 690 tenements to replace demolished slums in Great Wyld Street and Drury Lane, there was no accommodation for barrows and donkeys belonging to costermongers, the majority of the evictees, and the rents were too high. The net effect was to increase overcrowding in the area, as most of the cleared worked locally and were unlikely or unable to move far. This kind of well-intentioned reform rewarding the property-owners and making things worse for the poor seems to have been a regular feature of late-19th Century philanthropy. Local Medical officers also openly used the Cross Act and other sanitary reform legislation to forcibly rid their manor of people they saw as scum, with little pretence of rehousing them – in St Giles in 1881, the Medical Officer reported that he saw no possibility of improvement until many of those who had been evicted were completely removed in the area, and that he “was pleased to have got rid of them.” Some 8000 people were driven out of the St Giles area in the 1870s.

Some of those cleared in Great Wyld Street (now Wild Street, off Drury Lane), were unwilling to simply play victim, and took up squatting: “they made a forcible entry into Orange Court, and were turned out of the empty houses after they were compensated by the Board of Works.” Sadly, this is a rare example of recorded resistance I have discovered this to massive program of social cleansing – though much may have been lost, as the voices of the poor were seldom heard amidst the clamour for ‘improvement’.

The lack of recorded mass resistance to the destruction of thousands of homes and evictions is striking, especially if you compare it to the corresponding wealth of opposition to enclosure… While rookery dwellers were known for communal solidarity against incursion by bailiffs, constables and other forms of authority in the previous centuries, this seemingly didn’t evolve into collective defence of their ‘communities’ very existence… Why this didn’t occur is a vital question. Classic Marxists might well identify the slum dwellers as a lumpen proletariat who hadn’t developed a consciousness of themselves as a class; however they clearly had a sense of common interests. The ground down individual battle for survival can tend to depress and isolate, however; alienation and fatalism are often present in It’s possible that people saw the rookeries as not really worth fighting for in their actual conditions; it’s also possible that bonds of solidarity were constantly weakened by the transient nature of slum life. More research needs doing here.

Other road schemes that conveniently drove through London and Westminster slums included Victoria Street, built 1845-1851  through the Devil’s Acre rookery; Stamford Street, Southwark, built around 1860; Bethnal Green Road built 1872-1879 through the Shoreditch slums; the building of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road 1879-1887, which bulldozed the ‘infamous’ seventeenth century rookery around Newport Market (near Leicester Square), as well as the southern part of St Giles. Mr Henry Hughes of Grosvenor Square had described Newport Market in a letter to The Times, after he had had his gold watch and chain snatched nearby, and he and a police officer had tried to give chase. ‘”Notwithstanding the vigilance of the police officers, they are baffled in their efforts, owing to the maze-like intricacy of its rows of doorless hovels, harbouring and screening those who fly there after their depredations.” Mr Hughes advocated for the area’s demolition, and soon got his way: Newport Market stood in the path of Charing Cross Road, and was knocked down in 1887.

Still later, between 1900 and 1905, Aldwych and Kingsway were built upon the Clare Market, Holywell Street and Wych Street area, also a long-established rookery with a reputation for fencing of stolen goods and criminality.

Although the evidence of the effects of slum clearance often defied the intentions of the authors of these schemes, the same approach was paramount for dealing with old and run-down districts for decades, and while brazenly admitting the motivation was often to disperse the poor, the old trope that this was for their own good and would lead to their pulling themselves up by their bootstraps was continually repeated. In 1875, Mr Leon Playfair, MP, told Parliament that ‘dispersion’ of paupers during street improvements ‘is one of the greatest advantages of such a measure …. the rooting out of the rookeries has been the cause of much moral improvement.’

The Wrong Side of the Tracks

Coinciding with the early years of the roadbuilding schemes we have already discussed, London was also experiencing the railways boom. Along with much of the country the capital was rapidly being criss-crossed by railway lines, laid by private railways companies in a mad rush of speculation…

The building of the railways were generally driven through poorer districts, as the ‘low-grade housing stock’ was the cheapest to buy up. Thousands of houses were knocked down to accommodate the lines; at least 50,000 people are believed to have lost their rented accommodation between 1836 and 1867 due to demolitions for rail building. As with the road-building schemes, many of the evicted poor had little choice but to move into already overcrowded neighbourhoods.

Railway companies had sweeping powers of Compulsory Purchase, several years before the Metropolitan Board of works was able to employ this as a way of clearing targeted buildings. This was granted by the plethora of parliamentary acts passed to authorise each rail line; completely coincidentally many MPs and Lords were shareholders in the private railway companies; some also owning large parcels of the land the tracks and stations were built on, thus receiving compensation for their loss. Where tenants would get nothing.

To what extent was railway building also used to clear areas considered full of undesirables? One notable example stands out, of a so-called notorious area that DID disappear due to the rail boom.

Agar Town

In 1866, the Midland Railway Company demolished Agar Town, an area several Victorian writers described as the foulest slum in London, to make way for the development of St Pancras railway station. Thousands were moved out as their homes were knocked down. Interestingly, recent studies of the area have suggested that Agar Town area was not anywhere near as much of a slum as the hype around it made out, which begs the question of why such a virulent campaign of vilification was mounted – possibly to build up a swell of  support for demolition, redevelopment etc…? In any case, this area was totally eradicated in the 1860s; an entire London neighbourhood vanished under the new station and depots. (Which itself was recently re-developed into a multi-billion shiny office-cultural-residential complex, with lots of privately owned public space and up-market housing… There are timeless echoes of the clearance schemes of the 1800s – eradicating the longstanding chaotic streetlife of Kings Cross, dealers and junkies, prostitution and homelessness, has been a major bonus for the local authority… And there was some discussion of how people with mental health and other ‘complex problems’ could be excluded from housing in the social/’affordable’ newbuilds on the area – such new shiny estates should be free from such troublesome individuals…

This is far from the only example of slums demolished to make way for railways and stations. For instance, just along Euston Road to the west of Agar Town, several decades earlier, the building of the Metropolitan Line, a ‘cut and cover’ shallow underground line, ‘necessitated’ the demolition of ‘notorious’ streets to the north of Euston Road, which also allowed the road widened at this time. We’re still looking into how much the removal of the slum dwellers was part of the rationale for rail-building, and how much it was simply cheaper and easier to drive rail infrastructure through poor areas than more well-to-do neighbourhoods.

All in all, the road (and rail) schemes discussed above, the plan succeeded in destroying some of London’s rookeries, but largely failed in their more nebulous social aims – since the poor moved to slums nearby or elsewhere.

Far from opening up the labyrinths to the moral influence of the middle classes’, the new streets simply continued the segregation of the poorest, moving them here and there as areas became targeted for ‘improvement’.

Discipline and Punish

The destruction and redevelopment of poor areas, especially rebellious or uncontrollable poor areas, did not begin in the mid-nineteenth century. However, its usefulness for social control purposes gained much traction in mid-late Victorian times.

The clearing of lower Fleet Valley, St Giles and Spitalfields rookeries, among many others, was an important part of a combination of social processes that cleared most of the resident working class, and especially the rowdy, uncontrollable element, the threat of mob violence from inner London, from the doorsteps of the rich, away from the centres of business and leisure of the powerful, from the nexuses of power that ran a growing empire. Apart from removing the immediate daily danger of rebellion crime and disease from these areas, this clearing also created space for internal expansion for capital itself, on its own doorstep so to speak. How much of this was planned social engineering, how much ad hoc, and how much happy coincidence for the powers that be, is open to question. Certainly some of it was deliberate; and such processes were at work elsewhere. Much of Paris was redesigned in the 1850s-60s, under the leadership of Baron Hausmann; the wide boulevards driven through the centre, helped move troops/police around, to deal with rebellious crowds, made both administration of the city/social control more effective and speedier, and contributed to demolition of narrow, uncontrollable alleys and led to mass removal of the poor from central areas to the outskirts. (In Paris this was even more of a priority, since working class crowds had overthrown three regimes in the previous sixty years). Breaking up the potential rebellious unity of local areas, where people knew each other, shared customs, loyalties, and knew the narrow winding streets better than the authorities, was a specific aim. Like the London social reformers, Hausmann also used the pretext of bad sanitation as an excuse to destroy slums and move thousands of people to outlying areas of the city, “for their own good”, but happily also making them less threatening to authority and the seats of power.

But the destruction of the rookeries was also a crucial element of the imposition of discipline on working class. This involved many and diverse elements – the internalisation of the work ethic, splitting and separating the ‘respectable’ and unrespectable lower orders, demarcating ‘criminal subculture’ and ‘criminal economy’ as separate from respectable working lives… “regularisation of labour markets and economic activity , the moving of social and economic life off the streets by regularised employment in offices shops and factories, the organisation of social activities in youth clubs, boys organisations and the concentration of public street life into particular times and situations – public events. ‘Saturday night’ (during which police could be more lenient than at mid week), the regularisation of family life with men at work, women in the home, children at school etc…

The result was a certain stabilisation of working class communities  – “the regularly employed working class assimilated to bourgeois standards of order and indeed conceptions of criminality. Those in stable employment, oriented to consumption and family, are distanced from the street economy of social crime and cheap goods of dubious origin. Consciousness of the value of property acquired from the wage, and from savings, assimilates the working class to definitions and attitudes to crime shared with the middle classes. The street thief, robbing workers of their pay packets as much as the middle classes of their wallets, or the stalking murderer, preying on the vulnerable of all social classes, becomes the paradigm of crime. During the second half of the nineteenth century the modern ‘moral panic’ about crime and violence becomes a feature of urban life, of which the two most well known examples in London are the garrotting panic of 1862 and the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888.”

So earlier middle class panics about the lower orders in general was transformed into a fear, shared across the social classes, of the marginals and criminal subcultures. The respectable working class gets up on time, doesn’t drink, or not to excess, consumes and respects property and law n order, and only engages in regulated and controlled leisure pursuits. The re-organisation of streetlife and of areas where life, pleasure, work was played out in the street was a part of this re-ordering:

“The streets provided the largest and most accessible forum for the communal life of the poor. It was in the streets that members of the community came together to talk and play, to work and shop, and to observe (and sometimes resist) the incursions of intruders such as school board visitors, rent collectors and police officers… for most of the nineteenth century the poor were intensely hostile to the police, and…this hostility resulted in large measure from resentment at what was regarded as unwarranted, extraneous interference in the life of the community.” (Benson 1989: 132)

Increasingly, through the course of the nineteenth century, the police established their authority and presence in working class communities; both to deal with crime, and (more crucially) to directly impose surveillance and discipline over working class daily life; especially over streets, pubs, music halls, etc. Police were part of what historian Robert Storch called “the bureaucracy of official morality”, an active agent of the Victorian middle classes. Storch writes:

“The imposition of the police brought the arm of municipal and state authority directly to bear upon key institutions of daily life in working class neighbourhoods, touching off a running battle with local custom and popular culture which lasted at least until the end of the century… the monitoring and control of the streets, pubs, racecourses, wakes, and popular fetes was a daily function of the ‘new police’ … (and must be viewed as)… a direct complement to the attempts of urban middle class elites…. to mould a labouring class amenable to new disciplines of both work and leisure.” (Storch 1976: 481)

The police acted

“…through the pressure of a constant surveillance of all the key institutions of working-class neighbourhood and recreational life….. It was precisely the pressure of an unceasing surveillance…[in which] … the impression of being watched or hounded was not directly dependent on the presence of a constable on every street corner at all times… [but rather]… the knowledge that the police were always near at hand and likely to appear at any time.”

In the wake of demolitions of notorious streets, the emergent social housing was also used as a method of control. Model dwellings, the earliest form of social housing, was built, often in or near to the evicted slums. But only the respectable and hard-working were admitted, and codes of behaviour and morality in the new flats were strictly controlled, and rents kept relatively high, to exclude any of the ‘undeserving poor’. Part of the separation of the marginal from the conforming discussed above.

The early pioneers of Model Dwellings and other social housing reform believed that the physical environment, even the architecture, that people lived in could either sap their moral will, keep them held in poverty, or be adapted and changed to mould them into better more hardworking citizens. The layout of Model dwellings was specifically designed to have what was thought to be a beneficial moral and social effect. One of the main aspects of slum life they aimed to change was overcrowding – families having to share a room, where they slept, ate and did everything together; often even more than one family might live together in one room. Housing reformers were keen to give these poor families more space; however their pressing reason was not privacy, but because they saw this way of life as in itself immoral. Not only did it encourage immodesty and improper sexual relations (a subject of pathological obsession and innuendo for the Victorian middle class), but in a more complex and nebulous way, they thought that it formed part of a collective, communal life that should be done away with. Life publicly shared, in housing, the street, the pub, and other places of amusement, was itself somehow unconducive to respectability and self-reliance; the Model Dwellings were designed to separate people as much as possible – children from parents, one family from another. Physical space was designed to keep people apart – stairwells and other physical barriers between flats and doorways – in fact separate sanitary arrangements were built in at extra cost to reduce ‘immodest’ contact. Part of the plan was definitely a reinforcing of the patriarchal family unit, split off from a shifting wider communal society or even extended family.
Amongst the very earliest Model Dwellings were blocks built in St Giles, Clerkenwell and Spitalfields, the very areas we have seen that roads were used as slum clearance program – to specifically offer a way out, but only on certain moral terms, and only to those who worked hard enough in the right trades to afford it and signed up to live in ways that were considered acceptable.

These patterns of social control can be seen again in the late twentieth century. In the USA, from the late 1960s on, this process, when specifically and deliberately designed to rid inner cities of riotous and troublesome poor (usually African-american or latino) populations, was euphemistically labelled ‘Spatial Deconcentration’, by the government, military and corporate powers that developed it.

In 1980s Britain, after the 1981 riots,  areas like Brixton, in South London, with its street culture, the refusal of the work ethic by large sections of the population, the proliferation of squatting and counter-cultural and marginal ways of life and earning of money, attracted similar attention from the improving minds… Attitudes from police and authorities identified all these elements as needing to be either repressed, or bought off with social programs, to defuse the chances of further riots as in ’81… ideally both strategies would be used in tandem. So along with schemes to ‘tackle unemployment’, fund youth centres and create programs, there were also attacks on the squatting and street cultures, evictions, targeted harassment of those hanging out on the street. But there was also some altering of urban landscapes to suit the purposes of authority: the most notorious squatted houses and ‘blues’ clubs in Dexter Road (off Railton Road) were bulldozed (Dexter Road in fact completely vanished); walkways in Stockwell Park Estate that allowed rioters to bombard police from above and move rapidly around the estate during the fighting were afterwards partly removed, and the Railton Road/Mayall Road triangle, the centre of the fighting, was also redesigned, closing off ways crowds could move around, evade the police and gather again.
Areas merely associated with crime, or having a ‘bad name’, or even being working class have also been routinely altered and renamed, to shimmy the bad karma, without fundamentally dealing with the class basis and social /economic causes of poverty and ‘criminal behaviour’.

Tellingly, though, especially if you are relating urban social control and use of architecture to enclosure, observers have also long been aware that nee developments in architecture, street furniture, road and estate layout, can be subverted, used to create new methods of resistance or places of concealment, and turned back against the controllers. This can be seen as early as the sixteenth century in relation to enclosure fences, when complainants against enclosers in Neat House Fields and other areas of Westminster (officials from the parish vestry of St Martins-in-the-fields) objected to the hedges and ditches erected to enclose land, which they claim were being exploited by unruly and immoral elements (by which they seem to have meant thieves and prostitutes) to conceal themselves from observation. [We will write more on this anti-enclosure battle on August 1st this year]. If there’s virtually nothing in our existence that capital can’t take and try to profit from, there’s also nothing it can create that we can’t in turn deform and reshape to our own nefarious purposes. Hilariously, the rebuilding of the ‘frontline’ in Brixton provides another example – where the demolished squats of early 1980s Vining Street were replaced by housing association newbuilds, with funky entrances that won architectural awards. Only a while later was it realised that the stairs and gates so lauded were perfectly designed for hiding dealers and other ne-er-do-wells.

Central London has gone further along the route of urban clearance than other areas of the City, or even other European capital cities (Paris excepted?). Pretty much the whole of the old City of London was cleared of its residents in the century after 1840 (although much luxury accommodation has in fact grown up in the last couple of decades). Undoubtedly this was partly because of pressures for office land, but the desire to push any possible threat from unruly plebs further away from the centres of economic power was also clear. In the case of the lower Fleet Valley, for instance, the conglomeration of crime and punishment, slum and slaughterhouse, the prisons cheek by jowl with the slums, the “dung, guts and blood” carried by the river Fleet, have been wiped from the map. (Although even in living memory, some streets of supposed ‘criminal’ character remained in the Clerkenwell area).

Processes developed here continued and were refined elsewhere. The many prisons built in the Fleet valley were erected on what was then the City’s edge, but were gradually closed down as the metropolis expanded, and public methods of punishment vanished, from being conducted in open space, replaced by those inflicted inside, and out of sight. The jails that replaced the Fleet, Newgate, the Bridewell, in the nineteenth century were themselves constructed on the then edges of town (eg Brixton, Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs). With motorisation our modern Newgates are often found out in the countryside far from public view – on the Isle of Sheppey, in North Yorkshire, the Cambridgeshire fens…

The rookeries’ proximity to centres of power had developed historically, organically: communities which grew up to serve as labour to the wealthy, or provide services (selling, costermongers etc), or to prey on or otherwise cream a living off (through crime or begging). As the city expanded and some people became very rich, and as transport improved and people could live further from their source of income – if they had the means – the wealthy often moved out to newer suburbs, perhaps to the west or north of London. This often left formerly good quality housing, that was ripe to be taken over and sublet, colonised by the poorer classes, where no one with more money wanted to actually live in the old inner city anymore. This process has in fact repeated and reversed several times over the centuries. Between the early 1900s and the 1970s, the populations of inner city areas declined, as people of all classes moved out to outer London or to surrounding counties. The massive program of building social housing between the world wars and after World War Two, and economic prosperity and a rise in home ownership, left vast swathes of London’s old industrial and working class areas either vacant or under-occupied, with old run-down housing and derelict land abounding. This in itself created opportunities for new occupation, both in terms of profitable redevelopment and of alternative movements like squatting. Vast changes in socio-economics and fifty years later, the inner cities are now THE place for the wealthy and middle class to live again, and all the power and wealth of state, local state, business and its entourages of media and service industry, are focused on enabling this desire. This obviously involves the removal of people considered just not productive or well off enough to justify their inhabiting very profitable inner city space – council tenants, anyone on benefits, migrants – either to be crammed into smaller spaces at a convenient distance or be forced out of the capital altogether.

And the ‘shoveling out of the poor’ continues in London; working class communities are still being broken up, in some decades more slowly and more subtly these days. In 21st century London, with what seems like a vicious urgency, local authorities, developers and property owners are effectively collaborating to rid the city of anyone whose occupation of valuable city land is seen as just not economically profitable enough. These communities don’t even need to necessarily be troublesome, rebellious or infamous these days – although there’s an element among the planners, politicians and improvers of always seeing working class people as a problem, especially where they live in social housing.

Compared to the complex tangle of motives of 150 years ago that drove the roadbuilding schemes which demolished the rookeries, today’s social cleansing has much less of a moral drive, its true; it is less acceptable to be so blatantly high-handed and dismissive of whole communities. This doesn’t mean the developers and social planners don’t hold communities in contempt – just that they have be more circumspect, dressing plans up in PR, glossy brochures, terms like social mix… It is also interesting that the social housing that was originated as a way of dealing with the people displaced from the slums in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, housing once held up as the decent, respectable and law-abiding alternative to lawless and insanitary slums, is now considered redundant, as well as unprofitable, and taking up space that a better class of people are entitled to. It is no longer thought necessary in some quarters to build or maintain social housing either to discipline the working class, or to buy them off and prevent upheaval and protest. The alternative view, to house people cheaply and well, is definitely out of fashion.

The question arises, is a movement going to arise, that can collectively challenge this process, and where is it going to come from?

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

Follow past tense on twitter