Today in London freethought history: the first stone of South Place Chapel laid, 1822

If you’ve ever been to a meeting, conference, concert, lecture, bookfair or debate, (or any one of a myriad of other events) at London’s Conway Hall… You might be interested in the history of the organisation that gave birth to it. Although Conway Hall as an institution itself dates back to the 1920s, the tangled skein of the South Place Ethical Society goes back nearly a century and a half before that…

The South Place Ethical Society evolved from its beginnings as a dissident Unitarian church congregation in 1787, known then as a non-conforming sect of the Philadelphians or Universalists. They had distinguished themselves by a refusal to accept the doctrine of sinners suffering punishment in an eternal hell. This marked the beginning of a long and winding development from universalism and unitarianism to humanism, the position which the Society had reached by the end of the nineteenth century.

By 1793 the society had its first premises in Bishopsgate. Their next doctrinal step was to reject the idea of the Trinity – this led to many of its members departing, in the first of several raucous schisms that was to hone its ideas…

In 1817 William Johnson Fox became minister of the congregation.

Fox was a sometimes challenging minister, pushing the congregation and provoking them. After Richard Carlile was prosecuted and jailed for blasphemy for selling Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason in 1819, Fox suggested that the chapel should have stood up to defend him.

Plans were put in motion for them to build their own premises, and a site was chosen at South Place, in Finsbury Square.

Having already raised over £600 towards the cost of the building, the Committee for Erecting a New Chapel looked to raise additional funds by asking for subscriptions from the congregation. Some gave relatively small amounts, such as John Mardon who contributed £1. Whereas others, such as E. Bricknell, who pledged £100, promised more significant contributions. In total £2117.2d.4s was raised through subscriptions.

In May 1822 the first stone was laid. Their Unitarian Chapel took two years to complete, and was opened in 1824. By a deed dated February 1, 1825, its chapel was to be held by trustees on trust to permit it to be used “for the public worship of one God even the Father and for instruction in the Christian religion,” as professed by the society.

Through the early decades of the nineteenth century, the chapel became known as “a radical gathering-place”. The Unitarian congregations, like the Quakers, supported female equality – under the leadership of Fox, the South Place chapel went further, opening its pulpit to activists such as Anna Wheeler, one of the first women to campaign for feminism at public meetings in England, who spoke there in 1829 on “Rights of Women.”

In 1831, Fox bought the journal of the Unitarian Association, the Monthly Repository, of which he was already editor; he helped to transform it from a religious into a general radical journal. Under Fox’s editorship it published articles that gradually alienated the Unitarians, such as one advocating divorce (on the grounds of women’s rights) in 1833. Literary figures as luminary as Tennyson and Browning  contributed verse in the Repository, and regular authors included John Stuart Mill, Leigh Hunt, Harriet Martineau, Henry Crabb Robinson and a fearless iconoclast, William Bridges Adams, whose outspoken series of articles on marriage, divorce, and other social questions (along with those of Fox) split the South Place congregation again.

Among the causes with which Fox identified himself and the Society were the spread of popular education and the repeal of the Corn Laws. In 1847 he entered Parliament whilst remaining minister at South Place for several more years.

In later decades, the chapel moved away from Unitarianism, changing its name first to the South Place Religious Society, and after abandoning prayer in 1869, changed its name to the South Place Ethical Society.

The most famous of Fox’s successors running the chapel was an American, Moncure Conway, after whom the Society‘s present home is named. Conway, raised in Virginia in the US, had been an active anti-slavery activist, although he had two brothers serving in the Confederate army during the civil war, and came to England in 1863 on a speaking tour to raised support for the Union side.

Conway took over a minister at the South Place Chapel from 1864 until 1897, except for a break of seven years (from 1885 to 1892) during which he returned to America and wrote a famous biography of Thomas Paine. Conway abandoned theism after his son Emerson died in 1864. Under his leadership, the South Place Society continued to move toward a more humanistic Freethought. Moreover, women were allowed to preach at South Place Chapel, among them Annie Besant, secularist and socialist, who was a friend of Conway’s wife.

Conway and the South Place congregation continued to evolve further from the beliefs of the Unitarian Church. Conway remained the leader of South Place until 1886, when Stanton Coit took his place. Under Coit’s leadership South Place was renamed to the South Place Ethical Society. However Coit’s tenure ended in 1892 after a power struggle, and Conway resumed leadership until his death.

In 1868 Conway was one of four speakers at the first open public meeting in support of women’s suffrage in Great Britain.

The Society occupied the Finsbury site for 102 years, until 1926, after which it moved to Conway Hall, in Red Lion Square, a building which was opened in 1929. Today, a plaque commemorating the South Place chapel can be seen on the building at River Plate House (nos. 12–13) which stands on the original site.

Conway Hall has hosted more radical events than can possibly be ever counted…Campaigners exposing undercover police officers infiltrating campaigns for social change in the last fifty years generally reckon Conway Hall to be the most spied-on building in the UK – certainly a fair whack of the Special Demonstration Squad and other secret police units have passed though its doors. Nor to mention some of MI5 by all accounts… Hence an event at Conway Hall coming up in July: 50 Years of Resistance: Despite Police Surveillance

Conway Hall remains a venue for radical meetings and events…

More information about the building of Conway Hall 

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Today in rebel history, 1972: sit-down strike in Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

As we related two days ago, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP) was formed on May 11th 1972, by a group of mostly served time inside UK jails, to campaign and organise for improvements in legal rights and better conditions within British nicks. PROP had emerged during a wave of protests by both remand and convicted prisoners across a number of British penal institutions; the group’s formation and the publicity that accompanied its founding was to contribute and help escalate this movement.

There had been a number of protests, mostly peaceful sit-down demos, over various demands, between January and early May 1972; mid-late May saw many more. On 13th May, 350 men staged a sit-down at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in West London. The Scrubs was widely recognised to have one of the most brutal and inhuman regimes at the time.

During the following 6 days there were protest at Brixton, Gartree in Leicestershire (twice), and Strangeways (Manchester). By the end of May, there had been peaceful demonstrations in 15 jails, in which over 2500 inmates had taken part. In Armley Jail in Leeds, 996 men, the whole prison population, staged a 24-hour strike to protest the conditions they were held in. (PROP supported this action with a demonstration outside, which although it attracted on 27 people, did help the sitdown get some good publicity).

PROP’s main problem in supporting the spreading protest movement was communication with prisoners. Prison authorities routinely censored all communications between cons and anyone on the outside. The vast majority of letters sent to PROP from inside, or replies by PROP to any that got through, simply never arrived, if they were sent by regular mail… The letters that got out tended to be the ‘stiffs’ – communications smuggled out by visitors, or by sympathetic staff (often parole officers, though there was the odd screw). The difficulty of regular communication did cause some resentment and disappointment inside: some prisoners active in protests perceived PROP as not up to the job of supporting them on the outside. To some extent PROP were a victim of their own publicity, as they managed to make themselves seem larger, more effective, and more connected to, or responsible for, the protests inside. In reality a fairly small group, PROP weren’t able to fully mobilise the large numbers on the outside to match the willingness of prisoners to demonstrate.

However, these problems didn’t prevent the protests from spreading. In late May, PROP announced that the sitdowns and demonstrations would continue, and would culminate in a national prison strike at some (then unspecified) future date, unless the Home Office Prison Department entered into negotiations over PROP’s demands. The Home Office may not have gone that far, but the protests did force some admission that there were problems that needed addressing – that some of the inmates’ demands were based on legitimate complaints. Some concessions were granted to the remand prisoners at HMP Brixton, for instance, where cons had been among the most active. The prison governor and a Home office representative had met a sitdown protest there on 17th May and gave in to several of the most immediate and easiest granted demands (radios in cells, longer exercise periods, a movie a week), which the more aware cons saw as sops to try to keep them quiet, but also validated the collective tactics inmates were taking.

The collective form and peaceful approach to the protests had proved difficult for prison officers to respond to. Screws dealt out routine brutality and violence to cons on a daily basis, and were accustomed to dealing with the form resistance to this usually took – individual force. Which they could easily overpower by force of numbers (and greater availability of weaponry). Collective peaceful protest left them baffled and they didn’t know how to react. Picking out individuals and labeling them ringleaders also backfired – it generally provoked more inmates to join the struggle, and ‘ghosting’ (a quick move of an identified ‘troublemaker’ to another prison) only succeeded in spreading the movement across the system (this remained a factor in UK prion protest movements – the same dynamic also characterised some of the April 1990 demos following the Strangeways riot).

In June, there were further demos – 20 in the first fortnight, including five between June 11th and June 13th (two at Armley, two at Pentonville, and one at Albany on the Isle of Wight). The authorities may have been ignoring PROP, but on the inside, the organisation’s very existence was becoming a rallying cry. At a Lancashire Borstal, some boys threatened bullying staff with ‘the union’. The Home Office called all prison governors to a meeting in early June to discuss the growing unrest – the most concrete result was a Prison Dept agreement not to interfere with peaceful demos, or punish any prisoner to took part in them.

Home Office concessions to the prisoners’ movement encouraged them to continue with their protests – it also enraged the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), the screws’ union, generally a voice for repression and brutality, for treating inmates like the scum the screws felt they were. The POA were (and to some extent remain) usually critical of the prison authorities as being too liberal and allowing prisoners too much leeway. Governors and Home Office officials shouldn’t be meeting with convicts. On the ground, officers felt they were losing control of the prisons to uppity cons and needed to regain the upper hand. If the Home Office were going to give in to the protests, many screws felt the only course of action was to crack a lot of heads, hopefully provoking violence and confrontation, which would very likely put the concessions into reverse and result in tighter regimes and more repression. This would soon be put into practice…

The prisoners’ movement continued to grow into the summer of 1972. Lack of any large-scale reforms, or any offer to meet with PROP or even admit they had any legitimacy, resulted in PROP calling a national jail strike for August 4th, which achieved some measure of support in 33 prisons, and involved an estimated 10,000 prisoners., Given the difficulties in communication this was a fantastic result. A series of blustering Home Office and governors’ denials that many of the prisons involved had experienced any protest was undermined by PROP (and some journalists) gathering careful evidence, which undermined the authorities’ lies about numbers and nicks involved. PROP was taken more seriously the more obviously the Home Office blatantly denied what was obviously happening.

However, bitter sentiment among prison officers was soon translated into action. Since brutality was always present anyway, in the way that institutional life was generally administered, the provocation of trouble was easily planned. Regular cell searches, moving inmates around, visits etc can be handled carefully, or violently – escalations in bullying and brutality were strategically targeted in some prisons where the protest movement had been strong, and the inevitable angry response was highlighted to justify repression (with the help of tame rightwing papers, notably the Daily Express). In parallel, the POA introduced an official ‘GET TOUGH’ policy in response to the ‘state of emergency’ it said the protests had created – in effect a combination of an overtime ban and a non-co-operation exercise, so that in the event of a prison protest, screws would do as little as possible and sabotage the normal functioning of the jail, and the POA would back up any officer who was disciplined as a result. This put the governors and Home Office in a position of being forced to back the screws, even if they could easily see they were blackmailing them, as they couldn’t afford to completely lose the officers’ goodwill, or jails would grind to a halt. During some of the larger protests, prisoners in some nicks had come close to taking over the whole prison (eg at Brixton), and the authorities could see that to allow the movement to carry on risked literally losing control.

The twin tactics of targeted localised brutality and work-to-rule blackmail were, in the end, effective in helping to derail the prison protests in 1972. Although the demonstrations inside continued, vicious brutality at Albany prison (which had seen 8 protests throughout August) provoked angry resistance, which was splashed across the press as a riot and escape attempt. In fact it was a very limited protest, but the publicity bolstered the screws’ confidence and the beatings, harassment and assaults were stepped up. This provoked further agro; a ‘riot’ at Gartree in November resulted, after screws waded in to a group of cons who had failed in an escape attempt.

Although the prison protests had gained a high profile, and PROP’s constant press work had helped focus the spotlight on prison conditions, to some extent PROP’s claims to be either involved in the planning of, or even directing, the demonstrations proved to be something of a divisive tactic. One founding member, Mike Fitzgerald, later suggested that it had taken the group very much on a diversion from the solid reforming program the group had launched with, and hampered any efforts to establish PROP as a day to day representative group campaigning in prisoners interests and on bread and butter issues. Given the massive struggle going on inside though, it was very much inevitable that PROP’s energy would be focused on the protests. But under the pressure, PROP itself began to fragment internally. Divisions opened up over tactics, and the group in effect split into separate organisations. But both carried on doing good work for several years, supporting struggles, helping prisoners legally and on release, publicising brutality and resistance…

Much more on the formation of PROP can be read in Mike Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt.

John Barker’s Bending the Bars good firsthand account of one of the May 1972 sit-down strikes in Brixton Prison, as well as being a cracking good read from start to finish.

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Today in London anti-fascist history, 1963: Oswald Mosley’s Victoria HQ captured by 62 Group supporters.

The first half of the 1950s was a quiet time for antifascists in the UK. The postwar threat of fascist revival in the form of Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, had been battered off the streets largely by the Jewish 43 Group, which had physically broken up Mosleyite meetings, attacking and dispersed fascists wherever they found them.

Britain’s prewar fascist leader Mosley had not only failed to make his much vaunted comeback but had slunk off abroad, humiliated. With little to oppose, the antifascist movement faded away.
Throughout the 50s, Mosley remained in exile abroad while a small group of die-hard loyalists, led by Raven Thompson, Alf Flockhart and Jeffrey Hamm, kept his organisation alive. The most militant of the anti-fascist organisations, the 43 Group, was dissolved in 1950 and the set piece street battles between fascists and anti-fascists soon seemed to belong to a bygone era.

But in the mid-1950s the fascists began to rebuild their organisations, gaining support around the 1958 race riots, and by the early 1960s Britain was in the midst of a fascist revival.

Most of their activities were centred in London, and it was here that saw the most effective anti-fascist. London was also the place where most of Britain’s Jews lived and the anti-fascist opposition came in its most militant form from a section of the Jewish community who formed the 1962 Committee, (usually known as the 62 Group).

While similar to the 43 Group in some ways, there were some marked differences. Britain in the 1960s was a different place to Britain at the end of the Second World War, and so the composition of the new group was different. As with the earlier organisation, the left and the Jewish community remained leading players in the wider anti-fascist movement; but the left’s influence in the Jewish community was beginning to wane. International events and demographic shifts were changing the nature of London’s Jewish community in particular Thus the 62 Group was not dominated by the left in the same way that the 43 Group had been. Although some of those who set up the 62 Group had been involved in the 43 Group, a new generation was also becoming involved.

In 1962, 62 Group member and supporters had already infiltrated Oswald Mosley’s organisation, and had inside knowledge of its membership and plans for action. In May, a decision was taken to invade the fascist HQ, to disrupt and demoralise Mosley’s set-up. The raid took place on May 12th, 1962.

Gerry Gable, later editor of anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight, takes up the story:

“In Hackney, which had been a focal point of fascist and anti-fascism activity in the 1930s and postwar, people were getting together to prepare to resist the gathering storm. And it became my job to bring people from all sorts of backgrounds to cleanse the streets of the enemy. I was chief steward of the North and East London Anti-Fascist Committee, a multiracial group that included members from most of the political parties, including even some Young Tories from Stepney (now Tower Hamlets). Lots of us were workmates – I was a sparks in the building trade as were some of my black mates. We would police building sites where racists were at work and clear them off the sites. Fascists had even been allowed to attend trade union meetings wearing their badges; we went along and tossed them out. A new activist anti-fascist group, The 62 Group, was formed after Jordan’s National Socialist Movement rally in Trafalgar Square in 1962, but some of us could not, or would not, join as it was solely a Jewish organisation, although it fought alongside the left and one of its greatest allies was the Movement for Colonial Freedom. Although I qualified as Jewish because my mother was Jewish, my dad was a non-practising Anglican and I decided not to join. Nevertheless, the Leadership of the Group invited me to become one of its two Intelligence Officers, although I insisted on selecting my own team of people to engage in “special operations”. When Mosley announced a march starting from the forecourt of Charing Cross station, it was decided to head him off by seizing his HQ in Victoria. The plan was to gain entry to the building by means of two attack groups. The first consisted of a couple of our toughest infiltrators in the Union Movement. They were blonde, blue eyed and had documentation and party badges that got them inside. Then, while one of them engaged the security guards, the other opened the front door and let in another six or seven tough guys, who locked the door behind them. The timing was perfect and we knew the back door had a rotten frame. I was leading the second group with Tony Hall [Trade unionist, anti-racist and radical cartoonist] and an ex-boxer called Billy Collins. One kick with my work boots and the door caved in, and our section of about seven people rushed through. Bad luck: Mosley was not present. But most of his senior officers were, such as Bob Rowe, a big lump of an ex-copper from Yorkshire, and Keith Gibson, a vicious animal, plus half a dozen or more of their security squad. The idea was not to steal anything, as via our infiltrators we already had copies of their membership files and other important documents: the task was to destroy everything that made their HQ work. It was very bloody. Rowe, who had a reputation as a hard man, leapt down the stairs feet first into one of our guys, but two more overwhelmed him. One of our guys went down to the basement where they kept their banners and drums and destroyed the lot. Then Gibson picked up a long sharp sliver of broken glass and came at Billy, thrusting it towards him. Billy had been a great young contender for a future championship, but during the Suez Crisis had been shot in the gut by a trigger-happy British soldier and his boxing days were over. He saw red – he had a Jewish wife and child – and he just disregarded the broken glass and battered Gibson, screaming: “you would kill my family”. Before three of us pulled Billy off, Gibson had suffered a broken nose and cheek bone, several broken ribs and very sore testicles. After the battle, we tied the fascists up and dumped them in a small room near the back door. Then one of our guys got overenthusiastic and threw a typewriter through the front window into a street crowded with people. Some of our men went out the way they had come in, into the main road, and the rest headed for the back door. One had a fire extinguisher of the type that London buses used to carry, and as Rowe tried to stop our team escaping, it was triggered and the door was shut on them. At the back of the building was a long narrow mews. I ran one way with about three people and Tony Hall and Billy ran the other way. When they spotted a police car passing the top of the road, they started pushing on doors. After a couple of attempts, one opened and Tony and Billy walked in to be greeted by a vicar who asked them whether they were the musical entertainment for their garden party. Tony sat himself down at the piano with Billy turning his music and played for the guests for the next four hours. The police looked in, saw the vicar and heard the music, and left. A handful of our team were caught on the street and were sent to stand trial at the Old Bailey. The trial took place in July 1963 at the same time as that of Stephen Ward, the society osteopath in the Profumo Affair, who was charged with living off immoral earnings. As our lads were being led to the court they encountered Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, there to give evidence in the Ward trial. The women asked the lads what they were up for, and when they heard it was for attacking Mosley’s HQ, they each received a kiss and wishes of good luck. Thousands of pounds had been raised for their defence and it was clear that the judge was no Mosley admirer. One of the police officers told the court he had entered the building and found Gibson and the other Mosleyites coughing and spluttering, with one of them saying “we have been gassed”. The judge asked the officer what he had said in response. Referring to his notebook, he replied: “I said it was just like Auschwitz”. Although they were found guilty, nobody was jailed. The big lad who had got the front door opened received a very small fine after the court heard that both his parents had been murdered in Budapest by the Hungarian Arrow Cross murder squads towards the end of the war.”

A fascist march planned for later on in the day of the seizure if the headquarters had to be abandoned.

There’s a couple of press reports on the trial of those anti-fascist raiders who were caught here and here

And there’s much more on the 62 Group here.

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Today in radical history, 1972: Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners launched, North London.

Early 1972 saw a wave of prison protests across the UK: some 50 collective demonstrations took place inside between January and May. Any public information about two-thirds of these was censored by the Prison Department. The press ignored or were unaware of the protests.

The protests arose from the absolute desperation of many UK prison inmates, faced with appalling conditions inside most prisons at the time. The vast majority of English prisons had been built in Victorian times. Conditions were basically prehistoric. Prison wings were filthy, cold and overcrowded. Some cons were locked up for virtually the whole day in many nicks, often two or three to a cramped cell; others worked long hours for token wages. Education facilities were thin on the ground; the idea of rehabilitation was a joke. Censorship of letters and restrictions on visits was routine; bullying and everyday violence from screws (who were often members of a rightwing group) was constant. ‘Ghosting’ – sudden moves without warning to another nick miles away – was a regular hazard, and a good kicking and a spell in chokey (isolation) the usual response to any complaint. Vicious violence from screws, generally backed up by institutional repression, provoked angry and sometimes riotous resistance, but little had changed inside for 50 years.

In the midst of the prison protests of early 1972, the first prisoners’ rights group in the UK, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners, was publicly launched, on 11th May. The ‘union for old lags’ as it was sneeringly called in some quarters, did finally attract national media attention. Journalists gathered at the launch, held at the Prince Arthur pub, opposite North London’s Pentonville Prison, where Dick Pooley outlined PROP’s demands and programme.

PROP’s founders were mostly ex-prisoners. Pooley, recognised as one of Britain’s top safe-crackers, had spent half his life (over 20 years) in penal institutions of one kind or another (he was in fact then on parole at the end of a 10-year sentence). Ted Ward, PROP’s London organiser, had served various sentences, including a two-year stretch for breaking IN to Dartmoor Prison to help with an escape attempt; he had also spent many years in community grassroots organising in Islington, including the local Claimants Union. PROP Press officer Douglas Curtis had served time for petty theft and fraud. Mike Fitzgerald, the only one who had not done time, was a Cambridge Student. He also mentions another founder as a woman called Pauline, (but does not give her surname), another ex-inmate and community activist.

PROP was to some extent born from an alliance of ex-cons and some academic supporters, in particular sociologists. Many prisoners by necessity developed a class-based critique of the criminal justice system/prison system; inevitable, really, if you looked around you at the society you lived in, and their own daily experience of its nasty end. Their link-up to some of the sociological ‘school of deviancy’ helped to create a sharp critique of both crime and punishment.

In response to the degrading, dehumanising conditions prevailing inside UK prisons, PROP announced that it had been formed to ‘preserve, protect and to extend the rights of prisoners and ex-prisoners and to assist in their rehabilitation and re-integration into society, so as to bring about a reduction in crime.’

The organisation’s Statement of Intent continued:

‘For this purpose application has been made to the Charity Commission for the registration of a charitable trust to raise funds and assist PROPL in its efforts to:

  • Campaign for a Prisoner’s Charter of Rights;
    • Secure the right of unimpeded access to Britain’s penal establishment’s by Press and Public;
  • Bring about an end to the mis-application of the spirit and original intent of the Official Secrets Act;
  • Take action to bring about the eventual abolition of all prisons and the substitution of alternative methods of dealing with offenders;
  • Establish local hostels, job placement schemes and educational projects to be run along non-institutionalised lines by local committees with Associate Members’ support;
  • Provide legal assistance for members in court proceedings, internal disciplinary processes, parole applications and any other matters pertaining to the general welfare;
  • Establish and maintain contact an cooperation with the Trade Union movement;
  • Negotiate with the Home Office on behalf of prisoners;
  • Liaise with other penal reform bodies in Great Britain and all other countries of the world where such bodies exist.’

The Charter also set out 26 demands, dealing with the main grievances of prisoners:

‘PROP calls upon the Crown, Parliament, Her Majesty’s Government, the Home Secretary and the Prison Department to accede to these deamnds and to initiate such legislation and issue such directives as may be necessary to secure the early establishment and effective implementation of the following rights of prisoners:

The Right to membership of PROP and the right to communicate with, consult and receive visits from, representatives of PROP;

The Right to conduct elections within penal institutions on behalf of PROP with a view to the appointment of local representatives of that body and the election of delegates to its national committees;

The Right to stand for election as a local representative of PROP and once elected to participate in the decision-making process, to attend all policy and staff meetings within the prison and to act as a spokesman for his or her members in all matters relating to their pay, work and living conditions, leisure pursuits and general welfare;

The Right to canvass and vote for local and national PROP representatives;

The Right to vote in national and local government elections;

The Right to trade union membership and the right to have their pay and conditions determined by negotiations between the home Office and the prisoner’s elected representatives;

The Right to institute legal proceedings of any kind, including actions against servants of the Crown, without first securing the consent of the Home Office;

The Right to contact legal advisers in confidence without interference, intervention or censorship by the penal authorities;

The Right to be legally represented and to call defence witnesses in internal disciplinary proceedings to which the press should have free access;

The Right to parole, provided certain well-established and widely-known criteria are met. This Right to be supplements by the Right to receive expert and independent assistance in the preparation of parole applications, to be present and/or legally represented at the hearing of applications, to have access to all reports considered by the Board from whatever source and the opportunity to refute allegations of misconduct or unsuitability, the Right to a reasoned judgement on the Board’s decision and the Right of appeal to the High Court against that decision;

The Right to communicate freely with the Press and public;

The right to consult with a legal adviser before being subject to any judicial proceedings, including hearing by Magistrates of applications by the police for remands in custody;

The Right to be allocated to penal institutions within his home region;

The Right to adequate and humane visiting facilities within all penal institutions, including the ability to exercise their conjugal rights;

The Right to send and receive as many letters as the prisoner requires without censorship;

The Right to embark upon educational or vocational training courses at the commencement of any custodial sentence, including the Right to sit examinations and to be given adequate and appropriate facilities;

The Right to demand an independent inspection of prison conditions including hygiene, food, working conditions, living accommodation and the provision of adequate leisure facilities;

The Right to adequate exercise periods and the provision of recreational facilities;

The Right to consult an independent medical adviser;

The Right to enter into marriage;

The Right to attend funerals of all near relatives;

The Right to own and sell the products of their leisure-time activities, including hobbies, fine arts and writing;

The Right to receive toilet articles for personal use as gifts from relatives, friends and organisations;

The Right to adequate preparation for discharge, including:

  • Programmes of pre-release courses devised in conjunction with prisoners and their families to assist them with problems of Housing, Employment, Education, Marriage Counselling and Child Care related to their special needs.
  • The right to home leave to be extended to all prisoners.
  • The right of allocation to an open prison and followed by the right of allocation to the pre-release hostel scheme.
  • The right to a fully-franked insurance card on discharge and the supplementary rights thereby to full state benefits.
  • An equal right with all other applicants to employment in state concerns whether they run by central or local authority.

The Right to have all criminal records destroyed within five years of discharge irrespective of the sentence last served.”

PROP’s membership was designed to be two-tier: full membership for prisoners and ex-prisoners; associate membership for supporters who had never been inside. Full members (who would not have to pay membership fees) could stand for election to posts and make use of the organisation’s services; associate members had to pay fees for themselves AND a full member, and were expected to act in supportive roles.
This set-up was designed to prevent PROP being dominated by middle class liberals and ensure that prisoners’ own interests remained at the centre of PROP.

Despite the initial splash of publicity, PROP’s first attempts to establish themselves as a representative body for prisoners that the prison/state authorities would take seriously were not auspicious. Home Secretary Reginald Maudling failed to respond to PROP’s letter to him, informing him of the group’s formation, and suggesting a meeting. But although press coverage was mainly jeering, the publicity did help get the message of the new union’s existence into prisons in its first flush of existence. But on top of this, visitors to most of the major prison in England and Wales were and leaflets announcing PROP’s formation and inviting membership and contact from cons over the few days following the launch, and although many of these were confiscated or barred, visitors carried the news in word of mouth. Sympathetic lawyers, probation officers and other ‘official’ visitors also helped carry the word into nicks. Within a week of the launch, enough mail was coming out of prisons to show that the initial campaign to raise awareness had at least been moderately successful.

A letter smuggled out from Brixton Prison indicates the kind of response PROP received from inmates:

“Dear Mr Pooley,

Sorry that this isn’t nick paper. It’s Saturday night and this note has to go tomorrow so I’ve got to make do with the back of a book.

Speaking for myself and my fellow inmates, we welcome and applaud the efforts you and those connected with your organisation are making on behalf of convicted prisoners everywhere. We here at Brixton will be out again Wednesday evening, we know only too well that we got to keep the ball rolling, as unconvicted prisoners there’s little that can be done against us by the screws, so I think we here all agree that it’s easier for us unconvicted to keep on coming out without fearing reprisals from the screws.

A lot of us here, have had a taste of brutality as convicted men, the result of us trying to stand up for our own rights. I was in Wandsworth in 1970, 1971, spending a solid four months down chokey, on medicine, walking abut like a zombie. All this has to stop. This is why we all here, and I think I speak for cons unconvicted and convicted, welcome and once again applaud what you’re attempting to bring about…

We’re after association, better food, etc… We want the right to live like human beings and not be treated as the scum the ruling authority seem determined to brand us. Also we want the right to take educational courses in the nick. (In most nicks this is impossible.)

A lot of chaps want to be in touch.

Sincerely ….

PROP’s response to this letter indicates the problem of communication between inmates and those on the outside, a question that would plague the organisation in its attempts to organise in support of protest inside. ‘We here at Brixton will be out again Wednesday’ was taken to mean on the Wednesday after the letter was received, and PROP demonstrated outside Brixton on May 24th 1972, the Wednesday after the letter arrived – to coincide with a demo inside that had in fact taken place on the 17th. The smuggled letter had been delayed in its passage out, causing confusion. PROP’s demo was in the event small, but the lack of a corresponding sit-down inside (as they claimed was happening) dented their credibility (with the enthusiastic help of the Home Office and the press).

But the prison protests that had helped give birth to PROP were blossoming elsewhere…

(This story will be continued on May 13th)

A good write-up on PROP can be found in Mike Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt (from which this post was taken).

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history, 1768: 2000 Thames watermen picket Royal Exchange & mansion house, 1768, over a decline in trade.

Ah, ’68, year of tumult, hope and rebellion.

No, not 1968 – 1768.

In London, in 1768, a number of movements came together, grew together, striking fear into the authorities, taking control of the streets. One dispute or flashpoint would influence another, spreading like wildfire… The authorities would attempt to repress some elements, but were afraid to move against other movements.

On the political level 1768 was a year of mass agitation and crowd violence in support of John Wilkes, a populist journalist, a rake of dubious morals, a scandal-mongering writer and agitator, who championed reform of the political system, but won support from both the City of London merchant elite and the ‘Mobility’, the swelling, insurgent and always altering London mob. Wilkes had already been jailed and banished in the early 1760s, for challenging the establishment by libeling the king; in 1768 he stood for election to Parliament for Middlesex, the huge (and consistently politically progressive) constituency north and west of London. Middlesex merged into London: huge crowds flocked there to support him, believing he had their interests at heart. The establishment fear of the potential that Wilkes and his supporters led to a crackdown on the crowds, including soldiers shooting and killing pro-Wilkes demonstrators.

This sparked riots at the hustings, and assaults on Wilkes’ pro-government opponents, which spread to general attacks on the rich and those who refused to light their windows in support of Wilkes. Pro-Wilkes marches became pitched battles, Wilkes was imprisoned…

But Wilkes’ pro-reform and incendiary speeches got him barred from entering the house of Commons, even when elected (he was to be ruled ineligible several times, but re-elected each time).

1768 was also a year of starvation: “the price of bread had doubled. The price of meat had increased by a third. Crowds forced street-vendors to sell vegetables at reasonable prices. The Whitechapel butchers ‘suffered prodigiously’. Elsewhere, butchers ‘were oblig’d to secrete their meat’. Corn-factors were attacked and their wagons stopped. The corn-dealers hid their plate, boarded up their coffee-houses, and closed the Stock Exchange…”

As rising food prices sparked protests, and food riots, a wave of disputes swept London, especially in the East End, over wages, over working conditions and how work was regulated and controlled. Trade after trade erupted into stoppage and demonstration. “The sailors and the glass-grinders petitioned, shoemakers held mass meetings and the bargemen stopped work. The leaders of the tailors were imprisoned for ‘Irritating their Brethren to Insurrection, abusing their Masters, and refusing to work at the stated prices.’”

The political and economic turbulence mingled and sometimes merged; many of the workers in the London trades supported Wilkes, and marched for him… Though in reality, he was only ever mainly interested in the promotion of himself, and his image as the outrageous critic of the monarchy and government, darling of the mob, and would always balk at encouraging violence. [He would end his days as comfortably, and respectable, having served as MP, alderman, Sherriff and Lord Mayor of London, (where he admittedly did work to improve legal protection for prisoners, servants and workers) and taken up arms to command soldiers to shoot down the people who had once been his constituency, the mob attacking the Bank of England during the 1780 Gordon Riots. It’s not just the ‘reactionary populists’ we need to beware of…]

To add to the fears of the ruling classes in 1768, there was unrest and rumours of sedition in the army: “Soldiery may become a political Reverbatory Furnace”… If a regime loses the army, revolt can become revolution. But in the end widespread flogging and repression in the ranks kept soldiers from mainly joining the swirling maelstrom….

The most dangerous disputes from the point of view of the authorities were the wage disputes and battles over mechanisation among the Spitalfields Silkweavers, and the work stoppage by the coal-heavers on the London docks. The silkweavers had been rebelling against wage cuts and increased use of machine looms for nearly a decade, but it was rising to fever pitch, with wage-cutting masters facing sabotage of their looms, intimidation of workers agreeing to low pay, and the formation of clubs of ‘cutters’ branching out into extortion of employers. It would climax the following year with gunfire and the army occupation of Spitalfields.

The coalheavers’ dispute was even more violent. Unloading and moving coal was dirty, backbreaking, and utterly vital for the city to function; wages were low and the trade was organised by magistrates linked to the powerful city merchants. A wage dispute in spring 1768 led to serious violence between strikers and scabs, with pitched battles, arson, murder and hangings. The strike spread to the sailors on ships in the London docks, and became even fiercer.

The disorder and atmosphere of general combination and collective action spread. At any one time throughout the year, but especially between April and July, there seem to have been a cross-hatching of diverse, if often overlapping, crowds, roaming the City, attempting to bargain with employers, impose of negotiate new wages or conditions, as well as bashing opponents of Wilkes. No doubt there was an element of opportunist looting, agro and turbulence mixed in as well. And why not?

Many of the numerous London trades got in on the action.

On the 9th May 1768, “a numerous body of watermen assembled before the mansion House, and laid their complaint before the lord mayor, who advised them, to appoint proper persons to draw up a petition to Parliament, which his lordship promised he would present; upon which they gave him three huzzas and went quietly home. The same night a mob of another kind assembled before the Mansion-house, carrying a gallows with a boot hanging to it, and a red cap; but on some of the ringleaders being secured by the peace-officers, the rest dispersed.” (Gentlemen’s Magazine, 1768)

The watermen were partly cabbies of the day, rowing people up and down the Thames, and across from London and Westminster to the south bank of the river. London’s lack of bridges and rolling marshy landscape to the south and east were perfect for access by boat and the Thames was the main thoroughfare for all kinds of traffic. When there was just London Bridge spanning the Thames, their monopoly on people getting around on/over the water made them powerful. In the 16th century, the Watermen’s Company, was set up, with power to

to set tariffs and reduce accidents, and with jurisdiction over all watermen plying between Windsor (in Berkshire) and Gravesend (in Kent). The Act allowed the London mayor and aldermen to yearly choose eight of the “best sort” of watermen to be company rulers, and to make and enforce regulations: this obviously created a hierarchy with links to the City powers.

Watermen now had to serve a seven-year apprenticeship in order to gain an encyclopaedic knowledge of the complex water currents and tides on the Thames. Watermen freeman were also ordered to pay quarterage – paid quarterly contributions. This was a constant source of grievance and dispute with company rulers who were frequently accused of taking bribes to “free” apprentice watermen.

As in many of the London guilds and companies, the watermen experienced an internal struggle between the company elite and the grassroots over working conditions, and representation, who controlled the trade and set the rules. This had forced the introduction of a form of indirect democracy in 1642, seeing the watermen at the 55 “leading towns and stairs” empowered to each year choose representatives, who would in turn propose candidates to become company rulers. This form of government survived, with vicissitudes, until a new Act of Parliament in 1827 restored an oligarchical rule within the company.

Through these struggles, in a kind of proto-trade union movement, Thames watermen developed tactics that both promoted the trade and encouraged collective organisation, notably the use of petitions or “petitions of grievances”. They won important concessions above and beyond the immediate trade: pointedly, in 1644, they were exempted from land service—the use of watermen in land armies—as a direct result of their pressure (the flip side of this was their tendency to be persuaded or forced into naval service, because of their skills on the water).

Their ability to get together and bargain collectively became legendary, and influenced the way they dealt with authority.

The 1768 protest should be seen in a context of a changing river and altering city. More bridges were gradually being built across the river; more non-company watermen were active, and this was all having an effect on the rate watermen were able to command. This was only to get worse in the following century, as more bridges were built, railways and road transport mushroomed, and steam power revolutionised water travel. The watermen’s hold over Thames trips was soon broken.

It is also worth noting that while famous for their collective defence of their trade in their own interests, the watermen also had a general reputation for patriotism… Not so dissimilar from the black cab drivers of our own era… ? Not sure which newspaper the 1760s watermen mostly read though.

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in radical history: the 1926 General Strike begins… But why was it defeated?

Everywhere, and Nowhere: The General Strike: Myth and Fact

“[the General Strike]… is a revolution that is Everywhere, and Nowhere…” (Fernand Pelloutier).

1926: A BRIEF OVERVIEW

In May 1926, two million workers joined the only General Strike Britain has ever really seen (not counting more recent one-day stoppages – do they count?). It lasted nine days, before being called off by the people who had called it – the General Council of the Trades Union Congress.
The TUC leadership had unwillingly called the Strike, in support of a million miners who had been locked out of the pits until they accepted drastic wage cuts. The General Council had been forced into action by the overwhelming class feeling of the members of the unions, who both strongly supported the miners and believed a General Strike to be in their own interests in the face of an economic assault from the bosses and the government.
The Strike was in most cases rock solid: increasing numbers of workers were walking out, and towards its end it was spreading into other industries not officially on strike. But the government was very well prepared, having planned in advance – ensuring the amassing of coal stocks to make sure the miners could be defeated and industry could keep going, recruiting volunteer strike-breakers ahead of time, and setting up networks to organise nationally and locally.
On the ground, the strike was organised in each town or borough by Trades councils, local committees of trade union branches, some of which formed local Councils of Action to specifically co-ordinate activity, picketing etc. Through mass picketing, and refusal to cross picket lines, in many areas the Strike Committees gained total control of transport (trams, tubes etc in London), and shut down many industries. In some places they were issuing permits to travel or open to bosses. Local Strike Bulletins, and a national daily paper, the British Worker, attempted to keep information flowing to strikers and supporters. Although unions attempted to maintain order, there were regular clashes with the police, who were busy trying to protect scabs attempting to run public transport and break the strike in other industries…
But, afraid of the possibilities of workers escaping their control, and class warfare overflowing their very limited aims, the TUC bureaucrats tried hard to avoid the Strike, attempted to hamstring strikers on the ground from any autonomous action, negotiated throughout with the government and finally called the strike off, claiming they’d gained concessions, even though none had been won.
Although 100,000 more workers came out on the day following the ending of the Strike than had previously been called out, very quickly most workers returned to work, facing worsening pay and conditions from employers made bold by the defeat – and leaving the miners to fight alone for six months until they were forced to give in and accept wage reductions.
This sellout did leave a powerful legacy of bitterness. At the time, and ever since, the TUC leadership have been blamed for betraying the General Strike, and the miners.

MYTH AND REALITY IN THE NINE DAYS

Since 1926 the events of the General Strike have become part of the mythological catechism of the working class movement. The events of the nine days have been held up as an example to illustrate many lessons we are supposed to learn.
The following discusses some of the myths – and some of the realities. We’re thinking, maybe some of the lessons we need to learn are slightly different to the ones the orthodox left traditions have maintained over the last 87 years…

First of all, the myth of 1926 as a great climax of the class struggle.
1926 was not the climax of industrial militancy, but actually a last ditch action, the end of the wave of militancy that had begun during World War 1 and escalated in the immediate post-War years. 1919 and 1920 had both seen stronger strike waves and more dangerous moments of crisis for the ruling classes. In 1919 the government had in fact told TUC leaders that strikes had them at their mercy, but had correctly guessed that TUC leaders would back down as they weren’t prepared to take power. It was never their aim.
Strikes had been declining in number and effect since 1920; despite grandiose statements of alliance by the unions, the wave of industrial militancy was in many ways faltering. There’s no doubt that the fact that over two million people were prepared to go on indefinite strike in support of the miners was a magnificent display of solidarity and fellow feeling; and that many clearly saw that standing by one group of workers was fighting in defence of all. But it was always a defensive strike; in contrast with some of the syndicalist struggles before World War 1, or even some of the events of 1919, it had little sense that it could break its bounds and expand.

The General Council sold out the strike.
This is hardly disputable. It should have been hardly surprising though – the same union leaders had been doing the same for years, (and particularly in the potentially far more dangerous years of 1919 and 1920) – stitching up workers and capitulating to employers. The TUC leaders were more afraid of the workers than of the boss class, they said so, to quote J.R. Clynes of the General and Municipal Workers Union: “I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is our own.” The bureaucrats inevitably became divorced from the day to day struggles of their members, and became closer to the boss class they dealt with.
During the Strike, the TUC did try to shut down autonomy, preventing mass meetings, banning local strike propaganda, and restricting the issuing of permits…
Was the lack of TUC preparedness, their refusal to plan for the strike, a deliberate tactic? Or just dithering and indecision? The TUC General Council (GC)’s strategy seemed to be based on nothing apart from a determination not to let strikers run things themselves.
Their other masterplan consisted of a ludicrous decision to divide workers into a front line (transport workers, printers, dockers, builders, iron and steel & chemical workers), to come out on strike immediately on May 3rd, and a reserve, to be called out later (including engineers, and shipyard workers). This left workers in many areas very isolated, where the ‘front line’ were in a minority.
In many area workers ignored this directive, or tried to: many walked out on their own initiative; some were persuaded back to work by the Trades Councils, or their own unions. As the TUC’s daily strike paper, the British Worker put it: “the biggest trouble is to keep men in [ie at work] who are not involved.”
Also the GC’s instructions were very confusing, so many workers, for instance municipal employees, were left not knowing if they were to strike or not. Most notoriously, workers at one Lewisham factory walked out three times, and were ordered to go back by their union, three times, in nine days. Power workers were supposed to supply light but not power – practically impossible; as a result, where electric workers came out completely, they were sent back to work. This issue was still undecided at the end of the strike. Many electricians walked out or cut off all power on their own bat. Postal, telegraph and telephone workers were never called out, which left communications intact – a crucial mistake.
If all workers had been called out, it would have had a bigger impact; also workers not called out were in practice supporting scab labour, ie using buses, electrics, etc., or told to keep working when members of other unions in the same workplace were on strike – which was demoralising and divisive. Great bitterness arose after the strike because of this issue. For example, at Woolwich Arsenal, there were many workers in several unions doing different jobs – some ordered out, some ordered to remain. Despite strong feelings locally, and calls for everyone to strike regardless, many wouldn’t come out without official union backing. When those still working struck they were told to go back by the GC; when the strike ended those who had remained at work (many reluctantly but under union orders) were given preferential treatment, and this fractious legacy lasted for years.
Unions did issue strike pay to all strikers – obviously this was useful and necessary, but as with all official strikes, this did keep them under union control. Which was bound to have had an influence on people’s thinking, when strikers wanted to carry on after the TUC backed down.
The idea of the Strike Committees issuing permits for transport of food, coal etc, was actually made powerful by the strength of mass picketing, keeping trams, trains, etc from running. Where government control broke down (for example in the North East of England) employers forced to go cap in hand to Councils of Action. But refusal to prevent movement of all materials was another quietist decision made by the General Council; it meant challenging the state control of food; which the GC was unwilling to do. In fact they offered to co-operate with the government over food distribution, but the government refused, recognising they had the upper hand.

Trades Councils and local unions as local brakes on action.
Although many trade unionists, and union branches, fumed at the General Council’s betrayal, the hard reality is that it was the union structures at ground level that ensured the defeat of the General Strike.
The vast majority of Strike Committees made no attempt to exceed the TUC’s directives, even those who were in theory more radical politically than others, (eg the ones controlled by the Communist Party). Some of the latter did exceed TUC guidelines and several Trades Councils were later expelled.
The Strike Committees mostly emphasised the TUC line: strikers should stay away from picket lines, stay off the street – go to church, do your garden etc. Wear your war medals on demos, don’t get involved in trouble. Passivity was the watchword: many unions made frantic attempts to organise anything to keep people from getting involved: concerts, sports, etc. Many workers bought into this, co-operating with police, not acting against scabs, going to church, concerts etc, – and staying off the streets.
Certainly some of the Strike Committees made their obsession with controlling strikers and keeping the peace clear: many strike bulletins and letters to the TUC talk about keeping order as paramount, and dismiss, slander or disassociate themselves from those taking part in street battles, stopping cars, attacking scab trams and other direct actions. Or they stress the ‘problem’ of keeping at work those not ‘yet’ called out: “Our difficulty to keep others at work… main headache keeping in workers not called out…” etc. Many spent much energy, trying to control the workers fighting with the cops or trying to take matters into their own hands. Many strike committees, (for example, Wandsworth, and Willesden) set up some kind of picket defence corps, ostensibly to defend strikers against police violence, but as much it seems to prevent any trouble, or autonomous activity, as to shore up the picket lines or defend them against the cops. Recruitment into defence Corps was used to divert people away from confrontations with police.
Trades Councils had never been very radical in most cases. Many had been overtly hostile, or at best frosty, towards the grassroots shop stewards movement in World War 1. Although some of this movement had subsequently had some involvement in Trades Councils, ideologically, most Trades Councils were in practice identical with local Labour Party branches: they distrusted outbreaks of independent thinking by rank and file workers. In practice, many Labour and union activists felt themselves entitled to organise things for the workers, seeing themselves as an elite with the nouse and experience to take charge. Far from seeing a General Strike as an opening to revolution, or social change in any fundamental way, they did however in many cases strongly believe in solidarity, and were prepared to risk much in support of the miners.
When the strike was called off, many Councils of Action did feel the miners had been betrayed and the strike should continue: in practice, few did carry on. For many, integrated into the structures of the TUC, and the complex strictures of union practice, it’s possible they simply could not conceive of a mass wildcat continuation of the struggle.
If the TUC General Council put themselves at the head of the Strike in order to defeat it NATIONALLY, it may not be fair to say Trades Councils put themselves at the head of it locally with the same view – to prevent workers taking things into their own hands. But in practice, their adherence to the TUC’s line guaranteed the Strike’s defeat.

Many workers took autonomous action.
Despite the General Council’s line, and the tight control that trades councils attempted to impose, thousands of workers DID take collective action on their own initiative.
In fact it was unofficial action that sparked the outbreak of the strike, when Daily Mail printers downed tools in protest at an anti-Union editorial; their union leader tried to get them to go back, though later he denied this (the myth at work: he didn’t want to be seen as one of those sellout TUC bastards?) They had jumped the gun, leaving the General Council in the lurch, as they DIDN’T want the strike, but the government DID, so it broke off negotiations.)
The Strike saw a mass of autonomous actions: street fighting, blocking and trashing trams, buses, harrassing middle class drivers in their cars, stoning the police from rooftops; in the north of England especially streets were barricaded, there were arson attempts; miners even derailed the Flying Scotsman Edinburgh to London train (though they had only intended to knock out the local coal train!)
To some extent this activity was increasing as the strike went on. As well as wrecking buses and trams (smashing engines and motors, and burning vehicles, there were incidents of scab-bashing. For instance, on Wednesday 12 May, the last day of the strike, a strikebreaker called James Vanden Bergh, an undergraduate at Cambridge, was found in the cab of his Central London Railway (now the underground’s Central Line) train with head injuries. He had no memory of the attack, and police were treating it as foul play: this was the first reported violence on the tubes.
But in fact, there was a low level of violence compared to other mass strikes (eg the Liverpool general strike of 1911). The Army was called in very little, and used mainly for dramatic effect by the government. The Workers Defence Corps did more to prevent workers violence than to stop pickets getting nicked or bashed.Unionised workers and non-unionised workers in the Strike.
Large numbers of non-union workers, dismissed by many TUC and union bigwigs before Strike, came out on strike, got involved in the autonomous actions, picketing etc, and many joined unions during the nine days. This on one hand elated some Trades Councils, but it scared the GC. There was a certain snobbery about workers not already unionised, and a dismissal of those involved in streetfighting: the GC line, followed by many trades councils, was all trouble was caused by non-unionists – though this is unproveable in many cases, it’s certainly untrue in others, in that union members were arrested for involvement in fighting.

Could it have turned out differently?
What if the Strike had lasted longer? Could it have done? Was it getting more solid or weaker? The government had managed to force food supplies through, eg in London, through the docks; did this show there was no chance of success? Or merely that Strike Committees were unwilling to use any means necessary to win the strike.
There was a lie put about by the TUC General Council that the strike was crumbling at the end – but there is no evidence of this; the opposite in fact. They were bullshitting to cover the fact that they were afraid of rank and file autonomy, although in reality it was minimal.
To some extent a counter-myth has grown up, of the middle classes and posh students actively enlisted to scab, to defeat the Strike and defend the status quo. In daily reality this wound more people up than the idea of the suffering of the miners – there was open class hatred for posh scabs, and to a lesser extent for anyone trying to break the strike, eg by trying to drive to work.
But most volunteers were useless – a small minority could do anything, most being idle and untrained for owt. Their impact has probably been over-hyped, partly by the government, partly by the strata of the upper and middle classes involved. They were only successful in certain areas, not at all in parts of north, very limited even in London, and caused a number of accidents and disasters when put to work on trains, buses and trams.
As the strike went on, with autonomous actions increasing: would all out class war have resulted if it had gone on?
Although thousands of workers came out when they were not authorised to, although some Councils of Action and Strike Bulletins broke the TUC rules, although many stayed out longer after the Strike was called off, the fact is that in the end, most workers didn’t break out of the union structures, the structures that ensured their defeat. In reality, given the General Council’s back-pedalling and then betrayal, and the tight control of local union branches, open escalation of the Strike controlled from below was the only way it could have gone forward. Some workers were said to have thought the real fight would start now, with the TUC out of the way; if so not enough, or they didn’t or weren’t able to act on it. But conditions were in fact loaded against them.
British Syndicalist Tom Brown later suggested that a major tactical advantage could have been gained by the striking workers occupying their workplaces, rather than abandoning them to the OMS and posh scabs. Possibly this is true, but the stay-in-strike he championed was never suggested at the time; the idea was developed only later – admittedly often successfully…
The TUC kept emphasising the industrial nature of dispute… that the Strike was not aimed at overthrowing the government… but in reality the only direction to go in WAS towards challenging the state, in an all out attempt to (at the very least) impose working class interests on the ruling class. A mass strike NOT prepared to do this was bound to fail, in the face of the government’s preparations and determination not to bend.

The role of the Communist Party
The Communist Party of Great Britain was involved in the Strike, and in the day to day running of some Councils of Action. But the party was weak, small; it had been weakened by the arrests and jailings of many members in the previous year. The CP spent most of time before and during calling on the TUC to lead. The CPGB’s idealogy was tightly controlled from Moscow, and its line on the General Strike was “All power to the General Council of the TUC” – in the circumstances, a sick joke. Centralising power in the hands of the GC was precisely the opposite of ‘All power to the Workers”. The CP made no attempt to challenge the GC’s control, there were no attacks on passive picketing, no discussion of Councils of Action obeying the GC, or of who was running them, and no criticism of the daft two-wave policy. The few CP-controlled Trades Councils and Strike Committees did sometimes push weakly for escalation but barely, and in little more than words.
Although its always fun crying “traitor” at the TUC leaders, many who bitterly attacked them, remained fixated on the same union structures, the idea of capturing the leadership of the unions for the left etc. This is as valid today, as then, many of the left groupings still spend vast amounts of time manoevering within Broad Lefts etc in the unions… “Union leadership would be ok if it was the right kind of leadership” – ie us. But the Left union leaders in 1926 were as useless as the right were treacherous, left leaders were among ones claiming a victory afterwards, in blatant defiance of the facts… and left controlled unions still attempt to control and hamper the autonomous activity of people struggling on the ground. The Communist Party later became critical of left Union leaders, though they had helped them to power! The daily practice of much of today’s union structures is one way that class anger and resistance is controlled, diverted, channeled – this is not to attack all union members or even branch reps, convenors etc; it’s a structural problem that draws militant activists in and gradually neuters them in the guise of enabling them to achieve their political aims.
It has been suggested that the Strike Committees or Councils of Action could have provided an alternative structure take over the state, or institute dual power or whatever. Some trotskyist critics of the GC have expressed the view that Councils of Action should have taken more power locally, over union branches and been more centralised bodies DIRECTING strike activity. Since most Strike Committees just didn’t want to do this, this is pie in the sky. A Communist International report later suggested the Councils were embryonic soviets… this is simply not born out by reality.

After the Deluge
While national and local union structures may have ensured the defeat of the Strike, the result was a disaster for the trade union movement. It led to a vengeful employers offensive, wages being driven down, blacklisting of many militants.; the government brought in savage anti-union laws. Workers also left unions in droves, partly with the legacy of betrayal and bitterness, but also because hamstrung unions couldn’t do much for them. After the strike there was a tendency for bosses and unions to avoid confrontation and for employers to maintain wage rates. Industrial collaboration improved considerably in the years after 1926. Sir Alfred Mond – head of ICI – organised a joint committee of union leaders and employers, for “improving efficiency of British industry and for reducing unemployment”. TUC policies were steered towards negotiation and co-operation with bosses.

Was the General Strike a disaster which should have been avoided?
As with the 1984-85 miners strike, the government in 1926 saw in advance that a clash of some kind with the union movement (most likely over the mining subsidy) was inevitable, and could in fact be necessary, and desirable, as a way to clobber the organised working class. On this basis, they laid their plans carefully, and made sure that if and when the clash came they would win.
The government climbdown of 1925, allowing the Coal subsidy to continue, for another few months, was merely a ruse to buy time to marshall its forces… (much as Thatcher backed down from confronting the NUM in the early ‘80s, waiting till the time was right…) The stocks of coal it was thus able to build up, left it in a stronger position. The Government also pre-planned scab labour and food distribution, after previous scares with strikes. Forming the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies in advance of the Strike, it recruited strikebreakers ahead of time, and worked out ways of breaking union control over transport particularly.
The GC and the unions, in contrast, were not ready, although with some clear thinking this could have easily have been different. Unlike the state, the TUC leadership wanted to avoid the strike, and did little to ready themselves, in the hope it wouldn’t happen. While workers on the ground and some local officials pressed for a strike to support the miners, they neither realised that the government was better prepared, nor were able to overcome the contradictions within the labour movement.
Many on the left, including ourselves, obsess on the myth of May 1926 as some kind of potential revolutionary situation, thwarted by union leaders holding back class struggle. But in reality it wasn’t: few at the TIME saw it as more than an (admittedly huge) industrial dispute, limited to support for the miners. It’s possible that it was doomed to failure, given the conditions prevalent at the time. For a general strike to have contained ‘revolutionary potential’ depended on the willingness, confidence and numbers of working class people prepared to go beyond the trade union structures, ideology and tactics, when it became necessary. Whatever bitterness and anger at the selling out of the miners may have existed (and it was widespread), there was no critical mass of people able to translate it into maintaining or extending the Strike.

Postscript:
It’s not our intention here to go into detailed theoretical proposals for how a possible future General Strike might pan out differently. But one classic communist text we have read we did find useful, and in some ways relevant to the events of 1926.
Rosa Luxemburg, in her book, The Mass Strike (1905), made some critiques of how anarchists, syndicalists, and trade unionists all saw the General Strike. She suggested that the idea of the anarchists and syndicalists of a political general strike pre-arranged with a political aim to overthrow capitalism was unlikely to succeed, but posited instead (based on an analysis of the 1905 Russian Revolution) that a mass strike, evolving more organically out of people’s immediate economic struggles in daily life, meshing together, constituted a new phase in the class struggle, not an abstract and artificial moment plucked from the air, but a historical development, emerging from below, not being imposed or ordained by any higher authority, or even she suggests by an external political radical structure like a socialist party.

Part of Luxemburg’s intent in writing The Mass Strike, it is true, was to discredit the existing theories of the General Strike as put forward mainly by anarchists and syndicalists, trends of radical thinking that she and other marxists were struggling to liquidate from the working class movement, as they saw it. But she was also engaged in a parallel battle against those within the Marxist camp who were attempting to steer it towards a reformist position, away from the idea of a revolutionary transformation of capitalism; as well as being critical of trade unionists mainly concerned with purely day to day economic gains at the expense of the bigger picture.

Theorists of the General Strike thus far had almost exclusively conceived of it as a road to revolution. I’m not sure if William Benbow was the first to think up the idea of a general strike, but in his classic pamphlet of 1832, The Grand National Holiday of the Productive Classes, which he proposed that the producers of the wealth, being exploited by an idle and rich minority, should cease to work en masse, for a month, and elect a congress to begin the process of re-ordering society in their own interests. Benbow was a radical pamphleteer and bookseller, an activist of the National Union of the Working Classes; he later became a leading physical force Chartist, and spread his idea of the ‘Grand National Holiday’. The Chartists took the idea, and renamed it the Sacred Month, and plans to introduce it and overthrow capitalism were well under way in 1839, but were repressed by the government.
Sixty years later the French syndicalists, organised in the CGT union confederation, developed theories in which the General Strike was central. They saw it as the supreme weapon for the workers to overthrow capitalism and take control of society in their own interests. One of the CGT’s founders and leading theorists, Fernand Pelloutier, wrote about the General Strike. Two examples showing how he and other revolutionary syndicalists saw this future strike:
“ … Every one of them (the strikers) will remain in their neighbourhoods and will take possession, first, of the small workshops and the bakeries, then of the bigger workshops, and finally, but only after the victory, of the large industrial plants….”
“ … Because the general strike is a revolution which is everywhere and nowhere, because it takes possession of the instruments of production in each neighborhood, in each street, in each building, so to speak, there can be no establishment of an “Insurrectionary Government” or a “dictatorship of the proletariat”; no focal point of the whole uprising or a center of resistance; instead, the free association of each group of bakers, in each bakery, of each group of locksmiths, in each locksmith’s shop: in a word, free production….”

The syndicalist line on the General Strike was very much to the fore when Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike was written. It attempts to dismiss the prevailing ideas of the potential of such a struggle : “It is just as impossible to ‘propagate’ the mass strike as an abstract means of struggle as it is to propagate the ‘revolution.’ ‘Revolution’ like ‘mass strike’ signifies nothing but an external form of the class struggle, which can have sense and meaning only in connection with definite political situations.”
You can’t create either by going round calling for it, in other words; it will emerge as and when needed and according to the conditions of the moment. It is not ONE predictable fixed open and close struggle, but an inter-connected web of movements events, themselves caused by local or specific economic conditions, though led and expressed by people with a political idea of the movement, at least as Luxemburg saw it.
Another nice quote: “It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena.”
Rosa saw it as not a method but THE form itself of workers struggle… A rallying idea of a period of class war lasting years or decades… It cannot be called at will by any organisation even The Party! She goes further and almost says that it cannot be directed from above or outside, though she does say elsewhere that the socialists have to provide political leadership.
She does contrast the mass fighting strikes with one off ‘demonstration’ strikes – what the TUC or Unison calls today in other words.
Related to this, she says the successful mass strike arising in the way described above would not/must not be limited to the organised workers: “If the mass strike, or rather, mass strikes, and the mass struggle are to be successful they must become a real people’s movement, that is, the widest sections of the proletariat must be drawn into the fight.” The union structures must recognise the common interest of unionised and non-unionised workers, in other words (to their surprise many strike committees learnt this lesson in practice in 1926, as unorganised workers flocked to the struggle in thousands).
She suggests minority movements are pipe dreams: “a strategy of class struggle … which is based upon the idea of the finely stage-managed march out of the small, well-trained part of the proletariat is foredoomed to be a miserable fiasco.” Even though the Socialists are the leadership of the working class, she suggests, they can’t force things through on their own… (past tense would question that the working class needs an external leadership, here we do differ from auntie Rosa).
Later on she talks about trade unions getting to the point where preservation of the organization, its structure etc, becomes end in itself, or at least more important than taking risks, entering into all out struggles, or even any at all! Also how daily struggles over small issues often lead people to lose sight of wider class antagonism or larger connections… Interestingly she points out that TU bureaucracies become obsessed with the positive, membership numbers etc, and limited to their own union’s gains, ignoring negative developments, hostile to critics who point out the limitations to their activities. And how the development of professional bureaucracies increase the chance of divorce of officials etc from daily struggles… Nothing sharp-eyed folk have not also pointed out over the last hundred years, but she was among the first to diagnose it. (She also says the same ossification processes are dangers the Revolutionary Party needs to beware of… showing foresights to the developments of the communist parties and other left splinters over the following decades).
Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas are interesting.. Without going into it too deeply, her assertion that a successful general strike would have to arise organically, meshing together from below rather than being ‘called’ by any committee or confederation, looks more realistic… though Rosa would probably have dissed Fernand Pelloutier, her vision also suggests a revolution that is ‘everywhere and nowhere’, part of a tangled period of change and dual power… a future that remains open and in our hands…

The text of the Mass Strike can be found online here

Tomorrow, we will mostly be posting –  an incomplete roundup of class struggle in London during the General Strike…

 

Today in London gay history, 1727: pilloried for ‘sodomy’, Charles Hitchin’s friends defend him against physical attack.

London’s gay subculture is very likely as old as the city itself, but the first gay cruising grounds and gay brothels that evidence can be found are identifiable towards the middle of the seventeenth century. While the famous ‘mollyhouses’ may have begun to develop towards the end of the seventeenth century, almost 100 years earlier, theatres were singled out as haunts of ‘sodomites’.

Michael Drayton in The Moone-Calfe (c.1605) denounced the theatres as the haunts of sodomites. Edward Guilpin in Skialetheia said that the plays were frequented by sodomites, who went to sup with their “ingles” or young male prostitutes after the play. John Florio’s 1611 Italian/English dictionary defines Catamíto as “one hired to sin against nature, an ingle, a ganymede” Stubbs in his notorious Anatomie of Abuses claimed that after the performances in the theatres, “Every mate sorts to his mate, every one brings another homeward of their way very friendly, and in their secret conclaves (covertly) they play the Sodomites, or worse”.

By the 1660s homosexuality had apparently become commonplace in the capital. Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary in 1663 that “Sir J Jemmes and Mr Batten both say that buggery is now almost grown as common among our gallants as in Italy”.

The growth of a gay subculture was something that caused alarm and outrage among the respectable, and together with prostitution, church avoidance, and swearing, was considered a major immoral scourge that had to be stamped out. The Society for the Reformation of Manners (meaning Morals) was formed in Tower Hamlets in 1690, with the a primary aim of suppressing of bawdy houses (brothels) and profanity, but also dedicated to seeking out gay men, discovering where they met each other, socialised and had sex, and prosecuting them and those who ran pubs or clubs to allow them space. The Society gave birth to a network of moral guardians, with four stewards in each ward of the city of London, two for each parish, and a committee, whose business it was to gather the names and addresses of offenders against morality, and to keep minutes of their misdeeds. By 1699 there were nine such societies, and by 1701 there were nearly twenty in London, plus others in the provinces, all corresponding with one another and gathering information and arranging for prosecutions.

Ironically, Charles Hitchin (or Hitchen), the Under City Marshall, formerly a cabinet maker in St Paul’s Churchyard, was a member of the Society. Hitchin, however, was concealing a secret:

“On 29 March 1727, Hitchin met Richard Williamson at the Savoy gate and asked him to have a drink. They went to the Royal Oak in the Strand “where, after we had two Pints of Beer”, according to Williamson, Hitchin “began to make use of some sodomitical indecencies”. Apparently Williamson was not particularly offended, for although he had to leave to carry out some business elsewhere, he left his hat as a pledge to return, and indeed did so. They then went to the Rummer Tavern where, while imbibing two pints of wine, Hitchin “hugg’d me, and kiss’d me, and put his Hand ––”. Then on to the Talbot Inn, and another pint of wine. The Chamberlain made a bed ready for them, and brought two nightcaps. In bed, Hitchin “–– and –– and ––” (our court recorder is strangely reticent, but we get the gist of it).

Hitchin was well known at this inn; according to Christopher French, a servant there, Hitchin came frequently with soldiers and “other scandalous Fellows” and was often seen with them in his room. The day after this incident, Williamson had misgivings, and confessed all to his relative Joseph Cockcroft; together they went to the inn and spied through the keyhole upon Hitchin in bed with one of his menfriends. Cockcroft says “I took him by the Collar, and told him I had some Business with him. He laid his Hand upon his Sword, Sir, says I, if you offer to draw, I’ll whip ye thro’ the Gills”. Hitchin submitted, and in April was acquitted of sodomy but convicted of the attempt, and sentenced to a twenty-pound fine, six months’ imprisonment, and to stand in the pillory near the end of Catherine Street, just off the Strand.

When Hitchin was brought to the pillory on Tuesday, 2 May, his many “Friends and Brethren” had wisely barricaded the side-avenues with coaches and carts so as to impede the angry mob. But such precautions proved futile, for the throng nevertheless broke down these barriers, and blood was spilled in the ensuing battle between them and the attending peace officers. This was the first act of gay resistance in modern times, predating the Stonewall Riot which began the gay liberation movement by almost two hundred and fifty years. For half an hour, according to a newspaper report, a steady “battery of artillery” was aimed at Hitchin by “the Drury Lane Ladies”, the rocks breaking windows when they missed the object of their hatred. One might expect other “sexual minorities” to sympathise with the mollies, but the current of anti-homosexual prejudice flowed deeply through all social groupings, and some of the most virulent molly-haters were the female prostitutes. They always turned out in force when a molly was pilloried, vocally and physically expressing their indignation at the mollies depriving these “more honest whores” of their rightful custom. As seems to be the way of the world, one outcast group tries to salvage some status at the expense of another outcast group, not recognising their common oppressor. Hitchin, thoroughly pelted with filth, his nightgown and breeches literally torn away from his body by the force of the missiles, was finally let down, fainting from exhaustion. Little wonder that he never recovered from this gruelling ordeal, and he died shortly after his release from prison six months later. He died in extreme poverty, and his wife petitioned the courts for relief.

Hitchin’s “friends and brethren” were probably a mixture of mollies and semi-professional criminals, for Hitchin was a prominent “thief-taker”, and his biography provides our surest clues about the overlapping of the molly subculture with the criminal underworld. That notorious criminal Jonathan Wild – who was virtually the director of a crime syndicate which thrived upon robbing people and then returning their goods for a reward, or smuggling them to Holland – began his career as an assistant to Hitchin. “These celebrated co-partners in villainy, under the pretext of reforming the manners of the dissolute part of the public, paraded the streets from Temple-bar to the Minories, searching houses of ill-fame, and apprehending disorderly and suspected persons: but such as compliment these public performers with private douceurs were allowed to practice every species of wickedness with impunity”. Hitchin’s membership of the Society for Reformation of Manners, and access to its network of information, would have added immeasurably to his power in the underworld, but it is nevertheless ironic that he pretended to be an active supporter of the very Society which was responsible for the purge of the molly houses which indirectly led to his downfall.

Hitchin was born about 1675; in 1703 he married Elizabeth, daugter of John Wells of King’s Waldon, Hertfordshire, and may have had one or more children by her. They lived on the north side of St Paul’s Churchyard, where he practised his trade as a cabinet maker. Elizabeth’s father died in 1711, and Hitchin persuaded her to sell her inheritance to enable him to buy the office of Under City-Marshall in January 1712 for £700. This valuable post enabled him to regulate some 2,000 thieves, to blackmail them and others, to receive stolen goods and extract enormous sums of money from their owners for returning them.”

Hitchin’s prosecution came in the context of a major attack on the gay meeting places of the city, especially the mollyhouses. The most well-known of them, Mother Clap’s, had been raided in February 1726, with the arrests of 40 men; Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin, and Thomas Wright had been hanged in May of that year for sodomy.

There’s much more on London’s gay subcultures, trials, writings at Rictor Norton’s excellent site, Homosexuality in Eighteenth Century England.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history, 1649: executed mutineer Robert Lockyer’s funeral becomes a Leveller demonstation

“I am ready and willing to dye for my Country and liberty and I blesse God I am not afraid to look death in the face in this particular cause God hath called me to.” (Robert Lockyer, 1649)

Robert Lockyer (also spelt Lockier) was born in London in about 1626. He received adult baptism in 1642, when he was 16, together with his mother, Mary, into a sect of the particular Baptists in Bishopsgate, then a suburb on London’s northeastern edge. This seems to have been where Robert grew up and had several relatives – it would also be the scene of the mutiny that would result in his execution.

Although this area had some ‘fair houses for merchant and artificers’, it had experienced a rapid building boom in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and along with Spitalfields and Shoreditch the Bishopsgate area had long also been associated with migrants, often denied entry to live or work in London, with various forms of criminal subcultures, and those looking to evade control or close scrutiny by the City authorities… Since 1500 the area’s population had increased, and refugees from the increasing enclosure of common lands, dislocation in the countryside, and the desperate seeking work, had swelled the streets around Bishopsgate. It’s unclear what Lockyer’s background was, whether his family had been resident for generations, or were relatively newly arrived… but the mix of classes, wealth and poverty side by side, the inevitable mix of ideas and resentments that arise in such ‘barrios’ may be relevant to his story.

His background in, or choice to enter, a separatist sect, the particular Baptists, is typical of many of the radicals of the English Civil War. The religious ferment, the spreading of ideas, creeds, the multiplying of branches of the protestant faith and offshoots from it, forms a vital backdrop to the English Revolution. It wasn’t just that freedom to worship as they chose, in small and self-directed congregations, without interference from the Anglican Church authorities with their secular backing from the king, was a huge demand that bubbled up for decades before the 1640s. Many of the sects were also developing radical critiques, both is purely religious terms, and when applied to the social order around them. This was harshly repressed for a century after the Reformation, but with the struggle between parliament and king out in the open, would erupt in a multi-shock volcano of ideas, proposals, and programs, and manifest in word, print and action. They saw themselves as the Saints, God’s own, though their views often diverged at to what God approved of and what kind of world He would want them to build, and as to what role the Saints themselves had in doing God’s will on Earth…

The Baptists in particular produced many political radicals in the English civil war period, as they had in the 16th century, when, known as ‘anabaptists, usually by their enemies, many had held extreme political views, and been involved in insurrections, revolutionary plotting and spreading of subversive social theories. But while the general suspicion of the Anglican church and state authorities, was that Baptists were basically dangerous extremists likely to do a ‘John of Leyden’ and introduce communism and bloodshed against the wealthy at the drop of a hat, many baptists were in reality quiet-living and law-abiding, so long as they could worship as they chose.

The range of ideas among the puritan and other sects was wide – many who sought independence from the established church for their own sect deplored tolerance for others (and catholics could basically whistle), but also feared and denounced the social rebelliousness that seemed to follow religious questioning. Many on the parliamentary side in the war were happy to enlist religious radicals to fight the king’s army, but had little intention of allowing this to imply the radicals had any right to either determine their own congregational path, or worse, start offering opinions on how wider society might be reshaped to the benefit of a wider swathe… A clarion call for freedom of conscience as a battle standard was a dangerous strategy, and it was to backfire on the cautious reformers and even many of the more devout leaders, as they saw subversive ideas spreading among the lower orders…

On the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, Robert Lockyer joined the Parliamentary Army (Roundheads) and served as a private trooper. It is telling that he joined the regiment commanded by Colonel Edward Whalley, having first served in Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Ironsides’: this regiment was filled with hardcore puritans and sectaries, who saw the struggle against the king as doing God’s work, but also debated and discussed among themselves, around campfires and on the march, the kind of society the Godly should help create. And by the mid-1640s they were coming to radical conclusions. Richard Baxter, a leading puritan preacher and theologian, chaplain to Whalley’s regiment in 1645-46, observed this, to his horror: “Many honest men of weak judgments and little acquaintance with such matters… [were]… seduced into a disputing vein… sometimes for state democracy, sometimes for church democracy.” Baxter would spent much time denouncing this kind of uppityness among the common sort, who ought to listen to the learned and stop thinking they had the right to question or offer up opinions of their own.

Some regiments in the victorious New Model Army elected Agitators or agents, who, in alliance with the London Levellers, drew up the Agreement of the People, a program for a widening of the electorate and some measure of social justice. Its four main proposals were to dissolve the current Parliament (suspected of lukewarm sentiment for change and many of whose members had been intriguing with the defeated king Charles to work against the power of the army), radically redraw constituencies to better represent the country, more regular elections, freedom of religious conscience, and equality for all before the law. (To this was added, in later editions, the vote to be extended to all adult male householders, and the exclusion of catholics from freedom of conscience. There are limits, after all.)

It’s not known when Robert Lockyer became a Leveller sympathiser, or whether he was heavily involved in the New Model Army agitators campaign for democracy of 1647, though it is assumed he was involved, as Whalley’s regiment was at the heart of this ferment. It was later said of Lockyer, after his death, that he had supported the Leveller Agreement of the People, and had been present at the abortive mutiny at Ware in November 1647, which had broken out as the more radical elements in the army began to realise that the leadership were outmanoeuvring them and had no plans to implement anything like as ground-breaking a program as the Agreement. The mutiny had followed on from two weeks of argument among the army leadership and agitators at the Putney Debates. Here the Army leadership made it very clear that they very opposed the idea that more people should be allowed to vote in elections and that the Levellers posed a serious threat to the upper classes. As Oliver Cromwell said: “What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces.”

Lockyer’s regiment was in fact stationed at Hampton Court, (guarding the imprisoned king, though Charles escaped on the 11th November), which was near enough for Lockyer to have ridden to Ware, (though he would have been AWOL at best, risking serious punishment if caught, up to the death sentence for desertion), if he was involved in the plans for a mutiny to impose the Agreement; but this may also be backward-myth making. We will never know. In any case the mutiny was quashed, as the majority of the troops present were persuaded to remain loyal to the Army Grandees, and Leveller/Agitator leaders Thomas Rainborough and John Lilburne realised that active support for a democratic army coup was weaker than they had thought. If Lockyer was present, it was not be the last mutiny he saw.

The Army leadership, represented most vocally by Oliver Cromwell, had ensured that the possibility of the army taking up arms against parliament on the basis of the Agreement could not happen, and in fact a Second Civil War followed as royalists rebelled in Kent and elsewhere. The threat in fact drove Grandees and radicals into temporary alliance against resurgent royalism and its sympathisers in a Parliament determined to put the army back in its place. But the rapprochement lasted only as long as the Second Civil War and the resulting purge of Parliament. When the king and his supporters were again beaten, Leveller demands for some quid pro quo for falling in behind Cromwell and co during this crisis, and rapidly led to the arrest of leading Leveller spokesmen.

This took place in early 1649. But the Grandees continued to pursue radicals in the army who attempted to push for the ideals set out in the Agreement of the People. In March 1649 eight soldiers from various regiments were court-martialled for petitioning the army’s nominal top brass General Fairfax to restore the more electoral structure the army agitators had briefly achieved two years before. The humiliating punishment five of them received – being paraded held up on a wooden pole, their swords broken, and then cashiered – made it clear that protest for democracy – in the army, or society in general – were not to be tolerated.

This formed the immediate background to the confrontation that cost Robert Lockyer his life. Future attempts by grassroots soldiers at independent action, on any issue, would be squashed.

A few weeks later, Captain Savage’s troop of Whalley’s Regiment, then quartered in the City of London, was ordered to quit these quarters and join the regimental rendezvous at Mile End, in preparation to march into Essex. On hearing this, 30 troopers seized the troop’s colours from the Four Swans Inn at Bishopsgate Street where it was stashed, and carried it to the nearby Bull Inn, a noted haunt of radicals at that time. Captain Savage demanded they bring out the colour, mount their horses and proceed to Mile End but they refused, fighting off his subsequent attempt to wrestle the flag off them. Lockyer told Savage that they were ‘not his colour carriers’ and that they had all fought under it, and for all that it symbolised (which could be interpreted in a number of ways, given the widespread debate about what the civil war had been for and how what many soldiers had felt were its aims had been closed down). Lockyer’s companions echoed his words, shouting ‘All, all!’

That a stance by just 30 men worried the army hierarchy can be seen in the quick reaction of Colonel Whalley and Generals Cromwell and Fairfax both hurried to the Bull. Whalley, arriving first with other regimental officers, and a large force of loyal troopers, negotiated with the 30 men. The ‘mutineers’ complained that they had not been paid enough to pay for the quarters they had been occupying in the city. This was a major grouse among civilians who housed soldiers in their homes – whether voluntarily, or in many cases, by force. The army was notoriously slow to cough up pay to its troops, sometimes arrears would run to months or even years, and the cost and inconvenience of quartering soldiers was a severe economic burden for householders. Seeing themselves as they did, as a kind of citizen army, the armed wing of righteous public opinion, some of the democratically-minded among the army were angry that they often could not pay their way, and this issue was a huge one at this time (not to mention the expenses mounted troopers like Lockyer’s company had for themselves – ie gear, horses, which often came to half their daily pay by themselves) . However, there is little doubt that both the 30 men and their superiors both saw this as the tip of a large iceberg, with all the repressed demands of the agitators and levellers looming threateningly below the surface. It was not what Lockyer and his comrades DID that required rapidly putting to an end – it was the potential for an insurrection that could spread to the city, and the wider army.

Although Whalley offered a sum of money to pay these arrears for quartering, the troopers pushed for stronger guarantees that he would offer, and Whalley lost patience, ordering Lockyer to mount, and when he refused, arresting him and fifteen of the other men. A crowd of civilians sympathetic to Lockyer and the rebels had gathered, but were scattered by men who obeyed Whalley’s order to disperse them. At this point Fairfax and Cromwell turned up, and ordered all fifteen to be taken to Whitehall to be court-martialled.

At the court-martial, one man was acquitted, three left to the discretion of the Colonel, five sentenced to ‘ride the wooden horse’ (the same punishment the five soldiers in March had suffered) – and six, including Lockyer, condemned to death. The six petitioned General Fairfax for mercy, promising to be obedient in future, and he pardoned five, but upheld the sentence on Lockyer. This was, Fairfax said, because at the court martial he had attempted to defend himself using the argument that their was no legal justification for the imposition of martial law (in reality, military control of the state) that the army grandees were operating under, in a time of peace – a clear challenge not just to daily gripes about pay but about policy and about whose interests the army were now representing. This defence enraged the court, and his death sentence was upheld not just to punish him, but to give an example to the alliance of army radicals and civilian activists that the Grandees feared was still active and brewing. A group of women supporters of the Levellers who had been visiting Parliament to petition for the release of the civilian Leveller leaders (ignoring the advice of MPs and Grandees to go home and mind their wifely duties and not meddle with the affairs of men!) had gathered outside the court-martial at Whitehall; they greeted the soldiers as they came out of the court, saying that there would be more such men as the accused in other places soon, and that Lockyer was a godly man and a Saint, who the authorities were going to murder.

The brief mutiny had aroused support among the discontented in London, and the possibility of a mutiny becoming an uprising had to be cut off. Whether Lockyer was in fact the ringleader of the protest or not, he was picked out to be a dreadful example for any potential rebels.

On April 27th, Robert Lockyer was marched to St Paul’s Churchyard by soldiers of Colonel Hewson’s regiment, to be shot. Speaking before execution, Lockyer is said to have announced

“I am ready and willin to dye for my Country and liberty and I blesse God I am not afraid to look death in the face in this particular cause God hath called me to.”

He added that he was happy to die if his fellows could be spared, but was troubled that he had been condemned for something so small as a dispute over pay, after fighting for seven years ‘for the liberties of the nation’. Refusing a blindfold, he spoke directly to the soldiers assigned to shoot him, “fellow-soldiers… brought here by your officers to murder me.. I did not think you had such heathenish and barbarous principles in you as to obey your officers in [this]” Major Carter, commanding the firing squad, being visibly shaken by this, Colonel Okey, who had been on the bench at Lockyer’s court-martial, angrily accused him of attempting to incite the firing squad to mutiny, and seizing his coat belt and jacket, distributed them to the firing squad, who then announced themselves ready to obey their orders. The sentence was carried out.

Lockyer’s funeral, two days later on Sunday 29th April, took the form of a political demonstration, a reminder of the strength of the Leveller organisation in London. Lockyer’s coffin was carried in silent procession from Smithfield in the afternoon, slowly through the heart of the City, and then back to Moorfields for the internment in the New Churchyard (underneath modern Liverpool Street Station – recently excavations here for the Crossrail train line has disturbed the bones buried here, presumably including Lockyer, and his fellow civil war radical, John Lilburne). The coffin bore blood-stained rosemary and a naked sword (a threat aimed at the Grandees of the potential for armed rebellion?)

Led by six trumpeters, about 4000 people reportedly accompanied the corpse. Many wore ribbons – black for mourning and sea-green to show their allegiance to the Levellers whose colour this was. A company of women brought up the rear, testimony to the active female involvement in the Leveller movement. If the reports can be believed there were more mourners for Trooper Lockyer than there had been for the martyred Colonel Thomas Rainborough the previous autumn, or king Charles a few months before. As the Leveller newspaper, The Moderate said, a remarkable tribute to a person of ‘no higher quality that a private trooper’ (quality meaning ‘class position’ here).

But while Lockyer’s funeral procession showed the strength of the support for the Levellers and sympathy with army radicals, Lockyer’s execution in fact showed that the Grandees were firmly in control of most of the army, enough at least to put down discontent and isolate troublemakers. Radicals in Whalley’s regiment were scared into submission, many signing a declaration of loyalty in May, and they did not join the subsequent army mutiny at Burford at the end of May, whose (again rapid) defeat marked in reality the end of any threat of an concerted army rebellion in favour of democratic ideals or Leveller principles. Three soldiers were shot 24 hours after the Burford mutiny, after another drumhead court-martial.

Written protest from Leveller spokesmen John Lilburne and Richard Overton, and a petition from Leveller women activists, at Lockyer’s execution fell on deaf ears – the Grandees were secure in the saddle, and knew it. They no longer needed the support of the radicals against the king or the moderate parliamentarians, and knew they could cow much opposition by executions, and ignore objections that martial law was no longer legal. They had also perceptively realised that their preparation to use terror and force was not matched by a similar determination on the radical side – as Colonel Hewson observed: “we can hang twenty before they will hang one.”

As with the other ‘radical’ army mutinies of the late 1640s, the way that Lockyer and many of his fellow soldiers saw themselves – as representing both the righteous of the nation, but also doing God’s work – gave them the justification for asserting their voice against their commanders; many of their commanders shared their background among the Saints, and so they also felt that this argument would be understood, at least. But diverging views as to what the interests of the nation and God’s work consisted of had been opening up since the beginning of the civil war – based on class interests, as much as interpretations of scripture. The actions of Cromwell, in particular, enraged the godly radicals, as they had seen him as one of them, a betrayer of the ‘good old cause’: but his class background meant his practical cleaving to the defence of the ‘men of property’ was always likely.

In the end, the program of the New Model Army agitators and the Levellers was forward thinking, and garnered wide support, but at a time of weariness of war, divisions and violence, not enough backing to push through into actual social change. The army mutinies all failed because, whatever widespread sympathy radical views inspired, only a minority were prepared to defy orders, whether for immediate grievances, or for larger social aims. Many of the reforms that the Levellers fought for, and Robert Lockyer and his comrades argued over in the army in the later 1640s, were later won, and are now widely help up as our democratic rights. Whether Lockyers of today would accept that, or push forward for more radical interpretations, for a wider redistribution of the wealth, power and responsibility in society… we can only speculate.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London literary history, 1962: Joe Orton & Ken Halliwell nicked for defacing library books, Islington.

‘I used to stand in the corners after I’d smuggled the doctored books back into the library and then watch people read them. It was very fun, very interesting.’

Before Joe Orton became famous as a writer, he and boyfriend Ken Halliwell had already gained public notoriety together. In 1962 they were jailed for six months and fined for theft and malicious damage, having been convicted of stealing books from Islington’s Central and Essex Road Libraries.

Orton later hinted they had been sparked off by the poor choice of books available at the Library. “I was enraged that there were so many rubbishy novels and rubbishy books. … Libraries might as well not exist.” An early novel co-written by Orton and Halliwell suggests another alternative. In The Boy Hairdresser, one character describes his own library transgressions: “We’re public benefactors in a way. We steal—the shops order more—the publishers are pleased—everyone is happy. We finance literature.”

Over three years they had been altering book covers, adding lewd new blurbs to dust jackets, swapping heads and pasting in surreal and satirical collage – then replacing books secretly on the shelves. They also used torn out illustrations to decorate the walls of their Noel Road flat with a growing collage.

These acts of guerrilla artwork were an early indication of Orton’s desire to shock and provoke. His targets were the genteel middle classes, authority and defenders of ‘morality’, against whom much of Orton’s later written work would rail against.

“The two spent every moment together, reading, writing, and living cheaply off brown bread and baked beans. Halliwell was older, middle-class and better educated; Orton his handsome young protégé, given the foundations of a classical education from the confines of their apartment, with its yellow-and-pink checkered ceiling. They shunned electric light to save money, sometimes going to bed at 9:30pm, and lived a puritanical, even hermetic, life.

They had been lovers, friends and co-conspirators for over a decade when they began doctoring the library books, using stolen pictures and their Adler Tippa typewriter.”

For over two years, Orton and Halliwell smuggled books out of their local libraries, and then returning them, er, slightly edited…

Orton hid books in a satchel; Halliwell used a gas mask case. They would take them home, redo their covers and dust-jackets, and then slip them back onto the shelves.

The couple added collages and new text ranged from the obscene – a Dorothy Sayers whodunit acquired blurb about some missing knickers and a seven-inch phallus, with the warning “READ THIS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS! And have a good shit while you are reading!” – to the bizarre or merely mundane…

To a collection of plays of Welsh dramatist, Emlyn Williams, new and exciting apocryphal titles were added: “Knickers Must Fall,” “Olivia Prude,” “Up The Front,” and “Up The Back.”

“The collages on the covers were no less subdued, and often overtly queer. On the cover of a book of John Betjeman poetry, a middle-aged man glowers in scanty black briefs. His body is covered entirely in tattoos. A now mostly forgotten romance novel, Queen’s Favourite, was redone with two men wrestling, naked to their navels.”

The walls of their one-bedroom apartment, were adorned by a collage Halliwell had made from thousands of stolen pictures; while another 1,650-odd pictures were stashed around the apartment.

Mythical beasts jostled for space with tabloid headlines and Renaissance high art: a grotesque ape-horse hybrid wore a map of Australia as its tutu.

Other covers showed a monkey, gazing astonishedly from the middle of a flower, on the Collins Guide to Roses, and giant cats on an Agatha Christie novel.

Possibly the sharpest comment though, in “an act of queer as well as class protest” (Emma Parker) can be seen on their detourned cover of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII – the king, who introduced a law in England making sodomy a criminal offence, punishable by death. The old mad bastard gets the full Orton-Halliwell treatment – he has had his arms cut off at the elbow, while his army swarms away from him.

Many other of the improved book covers celebrated queer love, one way or another: On the cover of Othello, Othello looks past the naked Desdemona, whose hand hovers suggestively above her crotch. Behind him a man points an arrow at his backside.

But the subversive and groundbreaking artform Orton and Halliwell were creating was not to everyone’s taste… Other readers of Islington’s library books had begun to come across the altered books and complain to the library. As the pair gleefully retouched book after book, the librarians at Essex Road library, began to observe regular users in an attempt to expose the culprits.

As a librarian later wrote in the Library Association Record, “it was possible to observe individual readers more closely and to notice which possible culprits had been in the library before ‘finds’ were made.” The head librarian’s suspicion settled on Orton and Halliwell, who were generally seen together in the library, and whose shared address was easily discovered.

Once they were under suspicion, the investigation expanded – the library staff called in the cops, who suggested staff from other library departments keep Halliwell and Orton under observation at Essex Road, to try to catch them red-handed replacing books on the shelves. However, this proved unproductive. “After several weeks of unproductive observation,” chief librarian Alexander Connell wrote, “we contrived to obtain a sample of typewritten matter.”

This was the work of Sidney Porrett, the Islington Borough Council legal clerk, who made this something of a personal vendetta. “I had to catch those two monkeys,” he later said. “I had to get results.” Porrett seems to have sussed the ‘queerness’ in the case, not hard from the obscenities on the covers; he observed after the trial, “They were a couple of darlings, make no mistake.”

Porrett composed a scam letter, addressed to Halliwell, urging him to reclaim a car parked in the street, apparently registered in his name. As intended, this provoked Halliwell into a stroppy reply: “Dear sir, I should like to know who provided you with this mysterious information? Whoever they are, they must be a liar or a moron: probably both.” The letter was signed, triumphantly, beneath the salutation: “Yours contemptuously.”

But examining the typeface and idiosyncrasies in Halliwell’s reply, police were able to , match it to the transformed book covers… Suspicion became certainty…

Police came to the door of Orton and Halliwell’s flat at 9 a.m. on 28 April, 1962.

“We are police officers,” one said, “and I have a warrant to search your flat as I have reason to believe you have a number of stolen library books.” Orton replied: “Oh dear.”

The Metropolitan Borough of Islington sued Orton and Halliwell for damages: 72 books stolen and many more “mutilated.” The total damage was estimated to be £450—over $12,000 today.

Halliwell and Orton were sentenced initially to six months in prison, an unusually savage sentence that reflected the apparent shock of the magistrate, Harold Surge. “Those who think they may be clever enough to write criticisms in other people’s books, public library books, or to deface them or ruin them in this way,” should understand it was “disastrous,” he said in court, denouncing their actions as “sheer malice” toward other library-users. Orton later commented that the court had realised they were gay and that the severity of the sentence was ‘because we were queers’.

Orton’s family were not told he had been arrested and found out from a story in the Daily Mirror. Titled The Gorilla in the Roses, it was illustrated with the altered Collins Guide to Roses. William Orton had stayed up to read the paper and on reading the story ran upstairs to his wife with the exclamation ‘Our John’s been nicked!’.

Porrett didn’t think six months in prison was a sufficient punishment for the men’s crimes. On their release in September, he threatened them with a charging order for the remaining £62 of damages they’d not yet paid. This would have given him power of sale over their mortgaged apartment to meet the unsettled debt.

The £6 a month Orton and Halliwell paid to this came out of their benefits—around a quarter of their income. For a comparatively mild crime, they had lost their jobs, gone on benefits, spent six months in prison, and “paid practically all our pathetically small bank accounts.”

Within a year, Halliwell tried to slit his wrists.

“Orton, on the other hand, channeled his rage into his art, and began pumping out plays. “[Prison] affected my attitude towards society,” he said, later. “Before I had been vaguely conscious of something rotten somewhere, prison crystallised this.” First, a radio play for the BBC—then plays performed around London, which attracted the attention and praise of British dramatist Terence Rattigan. Rapidly, he became well known and then quite famous, mingling with celebrities and asked to write a script for a Beatles film.”

In the way that acts of rebellion that in one decade get you sent down, but a few years pass and it becomes a fond memory… The book covers that Orton and Halliwell vandalised have since become a valued part of the Islington Local History Centre collection. Some are exhibited in the Islington Museum. The same local authority that prosecuted them now lionises them… A cynic might say that of course, Joe Orton later went on to become famous, and died, so he can be used to sell Islington a little as a tourist attraction, while if someone did the same as Ken and Joe today they’d still get prosecuted. Rebellious acts of any stripe can be acceptable – as long as they’re safely in the past.

It has been suggested that the two different prison experiences of Halliwell and Orton mark the beginning of the diverging of their fortunes that would end in Ken bludgeoning Joe to death in a depressive jealous rage, five years later. Orton found prison useful in pulling together his view of the world, and the lesson seems to have set him on his way to his onslaught on social mores. Ken’s already depressive nature only grew more marked and more morose; Orton’s increasing success as the ’60s went on highlighted to him both how he was not making something of himself, but also how Joe was drifting away from the relationship. Although the murder and suicide of August 1967 casts a long shadow backward… I always think of them both when I visit Essex Road library…

There’s a good website on Joe Orton’s life and death: http://www.joeorton.org/

Some of this post was sourced from here

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London gay history: the South London Gay Centre evicted, Brixton, 1976

In 1972, some transpontine activists in the Gay Liberation Front founded a South London branch, which initially met from 1972 in the Minet Library, North Brixton. Among their early actions was street theatre in drag, parading though Brixton market. After meetings at the Library, the GLFers often went to the Paulet Arms in Paulet Road round the corner for a drink, although the pub wouldn’t let them use the function room for discos (Fun fact: 25 years later the early planning meetings for the 1998 Brixton Reclaim the Streets party were also held in the Paulet)… Later the South London group met at the Hanover Arms in Stockwell, (where they WERE allowed to have socials upstairs!), at the crypt in St Matthews Church opposite the Town Hall, where they were once besieged and bottled by bigots; then at Oval House Theatre in Kennington… Later still at the Hamilton Arms in Railton Road (a lovely pub, another old hangout of yer past tense typist, where we sometimes held 121 Collective Centre meetings in the late 80s/early 90s, on days when the 121 was too cold to even sit in! – this pub is sadly now gone).

The GLFers also met at the Women’s Centre at 80 Railton Road. GLF socials and dances – attended by 100s of people – were held at the Surrey Halls in Stockwell and even at Lambeth Town Hall.

The GLF group was still active in 1974, doing a Gay community zap (action) against Tescos (not sure of the reason).

In 1973 or 74, three South London GLF members stood as GLF candidates for the Council elections; none got in; later Malcolm Greatbanks stood again in the second General Election of 1974. “Being against Parliamentary Democracy as a meaningless sham it was pointed out that we were just doing this for the free publicity.” Canvassers came in for a fair share of abuse, including a deliberate attempt to run one down – possibly by NFers, as the GLF had been active in opposing NF candidates in Brixton that year. At the Election count a number of GLF drag queens in feather boas livened up the evening!

The Railton Road ‘frontline’ was an alternative and rebellious hotchpotch at this time – along with the black street culture and numerous blues parties, squats, there was a constant sense of siege from police, sparking various confrontations. It was also diversely counter-cultural: there were two women’s centres on Railton Road, an Anarchist News Service, Squatters Groups, a Claimants’ Union for those on welfare benefits, the Brixton Advice Centre, Icebreakers (a gay liberation counselling group), the Black Panthers and Race Today Collective, black centres and bookshops… and a food cooperative, all on the frontline, or on nearby streets like Shakespeare Road and Atlantic Road.

However, Gays on the frontline often faced hostility, from some local blacks and some other local whites: GLF members were thrown out of two local pubs, the George (The George had also previously been prosecuted under the Race Relations Act for barring black people) for holding hands, and picketed the pubs over it.

In March 1972 GLF activists were thrown out of the Union Tavern in Camberwell New Road, for leafleting; the landlord’s son had punched one of the GLFers the previous day… (Not sure if any of this was purely homophobic, or anti-political – sometimes venues that were ok with gay events were quietist, wanting to avoid anything political or activist/lefty – or possibly rightwing-based? Especially interesting as The Union Tavern was hosting gay skinhead dances a couple of years before this time, late 1960s, I think: “Tuesday night was skinhead night and you could walk into the pub and there’d be a sea of crops. Fantastic! And everyone was gay! We’d dance to reggae all night, you know, the real Jamaican stuff, and all in rows, strict step. It was a right sight seeing all those skins dancing in rows. The atmosphere was electric.”

The South London Gay Centre

In May 1974, no 78 Railton Road, (next door to one branch of Brixton Women’s Centre at no 80) was squatted, giving birth to the South London Community Gay Centre.

“During the short period of its existence the Centre acted as a focal point bringing together gay people from many different backgrounds through social activities and political action.

The Gay Centre, as a self-determined group, also took its place among the other community based groups to challenge prejudice, discrimination, heterosexist attitudes and the complacency of officialdom.

There were many different activities at the Centre. A modern dance group was formed and run by Andreas Demetriou.

There was a wrestling group in the basement and, to counter the ‘macho’ posturing of the group, a sewing bee and knitting circle was formed in the upstairs front room run chiefly by Alistair Kerr and Malcolm Watson.”

The Centre was sneeringly described by a visiting reporter as “a shabby set of rooms”! Another visitor to the Squat said: “I was expecting some sort of brotherhood and it wasn’t like that. It was rather like… people who were all already close.” The Centre seems to have lasted till around 1976. The Centre applied for a council grant at one point, but were turned down… the Council was old school right wing Labour at this point, so being gay was deeply suspicious, and squatting in council property probably didn’t help. Some of the young New left labourites objected to their being turned down, including Norwood Councillor, soon to be infamous Lambeth would-be Lenin Ted Knight!

“There were weekly discos in the basement, individual counsellors and regular meetings of the Centre ‘collective’ to determine which campaigns and social events we would support and be involved in.

Discos were also organised at Lambeth Town Hall and an open day was held for members of the public to come and meet us.

Besides all of this there was a regular duty rota so that all the people who visited the Centre would be greeted and made welcome. The 1976 Gay Pride event was also organised by Brixton Gays.”

NB: Around this time, there was actually a black gay ‘blues’ club, on Railton Road, quite well known in the pre-Gay Liberation days, run by a Jamaican woman named Pearl (who was also mildly famous as a ‘naïve’ painter); although according to one source “there was little contact between black and white gays on the Frontline”, others remember things differently, that some ex GLFers did go to Pearl’s shebeen. “It wasn’t quite Queer Nation, but we did enjoy ourselves, in an environment that was free from the usual racism that was pretty much run of the mill prejudices encountered by black people on the gay scene at the time.” (Terry Stewart)

The Centre drew a number of people into the area, who squatted several back-to-back houses on Railton and Mayall Roads, (both very run down then, with lots of empties and knackered houses) with a shared garden in between them.

These houses became the nucleus for further political activity after the closure of the Centre but equally it grew, over time, as an experiment in new communal living arrangements for gay people with varying levels of success.

South London Gay Liberation Theatre Group

“The South London Gay Liberation Theatre Group, which later became the Brixton Faeries, produced several plays, sketches and street theatre performances. They were mostly unashamedly agit prop but later became more sophisticated with better characterisation and plotting. Beginning with a Gay Dragon paraded in a local street festival the group went on to perform sketches for local community groups.

The first play, ‘Mr Punch’s Nuclear Family’, was performed at the Centre and in a local school playground at a community event. The play attacked patriarchal values by showing the devastating effects on the wife and gay son of ‘rule by the father’ and the collusion of the male-dominated authorities in acquitting the father of murdering them (1975).

Next came ‘Out of it’ (1975/76) showing the relationship between patriarchal values, fascism and the extremes of christian morality and how they contributed to gay oppression. This was followed by ‘Minehead Revisited or The Warts that Dared to Speak their Name’.

A highly topical and controversial play at the time about the Jeremy Thorpe trial at the Old Bailey. As leader of the Liberal Party he had been accused of plotting to have a former male lover intimidated and even killed in order to keep him quiet about their affair (1977-80).

‘Tomorrow’s too Late’ was an anarchic blend of music, song and fantasy around gay activist groups and the banning of Gay News by WH Smith for carrying an advert about a paedophile group and later a poem by James Kirkup suggesting a homosexual relationship between Christ and a Roman soldier (1977-80). ‘Gents’ told the story of ‘cottaging’, that is, the reasons why men have sex with other men in public toilets.

The more respectable gays viewed cottaging as repulsive and giving ordinary, decent gay people a bad name. The police frequently arrested and charged men with ‘gross indecency’ often ruining their lives in terms of losing jobs and destroying relationships.

Brixton Faeries decided to expose the oppressive nature of police entrapment and to present cottaging in positive terms as an ideal fantasy even going so far as to suggest the local council attempting to stump up funding to ‘improve facilities’ (1978-80).

We also did Joint productions with various other groups such as Gay Sweatshop in ‘Radio Gay’ at the Oval House Community Centre.

Most of the productions were at fringe theatres or community centres and one performance of ‘Out of it’ was in front of the Young Communist League who were shocked to see two men kissing on stage.”

Many people who used the Centre were unemployed and could not afford to fund it. Infighting between different factions and lack of funding contributed to the demise of the Centre.”

However the final blow came when the Centre was evicted, on 21st April 1976, by police and bailiffs so that the private owners could take vacant possession of the property and sell it to Lambeth Council for redevelopment.

The building was however re-squatted, at least for a while:

“The Gay Centre did not close due to eviction. We re-squatted the next day !
It closed after the principal people involved gave up the struggle with those we rudely called “The Nerds” who took over but were so un-together that they failed to pay the electricity and phone bills and and within months, it had collapsed.”

This marked the end of the “first public and visible institution with a clear gay identity. With this closure the focus for political and social activity shifted from the Centre to the gay squats.”

From about 1972 on there had been a number of gay squats/communes in Railton and Mayall Roads, later there seem to have been 11 houses in a group, back to back with a big communal garden. They had discos in basements… “people would bring their own records… we just had a few coloured lights, although it could get quite randy down there. It was more Dante’s Inferno than ‘Disco Inferno’ “(Ian Townson). Apparently the attempt to establish a ‘common gay identity’ didn’t really work, and there were divisions, due to different class and backgrounds of the residents… often the splits came down to “love and peace and brown rice” versus “political activists”. Later several of these squats joined Brixton Housing Co-op, and were redeveloped into single person units.

“While this made for more secure accommodation and the shared garden was kept in tact it led to a more ‘privatised’ existence and some of the original elan and spirit was lost as a result.

However the gay households are all still there with more or less permanent inhabitants.

Gay people arrived at the squats for many different reasons. Some were desperately fleeing from oppressive situations in their lives. Others were glad to find the company of unashamedly out gay people rather than remain confused and isolated.

Some consciously saw this as an opportunity to attack ‘straight’ society through adopting an alternative lifestyle that challenged the prevailing norms of the patriarchal nuclear family and private property.

There were many visitors from overseas. Everything would be shared in common including sex partners and gender bending was encouraged to dissolve rigid categories of masculine men and feminine women. For others dressing in drag was a sheer pleasure and an opportunity for ingenious invention.

The ‘cultural desert’ in South London offered little social space in which to gather strength as ‘out’ gay people. The ‘straight’ gay scene was inhospitable, exploitative and a commercial rip off  (it is now gay-owned, exploitative and a commercial rip off).

With a common garden between the houses the back doors were often left open so that people could come and go in and out of each others squats.

The kitchen more often than not became the hub of food, conversation and play. In the shared garden people would gather to dine Al Fresco or play music or even rehearse for various theatre productions. Even just camp it up for the hell of it.”

Many of the Centre’s gay activists continued to be active in Brixton after the demise of the Centre. The National Gay News Defence Committee was originally based at 146 Mayall Road and then moved to 157 Railton Road. The group was set up when Mary Whitehouse, a right-wing moral crusader, prosecuted Gay News on a charge of blasphemous libel for carrying the notorious poem by James Kirkup, imagining Jesus having sex with a roman soldier…

“This happened at a time when there was also much police activity against gay people in different parts of the country on cottaging charges and the wrongful assumption that we were paedophiles.”

With the successful prosecution of Gay News the NGNDC became the Gay Activists’ Alliance, a late-70s attempt to repoliticise the gay scene and link gay liberation to other struggles; which continued with both national and international campaigns with many locally active groups.

There was also a gay socialist paper “Gay Noise’. Some ex-GLFers set up ‘Icebreakers’ in Brixton, this was a radical counselling group which helped many people to come to terms with their sexuality and come out. The idea had arisen from the GLF’s ‘Counter Psychiatry’ sub-group, which attempted to challenge psychiatry’s treatment of lesbians and gays as sick or mad.

“Also the fascist National Front was particularly active at this time; mostly against immigrants, black people and left-wing organisations but also several gay establishments had been attacked by them including the Vauxhall Tavern in South London.

In 1978 a massive Anti-Nazi League march came along Railton Road for a Rock Against Racism festival in Brockwell Park. We fully supported the demonstration and the marchers passed under a banner we had slung high across Railton Road saying: Brixton Gays Welcome Anti-Fascists.

Also there was Anita Bryant, the Florida Orange lady, who campaigned in the United States against gays. Her famous phrase was: ‘God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’ and she became even more famous when an irate gay activist shoved a cream pie in her face in full view of television cameras.

Union Place Community Resource Centre in Brixton… encouraged us to go along and make posters, diaries, badges, calendars and banners for our campaigns. Ian Townson and Colm Clifford from the gay community became employees and Colm initiated ‘Homosexual Posters’ from there producing pictorial biographies of gay people and even gay Christmas cards.

Brixton Riots

A special mention should be made of the Brixton riots of 1981 which happened chiefly as a result of the racism and heavy-handed harassment of black people by the police. The riots were centred around Railton Road and when Brixton was burning we showed our solidarity with the oppressed by joining them on the streets.

We even took tables and chairs out onto the street in front of the gay squats for a celebration party – some people in drag – getting a mixed reception from people on the street. Some hostile, others indifferent, some amused.”

Two of the Brixton gay squatters were sent to prison for a couple of years for supplying petrol to the rioters for Molotov cocktails…

Many of the original gay squats survive as co-op houses in Railton and Mayall Roads, lots with their original residents.

Some of this post was nicked from here

(where there are lots of great pics of the Centre and other gay squats, and a great thread of comments from former South London GLF folk and Centre goers)

and from No Bath but Plenty of Bubbles: An oral history of the Gay Liberation Front, ed Lisa Power.

But… there are some other accounts available now of gay lib and related skulduggery of the times…

here’s a previous post we did on Bethnal Rouge, another offshoot of the GLF