‘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, and 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 unties built. In 2010 one block (13018) was squatted as Urban HapHazard Squat. Some building around Sidworth Street and Mentmore Terrace are currently squatted, some with the knowledge/permission of the property owners.

Properties round here bough by 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

Lost Boys of the Lido | Ms Marmite Lover:

Hackney Society: New Lansdowne Club

The New Lansdowne Club in 3D

‘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…

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 publishing in Fleet Street and its surrounding streets, was a tradition of radical journalism, freethinking and political dissidence. That in itself would be more than one walk itself: here’s just some of the nearest examples…

Walk back Up to Tudor Street turn, back up to left Bouverie Street, turn right, up the hill to Number 4 ( Hazlitt House)

(located near the corner of Pleydell Street; the building has long since been demolished) was the Clarion office from May 1893 to January 1895. The Clarion was a leading independent socialist journal in the years before WW1, edited by Robert Blatchford until 1910. Founded in December 1891, it quickly became very popular, selling around 40,000 copies every week. Inspired by the paper, small local socialist propaganda groups began to spring up, most famously the Clarion Cycle Groups, which still exist today. Groups would go cycling around the country, spreading socialist ideas and distributing leaflets.  The Clarion group’s guiding ideas were set out in Blatchford’s ‘Merrie England’, serialised in the paper and published as a book in 1894. The paper began in Manchester, but the London office in Bouverie Street was established in April 1893, and production was moved to the capital. But the heart of the Clarion movement remained in the North, especially in West Yorkshire and South Lancashire.

(Not sure where these following buildings were located yet, probably all on the western side of Bouverie St)…

18 Bouverie Street

The International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA, or First International) General Council met in a room here from 9 January 1866 to 25 June 1867. The International was an alliance of political radicals, socialists and trade unions, in various countries, formed to forge international solidarity between working class organisations. At its height it claimed to represent 8 million workers in Europe and beyond. But the range of political ideas of those involved proved too diverse, and the International’s life was plagued by internal divisions. It eventually broke apart in 1872.
While meeting at Bouverie Street, the IWMA was extremely active, holding frequent public meetings, and successfully intervening in strikes. Many groups in Britain and abroad were also continually affiliating to the International at this time.

The room at no. 18 was the office of the Industrial Newspaper Company, founded in 1865, which bought the Workman’s Advocate (later The Commonwealth) to be used as the IWMA’s official journal. This plan failed to properly materialize, and the International and the Industrial Newspaper Company parted company in September 1866. The Board of Directors included Karl Marx, builders trade union leader George Odger, carpenters leader and later MP Robert Applegarth; Johann Eccarius (IWMA General Secretary 1867-71) was the first editor. Though the newspaper moved out, the room in Bouverie Street was kept for Council meetings; the building was also used at the time as the offices of The Nonconformist. No. 18 was rebuilt in the Interwar era as offices of the now defunct News Chronicle.

34 Bouverie Street

Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh’s Free Thought Publishing Company had premises here.

Bradlaugh was a leading secularist, questioning and campaigning against organised religion and attempting to establish greater rights for non-believers (eg. the right of atheists and religious fundamentalists to affirm in court cases which resulted in the Evidence Further Amendment Act 1869). Many radical groups that had survived the disappearance of Chartism became secular societies in the 1860s. In 1866 Bradlaugh founded the National Secular Society, becoming its first president, travelling the country to speak at secularist lectures debates.

He was also involved in radical polities, agitating for parliamentary reform, including proportional representation, a universal franchise and abolition of the House of Lords; the removal of restrictions on activities on Sundays; the disestablishment of the Church, land-law reform and Irish emancipation from English oppression. Bradlaugh’s politics were essentially liberal-radical; he opposed socialism, lecturing against it, and calling it an ‘alien’ creed, likely to lead to violent revolution, tyranny, censorship, lack of enterprise and economic stagnation. Nevertheless many secularists became socialists, including his longtime collaborator Annie Besant.

In 1880, Bradlaugh was elected MP for Northampton; because he refused to swear an oath by God, there followed a 6-year battle over his right to affirm, instead. In the course of this he was  barred from taking his seat in Parliament, arrested, physically thrown out of the Commons; and was even the last person to be imprisoned in a cell in the Clock Tower under Big Ben. Despite this he was re-elected at three by-elections.

In the 1870s Bradlaugh became the figurehead of a briefly strong Republican movement influenced by French and other European republican uprisings, and by the unpopularity of Queen Victoria.

The freethought movement split in the 1870s, as early socialists began to move away from the Liberal radicalism typified by Bradlaugh, his autocratic style, and his support for the Liberal party policy of ‘coercion’ in Ireland. Disputes broke out too over the issue of birth control, after Bradlaugh and Annie Besant republished Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy, a contraceptive manual, in 1876. They were arrested, tried and sentenced to six months’ gaol, but appealed and won on a legal technicality.

The Freethought Publishing Company’s office here was also an early editorial address for the anarchist paper Freedom, between October 1886 and 1888; but the Freedom group left as they disagreed with Bradlaugh over the ‘Chicago outrages’. Freedom was printed by the Socialist League in nearby Farringdon Road at this time.

Walk up to Fleet Street, turn right and down to corner of St Bride’s Avenue, turn right here, walk up to St Bride’s Church

The Roaring Girl

Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse, also known as the Roaring Girl, is buried here in an unmarked grave. She had lived for some time before at a house in Fleet Street, around the site of the present no 133, dying there aged 78 on 26 July 1659. Robber, adventurer, performer, she was said to have been born in 1589 in Aldersgate Street, the daughter of a shoemaker. Rejecting as a young girl what were seen as women’s occupations, she cut her hair, dressed in men’s clothes & hung out in taverns smoking & drinking… A popular pamphlet recounting her life claimed “She was above all breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig or hoyden, and delighted only in boys’ play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls… She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels. Her headgear and handkerchief (or what the fashion of those times was for girls to be dressed in) were alike tedious to her…” She was forced to do public penance for this behaviour in 1605. Relatives embarrassed by her tried to ship her off to New England, but she escaped, and became a cutpurse, robbing people’s purses in the street. “she entered herself into the Society of Divers, otherwise called file clyers, cutpurses or pickpockets ; which people are a kind of land pirates, trading altogether in other men’s bottoms for no other merchandise than bullion and ready coin, and they keep most of the great fairs and marts in the world… but having been very often in Old Bridewell, the Compters and Newgate for her irregular practices, and burnt in the hand four times, she left off this petty sort of theft, and went on the high way, committing many great robberies…”

In the meantime, she took a shop in Shoe Lane, and became a fence, receiving and selling stolen goods (mainly jewels, rings and watches). This was a common way for independent women to make a living, largely excluded as they from any skilled, paid work by urban guilds. Early modern working women found work where they could in London’s black economy of unregulated crafts and trades, becoming second-hand clothing dealers, pawnbrokers, peddlers, hawkers, tipplers, victuallers, and so forth. These ‘disorderly’ commercial practices were as common as they were frowned on by the guilds and City authorities: increasing guild restrictions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on female labour only pushed more women into this sector.

In her 60s Moll allegedly robbed Parliamentary Civil War supremo General Fairfax “of two hundred and fifty jacobuses on Hounslow Heath, shooting him through the arm for opposing her,” chased to Turnham Green, she was captured and carried her to Newgate.” (from where she is said to have escaped!)
She was buried in St Bride’s Church.

There’s a longer post on Moll Cutpurse coming soon on this blog…

While you’re there outside St Bride’s Church: The local tradition of radicalism is continued to this very day: just to your left at 88 Fleet Street is the Mayday Rooms: social centre, archive, office space for activists and shall trace unions and so much more… worth a visit when you can…

St Bride’s Avenue

Walk down the alley (St Bride’s Ave) to Bride Lane

Somewhere in Bride Lane was the Dispatch Coffee House. In the wake of the failure of the third Chartist petition to parliament to get a hearing, with general frustration at legal campaigning for political reform, amid street battles in London with the police, and revolutions breaking out all over Europe, small groups of ‘of physical force’ Chartists felt they could kick off a British revolution. In August 1848, Chartist plotters met here several times: they were however penetrated by police spies, and were arrested later in the month. Several were sentenced to transportation to Australia, and others jailed.

Walk back down Fleet Street to Ludgate Circus

The Fleet Bridge used to stand here, crossing a river at one time said to be nearly a hundred yards wide.

As early as 1290, the Fleet was described as impure, and hardly fit to drink: the prior of the Carmelite monastery in Whitefriars petitioned for it to be cleaned up, complaining that its noxious exhalations and miasmas had killed many of his monks as well as overpowering the odours of the incense used in their ceremonies. The Black Friars and the Bishop of Salisbury, (whose palace was off Fleet Street) also signed the petition.

If you fancy a diversion here, to the site of was once Ludgate Prison… cross Ludgate Circus, walk up Ludgate Hill to Old Bailey: the original Lud Gate stood here, the main entrance into the old City of London through the London Wall. Rooms above the Gate used to imprison petty offenders. In 1382, the Court of Aldermen decided to use Ludgate to hold those accused of “debts, trespasses, accounts and contempts”. Clergy and Freemen of the City in especial were jailed here. Some inmates were of relatively high standing, and in the main didn’t suffer the worst excesses of medieval incarceration. So much so in fact that the prison was accused of being too comfortable and becoming a centre of subversion (who was subverting what isn’t clear). In 1419, all the inmates were moved to Newgate, but overcrowding at the larger gaol caused many to soon be moved back. Conditions at Ludgate got worse, though, over the next two centuries… which may have led to the riot that took place here, in 1581. The Prison was destroyed in the Great Fire (when prisoners were being moved, some took the chance to leg it off into the night!); it was then rebuilt on same site, but the Gate and surrounding wall were knocked down in 1760 to improve traffic flow. The prisoners at this time were moved to the Bishopsgate Workhouse. Later wings at Giltspur St Compter and Whitecross Street debtors Prison were named after Ludgate.

Cross the bottom of Fleet Street, walk up Farringdon Street

Old Seacoal Lane (now just a short alley off Farringdon Street) recalls the wharves that used to line the New Fleet Canal.

On the East side of Farringdon Street, on the site of 5 Fleet Place, the first purpose-built gaol in London, the Fleet Prison, stood for 700 years. The first Fleet prison was built in Norman times on a tiny island in the River Fleet, just outside the city walls, the river providing a protective moat for a square tower.

Originally a City of London Prison, by the late fourteenth century it held prisoners from Westminster courts such as Common Pleas, the Exchequer and the Kings Council and Chancery, plus people who had pissed off the king or owed him money.

The Prison’s Keepers were royal appointees: a hereditary position, very profitable, with lots of money to be extorted from inmates. Warders below the Keeper also bought their positions (a low-ranking position cost £20, a fortune, in 1558), as they could also make a mint by selling every thing to prisoners. The screws received no wages, so had to extort every penny they could from those they guarded. Inmates with cash could obtain reasonably comfortable quarters, have good food and drink brought in; those convicts who couldn’t pay found themselves in the coldest, dampest cells, supplied with the roughest food etc.

Like all prisons, the Fleet was hated by the London poor. On 13th June 1381 the gaol was burned to the ground by revolting Kent peasants and London rebels, after they’d released all the prisoners. After the rebellion the Fleet had to be rebuilt.

In the era of dissent leading up to and through the English Civil war, the Fleet held inmates locked up for their political beliefs. From 1638 to 1640, radical Puritan activists William Prynne and later Leveller leader John Lilburne, were held here, having been arrested for publishing and distribute puritan books attacking the state-sponsored Anglican Church. At Whitsun 1639, Lilburne sent out an appeal to his fellow apprentices, in the form of a pamphlet thrown among holidaying apprentices in Moorfields, asking them to a campaign for a public trial for him… As a result they marched to riot outside Lambeth Palace in support of him, attacking Archbishop Laud.

The Fleet held Leveller leaders and other political prisoners during the English revolution.

In 1666, like most City prisons it burned down in the Great Fire.

Hogarth’s engraving of Tom Rakehell in the Fleet Prison

Filth, disease, torture and daily extortion here led to a petition to parliament for relief of debtors in the Fleet. In 1691 Moses Pitt published The Cry of the Oppressed during his incarceration here (the authorities tried to suppress the publication). One abuse he complained of was the unique right of creditors to apply to have prisoners transferred to the Fleet from other prisons. Fleet screws would routinely bribe creditors to provide fresh pickings for them in this way.

Pitt’s pleas changed nothing, for thirty years later things were running much the same. One Keeper, Thomas Bambridge in the 1720s, was so blatantly corrupt and sadistic that he was officially accused of extortion, and that he had “arbitrarily and unlawfully loaded with irons, put into dungeons and destroyed prisoners for debt”. The authorities may have been more worried that he had taken money to allow escapes and even provided a special door for the purpose; also that a couple of his victims weren’t poor nobodies. Sir William Rich, unable to pay for better conditions in the jail, was threatened with a poker, then shackled and thrown into a freezing hole above an open sewer. Robert Castell, scholarly author of The Villas of the Ancients Illustrated, died after being forced to sleep in a sponging-house where smallpox was rife, even though he begged the Warden for mercy.

The ensuing outcry sparked a parliamentary investigation what was going on in the Fleet, uncovering a catalogue of brutality, incompetence and corruption. It was admitted by Bambridge’s predecessor ‘that so many prisoners had escaped, during the time he was warden, that it was impossible to enumerate them.’ Healthy women had been forced into smallpox wards; casual cruelty was an everyday occurrence. When the Committee moved on to look at the Marshalsea and King’s Bench, they found things to be much the same. Investigating the overall management of London’s prisons, they uncovered a Byzantine web of lets and sublets, transfers of ownership and corrupt charities.

Thomas Bambridge before the Parliamentary Committee, by Hogarth

The Prisons Committee had been painted at the Fleet by a rising young artist called William. Hogarth. Hogarth’s sketch caught the moment when Bambridge was brought face to face with his accusers.

Bambridge was tried but acquitted, leading to such strong anger that parliament framed an act to sack him. But despite the horrific descriptions of torture and brutality they took no action. Not even the Prisons Committee could break the inertia of the House of Commons. The hours of evidence and cross examination, the long reports to Parliament and stories in the press, still didn’t result in any reforms. (Bambridge, incidentally, cut his throat in his Chambers at Paper Buildings on Fleet Street in 1741, so something good came out of it.)

On 6 June 1780, the Fleet was stormed by the Gordon Rioters, who freed all the inmates – bar some who asked politely for time to get their stuff together and find somewhere to go, having been inside for years. The crowd decided not to burn the prison that day, but came back the next day instead! A fire engine that arrived to put out the flames was also set on fire. Prisoner George Sussex, said later that he observed a man in the gallery of the prison pouring a flammable liquid onto the floor and another man in a sailor’s jacket setting it alight; in about two minutes the gallery was aflame from end to end. A company of Light Dragoons arrived and opened fire, (killing up to a hundred rioters according to one source, but only one, according to another?!). Passing rich folk in coaches were stopped and money demanded from them – in the Fleet Market, the Duke of Gloucester, the King’s brother, was held up and robbed as the Prison burned.

Though it was rebuilt after 1780, conditions didn’t substantially improve… Reformer John Howard condemned it as crowded and dirty; he was surprised  by the scandalous neglect of all discipline, and  the shameful violation of all morality.

The Liberty of the Fleet arose from the late fourteenth century, when prisoners could get the day out if they posted bail or were accompanied by a warder (obviously for a fee…) This grew into a custom that instead of residing in the cells, prisoners could take lodgings in neighbouring houses, so long as they paid the Keeper. This Liberty grew to be a mile and a half across; both in and around the prison, people sheltered from creditors, who were legally barred from pursuing them there; if you had some cash you could live it up, with sports, games, drink etc. In 1820, inmate Robert Mackay became world rackets champion.

Fleet marriages

For a while the Fleet also gave its name to marriages. People could get married Fleet marriages were cheap, and could be performed at any time, without banns or licenses, and without a clergyman. This was especially useful for women friends of sailors; a wife could receive his wages if he vanished or died, where an unofficial companion couldn’t. Women also married insolvent debtors here, to clear their own debts. The only feasible kind of wedding for much of the London poor, with useful economic advantages, the institution was hated and denounced by the authorities, and was abolished in 1753.

The Fleet Prison was closed in 1842 during prison reforms, including the ending of imprisonment for debt, and the building finally demolished in 1846.

The Congregational Memorial Hall

On the site of the old Fleet prison, the Congregational Memorial Hall was built.

Erected in 1872 by Congregationalists as an administrative centre, to commemorate dissenting churches, and the bicentenery of the Act of Uniformity, which forced many ministers to leave the Anglican Church, the Hall became a venue for the labour movement and left groups (many of whose members came from religious non-conformist backgrounds).

In 1881, the founding conference of the Democratic Federation (later renamed the Social Democratic Federation), was held here. Henry Mayers Hyndman took the chair. The founder members were a disparate body of radicals, former Chartists, Irish MPs and a few socialists. Radicalism dominated the program adopted, which included home rule for Ireland, nationalisation of the land, abolition of the House of Lords (but not, after Hyndman objected, the monarchy), and above all adult suffrage and other parliamentary reforms. Hyndman distributed copies of his book England for All, whose title implied the nationalism which bogged down the SDF for the rest of its existence.

Independent Labour Party Annual Conferences were held here in the early 1900s (the ILP in particular was formed by non-conformists).

The Labour Representation Committee, later renamed the Labour Party, was founded here on 27 February 1900, at a TUC congress, to bring together all left-wing organisations into a single body that would sponsor Parliamentary candidates. The meeting was attended by a broad spectrum of working-class and left-wing organisations — trades unions represented about one third of the membership of the TUC delegates

After a debate, the 129 delegates passed Hardie’s motion to establish “a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour.” This created an association called the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), meant to coordinate attempts to support MPs sponsored by trade unions and represent the working-class population.[9] It had no single leader, and in the absence of one, the Independent Labour Party nominee Ramsay MacDonald was elected as Secretary.

Labour had a mixed heritage right from the start: dominated by the trade unions that founded it, with all their confused heritage.

It was always a broad church, half opportunist leadership, half a working class membership; basically reformist, yes, but involvement in local councils, education, etc, did make a huge contribution to an evolution of people’s working lives.

On the other hand… much of this was pressure from below, or hashed up half-baked reforms to stave off revolt. And the constant betrayals, compromises, nationalist rubbish, introducing of immigration controls, supporting wars and promoting imperialism, disempowering people’s self-activity, succumbing to corruption, graft, paternalistic contempt… From signing up to the slaughter of World War 1, calling in the troops on strikers from their very first spell in government (not to mention any number of times during their most radical period in power, after WW2), to New Labour adopting Thatcherism with a yuppie face and dancing off to dismember the Middle east (again)… On the other hand there’s little doubt that much of the welfare state, social housing, the NHS which made such a massive difference to us all, reformist or not, owed a great deal to the impetus from grassroots support from Labour activists.

The party tends to spasm from left to right. Now, of course, we are experiencing a rightist rebound from a leftward surge. Without wishing to engage in posturing, we desire much more than we will ever get from Labour. What is sad in many ways is the eternal renewals of faith in the party’s somewhat bankrupt structures, given new shots of life in every generation. Since Labour always disappoints, the big question is what forms the disillusion of the thousands currently flocking to sing Corbyn’s praises takes, now that brief dream has turned sour.

In 1920, the Hands Off Russia Committee was also founded here. The syndicalist London Workers’ Committee, the British Socialist Party, Socialist Labour Party and Industrial Workers of the World united to oppose Britain’s military intervention in revolutionary Russia. 350 delegates were present, calling for a general strike. The Movement achieved some success, with dockers blocking ships destined for the Russian campaign in 1920, which helped to force the British government to pull troops out of the attack on the young Soviet Union.

Just prior to the May 1926 General Strike, a meeting of 800 delegates from trade unions assembled on 29th April to prepare for what now seemed like an inevitable strike… However they failed to do any real preparations at all, unlike the government, who had been getting ready for a year. This lack of preparation signalled the reluctance of the TUC to launch the Strike, which was to be called off after nine days in total capitulation.

Congregational Memorial Hall was demolished in the 1960s.

Carrying on Up Farringdon Street

On 1 November 1932, fighting between unemployed and cops spread to Farringdon Street; workers armed themselves with ammo from a local building site. This was part of a long running war in the streets between cops and unemployed, especially members of the National Unemployed Workers Movement: November ’32 saw particularly vicious battles all over the country.

Walk up to the “spectacularly ugly office block” on the east side of the road, right next to the Holborn Viaduct.

27 Farringdon Street used to stand here. This was the Socialist League head office, December 1884 to June 1885. The Socialist League was initially a broad-ranging socialist organisation, formed from a sizable minority who split from the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in December 1884, including William Morris, Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, her partner Edward Aveling, and others, disillusioned with HM Hyndman’s domination of the SDF, his opportunism, jingoism and dogmatic rigidity. The League commenced a campaign of ‘making socialists’ through public meetings, open air speaking and its paper ‘Commonweal’. But although united in their opposition to Hyndman, the organisation bound together proto-anarchists and independent anti-parliamentary socialists and communists like the influential William Morris, with some pro-parliamentary socialists, including Eleanor Marx, Aveling, and Belfort Bax, mainly in the Bloomsbury branch. This inbuilt contradiction led to three years of infighting…

The League rented their premises here in a small building next to the viaduct, on 29th December 1884, the Monday after the splitters had walked out of a SDF executive committee meeting. From here the Socialist League’s journal, The Commonweal, was first issued in February 1885.

Somewhere here was no 41 Farringdon Street, which once housed The Agnostic Journal, edited by ‘Saladin’ – self-styled master of the rapier of words – the pen-name of William Stewart Ross. Ross went to Glasgow University when he was twenty-one to study for the Church. He soon found this was not his vocation. He did not find the subject agreeable, and the professors found him rather disagreeable. He was quick with his tongue, which got him into much trouble, and fluent with his pen, which got him a living. He became a freelance writer, and freethinker. Guy Aldred, who grew up locally, and later became a famed communist-anarchist as well as atheist speaker and writer, was later influenced by’Saladin’ around 1905. ‘Saladin’ died in 1906.

Carry on up to 83a Farringdon Street, In the 1860s, Emily Faithfull’s Victoria Press moved here from Great Corum Street, Bloomsbury, where it was founded in 1860.They were a women’s printers and publishers: all the staff were women, including printers and compositors, unique at the time when women were largely excluded from these jobs. They published the Victoria Magazine, and were part of the group that produced the English Women’s Journal, the first English feminist journal, and linked to the Langham Place feminist group… Also involved in the Society for Promoting Women’s Employment, a campaigning group designed to encourage women’s employment. However it was mainly concerned with middle class women, as the groups were all from fairly well-off backgrounds – their concern for working class women, expressed in the Journal, was largely philanthropic. 19th century liberal politics dominated their outlook socially and economically.

Emily Faithfull had to distance herself from the Victoria Press in 1867, after she was cited in a divorce case and suspected of being a lesbian (horror!). She continued to be active in women’s publishing and printing, and in trade unionism.

Old Holborn Bridge

Stop under the Viaduct

Up the Heavy Hill

”Oh I went up Holborn Hill, in a cart, in a cart,
Oh I went up Holborn Hill, in a cart.
Oh I went up Holborn Hill,
And was there I made my will,
For the best of friends must part,
So must I, so must I,
For the best of friends must part,
So must I…”

(from the song Sam Hall, about a thief going off to be hanged)

Before the building of the Viaduct in 1869 the steep sides of the Fleet valley descending to the ‘Holborn bridge’ here, were sometimes called “the Heavy Hill”.

The ritual processions from Newgate to Tyburn, of those being taken to be hanged, passed this way; thus “riding in a cart up the Heavy Hill” became one of numerous slang terms for being hanged.

“Filth of all hues and odours”

The Fleet was navigable by ships up to here and beyond, at least until the sixteenth century, though by 1603 it had become blocked up.

Some historians believe the Fleet was navigable even further north than Kings Cross. Reputedly an anchor was pulled from the river at the Elephant & Castle pub, where Pancras Road meets Royal College Street and St Pancras Way.

The Fleet Ditch

As mentioned earlier, by the thirteenth century the river had become extremely polluted. In 1307 it was reported that “in times past the course of the water… had beene of such breadth and depth that 10 or 12 ships… were wont to come to the foresaid bridge of Fleete and some of them to Oldbourne Bridge: now the same course by filth of tanners and such others was sore decaied.” Holborn or Oldbourne bridge spanned the river roughly where the modern viaduct stands.

On the petition of the earl of Lincoln, the constable of the Tower, with the mayor and sheriffs of London, were directed by writ to take with them certain ‘honest and discreet men to inquire into the former state of the river, to leave nothing that might hurt or stop it,’ and restore it to its original condition.

Bathing in the Flee. Not a massively good idea…

Mills and wharfs had been built which had narrowed the course and diverted some of the water. The stream was repeatedly dredged and cleansed, and the mills removed, but the Fleet was soon clogged and filthy again: every thirty to forty years it had to be scoured again, at great expense to the City of London.
It gradually became a foul stinking mess, an open sewer known as the Fleet Ditch, famous for its large quantities of dead dogs; and filled with all kinds of human waste, the regular discharge of the local privies and household washing; chemicals from artisan workshops like tanneries, including faeces (a key ingredient of the tanning process was dog turds) and dyers’ vats; gunge from mills on the Turnmill Brook; the offal from the local butchers of Saffron Hill and the discarded remains of the slaughterhouses of Smithfield’s meat market – all combining to become a black putrefying sludge with a stench to take the breath away.

Jonathan Swift described the Fleet in the 1700s in his City Showers:

“Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odours seem to tell
What streets they sailed from by their sight and smell


Seepings from Butchers’ stalls, dung, guts and blood;
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all dressed in mud,
Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the food.”

In the late sixteenth century a plan to use the Fleet to bring clean water to the City (in sore need of fresh water supplies at this time…) fell through as the pollution was too great. (Hence the digging of the New River in 1609.)

Many slums and rookeries grew up along the river’s banks; hundreds of poor people crowded in garrets, sub-divided rooms in densely built up alleys, some so narrow a horse couldn’t turn round.

The Fleet became a popular literary image of decay and filth, and its neighbours were pictured as the lowest of the low.

In the “Dunciad,” Alexander Pope, ‘lashing the poorer of his enemies’, drives them headlong past Bridewell to the mud-pools of the Fleet—

“To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames,
The king of dykes! than whom   no sluice of mud
With deeper sable blots the silver flood.
‘Here strip, my children! here at once leap in,

Here prove who best can dash through thick and thin,
And who the most in love of dirt excel,
Or dark dexterity of groping well.
Who flings most filth, and wide pollutes around
The stream, be his the weekly journals bound;
A pig of lead to him who dives the best;
A peck of coals a-piece shall glad the rest.’”

(Whether or not ‘social reformers’ ever used Fleet as metaphor for the mob, Pope certainly here uses it, as one for the crap writers, booksellers and gutter-journalists and he was attacking in verse).

However John Gay, in his “Trivia; or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London,” makes the Fleet sounds much more pleasant:

“If where Fleet Ditch with muddy current flows
You chance to roam; where oyster-tubs in rows
Are ranged beside the posts; there stay thy haste,
And with the savoury fish indulge thy taste:
The damsel’s knife the gaping shell commands,
While the salt liquor streams between her hands.”

Up to the corner of West Smithfield and Snow Hill

Farringdon Hall, Kings Arms Yard, Snow Hill: Previously a shirt factory, this seems to have been the offices of the Cooperative League, a communist organisation active in the late 1840s.

A ‘Communist conference’ was held here in 1848, very likely of Utopian Communists, followers of Robert Owen, advocates of communes and workers’ cooperation. This area of London was a stronghold of the followers of Robert Owen, and of co-ops in the early to mid-19th Century. In the early 1820s, houses at the corner of Bagnigge Wells Road (now Kings Cross Road) and Guildford Street East (now Attneave Street), just up the hill from here, were home to the ‘Spa Fields Congregational Families’. From 1821-24, 21 families lived in a community, pooling their resources and wages, Mainly artisans, such as haberdashers and cobblers, the residents, members of Scotsman George Mudie’s ‘Cooperative and Economical Society’, shared communal domestic arrangements, with a hall for eating and socialising together, they also set up their own health care system, a school, co-operative store, and a printing press. The commune ended after only three years when when Mudie was forced to leave or lose his outside editorial job.
Ten years later the nearby Grays Inn Road Institute, behind 277 Grays Inn Road was home to the Owenite Institution of the Industrious Classes, the first Owenite organisation of the era, from 1831 to 1833. The Institute set up a ‘National Equitable Labour Exchange’, where workers’ goods could be exchanged at their ‘real’ labour value via ‘labour notes’.

“Smithfield: A rude vast place”

Originally a wide grassy ‘Smooth field’ just outside the City wall, Smithfield proved an ideal open space for dealing in livestock – horses, and especially cattle. As this market, and the accompanying slaughterhouses and butchers’ stalls, grew up, so the surrounding area became famous for unruly, drunken behaviour. As early as the eleventh century, the area was famed for its rowdiness: West Smithfield was nicknamed ‘Ruffians Hall’. The open space was also handy for hosting sporting gatherings and fairs – as well as executions; where “cows might be sold for slaughter and men slaughtered for religion”. As well as the inevitable disorder that came with the holding of tournaments, fairs, markets and the like, the constant meeting and intermingling of people helped radical social, religious and political ideas to spread: subversive religious and political ideas bubbled under here for centuries.

Later the great market square of Smithfield enclosed the area between St Bartholomew’s Hospital and the ancient church of St Bartholomew the Great, and industry, trading, abattoirs dominated; mingled with slums, as poor people with little choice as to where to live crowded the local rookeries.

Smithfield has had a long association with both radicalism and rebellion, and with public execution and punishment.

On 15th June 1381, the Peasants Revolt climaxed here. At a second meeting between the king and the peasant rebels, Wat Tyler argued for equality for all, a land with no lords, no clergy, no serfs, but equality under God and the king, with the church’s wealth to be distributed among the poor, and an end to men being outlawed… As the king prevaricated, there was a scuffle & Tyler was stabbed by the Lord Mayor, William Walworth. To prevent the rebels massacring them for this, the king promised them all their demands if they would go home. Tyler meanwhile, carried wounded to Bart’s Hospital, was seized by Walworth’s followers & beheaded in Smithfield. The next day the remaining rebels were surrounded in Clerkenwell, and over the following months a number were executed and most of the king’s promises broken.

Smithfield was a haunt of radical religious reformers the Lollards. Initially inspired by theologian John Wycliffe (see Blackfriars, above), the Lollards called for reform of the church, questioned its immense wealth, and challenged orthodox doctrine, such as transubstantiation (the Catholic idea that the host used in Mass actually became the body of Jesus during the service) and the use of the Cross as a symbol. Lollards also promoted the equality of the sexes including women preachers. Lollard lay preachers spread these ideas, wandering the English countryside, preaching a new reformed Christian doctrine, based on the reading of the Holy Scripture in English as the means for knowing the true Word of God, on each individual’s personal faith rather than the hierarchical word of the priest.

Early support from the wealthy classes (who had wanted to reduce the power and the wealth of the Church in England for their own reasons) waned as the Church increased its campaign against the Lollards, their supporters, and their policies. Many prominent Lollards, especially former Oxford students, were arrested and sent to prison. Lollards became subject to the new statute De Haeretico Comburendo (1401) which introduced the burning of heretics in England. The Lollard Bible was banned in 1407. Many Lollard congregations met in secret, especially in rural areas.

The Wrestler-in-the-Hoop Tavern, Smithfield was identified by the authorities as a hangout of Lollards; it stood somewhere near St Sepulchre’s Church (the junction of Snow Hill and Holborn Viaduct). In October 1413, having escaped from the Tower of London, after being condemned to death for heresy, Lollard leader Sir John Oldcastle, an aristocratic dissident, hid out at the home of William Fisher (See Turnmill Street, below). (He also may have hidden at the Wrestler-in-the-Hoop in January 1414). He made plans for a desperate uprising of Lollards against persecution, sending out word to Lollards all over the land, to march to London & meet him at Temple Bar on January 9/10th; meanwhile he & some London heretics planned to kidnap the king & his brothers. A few days later, though, the tiny Lollard ‘army’ was routed at St Giles Fields: Oldcastle and several others were captured, and executed.

“to heaven in a chariot of fire”

Smithfield’s large open space outside the City, and fame as a gathering space, made it ideal for use as a public execution ground, mainly for criminals, rebels, and especially religious heretics and dissenters.

It may have been chosen not simply because it was a convenient large open space. Those in power had complex psychological reasons for designating where executions and public punishments should take place. Streets or junctions with great symbolic resonance, centres of public discussion and meeting places, were useful; the memory (and thus the public example, to teach others a lesson) could then have a greater impact. Criminals were also often put to death or punished at, or near, the site of their crime. But an additional incentive to use Smithfield may well have been its proximity to troublesome slums and liberties, areas where many heretics, rebels, and criminals were identified as inhabiting – partly to overawe the poor, and deter people from following the bad examples of the executed.

Scots independence leader William Wallace, fighting to overthrow the English king Edward I’s brutal rule of Scotland, was one of the earliest to be publicly executed here, in 1305. Having masterminded a stubborn and ingenious guerilla war, Wallace was captured in 1305. On 23rd August he was dragged here, from his trial for treason in Westminster, strapped to a wooden hurdle, then hanged from a gallows, ‘drawn’ (ie cut down), and disemboweled and beheaded. His body was cut in to pieces and displayed on spikes – the head on London Bridge and body parts at four castles in Scotland and Northern England.

Heresy, religious and political dissidence was however the main ‘crime’ likely to lead you to an early death here. From the fifteenth century, the penalty for holding unorthodox religious views was being burned alive.
Many Lollards suffered execution at Smithfield; probably partly due to the area’s known reputation for Lollard sympathies.

In 1401, William Sawtrey, a Norfolk priest, became the first Lollard martyr. He had developed doubts about church practices and dogma, and was arrested in Norfolk in 1399, but recanted and was released. Shortly after this, though, he moved to London, and got into trouble again for preaching his unorthodox views. Arrested, questioned and condemned for eight counts of heresy, he was burnt at the stake in Smithfield in March 1401. His death caused many of the early Lollards to recant their views (at least publicly.)

Lollard tailor or blacksmith John Badby was burned here in 1410; condemned for denying transubstantiation. According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs “when he felt the fire, he cryed, mercy (calling belike vpon the Lorde” ) and the prince of Wales (later king Henry V, a fanatical persecutor of the Lollards), who was present, ordered the fire put out, and offered him his life and a pension if he would recant. But Badby, “neglectyng the princes fayre wordes, as also contempnyng all mennes deuises, refused the offer of worldly promises, no doubt, but beyng more vehemently inflamed with the spirite of God then with any earthly desire.” So they relit the fire and burnt him.

John Claydon was put to death here in 1415, for possessing seditious Lollard books, texts which the Mayor of London called  “the worst and most perverse he ever did read or see’”. Executed with Claydon was his friend George Gurmeyn; the two had often discussed matters of faith together.

William Taylor, a priest, was also burned here in 1422. Having escaped death four years earlier by publicly recanting his views, he was arrested again in 1419, kept imprisoned for three years, then ‘martyred’.

Thomas Bagley, Vicar of Manuden in Essex, described as “a valiant disciple and adherent of Wicliffe”, was burned for heresy in 1431.

After two attempted uprisings in 1414 and 1431, Lollardy gradually dwindled to small fugitive conclaves in the countryside. The Church continued for a hundred years to try to root it out.
Joan Broughton became the first female martyr in medieval England when she was burned here on the 28th April 1494, after being convicted of holding Lollard views.
October 1511 Smithfield saw two more Lollards, William Succling and John Bannister, burned; seven years later, in September 1518, they were followed by John Schlincen (who had previously recanted his views but backslid) and James Brewster from Colchester.

When religious dissent and division was renewed in the sixteenth century, Smithfield was revived as a punishment ground. Henry VIII burnt early Lutheran protestants and other dissenters here, such as Richard Bayfield, one of those who helped William Tyndale translate the Bible into English (considered heretical at the time) and helped to circulate it clandestinely. He was tortured, then burned in December 1531. John Frith, another associate of Tyndale, who had advocated religious toleration and rejected persecution, transubstantiation and purgatory, was executed here together with an associate, Andrew Hewitt, in July 1533.

John Tewkesbury was burned here around the same time for either distributing or merely reading Tyndale’s bible, after being tortured until he was nearly dead.

John Forest was burned here around 1533, for rejecting ‘Ennery’s break with the pope and refusing to recognize him as head of the church.  But protestants also continued to be burned – Henry himself mainly held to catholic dogma, although he had imposed a new structure with himself as figurehead instead of the pope.

In 1532 Richard Rose was roasted to death in an iron cauldron over a slow fire (taking two hours to die) for allegedly poisoning gruel intended for the household of he Bishop of Rochester (though whether he meant to knock off the Bish himself is unclear).

In 1538 one Collins was “burned to ashes, amidst a vast crowd”, for satirizing church service, having lifted his dog above his head, in mockery of a priest lifting up the sacrament during the mass. No, really. It doesn’t seem to have been fully determined whether Collins was enraged at Catholic ritual, or mad (as he was thought to be) or perhaps maybe pissed, but it was decided to murder him horribly anyway.

And the psychopathic spasms of religious ecstasy continue:

In 1540 the authorities excelled themselves by having three catholics (Thomas Abell, Richard Fetherston and Edward Powell) AND three protestants (Cuthbert Barnes, Thomas Garret and William Jerome) killed here, even saving on time and expense by having one of each bound together, dragged through the streets on hurdles and roasted. Possibly they were hoping for some fine theological debate between the two differing sectarians as their heads bounced off the cobbles. Who knows.

Anne Askew was an English poet and Protestant burned here in 1546. From a noble family, unhappily married against her will, she had preached in London against transubstantiation and distributed banned Protestant books, for which she was arrested, released, arrested again, and tortured on the rack in an attempt to force her to name other Protestants. Though crippled by torture she named no-one else. It’s thought there were a number of protestant groups operating clandestinely in the capital at this time, an underground network of which Anne was a part. Some of the supporters of these groups may have been London apprentices, who had a history of involvement with religious and political dissidents, and some of whom expressed solidarity with Anne.
Anne was carried to her execution on 16th July 1546 in a chair, being unable to walk after being racked; burned, or as one commentator put it “she went to heaven in a chariot of fire.”

The Burning of John Rogers, 1555

Joan Bocher (aka Joan Boucher or Butcher, Joan Knell or Joan of Kent) was an English Anabaptist burned here for heresy. Associated with Baptists and Anabaptists in Kent, some of them immigrants who had fled persecution in the Netherlands, in the 1530s and 1540s she was “much in favour in reforming circles” in Canterbury, and preached against the sacrament of the altar, for which she was briefly imprisoned. Later said to have been friends with Anne Askew and involved in smuggling Tyndale’s New Testament into England, Joan was arrested as a heretic in 1548 and convicted in April 1549. After refusing to recant she was burned at the stake here on 2 May 1550.

Fifty-six of the 280-odd protestants put to death in the reign of Catholic queen Mary ended their lives here, including the first, John Rogers, minister, Bible translator and commentator, burned in February 1555.

Seven protestants (John Tydson, Thomas Whittle, John Went, Thomas Brown, Isabel Foster, Joan Lushford and Bartlet Green) were burned here on one day in January 1556.
There seem to have been some protests at some 1550s executions, with large crowds of sympathizers attending many burnings (a bit of direct action might have been somewhat more pro-active though, eh; although I suppose these martyr-types sometimes prefer to die than be rescued).
Unsurprisingly since protestants could expect to be burned if caught, small congregations resorted to meeting in secret. Several were raided though, and participants ended up on the Smithfield pyres, in 1556-58; for instance, John Rough and Margaret Mearing, burned on 22nd December 1557, and Cuthbert Simpson, burned 28th March 1558 (after being racked), had been arrested at a clandestine meeting in the Saracen’s Head inn in Islington. In April 1558, forty men and women were seized at a nighttime protestant meeting in an Islington field. Half of them were sent to Newgate Prison, of whom thirteen, refusing to attend catholic mass, seven of these were burned at Smithfield in June. Despite a proclamation read by the Sheriff of London, threatening arrest and punishment for anyone showing support, a large and sympathetic crowd assembled, shouting and protesting at the executions.

Where support for reforming and fringe religious sects was to be found, can also be glimpsed in the professions given for some of those burned – for instance, 19-year old apprentice John Leaf, burned in July 1555. Apprentices, as mentioned above, were notable for their support of early Protestantism; as were weavers, and two weavers at least, Thomas Tomkins of Shoreditch (put to death at Smithfield in May 1555) and John Cavel (burned in April the following year). Other trades represented include two fullers, Thomas Spurge and George Ambrose, and a shearman, Richard Spurge, all burned April 1556.

“that detestable sect”

One of the main groups to suffer execution here were Anabaptists.

Anabaptist is used as a general terms to describe some 40 independent sects, holding widely varied views, at the beginning of the Radical Reformation (1520-1580). It was not a centralised or homogeneous sect; and many dissenters were lumped together and persecuted under the Anabaptist label, accurately or not.  Even the name (meaning “rebaptiser”) was generally one used by their enemies as a term of abuse: some groups used the term Brethren to describe themselves. By 1525, Anabaptist congregations had spread across most of German speaking Europe. Rejecting both the corrupt practices of the Roman Church, and the new reformed Protestant Churches, they sought instead to re-establish communities based on their conception of early Christian congregations. They often disregarded both religious ceremonies or complex theological questions, preferring to emphasise ‘the inspired Word of God, and a love for their fellow man’. They radically opposed established churches: rejecting the traditional practice of baptising babies into the church, instead practising adult baptism, as a conscious pledge of faith.

Many preached the separation of the Church and State, the abolishment of any State religion, or rejected the State completely and opposed wars; members were fined or imprisoned for refusing to pay taxes, take up arms or for acts of civil disobedience.

Many also preached free will, complete religious freedom based on a literal Bible, and the total independent control of their own congregations and electing of their own clergy, often shunning contact with the corrupted ‘worldly society’ outside their own communities.

A few Anabaptist leaders preached that a Millennium of the Saints, a golden time when Jesus would return, was at hand, and more militant congregations started to prepare to overthrow the current ungodly and corrupted society. Some militant Anabaptist groups developed into quasi-communistic communities. Anabaptist uprisings took place in Europe, notably in the German town of Münster in 1532-35. Both Catholic and Protestant Europe raised armies to oust these militant Anabaptists, capturing Münster in 1535. A general persecution followed throughout Europe against all Anabaptists. By 1540, most of the early Anabaptist leaders were imprisoned or executed, but persecutions against Anabaptists continued across Europe into the 1580s.

Anabaptists were active in London, many followers of Melchior Hoffman, who came to England in the 1530s from the Netherlands. Both English and foreign Anabaptists in England were persecuted under Henry VIII. In May 1535, twenty-five Dutch Anabaptists were examined at St. Paul’s for ‘heretical’ views fourteen were condemned. Two were burned at Smithfield on 8th June 1535. On 24 November four Dutch Anabaptists recanted publicly, but five days later three were burned at Smithfield: Jan Mathijsz van Middelburg, a well-known Anabaptist leader in the Low Countries, and Peter Franke and his wife, a young couple from Bruges in Flanders.

Under Queen Elizabeth I Anabaptist activity openly revived; as did Church and Crown presecution. The Crown was busy trying to keep control of all religious dissidents, perceived as potential problems to the State and to the Crown. In 1575, twenty-seven German and Flemish Anabaptists were arrested in London. Accused of heresy, eleven were convicted and condemned to be burned at the stake. Queen Elizabeth then commuted the sentences of nine of those condemned, banishing them instead of executing them. But the last two, John Wielmacker (also known as Jan Pieters) and Hendrick Ter Woort, were burned at the stake at Smithfield on July 22nd, 1575.

Under James I similar policies were continued, but Anabaptist influences continued. Bartholomew Legate or Legatt, dealer in cloth, and his two brothers, Walter and Thomas, from Essex, were active in and around London ca. 1590-1612, and were cited as having Anabaptist beliefs, rejecting the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and their rituals. The brothers’ views probably influenced the emergence of the sect known as the Seekers. In 1611, Bartholomew and Thomas were imprisoned for heresy: Thomas died in Newgate Prison, Bartholomew was tried in February 1612, was found guilty of heresy, and refusing to retract his opinions, burnt at the stake at Smithfield on 18 March 1612. He was the last person burned in London for his religious opinions, (Edward Wightman, burned at Lichfield a month later, was the last to suffer in this way in England.) After 1612 most heretics were simply sent to prison and there left to rot.

Catholics also fuelled the Smithfield fires. Nicholas Horner was burned here in March 1590 for harbouring a fugitive catholic priest.

Although we might think all religious belief is basically medieval, and killing people for minor doctrinal differences in alien, even laughable (if it wasn’t so tragic) obviously the desire to impose faith on others by force is hardly a dead issue in modern times… Some of the burned might have burned others in their turn, if they had the upper hand. But probably the majority of people executed here were trying to work out some control over their own lives through the language and framework they knew, ie faith, and in many cases religious dissent either contained within it or masked social and political rebelliousness, or was itself directly challenging to the state. Many others were just (usually poor) people who were either wrong-footed by the rapid turnover of regimes and official religions under the Tudors, who simply continued to believe in what they had always been told to think (on penalty of everlasting fire), or merely expressed their own mind to the wrong person/made an ‘inappropriate’ joke. Either way really Smithfield represents a site of abomination. The Christian whingers and tabloid godblatherers who today bleat about ‘aggressive secularism’ might want to reflect that there is a huge deficit on the account, which remains unpaid, though there’s never a wrong time to burn a church or two.

Heretics weren’t the only people to suffer burning here – at least one woman (whose name isn’t given) was burned here as late as 1674 for clipping coins.

Smithfield also contained a pillory, where lesser ‘offenders’ were locked and exposed to physical and verbal abuse from passers-by. In at least one case, the pilloried person was subjected to a kind of popular execution. James Egan, Stephen McDaniel, James Berry and James Salmon had made a dubious living as ‘thief-takers’, effectively self-employed informers, by conspiring to frame innocent people for various crimes, (often by luring them into some plot they themselves had concocted) and claiming reward money. They sent at last four people they sent to the gallows, but they were finally exposed and arrested themselves, in 1756, and sentenced to seven years imprisonment, after a spell in the pillory. McDaniel and Berry were pilloried at Hatton Garden and beaten nearly to death. Egan and Salmon were exhibited at Smithfield on March 5th 1756; very quickly an angry crowd gathered and beat and stoned them, threw dead dogs and cats at them (!), fighting off some constables who tried to intervene. Egan died from his injuries. Few local people would have objected to such community justice

Executions and pillorying ended at Smithfield at the end of the eighteenth century.

“In March, 1849, during excavations necessary for a new sewer, and at a depth of three feet below the surface, immediately opposite the entrance to the church of St. Bartholomew-the-Great, the workmen laid open a mass of unhewn stones, blackened as if by fire, and covered with ashes and human bones, charred and partially consumed. This was believed to have been the spot generally used for the Smithfield burnings, the face of the victim being turned to the east and to the great gate of St. Bartholomew, the prior of which was generally present on such occasions. Many bones were carried away as relics. Some strong oak posts were also dug up; they had evidently been charred by fire, and in one of them was a staple with a ring attached to it. The place and its former history were too significant for any doubt to exist as to how they had been once used.”

Wander up West Smithfield, to the end of Long Lane and Lindsey Street

“a dangerous sink for all the vices of London: Bartholomew Fair”

Bartholomew Fair used to be held here: the fairground lay along the south side of Long Lane. Begun in 1133, and lasting until 1855, this was the most prominent and infamous London fair for centuries; a riotous outpouring of popular culture, feared and despised by those in power. It was held mid-late August, the traditional time for rowdy fairs (marking of old the end of the working year, when labourers could leave one employer and hire on with another).

Originally it opened on the 24 August – St Bartholomew’s Day, generally celebrated with carnivalesque riotousness throughout Europe in the middle ages, being the 25th. – for three days. Later it was gradually extended till it spanned two weeks. Its main economic function for centuries was for the trading of cloth – it became the leading venue for the cloth trade; however as London drapers found wider markets and transport improved, this gradually declined in importance. From the sixteenth century, it was known for pleasure and entertainment. Like the medieval carnivals, ritual became an important element: for instance, it was customary for the Lord Mayor of London to open the fair on St Bartholomew’s Eve, after he had called at Newgate Prison, where the prison governor would supply him with a ritual cup of sack (fortified white wine

Bartholomew Fair

By 1641, the fair had overflowed its former location along Cloth Fair, and around the Priory graveyard, and now spread over four parishes: Christ Church, Great and Little St Bartholomew’s and St Sepulchre’s. The fair featured sideshows, prize-fighters, musicians, wire-walkers, acrobats, puppets, freaks and wild animals.

In 1691, the Fair was shortened to only four days; after the change in the calendar from 1753, the fair commenced on 3 September.

In the 18th century, the fair was the venue for subversive plays, puppetry, anti-government satire & attacks on the Lord Mayor & all established authorities: in 1697 William Philips was whipped for his anti-government satires at the fair.

In September 1817, according to Sherwin’s Political Register, the authorities panicked at the rumour that a radical insurrection was planned to coincide with Bartholomew Fair. Four regiments of horse were called out, and the Lord Mayor searched for weapons among the ‘oyster-tubs, sausage-stalls, and gingerbread baskets’.

The fair was partially suppressed in the 1760s, the opening salvo of a concerted campaign against London fairs & popular gatherings.

The annual disorder generated at this carnival, “a dangerous sink for all the vices of London”, gradually became intolerable, as its economic functions declined, and pressures for reform of the morals and rebelliousness of London’s poor increased. Gradually magistrates restricted the festivities, which killed the Fair off piece by piece. The shows, which were now forced to close at ten, were moved to the New North Road, Islington. In 1839 theatrical shows were banned. Rents were raised, and in 1840 only wild beast shows were allowed. “The great fair at last sank down to a few gilt gingerbread booths” by 1849. The ceremony of opening the Fair had been much simplified since 1840, and in 1850 Lord Mayor Musgrove, turned up to read the traditional proclamation at the appointed spot, was faced with a shadow of the former revels. The fair was finally suppressed for good in 1855 by the City authorities.

The repression of Bartholomew Fair suffered was part of a widespread campaign, conducted through the first half of the eighteenth century, to put a stop to debauchery and public disorder, and especially gathering places where working class people could behave badly en masse. Not just because their morals needed totally upgrading, but because they might get together, riot, or overthrow the proper order of society, as had happened in France too many times since 1789. Open space needed to be controlled and orderly, and events that encouraged immorality, riot and expense on the rates should be done away with!

Walk down Lindsey Street, turn left down Charterhouse Street, walk down to St John Street

Long after executions of heretics and rebels ended here, disorder and subversion remained endemic in the area. Like other local space, open or not, there were official attempts to landscape the Smooth Field, to transform it into a more suitable space for commerce and push out the unruly elements.

In 1615 “the City of London reduced the rude, vast place of Smithfield into a faire and comely order, which formerly was never held possible to be done, and paved it all over, and made divers sewers to convey the water from the new channels which were made by reason of the new pavement; they also made strong rayles round about Smithfield, and sequestered the middle part of the said Smithfield into a very faire and civill walk, and rayled it round about with strong rayles, to defend the place from annoyance and danger, as well from carts as all manner of cattell, because it was intended hereafter that in time it might prove a faire and peaceable market-place, by reason that Newgate Market, Moorgate, Cheapside, Leadenhall, and Gracechurche Street were unmeasurably pestred with the unimaginable increase and multiplicity of market folks. And this field, commonly called West Smithfield, was for many years called ‘Ruffians’ Hall,’ by reason it was the usual place of frayes and common fighting during the time that sword and bucklers were in use. But the ensuing deadly fight of rapier and dagger suddenly suppressed the fighting with sword and buckler.”

Smithfield Market, 1811

In June 1647 there was rioting at Smithfield market, over high food prices; food production and delivery was badly disrupted during the Civil War, affecting the poor most of all. A worried Parliament exempted meat & salt from the excise, in an attempt to make food cheaper and head off further rebellion.

On 12th January 1723, a mass spontaneous football match broke out in Smithfield, putting an end to work for the day.

In 1819, Thomas Davidson opened a bookshop here. An ex-shopman for the radical Fleet Street publisher Richard Carlile, he was jailed for two years in October 1820 with Carlile’s wife Jane, for republishing the Republican newspaper, Carlile’s Life of Paine, and the Deist’s Magazine. His shop at 10 Duke Street, (now the northwest end of Little Britain, which used to run through to West Smithfield) sold radical and freethought periodicals, and published the Medusa or Penny Politician, 1819 -1826. He died in 1826.

In 1848 police occupied Smithfield Market, during Chartist disturbances (there was fighting in nearby Clerkenwell between Chartists and police that spread to the rooves of local houses).

1857: A mass meeting in Smithfield of London building workers, at a time of high unemployment, launched a campaign for a 9 (instead of 10) hour working day. This led to widespread London builders’ strikes through 1859-61.

In the late 1940s there were a number of strikes of Smithfield Porters. As with other disputes at this time, the Labour government used soldiers (of whom, post-war, there were still a huge surplus) to break several of these strikes.

On April 8th, 1946, six hundred provision workers at Smithfield Market came out on strike, after a pay award by the Joint Industrial Council they considered too low. On April 15, the Labour government sent troops into the market, as blacklegs: as a result 3000 meat porters struck work in sympathy. This was to establish a pattern that recurred again and again over the next few years.

Not all the troops were prepared to scab though. According to one paratrooper: “When the Smithfield porters were out on strike we were detailed to go and work in Smithfield market. We were supposed to blackleg. We had three ton Bedfords, down at Shorncliffe, I was driving them at the time. They said “Right, make your way to Smithfield.” I was in the second lorry and my mate was driving the first one. There was about 20 to 30 blokes in each lorry and there were four lorries. I said to my mate, “Do you know your way to Smithfield?” “I haven’t a fucking clue” he said. “Follow me” I said, “I’ll take you to Smithfield.”

Know where we finished up? Hastings. We had a great time, mucking about on the beach. I wasn’t going to lead those lorries to Smithfield. All the drivers were put on a charge. They couldn’t say nothing to the soldiers. I took the responsibility. I said “Look, I thought I knew the way to London, but I must have took the wrong turning. They couldn’t do nothing about it, but we was confined to camp for five days. I wasn’t going to go up there and do that – break the strike. All the lads were in agreement. We all had a day out, down by the seaside.”

On January 8th, 1947, over 20,000 drivers, including 400 at Smithfield, were involved in a road haulage strike. On January 13, the Labour Government sent troops into Smithfield Market. Again.

Following the pattern of the previous year, all meat and provision workers came out in sympathy. The blackleg labour made a right old mess of the market.

On June 24th 1950, twelve hundred meat drivers based on Smithfield Market came out on strike in protest against delays in settling their claims for a wage increase. On June 28, the Labour Government AGAIN used troops to carry corned beef from meat storage depots to butchers (we’d have thought the troops would have been sick of the sight of the stuff, having been forced to eat copious amounts of it through the war). Later the troops were moved into the market itself. Nine hundred porters and market men immediately walked out, followed by provision porters, shopmen and poultry pitchers. Workers at several cold stores refused to work alongside the troops. By July 5th, 3,400 men were out. Two days later 200 drivers employed by British Road Services at Brentford joined the strike.

A meeting of the unofficial rank-and-file body – the London Road Haulage Stewards Association – decided to call out all general road haulage drivers within 48 hours. The usual screams went up about ‘communists’ and ‘agitators’. On July 10, having obtained certain promises, the stewards recommended a return to work. On August 21, several leaders of the Smithfield strike were suspended from union membership by the Executive of the TGWU. On August 28, the Industrial Court awarded a wage increase of 8 shillings a week to all the workers concerned.

In 1958, there was a nine-week strike at Smithfield markets, which involved 58,000 workers.

For several decades after WW1, most commentators observed that the unions pretty much ‘ran’ Smithfield.

The porters had a tradition of both militant autonomous strike action, but this went hand in hand with a tendency towards racism and xenophobia, a somewhat contradictory heritage, but widespread, also notably seen amongst some London dockers.

On Saturday April 20 1968, Conservative minister Enoch Powell made a controversial speech in Birmingham, in which he warned his audience of what he believed would be the consequences of continued unchecked immigration from the Commonwealth to Britain. Because of its allusion to Virgil, saying that the Tiber would “foam with blood”, this was known as the “rivers of Blood’ speech. On 23 April, meat porters at Smithfield market struck in sympathy with Powell, (who had been sacked from the tory government after the speech). 400 meat porters from Smithfield market handed in a ninety-two page petition in support of Powell.

Walk Up to North end of Lindsey Street, turn left, then back down Charterhouse Street to Farringdon Street, cross over and up to Shoe Lane

The most northerly end of Shoe Lane was formerly known as Field Lane, a notorious street, on the borders of the Saffron Hill rookery, and famous for the fencing of stolen goods. It was said at one time you could have your handkerchief (supposing you were rich enough to own one) stolen at one end of Field Lane, then buy it back from a fence, by the time you had walked to the other end.

Mother Clap’s Molly House
Field Lane was also the home of Mother Clap’s Molly House, an eighteenth century gay club of sorts, where gay men (then known as mollies) could meet, drink, socialise, and have sex.
‘Molly houses’ were constantly threatened by raids from the magistrates, since ‘sodomy’ was illegal – in fact a capital offence. Despite this a thriving gay subculture flourished in 1700s London. Some Mollyhouses were effectively brothels, where both young gay prostitutes and their clients could be ruthlessly exploited and blackmailed; but Margaret Clap seems to have opened up her own house as a coffee house-cum-club more for her own amusement than profit. On at least one occasion she went to court to give evidence that led to one man being acquitted of sodomy. It was said “she had provided beds in every room of the house’, and with such an attraction it is not surprising that ‘she had commonly 30 or 40 of such kind of Chaps every Night, but more especially on Sunday Nights”.  The house was filled with music, dancing, courting; spirits flowed freely.

‘Mollys’ attacked in the pillory

But public opinion was very much against homosexuality; this twilight culture offended the religious, moral and gender codes. Molly houses were raided by the constables, on the orders of magistrates; sometimes spurred on by ‘reforming societies’, such as the Society for the Reformation of Manners. These vicious religious busybodies, often led by well-to-do windbags, made it their business to persecute sex-workers, outsiders such as the mollies, and the ‘irreligious’ or immoral poor generally. They investigated houses and persons of ill-repute, often sending in spies and informers, the sponsoring prosecutions or pressurising the authorities to act.

In February 1726, Mother Clap’s house was raided by the constables, and forty od men arrested. On the evidence of three informers, (two hustlers, and one molly with a grudge), several were tried for sodomy; three – Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin and Thomas Wright – were sentenced to death, and were hung at Tyburn on 9th May 1726. Two other men were sentenced to stand in the pillory as well as to terms in prison, as was Margaret Clap, who got the pillory and two years.

Sodomy remained a capital offence for another century.

The Crimp House Riots
In August 1794, during the war against revolutionary France, a crowd attempted to destroy an army recruiting office (‘Crimp House’) in Shoe Lane. ‘Crimpers’ were widely suspected of stooping to kidnapping, buying up debts to ensnare debtors and other shady practices, supported by London magistrates. At this time, two years in to the war with revolutionary France, the army and navy were suffering a severe shortage of manpower; as a result the military offered bounties to the ‘crimpers’ of up to £30 per recruit. Unrest began on 15th August when rumours spread that a young man named George Howe had leapt to his death from a window of a crimp house. These ‘Crimp House Riots’ saw the most alarming (for the authorities) mob violence since 1780: crowds of hundreds of people, gathered, chanting ‘No War No Soldiers’, and proceeded to pull down five or six crimping Houses: (besides here, in Mutton Lane, at the foot of Clerkenwell Green; Hatton Garden; Kings Cross; and Charing Cross). The Riot Act was read in Shoe lane “to the groans and hisses of the mob”, and the Horse Soldiers called to quell the rioters. But mobs collected together two or three days running, having to be dispersed by the same means. Twenty-three people were nicked for the riots, and four executed.
The radical reformers of the London Corresponding Society (who had opposed the war with France) were accused by some of instigating the riots.

In the 1830/40s, John Cleave ran a radical bookshop here. He was an ex-sailor, who published the Police Gazette, a radical paper mixed with true crime reports. Cleave was prominent in the battle of the unstamped press. The unstamped Gazette was once seized by excisemen while being smuggled from the press in coffins by supportive undertakers! Cleave’s bookshop also became a centre for local radicals, and was frequented by starving boys, who Cleave used to feed.

Back up to Charterhouse St: Over the road to Saffron Hill

Saffron Hill

This area was dominated, until the mid-nineteenth Century, by the slum, or rookery, of Saffron Hill. The rookery, derived from the medieval Liberty here, had a reputation for thievery and prostitution. The area was ideally situated for illegal activity and refuge, sited as it was in an administrative borderland, where responsibility for policing was split between the authority of Middlesex, the City and the parishes of

Clerkenwell, St Andrew Holborn, St Sepulchre’s and the Liberty of Saffron Hill. The few constables and watchmen in service generally limited their patrols to their own patches. The London rookeries were also generally sited close to sources of wealth; either the City, the West End or the docks, ideal for thieves as they could quickly leg it with their loot into the almost impenetrable maze of the slums. The authorities only rarely went into the rookeries; and if they intended to arrest, then only in large numbers. So there usually was plenty of forewarning; sometimes hundreds of the slumdwellers came on to the street to confront police invasion. Such criminal legends as Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Dick Turpin were all at times residents of Saffron Hill. As early as 1598 (when the northern end was known as Gold Lane) Saffron Hill was described as “sometime a filthy passage into the fields, now both sides built with small tenements.” (John Stow). Much of Dickens’s Oliver Twist is set here – this is the neighbourhood of Fagin and Bill Sykes.

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

Planks could carry fugitives across the Fleet, now an open drain, flowing through the middle of the rookery, and evidence could be easily disposed in “its dark and rapid stream… concealed by the houses on each side, its current swept away at once into the Thames whatever was thrown into it.”

The area’s most notorious low lodging house was No 3 West Street, on the north-west side of the Fleet Ditch, roughly where Farringdon Road now crosses Charteris Street. Once known as the ‘Red Lion Tavern’, it became a lodging-house, a notorious haunt of thieves, coiners, illegal distillers, and prostitutes. It was sometimes called Jonathan Wild’s House, or ‘the Old House in West street’, and was said to have hidden prison escaper Jack Sheppard and highwayman Jerry Abershaw. The house was adapted to hide refugees from the law, being filled with dark closets, trapdoors, sliding panels, and secret recesses, including walled off dens in the cellar. Even when police surrounded the place, their prey would often escape. During one raid a constable went into one of the rooms to arrest a thief, and saw the man getting under the bed. From where he vanished: there “were two trap-doors in the floor, one for the concealment of property, the other to provide means of escape to those who were hard run; a wooden door was cleverly let into the floor, of which, to all appearance, it formed part; through this, the thief, who was in danger of being captured, escaped; as immediately beneath was a cellar, about three feet square; from this there was an outlet to the Fleet Ditch, a plank was thrown across this, and the thief was soon in Black Boy Alley – out of reach of his pursuers.” In the same house, there were other, almost surreal means of escape, clearly designed by a criminal genius: “The staircase was very peculiar, scarcely to be described; for though the pursuer and pursued might only be a few feet distant, the one would escape to the roof of the house, while the other would be descending steps, and, in a moment or two, would find himself in the room he had first left by another door. This was managed by a pivoted panel being turned between the two.” (The Rookeries of London, Thomas Beames, 1852.)

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

Mobs from Saffron Hill were also involved in the Gordon Riots, especially the burning of the nearby Langdale’s Distillery. (And, it’s very likely, in the Crimp House Riots, and many other riotous gatherings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries too…)

Saffron Hill’s Hopkinson’s Coffee House was also the scene of at least three meetings, in July and August 1848, of physical force Chartists plotting an uprising. (See Bride Lane, above).

Chick Lane, later West Street, ran east from Saffron Hill; about where the west end of Charterhouse Street lies now. It was a notorious slum and haunt of thieves.
Chick Lane was full of ‘Hell Fire Clubs’. Hugh Morris, hanged at the age of 17 with two other Irish lads in November 1730, confessed to eight robberies and told the Ordinary of Newgate that “his total ruin was owing to some places about Chick-Lane, where numbers of the vilest miscreants, street robbers, thieves, pick-pockets, house-breakers, shop-lifters, and other monsters of wickedness, meet in great companies, and there they drink and carouse in a most intemperate manner; then (having got musicians of their own kidney), they fall a dancing, and crying out like so many pigs and geese, and often, as drink comes in, wit goes out, they fall a fighting, beating, and tearing one another.”

‘Music-houses stood as thick one by another as bawdy-houses in Chick Lane’. If someone’s clothes were stolen, the first thing they would do was go to the shops that sold old clothes in Chick Lane, where they were sure to find them.

The Black Boy Alley Gang operated from this area; a criminal gang that carried on a struggle against the law. Black Boy Alley ran north from Chick Lane, just to the east of the Fleet, roughly where West Poultry Avenue runs through the Smithfield market. In 1744 several constables & magistrates were targeted for assassination from here: several people were hanged in the law’s counter-attack.

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

The Clearing of the Rookery

The Saffron Hill area was particularly targeted by campaigners against the moral and social ills of the rookeries. Lord Shaftesbury, a leading busybody, made special studies of overcrowding and conditions here to report to the House of Commons, stating: “It is impossible to imagine the physical and moral evil which resulted from these circumstances.”  Imagine it they did though, and their fears led to concrete actions against the slums.

Something approaching 20,000 people were displaced in this area between the 1830s and the 1870s by demolitions, undertaken by the City authorities, determined to shovel the poor out from the Fleet Valley, while at the same time creating new quick transit routes to improve trade and movement of goods through the City (eg from the Docks to the West End). In fact the poor had been originally concentrated in the Fleet Valley in the first place having been gradually forced out of the City itself. These ‘improvements’ were long in germination, and development occurred in stages from 1820 to the 1880s, but the continuous road from Blackfriars Bridge to Kings Cross, although built in fits and starts, also represents a consistent thread of town planning as social engineering. (And as John Gwynn wrote in London and Westminster Improved, Illustrated by Plans, 1766, also allowing at the same time for ‘a noble, free and useful communication’ between Surrey and Middlesex, and of ‘amazingly improved’ property along the way. Reducing the numbers of local poor and the resulting cost on the parish poor rate was also a major motive for the worthy middle class ratepayers.

The slum clearances for the building of Farringdon Road, (legislated for in the 1840s, though not finished until 1856), the laying of this section of the Metropolitan Line, for the construction of Holborn Viaduct in 1861 (this development alone displaced 2000 people – a heavy hill indeed!), for the enlarging of Smithfield market, the laying of Charterhouse Street (1869-75), of Clerkenwell Road (finished 1878), and finally Rosebery Avenue (1889-92), all formed a continuous plan to destroy the poorest and most ‘infamous’ areas; these developments involved the moving out as many people as possible.

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

Some of the cleared land remained unused for years; part of the demolished Saffron Hill, Farringdon Waste, lay unbuilt on for several decades. The vicar of Cripplegate complained that “within the City of London there are sites amply sufficient to prevent the poor from being overcrowded – sites which for years have remained unproductive, which will long remain so, because the Corporation of the City of London has shovelled out the poor, in order mainly to lower the poor rates of the City parishes…” Ironically as several areas of empty land remained undeveloped, they themselves became the focus for ‘unruly behaviour’ – Early on, congregations of boys and other idlers became a nuisance. By the 1860s the ‘Farringdon Street Wastes’, or ‘The Ruins’, as the sites were known (now occupied by Nos 29–43 Farringdon Road), had become a well-known gathering place for betting men, and steps had to be taken by the City to remove them

The destruction and redevelopment of poor areas, especially rebellious or uncontrollable poor areas, did not begin in the mid-nineteenth century, but it became very useful in that era for social control. Many notorious streets, alleys and courts were demolished, and new wide roads built; not just in Saffron Hill but in other famous areas, for instance the St Giles and Spitalfields slums…

The clearing of lower Fleet Valley rookeries was an important part of a social processes that cleared most of the resident working class, and especially the rowdy, uncontrollable element, the threat of mob violence from inner London, from the rich and the centres of power. The demolition of slum housing for the building of new main roads was deliberately used to socially cleanse populations considered troublesome and unprovocative.

Apart from removing the immediate daily dangers of crime and riot from these areas, cheek by jowl with the City, the effective headquarters of capitalism at the time, this clearing also created space for internal expansion for capital itself, on its own doorstep so to speak. How much of this was planned social engineering, how much ad hoc, and how much happy coincidence for the powers that be, is open to question. Certainly some of it was deliberate; and such processes were at work elsewhere. Much of Paris in the 1850s-60s was redesigned, by Baron Hausmann, wide boulevards driven through the centre, to help move troops/police around to deal with rebellious crowds, made both administration of the city/social control more effective and speedier, and contributed to demolition of narrow, uncontrollable alleys and led to mass removal of the poor from central areas to the outskirts. (In Paris this was even more of a priority, since working class crowds had overthrown three regimes in sixty years). Breaking up the potential rebellious unity of local areas, where people knew each other, shared customs, loyalties, and knew the narrow winding streets better than the authorities, was a specific aim. Like Hausmann, London social reformers also used the pretext of bad sanitation as an excuse to destroy slums and move thousands of people to outlying areas of the city, “for their own good”, but happily also making them less threatening to authority and the seats of power.

A hundred years later in the in the USA, this process, when specifically and deliberately designed to rid inner cities of ‘riotous’, ‘troublesome’ and ‘unproductive’ poor (usually Black) populations, was euphemistically labelled ‘Spatial Deconcentration’.

But the destruction of the rookeries was also a crucial element of the imposition of discipline on working class, the internalisation of the work ethic, of splitting and separating the ‘respectable’ and unrespectable lower orders. The first step in this was identification, “such that ‘criminal subculture’ and ‘criminal economy’ could be identified as fairly distinct activities and bodies of people though the boundaries always remained blurred.”

Many elements made up this disciplining – including  “regularisation of labour markets and economic activity , the moving of social and economic life off the streets by regularised employment in offices shops and factories, the organisation of social activities in youth clubs, boys organisations and the concentration of public street life into particular times and situations – public events. ‘Saturday night’ (during which police could be more lenient than at mid week), the regularisation of family life with men at work, women in the home, children at school etc…

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

The early pioneers of Model Dwellings and other social housing reform believed that the 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 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 unconducive to respectability and self-reliance; the Model Dwellings were designed to separate people as much as possible – children from parents, one family from another. Physical space was designed to keep people apart – stairwells and other physical barriers between flats and doorways – in fact separate sanitary arrangements were built in at extra cost to reduce ‘immodest’ contact. Part of the plan was definitely a reinforcing of the patriarchal family unit, split off from a shifting wider communal society or even extended family.
Model Dwellings were built in Clerkenwell as part of the widespread slum clearance program – see Corporation Buildings, below.

These patterns of social control can be seen again in the late twentieth century, notably in 1980s Britain, post the 1981 riots. For instance, Brixton, South London, with its street culture, the refusal of the work ethic by large sections of the population, the proliferation of squatting and counter-cultural and marginal ways of life and earning of money… Attitudes from police and authorities identified all these elements as needing to be either repressed or bought off with social programs, to defuse the chances of further riots as in ’81… So along with schemes to ‘tackle unemployment’ there was an attack on the squatting cultures, targeted harassment of those hanging out on the street. And altering urban landscapes to suit the purposes of authority: the most notorious squatted houses in Dexter Road (off Railton Road) were bulldozed (Dexter Road has now vanished); walkways in Stockwell Park Estate that allowed rioters to pelt police from above and move around the estate during the fighting were afterwards partly removed, and the Railton Road/Mayall Road triangle, the centre of the fighting, was also redesigned, closing off ways crowds could move around, evade the police and gather again. Areas merely associated with crime, or having a ‘bad name’, or even being working class are also routinely altered and renamed, to shimmy the bad karma, without necessarily dealing with the causes of poverty and ‘criminal behaviour’. More on gentrification in Brixton

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

Processes refined here continued elsewhere. The many prisons built in the Feet valley were erected on the then City’s edge, and gradually closed down as the metropolis expanded, and public methods of punishment vanished, from being conducted in open space, replaced by those inflicted inside and out of sight. The jails that replaced the Fleet, Newgate, the Bridewell, in the nineteenth century were themselves constructed on the then edges of town (Brixton, Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs). With motorisation our modern Newgates are often found out in the countryside far from public view… ?
And the ‘shoveling out of the poor’ continues in London; working class communities are still being broken up, in some decades more slowly and more subtly these days, but again in 2016 with a vicious urgency to rid the city of anyone who can’t pay their way.

Back down to Farringdon Road, turn left, and walk up to Cowcross Street, turn right here, and walk up to no 67-69 (now ‘The Fence’)

This building used to be London Lesbian & Gay Centre, from late 1984 to 1991. Set up with a £750,000 grant from the Greater London Council in 1985 (in fact the GLC had sponsored the working group that had worked to establish the centre), the Centre took over this former meat warehouse, and gradually the place came to be busily used, as a meeting place, bar, club/performance space, cooking and dining space, a bookshop, a daycare, a lounge and meeting room, a media resource centre, offices and other meeting spaces. and facilities for printing and photography on the first floor run by the Technical Resources Collective… There were many social nights, advice and counseling and help for people coming out.
The second floor was designated as women only space… Various campaigning groups also used the space to meet/as office space, including the Organisation for Lesbian & Gay Action, OutRage!
It being the 1980s, some of the dominant political divisions that split the lesbian and gay scenes at the time were, however, carried over into the Centre’s internal battles from the start. Most notably, there was the question of whether bisexuals or SM dykes should be allowed to use the space. Although these days the ‘B’ in LGBT(Q/A/?) stamps bisexuality with alt-sex approval, thirty years ago your ‘bi’ was considered a fence-sitter who should darn well make their mind up by many gay folk, and some lesbian Centre users also maintained the space should be free from the possibility of bi-sexual men harassing gay women. SM was also divisive, with many lesbians opposing the symbolism of SM clothing and the violence they saw in its practice. Initially both pro-SM and bisexual groups were barred, though this was soon overturned.

The Centre also fell foul of Clause 28, the tory imposed legal ban on local authorities promoting homosexuality: some adverts for paid posts at the Centre were barred from appearing in some council literature. Perhaps Clause 28 gave Vladimir Putin some helpful pointers for recent Russian legislation, who knows?

But the Centre had deeper problems – there was a lot of infighting, accusations from many women that it was mostly a boys club, and that lesbian feminists (who had mainly been the force behind the attempt to exclude SM) were pushed out. Eventually, though, the Centre succumbed to financial troubles (funding being harder to come by in the post-GLC lean years of the late eighties), and closed in December 1992 (though I think OutRage continued to use the space for a few months till the following March until they were evicted).

The Centre was a hugely important space at the time, but it fell foul of some the inherent divisions within what was never a homogenous gay ‘community’. Also, its life coincided with an increasing acceptability of a commercial gay lifestyle which was largely outmoding the 1970s/80s style gay activist thang. Today, what was a once a wide political lesbian & gay scene has been replaced in many ways by a vapid acceptable gay scene , albeit with more fragmented queer/transgender minority scenes, much more political… It is however true that this dynamic always existed to some extent (even in the 70s).

Back down to Farringdon Road; turn right, and walk up towards Clerkenwell Road

Looking down on the Metropolitan Line at Farringdon 1863.

Between Cowcross Street and Clerkenwell Road, Farringdon Road used to be home to numerous  bookstalls, which formerly lined the east side of the road. The first of the Farringdon Road stalls is said to have been set up in 1869, just north of Holborn Viaduct, by James Dabbs, an iron-worker who had recently come to London from Shropshire during a prolonged strike, and who mostly sold theological works. Soon other stall-holders, mostly booksellers, joined him. In 1879, the stalls were cleared, but it gradually re-established itself in the late 1880s, “causing much congestion and attracting loafers and other undesirables, including thieves and pickpockets.” A few years later, booksellers’ and costermongers’ stalls were extending north almost to Clerkenwell Road. Eventually however it declined, until was limited to a few stalls run by George Jeffery, the third generation of his family to trade there, who is said to have had a turnover of 2,000 to 2,500 volumes a week. The market came to an end with Jeffery’s retirement in 1992.

Continue up Farringdon Road

Somewhere here was No 13: The Socialist League Hall, the organisation’s HQ and debating hall, stood here, June 1885 to November 1889 moving here from 27 Farringdon Street (see above).

The premises consisted of a large lecture room, plus a reading-room and space for printing and so forth. Like the previous building this could be afforded due to William Morris’s financial support. It was also used for the League’s Annual Conference during these years. No. 13 was built in the late 1870s and hence was quite new when the League moved in.

This was the main phase of the League’s existence. Initially the organisation thrived, building up a substantial following, with its journal going weekly in early 1886. Increasingly however the organisation was divided into an activist, later anarchist, section (mainly working class, especially associated with Frank Kitz) and a more Marxist brigade led by Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx and Belfort Bax and centred on the Bloomsbury branch. William Morris, trying to keep the peace, headed a third division of propagandists by the word, devoted to ‘making socialists’, based at Hammersmith.

The first Socialist League General conference was held here; there was a lovely description of it from Commonweal: “The first General Conference of the Socialist League will be remembered with pleasurable feelings by all that took part in it. It was a day of heartiness and good feeling; of realisation of hopes and the planning for future work. Whether the organisation founded in December last, and having its second birth, as it were, on Sunday, July 5, 1885, is to exist until the principles it works for are understood and accepted of men — whether it will ever be merged in a larger, wider, more international body; whether those gathered together on that Sunday will see in their time anything more than the lessened darkness of the sky before the dawn of the better day that is to come; whether any of them will be able to sing Nunc dimittis ere they depart — these are but secondary questions. The one thing of primary importance is that a veritable Socialist body is in existence, and is at work in England, the home of capitalism.”

The League journal Commonweal was put together and printed here. The anarchist Freedom Group held public meetings here. Meetings were also held over the campaign for free speech for open air socialist meetings.

By its Fourth Annual Conference, held in May 1888, internal squabbling had already begun to reduce the League’s strength. 24 branches had been represented at the previous year’s conference. This was now down to 21. However at this conference differences came to a head. The parliamentary faction’s motions were defeated (as they had been at every previous conference) but this time it was decided to taken disciplinary action to bring them into line: their power base, the Bloomsbury branch, was shortly declared dissolved. Its members formed the Bloomsbury Socialist Society, prior to rejoining the Social Democratic Federation.

No. 13 was destroyed by bombing during the 1940-41 Blitz and a block of modern offices occupies the site.

75 Farringdon Road

this building housed the offices of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s newspaper, the Daily Worker, 1948-66 (renamed the Morning Star, 1966-88). The paper moved in on 31st October 1948. A crowd of 20,000 gathered “with flaring torches” to celebrate the first copies off the new press. “As dusk fell a great floodlit banner bearing the Red Flag and the rising sun came down in front of Marx House overlooking the Green, the very place where Lenin had once produced Iskra.”  Rousing speeches were made by CP bigwig Harry Pollitt and others; then great cheers arouse as the first copies came out. The CP and the DW were on a roll at this time and the paper’s readership was at a highpoint of around 250,000.

In 1945 a Victorian warehouse on Farringdon Road had been acquired to supplant the existing premises. During conversion however it was found that this was structurally unsound and a modern steel framed building was constructed instead. This was known as William Rust House after the then editor of the Daily Worker. The building was also used as the headquarters of the London District Communist Party.

William Rust House was demolished in 1988…

Clerkenwell was full of stroppy workers and lefties – Chartists, communists, anarchists – for years… but that’s another walk…

The Metropolitan Pub once stood at the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road. The London Workers Group met here, in the early 1980s. Set up in 1977, London Workers Group was an autonomous working class libertarian/anarchist/communist action group.

Much less extremely, but maybe more influentially, just behind is Farringdon Lane, where in 1913 the liberal socialist magazine the New Statesman was founded, its offices being at nos 14-16.

What were the relations of these rookery dwellers to all the much more straight-laced social reformers, who met in Clerkenwell, Fleet Street, in the Socialist League hall etc? Most of the slum-dwellers have not left their words to enlighten us… Though we have the opinions of Marx, who called them lumpens, and dismissed them… Many of the Owenites, Chartists, radicals and socialists of the nineteenth century looked down on the unruly poor. Temperance, Methodism and morality were major drivers in the ideals that fuelled these movements. They would have disputed the statement by Beames that: “rookeries are among the seeds of revolution… they poison the minds of the working classes against the powers that be, and thus lead to convulsions”. In reality this was more paranoia than anything else.

We don’t share Marx’s stale stratifications, or the distaste of the methodistically respectable for the immoral and uproarious; but how much is Beames on the mark – were the rookeries really breeding grounds for revolution?

Riots and rebellion may well have attracted the rookery dwellers more than theorising or ‘organising’… Many may have been sharp enough to be interested in transforming their lives, but seen clearly that transformation for a moment, an hour, a few days even, are as real and maybe more so, than the distant change offered by the Socialist League’s “making socialists.”

It’s tempting to oppose the 19th century middle class’s demonisation of the rookery inhabitants with some form of idealisation, to buy into the rumours of fugitive levellers and ranters hiding out in Alsatia, to make more of some signs of communal solidarity than we can really be sure of, because that’s how we like to think of them, as rebels and radicals… Just as surely as Thomas Beames blackening the residents of Saffron Hill and warning of revolution, such back projection of our own desires would be forcing the people of the rookeries to fulfil roles in someone’s else’s dramas. For someone’s else’s ends.

Beames and his contemporaries were always able to conjure up fears and call up forces that could disperse the unruly poor…

In reality there are many signs of solidarity, some signs of consciousness, of people working together for their own ends… remember the Hempen Widows Club, with their proto-friendly society, the collective resistance to invasions of the law, the escape routes through each others’ houses… On the flipside, there was just as much betrayal, viciousness, spying, people shafting each other…

Walk east up Clerkenwell Road to Turnmill Street

“The very sink of the vice of London”

Turnmill Street, like many old City streets, has traveled a fair old ditance linguistically – over the centuries there are references to it as Trylmyl Streate , it is later corrupted to Turnbull and Trunball Street. The name is now said to arise from the waterwheels turned by the the old ‘River of Wells’ (one of the more optimistic names of the various streams that make up the Fleet). But given the flood of its older names, who knows…

For several centuries one of the most disreputable streets in London, it was notorious in literature, rumour, and gossip, as a red light district. As early as 1585, it is noticed in a letter from Recorder Fleetwood to Burleigh, as a place for thieves’ houses. Held to be the “very sink of the vice of London”, it was frequented by highwaymen and rogues of every description, especially the White Hart Inn, opposite Cock Court, a “noted house of call for footpads and highwaymen.” The street is mentioned as an infamous resort by several Elizabethan dramatists: Shakespeare makes Justice Shallow brag boast of his youthful debauchery in ‘Turnbull Street’ to Falstaff.

In 1416, William Fisher, bookseller and parchment-maker of Turnmill Street was executed for harbouring Sir John Oldcastle, the leader of the insurgent Lollards (see Smithfield, above). His head was spiked upon London Bridge.
The notorious slums that gave Turnmill Street its bad name were mostly demolished during the Clerkenwell ‘improvements’ of 1856–7 (see above).

Back down to Farringdon Road, cross over and walk up to St Peter’s Italian Church

This church stood at the heart of an area once called Little Italy.

Mostly defined by Clerkenwell Road, Rosebery Avenue, Farringdon Road, south around Hatton Garden, Saffron Hill Leather Lane, ‘Little Italy’ consisted of a maze of crowded streets, alleys and courtyards, filled with émigré Italians. Italians called it the Hill, after local street Back Hill.

Skilled Italian craftsmen began to settle in Holborn in the early nineteenth century – mostly from Northern Italy, Piedmont and Lombardy. Many makers of looking glasses, picture frames, precision instruments like thermometers and barometers settled here, some driven to migrate by political turbulence and economic hardships.

Holborn and Clerkenwell attracted them, as these crafts were already established here. Many Italians settled round Hatton Garden and Charles Street (later Greville Street), often living in large houses with workshops integrated into their homes.

Later, many Italian organ grinders lived here; many organs were made by local firm Chiappa and Sons, of Little Bath Street, now Eyre Street Hill).

This first, mainly skilled wave of migrants, were soon joined by a second wave, usually poor and unskilled, driven out by dire economic conditions, especially after the Napoleonic wars. Often from Southern Italy, many moved into the rookery area of Saffron Hill/Leather lane… especially Field Lane. Overcrowding among the Italian community here was endemic; up to 50 people crammed into some houses…

In 1851 a third of the working population of Little Italy were street musicians… By 1871 this had risen to nearly half. Some played harps, fiddles, hurdy-gurdies, but most operated mechanical organs of different varieties, including piano organs, hand organs, ‘opera’ organs and comic ‘jig’ organs. Organ grinders clustered together around Little Summers Street in Saffron Hill, and Fleet Row, Eyre Place and Summers Street.

Most organ grinders earned less than a general labourer. Summer was the lucrative time, some went back to Italy over winter.

Organ grinders were considered a nuisance by the middle class. (Well, who wasn’t?) One charge levelled against them was that many played deliberately out of tune so people would pay them to fuck off. Satirical magazine Punch launched a campaign against them and a law against street music was passed in 1864. Moral panics ain’t what they used to be…

Organ-grinding gradually declined and by end of century, most local Italians were working as ice cream sellers. Some 900 ice cream sellers lived in the area by 1900, all getting up early to mix and freeze their wares then trundle off around the city to sell it… Many were from Calabria in South Italy.

Little Italian women worked in laundries, in pasta making, lace making, (for the rich, altar cloths, priests vestments…), also fortune telling (with the aid of parakeets or love birds), some in singing and dancing (some supposed Italian dancers, though, were accused of being Irish in disguise..!?)

Other jobs Italians took: knife grinding plaster figure making (up to 20 per cent of local workers in 1851) mosaic/terrazo making, asphalters, and chestnut selling…

Street dancing, especially of the tarantella, was very popular here; there were also dancing saloons.

A number of Italian émigrés around Holborn and Clerkenwell were political radicals, exiled due to their ideas and activities. The Free School for Workers, founded in 1841, by Giuseppe Mazzini, Italy’s leading nationalist conspirator and activist, was opened at 5 Hatton Garden, later 5 Greville St. Mazzini, then living in Laystall Street, in exile, with a death sentence over his head in Italy, organised school free for Italian workers’ kids and destitute street Italian child workers… On weekday evenings boys (only, of course?!) were taught reading, writing, maths and elementary science; on Sunday after noon drawing and Italian history.  Teachers included Mazzini, poet and scholar Gabriel Rossetti (father of Christina and Dante Gabriel), and Joseph Toynbee…

The school was unpopular with the Catholic hierarchy locally: a local Italian priest organised demos against it; a rival Catholic school in Sardinia Street denounced the liberal and anti-religious education it imagined went on there – in fact a mob from Sardinia Street once marched on the Free School to attack it. Thomas Carlyle called it “a nest of young conspirators”. The school closed in 1861.

Mazzini and fellow nationalist Garibaldi, also set up the Society for the Progress of the Italian Working Classes in London (later informally called the Mazzini-Garibaldi Club), in 1864, as a Working Men’s Club and mutual assistance society for the working men of the area. Mazzini was its first president. Originally located at 106 Farringdon Road, later it moved to 10 Laystall Street, then in 1933 to Red Lion Street in Holborn. In its heyday, it was heart of the local social scene for blokes… In WW2 it was requisitioned as ‘enemy property’ and closed down; it re-opened in 1951 but shut for good in 2008.

St Peters Italian Church, here on Clerkenwell Road, was, as we said, for so much of the Italian community, the centre of their lives. It was also the scene of a still unexplained assassination attempt. In January 1880, an Italian road layer from Saffron Hill called Schloss suddenly starting taking potshots at Polish priest Father Bakanowski, during mass. Schloss pursued Bakanowski around the church shooting, but the fucker got away! The road layer was grabbed by some of congregation, who disarmed him of his gun (and a hatchet!) and marched him to the police court. Schloss later got life for premeditated murder (though how, since he didn’t kill the bastard?). No motive could be established, they said; as if the desire to knock off a priest isn’t reason enough. There is certainly more to this story… but we’ll probably never know it.

Many ‘Little Italians’ were interned during WW2 as ‘enemy aliens’, most unjustly (although local John Sperni, mayor of St Pancras in 1937, was deffo a fascist!). Many Holborn Italians lost relatives when the Arandora star, a ship taking interned Italian men to a prison camp in Canada, was torpedoed by a German u-boat, killing nearly 500. After the war, the area was redeveloped – many streets had been bombed, slum clearance and property development took care of much of the rest of the original housing in the ‘50s. Most of the Italians moved on, many to Soho, the new Little Italy.

Back down to Farringdon Road, turn left up to Ray Street
On the corner on the north side of Ray Street: the site of Corporation Buildings

Corporation Buildings were built in the 1860s and 1870s by the City, to house 846 people, on land cleared through slum clearances, this was an early ‘model dwelling’.

By the standards of the day, the accommodation was good, each tenement having its own scullery, WC, coal store, and access to a dust-shoot. There were fireplaces and ventilators (linked to a shaft running through the chimney stacks) in all rooms. The roofs were flat and intended for recreation and clothes-drying. Iron guards were fitted to prevent children climbing from block to block, following a fatal accident in 1868.

Beyond the means of the very poor, the new dwellings were eagerly sought after and occupied mostly by respectably employed working men, including many in the local printing and brewing trades, railwaymen, and a number of white-collar workers.

In poor condition and considered obsolescent, Corporation Buildings were demolished in 1970.

Guy Aldred, later in life

Guy Aldred grew up in the house of his maternal grandfather, Charles Holdsworth, in Corporation Buildings. Charles was a bookbinder, and a Victorian radical. Aldred became a boy preacher, then a freethinker and finally an anarchist communist, famous for public speaking… He was involved in early syndicalist activity in London, also free love propaganda and printed and published a huge array of freethought anarchist and communist literature. He was interned for much of the First World War as a Conscientious Objectors and carried on struggling within Wandsworth and Brixton Prisons, being involved in prison strikes. Later he moved to Glasgow, becoming a fixture of leftwing political life there for 50 years. A very eccentric individual (he wore plus fours all his life into the 60s!), who fought with many anarchos, fell out with other anti-state communists and aroused much criticism for standing in elections while simultaneously denouncing them…


Walk up Ray Street, to Warner Street

“This mess, tossed up of Hockley Hole”

(Pope, Dunciad)

Once a country path beside the river, by the nineteenth century, Warner Street was very different.

Until the 1800s, the Fleet flowed (where Ray St meets Back Hill) through a low-lying depression called Hockley-in-the-Hole, a natural ampitheatre formed by the river valley. In the 1700s, this was the northern edge of London; to the north lay fields, to the south, slums. Hockley-in-the-Hole became infamous as a venue for working class blood sport, mainly cock-fighting and bear-baiting. (Hockley comes from Anglo-Saxon words meaning ‘dirty or muddy field’.

“At the Bear Garden in Hockley in the Hole, near Clerkenwell Green, this present Monday, there is a great match to be fought by two Dogs of Smith-field Bars against two Dogs of Hampstead, at the Reading Bull, for one guinea to be spent; five lets goes out of hand; which goes fairest and farthest in wins all. The famous Bull of fire-works, which pleased the gentry to admiration. Likewise there are two Bear-Dogs to jump three jumps apiece at the Bear, which jumps highest for ten shillings to be spent. Also variety of bull-baiting and bear-baiting; it being a day of general sport by all the old gamesters; and a bull-dog to be drawn up with fire-works. Beginning at three o’clock.” (early 18th century advert)

One of the proprietors, Christopher Preston, fell into his own bear-pit in 1709, and was mauled by the bears; poetic justice. As they say!

In the early 1800s Hockley-in-the-Hole was partially filled in and the slums that surrounded it demolished. But Warner Street remained a slum: on the Booth maps of relative poverty, it is mostly marked as dark blue, for very poor, casual, chronic want, to black – “vicious, semi-criminal”. Today the area is now slightly more respectable, being, until recently, the site of the Guardian newspaper’s main offices. The Coach and Horses pub occupies the site where the dogfights, bullfights and swordfights once took place.

The Fleet can’t be seen above ground, throughout its entire length after Hampstead, but it can be heard. If you wander over to the middle of Warner Street where it intersects with Back Hill (right in front of the Coach and Horses), stoop and listen to the grating… That rushing of water is a thousand years of the past flowing past you…

The Fleet Sewer in 1830

Walk up Warner Street

Warner Street Temperance Hall: From 1843: Eliza Sharples, freethought pioneer, ex-free love partner of free press radical champion Richard Carlile, opened the Literary and Scientific Institution at back of the hall.

Eliza grew up in a middle-class household in Lancashire, where she had largely educated herself and adopted freethought ideas. She had come to London on hearing of Carlile’s imprisonment in 1831, visited him in prison, and became his (unmarried) lover. Carlile established her as a regular lecturer on religion and other issues a the Rotunda, the massive lecture hall on Blackfriars Road in Southwark.

Dubbed ‘Lady of the Rotunda’ and ‘Isis’ (derived from the romantic myth of the Egyptian Goddess of Reason), Eliza Sharples was billed as the first Englishwoman to speak publicly on matters of politics and religion in a ‘style unparalleled in this country’ (though this wasn’t totally true, as at two centuries earlier women had preached and taken part in debates during the English Revolution). Her identity was concealed for many months to protect her family, a ‘mystery’ also designed to whip up interest and controversy, and in true Carlile-style was “promoted as intensely as an opening night at the theatre”, timed to coincide with a date auspicious to all radicals: the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Paine.

Eliza Sharples

Her lectures became a ’regular strain of abuse of Religion, priests and all institutions.’ She argued that man and his language, thought and manners were perfectible on Earth and therefore the only sin was the absence or denial of knowledge and free discussion to all people. Christianity, she held, was the chief barrier to the dissemination of knowledge; by denying the people education, priests were denying man’s liberty. Nor was knowledge espoused merely for intellectual fulfilment. Sharples urged her audience to think and act upon their new though. Passive submission and non-resistance were seen as the ‘doctrine of priesthood’.

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

The editor of the Christian Advocate feared that the claims of a new occupation of the building were merely a ruse, believing that “the change of performers will only occasion a reiteration of those scenes of blasphemy and immorality which have so long been a disgrace to the metropolis”.

This prediction was soon proved correct. Sharples used the Rotunda platform to denounce the priesthood, mock religious superstition and pour scorn on established authority. “She accused the government of complicity in the devastating outbreak of cholera. They had ‘laid such burdens on the people that they could not exist and thus created pestilence among them while they “Rolled in Luxury”’.

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

Sharples would continue to work tirelessly in the freethought movement, publishing a secular magazine, Isis, and continuing to lecture on religion. She formed a link between the freethinkers of the 1820s-30s and the later large British secularist movement that evolved in the 1850s-70s, giving a home to the young Charles Bradlaugh, later to become a leading member of the secularist movement and a Radical MP, after his commitment to free thought led to alienation from his family.

Under the bridge to Mount Pleasant; turn right, walk up to the post office

Coldbath Fields Prison, also known as Clerkenwell Gaol, was built in 1794 and closed in 1877, and stood here on site of Mount Pleasant Post office.

“As he went through Coldbath Fields he saw
A solitary cell.
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
For improving his prisons in Hell.
He saw a turnkey tie a thief’s hand
With a cordial try and jerk.
Nimbly, quoth he, a man’s fingers move
When his heart is in his work.
He saw the same turnkey unfettering a man
With little expedition.
And he chuckled to think of his dear slave trade
And the long debates and delays that were made.
Concerning its abolition.”

From The Devils Walk, Coleridge and Southey.

Originally intended to be a new Bridewell, to hold vagrants and put them to work, this was a Middlesex House of Correction, (though the City did put up some cash so that it could also make use of the prison) run by local magistrates and where mostly petty offenders served short sentences. Until 1850, the prison housed men, women and children; thereafter it was restricted to adult male offenders over the age of 17. By the 1850s it held 1450 inmates; Mayhew, visiting around that time, noted that half the inmates were there for non-payment of petty fines. Despite being designed by prison reformer John Howard, and intended to be more humanitarian prison than its predecessors it became notorious for its ‘Silent System’ regime, which banned all communication by word, gesture or sign. Any resistance to these rules was punished with the wearing of leg-irons, bread and water diets, solitary confinement and floggings. But the inmates resisted nonetheless; “A prison semaphore of winks, hand signs and tapping through the pipes emerged, its secret alphabet becoming one of the cultural inheritances of the London underworld.” The prison administration “resigned themselves to policing a silence that actually hummed with a secret language.”

Work was considered entirely as punishment, with no educational or useful effects, and for this purpose the treadmill was provided; prisoners marched aimlessly round the six huge treadmills in silence, 15 minutes on and 15 minutes off. “The treadmill was a huge revolving cylinder with steps on it like the slats of a paddle wheel. Prisoners mounted the steps of the wheel, making it turn with their feet while gripping a bar to keep themselves upright. While some wheels were geared to grind corn or raise water, most, including the one at Coldbath Fields did nothing more than ‘grind the air’.

Initially, there were severe miscalculations as to how far a con could trudge in a day; only after mass ill health was the distance reduced to a tenth of the original 12000 feet a day. Prisoners in Coldbath were prone to disease, and it is thought the proximity to the foul Fleet sewer may have helped the Prison to have an abnormally high death rate… The gaol became known as the ‘English Bastille’, later the ‘Steel’.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century prison reformers combined genuine  ‘reform’ with new forms of social control, including the rule of silence, separation of inmates, ‘improving’ work, increased religious observance and a growing professionalism for the prison workforce. The old prisons like the Fleet and Newgate had been too uncontrollable, and were clearly shown to be mere holding cells, with no attempt at moral improvement or rehabilitation… new prisons like Coldbath had a moral mission, to turn the dissolute and rebellious poor into individuals conditioned to capital’s aims… And to prevent bribery, fraternisation and corruption that had led to escapes, and an easy life for some…
Bentham’s panopticon may never have been built, but the penitentiaries of the 19th century aimed at total
control total surveillance and moral bludgeoning.
A brutal and corrupt regime goes without saying: one early governor roamed the nick with a knotted rope to lay into cons who he didn’t like the look of.

In 1799, a Board of Visitors reported, having visited the prison, “the prisoners without fire, without candles, denied every kind of society, exposed to the cold and the rain, allowed to breathe the air out of their cells only for an hour, denied every comfort, every innocent amusement, excluded from all intercourse each other…”

Inevitably, though, resistance bloomed even in the new bastilles…

In August 1798, eleven mutineers from the great 1797 naval mutinies that had paralysed the Royal navy (and terrified the government for a while), including the rebel captain of the Sandwich, escaped from Coldbath Fields.

The following year there were two rebellions in the prison, in June and August, which were quelled by the Clerkenwell Volunteers (like most of the Volunteer Companies, they had been set up to defeat revolution in France and potential revolution at home). In the August mutiny, prisoners shouted “Murder” and that they were being starved. Radicals from groups like the London Corresponding Society, accused of plotting revolution, were held here from 1798: many detained under repressive laws designed to keep down rising radical ideas at home, and sympathy to the French Revolution during the War… The prisoners staged a protest in the gaol in 1800. LCS leader Thomas Evans was held for nearly 3 years; another detainee was Colonel Despard, later hanged in 1803 for plotting a nationwide radical uprising. The LCS prisoners mounted a steady attack on the regime of solitary. An article in the society’s magazine described the regime as ‘an ingenious mode of intellectual torture.’ It asserted that ‘remorse is to the intellect what the rack is to the body. Their treatment by Governor Aris provoked a scandal; moderate radical (and later MP) Sir Francis Burdett’s exposure of conditions there, and crowd pressures, led to Despard and others being released…

Thomas Evans was a returning guest in 1817, here with his son, Samuel Bamford and other reformers in the social and political crisis of the late 1810s. Accused of organising the Spa Fields Riots, the Evans were interned under the Suspension Act. Some of the lesser accused in the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820 also languished here.

Chartists were held here in the movement’s most insurrectionary period, in 1839-40, some for “printing and publishing seditious or blasphemous libel, or for uttering seditious words, or for attending any seditious meetings, or for conspiring to cause such meetings to be held, or for any offence of a political nature”.

Later Chartists held here included Ernest Jones, an important late leader of the movement (and later a proto-socialist), arrested in the turbulent summer of 1848, as some Chartists plotted an insurrection, after the presenting of the petition in April had ended in anti-climax…

The prison closed in 1877. The site was transferred to the Post Office in 1889 and its buildings were gradually replaced. The last sections were demolished in 1929 for an extension of the Letter Office.

The Battle of Coldbath Fields

Cold Bath Fields itself was an open patch of waste land, bounded on the west by Gray’s Inn Lane, now Gray’s Inn Road, and on the cast by Bagnigge Wells Road, now King’s Cross Road. Surrounded by a simple post and rail fence and sloping downwards at the north‑cast towards the Union Tavern in Bagnigge Wells Road. 13th May 1833: a National Union of the Working Classes mass rally, (roughly where Calthorpe Street is now) was attacked by the recently formed New Police, leading to a pitched battle. This was widely seen as a trial of strength between the ‘Blue lobsters’ & the power of the radical wing of the ‘London Mob’. One copper was stabbed to death, but Rioters charged with murder were acquitted, following a ‘Justifiable Homicide’ verdict from the Coroners Jury, due to the ferocity of the police attack. The police were widely unpopular then, seen not as solving crime but keeping down the poor in the interests of the rich. The inquest was held in the Calthorpe Arms, on Grays Inn Road, & the jury was locked up for days by the coroner to try & get them to change their mind – without success. The jurors were feted for months by the London radicals, & commemorative plates were cast in their honour!

The name ‘Mouth Pleasant’, may have arisen as a sarky local joke, or as an offical euphemism to cover up the fact that dunghills and dustheaps filled the street… Hence neighbouring Laystall Street – a ‘laystall’ was a dung heap.

Mount Pleasant Post Office: there have been many strikes here: posties generally being still stroppy in the face of generally crap conditions and bullying management… The first strike I could find evidence of was in July 1890: it was defeated with consequent victimisation and sackings. According to EP Thompson bad planning and mistakes by socialists JL Mahon, Binning and AK Donald was responsible!

In recent times, there have been numerous wildcat posties strikes, like that of October 2003, over aggressive management, but sometimes sparked by workers here refusing to do the work of other postal workers on strike in other offices.

The northern site of the Post Office yard behind has been the site of a long battle by locals to prevent a massive development, opposing both Camden and islington Councils (as the site lies on the border) who have both backed it…

17 Mount Pleasant, (opposite the sorting office) was the Socialist Party of Great Britain Head office from 1919 to 1929. The SPGB was formed in 1904 by a group who (like the earlier Socialist League) left the Social Democratic Federation, in opposition to the SDF’s reformism and domination by a small clique. ‘Impossibilists’, the party (which still exists today) maintains capitalism cannot be reformed in the interests of the working class, and that socialists could not take part in government under capitalism; however they believe workers can use the vote to achieve the revolution and continue to stand in elections, while opposing direct action.

Walk back down to the Warner Street; at the Apple Tree pub, turn right, walk up Phoenix Street, Pakenham Street: the ‘River of Wells’

Although polluted and infamous below Clerkenwell, north of the City, the Fleet was for centuries known as the ‘River of Wells’; local springs included St Chad’s Well, an ancient spring once of great importance, close to Kings Cross Thameslink Station; Black Mary’s Hole, (later converted into a cesspool), and the Clerk’s Well (which gave Clerkenwell its name).
But the grandest was Bagnigge Wells, which became famous in the late 1700s as a popular spa and resort:

“Come, come, Miss Priscy, make it up, and we will lovers be:
And we will go to Bagnigge Wells, and there we’ll have some tea.
And there you’ll see the ladybirds all on the stinging-nettles
And there you’ll see the waterworks and shining copper kettles.
Oh la! Oh dear! Oh dash my vig, how funny.” (18th century song)

In 1757, when two mineral springs were discovered in the gardens of the big house at Bagnigge Wells, it was opened to the public, and water from the two wells, one rich in iron, the other thought to possess ‘cathartic properties’, was piped to a double pump installed in a central domed colonnade.

Visitors paid threepence for the privilege of taking the waters from the pump, or could drink their fill in the Long Room at eightpence per gallon. For the next forty years Bagnigge tea gardens were considered the place to spend the afternoon: the respectable flocked here to sip tea, to take in one of the many concerts, or to stroll the ornamental gardens on the banks of the Fleet.

Bagnigge Wells

But like many respectable spas, Bagnigge gradually gained a reputation for drunkenness and debauchery, frequented by ‘loose women and boys whose morals are depraved’. Its popularity declined, and in 1813 the owners went bust, selling off most of the gardens to stay in business. The spa was replaced by a tavern, and the wells fell into disuse; in the 1860s the coming of the Metropolitan underground railway swept away all trace of them.

“Will you go to Bagnigge Wells, Bonnet builder, O!
Where the Fleet-ditch fragrant smells, Bonnet builder, O!
Where the fishes used to swim, So nice and sleek and trim,
But the pond’s now covered in, Bonnet builder, O!” (popular song, 1839)

Continue straight on, up Cubitt St

Re-digging the Fleet Sewer

The underground Fleet River cuts across Acton Street and Swinton Street, so the best way to walk is: from Cubitt Street, right into Kings Cross road, left into Acton Street, up Swan Passage, right into Swinton Street, left into Kings Cross road, up to Brittania Street.

Acton Street, Swinton Street, Britannia Street and Leeke Street also provide good bridges to look down on the Metropolitan line, way below street level; which is weird when you realise that many feet beneath that is the Fleet, buried beneath the railway. A design not without its flaws: as they were building the line, in the summer of 1862, disaster struck: the newly enclosed Fleet Sewer suddenly burst its walls, and flooded a half-mile stretch of the railway to a depth of ten feet:

“effluent was observed leaking out of the Fleet sewer at a rate of several gallons a minute, filling the vaults along the new street for a hundred yards and pooling against the walls of St Peter’s Church and Schools in Great Saffron Hill.  In June disaster occurred when a section of the sewer fell in near Ray Street, the tide of sewage inundating the ground on the west side of Farringdon Road and backing up behind the new retaining wall of the railway cutting. Despite concerted efforts over the next couple of days by the railway contractors and the Metropolitan Board of Works (as the new sewers authority), the wall began to fail, shores and scaffolding across the cutting were smashed and the cutting and tunnel as far north as Exmouth Street (Exmouth Market) were flooded. The vault holding the bodies cleared from Ray Street burial ground, which stood exposed on the east side of the cutting, was broken open by shoring which had been laid against it. Blame for the incident clearly lay with the construction of the Fleet sewer, and if anything the incident showed how substantially the railway work itself was being carried out. With the flood temporarily diverted towards the Thames, the sewer was reconstructed, a section of it passing through the railway tunnel in an iron pipe.”

“A warning was given by the cracking and heaving mass and the workmen had time to escape before the embankment fell in… the massive brick wall, eight feet six inches in thickness, thirty in height and a hundred yards long, rose bodily from its foundations as the water forced its way beneath…” (Illustrated London News, 6th September 1862)

Again, we’re not generally given to pretentious similes. But the Fleet, the underground stream, buried deep but carrying its wealth of history, has always called to mind, for us, the subversive impulse, the riotous underbelly, the unruly flood that threatens to overwhelm the carefully hierarching bourgeois structures that wall us all in. The flood of 1862… the Gordon Riots… all part of a current, which still flows, hidden from view and forgotten or not… Feel free to giggle behind your hand.

Pipes carrying water from the New River reservoirs at New River Head pass over the old Fleet River.

In Brittania Street, 1936: The Red Players, a Jewish communist theatre group, was established in the church hall. They later become the Unity Theatre.

Unity Theatre developed from workers’ drama groups in 1930s. From the beginning Unity saw itself as the people’s theatre. Many of its productions sought to dramatise the lives and struggles of ordinary working people. Its aims were to bring theatre to the masses and in doing so help in the struggles for world peace and better social and economic order. Unity was a product of the turbulent 1930s and the rising threat of Fascism. It had strong links with the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Left Book Club Theatre Guild.
Unity Theatre later moved to rear of Goldington Crescent, Somers Town: 1930s. Where it was later burnt down, possibly through arson.

Walk up to Pentonville Road

Pentonville Road was built in the late eighteenth Century, a pioneering ring road, created as the eastern third of the New Road from Paddington. It was opened in 1756 to allow livestock drovers to bypass the wealthier streets of the West End and Holborn (where the crowds of animals often caused nuisance, stench and total chaos) on their way to Smithfield. While not in the league of the Farringdon Road clearances, the New Road was another crucial link in the creation of a new city, where the mechanics of the supply of food and other necessities was increasingly being hidden, hived off, from the view of the well-off.

Rich travellers and theatregoers were robbed so often here in the mid-eighteenth century, that the Bow Street horse patrol was set up to ride the roads and protect them.

Kings Cross was for many centuries named Battle Bridge, after an ancient bridge over the Fleet (now under the Scala). No, queen Boudicca did not fight the Romans here. In August 1794, recruiting offices on or near Battle Bridge were attacked by angry crowds in the Crimp House Riots (see Shoe Lane, above).

Agar Town

The disappeared neighbourhood of Agar Town, which once lay around modern Kings Cross was erased from the map by the building of St Pancras Station & Goods yards.

Agar Town was widely condemned in the mid-nineteenth century as a slum by reporters, journalists and historians – a place of open drains, cut through by a stinking canal; residents were said to be mainly workers in the knackers’ yards, soap boiling, bone boiling, and manure making industries that dominated the area.

Agar Town

However historian Steven L J Denford disputes this. Investigating the residents of Agar town, he feels that the myth of the area being much worse than other parts of London was overblown, the conditions exaggerated and the type of employment denigrated. Agar Town was not much worse than many other areas; but it suited the interests of the railway companies who wanted to knock it down and the MPs and other authorities (many of whom were shareholders in rail companies!) to paint it as particularly horrible. In echoes of the clearances of the earlier rookeries by road building, railways were deliberately routed through poor areas. Yes land was cheaper and objections likely to be less powerful and co-ordinated; but removal of plebs was a handy bonus.

Many people who had settled at Agar Town could well have been refugees from the Farringdon Road clearances mentioned earlier, large numbers of whom were said to have moved ‘north of Battle Bridge’. It was known that rookery residents often faced demonisation and eviction repeatedly as one slum area after another was cleared.

Here and all over London in the mid-19th century, 1000s of mostly poor people were displaced by Acts of Parliament granting land to rail companies. Many MPs being shareholders in said companies was not a factor of course.

The Fleet, the old St Pancras Workhouse, and the edge of Agar Town, early 19th century

All the pictures we have of the rookeries come from their enemies, middle class sources, usually with a moral axe to grind. Nothing of the inhabitants perspective survives. This has to lead us to question their assertions, and observations of rookery dwellers, which are coloured by their moral outlook and class prejudice. On the one hand we should question their claim that all the inhabitants were of criminal classes, unemployed etc… but maybe we should also question the older allegation that levellers, fifth monarchists and other political rebels hid out in the rookeries and conspired here. Clearly it is to some extent true that some of the slumdwelling poor marched for the levellers, Chartists; 1790s and 1810s insurrectionaries did meet in ghetto pubs. But it suited the rookeries’ enemies to lump their foes in together, giving them even more justification for repression. There’s an echo of the  myths of Robin Hood, the rumours of political exiles conspiring in Epping forest: paranoid ruling classes tend to see conspiracy everywhere, but also to portray rookery inhabitants as too stupid to organise themselves for class violence. It’s also true that forests and slums represented equally unknown and dark wildernesses in different eras.

Its tempting for radicals to like to picture fugitive activists in the ghettoes, and over-romanticise the inhabitants resistance and collectivity: we like the idea of a class conscious barrio holding off authority. But while they clearly did organise in their own interest, by necessity, there are limits, their solidarity was towards their immediate neighbours, not general, all outsiders were possibly fair game.

The gap between the picture and the likely reality of Agar town makes us question even factual assertions of existing rookery conditions. Accounts of Agar town exclusively stressed and still stress how much of a slum it was, but this seems not to have been the case when the facts are studied. If Beames (author of ‘The Rookeries of London’) is so wide of the mark, how reliable is he on other areas? He clearly had a social and political agenda, allied to the middle class view of the poor and what was to be done about them; which involved sweeping away their housing and reforming them through work, workhouse and ‘proper’ housing run by others (the bourgeoisie, co-incidentally).

Now of course, the whole area has been entirely reshaped again; the old railways yards, many of the buildings that surrounded them, have vanished as Agar Town did before them. New playgrounds for the twenty-first century global city have sprung up; Google are moving their HQ here; north of the canal already hosts the flourishing cultural industries (spearheaded by the new Central St Martins School of Art).

We will finish here, though the Fleet runs further north. The lower reaches have a specific character, beyond here the fleet follows different paths through newer suburbs… perhaps we’ll add this section at a later date…


The lower Fleet Valley is these days, dominated by massive offices, mainly soulless. Various landscaping and building projects over the centuries have levelled put the depth of the valley, made it shallower.

Digging the Metropolitan Line in the 1860s.

The thousands of homes that once crowded here are gone, and barely a few flats remain. The river lies buried, lost beneath the wide street; the wild ingenious anarchitecture of the boarding houses of the rookeries, with their wondrous sliding panels and revolving staircases, are barely a memory.

The making of money is the only social relation here; even the industry that once fouled up the stream into a sewer has few echoes.

What would you do with such a space if a different social system came along, where office work was made irrelevant? Where making money withered away?

Could you re-flood the valley? Span the new river or canal with narrow elegant bridges? Make the stream navigable as far as Kings Cross and beyond again? Turn the valley into a living/ playing area, redesigning the City for our desires. Re-lay out pleasure gardens, spas… Without the bear-baiting…

You can’t turn back time, and we do not want to rebuild Alsatia or Saffron Hill as they were. While we like to see the communal spirit of defiance of authority that sometimes arose here, we want to build Alsatias and Saffron Hills that we’d choose to live in. Maybe the offices could be re-purposed, although many are so ugly it’d be a serious piece of work. But something of the spirit of the communal solidarity that the rookery-dwellers hinted at, could be mobilised to take over the looming monoliths and take on re-designing them with the sly and intricate engineering of the Escher-like mazes of the old Fleet, to tower over and enweave the new…

Rare Doings at Camberwell: A Wander around some of the radical history of London SE5


A walk based on research done for a radical history walk around Camberwell, under the title “The Right To Live”, held on Sunday 25th June 2006, as part of Camberwell Arts Week. The walk was researched, designed and mostly spoken by Melissa Bliss and Alex Hodson, though other locals contributed their own reminiscences… In April 2007 part of this material was reprised as a talk at the Camberwell Squatted Centre (aka Black Frog) in Warham Street. We’ve run some public variations on the same walk since… This text owes much to the original researches and ideas of Melissa Bliss.

This isn’t the history of Camberwell. It’s not even the history of the events, personalities and movements that it covers. It is, at best, a series of linked themes, exploring some social history and the more disorderly and politically radical underside of SE5. It has serious omissions, could cover more social history, more on industrial development and those who worked in those industries; more on the different communities that have made their home here, and the conflicts they have experienced; more on madness and its containment, and especially more on recent gentrification and class. Maybe another time…

Also: we are not historians. We came to history as rebels and activists, fighting for a world where people’s lives, personal relations and survival are organised for our needs and desires, not for someone else’s profit. Our interest in history arises from a wider desire, to change the present collectively. The past, its links to the present and to a future we aspire to create, are not separate areas of study; the ideas and practice of rebellion against the authority of one class over another, and the methods of social control that class society develops to maintain itself, link history, our own battles in our own lives, and the visions of how we would live if we could freely choose. Some of us have lived in Camberwell, and have experienced some of this ‘history’ first-hand.

An earlier version of this text was also published as a Past Tense pamphlet, ‘Rare Doings At Camberwell’ in 2008.

When done as a physical walk, this route could take some time… it could be split up into sections. Walked backwards. Whatever.


Camberwell has a deep and interesting past, full of working class struggles, radical, subversive and downright mad personalities, rowdy popular entertainment and some outbreaks of class war.

A brief Overview of Camberwell/ general history

Up until the 18th Century Camberwell was a rural village, based around St Giles Church Church, the Green, (scene of the annual Fair) and a spa and healing well, which was located up Camberwell Grove.

Some historians believe the healing well may have given the area its name, as they think Camberwell means ‘well of the crooked or cripples’. This chimes in with the local church being named for St Giles, patron saint of lepers. People expelled from the City of London for having leprosy may have settled here for treatment.

However it is also possible that the ‘Camber’ refers to an old settlement of Britons, who in the days of the Saxon conquest of Southern Briton called themselves Cumbri (in modern Welsh, Cymry’). This might be linked to neighbouring Walworth, thought by some to be named by neighbouring Saxons for the ‘Welsh’ (Britons) who lived there. The whole area might have been an enclave of older celtic communities…

The Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell’s old coat of arms. When we did our first version of this walk, we made up an old standard with this and paraded it around, spoofing the old beating the Bounds ceremony

The old medieval parish of Camberwell St Giles included Peckham, Nunhead and much of Dulwich. The parish was controlled by the Vestry; when the parish was replaced as an administrative body by the Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell in 1900. In 1965 the Borough was amalgamated with the Metropolitan Borough of Southwark and the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey to create the London Borough of Southwark.

The popularity of the Spa gradually transformed the village into a place of middle class retreat, and farms were replaced by big houses up the hill… The area became more suburban during the 19th century, as London expanded; speculative building firms bought up land and built large housing estates.

Later in the Century, the class of persons living in area ‘went down’, especially after “workman’s tickets” on trains enabled the working classes to live further from their place of work. In common with many other areas of South London, large areas of Camberwell saw mass house building to accommodate newer working class residents. Many earlier middle class areas thus were transformed into working class neighbourhoods from the 1860s-70s – for example around Southampton Way and St Lukes.

The following population figures give some sense of the massive 19th Century growth of the area, though they represent the whole parish and not merely Camberwell the village/suburb:

Census for parish of Camberwell                           Population

1801                                                                           7,059

1841                                                                           39,868

1861                                                                           71,488

1891                                                                           235,344

In 90 years a few rural villages were swallowed up by the rapid expansion of the metropolis.

So who were these people who moved into the area, and where did they live?

In Booth’s Map of Descriptive Poverty, from Life and Labour of the People of London,1890, the relative social class of people living in various parts of the area was sketched out. You can get an interesting picture of what had become a suburb of London, and where people of different classes lived.

  • South, up the hill, from De Crespigny Park, to the top of the hill at least, was upper class, and upper middle class, wealthy, almost exclusively.
  • The middle classes lived all round Church St, the Green, especially in houses lining the main streets. Also middle class was Brunswick Park, the east end of where the Elmington Estate now is, Camberwell Grove, Grove Lane, Coldharbour Lane, and along Peckham Road.
  • The next class down, a mix of the ‘fairly comfortable’ with others on ‘ordinary earnings’, can be found behind Daneville Road, round Wyndham Road and Medlar Street.
  • Mixed areas of ‘some comfortable, others poor’ lived behind the modern magistrates courts and off D’Eynsford Road, round the west part of the modern Elmington Estate…
  • The poor (’18 to 21 shillings a week per family’) clustered to the north of Camberwell Green, round the old Father Red Cap pub/Camberwell Road, and also to the north of Southampton Way, north of Commercial Road (now Commercial Way), and north of the Elmington. “A confusion of alleys and courts enclosed by Lomond Grove, Camberwell Green and Camberwell Road” was described as holding the chronically poor in the 1880s (Dyos)
  • Very poor areas (‘Casual, chronic want’) were found behind the Cock in Cock Yard (behind the modern Tiger (formerly the Silver Buckle) pub), round yards between the southern bus garage and Denmark Hill, and also in the Sultan Street area (known as Camberwell Mill or Freemans Mill), off Wyndham Road. Several streets here – Crown Street, Wyndham road, Pitman Road, and Bethwin Street were said in the 1880s to be “of very bad character”…”The only policemen venturing there were very foolish policemen.”
  • Interestingly though, there were no concentrated areas of the “lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal” as could be seen all over Southwark and Newington further north.

With some exceptions and accepting that this is a broad generalisation, it could probably still be said today that Camberwell New Road, Church Street and Peckham Road form a kind of border, and those who live to the south in the main are better off and maybe hang with a ‘higher’ social class than those who live to the north… Not entirely, and areas are more mixed now than in the past… But it has some validity.

Local industries: In the mid to late 19th century, the printing, small engineering, leather trades became widespread in the area, mainly in the north of Camberwell round Southampton Way, and where modern Burgess Park now lies. The old Surrey Canal that ran from Camberwell to the Thames through Surrey Docks helped stimulate a lot of local industrial growth, especially along its banks.

Revelry, Disorder, Space and Social Control

For centuries, Camberwell Fair was held locally, every August. First recorded in 1279, it moved from being held in ‘Gods Acre’, the immediate grounds of St Giles Church, to Church Street, opposite the Cock Pub (which was by the corner of Denmark Hill); by the 18th century it had moved on to the Green itself.

Originally held for three weeks, (9th of August to September 1st, the latter being feast of patron saint St Giles), by the 1800s the Fair, with it’s catchphrase; “Rare doings at Camberwell”, had been shortened to only 3 days – the 19th, 20th, and 21 August. Local farming had declined, and the Fair’s traditional rural economic functions (based around trade, but also hiring of agricultural workers for the year ahead) had eroded; the Fair now mainly featured drink and food, music, and acts, shows and performances, with a generous side helping of illicit sex, debauchery, and some robbery and violence.

Cheap food stalls of food, (oysters, pickled salmon, fried plaice, gingerbread) mingled with with junk and toy stands; side by side with exhibitions, animals that performed, or had bizarre deformities, plays, merry go rounds, shies etc…hawkers, pickpockets, jugglers, performers, magicians… People from all over South London flocked to the event, with carts, donkeys, old nags, offering rides, often the drivers singing songs or bantering with each other.

But the growing middle class of early 19th Century Camberwell hated this plebeian disruption.

“For these three days the residents of Camberwell were compelled to witness disgusting and demoralising scenes which they were powerless to prevent” …
Peckham Fair, in the same parish, ran every year for the 3 days following Camberwell Fair (namely 22nd – 24th August), and was a similarly troublesome – local authorities had to pay for extra policing for the whole week and passed this onto the parish ratepayers.

The two events attracted petty, and not so petty, crime. In 1802 at the end of Peckham Fair; a “numerous and desperate gang of pickpockets” robbed & assaulted respectable folk en masse as they were leaving the Fair. The gentry and middle classes attending the Fairs were seen as fair game (pardon the pun)…

There were constant attempts to control and restrict the fair and people’s enjoyment of it. Fairs at this time were a major source of moral outrage (think of modern objections to the Notting Hill Carnival every year).

However, the Fairs were a source of income for many of the poor and working classes, both legally, and through crime and the conning of fairgoers; there’s no doubt that it also brightened up people’s lives, an explosion of wild relief of the daily grind of poverty in a huge party.

There were several concerted attempts during the early 19th Century to shut the Fair down. In 1807 a Notice was pasted up:
“Notice is hereby given that no drinking, booths, unlawful exhibitions or music, will be permitted at Camberwell or Peckham Fairs. That the constables have strict orders to prevent all gaming, or seize and carry away all implements used or employed therein, and to apprehend all the offenders, and that no dancing or music will be permitted at public houses, which are required to be close shut at eleven o’clock at night.

By order of the magistrates.”

Apparently “officers from Union Hall Police Office and the Patrol from Bow St, attended… some trifling incidents occurred, but none of serious importance.”

In 1823, a Camberwell Vestry meeting was held to see what authority there was, in the form of an old grant or charter, to hold the Fair, This backfired, as evidence was produced in a Petty Session case to support its right to be held. In 1827, the Vestry managed to ban Peckham Fair for good.

Another attempt to ban Camberwell Fair in 1832 failed, but by 1855, the Fair’s days were numbered: a local Committee for the Abolition of Camberwell Fair was set up by leading residents, who pressurised the parish authorities into buying the Green, and closing down the fair, with the help of the police. The glee of one middle class historian is palpable: the Green was “encumbered for the last time with its horde of nomadic thieves, its coarse and lewd men and women and this concentrated essence of vice, folly and buffoonery was no longer allowed to contaminate the youth of the district and annoy the more staid and respectable residents.”

The Green, said before then to be a Waste, was bought from the Lord of the Manor, landscaped, turned into a ‘proper’ park.

The closing down of Camberwell Fair should be seen in the context of a widespread campaign in the early 19th Century, to impose social and moral control over the growing working classes. National government, local vestries and parish authorities, officials of most churches, and various bourgeois organisations such as the Constitutional Society and the Society for the Suppression of Vice, were broadly united in attempting to control and ‘reform’ the ‘immoral’ behaviour of the working classes, especially the poor, through encouraging/them forcing them into hard work, proper respect for authority and religion, and by attacking ‘vice’, disorder and immoral behaviour. This meant repression of ‘vice’ in the forms of pubs, prostitution, those who radically challenged religion or the political establishment.

Fairs, widely viewed as hotspots of immorality, disorder and in many cases satirical political plays and speeches, were a prime target. Not only this, but in an era of political upheaval and widespread radical agitation among the working class, any gathering of the poor was seen as dangerous. The open spaces where Fairs traditionally took place were also under attack, through the enclosure of commons, Greens and the increasing landscaping into parks, or development into housing. The physical alteration of space was seen as having a moral effect on the disorderly behaviour of the poor: proper ordered open space replacing ‘waste’ and common was believed to encourage respectability…

For local Vestries, the high cost of policing the Fairs and cleaning up afterwards were also a factor.

But the Green’s tradition as a place of entertainment and hedonism has continued. It has long been a site of public meetings, rowdiness, rallies, protests, and parties.

Not only in terms of its continuing use by street drinkers, who, as in many other parks have gradually reclaimed open space in defiance of those who would keep them socially cleansed and invisible.
Read a longer post on Camberwell Fair

Festivals and parties have also taken place on the Green over the years.

For instance: in June 1998, during Camberwell Arts Week, a Summer Solstice party was held, featuring a three-quarter size model of Stonehenge, made of fibre-glass. Several hundred urban pagans reproduced their own Stonehenge Festival… during which a slightly inebriated reveller fell against one of the stones and, as they were all roped together) nearly dominoed the whole lot!

From 2006-2008, the annual ‘Bonkersfest’ celebration of madness and creativity was held there (more on this later).

Here’s a temporary plaque we put up on the Green to remember Camberwell Fair (some fancier banners about the Fair hang on the railings these days)


Poverty, Crime And Policing

Look over the road to Tiger pub:

Tiger Yard and Joiners Arms Yard, behind the Cock Inn (ie behind the modern Tiger pub & the Joiners Arms) were among the poorest places in Camberwell in the mid to late 19th century… the people who lived here existed in chronic poverty. Large numbers of families living in a few houses, often unemployed and overcrowded. (These yards were still described as one of the area’s blackspots when demolished in 1930s. There had been much agitation by local Labour councillors to demolish the old overcrowded houses and rehouse the inhabitants, despite much opposition from the Tory-controlled Borough Council.)

There’s a great bit of research on the inhabitants of Tiger Yard before its demolition here

Camberwell slums in 1930

The bottom of the hill had always had some poor even when the area was rural; not all the forelock-tugging, law-abiding poor either. Some inhabitants who lived in cottages opposite the Cock Inn (round about Kennedy’s Sausages) were said to watch out for wealthy travellers dismounting from the coach, which stopped at the corner of Camberwell Green, and setting off walking to Dulwich… They would then follow them and lighten them of their possessions in some suitable dark spot…

This re-distribution of wealth led to the building of the constables’ Cage and Watchhouse, which stood on Denmark Hill, next to today’s Joiners Arms, until the founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. This was replaced as the stronghold of local law and order by a Police Station the Northwest corner of the junction of the Green and Camberwell New Road, (now the bank) which was built in 1848, and demolished in 1898.

The Cage was succeeded by other centres of control and restraint. On the corner of Medlar Street and Camberwell New Road, Lambeth County Court used to stand, in the early 20th Century (with a Masonic hall and Sorting Office behind it, next to the railway). Camberwell Magistrates Court was built behind Camberwell Green in the early 1970s (we will return to this later).

Wyndham Road used to house the Southwark Diocesan Boys Shelter, in the late 19th/early 20th Century. This was an Approved Probation School for boys 16-19 put on probation in police court. The institution attempted to “build them up morally mentally and spiritually”, by prayer, a tough physical training regime, and training in domestic skills so they could better themselves by becoming servants in hotels and the homes of the wealthy etc. The usual mix of morality and brutality.


Radicals and Rioters

19th Century Camberwell may have been largely a middle-class suburb but also had a local working class tradition: possibly originating in the tradition of London trades traveling out to rural pubs for days of merriment and sometimes political debate.

In the early 19th Century, with working people being increasingly forced off the land and into urban areas, with the growth of factories and massive spread of Cities, working class people were rapidly becoming politicised and conscious of themselves and their class interests. Working class organisations, radical clubs and early Trade Unions formed a growing network across many cities… London was no exception.

In 1832-3 the National Union of the Working Classes met weekly at the Redcap pub on Camberwell Green, and at the Duke of York pub, Camberwell New Road (which stood opposite the modern Union Tavern, but has long since been closed).

The NUWC had arisen from an alliance of radical artisan societies in London, who had been organising both on economic levels, fighting for better wages and conditions, and politically, seeing parliamentary reform and more rights for working people as fundamental to achieving economic improvements… The NUWC were involved in encouraging working class pressure in support of the campaigning for the 1832 Reform Act; however, the Act enfranchised the middle classes and reformed outdated constituencies and corrupt practices, but did nothing for the workers. More radical elements of the NUWC together with other groups, prepared to step up their activities – many felt armed uprising would be necessary to achieve change… This led to confrontations with the new Metropolitan Police, as at the Battle of Coldbath Fields in 1833, when a NUWC rally was attacked by the Met and a policeman killed in the ensuing riot (it was later found by a Jury to be Justifiable Homicide in self-defence, due to the police attack on the crowd!).

In 1833, the Sawyers Arms, Camberwell (which we haven’t yet located) hosted meetings of the 91st Class of the NUWC, in particular they held a dinner for the acquitted George Fursey, a defendant from the Battle of Coldbath Fields.

The Camberwell Division of the Union attended a meeting celebrating the  anniversary of the 1830 French Revolution in July 1833 carrying their “beautiful large blue silk banner…. with a beehive and the bundle of sticks, hand in hand, with the mottos ‘Truth is our guide’, ‘Trial by impartial Jury’, ‘God and our Droits’, ‘Liberty and Justice’.” (Poor Man’s Guardian, July 1833).

The Chartists

As the 1830s went on, the NUWC and groups like them evolved into what has been called the first national movement of the British working class – the Chartists.

The Chartists aimed broadly at an increase in political power for working class people, at that time mostly not allowed to vote and formally excluded from the political process. Chartism became a huge broad-based mass movement, organised around six major demands for political reform that had been the program of the British reformers and radicals since the 1760s…

  1. A vote for every man twenty one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
  2. The ballot – To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for members of Parliament-thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
  4. Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
  5. Equal constituencies securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors,–instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones.
  6. Annual Parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

The Chartists’ tactics included huge monster meetings, and a petition to Parliament, presented and rejected three times between 1838 and 1848. The movement was made up of thousands of local branches, whose activities went far beyond pressing for reform, but built a whole culture, of education, songs, history, their own ceremonies and open discussion; they were conscious of their links to radicals of the past and similar movements abroad. and included all kinds of people, women and men, black people… Although most did not advocate the vote for women, some Chartists did, and female democratic associations formed an important part of the movement.

As their petitions and political pressure failed, many Chartists began to advocate a working class seizure of power by armed force, and divisions split these ‘Physical Force’ Chartists from their ‘Moral Force’ counterparts. Several Chartist uprisings were planned in 1839-40, which failed or were repressed. Plotters, and Chartists involved in organising rallies, strikers and other actions were jailed, transported to the penal colonies in their thousands.

Local Chartists who lived in Camberwell include one Simpson, of Elm Cottage, Camberwell, who sold tickets for a Chartist-sponsored soiree in honour of radical MP T.S. Duncombe in 1845; and David Johnston, a moral force Chartist, born in Scotland, a Weaver, then apprentice baker, who was elected Overseer of the Poor in St. Giles, Camberwell, 1831, ‘by popular vote’. Johnston ‘was a keen (moral force) Chartist. Johnston left in 1848 for the US, after ‘rowdies from Kennington wrecked my shop’.

The Chartists held mass meetings in South London the 1840s, mainly on Kennington Common, especially in 1848, the year of the last great Chartist upsurge, when they prepared the third Great Petition for the Charter. While the plans for presenting the petition were developed, physical force Chartists again prepared uprisings; in London in ’48 several riots ensued when rallies were attacked by police. Through the Spring and early Summer the capital was in a state of alert: the authorities feared revolution (which was breaking out in France and across Europe), and Chartists hoped and worked for a popular rising to achieve their rights.

On 13 March 1848, a week after a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square, that led to 3 days of rioting, a Chartist mass meeting was held on Kennington Common. Nearly 4000 police were called out; despite this 400 or 500 demonstrators moved off to Camberwell by back streets, led by a band. When they got to here, Wyndham Road, then called Bowyer Lane a riot broke out; looters armed with “staves of barrels, and sticks of all descriptions”, including palings, rifled shops and fought with the constables. The whole episode occurred within the space of an hour and only nine arrests were made (by a party of’ mounted police, assisted by special constables) at the time, but since a number of the rioters had been recognised by the locals twenty-five were brought to trial in April. Identified among the leaders were Charles Lee, a gipsy, and David Anthony Duffy, a ‘man of colour’ and unemployed seaman, known to the police as a beggar in the Mint, where he went about “without shirt, shoe, or stocking”; and  Benjamin Prophett, known as ‘Black Ben’, another ‘man of colour’ and seaman. These and fifteen other men, of whom four had previous convictions, were sentenced to from seven to fourteen years’ transportation and three to one year’s imprisonment. More on the Camberwell Riot

The Camberwell riot was short, but it attracted some publicity, and contributed to the hysterical prelude to 10 April 1848, when Chartists met nationally on Kennington Common, aiming to march on Parliament. Shocked by the rebellious atmosphere in London and the country, the Government had fortified the bridges over the Thames and brought in the army and recruited middle class volunteers to defend them. The Chartist leaders backed down from confrontation.

Note the participation of black radicals in the riot: the early 19th Century radical movement was notable for the involvement of prominent activists of African descent. One of the leaders of the London Chartists, prominent in the April 10th events, was William Cuffay, a Black tailor whose father had been a slave from St Kitts in the Caribbean. Cuffay was arrested in June that year accused of involvement in the planning of a Chartist Uprising and transported to Tasmania for life.

Other Black radicals well known in South London was Robert Wedderburn, ex-slave, who had come to England, become a Methodist preacher, and then got involved in radical politics. Wedderburn used to preach on Kennington Common. His contemporary William Davidson was executed for taking part in the plans for a radical uprising in 1820.

A plaque we left here to remember the Chartist Riot of March 13th 1848.

After the anti-climax of 1848, the Chartist movement began to go into a decline; although many groups still existed, the Chartists were largely a spent force. Smaller groups of radicals continued to agitate and meet, but mass agitation for reform did not revive till the mid-1860s, when the National Reform League formed and many local reform-minded groups began to spring up. From this pressure came the 1867 Reform Act, which won some limited increase in the franchise for working men.

Liberals and Radical clubs agitating for once again became widespread in the 1870s, many emerging under the influence of the Secularist Movement, others from growing Republican agitation.


Secularists and Republicans

The Secularist movement arose from scattered radical groups, many of which had survived the collapse of Chartism, others of which emerged in the reform agitation of the 1860s. Influenced by powerful speakers like George Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh, they discussed, debated and attacked the religious control over many aspects of people’s lives, much stronger and integrated into all walks of social, working and home life then. Secularists spoke at street corners, often in direct competition with Christian preachers, and formed clubs or branches of Bradlaugh’s National Secular Society. Gradually they also became associated with pressure for the right to birth control, and a strong republican strand, demanding the removal of the royals and a British Republic. More on South London Secularists

In the 1870s Camberwell Church Street was a local Speakers Corner: Secularists used to regularly denounce religion in large open-air meetings here. The area in fact became one of their strongholds – the Camberwell National Secular Society branch, an offshoot of the large Walworth branch built a hall at 61 New Church Road in 1882.

The struggle against religious charlatans exploiting the vulnerable is very much alive and kicking. In March 2021, charity regulator the Charity Commission took over administration of the highly dubious Kingdom Church in Camberwell Station Road, after local newspaper, the Southwark News exposed the church for selling ‘plague protection kits’ during the first Covid lockdown.

The commission launched a probe in August 2020 in response to concerns over the organisation’s finances.

“The inquiry’s remit includes looking into the trustee’s management of the charity’s resources and financial affairs, including the potential for funds to be ‘unaccounted for and misapplied’.

In a statement published in March 2021, the commission confirmed that it had “serious ongoing concerns” about the charity and its relationship with two subsidiaries, World Conquerors Christian Centres and The Kingdom Church.

Regulators say the charity does not have a bank account, with its funds instead being deposited in its subsidiaries’ bank accounts.

Both subsidiaries have been removed from the charity’s control – with regulators trying to ascertain whether this was done lawfully.

As the News first reported in August 2020, Bishop Climate Wiseman from Bishop Climate Ministries, part of The Kingdom Church, was advertising £91 COVID-19 ‘cures’.

The bishop went on to defend his actions, saying he could not deny the healing power of the almighty, but later slammed this newspaper as ‘the antichrist’.

Virginia Henley of Hewitsons LLP was appointed as interim manager of the charity under the Charities Act 2011 on February 15, 2021, to fully review the organisation’s future. The commission’s inquiry also continues.

The National Secular Society had reported the church to the commission over its ‘plague protection kits’. Its head of policy and research, Megan Manson, said: “This is a welcome intervention from the Charity Commission.  This church’s future as a registered charity is now being questioned, and rightly so.

“All charities, including religious charities, must be held to account when they engage in unethical and harmful behaviour.””

The United Republican League held Sunday morning meetings in Church Street (and afternoon ones in the Rose & Crown Pub, Acorn Street in Peckham) in the early 1870s, when republicanism was very strong among the working class, and the Royal Family very unpopular. Famous class warrior Dan Chatterton spoke here.
There were also three Radical Clubs in Camberwell in the later 19th century – one in Denmark Hill, one in now vanished Muswell Road (not sure where this was), and North Camberwell Radical Club, in Albany Road.
For more on North Camberwell Radical Club – see Mayday in South London

There was also a Camberwell Radical Club in ‘Gloucester Road’ (possibly Gloucester Grove, SE15?) in the 1880s: William Morris was listed to speak there twice in 1885-6.


War and the Workers

Camberwell Trades Council, representing local trade Unionists and Union branches, was founded in 1913.  Almost immediately it was thrown into the political hotbed with the outbreak of World War 1.

Despite a sustained campaign against the impending war in the months running up to its actual outbreak, most trade unions and Labour Party activists fell in behind the government and supported the national war effort. The war achieved instant popularity, and thousands of men enlisted enthusiastically. Camberwell was said to have provided a good response to the call-up (though nearby Brixton was described as “full of slackers”!)

However, Camberwell Trades Council, in common with a minority of socialists and union activists, took an anti-war position when war broke out. The Trades Council issued pacifist leaflets, including a leaflet calling for people not to worry about paying rent during war, as surely landlords wouldn’t evict people during such a national emergency! The police tried to suppress this leaflet – unsuccessfully.

The Trades Council held meetings about the high cost of living, denouncing privations caused by the War, and launched campaigns for free school dinners for kids; useful work for the unemployed and democratic control and distribution of food.

In 1915 it also founded a Trades Council bakery, officially to try and increase the distribution of bread to the local working class; unofficially the bakery also provided jobs to conscientious objectors on the run from the authorities trying to force them into the army. Although this project collapsed by end of year, its work was incorporated into a similar bakery scheme run by neighbouring Bermondsey Trades Council.

In 1916, when the Government introduced conscription to force men into the trenches, Camberwell Trades and Labour Council also expressed its strongest opposition. It declared conscription in any form “to be a violation of the principle of civic freedom hitherto prized as one of the chief heritages of British liberty.” Anti -conscription demonstrations were held on Peckham Rye and on Camberwell Green by the Trades Council and ‘The No Conscription League’. One motion passed by a mass meeting stressed: “Conscription would be against the best interests of the working class and would be a strong weapon in the hands of reactionaries to enslave the British People.” Trade unionists were outraged when Military Tribunals were set up under the oversight of Borough Councils to hear claims for exemption from conscription. Trades Unionists were in most places appointed to take part in these borough tribunals, but then Tory-controlled Camberwell Borough Council refused to appoint any.

The Anti-war movement locally centred around the Independent Labour Party. Some ILP delegates followed the Christian, pacifist line of George Lansbury. Some were inspired by the ethical conviction that violence, organised or not, was evil and immoral. Others argued against the War on on socialist, internationalist grounds.

Leaders of anti-war activity in this part of South London included Charles Ammon, a member of the Fawcett Association, the postal sorters union, and Parliamentary Secretary of the ‘No Conscription League’ (he later became Lord Ammon of Camberwell), Dr Alfred Salter, (later to become MP for Bermondsey), and Arthur Creech-Jones, twenty-three year old Secretary of Camberwell Trades Council. In 1916 Creech-Jones was called up for army service. On appeal he attended four Tribunals and although supported by Labour Party leaders Fenner Brockway and Herbert Morrison his appeals were dismissed: he was finally arrested in East Dulwich in September. After being taken to the local Recruitment Centre, then based at Camberwell Baths (in Artichoke Place), and refusing to take orders, he was sentenced to three years imprisonment in Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs Prisons.

Creech-Jones gained much support in the local press. One letter from the National League of the Blind, Camberwell Branch praised his Trades Council work. When he was jailed, he was replaced as Secretary by Florence Tidman, delegate from the Women’s Labour League. Many trade unionist soldiers had returned from the front and were now becoming sympathetic to pacifism and opposed to the war.

Not all Trade Unionists locally opposed the War however. In March 1917  the local branch of the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants disaffiliated from the Trades Council, disagreeing with its anti-war position. Many trade unionists reflected the jingoistic and pro-war/anti-foreigner feeling as the wider population they lived among.

The majority of the local population capitulated to the upsurge of national chauvinism. Camberwell, like many areas of London, had a small german population, often proprietors of small bakeries and other shops – there were German delicatessens, toy shops and haberdashers, and other local shopkeepers proudly announced that ‘hier spricht man Deutsch’. Others worked as music teachers, artists and waiters. There were around 60 German families in the area in 1914.

But many Germans were detained when World War 1 broke out (although some exiles had fled political persecution in Germany, or were descended from political refugees.) Racist hysteria against the “Hun” was whipped up to a crescendo in South London. Riotous mobs burnt and looted shops with German names in East Street, Camberwell Green and the Old Kent Road in October 1914.

The South London Press in early July 1916 reported a heavily underlined banner headline extending across seven columns proclaimed “Camberwell’s Great Patriotic Festival.” Seven miles of cheering crowds, we read, lined the streets to bid farewell to Lieut.-Colonel Hall and the men of the Borough of Camberwell Gun Division as they marched off for training.

Camberwell Borough also played host to Belgian refugees, driven out of their country by the German invasion. 300 were sleeping in Goose Green public baths in October 1914.

In May 1915 anti-German rioting resumed across the country after the ship Lusitania was torpedoed by German u-boats, with the loss of many lives. Sometimes the ‘foreigners’ targetted were not german, due to various levels of stupidity and bigotry intermixing. Frederick George Jeffreys, a 22-year-old plumber’s mate was fined 40s plus 10s compensation for smashing up a hairdresser’s shop in Wyndham Road, Camberwell in May 1915. The Lambeth magistrate H.C. Biron was scathing: “You behave in this way, and instead of attacking a German you attack a perfectly harmless Pole and wreck his shop. Even if he were a German you bring discredit upon your country by behaving in this way.”

Recuperation huts on Camberwell Green, during WW1

Opposition was growing to the war, however, often in small local meetings across the country. At the Surrey Masonic Hall, Camberwell New Road, in June 1915, Charles Trevelyan MP addressed the South London Ethical Society: “The peace, when it did come, should not be made by diplomats sitting in secret, but there should be a real public opinion for the real ending of war on the right lines.” He warned his large audience not to listen to the militarists who claimed the time was not right for discussing the terms of peace. “They would keep on saying this until the last shot was fired.” Trevelyan had been a founder member of the anti-war Union of Democratic Control, established the previous year.

Check out Against the Tide, an excellent book on World War 1 and resistance in Southwark, Bermondsey and Camberwell.


At the end of World War One, there was widespread social unrest.  Disillusionment with the war increased across the country, as conscription and mass death had hit home, but repressive conditions at work and wage depression led to an upsurge in strikes. The Russian Revolution in 1917 inspired workers across the world to believe a new more egalitarian social order was possible. The unrest spread to the various armies, and mass mutinies helped to end the war, sparking revolt and revolution across the world.
Camberwell was affected by this ferment…

In January 1919 Army Service Corps men in a camp somewhere in Camberwell went on strike, during a mass movement of mutinies and demonstrations to demand faster demobilisation of troops all over Britain and in the army abroad. Despite some investigations we’ve not discovered where this camp was, whether in the Borough or SE5 proper… though theoretically it could be somewhere near to the present Territorial Army Barracks in Flodden Road.

In 1920, the British Government’s determination to send troops, including conscripts, to Russia to try to overthrow the new Soviet state, led to a mass movement inspired by socialists and trade unionists who were sympathetic to the Russian Revolution, to prevent troops and supplies reaching Russia. Local councils of action formed to oppose the move, and actions included dockers refusing to load goods and munitions for these ships. In August 1920, the Camberwell Council of Action demonstrated on Peckham Rye, where it called for “complete trade and peace with Russia”, and demanded that the National Council of Action send an ultimatum to Lloyd George along these lines.

The 1926 General Strike

In May 1926, the leaders of the Trades Union Congress called a General Strike. Nearly 2 million workers all over the country joined the strike, in support of a million miners, locked out by mine-owners for refusing to accept wage cuts of up to 25 per cent, after the ending of the Government’s coal subsidy. The General Council of the TUC didn’t want to call the Strike: they were pushed into it for fear of losing control of the mass of union membership.

Nine days later, afraid of the losing control of the situation, in the face of massive working class solidarity, the TUC General Council called the Strike off.

The General Strike was a massive defeat for the working class. The TUC General Council capitulated; many of the strikers were forced to accept lower wages add conditions: the miners in whose support the Strike was called were eventually starved into submission.

Locally Trades Councils or Councils of Action co-ordinated the union branches and workers involved in the Strike.

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

Camberwell Trades Council march on Mayday demo, 1st, 1926

Camberwell Trades Council organised the Strike locally. According to a post-Strike Report by the Trades Council:
“only a fortnight before the strike, [we] obtained a roneo duplicator and a typewriter. When the possibility of a strike loomed up we made three tentative preparations for this eventuality, viz:

(a) We enquired for an office, which we might take for a month as a minimum.

(b) (b) We obtained a lien on a hall where we might have a large meeting and would run no danger of the hall being cancelled by opponents.

(c) We made arrangements for a Committee meeting to be called the day after the general Strike began, if it did so begin. On May Day we thought the importance of demonstrating was sufficient to warrant us paying for a band, banner bearers etc, and for us to give a lead in having a good turn out. This we had organized and we secured a fine response from Camberwell workers. Whilst on route to Hyde Park came the news of the General Strike declaration – truly a fitting send off, thus demonstrating to the rich loafers in the West End out power and solidarity.”

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

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

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

In the Borough of Camberwell, as it was then, two strike bulletins were produced, the Camberwell Strike Bulletin and the Peckham Labour Bulletin – both produced from Central Buildings, High Street, Peckham.

The South London Observer of Saturday May 15th reported that a man was convicted of selling the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’. The paragraph headed “French workers refuse to blackleg” was thought by the court to be provocative. Police Inspector Hider in his evidence stated that it would cause “a certain feeling among certain people”. Inspector Hider also saw copies of the ‘Camberwell Strike Bulletin’ also produced at Central Buildings on a duplicator by Eddy Jope, who denied any connection with the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’. 

Trams were not running, till the local electricity generating station was reopened by naval ratings…

On May 5th, commercial vehicles were stopped & trashed here by strikers. The trams were in the main kept off the roads. Altogether there were 12 attempts by voluntary (mostly middle class) recruits supported by police and special constables to run trams from Camberwell Depot to New Scotland Yard – resulting in crowds of pickets and supporters attacking scab trams, smashing their windows and pushing them back inside, preventing them from running.

The British Worker (A daily paper put out during the Strike by the TUC) reported:
“BANNED TRAMS SCENE: An unsuccessful attempt was made shortly after four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon to run LCC tramcars from the Camberwell depot.

Earlier in the day two lorries with higher officials of the tramways Department and OMS recruits arrived at the Depot, where a strong force of police had been posted.

A large crowd, including tramwaymen, their wives and sympathisers, collected, and when the first car came out of the Depot gates in Camberwell Green there was a hostile demonstration.

Some arrests were made. Following this incident the cars were driven back in to the Depot to the accompaniment of loud cheers.” (British Worker, 5th May.)

Strike-breaking buses were also stoned in Camberwell on Saturday night (8th May) There were huge public meetings at Camberwell Green, as well as at Peckham Rye and at the triangle near the Eaton Arms, Peckham. During a public meeting at Camberwell Green, waves of police with drawn truncheons marched on the people, who broke and ran after repeated baton charges.

After the TUC sold the strike out, there was confusion here. Crowds of workers gathered at the Tram Depot, not knowing what to do. Each worker had to sign a form on future conditions of service, hours and wages. Some never got their jobs back at all.

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

Camberwell Borough Guardians took a hard line during and after Strike – issued ‘Not Genuinely Seeking Work’ forms to stop strikers getting any dole payments.

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

A plaque put up here remembering Camberwell working people’s action against scabs in the General Strike

1935 Painters’ strike

On March 15th 1935 a strike erupted over trade union membership among the Camberwell Borough Council painters. Eleven non-union painters were employed, but a week later, there being no agreement between the National Society of Painters and the Borough council, 85 painters were sacked. The dispute became official and following a motion condemning the employers from the Camberwell AUBTW, continued for nearly two months. The borough council was prevented under the 1927 Act from making union membership a condition of employment. Two members of the Camberwell NSP branch, E. Milligan and C Laws, were Chairman and Secretary of the Trades Council Industrial Section which strongly supported the strike.

The London Bus strike of 1958.

The Tram Depot later became a Bus Depot. In 1958, bus workers struck for higher wages, in a dispute that lasted nearly two months, but was eventually severely defeated. On May 24th the T&GWU, Camberwell Bus Garage branch organised a march of 250 from Camberwell Green to Peckham Rye to publicise the busmen’s plight. But the strike hadn’t 100% support in the area. A scab organisation known as the People’s League for the Defence of Freedom recruited drivers to drive buses. The scab drivers later revelled in the fact that they had scabbed and publicised an organisation they had formed known as ‘Blacklegs Incorporated’.

In 1998 this northern section of the Bus Garage was squatted for exhibitions and parties.


Though the 1850s saw the end of Camberwell Fair, in many ways though working-class Camberwell recreation had become no less rowdy for being forced inside off the Green.

The New Grand Hall Cinematograph Theatre in Camberwell New Road, opened in 1912, on the north side of Camberwell New Road, between Depot entrance and Camberwell Passage; (it later became a Snooker Hall).

In 1956 there was a Teddy Girls and Boys riot at the New Grand, after they’d watched the pioneering rock ‘n’ roll film Blackboard Jungle, featuring Bill Haley & the Comets. Teddy girls in black jeans encouraged by their boy-friends swarmed across the rows to stamp seats free from their hinges. They stamped, clapped their hands, screamed and beat out the 12 bar blues by kicking seats until they splintered… The police scattered them, then restored order by escorting the Teddy boy ringleaders from the theatre.

Teds were the hoodies of the time: teenage working class kids, in an era of increasing prosperity emerging after the restrictions and poverty of the war years… They were listening to outlandish music that baffled their elders and betters, and getting together for dancing, drink and some splatterings of violence. Gang warfare was common between different ted gangs. The Elephant & Castle area was one of London’s strongest ted areas.  A 2000-strong crowd of teds had fought the police outside Elephant & Castle’s Trocadero cinema shortly before this, inspiring similar battles across the country, mainly after viewings of the film.  Respectable fears, moral panic and mass crackdown followed.

Teds were often scapegoated as the cause of all troubles and many paranoias of authority and conforming social hierarchies were projected onto them.

Today’s kids are similarly seen as out of control, street violence, knifings, shootings etc are widely seen as new and frightening developments: in many ways the terror and legal/political responses mirror the reaction to the teds, but similar scares have emerged repeatedly in the last 200 or so years. Usually no matter how serious developments are, they are represented as unprecedented; often in fact patterns and numbers are very similar. Not to disparage the genuine despair, fear and anger that the current crop of South London murders arouses. Fear of crime though, is always often out of kilter with the reality of crime.  Returning to Camberwell Green, many kids now avoid the place, seeing it as too dangerous to hang out there; recently Peckham and Camberwell teens have been especially targeted as being out of control.  Control of space and potential troublemakers’ access to it, seen in the enclosure and respectabilisation of the green in the 1850s, is reflected in the 6 month exclusion order regularly imposed on the centre of Camberwell over recent years, allowing the police to ‘escort’ anyone under 16 found in the area home whether they are up to anything dodgy or not.


Around 2001, the upper floor of this building housed the clandestine HQ of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), an undercover unit of the Metropolitan Police Service’s Special Branch.

Between 1968 and 2008, when the unit was disbanded, it organised the systematic infiltration of undercover police officers into campaigning and protest groups. Officers pretended to be activists to worm their way into 1000s of groups, from national organisations to small local campaigns, many using the names of dead children to set up false identities. The police spied on campaigns for justice for people killed by racists and by the police; animal rights activists, peace groups, union branches campaigning around health and safety, the anti-apartheid movement, anti-racists, environmental groups, socialists anarchists, feminists, MPs… Many of the (mostly male) officers entered into deceptive relationships with women in false names; they lived with people, fathered children and then disappeared completely when their tour of duty was done. Many acted as agent-provocateurs to get people arrested.
Over the last ten years activists have exposed many of the names and histories of these officers, but much more of what they did remains secret. After it was proved that the unit had spied on the family and campaign of Stephen Lawrence, murdered by racists in 1993, the government announced a Public inquiry into undercover policing would take place. We are still waiting for the first hearings to be held in 2020.
For more info contact:

Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance

Police Spies Out of Lives

Undercover Research Group

Blacklist Support Group

For a local slant on one of the campaigns infiltrated by the SDS, see later on when we visit the Institute of Psychiatry…


Camberwell became well-known for music halls; many were in the back hall of pubs. Music Hall arose from the last of the old tavern ‘free and easies’, where people could get up and do turns, usually songs or comedy acts.

The People’s Palace of Varieties, or Lovejoys, at the Rosemary Branch, Southampton Way, was held in “a long, shabby room adjoining the tavern, furnished with chairs and tables, and illuminated with flaming gas brackets. At one end a stage with footlights screened with blue painted glass. A Chairman sat in front of the stage facing the audience. He wore the most deplorable evening dress. Another gent sat at the piano on the stage. Everybody seemed to be drinking and talking while a man in shirt sleeves was dashing about with a tray loaded with glasses of beer. Each turn was announced by the Chair. He rapped with his hammer both to attract attention and to assist applause. A tall gent sang a song about his wife, his trouble and strife.”

The Rosemary Branch was demolished in 1971. The Castle on the Camberwell Road bears the name of an earlier pub that housed the Bijou Palace of Varieties or Godfrey’s Castle Music Hall from 1875 to 1889.

The Father Redcap pub, on the north side of the Camberwell Green, originally held a music hall built in 1853. On 2nd December, 1867, the audience here could enjoy “the great W J Collins, a banjoist from America, a Shakespearean sketch, Professor Davis in the renowned rope trick, and Mr Mucus Hellmore in his great delineation of Mephistopholes”

Later it was a gay bar at least back to the 1970s till 1997, and later again the Red Star, a party venue, holding many gigs including benefits for various worthy causes. (we will return to this building later).

In 1896, the Dan Leno company opened the “Oriental Palace of Varieties”, on Denmark Hill, which was soon replaced with a new theatre, with a capacity of 1,553, in 1899, named the “Camberwell Palace”. Famous old timers who appeared here included Marie Lloyd, Harry Lauder, Nellie Wallace and Harry Tate.  By 1912, the theatre was showing films as a part of the programme; it became an ABC cinema as “The Palace Cinema” in 1932. Later it reverted to a variety theatre in 1943, but closed on 28 April 1956 and was demolished. (The 1957 film The Smallest Show on Earth, the story of a family-run suburban cinema, was probably based on the Palace).

Nearby at the corner of Denmark Hill and Coldharbour Lane was the “Metropole Theatre and Opera House”, opened in 1894, which held transfers of West End shows: “The theatre had a very ornate interior with private boxes, stalls, dress circle, balcony and gallery. Ladies who came in their fashionable hats were respectfully informed that hats and bonnets were not allowed in the stalls or first two rows of the dress circle.”

No wonder Camberwell starred in a 1915 music hall song. Chalk Farm to Camberwell Green by Lionel Morrekton, about a young lady who went for a ride on the top of a bus with “a fellow, a regular swell”, on what is still the no. 68 bus route:

Chalk Farm to Camberwell Green
All on a summer’s day
Up we climbed on the motor bus
And we started right away

When we got to the end of the ride_
He asked me to go for a walk!
But I wasn’t Camberwell Green
By a very long chalk!

The replacement of live theatre and music by cinema was also reflected locally: the Empire was demolished to build an Odeon cinema in 1939; itself since closed in 1957, becoming Dickie Dirts (see below)… Besides these, on Denmark Hill, where Somerfield now stands, there was the Golden Domes, (later called the Rex and then the Essoldo); across the road, on the site of the Post Office, was the Bijou, known locally as the Bye Joe; and the Coronet, a small cinema in Wells Way.


Where Nandos and the flats behind now stand, was the site of the Empire, later the Odeon, which became, as we said above, Dickie Dirts clothing warehouse. Closing in the late 1970s, it was squatted in August 1984 as a back-up/centre/crashpad/gigspace holding benefits, for the September 1984 Stop the City actions/defence fund. Stop the City was a series of days of action against the capitalist exploiters in the City of London, initially against firms making profits from war and arms manufacture, later expanding to oppose many other causes… 1000s of mainly young anarchist-influenced activists attacked, demonstrated against and besieged City institutions. The Dickie Dirts squat was evicted on 3rd October ’84 by cops, bailiffs and builders; the building’s owners apparently turned up in a Rolls Royce to watch! The three people found in Dickie Dirts at the time were kicked out. The police had broken in on the bailiffs’ behalf; obviously the Met were slightly aggravated by the Stop the City link.

Dickie Dirts was resquatted several times, eg in June 86 for gigs, when  Camberwell indie band House of Love played here.

The Dickie Dirts building, after standing derelict for most of a decade, was demolished in Spring 1993, and a block of flats for homeless young people called ‘The Foyer’ was built on the site, plus a restaurant; this was later replaced by Nandos.

Camberwell has also played host to a number of other squatted venues and social/political spaces and centres, as we will relate…


Crawford squatted social centre, on the corner of Crawford Street and Coldharbour Lane, 2003. Run by the Black star collective (who had previously occupied another squat in the Coldharbour Lane area), the place held gigs, a “lost film festival”, and served as a drop in centre for some local old Jamaican dudes… After the collective handed out invitations to locals to come and get involved (in which they charmingly asserted that they ” are well-mannered and reasonable people…. Not into drugs or anything alike.” This building was still empty 5 years later after its eviction by Lambeth Council.

Looks like the remains of the old Muesli factory still stand


The old Muesli Factory behind the Joiners Arms was squatted around 1992-3… mainly for rave parties etc… By some of our remembrance,  it could be a bit nasty in fact, a lot of aggro and some bad drugs.


And others: the Old Labour Club and Groove Park, which we’ll talk about later), also some others which are bit off the route of this walk:

Location, 299 Camberwell New Rd, Squat party by LSDiezel crew is advertised for 7th Feb 1992. Were other parties held? Probably. Demolished?

Area 7, 64 Camberwell Church Street: An ex-Council Building squatted for an arts centre in 1993 but quickly evicted.

Kwik Fit on Denmark Hill, was squatted for 2 (or more?) punk shows in October + December 2003.

There have been some great local squatted social centres more recently too;

Warham Street, the Black Frog/Camberwell Squatted Centre in 2007

The Library House, behind the Minet Library, squatted 2008



The modern squatters’ movement started in 1969 caused by the contrast of rising rents and widespread homelessness, while thousands of houses stood empty, many being slum clearances and Compulsory Purchase Orders, that local councils had left to rot for years (up to 7 years in some cases). The 1970s saw a huge increase in squatting, both for personal housing needs and increasingly as part of an alternative lifestyle that questioned, opposed or rejected traditional conformist ways of life, including work, the sanctity of private property (including leaving houses empty), and conventional social, sexual and economic values.

Southwark Family Squatters Association had originated in October 1970 when Lewisham squatters occupied some empty houses in Peckham. At this time councils had, under pressure from squatters and lengthening waiting lists, started to licence squats in property they were planning going to use, notably in Lewisham.

Squatting in Camberwell began in January 1971 in Cuthill Road, Allendale Road and Kerfield Crescent (all just to south of Daneville Road) in houses left empty, while the Daneville Road/Selborne Road area was waiting for redevelopment, scheduled in 1974.  Southwark Family Squatters Association moved 4 homeless families in to nos 13 and 25 Cuthill Road, 44 Allendale, and  22 Kerfield Crescent. The Council claimed they were going to repair the houses and use them, but squatters, and others, had their doubts. The families had all been made homeless due to private eviction or were living in properties too small or unhealthy, and had been let down by the council refusing to rehouse them or dragging its feet.

The following report appeared in Camberwell Candles, in February 1971:

“You might be forgiven for not noticing anything very special about these houses. They look ordinary outside And inside, the only noticeable things are the good state of the decoration and the absence of any of those damp patches that afflict many older properties in Camberwell.
But since January, when the Southwark Family Squatting Association moved in
and rehoused four families under eviction orders from their previous homes, 4 of these houses have been the homes of squatters .
Before the squatters moved in these houses were empty with doors and windows boarded up – usually a sign that nothing’s going to happen for a long time.

The Council say that the Houses were awaiting “patch repairs” – which you might find curious if you were to go and inspect them. The only repairs needed that anyone other than the Council can see – are an outside wall that needs some attention, and a roof that leaks slightly into a landing – just enough with
an hour’s rain, as one of the squatters’ children put it, “to make a baby’s puddle” …. hardly enough to warrant boarding the place up when there is a housing waiting list of thousands, many of whom are desperate for a decent home.

Squatting sadness

The story of Southwark’s squatters is a sad one. NOT just because the squatters’ hopes for decent homes are being frustrated the Borough Council sticking to the rules of bureaucracy – though that may
NOT just because some families in really desperate need are being kept waiting because houses intended for them have been taken instead by squatters – though that may be true.
BUT BECAUSE the Council and the squatting associations are in conflict and are
frustrating each other’s activities IN SPITE OF THE FACT that their aims are basically the same – to improve the housing situation in Southwark.
THE REASON for this is simply that the two sides are not cooperating with each
THE BLAME for this non-cooperation non-cooperation is the Council’s. The Southwark Family Squatting Association wants to cooperate: the Council does not


Camberwell’s first squatters are in Cuthill Road, Allendale Road and Kerfield Crescent. Before the squatters moved in, the 4 houses were boarded up and there was no way of finding out exactly what was going to happen to them. The whole area, including Dane ville Road & Selborne Road,is due for redevelopment in 1974. It seems un likely that houses should be kept empty for that long – but it has been known to happen before.


The Press Officer at the Town Hall when asked why these houses had been boarded up, said he had no details of particular properties, but that most such houses were in development areas due for demolition. Southwark now has about 1600 empty houses, 1200 of them due for demolition this year, and the other 400 due for repairs.

The Asst. Town Clerk, Mr Thomas, said that the four houses in question aimed at putting people into property were in fact due for “patch repairs. And he complained that the squatters, by taking over the houses before the repairs were done, had deprived other families at the top of the waiting list of their rightful tenancies.

When asked what repairs needed to be done, Mr Thomas said that he could not give details – not that there was any secret about it, but because with hundreds of repair jobs either on the files awaiting approval or in the hands of various sub-contractors this would be difficult.

Why did the Council not get the repairs done before the squatters moved in? Because, apparently, there is always “considerable delay what with decisions and the sub-contractors’ – with architects’ plans and committees decisions and sub-contractors’ own schedules.


When given Mr Thomas’ information that the houses had been due for repairs, Mr Barry Stone, of the Southwark Family Squatting Association said that if only the Association had known that in advance, they would not have taken them over: “WE are only too pleased if the Council are going to USE a house.
If they would only tell us which empty houses they do not intend to use and which are awaiting repairs, we will vacate the ones they want to use. Our programme is aimed at property  that is not going to be used again.
But the Council refuse to give us any information”.

The squatters have also told the Council that if the Council would co-operate, they would give an undertaking only to house people on the Council’s housing list, and in consultation with an officer from the Council.


Aston and Zoila Bartley are now at 13 Cuthill Road, having squatted previously at Gordon Road Peckham, where they had an eviction order. Prior to that they were in Bermondsey, but the flat was damp and unhealthy and in their opinion “No place for the kids!!
They have 3 children, the youngest a baby of a few weeks born by Caesarean.
In Bermondsey Mrs Bartley had pneumonia and a lot of bronchitis – due
to some extent at least to the damp.

Joseph and Joan Peters are at 44 Allendale Road. They too have squatted before, and been evicted, having left a fiat in Lausanne Road that they found far too small for the whole family.
The Peters have had trouble even getting on the housing list at all,
apparently through letters to and from the Council going astray somewhere along the line. This has been more than usually frustrating, since one of their children is “in care” and not allowed home until “suitable accommodation” is found. But they are hopeful of hearing good news from the Council before too long.
Gloria McFarlane of 25 Cuthill Road lives there with her husband Lloyd and their 4 children. They too were evicted from Gordon Road, having already been evicted from a flat in Bermondsey when their landlord wanted the flat for his own family.
The McFarlanes were offered accommodation in Barry Lodge in Sydenham.
They refused it –  “It was so filthy!”

John & Beryl Lindsay… 22 Kerfield Crescent. They had a flat in Southwark from which the
landlord evicted them in September.
The Council refused to offer them a place at all – for the unfortunate reason that, although they have been together as man and wife for 8 years they are not officially married, and are therefore classed as an engaged couple!
Since they moved into Kerfield Crescent, they have been offered a place in Chaucer House. “But the state of the place was so bad”, said Mrs Lindsay, “that I wouldn’t take
children in there. A friend of mine was sent there –  just for 6 months
they told her – she’s been there four years!”
(Report from Camberwell Candles magazine, St Giles Camberwell Church, Feb 1971)

The were some 1600 empty street properties in the Borough of Southwark at the time. Southwark Council refused to do deals with squatters as other councils had – the local authority was old-Labour controlled, John O’ Grady (later infamously to join the gentrifying redevelopers of the London Docklands Development Corporation) was in charge, and their approach to housing and local politics in general was “we do stuff FOR people, they don’t do it for themselves.” They evicted the Camberwell squatters and trashed the houses to stop them being occupied, claiming the houses could be patch repaired & used for people in the normal way, and that squatters were “queue jumping”.

In response the squatters launched a campaign for the Council to recognise the squatters, and give them licences… their tactics included marches, demos, and deputations to the Town Hall. On 21 April 1971 FSA families invaded the Town Hall Council Chamber, 50 people barricaded themselves in and held an alternative council meeting. When Council Leader John O’ Grady tried to speak the squatters’ Mayor ruled him out of order!

They also occupied Transport House (the Walworth Labour Party HQ) on 10 May 1971, 30 people were involved, waving a banner reading: ‘Labour Southwark fights the Homeless’.

The Council still refused to deal with the squatters, and pressed on in court, but good legal defences meant cases got adjourned in many cases… Some Council social workers were in fact supporting the squatters,  despite pressure from above. Southwark applied for injunctions to stop named squatters entering council property (a tactic revived by Southwark against squatters in the Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle in 2006) – but in fact made a mess of this.

We’ll continue this story round the corner in Grove Lane…


Camberwell’s association with mental health care/imprisonment goes back centuries: there were two large ‘lunatic asylums’ on Peckham Road in the 18th-19th centuries… (Which we’ll come to later)

The Maudsley

The Maudsley Hospital dates from 1907, when Dr Henry Maudsley offered London County Council £30,000 (subsequently increased to £40,000) to help found a new mental hospital that would:
– be exclusively for early and acute cases,
– have an out-patients’ clinic,
– provide for teaching and research.

The Hospital was always intended to be a progressive centre of treatment and research rather than confinement and “asylum”. World War I intervened and the Hospital didn’t open until 1923. A specific Act of Parliament had to be obtained (1915) to allow the institution to accept voluntary patients.

The Maudsley continues to provide in-patient and community mental health care to local people in Southwark and Lambeth and nationally across the UK, though contested, and problematic, (see below) In close proximity to the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London it is also a contributor to both psychiatric research and the training of nursing, medical and psychology staff in psychiatry.

As part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust (SLaM) it also has close links with Bethlem Royal Hospital – the original “Bedlam”.

Reclaim Bedlam, and Mad Pride

“In 1997, the Bethlem and Maudsley NHS Trust marked the Bethlem hospital’s 750th anniversary with a series of celebrations. Pete, who had been a patient at the Maudsley, saw nothing to celebrate in either the original Bedlam (“a symbol for man’s inhumanity to man, for callousness and cruelty,” in historian Roy Porter’s words), or the state of mental health care.

1997 saw the 750th anniversary of ‘Bedlam’ – the asylum which was the precursor of the Maudsley. Inside the Maudsley were anniversary “celebrations”, outside was a big demo of mental health survivors under the banner of  “reclaim bedlam”, organised by Pete Shaughnessy.

Reclaim Bedlam organised ‘Raving in the park”, a picnic/rave/a sit-in outside the original Bedlam site at the Imperial War Museum to protest.

“Maudsley & Bethlem Mental Health Trust saw itself as la crème de la crème of mental health. In 1997, it was more like the Manchester City of mental health. Situated in one of the poorest areas of the country, it put a lot of resources into its national projects, and neglected its local ones.

It’s history went back to the first Bedlam, the first institution of mental_health. If you pop down to the museum at Bethlem Hospital, you will see a picture proudly displayed of the 700th celebrations in 1947, with the Queen Mother planting a tree. Well, not exactly planting, more like putting her foot on a spade.

So, when some PR bureaucrat came up with the idea of 750th_celebrations, it must have all made sense. An excuse for a year of corporate beanos. The Chief Executive could picture the MBE in the cabinet. There was only one problem: in 1947, the patients would have been well pleased with a party, in 1997 some patients wanted more.

In the so-called ‘user friendly’ 90s, I thought ‘commemoration’ was more appropriate. So, a few of us went to battle with the Maudsley PR machine. It was commemoration vs. celebration.

I think for the first time, we were taking the user movement out of the ghetto of smoky hospital rooms and into the mainstream. We spoke at Reclaim the Streets and political events. We would gatecrash conferences to push the message. I know we pissed users off by our_style; personally I found some users more judgemental than the staff we talked to. They were even a few users who wanted to have their stall at the ‘Funday’ and cross our picket line. Frustrating. When that proposal was put to me, I lost my nut, which meant I threatened to_bring Reclaim the Streets down to smash up their stall. Because of that remark, I had two police stations hassling me up to the day_of our Reclaim Bedlam picnic and the picket at the staff ball, the_appropriate opening event of the celebrations, had to be dropped.

We had our first picnic at Imperial War Museum, one of the sites of Bedlam Hospital; Simon Hughes MP came and spoke. Features in Big Issue and Nursing Times, and we were afloat.

Our next event was to screw up the Thanksgiving Service at St Paul’s_Cathedral which a member of the Royal Family was attending. BBC2’s ‘From the Edge’ got in on the act for that one, and it’s widely_thought that because of our antics on the steps of St Paul’s – as well as stopping the traffic at 11am with a boat forcing Tower Bridge to open – that the Chief Exec didn’t get his MBE.

Our next event was to join up with ECT Anonymous and the All_Wales User and Survivor Group and picket the Royal College of Psychiatry. It was the first time Reclaim Bedlam had been involved in International Direct Action. Keeping up the pressure on the Royal College of Psychiatry we hijacked their anti-stigma campaign, ‘In Every Family in the Land’. The soundbite I used was: ‘the psychiatrist is patting you on the head with one hand, and with the other hand he /she is using compulsory treatment to inject you up the bum.” (Pete Shaughnessy)

Hundreds of mental patients around the country supported Reclaim Bedlam, and the BBC2 series From The Edge made a programme about it. At a time of many community- care horror stories, a very different message was finally getting out.

Pete and others around Southwark Mind organised a demo against SANE head-quarters in 1999 “opposing their support (at the time) for compulsory treatment orders being proposed by the government – to no small part because of SANE’s lobbying – things started to get serious. We managed to get 200 people turning up to the SANE march – which at the time was an unprecedented figure for a ‘mad’ demo. We had whistles, drums, a 7-foot long syringe together with a kitchen table, corn-flakes and milk, tridents (because we’re the devil), banners, flyer you name it – we pulled out the stops. SANE didn’t know what the fuck had hit them. They dropped their support for CTO’s and to this day, they’re still reeling from this event.”

Then Pete went on to found Mad Pride with Robert Dellar, Simon Barnett and Mark Roberts.

Mad Pride orchestrated a campaign of publicity and protest – holding a vigil on Suicide Bridge in Archway, to remember all of the people who’ve died there and all of the other people who commit suicide – ‘murder by society.’; protesting against the pharmaceutical industry’s predominance over psychiatric services; organising a Mad Pride open-air festival in Stoke Newington in July 2000; the publication of a book ‘ Mad Pride: A Celebration of Mad Culture,’ which was highly acclaimed and successful… “we got user-led mental health issues into the media as never before, and we inspired many people. We also, without a doubt, moved the paradigm of the British ‘user movement’ left-wards.”

Pete Shaughnessy tragically took his own life in December 2002.
Sadly Robert Dellar also died in 2016.

See Into the Deep End, Pete’s chapter for Mad Pride – A Celebration of Mad Culture. Edited by Ted Curtis, Robert Dellar, Esther Leslie & Ben Watson.

A plaque we left here in memory of Reclaim Bedlam

At the time this walk was originally thought up, South London mad folk were up in arms about the closure of the Psychiatric Emergency Clinic at Maudsley, the 24 hour emergency service for mentally ill people in crisis. mental health trust, the South London and Maudsley Trust, ran up surpluses in the preceding year, and was told it had to find £8m of savings the following year, because the two primary care trusts which fund the NHS locally were cutting their mental health budgets. The Maudsley’s walk-in emergency clinic, the only 24-hour self-referral service of its kind in the UK, open since the 1950s, was targeted for the cuts. The Maudsley said that King’s College Hospital A&E, just across the road, was creating a separate area to deal with this, and that voluntary sector providers were coming in to run an information service: None of which has happened. Rallies, demos, of mad and allegedly sane alike followed for two years, but the clinic closed for clinical admissions and treatment in January 2007.

The chief executive of King’s admitted that they never had any intention of creating a separate area to replace the emergency clinic. I’d rather be mad than a lying bureaucrat.
The campaign to re-open an emergency clinic continues.

Madness, Creativity, Individuality

“Creative Routes have identified normality as a mental health issue.”

Between 2006-2008, Creative Routes, an arts charity, run by the mad for the mad, organised the Bonkersfest on Camberwell Green: a free annual one day summer arts and music festival, illuminating and celebrating madness, creativity, individuality and eccentricity; combating stigma and promoting good mental health – A day of loony celebrations for everyone – mad or not… Sadly missed.
Creative Routes celebrated and promoted the unique creativity of mad people, promoting mental well-being, and creatively campaigning against discrimination and for the acceptance of individuality in society.

… they also believed MADNESS should be viewed positively facilitating an outpouring of immense and unique creative energy. Wahey!


Institute of Psychiatry – the South London Animal Movement picketed here regularly in the early 1980s, protesting the Institute’s policy of testing on animals. At this time we think Mike Chitty, undercover police spy run by the Special Demonstration Squad (remember them, from Camberwell New Road, above?) was infiltrating this group. The Animal Liberation Front also raided the lab here in 1984, releasing caged rats, destroying computer tapes and trashing the lab.


No 30 De Crespigny Park used to be a long term squat, a very large house, squatted on and off for many years in the 1980s and 1990s, lived in by lots of lovely people; finally evicted in 1999.


Continuing the story of squatting locally (started at Daneville Road, above)…
93 Grove Lane was the site of Southwark’s Homeless Families Department

On 2 June 1971, the office of Edna Cummings (head of the Department) was besieged, then occupied by Southwark Families Squatting Association. 25-30 people got inside, while other squatters stood outside with placards. The occupiers answered phones, and claimed they’d set up a new council squatting department! They demanded Edna Cummings’ resignation and more housing for homeless families. The 5 hour-occupation was eventually removed.

Eventually after the 1971 elections, younger, left Labour councillors who supported the squatters pushed through deals and many squats got licences. In July 1971 the council made deals with the Family Squatting Association, which led to the creation of Southwark Self Help Housing. 30 houses were initially given over to them, many of which had been previously scheduled for demolition. It is still going today, having bought all its housing stock from the Council.
The council office at no 93 was later closed and has been turned into flats.

A plaque left here celebrating the occupation of the homeless families department.


In the 1980s many of Camberwell Grove’s huge Georgian houses were lying empty, in decline. They were in a very bad state of repair, rising damp, wet and dry rot, leaking roofs, gutters/ downpipes knackered, smashed windows. But their old spiral staircases had been listed, so the Council couldn’t just knock them all down, to their great dismay.

Originally several houses, at least numbers 201 to 218, were squatted in 1983, and a community built up, which worked very communally and collectively, at least for a while. Organic gardens, growing vegetables were set up, and many houses shared power supplies with each other – some of it obtained in slightly unorthodox ways:

“I lived for a couple of grim years, in a gigantic pile on Camberwell Grove, just round the corner from the top secret government listening station (easily identified by the large graffiti we used to place on local road signs reading “This way to Top Secret Government Listening Station”). I became adept at tapping neighbours gas and water supplies. At one point a resident eight houses down was supplying 40 squatters with power from the spur that ran the train layout in his garden shed. I think he had half a dozen Hornby Dublo models that, for the six months before they caught us, were drawing more power than the British Rail London to Manchester line…”

In 1984 Southwark Council offered them a deal: short-term tenancies of 18 months up to 5 years though Hyde Housing Association. This sparked a furious debate over what to do; since many squatters in those days, especially those influenced by anarchism and other similar ideas advocated refusing to co-operate with councils and other authorities at all. A leaflet was circulated urging people to do no deals, and a meeting (at no 207 in November 1984) urged this position. The majority voted to accept the deal with Hyde, though. Nos 201-218 were ‘shortlifed’ (given indeterminate licences to remain with no guarantee of rehousing or proper rights, but free from immediate eviction) in February ‘85. They formed a Housing Co-op. Some houses were taken to the high court for eviction proceedings in July 1985, and many were evicted around 1989-90, though some squatting survived and sporadically still houses in Camberwell Grove were being occupied into the 21st Century. I’m not sure when the Co-op was evicted if it was…

We left a plaque here to commemorate the Camberwell Grove squats


This was known as Groove Park, c. 1991-2? A large squat centre/gig venue, occupying a Council children’s home (which closed down after a scandal due to mistreatment of kids in September 1990, and immediately squatted). It was renamed Groove Park, and put on gigs, cafes, raves, and other fun and games. “Human-sized ducks hang from the ceiling. Parachutes in others; industrial waste grows into metal sculptures and the walls have been decorated by a dozen Jackson Pollocks.” 20 odd people lived here, and formed an ‘Arts Co-op’. leafletting the neighbours claiming to be all teetotal non smoking vegetarians (somewhat inaccurately)… Many locals signed their petition to be allowed to remain in the building, including neighbour Terry Jones of Monty Python (though he later came round to complain about the noise, apparently!).


113 Grove Park was formerly a Listening station, run by a MI6/Police/MI5 combination.

MI6 Telephone intercepts were for some time handled at the London Station or VBR, by a group of specialists and linguists known as UKZ and operating with a team of specially cleared BT engineers known as the OND. Metropolitan Police Interception and Special Services Centre was situated at 113 Grove Park, Camberwell, London SE5 and served as a joint MI5/MI6/MPSB/C7/GC & CS unit. This had been in operation as ‘Grove Park’ since around 1919 and was still a covert listening site well into the 1980s.

Some operations were transferred to Sandridge near St Albans in the late 1930’s and that base was taken over by GCHQ in 1946. A fleet of detector vans was based there throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. By 1970’s had reverted to Home Office control and had became a Surveillance Research centre developing equipment for Grove Park and other users.


The large house (a former youth offending training centre) and extensive land here has been empty for a while. The supposed owners are trying to sell it on for 10.5 million as it is, with the planning permission granted. They got a 4 million mortgage from the Secretary of state for communities 2 years ago.. (an expect to make a 6.5million profit when they sell).

There has been a community campaign to prevent the sale and save the land and the trees; hopefully as a community space. The house was squatted previously, and the house and land was squatted as part of the campaign (around 2017); and re-named GroveArk… Check out their wonderful facebook page

The squatters lost in court in August 2019; but on 6 November 2019, they resisted eviction: “squatters and Rebel’s barricaded and climbed on the roof, safe for now.#homes4all Resist ALL evictions. Calling for anyone to come and support tomorrow morning in case bailiffs return. Needs tree climbers , rebel feast tonight. Musical protest resistance tomorrow morning onwards. Wish list people, rebels , pallets, wood, rope, chains and locks, lock ons, food, paint tools, super glue, long ladders, transport, empty building addresses, musicians ( for round the fire in massive tree grove garden .) Cake ,flap jack, torches, bring friends hang out on the frontline for free Adrenalin. Save one of the last groves in this part of south London. Please network to media and social media” 

The building was evicted in January 2020: “The large house on Grove Park that has been squatted on and off for the last couple of years is currently being cleared. Started about 8.30 this morning. About 50 bailiffs and private security and another 30 or 40 police and community support officers. Seemed pretty disproportionate to me. Grove Park itself closed to traffic. Given the general shortage of visible policing in Camberwell and Peckham it seemed a bit galling that so many are able to turn up to oversee the needs of a private landlord. I know they are there to monitor the bailiffs too but it seemed like a lot. By the property owner’s admission the squatters only occupied the property when his maintenance team left the place unlocked. That huge area of mature woodland behind the house will, I guess, shortly be cleared for more ‘luxury’ housing.”

There’s a petition to save the space


St Giles Church features the first recorded black presence in Southwark, as being in Camberwell, in its records of the African John Primero, servant to Sir Thomas Hunt, baptised April 3 1607, buried St Giles Church 3 Feb 1615. (Obviously this only means that earlier records may no longer exist).

West Indians began to settle in numbers in Camberwell in the early 1950s, an offshoot of the Brixton community, though there were more Pakistanis and Indians mixed in here. Caribbeans moved in mainly to the north of Camberwell Green, ie in the poorer parts of the area, mostly in run-down, short lease 2-3 storey houses. The black community here was less dense, more scattered than the more obvious Brixton West Indian community; Camberwell was maybe a slightly more favourable climate than Brixton in some ways. There seems to have been less racial tension, maybe partly because the incomers were less clustered and noticeable as a group.  The long association of Harold Moody and his family here as local doctor and activist may have also contributed to a more accepting attitude (see below, Wren Street).  Camberwell Borough Council were said to be more positive towards the migrants than Lambeth. A figure of 1500 black residents comes up for 1956, perhaps though, this was for the Borough of Camberwell as a whole.

Since then clearly the population has grown, and black people now number some 20 per cent of Camberwell’s inhabitants, according to the stats.

Racism and fascism have reared their head in the area; anti-racism has been around for just as long. We will return to this later on…

Timothy Brown is also buried in St Giles Churchyard: he lived nearby at Peckham Lodge, Rye Lane, in the early 19th Century. He was known as ‘Equality’ Brown due to his outspoken democratic views. Among other things he insisted on calling a meeting of parishioners in the Church to get a resolution of sympathy for Queen Caroline, around 1820: th estranged wife of king George IV had become a cause celebre for opponents of the monarchy and establishment. But the parish churchwardens wouldn’t allow this meeting to be held on church grounds… Inspired by Brown, a deputation set out from Peckham with an address of support for the Queen; ‘Equality” Brown, however, is said to have died in the very day it set out…


Behind the Grove Tavern, at 45 Grove Lane, Camberwell Hall, built in 1748, was by the mid-19th Century used as a venue for social activities, including the Camberwell Working Men’s Institute, who held classes and lectures here. Dickens included it in Sketches by Boz.

The Working Men’s Institutes were set up initially by middle class reformers to oversee education of working class men; partly to help them improve themselves, though also to try to wean them from either drink, immoral behaviour and crime, or from extreme radical politics. They mainly encouraged adult education, sobriety, self-improvement; but they also did provide a venue for many artisans and working-class men to come together and discuss ideas and knowledge. Although politics was generally frowned upon, many groups of working men drew upon this experience, and became radically political active; some groups split directly from WMIs to form self-organised working men’s political and social clubs.

Radical groups met at Camberwell Hall: for example a meeting of the Freedmen’s Aid Society at Camberwell Hall was held to hail the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Art critic John Ruskin lectured here in 1865, it being a short walk from his house Born in Herne Hill, Ruskin lived at no 163 Denmark Hill at this time, opposite modern Ruskin Park.

John Ruskin, 1819 -1900, lived most of his life in Herne Hill and Camberwell, and is best known for his work as an art critic and social commentator; he was also an author, poet and artist. Ruskin’s essays on art and architecture were very influential in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

As an Art critic, he was heavily judgemental. He supported the pre-Raphaelites when they were widely disapproved of as being too avant-garde, and was particularly outspoken in support of Millais’ “blasphemous” paintings of Christ.

His books on architecture, The Stones of Venice and Seven Lamps of Architecture argued that art cannot be separated from morality, by which he meant that the arts should be the expression of the whole moral being of the artists, and of the quality of the society in which the artist lived. He believed that man achieved their own humanity through labour, but through creative labour, not drudgery. He attacked mechanisation and standardisation of goods; this led him increasingly into rebellion against 19th century capitalism. “Mens pleasure in the work by which they make their bread” lies at the heart of a just society, was his underlying thesis. His view was that Capitalism was turning workers into machines: he viewed craft and artisan skill as vitally important, and looked back in some ways to the Middle Ages, to craft-based guilds. He also condemned the separation of manual and intellectual labour… “the workman ought to be often thinking, and the thinker often to be working… As it is… the world is full of morbid thinkers and miserable workers.”

Fundamentally Ruskin condemned the division of labour, which formed part of the heart of capitalism. His ideas were crucially influential on the development of William Morris, and the Arts and Crafts Movement; he also influenced the setting up of the National Trust, the National Art Collections Fund and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

Following a crisis of religious belief Ruskin abandoned art criticism at the end of the 1850s, moving towards commentary on politics, under the influence of his great friend Thomas Carlyle. In Unto This Last he expounded his theories about social justice, which influenced the development of the British Labour party and of Christian socialism. Upon the death of his father, Ruskin declared that it was not possible to be a rich socialist and gave away most of his inheritance.

Ruskin lectured at the Camberwell Working Men’s Institute; his talk on “Work and Play” was given on January 24th, 1865, and took this theme: that work had to be useful, fulfilling and enjoyable.

He founded the charity known as the Guild of St George in the 1870s and endowed it with large sums of money as well as a remarkable collection of art. He also gave the money to enable Octavia Hill to begin her practical campaign of housing reform. He also taught at the Working Men’s College, London and was the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, from 1869 to 1879, he also served a second term.

In 1871 Ruskin began publication of Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. Between 1871 and 1878 it was issued in monthly parts and until 1884 at irregular intervals. Ruskin intended the work to be a “continual challenger to the supporters of and apologists for a capitalist economy”. It was Ruskin’s socialist writing that influenced trade unionists and political activists such as Tom Mann and Ben Tillett.

Fors Clavigera: 89th Letter (1873) 

”Trade Unions of England – Trade Armies of Christendom, what’s the roll-call of you, and what part or lot have you, hitherto, in this Holy Christian Land of your Fathers? Whose is the wealth of the world but yours? Whose is the virtue? Do you mean to go on for ever, leaving your wealth to be consumed by the idle and your virtue to be mocked by the vile?

The wealth of the world is yours; even your common rant and rabble of economists tell you that: “no wealth without industry.” Who robs you of it, then, or beguiles you? Whose fault is it, you cloth-makers, that any English child is in rags? Whose fault is it, you shoemakers, that the street harlots mince in high-heeled shoes and your own babies paddle bare-foot in the street slime? Whose fault is it you bronzed husbandmen, that through all your furrowed England, children are dying of famine?”

Like so much of London’s interesting underground geography, Camberwell Hall has now sadly been sold off for housing for the rich. In an advert for the sale of the building, some of its history was regurgitated as sanitised heritage, to help bump up the developers’ profit.
More on Ruskin

We left a plaque remembering the Hall’s past


The old Labour Club, at 84 Camberwell Church Street was squatted for gigs & parties in November 1990 or so… Some of crew involved had previously run the pioneering Peckham Dole House Squat 1989-90, one of first inner London Squat rave venues.

The Labour Club was described by Southwark Squatting/Housing Comic Ship News thus: “Conscientious types, world muzak, Country and western etc… Scenewise, a bit off the beaten track. Labour party nipped back in to resquat their ideological home while occupants were out…”

According to one of the organisers/residents:

“Not much I can remember about the Labour Club, bit too tripped out. Got pigged one night when Eat Static were due to play… The Caff was on a Friday called ‘Fresh From The Skip…’ or something similar… Bands that played included Poisoned Electrick Head, Back To The Planet, RDF, Brain Of Morbius… we also used to put gigs on in what is now The Stirling (or is it The Castle), over the road, even persuaded the Levellers to play for nout…The saddest thing about the place was that we weren’t evicted, we all fucked off to a festival one weekend and when got back to London the owners (the labour party) had squatted it and were turfing everything out onto the road (we’d all moved out by then, squatting somewhere a lot cleaner in Peckham, the Labour Club was very difficult to use as a home although good as a venue). This was after some woman from their head office when it was up Walworth road turned up at the door and ordered us out, then returned with the police a few minutes later after we told her to fuck off. They couldn’t be bothered and told her to take us to court. The police also turned up to check our leccy supply about a month after it was squatted, thinking we were abstracting (not at that point) as our door bell was a length of flex

hanging out the top floor window attached to some empty beer cans; if they’d bothered to look at the flex they’d seen it was attached to nothing. Thick cunts!!…”

A plaque was put up here to remember the Labour Club squat



Under the old Poor Law systems that preceded the Welfare State, the poor who were unable or unwilling to work were the responsibility of the Parish authorities. These local worthies being ratepaying respectable folk, responsible to their fellow ratepayers, tried to spend as little as possible on unnecessary expenses like relieving the skint and destitute. Poor folk were often forced out of the parish if not native, or incarcerated in Workhouses, which increasingly became prisons for the lower orders, feared and hated. Especially `after the New Poor law was introduced in 1834, the Workhouse was made as inhospitable and repressive as possible to discourage people from resorting to it unless they had no other option. Men and women were split up, families divided, backbreaking labour was normal and the food was usually scanty and of dubious quality.

The old Workhouse, Havil Street

Camberwell’s old Workhouse stood here on the corner of Camberwell Church Street and Havil Street. The Workhouse had been built in 1727-8, despite opposition from local worthies, who didn’t see why they should pay for it. It was rebuilt several times here, most notably in 1827. This latest building was “very hot in the summer and particularly draughty in the winter.”

Over the years, the Havil Street site became increasingly important as a hospital. In 1873 a large new infirmary was erected at the north of the site, at the junction with Brunswick Road. Its central administrative block was five storeys high and contained offices, staff accommodation, and special wards.

The infirmary buildings were further extended in 1899-1903 with new ward blocks, operating theatre, and nurses’ home. A large administration block fronted onto Brunswick Square (now St Giles Road). The Board of Guardians, the Borough Council officers responsible for giving out ‘relief’ (benefits)and administering the Workhouse, had their office built on the site of the old Workhouse… (maybe not just because the land was vacant:  presumably the Workhouse site would have had enough bad resonances with the poor to scare some off from applying for relief!?) The Workhouse buildings were demolished in 1905.

In 1930, the Havil Street site was taken over completely by the London County Council and renamed St Giles’ Hospital. Many of the original buildings have now been demolished to make way for flats.

In 1878, Camberwell erected a new workhouse at a site to the west of Gordon Road, Peckham. [Aside: this was the old site of the convent at Nazareth House; after the Workhouse closed its derelict sheds became a dosshouse known as the Spike. The empty hospital buildings were partly demolished for flats in the 1990s, the other half of the site became a scrap recycling project and was then squatted in 1999, to become the famous Spike. Several people lived here, had parties, and organised many projects until its eviction in 2009.]

The Right to Live

Camberwell had a long tradition of unemployed organising themselves to fight for more generous systems of benefits. (Interestingly Myatt’s Fields Park was bought & turned into a landscaped park, after over 10 years of local campaigning, and laid out 1887-8. The work was actually done by the unemployed. After unemployed rioting in the West End in 1886, the authorities set up work-for-your-charity schemes for the doleys to try to stop them causing trouble. The park opened in 1889.)

During the high unemployment of 1905, a Camberwell Joint Unemployed Committee campaigned locally for more relief from the Guardians, having a membership of 1,500.

In the early 1920s Camberwell Green was also the starting point for rallies and demonstrations against unemployment, and against government measures which hit the unemployed hard.

After the First World War, unemployment rocketed. Partly this resulted from the change in the economy from the ending of the War/munitions industries, partly employment and economic figures had been distorted with hundreds of thousands of men in uniform. With large numbers of unemployed ex-servicemen looking for work, and firms laying people off, many working class people were thrown into poverty. This was not taken lying down however. From 1920 on, local unemployed committees organised against government measures to restrict money for relief of poverty and unemployment; against local authorities who were administering these restrictions (and in many cases adding some of their own) and against firms who were laying workers off, or working lots of overtime… Many of these committees were organised by trade unionists and socialists and communists who had been active in the strike movements before, during and after the War, and many members were unemployed ex-servicemen, who had spent years in the trenches only to come back to hardship.

In 1921, most of the Committees combined to form the National Unemployed Workers (Committee) Movement or NUWM.

The early to mid 19th Century saw a sharp rise in the number of people diagnosed as insane and committed to institutions; possible reasons for this include the social dislocation and pressures of industrialisation, urbanisation, with vast numbers of people being forced off the land and flocking into factories and slums to survive; although higher numbers being diagnosed may have contributed.

Rebellious, awkward or unorthodox behaviour could also land you in the asylum; poverty and increasing turbulence of life also drove many people mad. No adequate figures exist, but large numbers of people were forced into asylums as social control, or as a cheap alternative to workhouse.

The alternative to the Workhouse… the Madhouse

As mentioned above, Camberwell has hosted institutions for the treatment/incarceration of people with mental health problems for centuries. Two such ‘hospitals’ used to stand on Peckham Road:

Camberwell House and Peckham House

Camberwell House, a huge private establishment, stood on the north side behind the Town Hall, occupying the land as far as Southampton Way (where the Sceaux Gardens Estate is now). Built originally as a school, it was converted into a ‘lunatic asylum’ in 1846. Holding up to 483 inmates it was the largest of its kind in the metropolis in the late 19th Century.

A painting of Camberwell House

The institution was held to be “the epitome of the enlightened approach to mental disorders at a time when the public asylums were busy creating the ignorance and brutality, the mistrust, that still lingers in the public mind today of mental homes” (Blanch); the proprietors’ pioneering regime contrasted with the cruel and barbarous conditions prevalent in Bedlam and other asylums. “The utmost liberty, with safety, is permitted”, it was said of the regime there.

While it was said to cater to ‘all classes’, the private paying guest was clearly at the forefront of the proprietors’ minds… Not only was care emphasised, but the hospital also provided some pretty plush facilities for its ‘patients’: 20 acres of grounds (some of which were over Peckham Road, where Lucas Gardens are now) cricket, football and hockey pitches, tennis and squash courts, croquet; there were garden parties, dances (in a purpose built ball room!) theatricals, concerts, billiards… Camberwell House eventually closed in 1955: the building are now part of the University of the Arts.

Peckham House, on the other hand, (which stood on the site now occupied by the Harris Academy, Peckham, was clearly intended for the more plebeian end of the market. An old mansion till 1826, it then became a public asylum, in response to the urgent need for “a suitable establishment for the insane poor”; and to the urgent need for local parishes to cut the cost of sending their mad poor to public asylums north of the river.

It was smaller than Camberwell House, holding around 350 people; again it was supposed to be for “all ages and classes”. but in 1844, there were 203 pauper and 48 private inmates.  Pauper inmates were sent from various parishes, (an allowance was paid for their upkeep – 17s. 6d. in 1874, though not sure if that’s per year, per week or what?)

Being a public asylum, Peckham House was regularly checked out by the authorities that paid for it. Although much more so than today, you have to read between the lines, the inspectors reported that the accommodation was ‘excellent’, but consistently there were complaints about the food. Even the stingy worthies who pulled the purse strings were stirred into action: “this house has always been a source of trouble to us upon the subject of diet…”

Peckham House in the 1950s (south elevation)

In 1844, patients received on alternate days either meat, potatoes and bread, or soup and bread. It was described mouthwateringly: “the soup is made from the liquer in which the meat from the whole establishment (private paupers and servants) is boiled the previous day.” Please sir, can I have some more?

All in all, despite its ‘excellent’ accommodation, Peckham House was considered to be in a bad state in 1844, and may have only stayed open because the vestries who paid for it realised that the only alternative place for most of its poor inmates would be the workhouse – at their expense.

Class and money divided those interned here. In 1874, ‘Private’ patients whose “friends paying from one to one and a half guineas for their board, lodging and attendance” lived in separate blocks, in better circumstances than paupers… According to a South London Press reporter,  “the rooms are light and cheerful, ruddy fires burn in the grates. Here are bathrooms, with a supply of hot and cold water, and a bagatelle table for the amusement of the patients… In connection with this block is a pleasant strip of garden…” In the next ward “we rise a step in the social scale. ‘People who have moved in a superior station” my guide whispers as we enter. They are quiet and orderly people… The apartments are superior to the last… lounges and couches give a decided air of home comfort to the place.”  The final ward was “a long and elegantly furnished room…” About 42 ‘ladies’ inhabited this ward, paying fees of 5 to 20 guineas a week… Every comfort was allotted to them.

The asylum in 1874 had clearly improved from thirty years previously  – so that it “can be fairly compared with any similar establishment in the kingdom….”
Peckham House closed in 1952.


 Camberwell unemployed in 1920 occupied Camberwell School of Art, as part of a campaign for free places for the unemployed to meet.

“Their local strength was reflected in the fact that they could ‘pack’ a Labour Party meeting in the Camberwell Baths and get the following motion carried: ‘We the workers at this meeting, under the guidance of the Mayor, realise the impossibility of any proffered solution to unemployment during the life of the Capitalist system. We pledge ourselves to work unceasingly for the overthrow of Capitalism and the establishment of a workers Republic.”

On Sept 21st 1921 there was a mass march of local unemployed, from Camberwell Green to Peckham.

In 1922, Camberwell Board of Guardians (who administered relief) planned to stop milk for babies of the unemployed… On February 1st, Camberwell women marched to the House of Commons, as the order was rumoured to have come down from the Ministry of Health. A Ministry inquiry reversed the decision.

Unemployment being high, it became a hot political issue. In 1922, elections were held for the Board of Guardians (the Council body that administered not only relief but the Workhouses etc). A flurry of electoral leaflets from various candidates addressed the issue. Labour candidates Arthur Andrews and Louis Edwards campaigned on the platform of giving out full rations to those on relief (not as was current policy, on the Mond scale, half-rations). They also opposed giving out food instead of money as out-relief. Their leaflet invoked the class nature of unemployment: “Its is only our class that go to the Workhouse or Infirmary. Send the Labour candidates to make the institutions as comfortable as possible. They stand the same risks as you do of having to go there.”  They also amusingly advised: “Don’t wait for our car [presumably to pick up voters and ferry them to the polls]. We haven’t got one. Workers don’t own cars, they only make them.”

There were also two candidates from the ‘Camberwell Central unemployed’, Burnett and Smith, who stood on the basis of their long activism in local unemployment politics, having been members of delegations to the Board of Guardians several times… What were their affiliations? They disparaged political parties in their leaflet, who would make loud noises to get elected and then make no changes.

Workers Defence

In 1927 the Government introduced the ‘Not Genuinely Seeking Work Clause’, as well as cuts in benefit. In 1931 the National Government introduced the means test, and more dole cuts … the response of the local NUWM branches was to organise more broadly-based organisations known as Workers Defence Movements. In 1931 the Camberwell WDM claimed an active membership of 1,000 and got even more support at meetings outside the Peckham Labour Exchange. With the support of the Labour MP, John Beckett, thousands marched along Peckham Road via the Unity Labour Club in Consort Road, to the Rye. (John Beckett later lurched to the right, joining Oswald Mosley’s British union of Fascists.)

Towards the end of 1931 Southwark and Camberwell Workers Defence Movement joined forces for a mass march of 4,000 local unemployed from Walworth Town Hall via Camberwell Green to the Rye. En-route factories and other places of work were visited and employers asked to sign a statement to the effect that they had no work to offer.

The Workers Defence Movement was also involved in preventing evictions, especially during rent strikes, for example in Peckham’s Goldsmith Estate in 1931-2…  They also supported NUWM-organised hunger marchers and passive resistance to public works not given to local unemployed.

Arthur Cooper, Secretary of the Camberwell Trades Council after the Second World War, remembers that a common local tactic was to inform the police that the mass unemployed would converge on a local street such as Southampton Way. Hundreds of police would arrive to find Cooper addressing a meeting of ten outside the Samuel Jones factory (a waxed paper works, by Peckham Grove) while the bulk of the unemployed were attending demonstrations in the West End!

Interestingly, in 1999 the College was occupied again, on 10 March 1999, by students in protest at lack of tutors, equipment, space, grants and hours of access.  College management used various methods to harass them, including bogus fire alarms, threats to prosecute, turning off heating & hot water. 8 students were taken to court over the occupation.

During the wave of occupations of universities and colleges over the winter of 2010, part of a wider movement against increased student fees and cuts generally, students took over the upper main room at Camberwell Art College’s Wilson Street building, staying throughout the Christmas holidays.
More here


During the cold war London was divided into 4 (later 5) groups, each reporting directly to Kelvedon Hatch,
in turn each group was subdivided into the individual boroughs, each of them having its own control centre. The South East Group War HQ at Pear Tree House, SE19 had six sub-controls, Greenwich, Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Lewisham & Southwark. The Southwark control, designated 51C5 was located beneath a health centre at the junction of Peckham Road and Vestry Road, SE5, almost opposite Southwark Town Hall. Local officers and councillors would have taken shelter here in the event of a nuclear attack, to ‘co-ordinate action’, while the rest of us died horribly.

After the bunker’s closure, the empty health centre was demolished in the late 1990s because, according to the Southwark EPO, local children kept breaking in to it. The bunker below remains intact. The plot of land is now derelict awaiting redevelopment, one side of the stairway into the bunker below has been filled with concrete leaving a six foot drop onto the steps. A hinged grille has been fixed over the remaining part of the well and this is kept securely locked.
More on the Bunker

Lucas gardens housing peace camp 1981

From October 8-12 1984, local housing activists set up a housing peace camp on the lawn of the town hall. The main focus of the protest was against the council’s introduction of PIOs (Protected Intending Occupier) against squatters, to allow police and council officers to evict them without going to court. (As happened to your current author, PIO’d from a Southwark council flat in the Browning Estate in December 1991. 8 days before Xmas…)


Peckham Action Group

From 1977 to 1982 the Peckham Action Group (PAG) led a campaign against the demolition of the north side of historic Peckham High Street for a new town hall and huge 4-lane high road.

Southwark council came up with a massive scheme to create a dual-carriage highway through the centre of Peckham, with an effectively realigned High Street and a new, grandiose, multimillion-pound town hall.

This led to the formation of a dedicated Peckham Action Group to campaign against the plan. Action included demos and leafletting, lobbying, and the cutting of a now iconic punk rock seven-inch single, ‘No Town Hall’, recorded by the band Crisis. The cover depicted a Southwark sledgehammer embedded in a building, and a coffin bearing the legend ‘RIP Peckham’.

Winning support from councillors, the campaigners were able to help change minds about the new town hall and highway scheme.

This campaign echoed the earlier fight to prevent the South London Cross Route being built through Peckham and Camberwell, which would have led to the demolition of thousands of homes locally. This was a part of the Ringways project, a plan to encircle the capital with concentric rings of motorway and dual carriageway, with radial motorways and links roads fanning out in various directions. Two major elements of the Ringways scheme got built – the M25 and the North Circular Road. The South Circular expansion got bogged down; so did the third and innermost proposal, the ‘Motorway Box’ which would have formed an ‘inner ring road’; this was to have meant the demolition of thousands of homes and the relocation of over 100,000 people. In the north of the city new eight-lane motorways on raised concrete pylons were to be erected through Dalston, Highbury, Camden, Canonbury, Kilburn, Shepherds Bush… The South Cross route of the new autobahns would have driven through Barnes, Balham, Battersea, Clapham, Brixton, Camberwell and Peckham to Kidbrooke and Greenwich.

But locals in all the neighbourhoods threatened with mass demolition got together and fought the ringway proposals in the later 1960s and early 1970s. In 1971, opposition movements coalesced into the London Motorway Action Group. The massive economic cost and opposition eventually led to the vast majority of the ‘Motorway Box’ being shelved in 1973.

The only sections that got built of the inner ring road were the A102/Blackwall tunnel, and the tiny M41 in Shepherds Bush, (squatted for the 1996 Reclaim the Streets party on the motorway, during another wave of protests against roadbuilding).

But interestingly, the so-called Barrier Block, Southwyck House in Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane, was built with a startling resemblance to a Swedish Prison, with few and tiny windows and few entrances on the road facing side, because the motorway was expected to bulldoze down Coldharbour Lane through central Brixton (The motorway, and the grotesque Brixton plan designed to go with it, would have also reduced all of central Brixton to a Birmingham Bullring style raised interchange surrounded by 50 storey tower blocks. Its collapse left 1000s of compulsorily purchased street housing empty for several years, which was then gradually squatted for housing, projects and centres, and blues clubs, contributing much of the area’s counter-cultural life for the next four decades.

On 7 March 1990, Southwark Town Hall was stormed by 500 local anti-poll tax rebels, during setting of poll tax rate.


“It began with a faulty electronic appliance starting a fire in a flat. But the flames spread across the outside of the building, taking hold on cheap composite panels, not compliant with building regulations, which had been fitted during a refurbishment. Terrified residents called emergency services and were told to stay put in their homes, where they later died.

In the aftermath, questions were asked. How did risk assessments miss this? How did the system of building regulation allow the refurbishment to take place? How could this happen so close to the wealthiest part of one of the wealthiest cities on earth?

In social housing right now it seems history repeats itself twice as tragedy. Because this is not a description of the Grenfell Tower disaster, but Lakanal House – a fire eight years earlier …” (Inside Housing)

Lakanal House was built in 1959: a 14-storey tower block containing 98 flats. Southwark Council had previously scheduled the building for demolition in 1999, although later it was decided not to demolish it.

On 3 July 2009, a fire broke out a flat on the ninth floor of Lakanal House, caused by faulty television.

One single central stairwell was the only way in and out of the building – this filled quickly with thick dark smoke, making escape – and rescue – difficult. Around 150 people were evacuated or rescued from the flats. The Fire Brigade rescued a number of people from the flats. Many were taken to Guy’s Hospital, King’s College Hospital and Lewisham Hospital with injuries including smoke inhalation.

The fire killed three people in their flats – three people died of their injuries in hospital. Nine other people were treated at an emergency centre set up by Southwark Council. One firefighter was also admitted to hospital after being injured while fighting the fire.

The dead were three adults and three young children: Dayana Francisquini, 26, and her children, six-year-old Thais, and Felipe, three; Helen Udoaka, 34, and her three-week-old daughter Michelle; and 31-year-old Catherine Hickman.

The Fire Brigade had responded with a total of eighteen fire engines attending, setting up an operational command centre was erected on the seventh floor. People within the flats calling 999 were told to remain in their flats instead of attempting to flee, based on the theory of ‘compartmentation’ – the idea that the structure of the building meant the fire could not spread from flat to flat, so staying in their flats would help protect the families while the blaze was contained. This was supposed to be safer than braving the smoke-filled stairwells and corridors.

However, the flames spread from flat to flat and between floors on the outside of the building, as cladding and insulation caught fire. The exterior cladding panels had burned through in less than five minutes.

Catherine Hickman spent 40 minutes on the phone with 999 responders who urged her to stay in her flat; at the end of the call the responder could no longer hear her breathing.

A Fire Brigade investigation into the fire later helped bring to light that it had already been identified, before the blaze, that the structure and layout of Lakanal House posed a risk of enabling a fire to spread, if one should occur in one of the flats.

An inquest into the deaths at Lakanal House found that the rapid spread of the fire, due to the igniting of the exterior cladding, had trapped people in their homes. As in the case of the Grenfell Tower fire eight years later, residents were advised to remain in their homes in the event of a fire. The inquest also concluded that substandard renovations had removed fire-stopping material between the flats – a problem not uncovered by any Southwark council’s fire safety inspections carried out before the fire.

The layout of the flats made escape in case of an emergency difficult. The two-bedroom maisonettes were based on a two-storey interlocking design. The flats are entered from the right or left side of a central access corridor. On the access level, there are two bedrooms and a bathroom. There are stairs to the upper level where a lounge and kitchen stretch across the full width of the block. This means that the lounge for each flat is above one of the bedrooms of that flat and one of the bedrooms of the flat on the opposite side of the access corridor. The flats were built with fire exits from the lounge and the kitchen to ‘exit balconies’ on either side of the building, and also a fire exit from the largest bedroom into the central access corridor, separate from the front door.

The block had no central fire alarm system – not required by virtue of the then Building Regulations Approved Document B for England And Wales.

Southwark Council claimed after the fire that it had recently spent £3.5 million on refurbishment to meet current fire safety standards.

Residents evacuated from the flats sheltered in nearby community centres, helped by donations and solidarity from other locals and people much wider afield. Some of the residents found alternative accommodation with relatives although the majority were provided with accommodation by Southwark Council. Lakanal House was boarded up. Refurbishment work commenced in 2015, and the block had reopened to residents – many of those who lived there prior to the fire found it too painful to return, however. Southwark spent millions on refurbishment of several blocks after the event.

A number of tower blocks of a similar design exist: Marie Curie House, also nearby, is of identical design to Lakanal.

Despite many calls for a proper investigation and inquiry into the causes of the rapid spread of the fire, no public inquiry has ever been conducted into the Lakanal House fire. At the inquest it was concluded that no realistic prospect of any corporate manslaughter charge was possible, despite many clear failings by the council. However, London Fire Brigade eventually brought a case against Southwark Council to court, eight years later. The Council pleaded guilty in February 2017 to four charges concerning breaches to safety regulations. It was fined £270,000, reduced from £400,000 because it had pleaded guilty, plus £300,000 costs.

Less than four months later, Grenfell Tower caught fire, and the blaze spread in a very similar way, up flammable cladding & insulation on the outside of the building. Again, people were told to stay in their flats as this should protect them from fire better than trying to escape down the stairs.

This time 72 people died.

But might Grenfell never have happened, if proper notice had been taken of events in Lakanal? Recommendations for changes in construction and fire regulations, and to how fires are dealt with by the emergency services, after Lakanal House burned were never acted on at national level, leaving thousands of residents living in potential death traps.

After the 2013 inquest into Lakanal, Coroner Judge Frances Kirkham wrote to Southwark council, the London Fire Commissioner, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, with a series of recommendations to prevent a similar disaster occurring in future.

She made more than 40 recommendations, including that more guidance should be given to residents in high rise blocks, including clear advice on how to react if a fire breaks out and what to do if circumstances changed – for example if smoke starts coming into a flat.  She also recommended that block layouts should be given to emergency workers responding to fires.

The Department for Communities and Local Government, led by then-minister the (Right Corrupt and Frankly Disgusting) Eric Pickles, was asked to publish national guidance on the confusing ‘stay put’ principle and ‘get out and stay out’ policy.

The government was also asked to provide guidance on building regulations and check the safety of materials and whether refurbishment work can reduce existing fire protection, and to consider retrofitting sprinklers across high-rise blocks.

The government published a response committing itself to publishing new building guidance and committing to make fire safety and priority. This was a smokescreen – no review ever came.

Grenfell repeated Lakanal – but on a scale many times worse. The impact has been massive – on residents, families, friends, communities. A wave of support and solidarity for the affected; an upsurge in social housing tenants organising, especially in blocks with similar issues. Huge lip service has been paid by politicians, corporations and councils, in response to the outpouring of outrage. A Public Inquiry has been quickly set up this time. But yet again campaigners and those most involved in the after-effects have been saying for nearly three years that this should never have happened, warnings were there before the fire, and the evacuated have been increasingly marginalised by the authorities. Cynics (AKA people with some experience of the housing system) have been expressing the view that despite everything, they suspect that things will go back to the way they were before. Deaths, outrage, inquiry, recommendations, burial, silence, normality. Repeat.

Why? How can people die in horrific fires – caused by the institutions supposedly there to look after their interests, and by the large corporations contracted to carry out the building work… and no-one puts into practice any lessons learned? How does it happen again: much, much worse?

Could it be because the people in charge of housing and housing policy overwhelmingly do not live in social housing, have never lived in social housing, will never live in social housing, and consider those that do as at best a nuisance to be ignored or ‘managed’, or an impediment to the proper and ‘vibrant’ commercialisation of inner city land, to be shifted, shafted and short-changed? Housing is for profit not people’s need, and the people had better get used to that?

Some say we need another way of living…

Justice for Grenfell

Grenfell United

We didn’t visit Lakanal on our original walk, (the fire hadn’t yet happened) and so didn’t put up a plaque. Mind you – we can’t see any other memorial to the dead on the block. Is there one anywhere?


Una Marson lived here

“No more moaning and groaning, No more self-hatred masquerading as integration. No more rejecting your own Ethiop’s child for somebody else’s Barbie doll. You are part of a strong African-Caribbean influenced literary tradition. Affirm your right as an individual, a woman and a writer to be both Black and British.”

Una Marson (1905-1965), Jamaican writer, feminist, activist, lived in 29 Brunswick Square (now 16 Brunswick Park) for a short while in the mid-1930s.

Born in a middle class rural Jamaican village, her pioneering social work in Kingston’s slum yards, and her expatriate life in London at war, Una Marson (1905-65) became a fighting partisan of Black poetics and politics.

She came to England in 1932, originally for a few weeks, but like many other migrants this turned into many years. She was the first Black woman programme maker at the BBC, where she worked from 1939 to 1946 and helped many service men and women and Caribbean people during the war. West Indies Calling was her maiden programme in her five years of association with BBC, 1940 to 1945. She founded her own programme, Caribbean Voices, in March 1943, and became the BBCs first Black woman producer. But, she became increasingly sceptical and disenchanted with the “internal battles and troubled moments” with BBC managers, who thought only of promoting British authors to Caribbean listeners, influenced by government policy to requisition colonial labour and resources while stifling nationalist activism.

Two main issues provoked her poetic work. She captured the calypsonian air of topical stories, sounds and music; and she exposed colonial fears and prejudices. She combined themes of cultural identity and female sexuality, of self-doubt and disadvantage… “her Black poetics and politics offer a firm basis for a writer’s commitment to a fair and equal world”. Marson explored the multi-layered heritage of Blacks in colonial Jamaica, emphasising ancestral African roots. In Songs of Africa (1930) she applauds the music of Afro-Creole people of the Americas that fosters race pride and the determination to be free. Fragments of colour, people, places and warmth form an intricate pattern. Again, in There will come a time (1931) she cries out for racial equality as the foundation of her dream of the oneness of the world’s diverse peoples. Marson illustrates how women used poetry to express their sufferings and avoid terrible retribution, like the Black preacher during slavery. Her first collection of love poems Tropic Reveries (1930), set in Jamaican colonial culture, explores women’s political and subversive yearning for freedom from cultural domination. Marson honed her skills in political poetry. Her narrative wartime poem Convoy salutes “my own blood brothers/ Brown like me.”

Una Marson became well known in London as a feminist and anti-racist activist, putting her energies into helping disadvantaged Black people in south London. She worked as secretary to the League of Coloured Peoples, the first Black-led political organisation in England, in the company of activist CLR James and welfare officer & cricketer Learie Constantine. Believing that building Black solidarity around the world could open the road to Black Freedom, Marson welcomed Jamaican Marcus Garvey’s pan-Africanist message of “African liberation, at home and abroad”. As a writer, she kept in touch with the icons of the “Harlem Renaissance”, African Americans writers Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson.

She railed against the maltreatment of women workers, students and nurses, (in particular the discrimination against black nurses) and joined the radical Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Later as secretary to Haile Selassie she traveled to the League of Nations with him in 1936 to plead for Abyssinia, when it was invaded by Italy; and later still the 1960s she worked in Israel. Una has gained a pioneering literary reputation, as the first major woman poet of the Caribbean and a playwright.

See The Life of Una Marson 1905-1965, by Delia Jarrett-Macauley. Manchester University Press 1998. http://www.deliajarrettmacauley.com/

Here’s a plaque we left there in 2006 – though in 2009 an official blue plaque was put up on her former home

Some other well-known feminists who have lived in Camberwell

Mary Hays:  a novelist and early feminist, friend of Mary Wolstonecraft, (author of Vindication of the Rights of Women, the first great feminist text) lived in Camberwell 1807 – 1824. Born in Southwark, almost nothing is known of her first 17 years. She took up writing, probably spurred by an early love affair with a man her parents disapproved of, who shortly afterwards died. her to take up writing. Throughout the 1780s she wrote essays and poems. A short story “Hermit: an Oriental Tale” was published in 1786. It was a picturesque tale, which warned against feeling too much passion. She exchanged letters with Robert Robinson, a minister who campaigned against the slave trade. She attended the “Dissenting Academy” in Hackney in the late 1780s (founders & members of which were very active in the reform and anti-slavery movements)

In 1792 Hays was given a copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, which made a deep impression on her, and she became friends with Wollstonecraft. Hays next wrote a book Letters and Essays (1793) and invited Mary Wollstonecraft to comment on it before publication. She was inspired to leave home and support herself by writing. After borrowing a copy of Enquiry concerning Political Justice by William Godwin, she became friends with its radical author, who became a guide and teacher. About this time Hays started writing for the Analytical Review, a liberal magazine, of which Mary Wollstonecraft was fiction editor. She is popularly credited with introducing William Godwin to Mary Wollstonecraft; the two married in 1797. When Mary Wollstonecraft was dying, due to complications following the birth of their daughter, Mary (later Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein), Mary Hays helped to nurse her and also wrote an obituary of Wollstonecraft for the Annual Necrology. Hays and Godwin drifted apart after Wolstonecraft’s death.

Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), probably Hay’s best-known work,  draws on the experience of her affair with Cambridge mathematician William Frend, and possibly her relationship with Godwin. The heroine falls in love with a penniless man Augustus Harley, and offers to live with him as his wife, without getting married. She is rejected and then turns to Mr Francis, a character based on Godwin. They exchange philosophical letters, but in the end he advises her against becoming too emotional. The critical response to the novel was divided along political lines. Free love is seen to be aligned with social revolution, and domestic repression is shown as upholding the political order.

Her next novel The Victim of Prejudice (1799) is emphatically feminist and critical of class hierarchies. The backlash against the French revolutionary terror led critics to slate the novel as too radical and hysterical. In 1803 Hays published the six volume Female Biographies, detailing the lives of 294 women. However by this point Hays perhaps realised that it was politically dangerous to praise Mary Wollstonecraft, and somewhat bottled it by omitting her from the book.

Moving to Camberwell, Hays associated with many leading literary figures of the age, including Charles and Mary Lamb and William Blake. The last 20 years of her life were somewhat unrewarding, with little income and only her work increasingly ignored. She is buried in Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington.

Hays lived in 9 St. George’s Place, Walworth (although Hays refers to the house as being in Camberwell), a short row of houses along Amelia Street, 1803-6, then after moving around alot, then moved to Champion Hill, 1832 -1842.
More on her life and letters

We put up a plaque to remember Mary Hays

Vera Brittain: Camberwell Versus Death. From a well-to-do Derbyshire family, Vera Brittain later became a feminist and pacifist. She served  as a nurse during WW1 at the 1st London General Hospital in Camberwell from October 1915-September 1916, as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) member of the British Red Cross.

Her fiancé, Roland Leighton, her brother Edward and many of their friends were killed during the war.

Returning to Oxford after the war to complete her degree, Vera found it difficult to adjust to peacetime. It was at this time she met Winifred Holtby, a close friendship developed with both aspiring to become established on the London literary scene, and the bond developed between them until Holtby’s untimely death in 1935.

Brittain’s first published novel was The Dark Tide (1923). In 1933 that she published Testament of Youth, detailing her war experiences, (which features the Chapter Camberwell Versus Death) followed by the sequels, Testament of Friendship (1940) – her tribute to and biography of Winifred Holtby – and Testament of Experience (1957), which spanned the years between 1925 and 1950. Vera Brittain wrote from the heart and based many of her novels on her experiences and actual people.

In the 1920s she became a regular speaker on behalf of the League of Nations Union, but from 1937, after previously speaking at a peace rally with Dick Sheppard, George Lansbury, Laurence Housman and Donald Soper. she joined the Peace Pledge Union. Her newly found pacifism came to the fore during World War II, when she began the series of Letters to Peacelovers.

During WW2 she worked as a fire warden and travelled around the country raising funds for the Peace Pledge Union’s food relief campaign. She was widely denounced for speaking out against saturation bombing of German cities in her 1944 pamphlet Massacre by Bombing.

Vera Brittain died in 1970.


Squatting in Brunswick Park and Vicarage Grove

Many empty houses were squatted in Brunswick Park & Vicarage Grove in the 1980s, most of which were initially divided into flats. There were 70 squatters in Brunswick Park and Vicarage Grove, around 1984-87. It was very much a community: squatters set up an active group here, based at 9a, Brunswick Park, in March 1984. Plans for a communal centre in the basement of no 4 were being worked on in October 1984. The Council had no plans for the houses, but tried to evict squatters at first, though by April 1984 they had come to an unofficial deal (after some defeats and adjournments in court) that they wouldn’t evict them till they had plans for the houses. The squatters regarded themselves as “unofficial licensees” after this… But the Council was constantly undecided as to what to do with the buildings; there were rumours (eg one which spread in in November 1984) of plans to evict and gut them, make them unusable. In early ’85 there were still odd attempts to evict individual houses… none succeeded. Cases usually got suspended.

On 24 October 1985, Council officers and workers turned up and evicted two squats here, helped by a van load of cops… and a High Court Sheriff. He claimed there had been notice given, which was a lie. 30 squatters soon gathered outside. Several houses were evicted, people’s belongings were chucked out and their homes boarded and steel-doors attached. Then the Council and their lackeys buggered off… leaving the squatters to immediately re-occupy the houses!

The Brunswick/Vicarage Squatters group still existed in 1987, at this point it had its own van. Some squats were turned into galleries and museums.  But by January ’87 Southwark Council had evolved a pilot scheme to evict Brunswick Park and Vicarage Grove squats, do them up and use them for shortlife housing, ie to evict some young single homeless to make room for other young single homeless. This was to become Borough wide policy for long term empties.

25 squatters from the two streets here went to a Housing Committee meeting in August ’87; local council tenants had signed petition on support of them… But the scheme got voted in, and there were no more negotiations. Between 1987 and 1990, many of the squats were evicted, with some legal and not so legal resistance; several got adjournments in court on the grounds that they had had licences from the council, also the council had done work on them while squatted.

Some squatters in Brunswick and Vicarage formed housing co-ops, some of which I think still exist; and squats were still popping up in these streets occasionally until very recently.

Many other streets and estates in Camberwell have known squatting, over the last 40 years: especially the Elmington Estate, Crawford Estate off Coldharbour Lane, and the Southampton Way Estate (many of whose blocks have now disappeared), in Caldicot, Bavent and Cutcombe Roads near Kings College Hospital (many former Lambeth Self-Help Co-op flats, whose long-term residents were moved out by the Hospital, on the grounds that they were planning to demolish them to extend the Hospital for much needed ward space, were squatted, then evicted in 1999 en masse; then sold off for huge profits.)

Skyrocketing house prices, changes in housing legislation, sell-offs of council property, and inner city gentrification (as the middle class decided that decades after leaving areas to the poor, now they want it back) have made self-help housing initiatives like squatting and housing co-ops endangered species, but who knows what will happen, with the so-called credit crunch and increasing council inability and unwillingness to house anyone at all. There are fewer empties than there used to be, but many newly built so-called luxury flats are now lying unused or unsold… Squatting residential property was made a criminal offence in September 2012.

Here’s another 2006 plaque to remember the squats here


Fascism and Anti-Fascism in Camberwell

Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts reappeared on the streets of South London in 1957, having been defeated in their post-WW2 agitation (mainly against Jews) by the Jewish ex-servicemens 43 Group, which battered them off the streets.
Several parts of Lambeth and Southwark had by now a growing West Indian community, which replaced their earlier focus on Jews as their main target for race hatred. By 1961 organisations such as the European Union of Fascists and the British National Party (Mark 1) were meeting regularly in the area. In October 1961 a rally on Peckham Rye organised by the British National Party was attended by 60 people.  The BNP’s John Tyndall, later National Front leader and later still in the 80s, fuhrer of a reborn British National Party, used to speak publicly on Camberwell Green… Never will again though eh, since he popped his little nazi clogs a couple of years back.

In the 1970s the National Front achieved a much larger membership and influence than the hard right groupuscules they emerged from, and became more confident and provocative. The NF did gather a lot of members and sympathisers in South London, though the massive turnout against them in Lewisham in 1977 showed how much opposition there also was. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party election victory in 1979 to some extent cut their support as she adopted many of their policies.

The Front marched from Camberwell to Peckham, a number of times, in the 1970s, in, 1980, and on Oct 23 1982.

Local anti-fascists opposed the rise of such racist groups: Southwark Campaign Against Racism and Fascism was set up in 1976. In 1979 SCARF secretary Rod Robertson was prosecuted under the Representation of the People’s Act, for a leaflet suggesting people not vote for the NF.

But rightwing racist ideas continued to have some local support in Camberwell…

In July 1991: The British National Party (Mark 2) stood Steve Tyler as a candidate for the council by-election in Brunswick Ward, which mostly consists of the Elmington Estate and some surrounding streets. Their campaign was vigorously opposed by local anti-fascists, leftwing groups, and some squatters who lived in the area. etc, However, they did manage to march in force round the estate.

At the time, the Elmington was very run down: Southwark was one of the poorest boroughs in London. The Estate’s local housing officer, Rachel Webb, was a well-known socialist, (also a Labour councillor in Lambeth at the time). The BNP campaign was aimed at attacking her and squatters living on the estate. ” [Rachel Webb} is more interested in evicting white residents for being ‘rascist’ than in evicting the drunken and drugged up squatters that infest our estates.”  “Squatter scum off our estate” graffiti was seen round the estate at the time. There had also been racist attacks on the estate with dogs set on black kids, and black families had their windows bricked; residents and even passers-by had been hassled by a group of 20 white kids in combat gear, who it appeared had links to the BNP… At the time BNP were doing paper sales in East Street Market and the ‘Blue’ market in Bermondsey, and saw this area of South London as having potential for recruiting disaffected white working-class residents.

10 or so people had to sign backing them from the ward, some of whom were living on the estate. It’s possible that Charlie Sargent, later supremo of nazi streetfighting group Combat 18, lived here at the time – he was officially living on the Elmington a couple of years later.

The BNP campaign was opposed by a number of groups, including the South London branch of Anti-Fascist Action, who took the position you have to oppose their presence wherever it shows its head, as it leads to/feeds on racial attacks increasing (as in Welling and Thamesmead at the time, even if electorally they were not likely to win the election. A variety of other left groups, plus some Southwark councillors were involved in the opposition to the BNP; others, like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), informed us the BNP were irrelevant, a distraction from the real issues (tell that to the people they were attacking). The SWP later reversed this position and their reformed the Anti Nazi League.

The campaign consisted mainly of leafleting the area, talking to people, a rally on the estate, and public meetings (at least one of which turned into a disastrous squabble between lefty factions).
Tone march against the BNP; the BNP themselves had a march of about 70 people round the estate, which anti-fascists found out about too late and could do very little to oppose.

BNP leafletters weren’t as open as us, preferred to do publicity at 2 in the morning. They also didn’t attack our rally or public meeting, a favourite tactic of theirs elsewhere in those times.

A picket was held outside Town hall during the election count. The BNP’s Tyler got 132 votes, quite a lot for a fringe candidate in a council by-election. Police heavily protected Nazis at the count.

Some dodgy white residents who were strongly suspected of being among those who signed BNP forms burgled squatters living on the Elmington who were involved in Anti Fascist Action: the squatters were forced to move…

The BNP presence was not massively sustained and built on, as they never stood again. But their strategy of standing in elections did grow after this, to the point here they finally got a neglected councillor a couple of years later in East London.
A longer, and much more thought out, response to this anti-fascist campaign in 1991, can be read here

Since 1991 the Elmington estate, has changed beyond what we then would have said was possible. Development, the destruction of many social housing blocks and their replacement by private housing has radically altered the class mix here. Gentrification is a more direct threat to many people on the ground in London these days than fascist boots.


In 1974, squatters moved out of the famous Elgin Avenue in West London, were rehoused by the Greater London Council (which then owned 1000s of houses and flats all over the capital) in Rust Square, New Church Street, St George’s Way, Jardin Street and Albany Road, around the western edge of Burgess Park. 170 people were rehoused in 14 properties. These squatters had fought a long and widely publicised campaign for rehousing by the GLC, and arriving in South London, they of course got active and made links/caused trouble locally. They were still living in the houses in April 1976. At this time Kathleen Hoey and her family were squatting in Kitson Road (behind Addington Square/Rust Square). The council took them off the waiting list because they were squatting council property; however the Housing Dept were at the same time sending homeless people down to the Rust Square squatters group with letters of recommendation!  A widely publicised campaign was waged on behalf of the Hoeys.

Eventually the Rust Square squatters got rehoused again; some on the Aylebury Estate.


Camberwell magistrates Court was opened in 1971 (on the site of houses demolished by a WW2 V2 rocket) and said in the 1990s to be the busiest Magistrates Court in the country. Outside of the usual, some occasions it has seen heavy use include: after the Brixton uprising of April 1981, other riots/rebellions of July 1981, after the 1985 Brixton riot, and during the Poll Tax, when not only were non-payers from Lambeth prosecuted there but anti-poll tax rioters from various shindigs in 1990 at Lambeth Town HallBrixton Prison etc, were had up. Anti-poll tax activists generally supported non-payers here, 1991-93, including a (somewhat damp squib, by my memory) demonstration called against the first prosecutions for non-payment in Lambeth on February 14th 1991: ‘St Valentine’s Day… Massacre the Poll Tax!” 

(More personally the author has known the cells there, more than once, one time for criminal damage after being interrupted painting anti-poll tax graffiti on a wall in Angell Town in Brixton… sadly before the said graffiti made grammatical sense!)


“ the Redcap in its heyday was an ideal mix of performance and people of every bent — cheap, cheerful and sleazy, a sort of beatniks’ Silver Buckle.”

After its incarnations as a music hall, this building used to be the Father Redcap pub.

Here’s a poem on a fight in the pub in the 1960s

A number of pubs in this part of South London were well-known by the 1960s as gay venues including the Union Tavern on Camberwell New Road and the Father Red Cap, here on Camberwell Green, both of which put on regular drag nights. The Redcap gave one of the founders of the gay disco movement his first big break. On 1st July 1971 Richard Scanes (DJ Tricky Dicky), took to the decks at the Father Red Cap and began to play the new disco sound to the local crowd. His aim was to bring disco to a local audience making things more intimate and friendly (compared to what were known as the ‘gay ghettoes’ in town). Scanes said: “At my discos the gay boys and gay girls can dance together and no-one is going to say a word. This time last year you wouldn’t have seen gay people dancing together.” (Check out this issue of Gay News for an interview with Tricky Dicky) In 1975 Tricky Dicky went on to found a purpose-made gay disco, Fangs, which led the way for the first gay superclubs like Bang which opened the following year. Tricky Dicky was famous for finishing his sets at the end of the night by playing what he called a ‘Camp Revamp,’ winding down the crowd with a camp classic – like Marilyn Monroe’s ‘I wanna be loved by you’ for example – something which became a tradition in gay discos everywhere.

The landlord was Charles Holmes who was proud of his pub’s status and put up a Take Courage sign outside saying ‘The Father Red Cap, the Gayest Pub in Town’. Both men were In 1974 Holmes and the manager of the Redcap were pulled up before the courts and each fined £100 for permitting and abetting in running a ‘disorderly house’ after the police had moved in to stop the gay discos.”

But they weren’t discouraged for long and other venues began to follow their lead.

The Redcap closed as a gay pub – around 2007 ? By early 2008 it had re-opened, as the Red Star, putting on dance music and edgy club nights, including gigs by Alabama 3 and other Brixton faves. However, behind the Red Star were the owners of the Brixton Dog Star, a dubious bunch, highly implicated in the gentrification of Brixton… The Red Star lasted a few months, then the building lay empty for a while.

In 2010 the building was squatted and turned into a squat centre, as the Rat Star. The then owner allowed them to stay without threat of eviction. At this time, for a couple of years, Camberwell again became South London’s squat central. Following the Black Frog in Warham Street, and the Library House, the Rat Star was one of a series of local squat centres, with lots of events, gigs, meetings, film nights, part of London’s anti-capitalist scene… Opposite the Rat Star on the other side of Camberwell Road, several other buildings were occupied, and a thriving radical squat scene sprang up.

The Rat Star squat was raided on 27/4/2011, along with two other Camberwell squats and other squat centres, in the wake of the large anti-cuts demo on March 26th that year, which had led to some occupation of shops, damage and fighting with police, and mass arrests.

The raid against Ratstar was carried out under a Section 18 warrant to search for ‘stolen goods’; the TSG officers at the scene appeared find no evidence of theft. 14 arrests made were for “electricity abstraction” (connecting to the electricity supply while neglecting to pay the bill. Another Camberwell squat tradition – see Camberwell Grove above!) Twelve hours later, dozens of cops were still searching the premises for anything incriminating. Members of Counter Terrorism Command, S015, were present at the eviction making use of spotter cards to try and identify possible suspects from March 26th.

Hopefully more on the Ratstar and other nearby squats will be added to this post later…

The Redcap/Redstar/Ratstar is now ‘Nollywood’.


Camberwell Green Congregational Church used to stand here. Dr Harold Moody’s funeral was held here on 1st May 1947. Dr Moody (1882-1947) was a doctor, activist, and founder of the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1882, the son of a pharmacist, He came to England to study medicine at King’s College.

He was completely unprepared for the colour bar in Edwardian London. He found it hard to find lodgings; after winning many prizes and qualifying as a doctor in 1910, he was rejected for the post of medical officer to the Camberwell Board of Guardians, despite being the best qualified candidate, because the matron refused to have a ‘coloured’ doctor working at the hospital’: he was told ‘the poor people would not have a n****r to attend them’. In February 1913, he started his own practice in Peckham which became very successful.

For 30 years Dr Moody helped hundreds of black people who came to him in distress, having experienced at first hand a degrading, or humiliating aspect of the colour bar: finding it hard to get lodgings, or work. Moody would confront the employers and plead powerfully on behalf of those victimised.

He was instrumental in overturning the Special Restriction Order (or Coloured Seamen’s Act) of 1925, a discriminatory measure which sought to restrict subsidies to merchant shipping employing only British nationals and required alien seamen to register with their local police. Many Black and Asian British nationals had no proof of identity and were being laid off.

Moody and other black activists founded the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931 in London, with the goal of racial equality around the world: the League was a powerful civil rights force until its dissolution in 1951.Though the League’s primary focus was black rights in Britain, it also pursued other civil-rights issues, such as the persecution of the Jews in Germany. In 1933, the League began publishing its civil-rights journal The Keys.

At the inaugural meeting, the League established four main aims:

  1. To protect the social, educational, economic and political interests of its members
  2. To interest members in the welfare of coloured peoples in all parts of the world
  3. To improve relations between the races
  4. To cooperate and affiliate with organisations sympathetic to coloured people

In 1937, a fifth aim was added:

  1. To render such financial assistance to coloured people in distress as lies within our capacity

From the League’s founding until the outbreak of World War II, its primary focus was eliminating the colour bar in the British workplace, in social life, and in housing. Throughout Britain in the 1930s, black people were refused service in many restaurants, hotels, and lodging houses, and also found it extremely difficult to find a job in many industries; the medical profession in particular drew the attention of the league, most likely due to founder and president Dr Moody’s personal struggles in that area. By 1935, a branch of the league focusing on equality in the shipping industry had grown to over 80 members. During the 1930s, The League of Coloured Peoples struck many blows for black people’s rights in the workplace.

Dr Moody died in 1947 at the age of 64. He lived in a house in Peckham on Queens Road which now has a blue plaque dedicated to him. Many hundreds of mourners attended his funeral here.

We put up a plaque to Dr Moody here.


The League of Socialist Artists.

Based at 18 Camberwell Church St in the 1970s, the League favoured ultra-marxist realist art, and sound today hilariously dogmatic. “Our art must serve revolutionary politics. We place our art unreservedly at the service of the working class.” By which of course they meant “under the overall leadership of the  Marxist-Leninist party….”

In some ways they echoed Ruskin’s view of the role of art and the artist: “Within [the] overall tasks of the proletarian socialist revolution a role of unprecedented importance devolves upon… creative artists. For it is precisely through art that science., the knowledge, understanding and experience of the laws of motion of the universe, including particularly of human society, is distilled… artists, whether of the visual or the dramatic arts, are no less than “engineers of the human soul” {JV Stalin}… Quotes from Stalin, in the 1970s, no less.

“Proletarian socialist art is a reflection in artistic form of the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie… The method of artistic creation of proletarian socialist art is therefore proletarian -socialist realism…”

They had some great rhetoric: “we Socialist Artists declare our aims and work to stand completely apart from and in irreconcilable opposition to the formalism and commodity fetishism of capitalist art which serves at one and the same time to mystify the movement  and conflict of social classes, to preach and inculcate the helplessness of man before the “unknowable” universe, and the  “atomic chaos” of the “existentialist” society – as also to provide the effete, luxury loving ruling class with those soporific, sensationalised and alienated titbits which might, for an hour or a day, provide an anodyne to bring forgetfulness of the moment of doom for their class which the approaching proletarian-socialist revolution is bringing ever nearer.” And so on…

Socialist realism was the only path, “In place of the pop art, mobile junk, psychedelic and other fringe lunacy of decaying capitalist art we will erect an art which expresses the dignity of working people, into which life is breathed from out of their very struggles…”

Maureen Scott was a member of the LSA. We love her portrait of Pat Burke, formidable former landlady of the Prince Albert in Brixton

We left a plaque to commemorate the LSA (though we should have made it more abstract/pop-arty)


Camberwell Public Baths was officially opened here on 1 October 1892.

The baths were built as a public resource by the then Camberwell Borough Council, at a cost of £28,575, with two large swimming pool halls, one behind the other.The original facilities at the baths in 1892 were vital for locals, many of whom had no bathroom, or even running water, in their homes, or shared bathrooms and laundry rooms with other families. In the early years, facilities included:

  • Men’s First Class: 24 private baths, one public swimming bath 120 feet (37 m) by 35 feet (11 m) with 81 dressing boxes at the side
  • Men’s Second Class: 40 private baths, one public swimming bath, 120 feet (37 m) by 35 feet (11 m) with 65 dressing boxes
  • Ladies First Class; 12 private baths
  • Ladies Second Class: 20 private baths
  • Public Laundry: 78 compartments
  • Establishment Laundry

Camberwell was one of the first baths with electric lighting, powered with its own generator. There was an apartment at the rear of the building for an engineer who also served Dulwich Baths.

By 1903 the baths were officially reported as failing to achieve their goal of being self-sufficient, being in deficit by £7,000.

This may be linked to an attempt to close the baths in 1907 (see picture) – defeated by local women, it would appear.

The baths were also used as a venue for various political events, including on 11 December 1908, an exhibition of protest banners by the National Society for Women’s Suffrage.

During World War 1 the baths serve as the local recruitment centre for volunteers to sign up to join the army; and when conscription was brought in from 1916, Conscientious Objectors were arrested and brought here as the first step to forcing them to serve, or the first step to prison or a detention camp.(See the story of Arthur Creech-Jones, above.)

In 2001 there was controversy when lifeguards at the baths refused to support nude swimming sessions of the Gay London Swimming group. The group agreed to provide their own lifeguards.

From the 1970s, the baths began to fall into decline. Although even then many people locally had no access to a bath or only to shared bathing in their homes. Gradual improvements in domestic arrangements, council refurbs, people having bathrooms put in, buying washing machines, and so on, led to a fall off in income from what had once been a self-financing operation. By the late 1990s, Southwark Council was arguing the building of new facilities at Peckham Pulse meant the baths were no longer needed.

Friends of Camberwell Baths was formed in 1998 to defend against closure.

Save Camberwell Baths Campaign march, 2006

The campaign laster several years. From May 2006 until October the Council planned that the Baths would receive £5m to £6m for full refurbishment. In January 2007 the Council had decided to “provide up to £1.5 million capital funding to ensure that the Centre stays open with its current facilities” – ie, no new money to improve the building. Funding of £1.45 million was however, later confirmed on 31 March 2009 for improving the centre with the total refurbishment budget from all sources amounting to £4.7 million. Additional funds came from the Southwark Investing in Leisure programme of more than £2 million and the Youth Capital Fund allocated £576,000 in May 2009 for a council managed youth programme within the site. The building was closed from Wednesday 25 November 2009 till its re-opening in 28 February 2011.

That’s all for now… More another time…
maybe END AT A PUB: THE HERMIT’S CAVE? assuming it re-opens after all this Corona Caboodle.



If you liked this walk:

why not have a look at our other online radical history walks

A Shabby London Suburb? A walk around the radical & working class history of Hammersmith

This walk was originally researched and drawn up by members of the West London Anarchists & Radicals group (since defunct), who guided about 30 people around the walk on Friday 3 May 2002. The walk was part of the Mayday Festival of Alternatives. The walk lasted about two hours and at the end we finished off with a few pints in one of Hammersmith’s oldest pubs, the Dove. The walk has been retrodden several times since.
Some additional information has been added by interested mudlarks with permission of the walk’s original architects.  

To contact the authors of the walk, email: hornet955@yahoo.co.uk

START: Hammersmith Tube Station

The most famous revolutionary in Hammersmith was William Morris, who we will encounter many times, but there is much more to our local radical history than Morris. For example, Hammersmith was a stronghold of the National Union of the Working Classes in the early 1830s; local NUWC ‘classes’ met at the Perseverance Tavern. Meetings were held here, as in other working class areas, in the lead up to the Battle of Coldbath Fields, where radicals fought a pitched battle with police in Clerkenwell. Later the local branch of the Chartist movement met a short distance from here in Hammersmith Road, many times between 1842 and 1848. Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor also lived in King Street in 1837.

Walk up Shepherds Bush Road to old Hammersmith Palais

Hammersmith Palais: The building was originally a roller skating rink and opened as the Palais in 1919. It was an important place of working class entertainment as a popular dance venue. You will no doubt remember it from the Clash song White Man in the Hammersmith Palais’. The Clash were closely associated with West London, the members of the band all living locally. The Palais closed a few years ago in dubious circumstances when the owners wanted to convert it to offices. When it was reopened and renamed Poo Na Na, the original sign was presented to a bemused Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash. It later reverted to its old name; but the Palais was demolished in 2012. The Fall played the last ever gig. When the then Tory Council gave permission for closure and demolition, radio DJ Robert Elms, whose parents met at the Palais, said “It’s all about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Private student accommodation now stands on the site.

Hammersmith Police Station (Just up Shepherds Bush Road to north.) The police station is notorious. On Christmas Eve 1990 the cops rounded up lots of Irish men for being drunk. One prisoner, Patrick Quinn, was killed in the cells by the cops, who then framed another prisoner present in the cells, fellow Irishman Malcolm Kennedy, for his murder. It took Malcolm years to clear his name.

In the late 1950s, the area between Hammersmith and Notting Hill was, at the best of times, a violent playground for gangs. Leaving aside the local warriors, it was handy for Teds from Fulham, Battersea and Elephant and Castle in the south-east who would come over for a skirmish. Violence between the various factions, the police and any unfortunate bystanders was endemic. In 1958 several policemen were injured in Hammersmith when they went to deal with a crowd of youths who were ‘creating a public nuisance’ in Fulham Palace Road.

Up Shepherds Bush Road, at no 190, was for years the old Hammersmith and Fulham Unemployed Workers Centre. Sadly now shut.

Look towards Brook Green

Brook Green was the site of St Pauls School for posh girls. The school had to stop using the public baths in 1908 as the local bad boys of Hammersmith pulled their pigtails.

Dick Turpin was known to frequent the Queens Head pub (in which you can still enjoy a pint).

Brook Green Fair: This annual event was banned in the 1820s, when such rowdy gatherings were being suppressed as they terrified the authorities and upset religious reformers because of the explosion of sex and drink that accompanied them. They also were annoying the middle classes who were colonising the villages near London to escape the Smoke.

In the 1930s Hammersmith Council planned a grand new Town Hall in the middle of Brook Green; locals protested so much they built it in King Street instead.

Look towards Hammersmith Flyover: The flyover was built in 1966-70. There were protests at the opening from nearby residents, over the traffic noise. They demanded to be rehoused.

As you walk back through Hammersmith Broadway look to your left. Here you will see the building that in the 1980s housed the offices of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) Support Group. The ALF are the militant wing of the animal rights movement, best known for freeing animals from laboratories.

There was trouble on the Broadway in the 1926 General Strike. On 6th May TUC HQ sent a panicked letter after receiving reports of a  “bad riot at Hammersmith outside OMS HQ. it is said stones were thrown and police used batons.” It seems “buses were stopped near the station, and various parts removed by the strikers. When some of the buses returned at 8.30 pm some of the occupants began to jeer at the crowd some of which became angry and boarded some buses roughly handling the drivers and conductors one of whom was badly injured” (shame). “Local fascists began to throw stones from a building near by. Later the police made a charge using their batons, and arrested forty three people only one of which was a trade unionist and he was released owing to a mistake being made.”

A People’s Plaque Remembering the battles here during the General Strike was left, guerilla-style, as near to the spot as we could. this was a laminated poster cable-tied to a lamp-post… More permanent plaques – one day…?

Shortly after this time the local National Unemployed Workers Movement branch was campaigning over the means test & the dole. The NUWM branch had 1200 members here in 1931.

Walk up Beadon Road into the square

Where Turners Florists stands was the site of the Hammersmith bookshop from 1948 -1964, which was the supplier of revolutionary and radical publications. A plaque now marks the spot.

William Morris

William Morris moved to Hammersmith in 1878, when he was already well established as a designer. In 1883 he joined Henry M. Hyndman’s Marxian Democratic Federation (later the Social Democratic Federation, or SDF). Hyndman was known by the derogatory nickname ‘socialist in a top hat’. Morris (along with others) broke with the SDF in 1884 and formed the Socialist League. In a letter dated 1st January 1885 Morris complained of Hyndman’s jingoism and sneers at foreigners, pointing out that the SDF would at best bring about a kind of Bismarckian State Socialism. He said: “I cannot stand all this, it is not what I mean by socialism either in aim or in means; I want a real revolution, a real change in Society: Society a great organic mass of well regulated forces used for the bringing about a happy life for all”.

Morris is perhaps better known today as a designer of wallpaper, but he was an important revolutionary whose view of the transformation to communism was strongly influenced by the Paris Commune. He was anti-parliamentary at a time when only the anarchists supported such views. Indeed this was to become the reason for the split in the Socialist League. For the election in November 1885 the League issued a leaflet entitled “For Whom Shall we Vote”, which concluded by urging “do not vote at all”. Two thirds of the electorate usually take his advice! Instead the leaflet explained that “the time will come when you will step in and claim your place and become the new born society of the world”. Morris combined this outlook with distaste for politicians.

We are now standing at one of the places where William Morris spoke at open-air meetings (at an intersection north of the underground). For example on 17th April 1887 his diary records “meeting fair, also a good one at Walham Green [which is in Fulham] and at our room in the evening where I lectured”. Speaking at three meetings in a single day was common for Morris at this time.

Morris speaking

In April 1886 Morris spoke there ‘at the back of the Liberal Club’, in February 1887 the local socialists started meeting there regularly. For February 7th 1887, Morris’s diary reads: “I spoke there alone for about an hour, and a very fair audience (for the place which is out of the [way]) gathered curiously quickly; a comrade counted a hundred at most. This audience characteristic of small open air meetings also quite mixed, from labourers on their Sunday lounge to ‘respectable’ people coming from church; the latter inclined to grin, the working men listening attentively trying to understand, but mostly failing to do so: a fair cheer when I ended, of course led by the three or four branch members present.”

The William Morris pub is a recent addition, replacing a market. Inside you can see pictures of the Socialist League and examples of Morris’s designs.

One cause the Hammersmith Social Democratic Federation branch supported locally before the split was that of the local costermongers (poor street traders), in 1884, after the Board of Works threatened to ban the sellers from their kerbsite market…With help from the local SDF branch they resisted. Hammersmith costermongers were eventually forced to move by King Street shopkeepers in 1886, who feared competition. They resettled in North End Road, Fulham, which still has a cheap shopping ethos today.

Walk around the corner into Beadon Road:

On the morning of 23 September 1996 Diarmuid O’Neill, an alleged IRA member, was shot dead by the cops. He was unarmed and no weapons or explosives were found on the premises. Diarmuid was shot a total of six times and as he lay bleeding to death a police officer stood on his head. With blood pouring from him he was dragged down the steps of the house to the street. Just before Diarmuid was shot, another cop was heard to shout, “shoot the fucker”. The blood was left for 2 days as a reminder to us locals.

James Tochatti

Probably here, near the approach to the Hammersmith & City Line station, stood Carmagnole House, (sometimes described as being on ‘Railway Approach’, sometimes called 7 Beadon Road). James Tochatti lived here. Born in Canada, he became a tailor, and lifelong anarchist-communist activist and lecturer (as well as writing two plays about anarchist life!). A member of the local Socialist League branch from 1886, Tochatti spoke regularly at their outdoor meetings, and wrote for Commonweal. In 1889 he helped to organise a strike at Thorneycroft’s engineering factory in Fulham, and in 1891 was arrested for causing a ‘disturbance’ at a United Shop Assistants union strike… He remained in the Socialist League after Morris and the Hammersmith Socialist Society departed, and was involved in a Hammersmith Anarchist group around 1892. Despite the Hammersmith Socialist Society’s split from the Socialist League, Tochatti remained in close contact with Morris and the Society locally. He seems to have been closer in some ways to Morris than some of his fellow anarchists in the League, disagreeing with ‘propaganda by the deed’ (the current anarchist vogue for individual bombings and attacks against state and bourgeois targets). Tochatti started a new anarchist paper, Liberty, in January 1894, partly because of unease at the incendiary line Commonweal was taking. Despite his reservations about propaganda by the deed, in April ’94 The Liberty group organised a defence campaign for a French anarchist, Theodule Meunier, who had been arrested & was awaiting extradition to France for a bombing, but Meunier was deported & sentenced to life imprisonment. Liberty attempted to maintain a dialogue between anarchists, anti-parliamentary socialists & libertarians in groups like the Independent Labour Party – at a time when divisions between these wings of the socialist scene were increasing. Sadly, Tochatti’s ill-health led to the paper’s collapse in December 1896. Around 1911 however he became active again, speaking at meetings; “his book-lined cellar under his shop…became something of a centre in Hammersmith for ‘young workmen disillusioned by the timid programmes of other parties’“ as well as old comrades. Some meetings were held at the ‘Morris Studio’, in Adie Road, Hammersmith.

See a People’s Plaque Remembering Tochatti

Tochatti later lived at 13 Beadon Rd, and 6 Hammersmith Grove. He opposed World War 1; union activist and later Communist party leader Harry Pollitt described visiting his shop in 1918 and later, and debating conscientious objection to the War, with Tochatti “alternatively favour[ing] folded arms and shooting the officers.”

There were still anarchists of this or a related scene active in Hammersmith as late as World War 2, Several were involved in workers’ organising in the transport movement, as in the East End.

If you look round the corner into Hammersmith Grove: This seems to have been a regular meeting point for demos… In May 1913: A local contingent marched from here as part of a large London-wide anti-militarist demonstration as WW1 approached.

Walk through the square cross King Street & turn left, then right on the roundabout to St Paul’s Green

Hammersmith was known as a place for free thinking and troublemakers. Hammersmith folk were involved in the Peasants Revolt of 1381: Local rebel John Pecche (a Fulham fisherman) was specifically excluded from the General Pardon. But John Norman of Hammersmith was pardoned by name.

In 1647 the New Model Army agitators, elected agents of the rank and file of the army, to put forward their political and economic grievances, were quartered in Hammersmith in the Summer. At this time the radical political and religious views in the Army were not only leading soldiers to act independently against a growing alliance between moderate parliament and the defeated king, but also to make common cause with the Levellers against Army Grandees. These latter struggles against Cromwell and Ireton came to a head in the Putney Debates in November and the Ware Mutiny that followed… The Army dissidents set up a puritan chapel, probably in Union Court, now Foreman Court off the Broadway. The Levellers also had a group & printing press here in the late 1640s.

A People’s Plaque Remembering the Agitators… put up in the Broadway

In the 16th century Hammersmith was a place of non-believers, with no churches but many taverns. In 1722, in the first count, there were 28 public houses in the Broadway area, one for every 150 residents (the oldest was probably The George, which was originally called the White Horse). The Bishop of London (from his nearby house at Fulham Palace) had suggested taking a group of heretics to Hammersmith to be burnt. St Paul’s Church was consecrated on 7th June 1630 – very late for a large Parish. Between 1757 – 1783 the Rev

Burning of a group of vagabonds accused of heresy, Paris, 1372. MS 677, folio 103 verso

Thomas Sampson presided. He protested over being required to preach on a Sunday afternoon, on one Sunday refusing to perform his duties! The current church dates from 1887.

A People’s Plaque celebrating heresy in Hammersmith – more pubs less churches!

South from here is Fulham Palace Road, leading to Fulham. Where Charing Cross hospital now stands was the site of the workhouse, which was built in 1850 to house increasing numbers of the poor under a single roof. Later it became the hospital. In December 1991, there were 2 or 3 demos over NHS cuts here.

Opposite us (on the west side of Fulham Palace Rd) is the facade of Brandenbergh House. The home of the Lord of the Manor. Later it became a post office and the interior was removed to the Geffrye Museum. King George IV’s estranged wife Queen Caroline lived at Brandenburgh House 1820-21. Died here. She had become very popular because of widespread hatred of the king, who had treated her pretty badly. When she died her funeral procession (on 14th August 1821) from Hammersmith was turned into a riotous demo, erupting into fighting and two Hammersmith men, carpenter Richard Honey and George Francis, a bricklayer, were shot dead at Hyde Park Corner. A memorial stone was built to them in the churchyard after collections in pubs all over London. Brandenburgh House was pulled down after Queen Caroline’s death.

A People’s Plaque Remembering Queen Caroline. Past Tense have gone soft on royalty I hear you cry!

George IV had a hard time of it from locals: Radical journalist Leigh Hunt, who lived at 7 Cornwall Road (now 16 Rowan Road, off Brook Green), was jailed in 1816 for libelling Georgie Porgie (while he was still prince regent) in his paper the Examiner.

Walk to Hammersmith Bridge to left side and go under bridge

Hammersmith Bridge: The first bridge was a toll bridge was built in 1827. The current bridge dates from 1887.

Regular public talks were given under the bridge by William Morris on Sunday mornings, who complained when the Salvation Army, who had the pitch before him, used to overrun. To the meeting they bought the Socialist League banner, designed by Walter Crane and worked by May Morris. There were also reports of the meetings being interrupted by the police. After the meetings, the Socialist League often marched to Hyde Park or Trafalgar Square. On 13th November 1887 (which became known as Bloody Sunday) 200 socialists were hurt and 100 arrested at a demo in Trafalgar Square.

Morris described Mayday as: “Above all days of the year, fitting for the protest of the disinherited against the system of robbery that shuts the door between them and a decent life”.

A number of his lectures have been published, including “How we live  and how we might live” and “The society of the future”.

A People’s Plaque we left here commemorating Morris regular speaking under the bridge…

The bridge later became a favourite target for IRA bombers. The first was planted on 29th March 1939, as one of first mainland targets. A passer spotted the bomb by who threw it in the river so it caused minimal damage. In 1996 another IRA attempt was foiled, but they succeeded in 2000 and the bridge closed for over a year.

The IRA connection, unsurprisingly in an area long known for its Irish community, goes back much further though: Michael Collins, later IRA leader in the War of Independence, lived at 5 Netherwood road (off Brook Green) in 1914-15 and worked in the Post Office Savings Bank in Blythe rd.

Gustav Holst

Walk along the river to the west to the Blue Anchor Pub: In 1893 the composer Gustav Holst took rooms in Hammersmith. He attended meetings of the Hammersmith Socialist League and became a socialist. In 1897 he became conductor of Hammersmith Socialist Choir. Later, in 1905, he became musical director of St Pauls Girls School (remember those pigtails), as he needed the money. Although he composed works for the posh girls, he found them to be hopeless, so he preferred teaching working class boys at Morley College. He is best known for writing The Planet Suite, but he wrote the Hammersmith Suite in this pub, in memory of his socialist days.

Walk into Furnival Gardens and stop

Furnival Gardens: Originally the Creek ran from Stamford Brook to the river, and this was the site of slums, factories and wharves, an area known as Little Wapping. On the riverside was a local centre of heavy industry: Oil mills, lead works and Boat building. Behind this teeming slums where workers lived, in overcrowded and terrible conditions. Narrow alleys wove between factories, sheds and mills, each with their fumes and effluent.

In 1846 the District Medical Officer wrote: “Almost every house is visited with epidemic diarrhoea, so violent as to be mistaken for Asiatic cholera”. The same report recorded that: “The scanty supply of water, the crowded state of the dwellings, the overflow of privies and cesspools, all combine to poison and destroy the health of the poorer inhabitants of Hammersmith and are allowed to create and perpetuate more than half of the diseases which are incidental to human nature itself.”

The Creek was filled in in 1936 but the Furnival Gardens were not created until created in 1951.

Walk under the underpass down Macbeth Street and left through Riverside Gardens

The slums stretched from the river to King Street, an area now bisected by the A4. Histories of the area comment on the stark contrast between the slums and the grand buildings in King Street.

Riverside Gardens was part of the homes fit for heroes building program as slum clearance by the Council and completed in 1928. Neighbouring Aspen Gardens was built for returning soldiers after the 2nd World War and was opened in 1948 by Labour Minister for Health Aneurin Bevan. At the fifty years celebration a plaque was unveiled by Michael Foot to his mentor, Bevan.

The Aspen Gardens estate was the first to defy a local council and vote against voluntary stock transfer in the 1980’s.

Walk to Hammersmith Town Hall

The Town Hall was built in the 1930’s, when the creek was filled in.

Hammersmith first had a Labour council in 1937 and, save for a few short periods, it remained Labour – till 2006. The first black mayor, Randolph Berrisford, was appointed in 1975.

The Council and the health authority compete to be the largest employer locally. There have, of course, been many demonstrations here and strikes amongst council workers. One we remember was the nursery workers strike, when the Council decided in the early 1990’s to close all nursery provision. A couple of council workers scaled the town hall, removed the corporate red flag, and gave it to the striking nursery workers. It was last seen shredded on the front page of the local paper.

Walk along King Street to the Hampshire Pub

Hampshire Pub: this street was previously Hampshire Hog Lane, which ran into the slums behind, close to New Street. Formerly called the Hampshire Hog. In November 1905 it opened as a social (temperance) club for working men. A mock parliament was established here in 1906 and by 1910 it was debating a ‘Poor Law Amendment Bill’ and whether there could be a socialist government in office, but not in power.

Walk down King Street to the Bull statue

Hammersmith first returned a Labour MP in 1924. Prior to that it’s most famous MP had the great name of William Bull, who practised as a solicitor in the family firm of Bull and Bull! Bull was a Tory who supported votes for Women, and an egotist. The statute of the bull was moved here from the Black Bull Inn in Holborn in 1904. The gates of the park were erected in Bull’s memory in 1933.

Walk down King Street to Black Lion Lane

The corner of Weltje Road, which we have just passed, was another of William Morris’s public speaking haunts.

The Radical Club, which was located on King Street, although we have not been able to discover exactly where, was another regular meeting place for the Socialist League. Morris spoke here, in January 1887 he described the place: “The room was crowded, and of course our socialist friends there, my speech was well-received, but I thought the applause rather hollow as the really radical part of the audience had clearly no ideas beyond the ordinary party shibboleths, and were quite untouched by socialism; they seemed to me a very discouraging set of men…” Morris class origins emerge at times in his patronising tone, as he continues: “The frightful ignorance and want of impressibility of the average English working man floors me at times.”

There were two other local Radical Clubs, in Overstone Road and the Broadway, in the 1870s.

Also In King Street was the old Hammersmith Workhouse: After 1845 it was used for men and children only, as families were split up. Women were sent to Fulham Workhouse.

Look West towards Stamford Brook: The son of the anarchist sympathiser and impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, Lucien, lived here, as did the Russian anarchist Sergius Stepniak. A rarely used railway branch line ran from Stamford Brook to South Acton. On a fateful day in 1895 Stepniak was killed by a train whilst crossing the line. Given the infrequency of the trains, this was almost certainly an accident, although some authorities suggest he committed suicide. He had fled Russia in 1878 after being involved in the assassination of the Tsarist chief of police, and at the time of his death was living in nearby Bedford Park, and involved with Hammersmith Socialists. 1000s attended his funeral in Woking Crematorium. A footbridge was built over the line as a result.

Look down King Street

The trendy Hart bar, previously the White Hart pub, was a meeting place for Protestant dissenters in 1706.

Walk down Black Lion Lane on left side. Stop at the French restaurant.

In this street is the former home of MP Stephen Milligan, another radical Tory, at least in sexual practices if not political life. In 1994 Milligan was found dead, tied to a chair, wearing women’s underwear with a plastic bag over his head and a satsuma in his mouth. No one does it like a Tory MP!

satsumas were handed out on the original walk at this point! 

Here’s a People’s Plaque remembering Milligan’s heroic effort, which never got hung for one reason and another…

Unusually, St Peters Church was built in 1829 to attract rich residents, rather than serve an existing population. One of those attracted more recently is the doyen of the Workers Revolutionary Party, the Trotskyist actor Vanessa Redgrave, who still lives in St Peters Square (behind).

Walk under the underpass to the continuation of Black Lion Lane, at bottom turn right into Hammersmith Terrace and stop at No 8.

May Morris, HH Sparling, Emery Walker and George Bernard Shaw

This street has no less than 3 blue plaques, but there isn’t one on no 8, the home of May Morris, daughter of William and an important socialist in her own right. May later edited her father’s Collected Works. She was in love with George Bernard Shaw. Whilst he flirted with her, the love was unrequited and she later married Harry Sparling, another member of the Socialist League. Perhaps there is no plaque, because she was a woman?

Here’s a Plaque remembering May Morris we made ourselves and hung up to redress the balance…

At no 7 lived Emery Walker, another member of the Socialist League and a founder of the Doves Press (he had previously lived at no 3). A typographer and engraver, Walker joined his near neighbour William Morris in typographical experiments (which led to the founding of the Kelmscott Press), then in the Arts and Crafts movement, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and the local SDF and Socialist League branches. Walker served as the League branch secretary, organising the regular Sunday evening lectures. In 1900, Walker and

T Cobden-Sanderson founded the Doves Press at no 1 Hammersmith Terrace, (Cobden-Sanderson had begun bookbinding at 15 Upper Mall under the name of the Doves Bindery in 1893). Walker and Cobden-Sanderson didn’t get on, however, and Walker left the Press in 1909.

No 3 was also later the home of Edward Johnston, a “gifted but eccentric” calligrapher, who designed the type for the Doves Press books.

His neighbour and fellow socialist, T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, was a burned-out barrister whom Janey Morris thought capable of something therapeutic with his hands. And so the Doves Bindery and Press came about, first at 15 Upper Mall and later at 1 Hammersmith Terrace. After Walker left the Press, it gradually declined. One night in 1915, as blood flowed at the second Battle of Ypres, Cobden-Sanderson, by then a burned-out bookbinder, threw all the Doves type (from which the Kelmscott Chaucer and Bible were composed) off Hammersmith Bridge, to spite his old partner Emery Walker (with whom he had fallen out). The business closed down soon after.

Walk east along the river

In May 1906 a demonstration was held at Clare Lodge, the home of Mrs Dora Montefiore which was located near here. She was refusing to pay income tax as a protest at the exclusion of women from the parliamentary franchise’. The following month a further demonstration in her support was attended by 60 working class women who had walked all the way from Canning Town in the East End to lend their support.

Here’s a People’s Plaque we hung up to remember Dora Montefiore and her fellow suffragettes

It had been Sylvia Pankhurst who, in 1905, had helped to found the Fulham branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (the Suffragettes). William Morris of course had been an early influence on Sylvia, both politically and artistically. Later her influence was to be felt in Hammersmith, when a workers’ committee was formed at local factory Davidsons under the influence of her Workers Socialist Federation and the Russian Revolution.

A painting by Camille Pissarro contrasts the village of Chiswick with the heavy industry of Hammersmith, looking from Chiswick down the river. Ironically it is now in a private collection.

Continue along the river to Kelmscott House

The meeting hall at Kelmscott House

Morris lived in Kelmscott House from 1878 until his death in 1896, naming it after his country home Kelmscott Manor. The house is now owned by the William Morris Society and is open to the public as a museum on Thursdays and Saturdays. Inside you can see the printing press used by Morris, which is still used occasionally. On this was printed the Commonweal, the League’s paper. The second issue contained Engels “England in 1845 and England in 1885”, later published in “The Condition of the Working Class”. Other contributors included Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son in law, Shaw, Stepniak, and Belfort Bax.

George Bernard Shaw, echoing Morris’s views, said of the house: “everything that was necessary was clean and handsome; everything else was beautiful and beautifully presented”.

In 1885 Morris established the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League with Eleanor Marx and her husband Edward Aveling, among others. Meetings were held in the Kelmscott House Coach House. Originally a stables attached to 26 Upper Mall,  Morris had it converted to a meeting room; it was described as unheated and cold in the winter. Speakers and lecturers here included:

• George Bernard Shaw, a Fabian. Reading Marx’s Capital in French had an overwhelming effect on him and he felt that he had discovered what was wrong with the world and why he was so miserable in it.

• The Russian anarchist, Prince Kropotkin, a founder of the Freedom newspaper. He maintained his independence by neither joining the League nor writing for the Commonweal.

• Stepniak, another anarchist, was a compelling speaker, but not always comprehensible.

• Lucy Parsons, the US Black revolutionary, and later founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (as well as being the widow of the Chicago anarchist Albert Parsons, executed in 1885 after being framed for a bomb attack on police). She was a guest of the Socialist League in 1888 when she came on a speaking tour. She stayed at Kelmscott House.

• Socialist Annie Besant, one of the organisers of the 1888 East End matchwomens’ strike also spoke here.

The audience often included included figures such as Oscar Wilde, HG Wells and WB Yeats.

The League was increasing split between the ‘parliamentary’ (Eleanor Marx/Aveling) and anti-parliamentary (Morris) factions. In 1888 the anarchists seemed to be taking charge of the League and Aveling and Eleanor Marx split off. In 1890 Morris himself left the Socialist League and founded the Hammersmith Socialist Society, which again held their meetings here. His last lecture had as its title “One Socialist Party” and was given on 9th January 1896. On 3rd October that year he died. His body was taken up Rivercourt Road and by train to Kelmscott Manor.

Shortly after his death the Socialist Society folded, in December 1896.

But in May 1911, a Hammersmith Socialist Society revived, as a result of a direct action-oriented split from the Social Democratic Party (the old SDF). In the 1930s Guy Aldred’s United Socialist Movement had some support in London among old adherents of this long-defunct second Hammersmith Socialist Society.

Cobden-Sanderson lived at no 15 Upper Mall; here the Doves Bindery and Press were started. 

Kelmscott Press was located opposite the Dove pub at no 16 Upper Mall. Over the five years between its foundation and Morris’ death in 1896 it produced 52 hand-printed works, most with type and ornaments designed by Morris.

This ends our walk. But we can well imagine Morris, Eleanor Marx and the printers retiring to the Dove for a pint or a coffee!



This walk is available as a pamphlet, ‘A Shabby London Suburb’ which can be bought from the publications page on our website.

And why ‘A Shabby London Suburb’ eh? Bit rude?
It’s from the opening chapter of William Morris’ classic utopian vision of a post-revolutionary communist society, ‘News From Nowhere’. The book opens with an argument ‘Up at ‘he League’ – the Hammersmith Socialist League’s meeting hall, at Kelmscott House ? – as to what Britain would look like ‘after the revolution’. Dissatisfied with the debate, the narrator storms out into the night:

“he, like others, stewed discontentedly, while in self-reproachful mood he turned over the many excellent and conclusive arguments which, though they lay at his fingers’ ends, he had forgotten in the just past discussion.  But this frame of mind he was so used to, that it didn’t last him long, and after a brief discomfort, caused by disgust with himself for having lost his temper (which he was also well used to), he found himself musing on the subject-matter of discussion, but still discontentedly and unhappily.  “If I could but see a day of it,” he said to himself; “if I could but see it!”

As he formed the words, the train stopped at his station, five minutes’ walk from his own house, which stood on the banks of the Thames, a little way above an ugly suspension bridge.  He went out of the station, still discontented and unhappy, muttering “If I could but see it! if I could but see it!” but had not gone many steps towards the river before (says our friend who tells the story) all that discontent and trouble seemed to slip off him.

It was a beautiful night of early winter, the air just sharp enough to be refreshing after the hot room and the stinking railway carriage.  The wind, which had lately turned a point or two north of west, had blown the sky clear of all cloud save a light fleck or two which went swiftly down the heavens.  There was a young moon halfway up the sky, and as the home-farer caught sight of it, tangled in the branches of a tall old elm, he could scarce bring to his mind the shabby London suburb where he was, and he felt as if he were in a pleasant country place—pleasanter, indeed, than the deep country was as he had known it.”

He has been transported to the future, to a world of free communist existence…
You can read this excellent vision of the future as seen from the past, for free, here

“Go on living while you may, striving, with whatsoever pain and labour needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness.”

Yes, surely! and if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.”


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