Trespass the New River – a radical wander down North London’s longest aqueduct


North London’s New River was built between 1609 and 1613, in an attempt to alleviate, but also to cash in on, the shortage of water in the City of London. This trespassing walk down the New River follows on from this short history of the building of the River and the profit motives and moral/immoral economies that the River subverted and helped to create. Ideally, this walk should be done with this history in mind.

The New River path runs most of the way along the old New River course… though much of the actual bank is shut off to you and me. Some of this exclusion has no reason at all – one stretch is open and then the next is not. The path is NOT a right of way – it clearly states on every notice that we are allowed to walk there, by kind permission of the landowner, Thames Water. By kind permission means they can withdraw it.

But we think water should be free, like all necessities… and also think that pathways ands open spaces should be free. All titles to land derive originally from someone seizing it by force, way back when, and saying it’s theirs. We aren’t even saying we just want old rights of way or commons opened, we want it all opened up; based not on some ancient rights, but on a program of a world shared, for all, for free, not for profit.

These days, the River and its banks are ‘owned’ by Thames Water. They often lease sections to the relevant local authority.

Much of the New River path is now open, thanks largely to the campaigning done in the 1980s and ’90s by the New River Action Group. For some reason, though, large stretches are locked off to you and me still; as to why, it’s not clear. I don’t think they suspect us of being mad catholic saboteurs from the seventeenth century (see the earlier post on the New River) – sometimes they shut off bits for maintenance, but mainly they lock gates because they can. The river path is not a ‘right of way’. Interestingly, many struggles around access to walking land outside cities over the last few decades have involved trying to force water companies – some of the largest landowners in the country – to open up paths for people to wander. So maybe we should be pushing for the remaining stretches of the New River to be “freed like conduit water…”

Otherwise, if you actually want to follow the New River as it really flows, you may have to do a little trespassing… Obviously this is up to the reader, and we are not, of course, advising you to jump over fences or gates. All the following descriptions are merely for informational purposes.

Any prospective trespasser on the New River would be breaking civil law, it’s Thames Water’s land, and for quite a lot of its length they have locked the gates to prevent access. So you would have to do some climbing and jumping, though nothing higher than eight feet, and usually there are footholds. Any prospective explorer would probably be best advised to wait until no-one is passing by, so they can’t see you jumping in, but bear in mind people in neighbouring houses, cars etc may spot you. Some would suggest going dressed like a workman, hi-visibility jacket, boots, a hard hat, tools or a clipboard even so it looks like you’re doing some work or surveying. You wouldn’t need to do any criminal damage to get to any of the River, which of course would be highly illegal anyway.

A trespasser spotted by a civilian could bullshit that they’re working and move off casually – something like “forgot the key” etc might work, if you’re actually caught halfway over a fence. Common sense might help too – some times of day are better than others, some days are better, as there’s less people around; though on the flipside some stretches are busier in the week, and others are busier at the weekend.

If you’re caught by Thames Water workers, it’s probably best to ‘fess up and plead nerdy interest in the River, and try to get them to let you go. Same with the police really, though workers might be more lenient than cops. Bear in mind that like most workers, many Thames Water employees have low regard for their employers, so some genial chat about how you can’t understand why the gates are locked, you’re not doing any harm, maybe try to bond with them against the ‘system’. Can’t hurt to try.

Trespass is generally a civil offence, unless you commit some criminal damage getting in or while you’re in; or someone thinks you have other motives like vandalism, slipping LSD into the water, breaking and entering etc. But the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 provides that anyone trespassing on land in order to intimidate someone engaged in a lawful activity or to disrupt a lawful activity on land is committing the offence of ‘aggravated trespass’. It is also an offence to ignore the directions of a uniformed police officer to leave the land, when the officer believes that the person is committing or is about to commit aggravated trespass.

If the cops come and you are arrested, you are entitled to a phone call, get someone to call you a decent solicitor, and don’t let the cops interview you without them present. A good solicitor should advise you to say nothing in any interview. If you are planning to trespass it might be worth letting a reliable friend know in advance and both of you have a good local solicitor’s number.

Some gates may be locked some of the time, not at others; so some of the information that follows may be redundant if you can just walk in.

We have started at where the River enters greater London… This is admittedly arbitrary, and we’ll get round to the earlier section between Amwell and Enfield another time…

We are interested in the history and geography of the spaces we inhabit, the past present and future of our city. We have included here many digressions to sites that are interesting to us, usually because they are areas of contention, between money and power on one side, and people trying to survive, improve their lives, or create alternative ways of living on the other. We hope that readers are interested in these diversions, but make no apology if they’re not – a walk isn’t just a walk, the New River isn’t just a waterway, it flows through this society, with all its divisions base on class, sex, race, power, wealth, work, bigotry… and through history, a process of struggle between the powerful and the dispossessed… We haven’t covered anything like the full history of the areas  that bank on the River, how could we? –  though the more, the better, really…

For this walk, you can start at Enfield Chase Station, or at Enfield Town Station, both national rail stations…

If you start at Enfield Town:
Come out of the station onto Southbury Road, turn left and walk along to the junction of Silver Street, cross the road here;

If you arrive via Enfield Chase:
Turn right and walk east down Windmill hill, Church Street, and the Town, to the corner of Silver Street.

If you then walk north up the west side of Silver Street, up to the entrance to Portcullis Lodge Road, you hit the New River, or at least the ‘old course’  – the loop that runs on the surface around Enfield town.

Walk down this section along side the road that leads to the car park at the end.

Here is where you face your first diversionary dilemma. The river now cuts north then west through the playgrounds of the Enfield grammar School. If you’re not up for trespassing through their land, you have to retrace your steps to Silver Street, turn left up Baker Street, and next right down Parsonage Lane. You can get back onto the River path on this road, opposite Monastery Gardens. It’s then a fairly straightforward walk around the Enfield loop of the River.

However, if you feel like a fleeting glimpse of the school’s grounds, there are two ways in from the Portcullis Lodge Road car park. There’s a black gate at the northwest corner, which you can swing around over the river, although it wasn’t even locked when I went by (on a weekday). You can then follow the River around, but have a look to see if there are people using the fields, and then decide – the pupils use the various fields at different times. If you don’t want to be spotted, a weekend might be better.

You can climb out either at the locked gate where Parsonage Gardens, the River and Pennyfather Lane meet, or at the other end of Pennyfather Lane over a gate.

From here, follow the River path around the side of the Crown & Horseshoes pub, and onto River View, with its private bridge over the River to a lovely little cottage here. The River runs down to Church Street through some attractive green space, sports grounds, Chase Green, a remainder of the old large open common land that was once Enfield Chase.

Digression 1:
Enfield Chase

An old map of Enfield Chase

Enfield Chase was an ancient royal hunting ground. 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.

Like most open spaces, Enfield Chase was the theatre for struggles between rich and poor, landowner and landless.

There were constant battles over enclosure, access to resources like wood and grazing rights, and poaching here for centuries. Enclosure quarrels in Enfield provoked a petition in 1575 and riots in 1549, 1589, 1603, 1649 and 1659.

In 1649, there were riots on the Chase, against landlord’s enclosing woods here, which were vital to survival by the local poor. Enclosures gradually fenced off open land and forest from most people, which destroyed the subsistence economy many relied on; a vital part of capitalism’s rise in Britain.

Around 1650 groups appeared in both Barnet and Enfield, who sympathised with the Diggers or True Levellers, communists who were occupying open land in Surrey and working it in common in defiance of landowners.  Small groups began digging up common land for squatter communes. Such communities, although very small, were were made up from the very poor and thus represented a threat to social order and local tradition. Many Diggers were apparently from squatting families who had come to the Chase during the English Civil War and just after. They may even have had had a blind eye turned to them by Parliament, hoping to disrupt traditionalist opponents of the new regime. Either way, rioting certainly occurred during the Digger occupancy although we do not know if Diggers were involved with the disturbances. It is quite likely they were as local patience ran out. Accused of killing deer and of assault, fifteen men, including a furrier, cordwainer, weaver, butcher and group of labourers, were indicted for the disturbances. These men were almost certainly recently discharged soldiers as all had access to firearms; they also represented the poorest of the area.

In 1659, there were more anti enclosure riots. Commoners levelled barns, burned fences on land sold to speculators, and led cattle into corn. This led to a pitched battle with militia.

In 1666, there were rumours of an alleged Fifth monarchist conspiracy here and in Epping Forest. The Fifth Monarchists were defeated Civil War millenarians, big in the 1650s, sort of part old testament, part anarchist, who had been driven underground,  and plotted revolt and restoration of a republic into the 1670s.

Fifth monarchists rebel

Writing to his friend Francis Manley, in 1666, Henry Eyton mentions his fears regarding the Fifth monarchists, the “… restless enemy amongst us … I mean the whole fanatic party, the head of which serpent lies in and near London especially upon the confines of Essex and Hertfordshire … taking either side of the Ware river from Edmonton down to Ware and particularly those retired places of Epping Forest and Enfield Chase … About the road near Theobalds there is a crew of them lie concealed … that should there be the least commotion in London we should find to our cost that they would be too ready to second it.”

Whether there was much truth to this fear, it’s worth noting forests has long given shelter to outlaws and political dissidents.

About a hundred squatter cottages grew up on the Chase between 1670 and 1700, regarded by the authorities as inhabited by ‘loose, idle and disorderly persons’. Ie people driven to the margins by enclosure, poverty, with nowhere else to go.

In the 1720s, General Pepper, who had leased the Chase, was shot at during his ongoing struggle with poachers.

In 1777 Enfield Chase was finally enclosed.

Digression 2: Enfield Town

Locals didn’t stop causing trouble when the Chase was shut off to them though:
In Enfield in 1911, school kids struck in local schools, part of a London-wide school strike wave. Later, during the 1926 General Strike, (when two million workers walked out to support miners locked out by the mine-owners) open-air meetings of the Enfield Trades Council and the Labour Party were held at the Fountain, Enfield Town. After the TUC called off the Strike, local tram drivers and conductors here refused to accept that the strike was over; a tram manned by volunteers ran in Enfield. Independent buses ran on the Green Lanes route.

More here on local activity in London during the General Strike:

The Ford/Visteon factory in Morson Road, Enfield, was occupied by its workers in 2009 to try to prevent its closure…

And during the riots of 2011, local youth inspired by the Tottenham riot the day before following Mark Duggan’s shooting, kicked off in Enfield, during several nights of uprisings across England.

When you reach Church Street, cross over, and follow the open path on either bank of the River, (unusually here you can walk freely on both sides). The river opens out into a large and lovely pond, a small lake really, with a long meandering islet in it.

South of this lake, the New River path runs on the east side for a while, as the River curves round a raised embankment overlooking the Town Park.

In 1931, when the Piccadilly underground line was being extended to Cockfosters, some large bore pipes used in its construction were floated down the New River to a point near here then hauled the rest of the way by road. Apart from this the New River was a water supply, not really a transport artery. However, for much of the River between here and Bowes Park, one way of traveling it in style would be to launch a small boat or dinghy, a canoe or raft even. Watch out for low bridges and occasional dredging machines though!

Interestingly, when you come to the south-eastern corner of the park, there are a few memorial trees planted to remember some dead folk; but the nearest one to the river is dedicated to Enfield Peace Campaign, and seems to have been planted in 1980. We liked that (having also been peace campaigners in our youth).

Pat Mattingly

Check out Pat Mattingly, who was involved in the Enfield Peace Campaign

But the path on the east bank veers away from the River shortly after. You have to re-trace your steps to the bridge at the south end of the pond, and cross over, turn left, and follow the path up the hill. You are now at your second possible trespass point.

For none-trespassers, the path through the Golf Course runs up the hill, then turns right, its actually a nice walk, quiet apart from the pointless thwacking of little white balls if the golfers are at play.

Golf of course is the ultimate game of social aspirations, if not always of the rich, the powerful, always of those who want to be… the game of the businessman. The Golf Course is where deals are made, where the upward-looking working class man attempts to slide up the social scale. Joining the Golf Club is the mark of acceptance into the elite. It takes up huge areas of land that would be better left wild, and in many countries, consumes huge water supplies at the expense of local communities. It is the pits. It really is time to get rid of it.

Some inspiring struggles against golf include:

  • the anti-enclosure battle at One Tree Hill in South London, in 1897, when thousands rioted and tore down fences of a golf course built on open land used by locals for centuries. They won, in the end, it’s still a brilliant place…
  • the armed resistance of Mohawk native Canadians in 1990 against attempts to evict them from their tribal lands for the building of a golf course. Barricades across roads, guns, the lot. Ending in some heavy jail sentences.
  • The Movement Against Golf Courses, active in eleven countries in South East Asia. Golf, even more of a rich man’s game in Asia, often involves the clearing of virgin forest, the forced destruction of villages and eviction of their people, the diversion of vital water supplies… thousands rioted in the late 1980s/early ’90s and destroyed golf courses. As radical newspaper Contraflow asked: “How long till we carry this struggle to the Home Counties?”
  • Transvestite Golf War: A mysterious group who carried out attacks on golf courses in the 1990s. Are they still around? Their country needs them.

If you want to follow the River here, you have to go onto the Golf Course at the first gate to the right off the path (Hole 11, actually!); if the Golf Course is open it might be open, the gate could be ajar; if not it’s a relatively easy jump over it. Trouble is, if the Course is open, it’s likely to be full of golfers. Now the land is private; but of you look like a golfer other golfers may well ignore you. So someone dressing like your nerdy uncle in a cardigan and slacks, having obtained an old golf bag and some old clubs (charity shops may well score here), and just acting like they’ve every right to be there, could pass by easily.

The River runs for a while through the course, then disappears, after that you can cut up to any of the other entrances off the path.

The path eventually brings you out at the entrance to the Golf Course, off Bush Hill. If you come out here, turn left down the road.

The River is completely invisible from here for some distance underground; immediately south of Bush Hill it flows under some large posh private houses. Best off not trying to clamber over their fences, there may be alarms, gun collections and unhappy dogs.

Digression 4: Dead Legs

This whole Enfield Loop is of course part of the New River. Or is it? In fact it’s a dead leg, the old course of the River until about 1890, when large pipes were dug from Southbury Road to Bush Hill (running roughly all down London Road). So you can cut out all this wandering, if you want to be absolutist and go with the real modern flow. But walking the loop is a much more pleasant diversion.

In 1940 bomb damage took these pipes out of action, so the old loop was again revived as the real course of the River for a while until the London Road pipes were repaired after World War Two.

The redundant stretch of the River around Enfield was saved from being filled in by a public campaign to preserve it for its ornamental value; it is essentially now a linear lake. Since 1988 the New River Loop Restoration Project has restored the historic watercourse, listed bridges and railings, reinstated the timber banks of the New River and provided new seating and a new fountain in Chase Green Gardens.

Walk north to the junction with London Road and Park Avenue, and follow Park Ave to where Faversham Avenue hits it. Walk down Faversham Ave to Bentley Mews, at the top end of which there’s a locked black iron gate you can jump over, into a green lane behind the houses; you then have to clamber over the hedge (there’s a handy tree there), to get onto the river path again.

You have to climb out at the other end though, where the River hits Bush Hill Road.

If you’re not trespassing, you can in fact cut this short: when you exit the golf course path, turn right instead down Bush Hill, and it’ll bring you out at to the end of Bush Hill Road, just northwest of the open gate here.

Cross over the road here, and the legit path runs south through a lovely stretch, behind people’s gardens. You’re back on the ‘real’ river here, after the Loop ends, so the River flows faster, there’s much less pondweed than in the lazy dead loop, which barely moves at all.

Just south though the way is blocked again, a bit randomly, by a large green fence, the colour and design you’ll come to know well as you wander the New River southward.

If you are keen to follow the river whatever, you have to swing out around it over the water. Walking along to the Ridge Avenue end, you can climb out over the gate, or over the fence in Bush Hill to the west side (which is a bit quieter of people).

Digression 5: the Salmons Brook

Salmons Brook, where the New River flows over it

However, before you do this, you should follow the New River path down the steps to your right, cross the road, and down more steps, to the point where Salmon’s Brook runs under the New River’s raised embankment. A lead lined wooden aqueduct originally carried the New River over Salmon’s Brook; this was replaced by a brick arch in 1682, then replaced by the current embankment.

This is one of our favourite spots on the New River; two waterways, criss-crossing each other, like the streets that run over other streets on bridges in old Edinburgh. It inspires in us a visions of a whole city built like that, waterways interlocking and weaving, walkways running beside them and over, nooks and crannies and hidden buildings… The whole of London could be rebuilt like that. Who needs all those roads?

The Salmons Brook rises on Enfield Chase and merges with the Pymmes Brook (which also flows under the New River, later on) and eventually flows into the River Lea.

Here’s a lovely web entry on this stream

So, you can go back up to the bank and swing the fence, or if you’re not up for that you can walk along Bush Hill to Ridge Avenue. Cross Ridge Avenue and there’s an open gate to the next stretch, another lovely bit, a grassy path and overhanging trees… When you get to Firs Avenue, cross it and you can keep going; this bit’s also stunning. A hundred yards along or so there’s a bend to the west, under lovely trees, where I have dabbled my feet in the River, though there’s a sluice here which can gather debris and flotsam.

You then walk through lovely woodland on the east bank, with contrasting new-ish red blocks of flats on the west, for a short way. On your left the woods on the other side of the fence are part of the Paulin Ground, where local sports clubs are based.

When you come to the bridge just before Ford’s Grove, you can jump over onto the west bank and trespass back along, if you fancy it.

The next section is shut off, but it’s so short, only an obsessive would bother to climb the fences on either bank to walk it. Otherwise, turn right down Ford’s Grove, then sharp left down Farm Road, and there’s the path, through an open gate on the west bank. A dedicated trespasser could also climb over the small wooden gate on the east bank. They would be very visible though to observers. (There’s a fairly easy climb back over railings at the Highfield end).

South of here is another quiet-ish stretch, especially if there are no kids in the school sports ground on the east side; a grassy path, overhanging trees whose branches dip down into the drifting water… ace.

Cross Highfield Road, and the next open stretch runs on the west bank; you shortly come to the old Highfield pumping station that hastened the flagging New River waters along a bit. It seems derelict, but this is one of the points where the New River is allowed to drain into the chalk, from which it can be reclaimed if needed. (This was known as the Artificial Recharge Scheme.)

A daring soul could scale the bridge over the river that leads to it, or over the gates on Carpenter Gardens. We didn’t observe any cameras.

Crossing over Carpenter Gardens, the open path continues on the west bank to Barrowell Green, though right next to the noisy main road. You could without hardship trespass on the east path, just a small gate at the Carpenter Gardens end, with a more challenging climb out over a 6-foot fence at Barrowell Green.

At Barrowell Green, gates being locked, you could trespass on either side, though the east looks easier. There’s a handy tree, and a low gate at the hedge lane end to exit over.

The legitimate alternative to this is to walk down Green Lanes for a minute, turn left into River Avenue, left again when you reach Hedge Lane, and you come back to the River, with an open path on the west bank. You could also trespass the east bank, as there’s an easy low wooden gate here, but you’d have to scale an 8-foot iron railings at the other end.

The open path now crosses the path to the neighbouring park and carries on, along the west bank. On the east you could again leap the railings if you were nimble.

This entire stretch from hedge lane to Hazelwood Lane, is quite attractive again, behind houses, or verging on parkland…

When you get to Hazelwood Lane, the path is again locked off, the gate on the east bank would be easiest to climb – at the other end you can exit over a concrete fence, to the path from Hamilton Way over the river – though a theoretical wanderer might want to cross over here and jump the wooden gate on the west bank, to avoid a large blocking off fence on the east bank ahead, that would be harder to swing around.

If you sensibly have no stomach for all this climbing, follow Chimes Avenue (first right off Hazelwood Lane on the east bank), to where the path runs off to the right when the avenue veers left. This path brings you back up to the open west bank riverside path.

The River now runs in a wide raised embankment, with playing fields fifteen or so feet below you on the east; if you had trespassed from the last bridge you would be walking down behind suburban gardens, and, if you came in early May-June, could gather elderflower, or in August/September, elderberries, from a fine elder tree here. Some lovely homemade trespassing wine, would be a fine vintage… though you can also make elderflower cordial, jelly or juice… There’s a fairly easy exit on the west bank at the next bridge over low railings.

Cross Oakthorpe Road, from here the legit path follows the west bank, but there’s an easy climb over onto the east side (the grassy path is a little narrow though).

The main road, Green Lanes again, is just a short walk, here you come out, and cross to the old Southgate Town Hall

Here you could easily climb onto either bank, but on the west, there’s a nasty high spiky fence a few yards down, so the east might be better. On the east, there’s also a bit of a hairy exit: over a spiky fence, then you still have to exit the yard around the dredger.

Digression: Fighting the fascists 1977

From here you could have a short diversion, up to Broomfield Lane to Broomfield Park, site of an anti-fascist battle in 1977.

After the orrible rightwing National Front held a march through Wood Green, on 23 April 1977, (see later on for the beginning of this story) there were running fights between them and anti-fascists here. A sizeable number of anti-fascists did make it to nearby Arnos School (now Broomfield School) in Wilmer Way where the NF held their rally. By this stage it was late afternoon.

Several hundred fascists were able to re-group after being ambushed by anti-fascists in Turnpike Lane. It appears that the march continued on past the Cock at the North Circular Rd to Palmers Green triangle. Here Enfield Trades Council and some local Communist Party activists rallied in opposition to the fascists. The NF then continued down Powys Lane into Wilmer Way from the north, skirting the edge of Broomfield Park. Fighting between fascists and anti-fascists continued in the park itself.

An account of the day

Another digression: to Palmers Green Unemployment Benefit Office, which stood on the corner of the North Circular (on the north west side below Elmdale rd). It was destroyed by an arson attack on 4th April 1987. And was never rebuilt. That’s one response to the misery of life on the dole.

At this time there were a spate of arson attacks on police stations, Tory clubs, crown courts and other agencies of the state and ruling classes in North London. Far be it from us to suggest that kind of activity should be revived, in these turbulent times.

If you’re not trespassing, you need to walk up to the traffic lights, turn left west) down Broomfield Lane, then almost immediately down the ramp leading to the back of the library. There’s an open gate to the west bank path here just off the car park.

This brings you onto another quiet stretch, the raised embankment falls to gardens on the east, with a patch of wilderness on the west, populated by some very weird looking weeds (which put me in mind of 50s sci-fi horror schlock “alien plants invade” type films I used to love as a teenager). When we were there, there was also a pile of felled young trees that an enterprising boat-person could probably knock up into a nifty raft and go sailing off to Bounds Green…

Just down here also is another of the enchanting points, where the River bridges over Pymmes Brook. Jumping down and wading the Brook would be a fine trespass for another day…

At the end of this stretch is one of the New River’s wondrous dredging machines, that rakes out the weeds, algae etc, and hoists it out automatically ever so often. It’s worth waiting around to see this in action.

You then come out onto the North Circular Road, a sharp contrast with the calm of the River, with heavy traffic roaring past. (Or at a standstill, at peak times!)

The North Circular, west of here, is named Bowes Road. On May 10th 1926, during General Strike, ‘at 5pm outside the council offices Mr S.H. Brown leaned over the fence and tore down a government notice. He was arrested by a Special Constable, but escaped. Brown fled but was caught down Bowes Road, then just a main road, with the help of another Special.’ He was fined forty shillings, or 28 days in prison. Here’s more on the General Strike, and some brief accounts of activity around London during this dispute.

Through Palmers Green and Bounds Green, numerous houses compulsory purchased for a proposed widening of the North Circular, and then left empty for years, were gradually squatted. Through the 1980s and ’90s. Some were still there until relatively recently, but the widening happened, finally, over the last couple of years. Now the Road is much wider, hurray. And rammed with traffic again. More and bigger roads mean more traffic.

Anyway, if you don’t fancy it legging it over the North Circular dodging juggernauts, turn right and there’s a pelican crossing fifty yards up, cross there and back to the bridge, where there’s a ramp up to Russell Road. The open path resumes here on the east bank, though an easy hop over the church railings and then over again gets you onto the west bank. This narrow path though does run very close to people’s back gardens here, you might freak people out unless you look official and unburglarly. And there’s a high green steel fence at the Whittington Road exit.

At Whittington Road, the open path crosses to the west bank, to wander the east bank, you’d have to climb the green steel gate here. The section you reach now is another high point of the New River for me. The wide banks slope down to the water on either side, there are a lot of blackberries here in August/September, and room for picnics… on some sunny days there are a fair number of people here hanging out.

The River enters a tunnel here which carries it all the way through to the back of Wood Green. Even a dinghy probably wouldn’t get you through here.

The west bank exits onto Myddleton Road, on the east you can come out, into one of the loveliest spaces on the River bank: the Bowes Park outdoor gym. Created by Bowes Park Community Association, this place has some open-air exercise machines, a ping-pong table, and a great outdoor exhibition on the local history of the New River, the Bowes Park tunnel and more. A really brilliant community initiative. As is the Bowes Park Community Garden, just over the road, also partly run by volunteers from the Community Association.

Interestingly there’s a locked hatch here, which looks like it might descend to the River in its tunnel…

This tunnel and the raised channel to the north of the North Circular replaced two old loops, where the River ran through Edmonton and Arnos Park. This shortened the River’s length by nearly a mile or so.

The tunnel used to be inspected regularly by hard hatted folk aboard a flat bottomed boat, but since health and safety concerns vetoed access on the water, it was decided to drain the tunnel in September 2012, and give it a proper clean out for the first time since it was finished in 1858.

Out of the tunnel they brought: 1,740 tons of silt, every ounce and pound shifted by hand. Plus 154 years of flotsam and debris: “two guns and two rounds of ‘live’ ammo’, lots of knives, five or six safes, lots of handbags and credit cards, two motor-bikes, three bicycles, a skateboard, lots of kids trikes and scooters, some imitation Swedish medallions(!) a 17th century pipe, two small Buddhas, lots of plastic dolls, one antique white ceramic doll’s head, a boat, a big oak barrel and the old metal bridge handrail which must have fallen off many years ago. The largest non-silt collection was bottles of various ages.”

There’s more info and some great pictures of the tunnel clearance at this site

As the River flows underground here, we have to trace it on the surface via the New River path. There’s no real prospect of dragging yourself through the hedge from the Gardens here, and over into people’s back gardens etc… So you walk west to Palmerston Road, turn right, down to Truro Road and through Finsbury Gardens, another small green space partly run by locals (the Friends of Finsbury Gardens), which runs into the northern section of Nightingale Gardens. The Friends group has named this stretch the ‘Hidden River path’.

When you get to Bounds Green Road, cross at the lights, and on through the next part of Nightingale Gardens, a wide alley of green between the interesting Baptist church and houses.

Before you cross Bounds Green Road, you could take a wander to the memorial and drinking fountain, just to the south, which remembers one Catherine Smithies, who lived in the big house at Woodside Park in Wood Green, and a pillar of Christian charity and Temperance. In one way it’s somewhat appropriate to our walk that the biblical quotes on the monument refer to water (what the poor should be drinking, instead of the devil’s own alcohol), however the memorial also stands lonely in front of the Prince Albert pub. Not a temperance pub either!

But maybe check out the Find a Fountain campaign, which fights for more drinking fountains and free water sources.

But Catherine Smithies was also the founder of the ‘Band of Mercy Movement’, which encouraged children to look after and not abuse animals… it later merged in to the RSPCA.

Walking several feet above the New River in its pipe, like disreputable dowsers, you continue through the trees of Avenue Gardens, down the hill, to the crossing over Park Road, to where the River emerges blinking into the light again.

Off the path to your right, just before you descend to Park Road, there’s a little marker planted in the grass labelled ‘Pipe NRC’ – New River Company – presumably above the actual buried pipe…

You can jump over either side to nose about here, a very short stretch.

Crossing over Station Road, the River runs under the rail bridge. Even a hardened trespasser might not bother jumping here, there’s no path, and if you climb up you only end up in the Heartlands School grounds. Or on the railway line.

Digression: Alexandra Palace 

If you haven’t been there, and you have time, it would be worth you while to wander up from here to Alexandra Palace, set on a hill in a lovely park. It has a great history, including being used as the broadcast station for early BBC radio and TV channels…

The Park nearly didn’t survive as open space: in the 1880s, the company that owned the Palace planned to sell it for development. The plans were shelved after local protests.

Later, during World War One,  the park was used as an internment camp for Germans and other suspect foreigners, especially radicals and lefties, from 1915. Leading East End anarchist Rudolf Rocker (not exactly a sympathiser with the Kaiser, but definitely a danger to the state) was one internee.

On 29 March 1967, the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream event was held here…
This was a seismic event in the development of the 1960s/70s counter-culture, a benefit for top underground paper international times, it featured bands including Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, the Move, Arthur Brown, Alex Harvey; and conceptual art, and light shows, 10,000 or so attended. Late in the day it was attacked by mods…

There’s some film here

On 5th November 1990 the fireworks display at Alexandra Palace saw Poll Tax demands and an effigy of Thatcher burnt.

In 1997, then Conservative rising star Michael Portillo’s 10 year anniversary party as MP for Enfield Southgate was disrupted by hundreds of locals and friends, who harassed Tory partygoers with flour, paint and fists, and did some kwikfitting on their cars. A sideline to this story: The author was one of a small group that attended this event… We thought that anyone trying to get there through the main gate would get blocked off by the police. So we decided to sneak in through the park, under a bridge and up through the trees, to beat any roadblocks. We SASed it up the hill in the dark, getting to the top just time to see… loads of our mates arrive on the W3 bus that runs past the Palace. Who’d had no trouble getting in. D’oh!

Another fun digression from here is to trace the line of the old Palace gates to Seven Sisters railways line, closed in 1963 under the Beeching rail cuts. Although it’s totally removed, you can trace much of where the line ran, as where bridges still cross the depression in the land… Some of it has been converted to allotments and other uses. More on this old line here

It is a bit of a diversion, but you can get to the New River, or at least the north bank of the reservoir, from the woods below Ali Pali. If you walk back up from Station Road, via Buckingham Road, cross the railway, turn left into Bedford Road, then left into the track to the Network Rail depot there. There’s a path through the park to your right, a short way down, just before the tiny wooden bridge, a little path runs through the trees, skirting the fence to the railway works… it’s a bit of a scramble through nettles and weeds, especially when wet, but where the railways land comes to a triangular end, you can struggle through to a fence, which if you find the tree we did, you can see over to the River. Not sure if even a hardy explorer would bother to jump over though, you could only follow the river by scaling a large pipe that crosses over it.

The official New River path therefore runs down the alley by the playground to Western Road, and right down Western Road.

Digression: Wood Green

If you wander left up Mayes Road, then right down Station Road, you come to Wood Green High Road, (the local disguise for the same old Green Lanes that the New River skirts further north).

Much disorder, demonstration and riotry has passed down here..

As mentioned above when we passed by Broomfield Park, on 23 April 1977, a twelve hundred-strong National Front march through Wood Green was opposed by some 3,000 anti-racists. A contingent of radical elements broke away from a peaceful (and largely useless) rally on Duckett’s Common; as soon as the Front march set off, counter-demonstrators attacked and the march was split, with some NF supporters scattering. As the NF moved into Wood Green High Road they were bombarded with flour, eggs, tomatoes, smoke bombs, and the shoes from racks outside the front of a shop on the High Road. Eighty-one people were arrested, including seventy-four anti-fascists.

During the riots of July 1981, sparked by repressive policing, poverty and boredom, rioters in the Wood Green High Road wound up opposing police by playing radio reports of other riots at them…

On the corner of Wood Green by the tube, was the oldest public building in Haringey, a big dancehall; having been closed down, this was squatted in 1986/7, for gigs and other events – it’s since been knocked down.

If you carry on up the hill, you come to the Haringey Civic Centre, the Borough Town Hall. This HQ of the local authorities has been the target of rebellious locals. It was occupied 8/5/1987 by 120 claimants/Tottenham Claimants Union, during civil servants strike 5-8 May, when dole offices were shut and doleys received no giros. Council leader, Bernie Grant, called the police, who evicted the claimants, but 80 of them then occupied the finance dept, only to be evicted again. They then marched down the high road. 30 later occupied Social Security office.

The Civic Centre was especially popular during the anti-poll tax movement, when Haringey set the highest poll tax in Britain, but the local anti-poll tax movement was huge, and very well organised. There were several massive rallies here though 1989-1991… On February 5 1990, hundreds protested the Council fining 7,000 people for non-registration for the tax. 5 March that year, Haringey Council met to set the Poll Tax. 1,000 demonstrated – the Council Chamber was invaded, and the road outside blocked. Eleven people arrested. Meeting was adjourned. 4 March 1991: Protest at Council Poll Tax setting meeting – bills burned outside the Civic Centre. 24 May 1991: During a strike by Haringey council workers against cuts imposed by Poll Tax budget, there was another big demo outside Council meeting and burning of Poll Tax bills.

In 2011, a local demo against the cuts in council services occupied the Town Hall; two people were nicked as they were kicked out by police.

To return to Western Road, walking down, on the right hand corner of the little park you pass the pretentiously named Decorium. Once a public swimming pool, opened in 1911, then closed in the 1980s; it’s now a totally over the top venue for weddings and corporate gross-fests. Maybe we could secretly flood it, turn it into a free public pool again (running a small pipe for the purpose from the New River perhaps?)

Follow Western Road to the large short uphill tunnel that heads off right under the railway. Opposite the large industrial estate, mostly now given over to evangelical churches exploiting migrants, Africans usually. While exploring this area, hardly had I sat down in the end of the tunnel to rest and shelter from the rain, than I was accosted by a godbotherer. “Do you want something to read? Some Good News” he asked, ignoring my scowl and anti-religious t-shirt!

Turn right up through the tunnel, follow the River again at a distance, behind a large fence, where it runs by the Thames Water filtration plant. Although a hardy jumper could scale the fence, and walk down the east bank; you are exposed, but there’s not many people working there, at least at time of writing. Couldn’t see cameras but there may be some.

The brand new treatment machinery in the filtration plant, installed a few years back, (the old filtration beds now having been drained) was, when this was written in 2013, not running; Thames Water has enough capacity with its Coppermill Lane and Chingford South plants, and has this one held in reserve. Apparently the machinery here can be got up and running in a couple of days. Some small amount of New River water does, I’m told, still get used in this stretch for Londoners’ supply. Mind you I also learned from an engineer who I got chatting to, that Thames Water is continually cutting the numbers of maintenance workers allocated to keep these plants running, who are short-staffed in their own view, but “over-manned” in the eyes of their bosses. But Thames are obviously short of cash: Chief Executive, Martin Baggs, was awarded a bonus of only £274,000 in 2013, on top of a payrise of 5.9% taking his basic salary to just £450,000. In addition, “Money” Baggs will also pick up £366,000 in shares as part of a long term incentive plan. Stuart Siddall, Chief

Financial Officer, also made a fair packet… This after the top brass got £2 million in bonuses in 2011, and raised bills by 6.7 percent. In the previous financial year Thames Water had also paid no corporation tax, as the Internal Revenue paid them a £5 million rebate (though they made £550 million profits.) This was achieved using a fiddle channeling dividends to ‘bondholders’ through a Cayman Islands registered dummy corporation.

The legacy of the capitalism’s control over water, set by Myddleton and his Company four centuries ago, is alive and greedy.

Here’s a great account of the building of the waterworks at Hornsey 

The non-trespassing explorer will now come to the bridge at the corner of the treatment works, where there’s an open path on the east bank. This brings you down, past some slightly suspicious Canada geese, to Hornsey High Street. Over the water is the large new estate, built just a few years ago…

The old New River Pumphouse here has now been converted into a restaurant and art gallery, with a Jehovah’s Witnesses kingdom hall behind. To worshippers of the old water gods/goddesses the former is just sad same old gentrifying shite, but letting the Witnesses in would be sacrilege. Maybe we should spend every Saturday knocking on their door and asking if they’d like to come and take part in a pagan ceremony down on the river bank. Or if they’d come donate some blood.

Digression: From here, you could wander up Tottenham Lane to the police station. I remember attending a mass picket of this police station here, a few days after Joy Gardner died in July 1993, killed by cops and immigration officials. She had come to visit her mother here, but had overstayed her visa. An immigration officer and police officers arrived, with no advance warning, to deport her, invaded her home and gagged and restrained Joy using a body belt and wrapped 13 ft of tape around her head – they later claimed she had ‘violently’ resisted arrest. Joy suffocated and subsequently fell into a coma, dying in the Whittington hospital, four days later.

The three police officers involved in killing her were found not guilty of manslaughter in 1995.

The New River at Hornsey, 1856

If you cross over Hornsey High Street, the River runs under the railway here. A lithe leap and you are over on the east bank, following the pathway under the tunnel, this brings you round a bend to the Hampden Road bridge, where you would have to climb out over a fence. Be warned it’s next to a mosque, so will be busy on Fridays.

Digression: a little walk down Turnpike Lane could be fun, you pass the West Indian Cultural centre, 9 Clarendon Road, (on corner of Turnpike Lane and Hornsey Park Road). Opened in 1984, since then it has been a venue for social, political educational and artistic events in the local afro-Caribbean community. It has been under threat of closure since all its council funding was cut in 2011…

And the Haringey Women’s Centre, which used to be at no 40 Turnpike Lane,  in the 1980s. Haringey Anarcha-feminist group met here, around 1984.

You can continue to Ducketts Common: a traditional spot in area for demonstrations, rallies, speakers corner etc for leftists, rightists, religious nutters… Many Haringey Anti-Poll Tax marches left from here, including two  involving burning of Poll Tax registration forms in June and July, 1989; and a march which started at Scotland Green, toured the main streets of Tottenham and Wood Green, ending at a rally on Ducketts Common. Hundreds of people who had been turned out of Wood Green Shopping City by a bomb scare cheered as the march passed.

On 31 Mar 1990, over 200 people rallied on Ducketts Common to go down to the national anti-Poll Tax demonstration in central London, which as we all know passed off quietly! On14 April 1990, the Easter Funday here included burning Poll Tax forms, as well as bouncy castle, bands, etc…

The New River at Hornsey, 1860

If you don’t fancy trespassing from Hornsey High St bridge, you can divert east down Turnpike Lane, left into Wightman Road, then right when you come to Hampden Road. The open path continues on the west bank here, another short and attractive stretch, though the railway depot on your right is a bit noisy occasionally. At the end, the River runs again into a short tunnel.

I met a bloke fishing for perch here, reckoned he caught fifty odd a year… Further down its carp you find.

From here you cross the River, up the steep path, and over Wightman Road. The River runs under gardens to Seymour Road, so it’s right down Wightman Rd, then left down Seymour.

Digression: You also wander down Seymour Road to Salisbury Corner, Green Lanes, an old socialist speakers corner in the late 19th/early 20th century. On August 5th, 1914 – the day after the declaration of World War 1 – the North London Herald League held its first anti-War meeting here. The speaker was Walter Ponder. This meeting initiated the NLHL’s campaign against the War. They also spoke regularly in Finsbury Park.

The League was a broad-based socialist group, that fought for a working class movement that it hoped would eventually topple capitalism and introduce a world socialist order. Unlike the Labour party, most of the socialist movement across Europe, and almost all trade unionists, the NLHL refused to fall in with the happy march off to war. They opposed it all the way through, many of the meetings were attacked by police and ‘patriotic mobs’ and many of its members were arrested, jailed, and beaten up.

Across a century, we salute the courage of these men and women, and the other groups that called World War 1 what it was  – a slaughter forced by imperialist rivalries for profits and national supremacy; those who fought against the war, not just conscientious objectors and those shot for ‘cowardice’, but mutineers, deserters, feminists and socialists, anarchists and pacifists, strikers and shirkers, and many more; and to fight the myth of a ‘war for democracy’.

Now for the whole of the following section of the River, it flows on the surface, but in short jaunts between eight of the nineteen roads that make up the ‘Harringay ladder’; tightly packed parallel suburban streets. Each gate to the River is locked, we can not obviously see why. It’s a shame, as there are lots of willows, dark and enticing paths… All the gates can be jumped (though the one at Seymour Road has barbed wire, unusually; a small piece of carpet has been known to be useful in scaling this nasty legacy of world war 1), but the stretches are so short it would get a bit exhausting, and there’s lots of places you could be spotted getting over. Also note that the east bank between Pemberton and Mattison Roads runs along a school, so if you don’t want to be apprehended for spying on primary school kids, trespassing during school hours is probably a no-no.

To follow the River here without trespassing you can either walk down the Harringay Passage, from Hewitt or Seymour Roads, a long gennel or alley, quite an interesting short walk in itself, that runs parallel to the River; you could walk up to gaze at the confined water on each street. This brings you out at Endymion Road eventually, where you could easily climb out especially on the west bank (the east is very narrow here).

One fun way of navigating this run of the River would be in a small dinghy or even kayak, which you could do from Hornsey High Street to Umfreville Road… though you would have to duck your head somewhat at some of the low bridges!

At Mattison Road, the River runs alongside the church, which is currently under the control of the Catholic Workers, a kind of radical Catholic sect, very active in anti-war movements, and other social justice type campaigns.

From Umfreville Road, if you’re not trespassing, you have to nip round, up the road to Wightman Road, left round to Lothair Road South, at the end of which you can see the River through the gates, which would also be a way on or out if you’re up for clambering – a bit quieter than Endymion, which is busy.

NB: However, the North London railway Line between Harringay Green Lanes station and Crouch Hill station runs here, south of Umfreville Road, and you have to cross it to fully trespass this stretch. This might be worth avoiding… Trespassing on the railway is generally considered more serious than wandering over a gate into other spaces, so this might really only be for desperate completists. We advise against it, frankly, for the sake of a yard or two of extreme danger…

If you’re not trespassing, you need to go back out via Coningsby Road to Endymion Road, across here and in the gate into Finsbury Park.

Digression: If you’re walking in the daytime, it really is worth diverting down to the lovely Railway Fields Nature Reserve, at 381 Green Lanes under the railway (opposite Harringay Green Lanes Station). A fantastic tiny reclaimed wilderness (its quiet broken only by the roaring past of trains every ten minutes, but hey!), a former railway goods yard, it’s open Monday to Friday 9am – 5pm, and from 10am on the last Saturday of every month when the ‘Friends are working’.

The New River now cuts through through Finsbury Park, fenced off by low iron railings.

Finsbury Park was created in 1857, after a twenty-year local campaign for a public park.

The creation of Finsbury Park took 20 years of agitation by north Londoners before it became a reality, and although the reality was a poor shadow of the earlier proposals, it would never have been built without thousands of ordinary people meeting up and writing letters and signing memorandums.

The original plan for Finsbury Park

From 1800, land north of the city of London shot up in value and was rapidly built over, including traditional open spaces like Finsbury Fields. Everyone could see the need for new open spaces, particularly for health reasons. In 1833, a select committee reported to the House of Commons in favour of the establishment of parks for the eastern, southern and northern districts of the metropolis (The west of London already had Regents Park). Whilst Victoria Park in the east and Battersea Park in the south were created with Government funding, a park for the north of London came up against impossible hurdles, due mainly the ever rising cost of land for new buildings to accommodate the massive influx of people from all over.

In 1841 a petition for a north London park numerously signed by residents was sent to the Queen and various sites were suggested but they were built on before action could be taken. Agitation for a park continued and when the Metropolitan Board of Works was created in 1855, funded by local ratepayers, with a remit to oversee “improvement of the metropolis, a new group began agitating for a park for Finsbury and a plan was created in 1856 with an estimate of costs. It was opened in 1869.

In Summer 1912, mass open air suffragette meetings were held in the park, in the campaign for women to be given the vote.

During 1914-16, the North London Herald League held open-air meetings against the First World War, which were at times popular, though at other times (especially after January 1916 when conscription was brought in) were broken up by jingoist crowds. At a 1914 meeting, in response to official appeals to the upper class to release servants to the army, a speaker asked a crowd: “Have you got a sweating employer or a rack-renting landlord you can spare? Let him join up to fight for humanity, for civilisation, for democracy, for the women and children, for all those causes in which he has always been so enthusiastic.” John Arnall, of the British Socialist Party, was imprisoned for three months in for seditious’ statements made in French, uttered at a meeting in the park.

June 1936: A British Union of Fascists public meeting held here. Oswald Mosley’s homegrown fascists movement was on the up at this time, and garnered lots of support from the upper classes and sections of the press, police etc…

They rallied in military formation and in uniform in the park, protected by the police, while an anti-fascist rally in another part of the park, was told to turn its speakers off…

Finsbury Park became neglected and rundown in the 1990s… its buildings being burnt down by vandals, its lake killing the birds with botulism, its grass and trees trashed by commercial concerts… the Finsbury Park Action Group (FPAG), with support from many local people, fought for increased funding, they managed to get £27m funding for the area in 2001. The Friends of Finsbury Park focused the large number of complaints about the park… They also ran festivals, art and music events, Easter egg hunts, produced a history of the park, opened the community garden and ran a successful history project about the park with talks, exhibitions and signage about the park. About £6 million was spent on restoration of the park.

Nicked from a really good short account of Finsbury Park by the Friends of Finsbury Park.

Digression: Parkland Walk

Walkers not yet knackered by the New River walk could consider also picking up another walk that links up with Finsbury Park: Parkland Walk, along the old railway from here to Highgate, saved from proposed development in 1990 as a six-lane highway (including the demolition of 300 houses), by a mass campaign, including 1000-strong demos at Haringey Town Hall.

Where you come out of Finsbury Park into Green Lanes (yet again), there’s a crossing to the open path on the west bank. This is one of our favourite reaches of the River, as it curves around the hill, it runs higher than all of the valley to the east of it, so the view is slightly un-nerving over the rooftops and industrial estates; gives you a bit of a shiver.

A completist wishing to trespass on the other bank could leg it over the fence at Green Lanes, or in from Eade Road (off Hermitage Road).

Emerging from this lovely part, you come to another huge road, Seven Sisters Road. Down the hill is a crossing, walk back up after that to the open gate at the corner of Amhurst Park. This leads you to two short stretches, broken only by the bridge at New River Way; dark and gloomy in a lovely way. You quickly forget the mentalness of Seven Sisters Road, under drooping trees, as the River continues the long curve that takes it around the hill that peaks at Manor House. This whole curve is a brilliant short walk in itself, a long lazy question mark ending at the Stoke Newington Reservoirs.

Just before you enter the path around the East Reservoir, if you cross the bridge eastward at New River Way, on you left on the bank is the East Reservoir Community Garden, another tiny nook of wildlife brilliance runny volunteers.

From here you follow the open path as it skirts the East Reservoir. If you shut your right eye and gaze out across the water, it’s like you’re not in London again; however the lake borders to the northwest on the massive redevelopment that is totally altering the old Woodbury Down Estate.

Some great self-collected history produced by residents as Woodbury Down: the People’s Story 
More on the history of the Woodbury Down Estate, and an article on regeneration/gentrification and the estate...

Where the lovely path round the lake hits Lordship Road, there’s another of the brilliant dredging machines for removing debris from the River.

The path now runs along the edge of the new blocks that have been built here over the last five years or so. The old Woodbury Down Estate is being gradually ‘regenerated’; on the west side this has meant the growth of large blocks of luxury flats. A whole new quarter, is what they call it… so new the old name had to go. I mean, ‘Woodbury Down’? Just the name sounds working class and depressing! So they are rebranding it ‘Woodbury Park’. Though they missed a trick, they should have called it Woodbury UP. Or Woodbury Rising, or something…?

On your left round the first reservoir is the new wetlands walk, opened in 2018, a lovely wander, with reeds and birds and lots of places to sit and ponder.

This edge of the lake designed for the new residents is a bit too landscaped, at least for the first quarter-mile in that way they stamp on everything now. The old path (which was lovely, all wildness and berries), was fenced off completely for a couple of years. Hey, at least we got it back?

Follow the curve around to the wooden bridge that cuts back over the River to the Castle. There’s a heron that hangs out here, and wild flowers.

When you cross the bridge, you can turn left, and if it’s opening hours, (9-5) visit the West Reservoir Centre, which has a café with a terrace on the lake. It’s ok, bit steep, and when I ordered chips, they only had balsamic vinegar, Seriously, I mean it IS Stoke Newington, but there’s a limit. The view over the lake is worth it though, even with Up Yours Woodbury rising over it like a yuppie dream park. They do have a nice view over the reservoir I guess, but so do the council tenants of the upper floors of the blocks on the Lordship Road Estate. And their rent is a lot cheaper, heh heh.

The East and West Reservoirs here were preserved from being flogged off and built over, by a long agitation by the Stoke Newington Reservoirs Campaign from 1986 to 1999.

The old reservoirs over the other side of Green Lanes were built over at this time.

Interestingly this is the real end of the New River as it flows today. Water flows no further from here, not for years. New River water is still piped from the East Reservoir to Coppermill Lane treatment works in Walthamstow, and we use it… Around eight percent of the city’s water supply comes through the River. Cool huh?

Trespassing on the strip between the reservoir and the River here is possible, but fiddly – there’s a lot of scrambling over fences and weeds involved. It’s possible to get in and out at the Lordship Road end (over a concrete fence), and at the café end, when its open from the car park, but obviously you might well be seen. Or you can force a path through the weeds to the side of the car park, down the east bank by the Café. But you’d still have a fence to climb.

Before you wend on the last (now non-flowing) section of the River, you have to visit the Castle, North London’s finest indoor climbing centre – but also so much more… a lovely wildlife garden, and more… The old water tower, transformed since 1995 (I do recall as a young squatter in 1989, seeing the empty tower and dreaming of squatting there!), also promotes all sorts of other brill community ventures, and has an ace Wicker Man style bonfire party in November… The cool Pirates’ Playhouse, a kids indoor adventure playground, in an adjacent building, has sadly closed down in the last couple of years; spent a lot of time here with our daughter when she was little…!

The New River in effect ends here. Any sections of water claiming to be part of the River from here to Clerkenwell are in fact ornamental ponds.

However, following the route, walk down Green Lanes. This is the same long road, encountered above, running from Newington Green to Enfield, a spine that the New River crosses time after time; the road though is an older human creation… Walk down to the junction with Brownswood Road and Lordship Park.

Digression; up Brownswood Road to the old Brownswood Library.

The old Library that used to stand here was closed in the 1990s.  It was squatted in late 1995 (or early 1996), by Hackney Squatters Collective (“with our usual finesse – crowbar through the window”… “hiding quietly while cops shone their torches though the big glass doors just after we cracked it”) who had previously run great squat centres in Mildmay Park, 67a Stoke Newington Road, and the Arch refugee squat (directly opposite the latter), and went on to occupy (and save from demolition) London Fields Lido. One of the soundest bunches of people you’re ever likely to meet.

One of the old collective offered some recollections: “The library was made use of by various groups from the local Finsbury Park Action Group to Class War. Most significant for us was Reclaim The Streets (who at the time we thought were a bunch of crazy hippies), however we would go on to become irresistably entwined.

While we continued our open cafe and bar social nights, Zapatista benefit gigs etc, Peter Kenyon (local Labour scumbag), sent out letters to the neighbourhood declaring that as soon as the squatters had been evicted he would ‘return’ the place to the community. Being a politician, he lied.”

Another recalled “late nights, drinking too much, good friends, Victor’s Spanish punk band rehearsing, games nights, xmas and birthday parties, cold (until we turned the gas on), repairing the roof, getting pissed off with people who just treated the place as a late night drinking club and repopulating the library with books from Middlesex Poly… I remember planning the squatting of Archway Tower there (which basically consisted of Sam getting me and Ronnie drunk enough to do it).

There was also a ceilidh held jointly with a local community group who wanted to see the library put back into use, though possibly not quite in the way that we were doing it…”

The Library was a great centre, the local campaigners that had tried to save the library and wanted it re-opened were mostly supportive, there were weekly cafes, regular events, benefits, meetings. Always a friendly atmosphere, kids everywhere… Accessible to all. It lasted about three and a half years, and was evicted by the council. Who then left it empty again despite local campaigns for the library to reopen. Bleuugh.

In 2008-9 the place was squatted again for a while, but later that year work began to demolish it and build housing.

Carry on down Green lanes to the entrance to Clissold Park

The river originally used to run in a loop to the east, through Clissold Park, but since the 1860s, it ran straighter, in underground pipes. But the loop that now curves around through the park follows the old route, though it is not connected to the River any more. Kind of fake and shallow. Not like the middle class media tweedier ethos that now dominates Stoke Newington. Oh no.

Clissold Park was opened in 1886, after the land here was saved from development by local campaign.

The big house (now the café) was built for the Hoare banking family. Later occupants included Richard Crawshay, one of the Northumbrian branch of the ‘Iron Kings of Cyfarthfa’. The family owned iron mines, slate quarries and other industrial property on an immense scale and were reported to be the richest commoners in England. They were widely hated by the welsh working class; Crawshay’s grandson makes an appearance in a song by The Men they Couldn’t Hang, Ironmasters, about the Welsh ironworkers’ strikes of 1873-5.

Many of the public were allowed to use the park in the nineteenth century; however, when a later Crawshay sold the park in 1886, and plans were laid to divide it up and build on it, locals got up in arms. Stoke Newington had lost most of its open space in the preceding decades, and this park became the focus of a campaign, especially strong because the well-to-do people who lived in the houses on ‘Paradise Row’, Church Street by the bridge, who didn’t want their lovely view spoiled. They succeeded in preserving the park, and the London County Council eventually bought it.

It has hosted loads of great events; fairs, festivals, our favourites being the Hackney Homeless Festivals in the mid-1990s, organised by local squatters and troublemakers… Thousands came. A great alternative Lesbian & Gay Festival was put on here about the same time.

If you want to follow the old course, you walk down Green Lanes to the gate opposite the White House pub, in to the gate here (the tiny pump house café is an old River pump house. This section, as you can tell from the lie of the land, had to be pumped up hill.) You then arc around via the path, the ornamental dead legs of ‘River’, to the Church Street gate. On you way you pass the old house, which became a café many years ago. It was ok. However, as social change has gradually upped the class of the local population, so the park has started to change too. Hackney Council spent large sums on rebuilding the house, doing up the playground, building a new skate park amidst new landscaped hillocks, over the last couple of years, and on the whole it’s a good job. However, the regeneration of the café has turned a normal, park café into a very poncy place, you walk in and you’re in Kensington. Starched-uniformed workers scuttle. The new menu is clearly designed to exclude, they don’t such plebby items as serve chips, or ice cream. In a park. Shortly after a new kiosk opened behind the house which did serve ice cream. What this resulted in was a social apartheid; where everyone used to hang out on the slope at the front, now only young trendy things can be seen there, with people with kids, or those with less elevated taste, taking refuge at the back. (Where they are less of a blot on the landscape for proper patrons). So everything is proceeding as it should. Even many of the local middle class hippierati have been outraged at this development!

Digression: Stoke Newington

For many centuries an area populated by religious non-conformists (like Newington Green, see later on), due to its being outside City parishes and jurisdiction, Stokey developed a dissident ethos. The area was a hotbed of defeated republicans and rebels after the English Civil War; when the monarchy was restored they took to assassination plots and abortive uprisings.

Colonel Henry Danvers lived in Stokey; a parliamentary officer in the Civil War, by 1661, a fifth monarchist and republican, who plotted with Clement Ireton and other republicans in 1665, planning to kill the king, seize the Tower, establish a republic and redistribute property. Danvers had been captured April 1665, but rescued by a mob!

In 1685 Danvers led 5th monarchists, who planned to riot in support of the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion. Had 500 men promised, but they failed to appear, Danvers fled abroad. Others fled to Monmouth, whose army contained many former Levellers, and other radicals; they were beaten at the battle of Sedgemoor.

The religious dissidence that characterised this are lasted into the nineteenth century. Hence the dominance of Abney park cemetery, where large numbers of non-Anglicans were buried; some of the most interesting being chartist socialist Bronterre O’Brien… On the other hand the repulsive William Booth and his family, founders of the supreme vultures on the vulnerable, the Salvation. For all their charitable work, these god-bothering music-manglers were widely hated by the homeless and poor for their pressing of the bible; in the 19th century there was even a ‘Skeleton Army’ founded to oppose them (although some mystorians have suggested this was a plot by the publicans to get back at the Starvation Army for their message of avoiding the demon drink.) The Booth graves are just by the entrance on Church Street, on a sunny Sunday it’s traditional to go and dance wildly on their graves, singing blasphemous songs, like the anti- Sally Army IWW song, ‘The Preacher and the Slave’, or ‘Banging in the Nails’ by the Tiger Lilies…

From the 1960s, Stoke Newington was home to a growing afro-Caribbean community, which like most black communities in the inner cities faced battles with racism, from organised rightwing groups and institutions, especially from the police. Stoke Newington police became notorious for racially motivated arrests, beatings, and killings, and later for fitting people up en masse for drug-dealing, either planting substances, or dealing themselves through protected sources. The local community resisted in many ways – there were riots here in 1981, numerous campaigns and protests, and  organised resistance against racist murders, police harassment, most notably through the brilliant Hackney Community Defence Campaign. Some cops did get sacked in the end, but others were just moved elsewhere, and wholesale assault was tweaked around and made to look nicer.

In parallel with this, run-down houses and council near-collapse in housing, led to mass squatting in the area from the 70s onward. Thousands of houses were occupied to live in, and various larger buildings used as social centres, punk venues, art spaces, and much more. Squatting not only offered people cheap places to live when times were hard, but lots of the local culture, music, creation was built on squatting. Too many places to list; but in July and August 2013 two radical history walks explored some of this amazing recent past in the area; we are hoping to provoke the authors to set these walks out for some form of publication… keep in touch.

Local poverty, police attacks and resistance, hand in hand with an alternative and counter-cultural vibe, persisted into the 1990s, though a gradual gentrifying of the area since the 70s has infested the area with media types and green petty-bourgeois social workers with pinched, locally-sourced eating-disorder faces. And Church Street with artisan bakers, extortionate kids clothes boutiques and chain-store wholefood porn like ‘fresh and wild’. Which is neither fresh nor wild, but has fooled the muesli belt into imagining themselves radical alternative and right-on. Mind you, the rest of Hackney, which until recently had remained largely working class and poor, is now facing an invasion of the bistro snatchers; hipsters, artists and rising rents are spreading like piss in a pool, while older communities face gradual eviction and dispersal under new benefit rules.

And they get surprised when people riot.

Turn right, down Church Street. There used to be a Stoke Newington Festival held in Church Street, until 2007, but for some reason (possibly ‘cause partygoers took over the street that year!) it was moved into the Park in 2008; what worked in a long blocked-off road for twenty years was fenced off into an enclosure, with all sorts of police narkiness and harassment, trapping us in a tiny corner. That was the end of that. Let that be a lesson to anyone who thinks moving the Notting Hill carnival off the streets and into some park would reduce trouble – pen people up and they get grumpier.

Walk down, passing various ex-squats; nos 207-33 were squatted after dereliction, in the 1980s. Some are now in a housing co-op. Shelford Place saw several squats, including the factory, used for gigs, around Spring 1996.

The River used to run next to Church street, under ‘Paradise Bridge (which was opposite the modern Gayton House flats).

Walk to Clissold Crescent. Turn left, and them down Aden Terrace. The River ran on the surface all the way here, if you look you can see the course it followed, round in a gentle curve. Now when we talk about digging up the River, re-instating a water course in its entirety, we aren’t daft. The wondrous allotments down Aden Terrace, over where the River ran, you couldn’t ever lose them. We suggest routing it round onto Green Lanes instead, picking up the old course again at Petherton Road. Maybe a nice bridge.

Walking on down Aden Terrace, you come out once again on Green Lanes, cross to the corner of Petherton Road, and walk down the middle of the road on the lovely green walk, above the pipes that used to imprison the River water. This is a nice walk, but we feel that the River running openly down here would improve it. There is space too, even probably without eliminating one of the two sides of the road.

Petherton Road was also home to a number of squats in the 1970s, a North London Squatters group was based at 39a in 1973. A number of the squats later formed or joined shortlife housing co-ops to lease very run-down council houses cheaply. Most London councils did this, as they had no money to do the places up to a standard where they could be let to their tenants. These houses lasted in some cases decades, only for many to be snatched back in many cases by the council in a high-handed and vicious way (some people got rehoused after fighting very hard) around 2000-2005, and then flogged off at auction. Now those places fetch a packet; an old friend’s old co-op house was sold for 1 million spondulicks. Social housing lost.

A worthwhile diversion here is to Newington Green, via Ferntower Road.

Newington Green, like Stoke Newington, was a centre for dissenting protestant sects, post 1660. The Dissenters Academy opened here in 1667, to educate people denied a place at official schools because of not belonging to the state-backed Anglican Church. Many dissenters lived in the area. Some of these became political radicals, especially active in the movements for political reform in the late eighteenth century, and the circles that supported the French Revolution in 1789 and worked for similar social change here. Richard Price, leading dissenting preacher, was minister of the non-conformist Newington Green meeting-house; he was well-known as a supporter of the American and then French Revolutions, and was active in discussions and in political circles here that were influential in reform movements, and in developing groundbreaking ideas.

One person active in these circles was Mary Wollstoncraft, a radical, supporter of the French Revolution, and feminist pioneer, who in around 1784-86 or 88 ran a school for girls here. Although short-lived, it did express in practical terms the central theme of her classic book, ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’, which asserted that women had inalienable rights equal to men, and proposed that proper education for women was the basis of any possible radical change in their social position.

Although Mary W’s groundbreaking writings were sidelined, even by the women’s emancipation movement in nineteenth century Britain, she is accorded importance as a feminist pioneer these days. A statue in her memory now stands on Newington Green (though the design has caused some controversy…)

In the 1880s, at a time of political ferment, among the working classes, often organised through radical clubs and meeting places, a ‘Political Club’ existed here, later succeeded by the Mildmay Radical Club, now housed in a building on the corner of the a Green in Matthias Road. It was founded in 1888. The local Vicar of St Matthews Church attacked the Club as a subversive influence, for its “pernicious influence among the young…” Hurrah! In 1914, shop assistants working at the Home & Colonial Stores (250 shops in London then) met here to organise against draconian conditions, surveillance of workers, crap pay and fines etc, Their campaign spread nationwide & pressure won concessions without a strike. Mildmay Radical Club became non-political in the 1930s.

Interestingly, 35 Newington Green road was a radical hotspot. Henry Seymour’s The Anarchist was published from here in March 1885: the first English language anarchist paper. The Fellowship of New Life later had premises at no 35, and n 1891, anarchist newspaper Freedom moved in for a while. However, the Fellowship had to move out later that year, as their assets were seized by the landlord.

Next door, no 37, was connected with the socialist Brotherhood Church, and its offshoot, the Co-operative Brotherhood Trust, which operated several workshops and shops. The shop at 37 Newington Green Road seems to have lasted until after the 1914-1918 War.

Keep walking all the way down Petherton Road, then keep going down Wallace Road to St Paul’s Road. However, the original New River course here swang west, following the contour of the land, through the modern council estate and under the railway, then back down St. Paul’s Road a stretch, swinging south again to pick up where the path enters the green space next to Walney Walk. Eventually the river was re-routed into pipes, which cut this section out, thanks to pumping, running straight down Wallace Road.

Digression: While you’re here, you could nip down to Grosvenor Avenue, to 29 (& later 37a). Two large Squats here, operating as anarchist communes,  were home at various times ( in the early 1970s – early 80s) of the infamous collective that ran Anarchy magazine (among other dodgy projects!) 29 Grosvenor Ave was raided twice in February and March 1971, during the various bombings attributed to the Angry Brigade. Women from here were involved in an anti-Miss World action.

In common with several other communes of the time, several kids born here to various people of various names were all given the surname ‘Wild’, regardless of the surnames of their parents. Some 50 Wild kids were thus names in London and other places. But the tradition isn’t dead in this area; another local ‘Wild’ child is growing up round the corner, born in 2008!

If you cross St Paul’s Road, there’s an open gate, which leads into the next section of the River, though here again the water is a surface detail, remember the real river stops at Stoke Newington. The sections on Petherton Road, through Canonbury and to Essex Road, were enclosed in pipes at various times through the late nineteenth century, then eventually cut off, in the twentieth. Many of the pipes were in fact removed in the 1950s.

You could digress from here, walking east for a few minutes to the corner of St Paul’s Road and Newington Green Road. The new-ish flats at no 2 St Pauls Road were previously home for many years for various useful groups; like Islington People’s Rights. Local leftie paper, the Islington Gutter Press, also used the building for a while. in the late 70s. The most famous tenant though, must have been the Advisory Service for Squatters, which helped maybe hundreds of thousands of squatters over the decades, giving advice, helping with court cases, fighting legislation… Their room there always bubbled over with legal jargon, phone calls from frantic unauthorised occupiers, the occasional irate landlord, and dopy journalists, people checking the ’empties’ board, and rambling tales from the old days; “well in the 70s, we squatted this mansion, right…” The council, which owned the building, decided to flog it off, and evicted all the worthy organisations in the early 2000s… It then remained EMPTY for a while, was itself squatted, evicted, then done up as flats. However, you do hope that the residents are endlessly plagued by people from Krakow and Ulan Bator turning up with rucksacks, or possession orders seeking legal advice…

There’s also a little known green space here, behind St Paul’s Road and Northampton Park, called the Shrubbery. There’s four entrances, but you’d almost never know it was there, it’s tiny, dark and hidden, with a small playground and a basketball court, and lovely trees and grass. Worth a look. The legendary Eric Mattocks from Advisory Service for Squatters helped create the Shrubbery…

Real River or not, the lovely walk here down through Canonbury is great, a really gorgeous short and narrow strip, admittedly quite landscaped… the rocks down here are limestone, shipped in “from up north somewhere” an Islington parkie told me. The local rumour that they’re not real rocks is apparently untrue. Seriously. We love it anyway, even if the River ain’t really flowing – we wander down here all the time. In fact, since April 2013, there are a few small pumps here pumping water into the river, creating a few fountains that erupt once a day. Which, if you catch it on the go, brings back a life to this stretch, which is normally sleepily luminous with its pondweed skin.

You can cross over and wander some of the weedy banks on the other side from the path, where they backs onto the unfeasibly large gardens of the mansions of Canonbury Park South and Alwyne Road.

The walk from here to Canonbury Road is mostly straightforward, you only have to come out by the west bank gate to cross over the Willow Bridge, and back in by the east bank gate.

The small hut on the stretch between the Willow Bridge and Canonbury Road was a watch hut, dating from the eighteenth century I think, for the New River Company linesman for this stretch of the River to base himself, on his patrols to stop skinny-dippers, fishermen, and other dodgy elements threatening the purity of the water and the local morals.

When you get to Canonbury Road, the landscaped river vanishes, but the path continues, over the road past a playground. (But you’re close to no 40 Canonbury Road, home of the hysterically right-wing Peter Lilley, Tory Social Security minister in the early 1990s, which was picketed by dole campaigners, and graffitied by fighters against the Child Support Act (in January 1994).

Cross the road, and walk down the fenced off path here, on your left though is the back of the old bingo hall. Once a cinema, the Bingo hall has been bought by “Resurrection Manifestations”, a dubious “church and charity”. They want to turn it into a church, to which they say they’ll add a new cinema, business training and education, and want to add 44 private flats at the back. The building was squatted a few years back; people were living there, and planning some events. Members of the church broke in, beat them up with hammers and broken glass…

The church say it’s a resource for the community: but there are many communities round here, not just psycho god-botherers! We don’t need more religion messing with our heads, we don’t want THEIR kind of education and don’t need more business training, And what kind of crap christian films will they show anyway?

What we need is more free social space not controlled by churches, business, the Council and other wasters… With all the cuts going on we could turn this magical building into something useful for all, run by us and for us.

Continue down via more weeping willows down Astey’s Row, to the entrance that comes out onto Essex Road, via some steps.

Turn right, and immediately on your right is Essex Road Library…

which, interestingly, was used as a meeting point by the local unemployed group, 1920, after they barricaded themselves in (the library was closed at then). In December 1920 E. H. King, Islington’s first Labour mayor, called on the police to eject the unemployed from the Library, after previously granting them use of it. Council cut off light and water but no avail, food and candles and water were brought in. The library was held by force for a few weeks, then stormed by a few cops early one morning and evicted. King followed this up with a violent attack on the unemployed – the majority of whom were ex-WW1 servicemen – describing them as ‘unemployables’ and accusing the men’s organisation of financial dishonesty.’  The local unemployed tried to storm Islington Town Hall to use that as a community space instead…

The growing radical disillusionment with the Labour Party was reinforced ill September 1921 when the majority of the Labour Guardians voted to rescind an increase in outdoor relief to which they had earlier agreed.

The Islington unemployed group the following year was one of those that federated to form the National Unemployed Workers Movement, which campaigned around the dole for the next two decades.

Local gay couple Joe Orton & Ken Halliwell used to Nick books from this library (and other Islington library branches) and add their own risqué collages to the covers, then replace them on the shelves… this ended when they were nicked and jailed in 1962.

This section of the old River course was hidden in a tunnel for centuries, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t all be brought back to the surface: how about a large ornate bridge carrying Essex Road over a revived River here. Of course, we don’t mean a lovely useless adjunct to the house prices of the Islington bourgeoisie, or to bring more customers to the snotty antique dealers who sneer at you when they can smell your lack of enough cash for their £900 lamps. The re-running of the River would only work in parallel with re abolition of house prices. And money.

Walk up Essex Road, crossing over Cross Street, and up the strange four-tiered pavement (past Polish Pottery, the previously empty shop and building above was squatted for an alternative art exhibtion a few years back – squattery becomes pottery), cross over opposite the Queens Head pub, and turn right again, until you reach the end of Colebrooke Row.

Digression: You could divert up to Islington Green, though, with its statue of Hugh Myddleton (how about a statue remembering the navvies who dug the River – the nameless, always forgotten…).In June 1780, during the Gordon Riots, the house of Magistrate Hyde here was attacked by an angry mob. Hyde had read the Riot Act on the 6th, allowing soldiers to legally fire on the rioting and protesting crowds in the City and Westminster.

Islington had a long and rebellious history, it was a stronghold of the National Union of the Working Classes. Meetings were held here in the run up to the battle of Coldbath Fields in 1833 (where a riot broke out when police kettled a demo calling for political reform). The huge national demonstration demanding the pardoning of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six labourers transported to Australia for forming a union, was held in the fields below Barnsbury, on Copenhagen Fields. Later Chartism, radicalism, communism were strong here, and in the 1970s and 80s there were large numbers of squats, and other alternative projects here.

Much of this can only be imagined in these days, when Angel and Upper Street are a capitalist paradise. But this was a working class area only thirty years ago, and the borough still has large pockets of poverty and hardship, behind the glitzy main drags.

Turn left down here, then first right and walk down Colebrooke Row. Again you can see the curve that marks the old River course; and the ever-present weeping willows which have long outlasted the wandering waters channeled by man…

On the left near the start you pass no 54, sometime HQ of the Social Democratic Federation. From the 1880s-1916, the SDF (under various names) was Britain’s first Marxist organisation, a socialist group that had a large influence on left politics through that time. Involved in widespread propaganda for a socialist society, many struggles, including strikes, free speech battles and more… though the SDF was long cursed by its schizo leader, HM Hyndman, who combined Marxism with upper class eccentricities and patriotic jingoism.

By the time it moved here in 1926, it had split, as one faction supported the War effort in WW1, though the majority opposed it, and later formed the nucleus of the British Communist Party. Hyndman and his supporters, the pro-slaughter rump, operated from here, but sank into decline and eventual collapse in 1937.

As you walk down here, a Victorian scandal crunches beneath your feet. A farm owned by mad Portuguese baron d’Aguilar in 18th century, on the New River Bank near the end of the ‘Lower Road Tunnel” (possibly a mews next to no 64), was known as ‘Starvation Farm’. The Baron had a penchant for maintaining several farms around London, not doing any farming, leaving them in charge of ‘starving caretakers’. On top of this he mistreated several wives and kids (one wife was said to have been locked in a barn), and also lured homeless orphans and women into house on pretext of charity, then maintained them and their subsequent offspring in a harem. “A scene of the most abandoned depravity” apparently. Nice chap.

Follow Colebrooke Row all the way down, past the smart townhouses on both sides, that housed the nineteenth century bourgeoisie who made Islington so fashionable. How times come round again, via the twentieth century when they mostly buggered off, leaving it to the working class, then came back knocking and shooed out the squatters, totters and nutters, to turn the area trendy again. The gardens here are fairly funky, mainly sheltering office workers and students who come here to eat their sandwiches.

Here you walk past (on the south-east side) Noel Road, where wicked 1960s playwight, Joe Orton lived at no 25, breaking taboos and brilliantly satirising English society, and then died, violently in 1967, killed by his jealous and frustrated lover Kenneth Halliwell; then, on the north-west side, the old Clerkenwell County Court.

You then come to the bridge over the Regent’s Canal. Another of those shivery arcs of urban geography, where one waterway undercuts the ghost of a second… We have walked and cycled the whole of the canal network in London and beyond, seen it alter too over 25 years. One day we will write about that too.

A quick digression: up to the corner of the Angel.

Although it’s lost under modern developments here, the ancient Angel Inn, stood here just north of the big road junction. A coaching inn, where travelers would stop the night, it’s most famous long-term guest may have been radical Tom Paine, who probably wrote part 1 of his book, The Rights of Man in the inn in 1791.

The impact of The Rights of Man at the time cannot be underestimated. 200,000 copies circulated among middle and working class radicals, at a time when the ruling elites rightly feared a rising climate of opposition to both the traditional hierarchies and class relations & the growing capitalist ethos that would replace them… “Paine’s aim was to bring hereditary monarchy, the peerage and indeed the whole constitution into contempt…he was calling the dispossessed to action.” (Christopher Hill) In the early 1790s fear of revolution in Britain led to ‘Church and King’ mobs, officially-inspired patriotic riots against radicals & reformers; at this point Thomas Paine became the person burned in effigy more than anyone else in history, probably apart from Mr Fawkes..

Weirdly, the huge cathedral of Angel Square, which eclipses this corner, contains not only a monument remembering Tom Paine, but no 2 Angel Square is called Thomas Paine House.

Two hundred and four years after our Tom’s book, Reclaim the Streets occupied the road at Angel for a great street party, with sounds systems, 1000s of dancers, and much more… we was there!

Reclaim the Streets, Angel, 1995

When you reach City Road, cross over at the lights (bearing in mind that there’s a cycle-path here, pay attention as its cyclists’ right of way, and many unobservant folk cross in front of them without looking).

On 15 October 1940, some 150 people sheltering in the basement of Dame Alice Owen’s School on Goswell Road, were killed here, when a bomb hit the building directly, causing the structure to collapse and blocking access to the basement. The blast wave from the bomb fractured the pipeline carrying the New River, flooding the shelter and killing most of the shelterers. A memorial to the victims of the bombing stands in Owen’s Fields at the northern end of Goswell Road.

Walk down Owen Street, to St John Street.

Digression: St John Street. The road from Islington to the City via Smithfield and St Paul’s’, was open country till the 1780s, and considered very dangerous till the 1820s; especially at night. It was a haunt of thieves who would rob well-to-do travellers going to City. People would often stay at Angel to avoid going down it by night, or wait for others to travel as a group.

This whole hill, once called ‘Islington Hill’, the hill rising from Farringdon Road, City Road, to Angel, around Sadlers Wells, Amwell Street, has a disorderly history though.

Islington Hill, 18th century

It was long a resort for Londoners wanting an escape from the City, to stroll, play games, and have sex… the arrival of the New River here changed nothing; in fact houses of refreshment sprang up, like Pencer’s breakfasting hut on the new river bank, and the ‘farthing pye house’… also a bear-pit, cockfighting rings; prize fights staged between women, and a bowling green. The nearby resorts of Sadlers Wells, London Spa, New Tunbridge Wells flourished. Tea gardens were laid out; but by 1744 they were less than respectable. In May 1744, Sadlers Wells and the New Wells near the London Spa were included by the Middlesex grand jury on a list of six places which “inviting and seducing not only the inhabitants, but all other persons, to several places kept apart for the encouragement of luxury, extravagance, idleness and other wicked illegal purposes, which by such means, go on with impunity, to the destruction of many families, to the great dishonour of the kingdom in general, and this county in particular.”

In 1786, a writer lambasted Spa Fields, the Bagnigge Wells, White Conduit House and Sadlers Wells: “The tendency of these cheap enticing places of pleasure just at the the skirts of this vast town is too obvious to need further explanation… They swarm with loose women, and with boys whose morals are thus depraved and their constitution ruined, before they arrive at manhood: indeed the licentious resort to the tea drinking gardens was carried to such excess every night, that the magistrates lately thought proper to suppress the organs in their public rooms.”

A field at the top of the hill near the bowling green was known as ‘Whores’ Field’: and a verse called ‘A Walk to Islington’ from 1699, describes the writer taking up with a ‘lady of pleasure’ and sauntering about with her near the New River Head.

The New River reservoir at Myddelton Square, Pentonville Road – a cathedral of water

The New River Company, always a massive property company as well as a water supplier (a dynamic inherited by Thames Water), had issues here keeping control of their lands. In the early 19th century there were disputes here over use of footpaths across the ‘Hanging Fields’, between where Kings Cross Road, Pentonville Road, Great Percy Street and Amwell Street now stand. The Company, which owned the land, tried to prevent the use of footpaths, and the establishing of rights of way, as they had plans to develop the land for profitable new streets and housing. In 1781 a row of houses was built along the north edge of the fields. The residents made back entrances to gain access to the field; the Company ordered them to block them up or they would cut off their water supply. By 1815 there were several paths: the Company’s Clerk wrote to the Fields’ tenant farmer Mr Laycock, that he must mend fences at his own expense ‘to prevent the numerous footpaths’. This led to public protest from locals including the Reverend Baker and his wife. As a result the Company agreed to reopen a path from Sadler’s Wells to the Upper Pond (the reservoir in modern Claremont Square), though on a new track to conform to the plans for new streets they had in mind; a few months later Rev Baker also persuaded them to open a path from Sadler’s Wells to the Merlin’s Cave pub (to the west of New River head), in use since the early 18th century.

The Gate, formerly squatted by Reclaim the Streets in 1997

A short walk down St John Street, on the east side, and stopping outside The Gate restaurant. In 1997, this was an empty pub, which was squatted for a few months by the London core of Reclaim the Streets (RTS), and others. It was used for communal meals, meetings, discussions, music and much more. Although some older activists from different scenes had already been getting involved in RTS for a while, it would be true to day that many others gravitated to the group around this time, and the squat here was important in the subsequent development of RTS, and the anti-roads scene generally, merging with older anarchists and others, and moving towards the anti-capitalist movements in the UK, the June 18th 1999 City demo/riot, Mayday actions for several years after… A crucial nexus.

Walk over St John Street, and down Chadwell Street, to Myddleton Street, then left, down Myddleton Passage; at the end of which is the New River Head. If you enter the right hand of the two black gates, there’s a display on the history and layout of the reservoirs, and you can look out over the Nautilus Gardens, which you can also get into in the day time, 8.00 – 4.00, 0r 8.00 – 7.00 in the summer…they’re worth a wander too, you can skirt the back of the old Metropolitan Water Board offices, a massive grandiose self-congratulatory affair, when built in 1919 – it encloses an original room moved here from the old New River Company HQ… But the whole edifice seems to have been converted to posh flats now.

The New River where it flowed past Sadlers Wells

Here the old River ended, and the reservoirs from where the wooden pipes used to dispense the precious water across London. Although the several reservoirs which once occupied the hill are built on now, the New River Head site is still one of Thames Water’s twelve pumping stations, where water from the new Thames Ring main is dispersed to us mortals.

From here you can digress into the old neighbourhood of Clerkenwell, one of the old City’s first suburbs outside its walls… for more on the turbulent and rebellious history of this area, see Reds On the Green, which derives from a walk we’ve walked several times around this area.

Another past tense walk that intersects here is a wander up the Fleet River, lost beneath the streets, more so than the New River, covering lots of the dig story of the slums, prisons and workshops that crowded the Fleet’s banks…

The filter beds at New River Head, 1910.


This text is not complete, in any realistic way; everything we do is a work in progress. There’s so much more we could have put in, and so much more we want to know, and write about, for instance about the lives of the navvies who dug the New River.

But sometimes you have to just publish and move on.

Omasius Gorgut, past tense, 2022


New River Appendix 1

Old lost loops

The original New River, built before pumping, had to follow a long, meandering course to be able to flow downhill all the way from Hertfordshire to Clerkenwell. 38 miles or so, (in the course of which it fell only 18 inches….!) A spectacular achievement, for those that surveyed and built it alone.

As technical innovations and tunnelling skills developed, the New River Company were able to cut out some of the long loops around the contours of the land, digging tunnels that shortened the river’s length by some eleven miles. The two ‘frames’, at Bush Hill and Highbury, that carried the River in lead-lined aqueducts over dips in the land, proved expensive to maintain and very leaky, and were replaced by embankments.

The first redundant loop in the London stretch of the New River was the already described Enfield loop (see Bush Hill, above)

Another loop diverted west from Palmers Green, and through the Arnos Grove Estate, (evidence of the abandoned New River loop can be found within the trees in the north side of Arnos Park) with a further loop further south. It seems to have followed the course of Pymmes Brook for some of this meander.

A line of grass marks the apparent route of the lost New River loop in Arnos Park

There was a much longer Loop around Wood Green. This diverged from the modern River between the North Circular and Whittington Road, running along Whittington Road, right into Palmerston Road, then left into Lascotts Road. The River crossed Lascotts between Cheshire Rd and Parkhurst Road. From Lascotts Road, the River turned right into Parkhurst and crossed Middleton Road into Hampshire Road, then towards Green Lanes: “At this point the River crosses Green Lanes just short of the mushroom-shaped building at the corner of Woodside Park, and then runs back in the opposite direction towards the Cock Tavern on the North Circular… The Mushroom building on Woodside Park is a gatehouse, built in 1820 as  part of the Woodside manor, which stood at the top of the hill (near the  junction of Woodside Road and Wolves Lanes).”

(This was where Catherine Smithies lived, see Bounds Green Road, above)

“You can tell from the design of the gatehouse that it could have been very effective for  riflemen defending the nobs of the manor from Luddites and other  radical types of the day (this was the time of the Peterloo Massacre and the Cato Street Conspiracy)…”
From the Gatehouse, the River curved north again, back towards the modern North Circular, “pass by Lyndhurst Rd, Berkshire Gardens, Upsdell Avenue and Grenoble Gardens, you will notice a slight dip running across the bottoms of those roads, built in the 1930s. That’s the river bed.”

Just before the North Circular, the river turned east into modern Tottenhall Road and onto Tile Kiln Lane and as far as Great Cambridge Road. It then ran to the south of Pymme’s Brook and circled around the sports grounds between Pasteur Gardens and Devonshire Hill. Apparently a section of the New River still had water in it in the 1930s, on Devonshire Hill Lane, but was then used as landfill for the building of housing.

The river ran down near the Great Cambridge Road, and through the industrial area north of White Hart Lane. It then cut through the New River Sports centre just north of the stadium where the spirit of riot that mists over the River broke out again; in May 1976, when a mini-riot broke out here, after crowds of kids leaving North London inter-schools athletics finals got into a barney with police in Perth Road, leading to half an hour of fighting between cops and youth.

The River then crossed Wolves Lane, ran through the tennis courts, through the playing fields north of White Hart Lane near the school and crossed White Hart Lane, running somewhere near Winkfield Rd-Progress Walk-Pellatt Grove. It then flowed across Green Lanes again, just north of where the Wood Green tube station now lies, and along New River Park Road, just north of the council offices, and through the back gardens of Station Road.

“The Old River crosses Station Road just before where the NEW New River now stands and runs into Wood Green Park and then on towards the waterworks and the Haringey Ladder.”

(Thanks to David Black for info on this loop, the quotes are his)

But (as this picture shows) there was another loop to the west at Wood Green, flowing immediately west from the section just described, andlooping around to the west of Hornsey, maybe along the bottom of Alexandra Park, and cutting back to the modern route near the south end of the Haringey ladder.

The Arnos Grove and Tottenham loops were abandoned when the New River was straightened in 1859.

There was an original loop that ran from roughly where the Stoke Newington reservoirs are now, as far west as Holloway Road, then back east to CLissold Park. In the mid-17th century, the ‘Highbury frame’, or the ‘Boarded River’, was built to cut this loop out: another leadlined boarded aqueduct like the one over Salmons Brook. It was 178 yards long, but was leaky and problematic, and was replaced by pumped pipes down Green Lanes to Clissold Park and Petherton Road in 1778.

The Boarded River itself was the scene of a battle over rights of way. According to John Nelson (writing in 1829), a path running down the length of the New River, “from Highbury” towards Hornsey, somewhere off where Riversdale Road is now, passed under the Boarded River. ”This road appears to be an ancient public way, the right to which was 60 years ago opposed by James Colebrooke, Esq. when in possession of this manor, he having erected gates for the purpose of stopping the passage. This circumstance gave rise to a law-suit, upon the issue of which the privilege of the public to this road as a thoroughfare was lost.”

“The following are the circumstances which gave rise to this action:- There was one Jennings, a Quaker, originally by profession an ass-driver, afterwards became proprietor of some donkeys in fee simple, then a farmer at Crouch-end, and at length lessee of the manor of Brown’s Wood. This man became acquainted with Richard Holland, a leather-seller, in Newgate-street, who villa at Hornsey, and was at great pains to obtain the suppression of some tolls demanded in Smithfield Market. These two persons determined to oblige Mr.Colebrooke to open the road. Accordingly one day they sent several teams down the road. When they came to the Boarded River, not finding any body to open the gate, they without further ceremony cut it down, drove across the field to the next gate, and did the same there; thence passing by Cream Hall they came to Highbury Barn, where they found a third gate; whereupon they dispatched a messenger to Mr Wallbank requesting him to open the same, which he refusing to do, they pulled it up with their horses, and drove it in triumph down the road to Hopping-lane, and thence to Islington, where they proclaimed aloud, “that they had come along this old road, which was a thoroughfare” &c. Upon this, Wallbank commenced a suit, and in order effectually to stop the passage, by Mr Colebrooke’s desire, took off the crown of the arch at the Boarded River, and laid it open, railing the opening to prevent mischief. At length the suit was brought to an issue, and the plaintiff examined one Richard Glasscock, who had long dwelt at the Boarded River House as a servant to the [New River] Company, and swore that there has always been a bar there. The defendant did not appear, and the cause was determined in the plaintiff’s favour; in consequence of which this has ever since continued a closed way. Mr Colebrooke died before the trial came on.” (These events took place around 1784 or shortly before)







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

Start: Euston Square underground station

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

Walk down to the front of University College London

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

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

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

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

All my Life I’ve Been Benth Out of Shape

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bentham’s plan for the Panopticon

In many ways he was totally out of step with the radical traditions that derived from the ferment thrown up around the American and French Revolutions, and the reform movements in Britain that took inspiration from them. He wrote tracts in the late 18th century mocking the American struggle for independence. As noted above, he decried the tenet of ‘natural rights’. His conviction that government could be, should be, the instrument of forging a moral and just society, derived from his mechanistic approach to ‘the greater good’, led him deeper into the dark side, to theories of how to ensure people behaved themselves… Influenced by John Howard’s ideas on prison reform (see Great Ormond St, below), Bentham tried to apply utilitarianism to the design of penal institutions… This led to his infamous proposal for the Panopticon, a modern prison arranged so inmates were constantly under surveillance by their jailers, separate and silent, and their morals and behaviour controlled so as to enforce passivity and obedience. The Panopticon itself was never fully put into actual practice (the disregard of this big idea, given that he had spent 16 years working on it, made Jezza very bitter, and possibly led to his growing idea that interests of the powerful could and were combining and conspiring against wider public interest, as evidenced by their failure to listen to HIM…!) However, Bentham’s ideas did permeate into penal policy, and he co-operated with Patrick Colquhoun in designing early modern policing methods. The Panopticon idea had some impact on the layout of mid-late Victorian prisons such as Pentonville.

But Bentham didn’t just see the Panopticon as only being a blueprint for prisons; he though the surveillance/control model could also be applied to all sorts of other institutions, like schools… He merged the ideal of the all-embracing all-seeing supposedly benevolent authority with his penchant for ingenious mechanickery with his horrific ideas about the best way to train/educate/care for pauper children – literally using their movement to power machinery, so that their energy was used to ‘pay back’ the social expense of bringing them up?! (There’s a really interesting post on this here, suggesting Bentham was being both literal and metaphorical here…)

The architects of the vicious New Poor Law introduced in 1834 were his acolytes and disciples, taking much of the more authoritarian side of his thinking and turning it into an inhuman system of workhouses, featuring imprisonment in brutal conditions, moral cruelty, forced labour and family separation to operate as the welfare system for the needy poor.

His Panopticon did foreshadow much of our modern social structure, increasingly watched, scrutinised, and monitored…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk up Gower Street to Gower Place

William Godwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more on ‘Political Justice’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk along Gower Place to the Katherine Lonsdale Building

Kathleen Lonsdale

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

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

Anna Jameson

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

Read More on Anna Jameson 

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

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

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

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

Mary Wollstoncraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Millicent Garret Fawcett speaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk north down Malet Street to the front of ULU

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

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

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

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

A statement from the Occupation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk down to no 51 Gordon Square

Lady Jane Strachey, painted by fellow Bloomsburyite Dora Carrington

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Faithfull

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

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

Women printers and typesetters at the Victoria Press

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

The Victoria Press later moved to Farringdon Street.

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

Read copies of the Englishwoman’s Journal 

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

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

Sophia Jex-Blake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frederick Denison Maurice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will return to the Fabian Society later on…

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

A drawing of the original Passmore Edwards Settlement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.. See below.

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

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

Straight Outta Godwin

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

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

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

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

Mary and Percy Shelley

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

Students at the London School of Medicine for Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk south down Mecklenburgh Street to Mecklenburgh Square

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

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

Anarchism over breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edith Lees and Havelock Ellis

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

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

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

Broader and more Indeterminate Lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Fabian membership boiled down into three main groups:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Working Men’s College

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

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

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

William Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk round to the Mary Ward Centre

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

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

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

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

Another satire on ‘The March of Intellect’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women’s Freedom League members

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral

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


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


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

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



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

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

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

Great Russell Street – Eleanor Marx Street seems fair.

Little Russell Street – Emily Wilding Davison Street.

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

Bedford Avenue – Passmore Avenue. for John Passmore Edwards

Bedford Way – Headlam Place for Stewart Headlam.

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

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

Tavistock Square – Peace Square

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

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

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

Gower Place: Godwin Place.

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

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

Woburn Walk –  Emily Faithfull Walk.

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

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

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

Thornhaugh Mews – Anna Jameson Mews

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

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

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

And for good measure, other aristo names round ere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ormond Mews – Hannington Street for the NUWM leader

Ormond Close – Agnes Henry Close

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Wander in Bohopia: A Radical History Walk around Bloomsbury

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

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


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

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

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

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

A fit place for the nobility and gentry

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

A map of early Bloomsbury

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

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

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

19th century Bedford Estate gatekeepers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk one

(Walk Two will follow shortly)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Square resists eviction

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

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

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

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

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

Squatters leaving the house in Russell Square



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bedford House, seen from where Bloomsbury Square is now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Mansfield: “the leading exponent of British imperialism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Squat however only lasted a couple of months.

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

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

Walk back down to Great Russell Street

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

“Nothing but the Whip”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gates into Montague Street gardens

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

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

Retrace your steps down Montague Street to no 29a 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the dodginess of the museum collection

The old reading room at the British Museum

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

Walk down Great Russell Street to no 35 

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

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

Walk down Great Russell Street to no 52-57

The flats at 52-57 Great Russell Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shop at no 7 Coptic Street is long gone…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bloomsbury Hotel

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

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

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

Hotel Ivanhoe Squatters

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

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

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

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

Detour down Dyott Street to junction with Bainbridge Street

“Intricate and dangerous places”

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

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

The St Giles Rookery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern Dyott Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“a great day for the Rookery”
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The Dominion Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passmore Edwards

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

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

Thomas Wakley

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

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

“heavy on mankind”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The riots against the passing of the Corn Laws

Eldon’s house here was attacked in 1815 after the passing of the Corn Laws, Acts of Parliament designed to guarantee maximum profits for the English landed aristocracy (who then dominated Parliament) by banning cheap imports of corn; in times of bad harvest this meant high bread prices, making the Laws wildly unpopular with the poor. Eldon was widely seen as being instrumental to the passing of the Corn laws, (although this may not have been true).

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

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

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

Eldon’s house, and convenient lamppost…

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

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

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

Walk north into Gower Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The former squatted blocks, Huntley Street

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

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

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

More on the Huntley Street squatters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eliza Cook

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gays the Word Bookshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk a few doors down to Marchmont Community Centre

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

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

Walk down Millman Street to no 9:

The shooting of PM Spencer Perceval

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

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

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

Walk down to no 70

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


That’s the end of our first Bloomsbury walk…

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

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

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

Zone of Transition

A radical history walk around Spitalfields and Brick Lane

START: Christ Church, Commercial Street 

“a land of beer and blood”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ Church

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

Homelessness was and still is, endemic in Spitalfields:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irish

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

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

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

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

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

Commercial Street: The Wicked Quarter Mile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk down White’s Row To Crispin Street

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

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

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

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

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

Silk dyeing in the fourteenth century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silk reeling

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

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

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

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

The weavers and their morals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calico printing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish immigration in Whitechapel and Spitalfields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a result, a lively and active socialist and trade unionist scene was to grow in the East End, especially in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. It was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the bakers.

East End tailors, 1913.

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

A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

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

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

Hebrew Socialist Union pamphlet

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

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

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

Walk west down Brushfield Street to the corner with Fort Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll return to Arbeter Fraint later

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

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

People around a fire, Spitafields Market

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

 Walk down Brushfield Street to the entrance to Spitalfields Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll return to gentrification later on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue down Greatorex Street to Old Montague Street, turn right

Housing Struggles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both of these did go through in the end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk Round corner to Princelet Street

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

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

The historian Rollin told a slightly different story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Racism & racist attacks:

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

Skins in Brick Lane, 1978

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the National Front HQ, 1978

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

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

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

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

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

Resistance to racism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conservation as gentrification: the Spitalfields Trust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It remains a zone of contention and transition, with many of the same old processes being enacted – the bulldozing of the rookeries to clear ‘unprofitable’ and sometimes troublesome residents is echoed in the demolition of council blocks to be replaced by developments called ‘Kensington’ and ‘Sloane’ Apartments. Names are a bit of a giveaway, eh…?

It is Ground Zero for Hipster projects, many of them vanity affairs like the Cereal Killer Café, often funded by inherited wealth. All of this in a backdrop of graffiti, which is everywhere in the area now, so that any wander round is jammed with tourist ticking off guidebook-marked ‘street art’. Brick Lane is not so much a land of beer and blood any more as a land of (spray) paint and cereal…

We’ll finish here. If you want to retire to a good pub, the Pride of Spitalfields in Heneage Street is worth a pint

Common Land and Squatting in London Fields, Hackney: A Historical Wander

Hidden Histories: Common Land and Squatting in Hackney

This walk was made on 17 July 2011 by about 40 people, some of whom had personal experience of squatting in the London Fields and Mare Street area of Hackney, London, from the 1970s to the present. It was researched and organised by Melissa Bliss with contributions from others including Past Tense.

This seemed like a good time to highlight the squatting history of the area: the government had recently signalled its intention to criminalise squatting; the Olympics, only 12 months away then, had led to a massive increase in property speculation; and the London Fields area was experiencing rapid social and structural change.

We selected 8 sites on the walk which showed different aspects of squatting in different decades. There were many other squatted sites we could have chosen so this walk is not comprehensive.

This account is not comprehensive and we are always looking for more information about this area.

Two more radical history walks were done around the same time in other parts of Hackney, (one from Dalston to Stoke Newington, and another around Stoke Newington), put together by some of the people involved in this walk: we are working on re-constructing them, and will post them up on this blog at some point.

A brief history of squatting in the London Fields area

Squatting in London Fields goes back decades. The earliest references we found were in the late 1960s but it is likely there was individual and organised squatting before then.

London Fields has experienced a high level of squatting for several reasons:

•  Housing need caused by poor housing and rising rents which priced people out of private rented accommodation

•  Loss of housing through bombing and neglect

•  Intensive top down planning intervention – wartime requisitioning, slum clearance and compulsory purchase – leaving whole areas to become run down and left empty

•  Deindustrialisation as businesses moved further out of London leaving empty industrial buildings such as factories, workshops and warehouses

•  Organisation among squatters which led to large scale squatting and, for some, licensing

By the end of the Second World War Hackney had lost about 5,000 homes and 7,000 people were on the housing waiting list. The London County Council (LCC) accelerated its slum clearance programme, buying up properties and moving people out of London. The Metropolitan Borough of Hackney used compulsory purchase powers to buy up properties which had been requisitioned during the War: 1,767 properties, containing 3.317 homes, including around the west side of Mare Street .

Hackney’s population has declined since the 1910s until 1981. Between 1931 to 1961 it declined by about a third. Despite this there was also considerable homelessness due to poor housing stock and rising rents. Organised squatting increased in the 1960s.

During the 1970s there were continual struggles around housing centred on homelessness, slum clearance and redevelopment plans. Rapidly rising house prices in the early 1970s led to a shortage of cheaper private rented housing and speculators leaving properties empty.

The Greater London Council (GLC) and London Borough of Hackney (LBH) had plans to develop the Broadway Market and London Fields east side areas respectively to preserve local employment. But they proceeded so slowly that the areas were blighted and many properties were left empty. Squatters moved in.

Organised and individual squatting increased. Public sector landlords and property owners responded in a variety of way: smashing up properties, licensing squatters or encouraging squatters to regularise themselves in housing co-ops or housing associations.

Smaller changes like the removal of caretakers from housing estates by the early 1970s allowed squatters to move into flats undetected.

From the mid 1970s the GLC took some moves to regularise squatters by getting them to form housing coops.

In 1977 the Conservatives regained control of the GLC and started selling their housing to individuals through the policy of homesteading and housing associations. They also gave squatters an amnesty and offered them tenancies in hard to let properties.

In the 1980s LBH suffered a number of crises including severe funding cuts from central government and, perhaps most crucially, when GLC was abolished, being forced to take on the GLC housing stock, much of which was in poor repair. This doubled LBH’s housing. Cuts in funding from central government and internal council crises meant the council was unable to deal with its housing. In 1981 Hackney had 2,300 empty properties.

During the 1990s the Council was able to regain more control over its property. Many homes had been lost to right to buy and funds were coming through from central government and the European Union to redevelop the area.

In the 2000s squatting continued in the area but in a less organised way and more commonly in industrial buildings. As the area became gentrified, land values increase and less properties were available for squatting. There were also occupations in protest at the ways in which regeneration was being brought about, in particular with the sale of Council properties to property developers and speculators.

Squatting continues in the area but mostly in building awaiting redevelopment, often from industrial to residential uses.


1998 – 2003 

The Lido was built 1932 by the LCC, partly as compensation to Hackney for military use of Hackney Marshes during the First World War. Like many other lidos in London it lasted well till the late 1970s when it was transferred by thy GLC to LBH. It then began to be run down by the Council, closing finally in 1988 amid plans to turn it into a car park.

In 1990 Tower Hamlets managed to bulldoze Victoria Park lido and replace it a car park. This spurred local people on to continue to fight to save London Fields Lido, even standing in front of a bulldozer in 1990 to prevent demolition. Local people led campaigns to reopen the Lido and cleared away vegetation. The children’s paddling pool which was closed in 1999, was reopened by local people for summer seasons.

In 1998 the Lido was squatted for housing, a café and communal events. London Reclaim the Streets held their weekly meetings here for a while. In August 1988 there was the Carnival of the Dispossessed, a benefit for Reclaim The Streets. The Lido was squatted for a second time 2002-2005. Here’s a nice story of that time from Ms Marmite Lover.

[Your past tense typist remembers the time well. Especially the benefit for RTS mentioned. Which might have been much less pleasant… A couple of days before, the deep end of the empty pool reflooded up to a depth of several feet, as the drain leading from the lido had become blocked. Since the deep end was the prospective stage for the upcoming gig, this was bit of a problem, unless a floating stage was an option…  Your friendly neighbourhood squat plumber/radical historian was woken from his sleep in a far off part of south London, grabbed his drain rods and was rushed to the spot, and after some expert rodding the somewhat skanky watter drained away, in time for the pool to dry out and the gig to take place.]

LBH, rather late in the day discovered an enthusiasm for the Lido it was eventually evicted, and finally reopened it in 2006. it is now a source of pride for the Council which uses it frequently to promote the borough. But it would not be here now except for the concerted campaigns by local people and squatters.

Walk through London Fields and Trederwen Avenue to Brougham Road


1970s – ?1987 Housing

Dave Morris spoke about Brougham Road, using this text he wrote in 2008

“Well I was squatting in 64 Brougham Rd from 1974-1980. I was a postman in Islington. The house was very run down, with an old outside toilet and a sink for a kitchen. But we decorated the inside with posters, murals, press cuttings and inspiring slogans etc.

I shared the place with Alan, a really decent and quiet young bloke who became an alcoholic in the late 1970s. Alan once got nicked when drunk at a train station wearing my post office jacket and wheeling about a post office trolley with bags of letters on it. This led to a raid on the house and some laughable police hysteria about him and me being in an anarchist train robbers gang… I testified in court that I had known nothing about it (and that probably nor did Alan), but he still got 6 months suspended (Mentioned in Albert Meltzer’s autobiography, I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels). After I left I think he went downhill, and last I heard he tragically got run over by a bus.

The other bloke we shared with was Des Kelly from Ireland who I recall was writing a book… I have a mad photo of him trying to ride his bike UP our staircase. I did bump into him in Hackney 15 years later but can’t remember what he was doing them.

Spanish Elizabeth was next door I think. Zoundz folks moved into my place or next door after I left. I vaguely recall a guy (Bruce?) living at No 66 who did animation and who told me he was working on an amazing path-breaking new film called ‘Star Wars’.. it didn’t sound to me like it would get anywhere with a crap name like that…

There was a very strong Broadway Market Squatters Association (with maybe 50+ homes in it from the area) which met regularly for mutual solidarity and campaigning. I remember we decided to boycott an amnesty offered by the GLC (London Authority) to squatters if we would accept licenses… the Association saw it as a sell out and divide and rule – we were all pretty militant and independent. But eventually many did accept licenses and then formed housing co-ops in order to keep together and survive.

There were lots of radical feminists in the area, many squatting – I admired them a lot.”

There’s a link to a great article on the 1970s London Fields women’s squat scene, written by a participant.

“Some were involved in the Women In Manual Trades group. Former German urban guerrilla Astrid Proll did apparently spend some time in the area and many people in the area helped form the Friends of Astrid Proll to campaign for her after she was arrested.
Astrid’s sojourn there inspired a song by Nik Turner of Hawkwind fame

I think a building which had been squatted at the south end of the street sometime in the early 70s became a collectively run playcentre..

There was a revolutionary socialist guy who was a tenant in the tower block at that end of the street and had had some run ins with NF fascists.. I vaguely remember getting involved in anti-fascist stuff in the area, painting out nazi slogans etc…

There was a good community, with squatters, tenants, feminists, anarchists and all age groups and nationalities all mixing and getting along pretty well.

There was famous graffiti on a wall at the end of the street by the market which survived for over 10 years: Broadway Market is not a sinking ship – its a submarine.’ It has been restored in recent years, but unfortunately gentrified a lot. It was amazing to go back there last year after decades away and visit Tony’s cafe which had been there when I was there I think, been evicted in order to be ponced up, and then re-occupied as a high profile squatted political centre opposing gentrification in the area (by some anarchists and ‘Hackney Independent’ activists.. see the Hackney Independent website for full info on this).”
Dave Morris

More about Brougham Road

At some point the streets west of London Fields passed into the hands of the GLC – possibly after the Second World War. The GLC had plans to redevelop the wider Broadway Market area to encourage employment but left properties empty for a long time.

The east side of Brougham Road was squatted from at least the early 1970s. Some became licensed through Patchwork Housing.

A building was occupied and run as a nursery by a black group, becoming the Market Nursery, whose patron was Benjamin Zephaniah. The Market Nursery is still going in Wilde Close.

Behind Brougham Road was the old Dalston Bus Garage (on the site of a military barracks) which closed in 1981 and was replaced by Ash Grove bus garage. The bus garage was occupied by travellers in 1981-82. This may have been “uber hippy travellers the Ukrainian Mountain Troupe, who had occupied an abandoned bus garage near Brougham Road in Hackney” according to Alistair of Kill Your Pet Puppy…

This area was later redeveloped as housing by LBH: Suffolk Estate (1960s-1971) and the Regents Estate (1980-88), Grand Union Crescent & Dublin Avenue (1980s).

LBH approved the GLC’s development plans for the Broadway Market Area in 1975 but not much happened other than the building of Ash Grove bus station on Mare Street and Ada Street Workshops (1992).

Walk along Brougham Road and Benjamin Close to Broadway Market. No. 34 is straight ahead, No. 71 is to the left.


1970s – 2000s

Main speaker: Jim Paton

Broadway Market used to be a thriving shopping street and market. This declined until the 1970s when many of the shops were closed and the properties shuttered with corrugated iron. Some of the properties were owned by the GLC and LBH but some were privately owned (for example, in 1983 Prudential Insurance owned no. 53-61). The GLC’s plans to develop the area stopped other development happening.

Flats in the blocks around Broadway Market were also left empty, rented under the hard to let scheme and squatted including Warburton House and Jackman House.

The Council has various schemes to revive the area but little came of them. The GLC built Ash Grove bus station on Mare Street and the Ada Street workshops in the early 1980s.

In the early 2000s LBH was determined to revive the area by selling of the shops and flats above. Some leaseholders were able to buy their properties but many were sold at auction to overseas investment companies at less than market prices. Two sales were particularly contentious.

No.34, Francesca’s Café, was run by Tony Platia for over 30 years. He asked the Council if he could buy the property several times but was turned down. In 2004 the building was bought by Dr Roger Wratten along with the properties on either side of the café and other properties and land in the local area (including 2, 4, 6, 30, 32 Broadway Market; land to the rear of numbers 26-36 Broadway Market; 27 Marlborough Avenue). It seems that Wratten grew up in No. 36 next door.

Tony was evicted at the end of 2005 and the property was occupied to prevent the building’s demolition and as a protest against the wholesale sell-offs. The café was finally evicted in February 2006.

Tony now runs a juice stall in the market (which started in 2004). No. 34 still stands derelict.

No. 71, Nutritious Food Gallery, was run by Spirit who lived above with his family from 1993. When he starting renting it from LBH, the building was semi-derelict and he spent his own money doing it up and running a successful food shop. As leaseholder Spirit should have been given the first option to buy the property. But in 2002 when he went to the auctioneers and left a cheque he believed he had bought he building. But it was later sold at the auction to an offshore investment company for less money than he had offered. This company then raised his rent by 1200% with the clear intention of getting him out. Spirit attempted to pay this rent but ran into arrears and was finally evicted in October 2006.

No 71 is now the FIn and Flounder, a posh fish shop
[At this point on the 2011 walk, ‘some words’ were exchanged with the hipster fish shop owners who had bought Spirit’s old shop. Some people on the walk knew Spirit and took the piss out of the fishy folk. But are such middle class who buy into gentrification just tiddlers, just prawns in a larger game? Cod knows…]

Walk through Broadway Market & London Fields to the Warburton Estate garden


1970s – 2000s

Darcy House was the LCC’s first block in Hackney (1904), on the site of Dr Carbureting’s Asylum (1830s-1850s) and Pacifico’s alms houses for Sephardic Jews (about 1851). Warburton House was built slum clearance in 1935-38.

The Warburton Estate is typical of several estates in the local area (like Goldsmiths Row and the Haggerston Estate). Under the GLC it became run down and flats emptied. Some were squatted and some were let under the Hard To Let scheme.

2011: It rained heavily.

Walk through Mentmore Terrace, Sidworth Street to junction with Lamb Lane

Mentmore Terrace, Sidworth Street, Lamb Lane, Gransden Avenue

Sidworth Street was the site of a V2 bomb during the war and in the 1960s and 1970s industrial units built. In 2010 one block (13018) was squatted as Urban HapHazard Squat. Some building around Sidworth Street and Mentmore Terrace were squatted, around 2011, some with the knowledge/permission of the property owners.

Properties round here bought by the local council after WW2 (bomb damage & slum clearance) and in the 1970s. During this time there were several traveller sites on Lamb Lane, Gransden Avenue and   Mentmore Terrace. In the 1980s a site on Gransden Avenue/London Lane was being considered as a permanent local authority traveller site.

Walk down Lamb Lane (note Elizabeth Fry Way) & Mare Street


2009 (September) – 2010 (August) Communal / social centre

This building was built in about 1697, probably for a wealthy merchant, Abraham Dolins. It is the second oldest house and third oldest building in Hackney (after St Augustine’s Tower and Sutton House). For the first 160 years (1697-1860), it was a merchant’s family home. For the next fifty-odd years (1860-1913), like many big houses around this area, it was turned over to institutional use. It became the Elizabeth Fry Refuge for Reformation of Women Prisoners. It housed women released from jail where they learnt the skills to go into domestic service. For ninety years (1913-2004), it became a liberal/radical social club – the New Lansdowne Club. During this time a new building was built out the back with a bar and a stage. After a long period of decline it finally closed in 2004.

In 2005 it was bought for a Vietnamese community and cultural centre but stood empty since then.

In 2009 the building was squatted as a very active social centre. Events included London Free School, benefits, skills sharing and film nights.

In May 2010 this company went bust and ownership passed to the Dunbar Bank which finally evicted the centre in August 2010. Currently (July 2011) on sale   for £1 million.

“Opened at the end of 2009, it got evicted in August 2010. In the meanwhile, it hosted a considerable amount of weekly workshops and skill-sharing, but also theatre plays, gigs, movies, benefit parties, meetings, art exhibitions and performances, gardening and even a pantomime! The building is one of the oldest house in Hackney, its front part is the oldest (grade II listed) and there is a more recent back part that includes a stage. At the time squatters moved in, it was owned by some developers company who simply wanted to demolish part of it and build flats. But the developers got bankrupt and their bank, Dunbar Bank, took over. They evicted the squatters, redone the facade and nothing else, and are now selling it out…”

NAUTEANESS – 197 Mare Street


This was then squatted and open on Sundays – we dropped in to get dry, drink tea & play music. An ex-diving shop, it was owned by property developers. [Not sure what happened after this- Ed]

Some people went on to Well Furnished11 Terrace Rd, opposite Well Street

Well Furnished was unfortunately evicted not long after (26th of August 2011). It was “located in Well street, Homerton, a vibrant area where locals seem to have established strong links with each other. The St John Hackney Joint Charities Trust owns a lot of properties on this street and have decided to increase the rents by up to 300%, forcing people to leave their buildings. The WellFurnished collective occupied some of these buildings in early summer 2011, and organised lots of events: benefit cafes/dinners/gigs, exhibitions, painting/dancing/yoga workshops, meetings etc.”

Walk down Mare Street to London Lane / Belling Road


1980s – 1994

The Victorian terraced housing in this area was not built to a very high standard. After the Second World War the Council compulsorily purchased some buildings in the area.

In the mid 1970s LBH planned to create an Industrial Improvement Area between Mare Street and London Fields in an attempt to stem the loss of employment. The Council compulsory purchased more buildings and got rid of existing residents and businesses. It was not keen to hand housing over for short life in case it slowed down development.

Squatters moved into the empty buildings and travellers into the yards (the earliest reference we found was to 1979 but may have been earlier). Artists organisations Acme and Space persuaded the Council to hand over some buildings for studios and living but many of the other properties were squatted. Space leased a building in Martello Street since 1971 and Acme had buildings on Martello Street and Mentmore Terrace.

In 1985 the Council proposed demolishing all the buildings in Ellingfort Road, London Lane and Mentmore Terrace. Between 1885 and 1992 some of the short life housing co-ops left and more houses were squatted.

In 1995 the Council announced its intention to create a fenced off industrial area between Mare Street and the railway, taking in London Lane, Ellingfort Road and Mentmore Terrace. In 1997 the Council got EU funds for this scheme but it was bitterly opposed by local people who wanted a mixture of housing and small scale workspaces.

Some of the squatters had by now acquired ownership of their properties.

Some of the people living in the two streets, both squatters and people in housing co-ops, got together to form a housing coop to take on the redevelopment. In the end eight houses were handed back to the Council for development for live/work units and the rest remained as a co-op.

A former resident said “21 Ellingfort Road was the home of two Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Sister Belladonna and Mother Mandragora. Sometimes they hung out on the street in full habit and no one batted an eyelid and came home on the 55 bus in full habit too. We once went to the ‘pub with no name’ next to the hackney empire in full habit to a gig”.

Walk up Mare Street to the Town Hall

282 Richmond Road, squatted in 2002 as a community art space

Great Eastern Buildings on Reading Lane built for railway workers) deteriorated, run as a hostel, squatted ?around 2005.

270 Mare Street – former Methodist Hall

1988 and 1995–1996

Spikey Thing with Curves

no 270 was possibly originally the Mothers’ Hospital of the Salvation Army 1884-1913, then a Mission Methodist Hall.

In March 1988 it was occupied after the mass eviction of many squats on the Stamford Hill estate.

In 1995 and1996 it was squatted as a social space, Spikey Thing With Curves. A large mural was painted on the outside and parties were holed there.


The Town Hall was the site of many demonstrations against Council policies. In the 1980s squatters were many and organised, and about 90% of squats in council properties so there was regular conflict:

  • 1987: “Hackney Squatters Army””disrupted every monthly council meeting
  • 1988: Stamford Hill Estate evicted, Town Hall & Methodist Hall opposite occupied by evicted squatters.
  • May 1989:The Town Hall was occupied after squatted centre Lee House eviction was resisted.
  • In 1993-94 Council started cracking down on squatting, offering short life & tenancies to some, evictions to others.
  • A 1994 protest against the Criminal Justice Act here ended in arrests and heavy charges.

Some info handed out on the walk:

Totally Independent (Newsletter of Haringey Solidarity Group) Issue 20 Summer 2011

Leaflets from Hackney Housing History project


The Radical History of Hackney blog

Kill Your Pet Puppy: many interesting pages, this one on Brougham Road

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‘Dung, Guts and Blood’: a wander up the lower reaches of London’s Fleet River

‘Dung, Guts and Blood

Swimming against the Stream: a wander up the lower reaches of London’s Fleet River


Disorder, Repression and Radicalism in the lower Fleet valley


The following consists of a walk up London’s river Fleet, upstream, from where it emerges into the Thames.

Ever since we first walked and talked this route (in 2008), some have grumbled, “Why are you doing it backwards?!”, ie upstream, from the Thames, instead of from the source to the outflow at Blackfriars.

We’ve spent our whole lives going against the flow… In the case of the Fleet it seemed appropriate; chronologically, and it chimed somehow with the spirit of the people, events and communities that once lined the riverbanks.

We have also confined ourselves – for now – to the lower reaches of the river as far as Kings Cross; not tracing the various sources in the ponds of Hampstead. Partly this is to do with space; partly because for many reasons the places we talk about on the lower river together relate to each other, with a number of thematic links. In character, environment and history, above Kings Cross, it’s a different story.

The River Fleet is the largest of London’s subterranean rivers; but today it is almost completely hidden beneath the ground. Until the eighteenth century it flowed on the surface.

The Fleet rises from two springs on Hampstead Heath, flows through the two eighteenth Century reservoirs at Highgate and Hampstead Ponds, and thence four miles underground through Kentish Town, Kings Cross, Holborn and Farringdon, to join the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge.

The higher reaches were of old known as the Holbourne, or Oldbourne, (giving the area Holborn its modern name), from the Anglo-Saxon Holburna, “hollow stream”, referring to its deep valley; while ‘Fleet’ comes from flēot, meaning an inlet or estuary. In Anglo-Saxon times, the Fleet was a wide inlet joining the Thames through a marshy tidal basin over a hundred yards wide, used as a dock by shipping. Higher up, a number of wells were dug along its banks, and some springs (eg. Bagnigge Wells, and the Clerk’s well) were thought to have healing qualities; the Fleet was also nicknamed the ‘River of Wells’ for many years. But as London grew, its lower reaches came to be used as an open sewer. By the thirteenth century, it was already considered polluted, and the area bordering its banks was mainly left to poor-quality housing, and prisons; Newgate, the Fleet and Ludgate and later Coldbath Fields prisons were all built on or close to its banks. The flow of the river was greatly reduced by growing industry and housing on its banks. As the river already had a tendency to flood, this confinement made the Fleet more destructive: in 1331, St Pancras Old Church was flooded by the Fleet and ‘undermined and destroyed’, after which it was left derelict and vandalised. So may all churches end!

The tributaries and routes of the Fleet River

After the 1666 Great Fire of London, Christopher Wren proposed widening the river. Wren had great plans for a rebuilt London; the opportunity existed to create a rationally planned city, laid out on a grid system; but his plans were all rejected, and instead, the Fleet was converted into the New Canal, completed in 1680. Being unpopular and under-used, however, the canal was filled in less than sixty years later in 1737. The river survived slightly longer: the section from Holborn to Fleet Street was re-routed below the surface when the canal was filled, with the section to the Thames covered over by New Bridge Street by 1765. Urban development covered the river in Kings Cross and Camden after 1812. Under Farringdon Road, the Fleet was built over again in the 1860s, (at the same time the river was incorporated into the new city-wide sewerage system designed by Joseph Bazalgette) and now lies beneath the Metropolitan underground line, while the upper stretches of the river were covered when Hampstead expanded in the 1870s.

Partly due to the growing insanitary nature of the river, and the industries which sited themselves along its banks, many poor areas and later rookeries gradually evolved along the Fleet: no-one else was prepared to live there.

Its vicinity became built up with slums, prisons or industry (especially dirty, smelly or polluting industry): defining the river’s surroundings, from the Thames right up to Kings Cross. Partly the industry arose because the river was there, making transport of goods and raw materials easier, providing water and sewage.

But gaols, slums and workshops also thronged the area, because it was outside the City’s western walls, and thus it was ideal to locate working processes that would have offended/invoked restrictions in the City. and was thought a good place to stick prisons that nobody wanted next door, (though in fact Newgate, Ludgate, two of the jails in this area, both developed in City gates, strong places already fortified). Counter to this, the Fleet valley, an area long without defined authority, also became a handy place for crims, rebels, foreigners and others banned from working or living in ‘London’ proper, or keen to avoid the hand of the law.

These slums, or ‘rookeries’, came to be viewed with fear and loathing by the authorities and concerned middle classes, who saw them as sinks of crime and sources of disorder and rebellion. Numerous written tracts dwelt on the threat of disorder, and the ‘moral’ failings of the inhabitants. The image and reputation of an area and its inhabitants loomed in some cases larger than reality, for instance the widespread fears (especially after after the French Revolution of 1848) that slum dwellers could provide the foot soldiers for a prospective English Revolution.

“Our argument is that rookeries are among the seeds of revolution; that, taken in connection with other evils, they poison the minds of the working classes against the powers that be, and thus lead to convulsions” (Thomas Beames, in The Rookeries of London, the most outspoken text about the dangers of the slums.)

These fears led to a concerted attempt, directed through housing, development, religious and policing policy, to control and in end destroy areas seen as dangerous. However, in the piecemeal and repressive way they were imposed, the solutions put up to improve and reform the poor often made things worse.

Having abandoned the Fleet’s environs to the poor for centuries, in the 1800s and early 1900s, the City authorities, gradually evicted the lower classes from pretty much the whole lower Fleet Valley. Mass clearances of the rookeries were also spurred on by demands for land for office building. As the Empire expanded and London became the capital of worldwide commercial enterprise, Capital was also expanding internally in its own (to some extent unconquered) backyard.

The relations of work, slum and prison are crucial to the river’s surroundings: the complex relations between the three underpin the Fleet’s history for centuries. How many of the rookery dwellers of Saffron Hill, Alsatia, Turnmill Street or Whitecross Street enjoyed the hospitality of the Fleet, Bridewell, Newgate or Coldbath Fields prisons? How many were involved in their destruction, in 1381 and 1780, or the riots, escapes and protests that fill these institutions’ histories?

 “A mob of metaphors advance” (Alexander Pope, the Dunciad)

At the risk of straying into slightly pretentious territory, the submerged Fleet, the underground stream, could also be seen as a symbolic image of the history of this area. The prisons, slums and most of the industry are gone, the struggles that arose from them are lost under modern office blocks; the river is buried, and the whole length of it redeveloped. In fact the river is two levels down, in some places, buried under the Metropolitan Line; itself several feet below the surface… We have to wade down the Thames foreshore, or kneel with our ears to a Warner Street grate, to find physical evidence of its continuing existence; just so unearthing the history of the Fleet’s subversive and rebellious neighbours, to hear the voice of the dispossessed poor evicted from the Fleet Valley, involves some heavy spadework.

Did the rich and powerful commentators who discussed the immorality and disorderly natures of the poor in the slums of the Fleet Valley see the river as not only a literal source of infection and disease, but also a metaphor, for the moral or political sources of criminality and rebelliousness found along its banks? There’s strong similarity in the language between used by Thomas Beames and his ilk when describing with disgust the inhabitants of Saffron Hill, and Swift or Pope when they’re describing the sewery swirling of the dark river itself.

Start the walk on the North west corner of Blackfriars Bridge
Go down and find the outlet of the Fleet – under the Bridge: “its foul mouth”

Note: At time of publishing you cannot get down under the Bridge, as this section of the Embankment is closed off, appropriately enough (given the Fleet’s history) for the construction of the new Thames Tidal Sewer…

The Fleet emerges from its secret ways here, right under Blackfriars Bridge.

The Fleet as it entered the Thames in the 17th Century

It was here, on 18 June 1982, that the body of Roberto Calvi was found hanging from scaffolding under the Bridge. Known as ‘God’s Banker’, Calvi was chairman of Italy’s second largest private bank, Banco Ambrosiano, which went bankrupt in 1982. The bank was under criminal investigation after Bank of Italy reported that several billion lire had been exported illegally. In 1981, Calvi was tried, given a four-year suspended sentence and fined nearly 20 million dollars for transferring millions out of the country in violation of Italian currency laws. He was released on bail pending appeal and kept his position at the bank. During his short spell in jail, he attempted suicide.

Banco Ambrosiano collapsed in June 1982 with debts of between 700 million and 1.5 billion US dollars. Much of the money had been siphoned off via the Vatican Bank (the Institute for Works of Religion), which owned 10% of Banco Ambrosiano, and was their main shareholder. Two weeks before the collapse, Calvi warned Pope John Paul II, that such a forthcoming event would “provoke a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions in which the Church will suffer the gravest damage.”

Calvi fled the country on a false passport; days later he was dead. Because he had been a member of the notorious Masonic Lodge P2, who referred to themselves as frati neri or “black friars”, his death under Blackfriars Bridge has been seen as a murder committed by the masons, the mafia, the Vatican, or all three… A conspiracy theorist’s delight. Cue a web of paranoid ramblings. Maybe he just killed himself because his life was going down the swannee. A not inappropriate place to end it all, given the reputation of the Fleet River in later years…

Back up to street level on west side…

Blackfriars Bridge

Blackfriars Bridge was the site of a couple of outbreaks of violent class warfare; but class cleansing may have also been a factor in the Bridge’s origins. One of the reasons cited in support of the bridge’s original construction 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 Alsatia, see below) – it was thought opening up and redeveloping the area to the south would help.

A toll was imposed to pay for the cost of building the bridge, and tollhouses were built on the Bridge itself. They were widely resented, especially by the poor Londoners who had to cross the bridge, and hated the tuppenny toll. On 7th June 1780, during the cataclysm of class uprising known as the Gordon Riots, the tollgates were robbed and burned. According to Horace Walpole, friends of his saw “the populace break open the toll-houses on Blackfriars Bridge, and carry off bushels of halfpence, which fell about the streets, and then they set fire to the tollhouses.”

The tollgate’s money chest, containing about £268, was stolen. Troops arrived and shot a number of rioters here: some were said to have been thrown off the bridge into the Thames, or at Queen Hithe Dock and Dowgate Wharf.

Nearly seventy years later, on 10 April 1848, Chartists trying to march to parliament battled police on the bridge.

The first great british working class political movement, Chartism had been in eclipse for some years in the mid-1840s, but was reviving. For the upper classes, the prospect of the great Chartist meeting on Kennington Common generated probably the greatest fear of the lower classes since the Gordon Riots.

The Chartists process over Blackfriars Bridge, 1848

The Chartists were meeting to present the Third Petition for the Charter to Parliament. The Chartist Convention had seen intense debate between those advocating moral force and those believing armed uprisings might be necessary, especially as an attack by police or soldiers was anticipated. The wave of Revolutions and uprisings across Europe made the usual violent rhetoric from some of the Chartist leaders seem more threatening: the government made elaborate preparations to resist any attempted insurrection. Thousands of troops were moved into London, and hundreds of middle class volunteers and special constables were signed up. The royal family were even moved out of the capital. Bridges and important and strategic buildings were barricaded. “The bridges were the chief points of defence, of which Blackfriars-bridge appeared to be a sort of centre, as it had the strongest force..” “About 300 gentlemen of the Stock Exchange were sworn in special constables, 100 of whom attended under their respective leaders in the Royal Exchange, from whence they were marched to Blackfriars-bridge…”

“The proceedings in its neighbourhood were nearly as follows:- By ten o’clock a considerable crowd had collected in Farringdon-street and New Bridge-street, and at the point where Fleet-street and Ludgate-hill join this line of street. The stable-yard of the Rose Inn, in Farringdon-street, had previously been occupied by a body of cavalry. Special constables were also mustered in great force by the authorities of the ward, but kept out of sight. Soon after ten the crowd assumed a “processional” shape, and by half-past ten began to pass over the bridge. Men who had been talking together in groups joined arm-in-arm, and the march commenced. From half-past ten till half-past eleven one continuous stream of people crossed the bridge – the pavement on the east side being occupied by the more systematic procession, and the roadway being thronged by a closely-packed body. At the latter hour vans, decorated with flags, and containing some of the leaders of the “demonstration,” made their appearance, and passed on without any appearance of confusion. With the exception of a few closed shops, there were, in this locality, no signs of alarm, and no symptoms of disorder.”

But at the mass rally on Kennington Common, Chartist leaders (spooked by the government’s war footing, and not really up to the violence of some of their verbal posturing) abandoned their attempt to process to Westminster to hand in the petition. However thousands of demonstrators did try to cross the river, and were blocked off at the bridges, leading to clashes with police. Blackfriars Bridge saw the most vicious fighting –

“After the meeting on Kennington-common had dispersed, an immense crowd on their return straggled irregularly along Blackfriars-road. Upon arriving at Stamford-street, they of course came face to face with the mounted police, who refused them passage, and ranged themselves across the road. Together with these were the police and special constables. Many strenuous attempts were made by the Chartists to get across the bridge. As fresh numbers arrived from Kennington-common, those in advance were pushed forward, but were immediately driven back by the horse-patrol without drawing their sabres. The metropolitan police made use of their staves, and, from time to time, repulsed the crowd, which grew thicker and thicker every minute. In about an hour and a half, however, the mob, which, by this time, reached as far down as Rowland Hill’s Chapel, made many vigorous attempts to force their way through; and, notwithstanding the cool steady courage of the police, the latter were, at intervals, separated. The special constables at these times were very roughly handled, a great many of them having their hats broken and being deprived of their staves. Showers of large stones were every few minutes thrown on the bridge, and the police received many severe blows, but gave more than equivalent in return with their batons. A great number of men who were seized by the police for throwing stones were rescued, and the yells and shouts were deafening. At half-past three o’clock the pressure of the concourse was so great that the line of police was forced, and a great many of them carried with the throng over the bridge, holding their staves up as they were borne along. On the City side of the bridge a great many arrests were made, and the mob, which seemed inclined for a minute to make a stand, were uniformly repulsed by the horse patrol, the sight of whose drawn sabres, wielded over the heads of the mob, soon put the more noisy and impudent to flight. Both on that and the other side of the bridge there were numbers of men with their heads bleeding, who were led away by their friends.” (Illustrated London News)

Preventing the demonstrators from reaching parliament defused some of the ‘pre-revolutionary tension’ the ruling class was suffering from… though there was localised fighting around different working class areas of London all summer, and small numbers of physical force Chartists were busted in August planning an armed uprising (see Bride Lane and Saffron Hill, below).

1848 represented Chartism’s last big push; although the movement survived several years longer it increasingly fell into factions, and withered in a more prosperous economic climate in the 1850s.

Apparently when Queen Victoria opened the rebuilt Blackfriars Bridge (on 6th November 1869) she had to do a runner, after a republican crowd people booed and pelted her with rubbish…

Rebuilding Blackfriars Bridge, 1869

Blackfriars Stairs, which descended to the river just to the east of where the bridge now stands, as one of the points where you could take a boat, to travel upon the Thames. The stairs were also were once a place of great fear and loathing: from here eighteenth century convicts sentenced to be transported to America, and later Australia, were forcibly embarked. Brought here from Newgate or other prisons, they would be carried in a closed lighter to a ship at Blackwall or Woolwich, and from there a ship would take them to bonded labour in the colonies.

However, not all cons left here with darkened hearts: in June 1768, during a time of mass strikes, class struggles and also political reform agitation, ninety convicts in a ‘close lighter’, bound for transportation, held a party, with ‘Wilkes & Liberty cockades’ in their hats (celebrating the populist journalist and demagogue John Wilkes, whose battle with the establishment was causing rioting in London at the time. Four months later, another group bound for the prison hulks “declared they were going to a Place where they might soon regain their lost Liberty.”

Cross New Bridge Street, and walk down east side to Queen Victoria Street

“The Earthquake Council”

Blackfriars monastery once stood here, between the river and Ludgate Hill. The black-robed Dominican Friars moved in around 1278; commemorated on this spot now by the ‘Black Friar’ pub, itself an old building now in an area where many have been demolished.

In May 1382 religious reformer John Wycliffe, inspirer of the Lollards (of whom more later), was brought to Blackfriars to be tried for his beliefs by the Archbishop of Canterbury. His rejections of doctrine, attacks on corrupt churchmen, and calls for a dissolution of church hierarchies and monastic orders (and a return to a more egalitarian church), had led to some of his writings being declared heretical.

“Eight prelates, fourteen doctors, six bachelors of divinity, fifteen mendicant friars, and four monks were gathered in the great hall of the monastery, and were just about to proceed to Wycliffe’s trial, when an earthquake shook London, to the terror of the assembled divines, who began to take it as an omen of the divine displeasure.”

The Archbishop, “who was in deadly earnest to have Wycliffe condemned” claimed the earthquake was a positive sign from God: “Know you not that the noxious vapours which catch fire in the bosom of the earth and give rise to these phenomena which alarm you, lose all their force when burst forth? In like manner, by rejecting the wicked from our community we shall put an end to the convulsions of the Church.”

John Wycliffe’s bones being dug up, 1428

Wycliffe however took the earthquake as a sign of God’s opposition to the trial! However, after deliberations extending over three days the church council condemned ten of Wyclife’s these as heretical and others as erroneous.

Although Wyclife was not excommunicated as a heretic in his lifetime (he died two years after the Blackfriars Synod), the mainly poor Lollard preachers he inspired were heavily persecuted over the following century. Wyclife’s body was dug up and the remains thrown in a river in 1428, when he was excommunicated long after his death.

The Monastery was closed down during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. But Blackfriars became a centre for dissidents, religious and political, in the seventeenth century, a legacy derived from the right of sanctuary of the old medieval abbey; it claimed to be independent of the municipal authorities. St Anne’s Church, built on the ruins of the monastery, became a centre of Puritanism, and in the 1650s, of the millenarian fifth monarchists, and became a venue for apocalyptic sermons, religious and political debate and invective (later, plotting) against Oliver Cromwell & the Rump Parliament, who they held had betrayed the cause of King Jesus and the approaching Second Coming.

Later, in 1596, the actor Richard Burbage opened a playhouse here, but rich local residents petitioned Parliament to shut it down, on the grounds that it would attract “vagrant and lewd persons… and besides, the same playhouse is so near the church that the noise of the drums and music will greatly disturb…the ministers and parishioners.”

Cross New Bridge Street to the corner of Tudor Street, turn left, down to Bridewell Place:

The sturdy and idle: The Bridewell

The area here between the Thames and Bride Lane was formerly home to the Bridewell. Built in 1515 as a palace for Henry VIII, it stretched all the way from the Thames to Fleet Street, a big sprawling complex, which came to house ambassadors, and visiting monarchs… But it rapidly fell out of favour as a palace, and in the mid-sixteenth century was converted jointly by the City and the king for the relief of the poor. Huge numbers of poor people were arriving in the city, driven from the countryside by growing enclosure and poverty, and the collapse of the traditional welfare system (the dissolved monasteries and abbeys) as religious reform combined with opportunist land-grabbing altered rural life for ever. The initial joint

The Bridewell and the Fleet mouth, c.1750. Note the elegant bridge over the Fleet

charitable project soon, however, became mixed with coercion – the homeless poor, the idle, the ‘workshy’ and alleged drunkards were forced into the institution: “And unto this shall be brought the sturdy and idle: and likewise such prisoners as are quite at the sessions, that they may be set to labour. And for that number will be great the place where they shall be exercised must also be great.”

The way the poor were treated in the Bridewell set a pattern for future workhouse policy, and on a wider scale, for the modern welfare state, at least in its coercive face. Bridewell inmates were forced to spin, sew mailbags, clean the sewers in gangs, tread the wheel; even those who had lost a limb were set to on an ingenious hand and foot mill. Prostitutes and vagrants were whipped on arrival, and any acts of disobedience were punished by flogging. Bridewell became a popular place for locking up rebellious or just idle apprentices, later joined by religious dissidents, Spanish Armada captives, and local petty criminals. There was some dispute as to the legality of locking up those whose only crime was to be homeless and poor, but nothing came of it. Floggings in fact became novelty viewing: sadistic better off voyeurs would visit to get off on the punishment of others – a viewing gallery was built to house them.

The ‘president’ of the Bridewell in the early 17th century was Sir Thomas Middleton. He had the power to halt floggings by knocking on the table; the prisoners’ cry for mercy of ‘Knock, Sir Thomas, Knock’ was taken up by people who used to follow him and hassle him in the street, shouting the words after him…

In the 1610s a wave of prison riots occurred in London. They may have arisen less from a deterioration of  conditions, than to the coming together of heretics and thieves, or political and common prisoners, creating new collectives of resistance. Martin Markall, the beadle of the Bridewell, saw the riots as the product of alliances of Irish rebels, Gypsies, and Roberdsmen (marauding vagrants) with mariners and pirates. The prison, like the ship and the factory, organised large numbers of people for the purposes of exploitation, but it simultaneously was unable to prevent the prisoners thus massed together from organising against it.

stolen “Out of theyre beds”

In 1619 the Virginia Company, pioneering the colonising of North America, arranged with the city of London for the transportation of several hundred poor children, between the ages of eight and sixteen, from the Bridewell to Virginia, as part of the mass transportation of the poor and ‘criminals’ of major cities and Ireland to America. Virginia Company apologists like John Donne wanted the whole of the new America to function as a prison, to discipline the rebellious lower classes. London’s Common Council approved the request, authorised constables to round up the children, and shipped off the first young labourers in the early spring of 1619. When a second request was made, the council was again accommodating, but the children themselves had other ideas, organising a revolt in Bridewell and declaring “their unwillingness to go to Virginia.” It was soon discovered that the city lacked the authority to transport the children against their will. The Privy Council jumped into the fray, granting the proper authority and threatening to imprison any child who continued to resist. Of the several hundreds of children shipped to Virginia at this time, the names of 165 were recorded. By 1625 only twelve of those were still alive; the other 153, or 93 percent, had died. The same fate may have met the fourteen to fifteen hundred children said to be on their way to Virginia in 1627, and the four hundred Irish children stolen “Out of theyre bedds” in 1653 and sent off to New England and Virginia.

From Hogarth’s ‘Harlot’s progress: a prostitute’s punishment is beating hemp in the Bridewell.

By 1653 the Bridewell had become a prison holding petty offenders and ‘disorderly women’, particularly prostitutes. Short sentences were the norm here, but floggings were common, including public floggings twice a week; ducking stools and stocks also graced the place. Noted inmates included the Fifth Monarchist prophetess Anna Trapnel in 1654.

Later the Bridewell pioneered the introduction of minor workhouse reforms, such as schooling for apprentices and children, introducing a doctor, providing free bedding (1788) and abolishing flogging for women (1791). It was closed down in 1855, and knocked down in 1863.

Although Bridewell was for a long time not called a prison, it formed part of a chain of penal institutions that loomed over the lower Fleet valley for centuries, with the Bridewell, Fleet, and Coldbath Fields on the river’s banks, and Ludgate, Newgate, the Clerkenwell Bridewell and Clerkenwell House of Detention within a few minutes’ walk.

Walk down Tudor Street to the corner of Bouverie Street.

Alsatia: “a rabble so desperate”

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, 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 Alsace, the no-mans land between France and Germany.

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 the incursion of the law by force.

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 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.

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 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).

The Whitefriars Gate

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. This 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 was tried for murder, and hanged in Fleet Street in 1693.

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.

Its inhabitants no doubt dispersed to other rookeries and slums, maybe to Chick Lane, Turnmill Street or Saffron Hill, which we will encounter later.

Much more on Alsatia at this great blog

Printing Workers

Fleet Street, Bouverie Street and Carmelite Street formed the old heartland of newspaper printing. Bouverie Street was once as important in the newspaper business as Fleet Street itself, housing such concerns as The News of the World and The News Chronicle.

The printers were traditionally highly unionised, stroppy and combative… famous for striking at the drop of a hat, in their own interests, and often other workers’ behalf… Into the 1980s Print workers regularly refused to print titles with articles critical of the unions. At that time the press barons were powerless to do anything about it. If they wanted their papers on the streets the next day, they would have to remove or change the offending article.

“The thing about the printers was that they were a conservative group of people. They had relatively high pay and better working conditions than most workers did. They were not about to make a revolution but they knew very well that their position depended completely on their trade union and particularly chapel organisation.” (Jim Brookshaw, of the Fleet Street branch of the AEEU and Chairman of the Times Newspapers engineers chapel, early 1980s.)

Walk back down Tudor Street, to Carmelite Street,

to no 2, (on west side)

The Daily Herald

Labour paper the Daily Herald had its offices here.

The Herald was founded as the daily voice of the strike committee when compositors on London papers were locked out after demanding a 48 hr working week in January 1911.
After the lockout a committee took it over in an attempt to create a permanent socialist daily newspaper and the Daily Herald emerged in April 1912 with a working capital of £200. It saw itself as a forum for the whole range of radical causes, from industrial unionism to the women’s movement, and it attracted to itself support from activists within all these fields. It covered strikes, union issues, the fight for women’s suffrage, the campaign for Irish home rule and much more.

The new paper was run on a shoestring, with money always tight. Bailiffs were fought off at its doors at least once (old Alsatia traditions re-asserting!)

At times this led to a ropy quality; one edition ended up being printed on odds and ends & colours. Despite the constant financial crises its circulation grew by leaps and bounds to a peak of 150,000 just before World War 1.

The Daily Herald was deeply critical of the trade union leaderships and the attitudes of the established Labour leaders. Its launch came as Britain (and other areas of Europe) were experiencing an upsurge of class struggle, strikes, and a ferment of socialist ideas among workers. The Herald, although conceived as a broad church, took a pro-syndicalist stance at first (1912-13).

The paper so irritated the Labour and Trade union leaderships that six months after the launch of the Herald the TUC and the Labour Party started their own paper, the Daily Citizen, in competition. The Citizen lasted three years and then sank without trace, taking £200,000 of trade union money with it.

Early Herald editor Charles Lapworth, a syndicalist, was replaced in December 1913, after attacks on the Labour Party hierarchy. He was replaced by veteran socialist George Lansbury. The resulting toning down of the syndicalist outlook, did encourage more financial support from wealthier backers. The outbreak of World War 1 forced the Herald to become a weekly; it bravely took a pacifist anti-war stance.

After the War, the Daily Herald recommenced as a daily.  But papermaking firms wouldn’t supply it paper (under pressure from the government), until the Transport Workers Union threatened mass strikes at paper mills. In 1919, the Herald published leaked War Office instructions to senior army officers to find out how many of troops would break strikes or serve in the embryonic military intervention in Soviet Russia, and also how many soldiers had been influenced by trade union or socialist ideas. The British government was at this point shaken by rising industrial unrest, including strikes and mutinies in the army, and feared revolution was imminent. The outcry resulting from this publication forced plans for army strike breaking to be scaled back, but the War Office ordered officers to try to intercept bundles of Herald at stations and burn them!

From 1919-22, the paper supported strikes and social struggles, but in 1922, as the wave of post-war radicalism began to recede, financial problems at the Herald led Lansbury to give up control to the Labour Party and the TUC, and it became more and more rightwing… In 1930, a majority stake was sold to the Odhams Press. Although the paper continued to have a mass working class readership, its early radical politics were behind it. It survived until 1964, when it morphed into the Sun – to be bought by Rupert Murdoch five years later. The rest we know… Some trajectory eh?

Cross over to the old Daily Mail building, Northcliffe House on the corner of Tallis Street on western side of Carmelite St)

Twas the eve of the General Strike… The General Council of the Trades Union Congress were desperately trying to avoid a mass national walkout in support of a million locked out miners, scared that events would spiral out of their control.

On 2 May 1926, late at night, on the eve of the General Strike, Daily Mail printers refused to print an attack on trade unions on the front page, and downed tools; this formed the excuse the government was looking for to break off negotiations with the TUC General Council and sparked the beginning of the Strike.

The TUC had agreed for the British Worker to be printed here as a daily strike sheet. A crowd of strikers and supporters gathered here every day to await copies. One evening cops emerged from where they’d been hiding in the half-built Daily Mail building opposite (Northcliffe House) and charged the crowd, raided the Herald, and seized copies of the British Worker, stopping the printing machinery. This led to a stand off… but the British Worker was so unsubversive, the regulations to suppress seditious papers didn’t apply to it & they were allowed to carry on printing.

As mentioned above, the newspaper printers were for years well-organised and stroppy. Some of the notable disputes here included:
•  in 1955, a month-long strike by 700 maintenance workers (who cleaned and took care of printing presses) in pursuit of a £2 wage increase, took many newspapers off the streets…

  • 1972: a mass solidarity strike erupted in support of five dockers jailed in Pentonville Prison for picketing depots in a dock strike: “The dockers decided that the first step in ensuring the release of the jailed pickets was to close down the national newspapers. Scores of dockers “went down Fleet Street marching from paper to paper in a procession of shouting and leafleting, and cheering and arguing,” a docker said. “We had a magnificent leaflet. It had ‘Five Trade Unionists Are Inside-Why Aren’t You Out?'”
    The Sunday Mirror was the first to stop work. There was then a domino effect. Only the Sunday Times was printed. From Monday the national daily newspapers, the London evening papers and the evening papers in Liverpool and Manchester were not published until Friday 28 July.”
  • 1982: On 11 August 1300 electricians union (ETU) members held up the presses in support of a campaign for a pay rise by NHS workers… Sean Geraghty, secretary of the ETU London Press Branch was prosecuted by the Newspaper Proprietors Association for breaching an injunction against the threatened strike, fined £350 and ordered to pay several thousand in court costs. Hundreds of NHS workers marched from St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London to the High Court in New Fetter Lane on the day of the hearing. The right wing Electricians Union were not happy with this act of solidarity and tried to break up the branch and discipline Geraghty.
  • 1986: A strike by News International printers here (& in Grays Inn Rd) triggered the 1986-7 Printers Dispute. Rupert Murdoch sacked 500 printers and moved his operations to Wapping, where his new plant was besieged for a year by printers & their allies. There were 24 hour mass pickets of News International buildings here during the year-long dispute.

Associated with the long history of printing and p