Today in London Brexit history, 1975: National Front march against EEC membership, Islington

This post won’t have the same resonance now, as Brexit Day has been postponed, but still… here goes…

In March 1975, the National Front marched through Islington, demonstrating against Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community (the EEC, now transformed into the European Union). This was in the middle of the first referendum on British membership, two years after the UK had joined in 1973.

Nice to know THAT’s a dead issue eh?!

Whatever twisted path Brexit takes over the next few months and years, there’s no doubt the whole project has fed off and strengthened the far right, extending in a bit always distinguishable spectrum from the dregs of the Tory party through UKIP to fascist grouplets, alt-right blog-warriors and football hooligans…

It’s instructive to look back a little to the last UK. referendum in Europe, the vote over continuing EEC membership in 1975.

The UK had joined the European Economic Community, popularly known as the Common Market, two years earlier. The drivers of the move then were Harold Wilson’s Labour government, in alliance with the leading tories (including new leader Margaret Thatcher, later scourge of Europe and hero to all Brexiteers – who during the 1975 campaign wore a fetching wooly jumper knitted with all the flags of the EEC!), largely supported by big business which demanded access to the euro markets… Opposed were the far right, as usual – but more vocally, most of the left outside of the Labour centre and leadership. Tony Benn and other prominent Labour leftwingers, and the Trotskyist left, all denounced the EEC as a capitalist project, while fascists, Enoch Powell and assorted imperialist-yearning wonkos denounced the UK’s membership as anti-British. Not dissimilar to 2016, though with relative strengths reversed: today’s Lexiteers are definitely the poor relation to the more rampant fash leavers.
Much of the press were also broadly pro-Europe then – the Daily Mail, Sun and Daily Express all heavily promoted a vote to remain; the Guardian, however, was a leading anti-EEC voice.

The National Front march through Islington wasn’t targeting the North London metropolitan elite back then – Islington in those days was yet to become a byword for trendy middle class leftyism. It was a working class area, run down and somewhat depressed: an area the NF were very active in, where they had a large branch in the south of the borough, had won some support and aimed at picking up more.

March 25th saw about 400 National Front supporters join the anti-EEC demo, beating drums and chanting, flanked by 2,000 cops. Although the EEC was nominally against Europe, the Fronters focussed on one of their other bugbears, chanting ‘we’re gonna get the reds’, throughout the march. Extra police had been drafted in amid fears of violence, after anti-fascist resistance to previous NF marches, most notoriously in Red Lion Square in Holborn, in June the year before, when Kevin Gately had been killed by police while blocking an NF march to Conway Hall.

Although 300 anti-fascist protesters gathered opposite Islington Town Hall, shouting at the march, there was no fighting. Islington’s Labour Council had refused to allow the National Front to hold a rally at the Town Hall. Police led the National Front march to Exmouth Market, a mile south of the Angel, where the fash held their rally in a deserted street…

The NF march took place in the context of the Front’s being excluded from the official anti-EEC campaign (and the resulting campaign funding). These tensions were to boil over on April 12th, when, furious at being denied a platform at an anti-EEC meeting in Conway Hall, NF demonstrators tried to derail the rally. The next morning’s Observer reported:
“Young supporters of the Front wrestled with speakers on the platform, the microphone was seized, leaflets rained down from the gallery and up to 200 National Front members, mainly young men, stood, clapped and stamped, shouting ‘Free speech for the National Front’.”

This was, however, largely an irrelevant sideshow to the main referendum, which eventually saw a two-thirds vote to remain within the EEC.

Interestingly, the second world war was invoked a lot in the 1975 campaign, but mainly in support of the pro-Euro vote – 30 years after the end of the war, the idea that the EEC was a guarantee for peace gained some traction. A substantial proportion of the voters remembered the war, and this may have jacked up the yes vote. Unlike 2016, when the war, Churchill and so on was repeatedly hauled into service on the leave side, igniting the ‘memories’ of millions who HADN’T lived through it but felt invigorated by ‘our’ glorious solo victory over Hitler into rejecting Jerry, cheese eating surrender monkeys and other jolly stereotypes; in favour of – well what, exactly? Dreams of an imperial past? A return to the early 70s – a whiter, shiter, less gay Britain where women knew their place?

Not to cheerlead for the EU… It really is a capitalist club, just a bigger one, more in tune with the realities of global trade and finance. Which has set its own vicious borders (like the killing waters of the Mediterranean) and has no issues with imposing financial constraints to choke Greece or their own populations.

But Brexit really is part of a worldwide slowburn insurgency by dark forces – nationalism, fascism, ideologies determined to roll back gains made over decades… As usual tunes played by wealthy and powerful, blaming migrants and othering widely to enlist desperate and powerless people into believing they’re part of something – empire, nation, volk – bollocks the lot of it. British people have to come to terms with the toxic legacy of empire, slavery and capitalism, before working out who and what we really are in the world. But many would rather blindfold themselves and sign up for racism and little Englandism. Many might be horrified at the idea of marching with the NF or Tommy Robinson but buy into a watery version of the same tripe.

Of course lots of people voted for other reasons – poverty, industrial decline, lack of faith in politicians, feeling ignored, resentment at the economic imbalance of the southeast as against the north, midlands etc… But there never was sovereignty for working class people, before the EU and won’t be after – except where people take it for themselves in their own lives. Leaving the EU won’t bring that – it’ll enrich only the UK capitalists or the corporate wolves they’re in with. Remaining, realistically, wouldn’t bring it either, since a more sophisticated set of wolves run the EU. However, it is likely that Brexit will only bring collapse and hardship to the communities that voted for it. To some extent, the chickens will come home. Not that the Farages, Rees-Moggs and co will suffer – they’ll still be trying to whip up Poundland Crusades while the companies they shifted to Europe for tax reasons continue to cash in. While funding or enabling alt-right and goose-steppers to purge the land of the unpatriotic.

The pro-EU liberal gobshites on the other hand, who want free movement because it drives down wages… bah!

Borders are all made-up nonsense. Ideally we’d like to see free movement for workers but chains on the ankles of the rich; capitalists on both sides want the opposite, or free movement for people like them or the workers who can be fucked off when no longer needed. They lie and lie and lie to buy our support and will do so until we strangle them with their own guts. Fascists are their stooges and will also have to be dealt with – physically as well as politically, in the tradition of AFA (see below). Until we get busy strangling, these shitheads will only continue to flourish.

Fun times ahead.

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The NF may have failed to make much headway in the referendum, but they remained active in Islington, and routinely sold their papers and hung out around Chapel Market, Angel’s street market. Anti-fascists fought a long war to remove them, as detailed below (account taken from Fighting Talk, magazine of Anti Fascist Action, issue 19, published in 1998).

Chapel Market is a typical London street market, a stone’s throw from the now very fashionable Angel, Islington. Twenty years ago it was the scene of regular violent clashes between fascists and anti-fascists, the outcome of which dictated the successful development of militant anti-fascist politics in the capital for the next decade.

In the mid-70s members of the Socialist Workers Party and the National Front both held paper sales at Chapel Market, often resulting in clashes. At this time the NF was the biggest fascist party, winning 119,000 votes in the 1977 GLC elections and attracting thousands on to their demonstrations.

Against this background hundreds of independent anti-fascist committees were set up around the country and the SWP launched the Anti Nazi League. Major confrontations against the NF at Wood Green and Lewisham in 1977 put militant anti-fascism in the national spotlight, and the SWP organised ‘squads’ in the ANL to carry out the physical side of the strategy. This lasted until Thatcher, playing the race card, won the 1979 general election which led to the NF’s decline and the disbanding of the squads; the SWP argued that the Tories were now the ‘real’ enemy’. Physical opposition to the fascists was no longer acceptable.

Islington NF was one of the strongest branches in the whole country at this time, based mainly in the south of the borough where the white working class felt abandoned by the Labour council. Attacks on the SWP paper sale continued as fascist violence increased, a result of the electoral collapse of the NF.
The Young NF paper Bulldog was now printing hit-lists of opponents and in early 1981 in Islington a radical community centre was firebombed and a left-wing bookshop attacked. Regardless of this, the ANL would provide no support for the anti-fascist activists trying to maintain their pitch and challenge the fascists.

Support was provided though, from the remnants of the SWP squads who refused to disband and independent anti-fascists who saw the dangers of letting the fascists organise unopposed. The conflict at Chapel Market had lasted over 5 years before it entered its final phase in 1981.

The defining moment came one Sunday in July 1981 when, after several weeks of clashes, the usual NF turnout was supplemented by a 50 strong mob brought up from Brick Lane (the other big NF paper sale). The fascists managed to get into the area without being spotted and launched an attack. The anti-fascists, taken by surprise, were quickly overrun and forced to leave a bit sharpish – suffering two quite bad injuries in the process, one lad getting stabbed. If the NF had given chase the outcome would have been even worse, but anyway, the damage was done and it was obviously time for a serious rethink.

A number of activists met to discuss the situation and felt that as the NF had obviously decided to try and remove anti-fascists from Chapel Market by force, if the anti-fascists didn’t respond decisively the NF, encouraged by their victory the week before, would keep coming until the situation became impossible and the NF would win. Offence being the best form of defence, a plan was hatched.

At this time Brent NF was. an active branch and the organiser and several activists had taken part in the latest attack at Chapel Market. An activist from the time takes up the story:
“We heard reports that Brent NF had started a paper sale in Kingsbury (north-west London) on Saturday mornings so we decided to have a look with a view to attacking them in reply for the attack at Chapel. Plenty of familiar faces showed up at the Kingsbury sale so we organised a team to travel up there the next week. The point was made, five of them ended up in hospital!”

This was something new for the fascists who were more familiar with being the ones doing the attacking, and the incident at Kingsbury gave warning that the anti-fascists were going on the offensive. Many phones must have rung that night because 100 NF turned up at Chapel Market the next day, including a heavily bandaged Brent NF organiser.

There were several more smaller clashes over the next few weeks as the NF tried to re-establish their paper sale and the anti-fascists maintained their opposition. While Chapel Market was the focal point for activity, there were other incidents in the surrounding area. In October a small group of fascists were spotted at a local anti-fascist benefit gig and ran off when confronted. Outside one of the anti-fascists tripped and was stabbed in the chest as he was getting up. The blade narrowly missed his heart and he only survived due to the presence of a nurse with the anti-fascists. A prominent local anti-fascist organiser had her house attacked and her son, not involved in politics, was beaten up in the street. This only confirmed that there were some `unpleasant’ elements in the NF who, unless they were confronted physically, would control the streets and therefore dominate politically.

The next major incident was in November 1981 when an anti-racist conference was held at Archway, not far from Chapel Market. Anticipating a fascist attack the anti-fascists kept a low profile inside the hall, and sure enough, right on cue (i.e. Sunday afternoon closing time) 30 fascists were escorted up the road by the police. Led by prominent Islington NF members they confidently marched up to the door, unaware of the anti-fascist presence inside. The door flew open, and as the NF let off smoke bombs a large group of determined anti-fascists appeared through the ‘mist’ and caused considerable damage to the fascists.

For the rest of the winter and into 1982 the anti-fascists mobilised every Sunday morning. The victory at the Archway had given the anti-fascists the advantage and the regular, well stewarded attendance every week showed the fascists there was a new level of commitment and organisation which they couldn’t match.

In August 1982 the third major clash took place. One Sunday the anti-fascists arrived to find twenty NF already occupying the sales pitch. As the anti-fascists crossed the road towards them, Ian Anderson (now leader of the National Democrats, then a rising ‘star’ in the NF) shouted, “Get ’em, lads!” which was promptly met with a firm right-hander that knocked him flying. Another activist takes up the story:
“The fascists took a heavy beating, and Anderson, who was on the ground being beaten with lumps of concrete and a shoe, managed to break free and ran out into the busy street. At this point three ‘likely lads’ got off a bus over the road and were studying the commotion with a keen interest. While we immediately recognised three late-comers who would be severely chastised later for oversleeping, Anderson could only see three ‘white youths’ who would surely come to his aid. Running through the traffic and waving his arms wildly he approached the ‘aryan warriors’ only to discover his mistake too late – suffering his second bad beating of the morning.”

Unusually there were no uniformed police at Chapel Market that Sunday. It subsequently turned out that the area was being watched by plain clothes police and 14 anti-fascists were arrested leaving the area. Anderson pointed three people out to the police who were charged with GBH. All three were acquitted, largely because the fascists had no independent witnesses. The NF had been annoying local people for years, and although they had clearly been attacked, no-one was prepared to help them.

After this clash word got back that the NF were recruiting a ‘hit squad’ to deal with this group of anti-fascists who had inflicted so much damage on them. Eddy Morrison, a well known (drunken) fascist from Leeds who was ‘notorious’ for glassing a student in a pub, was the person in charge of the ‘contract’. Nothing ever came of this, but it does illustrate the effect the confrontational strategy was having on the fascists. Morrison did get to meet anti-fascists in London a year or so afterwards when his National Action Party tried to hold a meeting in Kensington – and yes, they got battered!

The clashes at Kingsbury, Archway and Chapel Market broke the back of the NF paper sale in Islington. The fascists were unable to maintain their presence and by the end of 1982 the sale had collapsed. The last time the fascists were seen in the area was shortly after the ‘Anderson affair’ when a surveillance team spotted Paul Nash (another NF organiser – and victim of Kingsbury) looking round a corner with a pair of binoculars to see if there were any anti-fascists in the area! It had taken just over a year but the wheel had turned full circle and the NF were beaten. To make things worse, eight members of Camden & Islington NF were sent down for armed robberies at this time and the branch collapsed. This victory didn’t just have a local impact, the collapse of the branch had a domino effect across north London with the NF ceasing to have any organised presence in what had been a strong area for them.

However the story doesn’t end here, because in 1983 nazi skinheads started drinking in a pub called The Agricultural on the corner of Chapel Market. The landlord was a fascist sympathiser and soon fascist skins from all over the country, and even overseas, would gather here on Saturday nights. By coincidence Red Action, the main group involved in the battle for Chapel Market, drank in a pub two hundred yards down the road. A low key campaign of harassment was launched against the pub, but escalation was inevitable. The fascists regularly attacked people in nearby streets – black people, gays, and anyone else they didn’t like the look of; but never anti-fascists. Then, finally, a Red Action member was attacked outside the pub.

The following week a pub on route from the tube station to The Agricultural was taken over and steps taken to try and draw the fascists out into the open. Fascists were attacked on their way to ‘The Aggy’ in full view of their ‘comrades’ outside the pub, in the hope that this would entice them out from the comparative safety of the pub. The fascists wouldn’t have it, so the anti-fascists marched up to their pub where they were met with a rousing chorus of an old nazi hymn – which ended abruptly under a hail of bricks and bottles.
The fascists scuttled inside and barricaded the doors (inevitably leaving some poor unfortunates outside!) while the anti-fascists withdrew and waited up the road. As more fascists arrived they ventured out and a large scale battle ensued on Liverpool Road for fifteen minutes. You don’t get a hundred people brawling in the street for quarter of an hour without police intervention – they had obviously decided to let it happen.

A few weeks after this, in June 1984, a large group of fascists attacked a GLC ‘Jobs for a Change’ festival in Jubilee Gardens. Both stages were attacked before anti-fascists got organised and drove them off. Shortly afterwards fascists waiting for medical attention in nearby St. Thomas’ Hospital were attacked, and a large group of anti-fascists then travelled to Islington, anticipating that other fascists would regroup at The Agricultural. They did come, and they were attacked, including a German fascist, who having just been attacked in the street by an Irish anti-fascist, ran into the ‘The Aggy’ shouting “Get them, they’re not English!”. Again the pub suffered further damage. A more intense campaign of pressure on the establishment was then instigated, and within a few months the landlord gave up and shut the pub. Finally, Chapel Market had seen the back of the fascists.

The key point about the battle for Chapel Market was that after July 1981 the anti-fascists set the agenda. At a time when the main organisations on the Left had abandoned anti-fascism, despite the increase in race attacks and fascist violence, anti-fascists showed that by going on the offensive, rather than just reacting, it was possible to win.

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Today in London’s riotous history, 1668: ‘Bawdy House Rioters’ attack brothels across the City

The Bawdy House Riots of 1668 saw crowds attack & pull down brothels, outwardly in a moral crusade; though of course moral causes were a good excuse for a bit of burning & looting. However the mob was also said to have been infected with Leveller ideas, & there was talk of “tearing down the Great Bawdy House at Westminster” (meaning Parliament).

In reality, as with many outbreaks of London rioting, from the Peasants Revolt to 2011, the Bawdy House Riots may have been the product of a mingling of many motives, carried out by several overlapping crowds, and subsequently had contradictory or disputed meanings applied to them by commentators anxious to impose their own fears and obsessions… A tendency repeated by numerous historians, still debating the causes and meaning of the riots 350 years later…

On 23 March 1668 a crowd of London apprentices, servants, and artisans, dressed in green aprons, attacked brothels (‘bawdy houses’) in Poplar—kicking off a bout of rioting that over five days would spread from the east end of the City to the west-end brothels.  On the second day, the crowd, now numbering as many as 40,000 people, organised itself into regiments, with their own captains, and proceeded to besiege brothels in East Smithfield, Moorfields, and Shoreditch.  King Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and Lieutenants of the city to suppress the riot, which resulted in the arrest of a number of participants.  But the crowd responded to the arrests on the third and fourth day by besieging the prisons and releasing their comrades.  On the final day, the attacks continued in Holborn before they were finally suppressed.  Among the rallying cries of the mob were “down with the Red Coats!”  “Reformation and Reducement!”  “We have been servants, but we will be masters now!”  They threatened both “that if the king did not give them liberty of conscience, that May-day must be a bloody day” and that “ere long they would come and pull White-hall down”.

Fears that the attacks on brothels had been a cover for a more revolutionary agenda were exacerbated by satirical pamphlets which appeared in the aftermath of the riots, that compared the events to the popular 1647 uprising led by Thomaso Aniello in Naples; many of the publications dwelt upon the popular perception of the growing connection between bawdy houses and the licentious court of Charles II.  In The Poor-Whores Petition. To the Most Splendid, Illustrious, Serene and Eminent Lady of Pleasure, the Countess of Castlemayne (25 March 1668), Charles II’s powerful mistress is addressed by common whores.  The famous bawds Damarose Page and Madam Creswell petition the grand whore for protection and in The Gracious Answer of the Most Illustrious Lady of Pleasure (24 April 1668), “Castlemaine” promises redress for the “barbarity of those Rude Apprentices, and the cruel Sufferings that the Sisterhood was exposed unto.”

15 of the suspected ringleaders of the uprising were arrested, and charged with high treason: four were subsequently convicted, and then horrifically punished – castrated, drawn and quartered—a punishment usually reserved for traitors and rebels.

Samuel Pepys mentions the rumours that the rioters had men among them who had fought in the civil war, and that some of them talked of attacking the royal palace, ‘the great bawdy house at Whitehall’:

“The Duke of York and all with him this morning were full of the talk of the ‘prentices, who are not yet [put] down, though the guards and militia of the town have been in armes all this night, and the night before; and the ‘prentices have made fools of them, sometimes by running from them and flinging stones at them. Some blood hath been spilt, but a great many houses pulled down; and, among others, the Duke of York was mighty merry at that of Damaris Page’s, the great bawd of the seamen; and the Duke of York complained merrily that he hath lost two tenants, by their houses being pulled down, who paid him for their wine licenses 15l. a year. But here it was said how these idle fellows have had the confidence to say that they did ill in contenting themselves in pulling down the little bawdyhouses, and did not go and pull down the great bawdy-house at White Hall. And some of them have the last night had a word among them, and it was “Reformation and Reducement.” This do make the courtiers ill at ease to see this spirit among people, though they think this matter will not come to much: but it speaks people’s minds; and then they do say that there are men of understanding among them, that have been of Cromwell’s army: but how true that is, I know not.”

As often occurred in London riots in the medieval and early modern centuries, London’s prisons were also attacked, including the Clerkenwell House of Detention…

The implications of the riots were very serious for the authorities – they revived the fears of civil war, a very recent trauma, the spectacle of the levellers, ranters and all the other sects and movements, that had challenged the status quo in the 1640s and ‘50s. The disturbances seemed a revival of overt challenge to the social hierarchy, recalling very directly the myriad ways in which the civil war had opened up questioning of society… When one group of rioters in 1668 broke open Finsbury Jail, in order to rescue some of their fellow rioters who had already been arrested for their involvement in the disturbances, they told the jailer: ‘We have been servants, but we will be masters now’ – a remark which had frightening levelling implications for the authorities.

Commentators of the time, and historians, since, have put forward a number of explanations for the events of 1668… as the product of the apprentices longstanding tradition of “carnivalesque insurrection” and “folkloric unrest”… as a more specific response to Charles II’s reassertion of the Act of Uniformity (restricting the rights of non-conformist churches) in the weeks leading up to the riots, arguing that the apprentices’ politicised resurrection of brothel bashing was aimed against religious policy… as reflecting the apprentices’ longstanding tendency to “define themselves in antagonism against demonised women”.

“For humble tradesmen and apprentices to rise up and instruct the king which laws he should or should not be enforcing, to the point of trying to enforce certain laws (those against brothels) themselves, was indeed a usurpation of the regal authority; the act, by its very nature, places the common man on a level with the king (even if only temporarily), and in this respect was political levelling. If the reading of the riots as an anti-court protest is correct, then the crowd was trying to hold the royal court accountable to the law, and the belief that the law applied to all, regardless of social status (even the king), was a fundamental Leveller principle. The idea embodied in the riots that ordinary people could exercise the power of the sword, use force themselves to impose justice or even to resist duly constituted authority, was indeed political levelling and a Levelling principle. As George Hickes put it in a sermon of 1682, in the context of challenging what he took to be the Whig belief that power lay radically in the people (another Leveller notion): ‘What a great sin it is for the subjects of any government upon any pretence whatsoever, to take up Arms without Authority from the lawfull Sovereign, be it in riots, tumults, or rebellions, or any other illegal meeting howsoever called; for God hath committed the power of the Sword to the lawfull Sovereign onely.’ “

However, while on the one hand the riots contained a powerful echo of the radical ends of the English Revolution, they also reflected both long held prejudices and newer concerns about sexuality and commerce…

The Bawdyhouse rioters possessed republican sympathies – yes, but as in the Civil War years, these were also often deeply Puritan views as well. This expressed itself not only in rebellion against a monarchy that had replaced the ‘Godly’ commonwealth, but also in moral revulsion against the ‘immoral’ persons within the society around them.

“In the 1660s the prostitute very quickly became not only a synecdoche for but the privileged emblem of a new economic and aesthetic order of things.  That a pervasive popular animosity towards both whores and the theatre coincides exactly with the rising celebrity of the actress among London elites, I want to suggest, reflects deep worries about the sexual and labouring identity not only of women, but also of young men from across the spectrum of low-status artisanal occupations… Just as privileged mercantilist and aristocratic sectors of the London population were coming to openly embrace the commercialism that both the theatre and the prostitute had historically embodied, the explicit nature of commercial articulations in the opening decades of the Restoration, by exposing the alienated and objectified condition of laborers more generally, sparked violent protest against this ascendant aesthetic and sexual economy.” (Katherine Romack, Striking the posture of a whore: The bawdy-house riots and anti-theatrical prejudice)

As Romack relates, the Restoration of the 1660s saw not just a concerted effort to re-establish the authority of the king and aristocracy over society (deeply weakened by more than 20 years of rebellion and war), but also to “divide the free-men of the city from their apprentice servants” (weakening one of the bonds that had helped to build the parliamentary coalition against king Charles I).At the same time, apprenticeship as an institution was being rapidly undermined by economic changes within and outside the London guild system. This not only made apprentices’ position within the world of work more precarious (compared to what had been a hard but reasonably stable relationship for centuries) – it also began to dissolve the power of the apprentices collectively, to weaken their power to gather, act as a crowd, affect political and social struggles.

For up to 200 years apprentices had been a central, if not dominant, feature of urban disturbances (often erupting around feast days, and sometimes highly ritualised). Since the late 16th century, many had also been influenced by puritan religious ideas.  By the mid-1660’s, apprentices were also beginning to feel that their futures in their trades were not as stable as previous generations could have expected; apprenticeship was becoming detached from a declining guild system, and established privileges and guarantees were being eroded. Apprenticeship was becoming more and more like servitude on starvation wages. Demarcation between the working poor and apprentices were blurring.

This may have been a factor that drove apprentices to riot both against what seemed like new immorality as well as aiming barbs at authority in general…

To some extent the Bawdy House Rioters were lumped together and described as ‘apprentices’, when many were not; the tendency to label them as apprentices has been seen as part of “a strategy through which the aspiring merchant class shed its republican tendencies”, and made common cause with the restored monarchy.

Katherine Romack sees the antagonism of the Bawdyhouse rioters toward “the mercenary sexual performances of London prostitutes and the growing tension between this class of adolescent males and the theatre” as “the product of a failure of traditional patriarchal ideologies of gender to keep pace with the radical acceleration of wage labour.  We can, from this perspective, read the riots as a failed expression of class-consciousness.  The “craft” of the common whore (her impersonations, imposture, and class transvestitism) elicited a hostile response from the rioters because she presented a challenge to traditional ideologies of youthful masculinity.  The sexually objectified female performer exposed, in short, the young men’s own subjection to the marketplace.  The most violent assault on the theatres and the brothels in this period came, most naturally, from those who intuited their own prostituted condition.” (Romack)

She suggests that as early as 1660, the apprentices were already beginning to understand that the old certainties of apprentice life and the expectation of job security were dissolving, or as he puts it, “patrimonial narratives that had traditionally ensured their subordination” were outdated, that “the prostitution endemic to commerce had pervaded all levels of culture from workshop to court”.

“Exacerbated by the ongoing deterioration of the guild system, the apprentices’ hostility towards prostitutes resulted from the failure of those fictions of servitude that had once rendered palatable their status sexually, in the patriarchal family unit, and on-stage. The violence of the authorities’ response to the apprentice riots of ’68, suggests that they had more to fear from the apprentices than a little festive brothel bashing, for it was precisely the disastrous effects of reification against which these youthful subordinate subjects rebelled.  Their cries of “we have been servants but we will be masters now!” as they ravaged the brothels in ’68 mark not only an implicit realisation but also a desperate denial of their own prostituted condition.  Tragically, however, the rioters fell victim to a fatal misrecognition: they became so caught up in the visual emblems of commodity fetishism (in its objects and proxies—in whores) that they lashed out at women, who were themselves equally subject to the workings of the market.  The young men failed, in short, to understand that commodity fetishism neither inheres in, nor originates from, its objects. Conflating the object of desire with its cause is also, ironically, the pornographic attitude to sexuality.”

According to this reading of the Riots, the apprentices’ hostility toward prostitutes did not arise primarily from a moral objection to sex, but from “a collective response against their increasing alienation and disenfranchisement”… Only rather than substantially attacking any of the economic class that was benefitting from the turbulent changes, much of the disorder was concentrated on targeting women on the margins. Puritan morality successfully diverting confused social anger and economic insecurity into collective male violence.

 

Today in radical history, 2003: 1000s of schoolkids rebel against the Iraq War

The recent schoolkids’ strike in protest at inaction over climate change reminded us of this day of actions, from 16 years ago… so we thought we’d re-post this roundup of the inspiring actions of March 20th 2003.

Up the youth…!

Originally compiled by Endangered Phoenix in 2003… it is online elsewhere, though their site no longer exists, but we think it needs flagging up every so often. We have republished the list/comments in their entirety. Sometimes the present tense is used; we have left this as it was. However, we have added some clarification on locations of some actions where we could and tried to eliminate duplication where we could.

The actions of schoolkids in March 2003 throughout the world were perhaps the most interesting aspect of the opposition to the [US-led coalition war against Iraq]. Undoubtedly they failed to stop the war, surprise, surprise. They fizzled out as it became obvious that the war would just go on despite what was done in the streets. But their real failure is that though they were based in daily life – the refusal of school in a situation where they knew that kids in another part of the world were going to be killed – they didn’t go on to consciously develop an ongoing opposition to education in this society, which would have extended the movement into something beyond just the war. 

Here we have 4 sections on this movement:

  • A list of various actions, mainly by schoolkids against the war. We do not necessarily agree with everything said here, and in fact it’s a fairly eclectic collection – but it gives some idea of the enormity of this movement. This list is not meant to be definitive – probably some things are missed out.
  • An interview with a London schoolkid at the time of the war.
  • A personal account of someone’s experience in London, the day the war broke out.
  • A leaflet given out to various schoolkids in London at the start of the war.

ACTIONS AT THE START OF THE WAR, March 20th 2003

CENTRAL LONDON DEMONSTRATION

Throughout the day several thousand school and university students together with trade unionists and others demonstrated in Parliament Square in Whitehall. All streets and roads around Westminster and Whitehall were blocked throughout the day. Westminster Bridge was closed.

SCHOOLS

Teacher support: 65 teachers at Copland School in Wembley walked out for the last lesson

NUT at Arthur Terry school

NATFHE at Preston FE and Pendal FE colleges, Lancashire

NUT at Beeston Comprehensive, (Nottingham?).

NATFHE and AUT at Bristol City FE college

NUT at Neston High School, Neston Cheshire, and Wallasey High School (on the Wirral, Merseyside?)

NUT at Forest Hill School & Sydenham school, (South London) St. Paul’s Way School (possibly Mile End, East London)

NUT at Ducie High School/Oakwood High School (Manchester)

Up to a thousand school kids were holding a demonstration inside school grounds in St Dunstan’s School, Glastonbury – supported by the school authorities who even called the local media to come and film the event.

At least 100 students at St Boniface School in Plymouth face being suspended after a protest on the Hoe and in the city centre.

200-300 pupils at Helena Romanes School and Sixth Form Centre in Dunmow, Essex, staged a peaceful protest outside the school gates this morning

Pupils from Priory High School in Exeter, who joined a demonstration in the city centre said they had been given permission to take part by their parents.

School students from Parrs Wood school in Didsbury, Manchester joined the student march

There were actions in Glebelands School, Cranleigh, Surrey; Broadlands School, Keynsham, Bristol; QEHS School, Hexham, Northumberland

Hundreds of schoolkids walked out from Priory, West Exeter, St Peter’s school and others

500 kids walked out of lessons from Clyst Vale school, Devon and held a protest meeting outside that went on all day.

Queen Elizabeth Community Comprehensive Upper School, Crediton, Devon

Tiverton, Devon 200 schoolkids walked out from Ivybridge school, Devon and marched through the town

20 pupils at Cape Cornwall School in St Just, near Penzance, were suspended after joining a march on Wednesday.

Also reports of some actions in Taunton, Somerset; Minehead, Somerset; Kingsmead School, Wiveliscombe, Somerset; Wellington, Somerset; Morley, Leeds; Broadlands School, Keynsham, Bristol; by 126 students at Hazelwick School, Crawley

200 students at Farnborough FE college are occupying the canteen

Thomas Hardy School, Dorchester (despite threats from school board) The headmaster gave them the day off to protest

Mearns Castle High School, Glasgow walk out by 250 third year pupils against war in Iraq. Tried to converge on Eastwood council but were stopped.

Eskdale Middle School, Whitby, North Yorkshire, and Whitby Community College walking out at 3. 30pm.

Around 60 school student walked out of Anderson High School, Lerwick, Shetland, today, 20 March 2003 at 12 noon to protest against war in Iraq. The students marched to the town centre, and from there to the harbour where they picketed a Royal Navy minesweeper.

Pupils at Shenley Brook End School, Milton Keynes, staged their own spontaneous protest after morning break at 11 o’clock. Instead of going back to lessons pupils assembled in the “Street“ (as the school’s common area is called) where they remained for 10 minutes until the protest was broken up by teachers.

Pupils at Limavady in Northern Ireland walked out of lessons

Students from at least three schools in Bedford who had staged a walkout to synchronise with the demo

Brynteg School, Bridgend, South Wales held a successful demonstration, leaving lessons to march around the town.

80 students plus a dozen teachers from two local comprehensives and a college staged a march around Abingdon town centre

350 school and sixth form kids sat outside the front of their school in a quite leafy suburb in Surrey.

School children walk out of their classes and stop traffic in City Centre and Tyne Bridge in the morning.

Pupils from Oathall Community College, Haywards Heath, West Sussex blocked the A272. Students at three other local schools were locked in by staff.

Dozens of students in Wigan walked out, sparked by one student’s stand.

200 11-16 year old schoolkids walked out of Caldew school, Dalston, Cumbria, at morning break, and taking police by surprise, marched into the centre of the village chanting anti-war slogans. More than 500 – ie about half the school – walked out of William Howard School, Brampton, Cumbria, into town and held a minute’s silence. Both these actions were totally self-organised.

Students at John Barrow School, Barrow were forced to climb an 8 ft fence to get out of their school after the headmaster locked them in. They occupied the town hall and handcuffed themselves to the gates.

100-150 students from Clifton school demonstrated against the war in Rotherham town centre in the evening

200 school-students walked out of classes in York and occupied a roundabout in the centre.

30 students in Swindon walked out to join a march

300 12-15 year olds left 3 schools in Edinburgh and were blocked from reaching the American Consulate by police after attempting to occupy Edinburgh Castle.

Cardinal Newman School in Preston saw a walk-out

Pupils from Our Ladies and Girls’ Grammar Schools, Lancaster joined protests

Students in Plymouth walked out despite staff changing break times and locking doors to attempt to stop students joining protests.

In Nottinghamshire, more than 100 pupils walked out of lessons at West Bridgford School to stage a demonstration on a nearby playing field.

LONDON

There were actions or wallkouts in the following schools/areas:

Christ’s College 6th Form – Finchley, North London.

200 at Acland Burley School, Tufnell Park, North London. Hundreds of pupils from 3 North London 6th forms – William Ellis, Parliament Hill, Acland Burghley and La Sainte Union  – marched to Parliament.

200 from Stepney School, Mile End, East London.

Hundreds of staff and students at Tower Hamlets College marched to Mile End.

Walthamstow Central is blocked – walk outs by Kelmscott school, Walthamstow School for Girls and 2 6th form colleges. Over 400 school kids in Walthamstow blocked traffic.

400 students out at Fortismere School, Muswell Hill, N. London, marched up Muswell Hill Broadway and blocked traffic up to Highgate Tube. Also students from Alexandra Park school walked out.

Police were called to pen students in at Charles Edward Brook school in Lambeth after they started shouting anti-war slogans.

Pupils of Villiers High School in Southall, West London, organised protest and walked out of school. Up to 300 pupils took part and as a result many have been suspended.

Staff and students from schools in North East London – Northumberland Park, Gladesmore and William C. Harvey walked out.

Gunnersbury Catholic School in West London saw a spontaneous protest by 200 pupils, 50 of whom joined the protest at Parliament Square.

WALES

The following actions reported:

Swansea – Cwmtawe Comprehensive School, Pontardawe.

Newtown High School 1/2 hour protest – children have been threatened with two week suspension if they join the protest.

Llanidloes High School, walk out in face of opposition by senior staff.

Around 100 pupils walked out of Llandrindod Wells High School, In Powys, Wales and held a rally at the war memorial.

Mass walkouts in Gowerton, Llanelli and Bridgend each involved a hundred or more students.

12-15 Llanelli students were arrested.

In Olcfha school the gates were firmly shut in an attempt to stop a repeat of Wednesdays action (?). Instead the school students held a sit in and refused to attend lessons.

UNIVERSITIES

Queen Mary and Westfield, Uni of London, Tower Hamlets,  – students protest at Mile End, Stepney

Salford University, Manchester – The Crescent blocked twice.

At Manchester Metropolitan University, 80 staff and 150 students rallied and marched to Albert Square. 100s of students from Manchester Uni have walked out of lectures and blocked traffic on Oxford Road, a busy main road out of

Manchester AUT and UNISON at Manchester University walked out at 1pm to join the student rally.

Essex Uni students binned Daily Mail and Sun copies in the campus shop.

Students are striking today at Southampton Uni

At Stirling university about 1, 500 staff/students walked out of lectures, then 500 marched to Stirling centre.

North West London College sites at Willesden, Wembley, Kilburn, classes closed, staff walked out to a protest given paid time off, more than 1000 staff and students at Willesden, most walked out to Westminster

London Met Uni and City & Islington College walk-out in Highbury and Holloway Road, several hundred marched to Islington Town Hall.

Students in Oxford are planning to occupy the town centre.

Students at Keele Uni blocked the main entrance to the campus as lecturers arrived for work, before being dispersed by campus security. Students and staff later staged a protest today in which they went to their cars at midday and blew their car hours for five minutes.

Cambridge University students have blocked the traffic along with 400 people at the war memorial, and 50 students have occupied the army recruitment centre.

600 students walked out of Westminster Kingsway College to join central London protests.

Students including the Welfare Officer of Lampeter Uni, Wales joined a protest in the town centre.

More than 400 staff and students demonstrated outside the College of North East London against the war on Iraq.

Anti War University students at Swansea Uni invaded large lectures on Thursday morning and asked for a vote on the war before asking people to walk out and join them. They found in every lecture at least two thirds were against the war.

Staff and students at Bradford College walked out at midday yesterday to join protests at the outbreak of war. Around 25 lecturers in Natfhe and a hundred students marched from college sites into Bradford’s Centenary square.

Lecturers at Swansea University spent the morning leafleting against the war.

Lecturers in Neath College held a rally outside the college gates.

Barnsley College NATFHE members held a dinnertime protest rally.

At the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham up to 100 NATFHE members and students walked out of lectures at 12 Noon, including a group of students who had been given the go-ahead by their Women’s Studies lecturer and another lecturer led two-thirds of her Social Work students out.

Protest were also held by:

NATFHE at Handsworth College and East Birmingham College.

AUT at Exeter University.

NATFHE at Leeds Metropolitan Uni.

Fircroft College of Adult Education, NATFHE.

AUT, Bristol University lunchtime walk-out.

NATFHE, UNISON, Bristol University, University of the West of England.

UNISON Leicester uni.

Liverpool UNISON, AUT John Moore Uni.

AUT at Liverpool University.

NATFHE at Sheffield Uni, Sheffield Hallam.

NATFHE at Greenfield College & Goldsmith’s, Tower Hamlet’s College, Guildhall, UEL, East Ham College.

SOAS and UCL lecturers (AUT).

NATFHE at Southwark College.

JUST SOME OF THE TOWN CENTRE PROTESTS

Altogether around 500 assembled in Albert square in Manchester at lunchtime. 2000 people including uni students, school students, council workers and lecturers marched round Manchester city centre, closing major road junctions. A rally took place in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens, drawing over 5, 000 people.

Bristol

“School kids in Bristol demonstrated that they’re more sussed than the liberals and Vicars leading the Stop The War Coalition when they staged a number of wildcat anti-war strikes.

200 pupils at St.Katherine’s school at Pill, walked out of lessons and gathered on the school field for three hours to protest the attack on Iraq. They also blocked traffic on the road outside the school till police were called. Another 300 students, mainly from Cotham school, also took strike action and protested in the City Centre – no disciplinary action was taken. Pupils from St. Mary Redcliffe were only stopped from staging their own strike by teachers rushing to lock the school gates when they realised people were about to walk out – nevertheless a number of committed pupils ignored these rule-following idiots and clambered over the fences – one breaking his ankle in the process – at least he’s got something to show when people ask what he did to try and stop the war. Two local people have been locked up for an act of direct action, in which they disabled thirty vehicles which provide essential support to the US B52 bombers at Fairford Airbase. The usual round of anti-war graffiti and pacifist peace vigils have also taken place – but the spontaneous and inspiring actions of school students, unencumbered by party positions, surely points out the way to go if we wish to stop the war machine in its tracks.”

London

“In London, smaller local protests starting with school walk-outs in the morning converge into Parliament Square around noon and remain centred around that area into the evening. Schoolkids in a sit-down protest are punched or thrown aside in an attempt by cops to clear the streets – but some of these teenagers prove to be the most valiant in resisting the police. Later on, as the square fills with several thousand protesters, graffiti, and bonfires, breakaway marches head towards Victoria but are pushed back, and others block Westminster bridge. The square is surrounded by police.”

Newcastle.

“The first day of war in Iraq saw some of the largest and most militant activity that Newcastle has experienced in recent times. Events began at 8 am at the Haymarket. At 8.20 the crowd of 80-odd that had gathered moved into the road and blocked traffic for three quarters of an hour. Eventually, the crowd moved on. Some went to work but the schoolkids present weren’t finished yet. They marched to the Monument and spent half an hour chalking anti-war slogans all over the area. Then they got off and made straight for the Tyne Bridge. Stopping traffic on the Tyne bridge was child’s play. No coppers showed for ages. The group then marched back into Newcastle, this time accompanied by police vans the whole way. At lunchtime, it met up with the 1,000 strong main march and again stopped traffic at the Haymarket. A large group hung about until the end and then marched up to the Haymarket and again stopped traffic by sitting in the road. Then they tried to march onto the main road north out of Newcastle but were stopped by large numbers of police vans. They turned round and tried to march the other way, moving towards the civic centre but again were corralled by the cops. So, the crowd ran over the park by the church and sat in the road back where they’d just been; the cops didn’t have a clue what to do.

The Socialist Workers Party regional organiser then announced that the demo was over and everyone should go to the next one. After, some argued that loud hailers should not be allowed on marches. But it’s not really the loud hailers, but the fuckers using them. The way in which such a high level of solidarity, spontaneity and militancy was effectively killed by people who were meant to be supporters of the cause was nothing short of a disgrace. It remains to be seen whether the experiences of that night will encourage people to hold their nerve in the future or whether the shiteness in which it ended will put people off doing similar things again. It didn’t need to end that way, and we need to find ways of combating those who elect themselves to sell us out. Hopefully, the kids, who were the main inspiration of the days’ events, will learn to deal with this in the future, and won’t be put off by it.”

KIDS AGAINST THE WAR

School kids across the UK walked out of lessons to stage demonstrations against the start of the war with Iraq starting on Thursday March 20th. Hundreds joined crowds protesting at Westminster. School kids have been played a big part in many demonstrations across the UK while others have staged their own protests at their schools.In Carlisle, the police were called to a school after hundreds of pupils staged an anti-war demonstration. Around 200 11-to-16 year olds from the Caldew School in Dalston marched into the centre of the village chanting anti-war slogans. A demonstration in Edinburgh caused extensive disruption in the city centre. The demonstrators were mainly school-age youngsters who gathered near the Scottish Parliament and then split in to smaller groups which stopped traffic. Stirling University was closed due to protest action.

There were two separate demonstrations in Belfast with more than 1,000 students and schoolchildren mounting a sit-down protest, blocking the road outside Queen’s University.

In Nottinghamshire, more than 100 pupils walked out of lessons at West Bridgford School to stage a demonstration on a nearby playing field.

In Manchester, about 200 school students joined a big demonstration.

In Sheffield, two schoolchildren were arrested by police for alleged criminal damage during a demonstration.

They occupied Lancaster town hall, shut down the centre of Leamington Spa and took to the streets of Northern Ireland. Meanwhile a Manchester head teacher took up police tactics to intimidate pupils who protest against the war.

In Bristol, the centre of the city was gridlocked as thousands joined protesting students in blocking roads. Crowds pushed through police lines and the M32 was blockaded.

In Edinburgh, demos and student strikes started on the Monday before the war broke out. Protesters stormed the castle and Princes Street several times. Up to a thousand school kids were holding a demonstration inside school grounds in Glastonbury – supported by the school authorities who even called the local media to come and film the event.

Students rallied on campus in Keele, and in Leeds council workers joined students for a day of protest, and further actions took place in Aberdeen, Barnsley, while in Cardiff evening protests brought the city to a standstill, which were later attacked by police.

Around 200 school students staged a walk-out at George Stephenson school, Killingworth, near Newcastle. The students walked out at dinner time after the headteacher sent out a letter banning younger students from going outside school for their lunch. They made placards and marched out, to be confronted by mounted police.

Near the City of London, kids blocked a road, whilst over 400 schoolkids in Walthamstow were blocking traffic and causing mayhem; demos of mainly schoolkids all over the place. In Edinburgh, they stopped the city centre. In Lewisham, schoolkids had a walkout to demonstrate at the town hall. When many of them took a bus to join the protests in Central London they were violently stopped by the police. Most were forced to go back to school but some were detained.

From: from Mike Marqusee site, May 2003

On the morning following the launch of the US-UK war on Iraq, the headline in Dawn, the leading English language daily in Pakistan, proclaimed: “World condemns invasion, fears for civilians”. The story underneath itemised the protests lodged by the vast majority of the planet’s governments and the street demonstrations that greeted the outbreak of war in every continent. You could find similar headlines in newspapers everywhere – except in Britain and the USA.

As the war in Iraq has unfolded, the British media have focussed on the battle front, and largely ignored the parallel story of sustained and unprecedented global protest. In doing so, they’re misleading us about the real impact and consequences of the war.

Of course, for huge numbers in Asia and Africa, the war is an attack on Muslims and their outrage stems from their Muslim commitments. In the Arab world, the war has spurred a revival of long-dormant Arab nationalism – precisely the phenomenon most feared by the US oil elite. But the world-wide anger reaches far beyond Muslim or Arab ties. From Moscow to Seoul, Johannesburg to Buenos Aires, popular indignation with the US-British invasion has found expression in countless marches and rallies.

From the first day of the war up to the present moment, protests involving hundreds of thousand have been staged regularly in Germany, Italy and Spain. In Barcelona, every evening at 9pm, thousands open their windows and beat on saucepans to voice their protest. In Greece a general strike shut down banks, stores and government services. 15,000 marched to the US consulate in the northern port city of Thessaloniki. Cyprus was brought to a standstill by a 30 minute work stoppage – even the stock exchange was closed. Although Poland is one of the very few countries to have supplied even a token number of troops to the US-British operation, an opinion poll has showed that 69% of Poles are against the war. Dissident MPs brought anti-war banners into the Polish parliament (precipitating a scuffle with government officials). Students in Sarajevo, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, hurled eggs and red paint at the US embassy. Some protesters carried posters with a picture of Bush and the text: “Wanted – dead or alive. Preferably dead. Reward – peace.’”

It’s striking that so many protests have taken place in societies that might seem both remote from the conflict and preoccupied with their own pressing and desperate problems. But everywhere this war is perceived as a global question. Not surprisingly, the spectacle of an unchecked superpower imposing its will by force where and when it pleases makes people uneasy. In that large section of the world blighted by poverty and repression, many feel that their hopes for democracy and economic development depend on a peaceful and equitable world economic order and, with reason, do not believe that such an order can be built under the dictatorship of the USA. What they see in the war on Iraq is a contempt for their own right to determine their destinies and a disregard for the value of non-US, non-British human life.

Only two African governments can be found among the “coalition of the willing” – Eritrea and Ethiopia, both competing for US assistance. In Accra there have been demonstrations protesting the cautious ambivalence of the Ghanaian regime. Tens of thousands have opposed the war in the streets of all the major South African cities. Kenya – itself a victim of terrorist atrocities – has opposed the invasion. Hundreds of young people marched in the coastal town of Mombasa carrying placards and banners denouncing Bush and Blair. In Niger and Nigeria, there have been protests outside UIS and British embassies. In Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, there was a blanket ten minute work stoppage in solidarity with Iraq.

There have been huge and angry protests in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. 80,000 marched in Bangkok. In Pattani, an estimated 30,000 people prayed in the streets. “I think what Bush is doing is equal to Satan’s work. Why can’t he find a better way to stop a problem?” said Waetalee Waebuyi, a 21-year-old Thai student.

The war has highlighted how intertwined our destinies have become. In Kerala, in south west India, many communities are dependent on remittances from relatives working in the Gulf. Local fishermen have launched a boat named Iraq on “a voyage of peace” across the state’s intricate network of palm-fringed waterways. The vessel carries a banner reading: “Every bush will be ploughed some day.” “The war affects us immensely and we want to protest against it in a unique way so that people take note of it,” said one of the organisers. Across the state, expatriates who have returned to their villages after years of working in the Gulf have set up “anti-war corners” where artists display anti-war messages. These messages have been echoed in demonstrations of hundreds of thousands in Calcutta and Delhi.

The war has won support from only four of the 21 South and Central American governments. In Ecuador, 1,000 people massed outside the US embassy chanting “peace, yes – war, no”. There have been demonstrations outside US embassies in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil.

Of course, the war looks different depending on where you’re watching it. Television coverage outside Britain and the USA has shown civilian suffering in much greater detail. Far more airtime has been given to expressions of indignation by ordinary Iraqis – largely excised from our screens here.

But even in the USA, where war coverage is sanitised and the reality of death and destruction veiled, protest has continued. On 22 March, a quarter of a million demonstrated in New York City. There have been marches and rallies in cities and towns across the country. Non-violent direct action has proliferated – almost entirely unreported in the media. Trade union bodies representing 5 million US workers – one third of organised labour in the country – have come out against the war, as have most of the major religious denominations. Student activism has reached levels not seen sine the 1970s. The level of visible public dissent is greater than it was during most of the Vietnam War.

So the thousands of British schoolkids who walked out of their classes in protest against the war are very much part of a vast global movement. It’s a highly diverse movement with varying and sometimes conflicting ideologies. There’s certainly no single political mastermind behind it – it’s bubbled up from the grass roots.

The world-wide demonstration on 15th February were unprecedented in the history of our species: never before have so many people in so many different societies spoken with one voice on one day. These demonstrations did not stop the war, but they did herald the growth of a new internationalist consciousness among many millions spread across the globe. That consciousness places the value of human life first, and national loyalties some way behind. And despite the triumphalism of the war party, it has not receded with the advance of US troops on Baghdad. As a front-page article in the New York Times acknowledged, “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” That second super-power has only begun to flex its muscles.

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KIRKBY TIMES NEWS WEBSITE – MARCH 03

“School Pupils walk out as War in Iraq begins

Kirkby times can report that were protests by School Pupils in Liverpool City Centre today Weds 20 March 2003. The Pupils walked out of lessons to protest at the news of the Iraq War starting off in earnest at around 2.45 am early this morning, early dawn in Iraq.

Pupils Block Roads

The pupils were said to number between 250 and 300 and the protests began at 1.00pm when it became apparent to Merseyside Police that large numbers of the protestors blocking roads at Mount Pleasant/Brownlow Hill were pupils aged between 12 to 15 according to Police spokesman Superintendent Alan Cooper who said on Radio Merseyside that “Officers noticed many protestors in uniform” and also said that they were “Obviously truanting” However, a lot of parents support their kids making a stand and will not agree with Supt Alan Cooper.

Police very unhappy at events

Some pupils from Calderstone School denied ‘truanting’ and said that the school has told pupils “those with notes could attend protests”, however, many pupils admitted to not having permission from the school and one pupil told the media that ‘they just walked out” and that they “wanted to do what they could to stop this war” Supt Cooper was at pains to present reasons that kids should not protest at Iraqi Children being murdered, one of the reasons kids should not be protesting, he claimed , was because “they could fall victim to unscrupulous characters who will subject them to be victims of crime” Er, what? Are you saying 300 kids are going to preyed on by perverts or something? Maybe Supt Cooper may be as well to just go after the unscrupulous characters which he admits are out there on his patch.

Headmaster tries to accuse political groups of ‘using’ kids

Brian Davies the Head Teacher of Calderstone School, one of the schools who took part in the protests, told the local radio that “Some of these children will be exploited for political ends by political groups”. One thing’s for sure, Tony Blair would use these Pupils, and is maybe using some of their older brothers as cannon fodder which may well be said to be ‘political exploitation’ of the very worse sort. Kirkby Times is sure pupils will be able to make there own minds up as to whether or not to take part in protests or join political groups. We should be glad our kids have an interest in such matters.

Civil Disobedience

Councillor Paul Klein of Liverpool Education Authority was sympathetic as to the reasons that the kids protested and walked out of lessons. He reminded people that every generation had its own things to stand up for and it was, in some ways, refreshing to hear someone in a position of authority show some compassion to these kids and an understanding as to why they have done what they done. The Police were not happy at all with these protests, but as we all know the Police are only happy if protesters behave like a herd of polite sheep. Now is not the time for polite protests, we’ve been down that road and it never worked. The only route left, as protesters and Police will soon discover, is Civil Disobedience. Many of us, who are going to London on Saturday, do so to cause as much noise etc as possible. The time for niceties is over. We cannot allow our Government to Kill children in our name.

To all the pupils involved in today’s protests, Kirkby Times salutes you.”

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AFRICA

* In South Africa, schoolkids led the protests in Cape Town and were joined by workers from factories. The US consulate has seen a continuous picket outside it since the war started, with at least 50 people always maintaining a presence.”

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CLASS STRUGGLE

Striking school children, some as young as 11 and 12, brought Brighton City Centre to a halt last Thursday in protest over the British and American invasion of Iraq. Taking to the streets with chants of “No War,” “One, two, three, four, Tony Blair is Bush’s whore,” and other brilliantly unprintable slogans, the students blocked roads in the city centre for nearly four hours, telling perturbed motorists to “Turn off your engines, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Cynical, disillusioned Brighton activists were spotted in the area, wandering in a haze of shock, awe and respect, gobsmacked by people half their age with twice as much energy and imagination. “I was just about to trade in my Palestinian scarf and trendy body jewellery for a thankless call centre job,” said one old, formerly disenchanted 23-year-old in a faded Che Guevara t-shirt. “But today has convinced me that the revolution may still be possible!”

Meanwhile, one group of school kids (pursued by rabid Socialist Worker’s Party paper-sellers) broke off from the main march and paid a visit to the local American Express building. The pledge of allegiance was not said, the star spangled banner was not played, but nonetheless, the American flag became the centre of attention for much of the crowd, who decided the old stars and stripes were in need of a drastic makeover. An upstanding, tax-paying, Daily Mail-reading bystander who was later quoted in the Argus, described the event as sickening and depraved, but a nearby American reckoned it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

Earlier in the day, in an important lesson on free speech, teachers and heads around the city locked many young pupils into their schools, desperate to keep them from expressing an opinion. Pupils at Blatchington Mill, Cardinal Newman, Dorothy Stringer, Varndean, and Patcham were threatened with suspension, expulsion, and extra citizenship classes (to teach them the real meaning of democracy and blind obedience) if they left school to participate in protests. In some cases, pupils even faced locked gates and the harrowing spectre of future visits from local blood-thristy pro-war Mps. But in a series of daring walk-outs and escapes, hundreds of locked-down school kids still managed to join the protests in the town centre.

SchNEWS were on the scene at Blatchington Mill when, at 11am, a brave group of around 50 students walked out of school past barely-opened iron gates and a grimly frowning headmaster. (Readers may remember Blatch’s open-minded head, one Mr. Neil Hunter, when he referred to pupils that had staged a spontaneous anti-war demo a few weeks ago as “mindless idiots.” Since the spontaneous walk-out, six Blatch kids have been excluded and the “always wanting to show both sides of the argument” Mr. Hunter has invited the local pro-war MP, Ivor Caplin, to come and spew pro-war propaganda at the school. After leaving Blatchington, the triumphant procession of Blatch kids met up with nearly 200 other excited and out-of-breath pupils who had just rushed out of Cardinal Newman. “We’ve just escaped, we’ve just escaped our school,” they panted. “They tried to lock us in!” Teachers had tried to lock gates and chase anti-war escapees through the school grounds, but many kids still managed to find a way out. As SchNEWS rounded a corner near Cardinal Newman school, the sight that awaited was grand indeed – 20-30 blue and grey-jumpered Newman kids pouring over an exterior stone wall after teachers had blocked all other routes of exit from the school.

Eventually the whole group of anti-war pupils made it safely and soundly down to the Old Steine for a day of protest and road-blocking. Many of the kids were still around at 5:30 the same afternoon, when nearly 5,000 people (probably Brighton’s biggest ever demo) converged on Churchill Square. Even in the evening, most of the chants and road sit-downs were led by school kids from all over the city.As one young protestor explained, “We did it because we wanted our voices to be heard. We were rebelling against the Government because we feel it is rebelling against us.”

* Kids in Therfield school Leatherhead who bunked off to go to an anti war demo where given lines by the Headmaster “I will not walk out of school.”

* Thousands of newly politicised school kids took part in anti-war demonstrations all across the UK last week. For more info from the school-uniformed frontlines in Manchester, London, and hundreds of other cities, check out http://www.indymedia.org.uk

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AUSTRALIA Sydney – March 03

“I was in the city yesterday, and witnessed the protests. While some of the protesters I spoke to were shy and not all that articulate (that’s why they’re still at school, to learn), those I spoke to understood well the arguments against the war on Iraq. Amongst these were a pair of siblings who had been adopted to Australia after their parents had been killed in the 1991 bombings of Baghdad, and two sisters who had come to Australia as Palestinian refugees. To say that these children do not know about war is simply patronising. I only wish I was as passionate and enthusiasm about opposing the war as they were. Maybe older Australians could learn a thing or two from them.We should not let the fact that there were small (very isolated I might add) incidences of violence detract from the rally. The main violence (sadly unreported by the corporate media) was from the police. I witnessed over 300 police decked out with revolvers and goggles (to protect from pepper spray) blocking the exit of a mere 500 high school students who were peacefully protesting John Howard’s office in Phillip Street, surrounding them from both sides (with two regiments of mounted police on horses) and arresting anyone attempting to leave. Amongst these were very young children, who were extremely frightened, with older siblings and parents were trapped on the other side and pleading with police to let them out, and a young diabetic who was needing to leave to get insulin. When I questioned police about why they were holding the crowd prisoner, none of them could answer. This made the young protesters scared and angry enough to try to force passage out.The other horrifying thing I witnessed was mounted police (6 or 7 of them) on mounted horses, charging straight over a group of demonstrators in an attempt to disperse them. I was absolutely ashamed for the police, especially after I saw a young girl of about 12 from a Middle Eastern background brutalised and arrested by 3 massive police, seemingly for doing nothing other than voicing her opposition to the war. As an Australian and an educator, I was absolutely horrified. It was a dark day for Australian democracy.”
Daniel

MARCH 2003 – MANCHESTER & NORTH

Two lots of protests took place in Liverpool City Centre. One was largely led by groups of schoolkids many still in uniform, blocked major city centre roads, causing havoc. The main protest took place at 5pm in Liverpool city center as around 1500 people people blocked many major roads in the city centre. Reports [1,|

2| 3]. In Hebden Bridge and Halifax the days events included school students demonstations, candle-lit vigils and shutting down two Esso filling stations.

On Wednesday day a demonstration arranged by school children in Manchester city centre turned into an impromptu reclaim the streets as around a thousand pupils ran circles around GMP for three and a half hours.

School children stormed Lancaster in anti-war protests. A peace camp was set up in centre of town, the Town Hall occupied and the ring road shut down. While earlier on Monday Whalley Range schoolchildren organised their own protest.

* * *

San Francisco protesters stage a ‘vomit in’

“Bay City News

Thursday, March 20, 2003

08:41 PST — In a unique form of opposition, some protesters at the Federal Building staged a “vomit in,” by heaving on the sidewalks and plaza areas in the back and front of the building to show that the war in Iraq made them sick, according to a spokesman.

Many of the approximately 300 protesters demonstrating at the building at 450 Golden Gate Ave. attempted to block building entrances.

Seven anti-war demonstrators were arrested at mid-morning as they sought to block a group of about 20 federal employees and other visitors seeking to enter the building, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Ron Rogers said.

Rogers said all seven were charged with creating a disturbance and two were additionally charged with resisting arrest.

Only the back entrance of the Federal Building on Turk Street was open this morning. People with business inside the building were required to wait outside and were allowed to pass through metal barricades at intervals. The seven arrests occurred during one of the intervals as federal police officers sought to lead visitors around the metal barricades into the building.

On the Larkin Street side of the building, demonstrators blocked the driveway that leads into a basement garage used by federal judges and other officials who work in the building.

Numerous officers from the Federal Protective Service and San Francisco Police Department, wearing helmets and other riot protection gear, formed lines around the building.”

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Switzerland, Thursday, March 20th, 2003

10:30 thousands of schoolkids start to assemble in Bern, whole schoolclasses are marching through the neighborhoods to join the others

11:30 chaos in the city. kids everywhere protesting the war. i spot some funny signs: piss on war [uuuhhh] frenchkiss not war [good one! but would “make love not war” be too sexual for todays youth?] or seid lieb [which i find quite cute, it translates as “be nice”]

13:30 after protesting in front of the us-embassy in bern, the kids need a big mac. huge lines at mcdonalds. a girl is complaining as she slurps her coca cola, she has never seen such a long line

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Capitalism-as-usual (no security) comes to Japan, and schoolkids turn violent

YOKOHAMA, Japan — By sixth grade, a growing generation of preteenage rebels has begun walking in and out of classrooms at will, mocking the authority of adults and even attacking teachers who try to restrain them.

Similar problems show up in higher grades too, with nearly half of all high schools reporting violence, higher dropout rates and problems like student prostitution.

“Up until now, Japan was a society in which children obeyed adults, but this relationship between children and adults is no longer workable, because the system was built around the idea that by doing well in school you should enter a good company, and having lifetime security,” said Naoki Ogi, an education expert. “Over the last 10 years, however, Japan hasn’t found a way out of its economic depression, and from the children’s viewpoint, the academic record-oriented system has collapsed. Moral values are collapsing, too.

“So children feel they have no one they can trust, no adult society they can look up to.”

(NYT 9/23/02)

Interview With A Schoolkid

The following is an interview with a 15 year old from North London about the 12 March (2003) Schools Walkout

How did you first hear about it?

By word of mouth – the schools are all close to each other and people know each other. It wasn’t particularly done on the internet.

Why that day?

Don’t know. I knew a week in advance, and it was clear from the beginning that the teachers must not find out. We were told to spread it around among our mates.

What about the rest of the country?

The organisers had some kind of network.

What happened on the day?

We went to school without our bags or anything. The walk out time was 9.30 for everybody, that is when it all happened. We had a supply teacher who didn’t know what was going on. We all just got up, the whole class, she tried blocking the door and saying ‘you will get in trouble’. So we all marched out, and everyone was there because it was the same time for everyone. Once we were outside the school we got everyone together and marched up to Parliament Hill School to pick up the people there, and on the way, La Santa Union. They were already waiting for us. Then we all marched down to Kentish Town where we all got on the tube.

How many people were you?

Out of our year…um… everyone. Apart from three or four people.

What was the reaction from people on the streets as you marched to the tube?

People seemed quite shocked. Looking at their watches because we should have been in school.

How did you feel?

Great! Cheering, banging on the escalators. Writing no war signs. It was amazing when we got on the tube. There was a bit of debate before we got on about our tickets – whether to bunk it or not.

How was that decision made?

We were all standing around outside talking about it then this guy who is quite big and loud stood up on this box and shouted for everyone’s attention. He said “how should we get on the tube, should we pay or not”. Everyone shouted out what they thought and it was clear that most people thought we shouldn’t pay – so he said that was what we are going to do.

We got to Embankment tube and more people had come by then – from more schools around London. It was amazing at Embankment tube – they have a line of ticket barriers and we were all standing there, looking around, thinking “Shit, what should be do?” and then we walked up to the barriers and said “shall we just jump it?” and we had about 600 people all jumping over the barriers at Embankment station. It was an amazing sight.

When we got out everybody was quite worked up. We marched to Parliament Square.

By that time people were taking notice. People that go on marches all the time. Organisers of marches, people with placards. They came when they heard what was going on.

How do you think they found out so quickly?

Through local news coverage.

How did you feel about that? What was your reaction?

I thought it was good. They realised what was going on even though it wasn’t organised by them. Everyone thought it was good.

Was there any sense of “this is our thing”?

NO – not at all!

So – we were at Parliament Square and shouting and getting people to beep their horns and we started talking about what to do. Some of us started talking to some older people (about 16 years old) and thought we should do a road block by Big Ben, in front of Parliament. Everybody was up for that. That was the bit where the police started to get a bit heavy. They weren’t being really bad though. And then we generally decided, by people shouting, that we should move to Whitehall. So everybody stood up at the same time and we went. There was a big dash to Whitehall, by Downing Street. Once we were there we spent quite a long time demonstrating, with placards etc. By this time there were about 1000 people there. Then loads of police arrived in vans.

What was the reaction to this?

There was a bit of panic. Some people left, but most people decided to stay. We were pushed up against the gates of Downing Street just because there was so many people. Then the police decided to push everyone away from Downing Street. They had crash barriers that they were using to push us back. They were quite obviously prepared. So everybody got pushed back and we decided to sit down. The police then really wanted to be people away. They were picking people up by whatever means possible and dragging them back to the other side of the street behind a big set of barriers. People being picked up by their throats, having hands twisted behind them, that wasn’t nice.

What was peoples reaction?

Mostly anger.

Did people fight back a bit?

A little bit, but mostly they were overpowered quite easily. They were angry though. It was weird because we were behind the barrier we stood and watched as one by one people were dragged off and put behind us. It was like watching a film.

Was anyone arrested?

Some people were cautioned, but I don’t think they wanted to arrest anyone.

So it was about 3.00 pm and generally everyone was quite pissed off by this point. It slowly dispersed. I went back with my mates on the tube.

How were you talking about it?

It was an excited atmosphere that we had managed to do something quite spontaneous. It was fun as well because so many people had turned up – you could go round to people and ask what school they were from. And we were all the same age.

Did you have any repercussion from your teachers?

The only one was my head of year being sarcastic and patronising saying “oh you feel really good now, you can give yourselves a pat on the back”. We haven’t got in trouble from any of the other teachers, but also no support. One week later everybody who went on the march had to say something in assembly of the whole school about why they went. Everybody said a little bit. It was meant as some sort of punishment, but we were all up for it. A chance to have our say. People said stuff about the police brutality. [The boy’s dad recons the assembly was the teachers supporting the kids].

How did the other kids react?

They all cheered and stuff.

Are there other plans now? Has this spurred you on?

There have been a lot of meetings and stuff. The school council has been turned into an anti-war thing.

Are discussions taking place anywhere else as well – amongst you lot?

Yes – there are Socialist Worker discussions organised. They spread the word for the walk-out too. The meetings are at Euston Square.

What sort of people go to that?

Quite a lot of people, a whole mix of people.

Is there a buzz? Has it changed the way you talk generally, with your mates or other people you come into contact with?

Oh definitely! Before it was like ‘what’s the point in talking about things like that, we can’t make a difference’, but now we feel that we CAN do that. Something can happen if we all talk to each other.

What sort of conversation are you having now?

People asking what is going to happen next. What should we do. What would happen if the war started. On that day what would happen. That we would walk out when war starts.

Have any of those conversations been about other stuff too – what you think about other stuff? Why there is this war for example. Has the conversation got broader?

Yeah – I think so. We can talk to each other more now.

Are there people who you weren’t friends with before who you talked to on the demo, who you now have a different relationship with?

Yeah – I met people who I knew years ago who I am now back in contact with. I am staying in contact with them to talk about what is happening. There is a general feeling that if we keep in contact then it is going to spread more. There is more sense of communication.

Do you think that this might turn into something more than an anti-war thing – or was it always more than that?

Definitely. It is about a number of things. Walking out of school was definitely the focus. We could easily have done it on a Saturday but coming out of school was more effective.

Do you think people realised that – that that is why they were doing it and why they were doing it on a Wednesday?

Yeah.

What do you think the point is, though?

I think the point is that you can easily punish one person for doing something wrong – but you can’t punish everyone and even though one person may have a good point – a group of people are going to be much more effective.

Do you think it is something about school and authority and being forced to be in school?

Yeah – what is authority if it doesn’t work.

Have you talked to people who didn’t go?

Yeah – the year 10s (14 &15 year olds) didn’t know about it – there was quite a big dividing line between the years. There was a major hype in year 11 about it and I don’t think that happened in the lower years. I don’t think it really changed anything for those who didn’t walk out.

Do you think that they would walk out with you if it happened again?

Definitely. Now they realise what can go on – what a group of people can do.

Have you been reading more leaflets? Have people been passing round bits of paper?

A little bit – but mostly talking.

Do you think this is about the war?

It partly is – but it is not the only thing. It is also about the police. Not just that they were they brutal last Wednesday, but that they are not helping with the crime. Kids from my school are getting mugged and threatened on an everyday basis. It is also about school. The teaching has reached the point now where is all just focused on the exams – it is not really about what you are learning, just about how to pass. How to get good grades.

Personal Account

The following is a personal report of the school kids actions from the Thursday, 20 March, the day war broke out.

I went down to Parliament Square about 10.00 am and there were mostly school kids there. About 500 school kids and maybe 50 adults. They were milling about in Parliament Square. Then suddenly they moved – fast – into the road on the north side of the square. “SIT DOWN, STOP THE WAR”. So we did. Loads of us, suddenly. The police take time to react and then start coming round with their lines, their discipline, their orders. When the crowd sense they are coming near – they move – FAST! They remind me of the starlings by Brighton West Pier. They are unified – in touch with each other – there is a group mood and a group mind. We run across Parliament Square to the south side and repeat the sit down. When it is time to move again the word goes round to go to Downing Street. We run – it is thrilling – to be running in a big crowd. The police helpless and confused. Foolishly grabbing out as we streamed past them. But I also saw anger on some police faces. The cars were furious and taxis were driving into people.

So we get to Downing Street. Hundreds of us. “SIT DOWN. STOP THE WAR”. When the police come – which takes them time with to get up from Parliament Square – we move again. First to the other side of the road, then the crowd splits – half up to towards Trafalgar Square and half of us back down to Parliament Square – running – exulted, pulsing with the trill of the big group, the power, the moment, keeping the cops on the run. (I noticed that I was taking a moment to decide which group to go with – which way to run – but the kids were just moving.)

When we get back down to Parliament Square there are lots more of us, people have been arriving all the time. Then there are blocks on all sides of the square all the time. Fluid, moving and constant. We were knocking over the crash barriers every time we ran onto the road and sometimes dragging them round into the road to help our block.

The police get really pissed of and the tension rises. They start being really nasty – sticking fingers into pressure points, pulling ears and hair. They knocked one girl unconscious. We were chanting “This is what democracy looks like” and also “peace, peace, peace” as they got rougher and rougher. To be in this situation and to look round and not see direct activists, or trots, but 15 year old Muslim girls, or young boys in school uniform – was amazing. This was not the usual run-of-the-mill demo!

One precious sight was the cops trying to push us back and people throwing stuff at them – rubbers, pencils, note books, pencil cases sailing over my head and pelting the cops. One cop was standing on the corner bit of a crash barrier and we tipped him off. Ha ha.

Later – when the adults arrived and the kids went home the whole tone changed. We were a disparate bunch of individuals and small groups. If some of us started running the whole mass would not automatically turn. We stuck to our own and did not trust the group to take risks together.

School herds them all together, homogenises them into the mass, troops them into assemblies and into the playground together, the whistle goes and they troop back in – so it is there, ready to backfire. Also – when you are that age – all that matters is being with the group – being with everyone and being where it is at. And – no-one told them the standard pattern of actions – wait in one space so the police can section 60 you. Stand behind the crash barriers, etc – they didn’t have no rules, especially as they had just broken out of their school (some had to climb the walls when the schools locked the gates) – they were going where they wanted. They had energy, power and unity and I felt really privileged to be there in that moment with them.”

* * * * * * * *

No Class Today – No Class Society Tomorrow
[a flier put out by Endangered Phoenix at the time].

School kids have been walking out of school and taking action all over the world in order to protest against the war. In London they went to Whitehall and did not just passively allow the police to tell them what to do,but fought back and tried to climb the gates into Downing Street.  In Oxford 500 school kids walked out and took over the town centre, forcing an Army recruitment stall off the streets, trapping soldiers in their van for half an hour, and blocked the roads. At Parliament Hill School the teachers locked the kids in to prevent them from going on the anti-war action.

They are not just protesting against this war, they are fed up with a world where such wars are possible, fed up with the authoritative, stifling, boring factory of school. Fed up with being the victims of muggings then blamed as anti-social.  In London 50,000 kids bunk off every day.  Now there are hundreds of new initiatives and partnerships designed to control this. The government is introducing an ‘anti-social behaviour’ white paper so parents of truant kids can be fined up to £8400.  They are trying to control an increasingly explosive situation.  The widening gap between wages (or dole money) and the cost of living means that young people are having to live with their parents for longer, threatening the autonomy young people have achieved in recent years. In Italy in the 70s students took over schools and universities and turned them into social centres, to create their own autonomous spaces.

Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education speaks of team spirit:  “Everyone in a school ­ teachers, pupils, parents, classroom assistants, technicians, administration, caretakers, catering staff ­ are part of a team and the school itself is likely to do best where the school is working well.”  What a great team it is!  Frequently kids kill themselves because they are bullied by their teachers or classmates.  No government has increased competition in the classroom more than New Labour.  Their obsession with tests and tables places more and more pressure on students.  Most kids sit at least 30 formal tests before they reach secondary school; some take as many as 43.  Even 7 year olds are assessed now!  How much longer do they think students will accept this?  A team based on competition is a strange thing.  Not surprising that another element is needed to get it working.  Clarke: “Teamwork is crucial.  But the grit in the oyster is leadership.”  This leadership is nothing more than a nice word for oppression.

School is there to prepares for future exploitation.  To accept low wages and bad conditions because we ‘failed’ at school.  The system is set so that 80% of people will get less than a ‘good mark’, thereby having their self-esteem knocked enough so they will be more resigned to their fate of exploited worker, parent, unemployed reserve workforce.  The discipline at school prepares us for obeying the orders of the bosses.  School learning is split into single subjects; everything is reduced to answers to be spat out in exams.  The division of subjects prepares us for the division of jobs ­people doing one boring job over and over again for years.  Human existence could be a fluid moving between activities, ideas, creativity…  the beauty of building, the dance of design, the poetry of pottery, the music of maths, the love of languages… (not so sure about the lyricism of that one…)

Schools are part of a world where creativity, spontaneity and individual expression only count if you can sell them or they help you work profitably.  This is why kids are fed up with knowledge they don’t really need, which is knowledge for their future bosses. Throughout history there is also a tradition of working class people organising their own education. In prisons, within social movements, organising their own discussion groups etc.  This continues to this day and what each person learns in moments of struggle is part of it.

When we act together in struggle we learn more than they could ever teach us.  It is in this act that we really find out what real cooperation can be.  We are not divided into specified roles, we can think for ourselves, disagree and discuss, act together, plan out practical things and work out how to do it together, get into contact with other groups, break down the separation into generations.  We learn languages to communicate with students struggling in other countries, we learn about technology to communication over the internet, we have to work out what we really think, because it matters for once.  We read other peoples words to help us understand the present, to inspire us and give us new ideas.  This reading feeds into our discussions and decisions ­ it is not cold and sterile as it is in school.  This is where we can learn what a better future society could look like.  When we see what is possible with each other it makes a mockery of their discipline.

NB: the old Endangered Phoenix website where this was initially compiled is now largely migrated to Dialectical Delinquents

See also “Kamikaze Kapitalism” (about the situation on the eve of the Iraqi war, end of February, 2003)

and

“Education, Stupefication, Commodification”

[Dialectical Delinquents text on education from 1998…]

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Past tense postscript:

As the into to the above list does mention – the Iraq War was not stopped, and the kids revolt did seem to stop as soon as it started, and did not appear to launch a social movement that questioned education and the whole integrated horror of capitalism… However, to nitpick a little – to call it a failure for this is not entirely reasonable: how do you judge failure? What proportion of people involved in the strikes, actions and walkouts went on to think, struggle, attempt to change things around them, in the years following, and to what effect? Difficult to know and to tell what long term effect being involved in such events can have. The memory of one bright explosion  – a moment of true liberation, for however long – can sustain you through all sorts of less glamorous projects. We would love to hear from anyone who was involved in he school walkouts as to what activity, thoughts, ‘political’ or social struggles they think their involvement led to, or didn’t, and why… All our failures are learning processes, and while it’s depressing to see things fizzle out, burn out, go down in flames, the spirit of human relations vs commodity relations flickers on.

Rebellion in schools is old as schools, though usually it focusses around immediate conditions, and often it is more individual than collective. There have been explosions of collective resistance, school strikes, movements of school pupils… An intro and links here

There’s a brief piece on 1985 schools strikes here, though it is not complete – it doesn’t mention Sheffield, where your past tense correspondent took part in a 500-600 or so strong demo/riot of kids from a number of the city’s schools on the same day (29 April), along with several classmates. From our perspective we were simply bunking off and causing trouble because it was fun and better than lessons, rather than having a political demand re YTS schemes of whatever… Though some of us had organised subversion in our school, as well as distributing the School Stoppers Handbook, which advocated sabotage and disruption of school on anarchist principles…

Linking to sites above does not imply full support for all their actions, words or opinions, (we have disagreements with everyone!)

Today in London riotous history, 1990: local anti-poll tax demo erupts, Brixton

Everyone knew it was going to go off…

As previously related, the introduction of the Poll Tax (officially disguised as the Community Charge.) in 1989-1990 enraged millions of people across the UK, as being a single flat-rate charge on everybody, based on the number of people living in a house rather than its estimated price, and not taking account of income or property ownership (as the rates system had), everyone would pay the same rate set by the local council, regardless of how rich they were or how much their property was worth. This gave the tory government fits of joy, as it would increase the burden of paying for Council services on the working class, and lightened the load for the better off, by thousands (millions in some cases).

Thatcher and co thought they would get away with this, after a decade in which they’d mashed up all working class opposition – steelworkers, miners, printers, etc. They were on a roll. The Poll Tax, they thought, would not only make them more supporters among the middle class, but also stick the knife into the leftwing Labour Councils they hated so much, forcing them to slash services, especially in inner cities… They clearly felt they would push the tax through whatever the opposition…

The introduction of the poll tax was widely unpopular from the outset, and increased when tax rates set by many local councils turned out to be much higher than initially predicted.

Huge campaigns sprang up against registering to pay, filling in forms, giving the local council any info etc., and then against payment. Thousands of local anti-poll tax groups or unions were set up. Opposition ranged from marches, occupations, resisting bailiffs seizing property for unpaid poll tax, to riots and filibustering the courts with endless arguments . Hundreds of people were jailed.

Community networks of members were set up to watch out for and resist bailiffs, and the operation became so successful that debt collecting firms in some areas went out of business. In Edinburgh local APTUs patrolled working class areas with cars and radios to watch for bailiffs, and in London some cab drivers fulfilled the same role. Bailiffs offices were often picketed and occupied, and in Scotland hundreds of people defended houses against the forced removal of goods by sheriffs.

The campaign for non-payment gained in strength through the early months of 1990, and eventually became the single most damaging reason for the government to continue with the poll tax. By August of 1990 one in five had yet to pay, with figures reaching up to 27% of people in London. 20 million people were summoned for non-payment. Many local authorities were faced with a crisis, and councils faced a deficit of £1.7 billion for the next year. Initial successes with non-payment campaigns led to several large demonstrations in cities across the country, including the famous disturbances that occurred in central London on March 31.

Here’s a first-hand account of the demonstration/mini-riot that took place in Brixton, South London, on 9th March 1990, written by a local anti-poll tax activist s few years later.

It’s worth bearing in mind that for two-three weeks every night seemed to bring news of another riot at another town hall; Hackney went up the night before Brixton, Southwark, Islington… the list went on…

Many people in Lambeth – still one of the Country’s poorest areas, with high unemployment and low pay –  simply wouldn’t be able to pay at all anyway; thousands swore blind they would never pay a penny.

Across the Borough about 20 odd anti-Poll Tax groups were set up. The ‘Leftwing’ Labour Council, made angry noises about refusing to co-operate with the Poll Tax; several councillors including leader of the Council Joan Twelves joined the all-Lambeth Anti-Poll Tax Federation, when it finally managed to lurch into existence after months of inter-trot/trot vs anarchist bickering. As happened all across the country, the divisions concerned fundamental differences in strategy and ways of organising: broadly speaking Labour campaigners thought you could fight through the Council and the TUC, the Socialist Workers Party was for stopping the Poll tax through workplace (ie council workers, ie NALGO) organisation, and that community or street groups were pointless; Militant was for building community groups but under their direct control and run top down by their activists; the anarchos and other non-aligned sensible types weren’t against trying to get NALGO members to strike against implementing the Tax (although sceptical of the likelihood of NALGO taking a strong position – from experience! Although in October 1989 Oval DSS workers struck for a week, in protest against being told to snoop on claimants for poll tax; this was part of a campaign of strikes across the UK) and had seen the shambles Left Councils like Lambeth made of fighting Central Government: we felt the best strategy was self-organised local groups run from the bottom by the local people themselves. As it happened the SWP flitted in and out of the anti-poll tax movement with all the attention span of a slightly dizzy gnat, depending on what other things were going on (“Non-registration is a damp squib, comrades, the Dockers Strike is the Big issue Now.”) Militant and the anarchists (who had been organising through 2 or 3 local Community Resistance groups in the Borough) fought constantly as the Milis tried to impose as much control over the campaign as they could. As 1990 dawned the moment when we would have to pay (or not) approached; the Council despite its soft left white noise was preparing to agree how much we would be charged… The tension rang in the air…

Here’s an account on burning poll tax bills in Brixton from around this time.

There were riots or angry demos at many if not most Town Halls around the country, in the space of a few weeks, as the local councils met to decide how much poll tax they’d be extorting from residents. Many of the protests in London ended in fighting with the cops. The night before the Lambeth demo Hackney had gone up, a huge battle spreading out from the Town Hall, with 60 arrests. You could go to a riot every night that week in London (many of us did!) There was an unreal atmosphere in the country, not like anything since. I guess like the riots of July ’81, people involved felt a sense of possibility, that the daily grind could be shaken and maybe overturned… It seemed believable to some of us that the strength of community resistance and the willingness to get stuck in were the start of a new era… We were naive maybe, but that’s how we felt.

There were about 3000 people at the rally outside the Town Hall. The council had tried to defuse the inevitable confrontation by letting quite a few protesters into the gallery to observe the ‘hard-left’ Labour councillors (currently running the Borough) faffing around, and several hundred in to watch proceedings on a large screen in the hall next door. (Watching a Lambeth Council meeting on TV is thought to have inspired the makers of Big Brother.) 100 pigs, many from other sties, were drafted in, as Scotland Yard’s public order monitoring unit T020 anticipated that there “could be trouble”… well duh.

Inside the council dithered, outside a large and vocal crowd sang songs, chanted, gossiped about where they’d been in the last few days… Southwark Town Hall… Hackney Town Hall… Islington Town Hall… A couple of lifesize effigies of Thatcher were hung from the bus stop in Acre Lane and burned to wild cheers. There was a band playing calypso (if I remember right!) and people were dancing on top of all the bus shelters (beats waiting for a number 37).

Speeches outside… blah blah same old lefty rhetoric mostly, till one of our local Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax group made a slightly inflammatory speech slagging off the Labour Party. Of course all the trotskyists whose existence was entirely parasitical off Labour started having a go at him.

Meanwhile 2 Special branch cops were wandering round in the crowd, recognised by someone present, whose house they’d raided previously! She spent much of the early evening following them round loudly announcing their identity to the crowd… Somehow they escaped a kicking, what were we thinking? (They showed up on other poll tax events that year.)

I can’t exactly remember how it kicked off… some pushing and shoving, people trying to pile into the tiny door to the Council chamber I think. The cops were on edge, not surprisingly, and started laying into people near the doors. So of course we started chucking stuff at them, many of us had brought a little something. Paint bombs first, then, bricks, bottles, bits of wood. The filth charged into the crowd and pushed us out of Acre Lane, into Brixton Road, there were quite a lot of us, 500 or so in one group. I think many people did go home at that point, and some got trapped the other side of police lines. There was some skirmishing in the high street, bobbies were hiding behind vans, then we marched through Electric Avenue, heading for the Cop Shop. There are not many feelings better than being in an angry crowd: running in to your mates, trying to swap jackets and stuff to fool their surveillance efforts, sharing drinks and fags and chanting… We didn’t quite get to the Cop Shop, they’d learned from ’85 (ie don’t let the mob besiege you in your own police station!) and made a stand at the corner, forcing us into Stockwell road. There was a running battle here, cops charging and retreating under a hail of missiles. We were joined by groups of kids from Stockwell Park Estate, some of them lobbed stuff down at the old bill from above. From somewhere a single panda car with 2 cops in it, driving right into the middle of the crowd at Stockwell Green, shouts of “turn it over!” and over it goes on to its side. With the cops in it. The looks on their faces – priceless.

There was a lull, people standing around laughing, I looked over and our Anti-Poll Tax group’s banner was hanging from the windows of the squat over the way. “Brixton/Clapham Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax” – you can say that again: here’s the community, and this is the resistance! (Later this image was used repeatedly on the telly.) The mounted cops came out and we melted out of Stockwell road. Some Trot or other was shouting “Lets march on Downing Street!” Yeah, lets not.

A couple of hundred of us got together and tried to go for the Town Hall again, but were beaten off. I think someone did start throwing petrol bombs at one point but they didn’t explode? Certainly there weren’t many mollies.

Word got out that the Council had set a budget but had postponed agreeing a rate of poll tax (they were still talking about something like £600 a head a year). So we get another crack at them in three weeks… Everyone ended up in the pubs. On a high.

27 people did get lifted on the night. And some in raids later I think. I seem to remember one or two did go down. Some “black community leaders” blamed all the trouble on “white outside agitators” AGAIN! Play another record that one’s scratched. Folk round here of course like everywhere were rabid about the poll tax, but as soon as many people saw a large mob of coppers they’d start pulling up the pavement. It was just part of the culture then.

A couple of weeks later, on March 27th, Lambeth Council met again to try and agree how high the Poll Tax was going to be.  Could Lambeth beat Haringey and set the highest in the country? For the thousand who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay it was academic, just a matter of civic pride. Another mini-riot broke out, it was in some ways a carbon copy of the one two and a half weeks earlier, but smaller: marching through the market again, pushing and shoving. Not as much fun. The night was overshadowed for some of us by the death of a local anarchist comrade, Leo Rosser, one of the old 121 Bookshop/Black Flag crew, a few days before, in terrible circumstances. Shame he never lived to see Trafalgar Square go up, a few days later…

Today in radical herstory, 1971: London’s first modern International Women’s Day

If these days it seems like there’s no limits to how far feminism can be re-packaged and sold as a glossy commodity, profiting all sorts of scumbags who give not a toss about women’s liberation… We should always remember that International Women’s Day, 8th March, has its origins in the struggle of women workers. 15,000 women garment workers, including many migrants, marched through New York City’s Lower East Side on 5th March 1908,  to rally at Union Square to demand economic and political rights. In May 1908, the Socialist Party of America declared that the last Sunday in February would be a National Women’s Day.

The first US National Women’s Day was celebrated on 28 February 1909. Over the next few years the international socialist movement adopted Internationals Women’s Day, fixing it on 8th March in 1913. The following year, on 8 March 1914, the East London Federation of Suffragettes organised a march from Bow in the East End to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage.

International Women’s Day was revived in the early 1970s as the second wave of feminism grew in strength…

The first modern Women’s Liberation march in London took place on 6 March 1971, (the nearest Saturday to the 8th) a “cold and snowy day”.  The march, organised by the Women’s National Coordinating Committee, was the largest International Women’s Day event since the Suffragette era, and made a big media splash.

4000-5000 people, including lots of children and some men, marched from Speakers Corner through the West End, calling at 10 Downing Street to hand a petition in to Prime Minister Edward Heath, calling for the government to meet the four demands agreed at the first two Womens Liberation Conferences held in Oxford (1970) and Skegness (1971): Equal Pay, Equal Educational and Job Opportunities, Free Contraception and Abortion on Demand, and Free 24 hour Nurseries.

The demo highlighted contemporary feminists’ major concerns: contraception and abortion; women’s treatment as sex objects; their invisible oppression as housewives.

The demo was planned playfully and creatively: there was co-ordinated dancing and music, and carried along with the many banners were a twelve foot Old Woman’s Shoe, a woman in a cage wearing a tiara, washing lines holding bras, bodices and corsets, while the Women’s Street Theatre Group acted out The First Period, featuring a massive sanitary towel. A cosmetics and slimming routine troupe who brought up the end of the march, directed by the late Buzz Goodbody of the Royal Shakespeare Company, danced along a wind up gramophone playing the 1950s hit “Keep Young and Beautiful/ It’s Your Duty to be Beautiful … If you Want to be Loved.”

You can watch videos and film reports of the march

here

and here

A film report:

 

Jill Tweedie reported on the march at the time for the Guardian:

“All demonstrations are fleshed-out polemics, happenings that have more to do with reinforcing solidarity within the ranks than luring spectators from pavement or box – conversions will come later, as fallout comes.

And so it was with the Women’s Lib demo on Saturday. I went unreasoningly fearful that me and my friend Ivy would be alone stomping down Regent Street, running the sneering gauntlet of Saturday shoppers. But there they were at Hyde Park Corner, all the lovely sisters, giggling and shivering and bawdy and prim, and I turned and turned again, gloating at the numbers before and behind, my motley frost-defying sex.

Because sex is all we really had in common. Odd to think, in the middle of Oxford Circus, that inside our over-coats, under our mufflers, coiled within our sweaters and vests is the same intricate reproductive system – fallopian tubes, uterii, vaginas, and breasts – and that that is why we’re here, on March 6, 1971, in the snow. When, since the beginning of time, have men ever marched because they shared a particular sexual apparatus? Ludicrous, shameful, ridiculous, perish the thought.

Goodness knows our outsides were various enough. Long and short and thin and fat, quiet, middle-aged ladies in careful make-up, bare-faced girls with voices loud as crows, Maoists, liberals, socialists, lesbians, students, professionals, manual workers, spinsters, wives, widows, mothers. One two three four we want a bloody damn sight more. Biology isn’t destiny. Equal pay now. Bed or wed, are you free to choose? I’m not just a delectable screwing machine. Capitalism breeds sexploitation. Freedom. There were even women so politically committed that the very sight of Downing Street submerged “24-hour Nurseries” with “Tories Out” and “Kill the Bill.”

And when we arrived at Trafalgar Square the demo arranged itself into a symbol so apt as to seem planned. One girl at the mike, four girl photographers, and a solid phalanx of great, grey, brawny men blocking the view of the women. Get out, shrieked the women, get away, get back, and the men, genuinely startled, got back.

Communicators themselves, they communicated the women’s case – men, men, men, grouped at the foot of a soaring phallus with Nelson, a man, at the top. “Look at you all,” said a girl to a male photographer. “if that doesn’t tell you something about equal job opportunities, I don’t know what will.” The photographer looked as superior as a man can in a howling blizzard. “I’d like to see you going into a shower room full of naked men after a Cup Final,” he said. “I’d like to see you going into a changing room full of naked models,” she said. ” Try and stop me.” he said. “Try and stop me,” she said.

In the crowd a tiny “Gay is Good” placard vied gamely with a huge Women’s Lib banner. “Here, it’s our demonstration,” said Women’s Lib testily. “It’s against oppression, isn’t ?” snapped Gay Lib. “I was chucked out of my job last week because I’m gay. We’re more oppressed than what you are, any day.” Women’s Lib raised her eyebrows in ladylike fashion and turned back to the platform.

A middle-aged woman in fur has been lured from a bus stop to join the march. “I’m a graphic designer and what do I read in a trade magazine last week? Some man complaining about how difficult it is to get a job at 45. Huh. I’ve had difficulties getting jobs all my life – the moment they hear your voice on the telephone they don’t want to know.”

Another woman, skin flushed with Panstik, had a hand-scrawled notice pinned to the front of her tweed coat. “I’ve come all the way from Sheffield, I can’t afford the fare but I must do something for the single woman. We don’t get paid nearly as much as men but still we’ve got to find rooms, pay the electricity, feed ourselves. It’s not fair, it’s just not fair.” Behind the pebble lenses, her huge eyes watered. Then the speeches were over, vast congratulatory relief filled the square. The demonstration had happened (miracle) and it had happened well (greater miracle). Girls stood in groups, stamping and chatting:

“There was only one thing. The weather. The trade unions had such a marvellous day and we had to go and get this.”

“Well, love, what did you expect? God is a man.”
(Jill Tweedie)

May Hobbs, who was organising women nightcleaners into a union, with the support of some Women’s  Liberation activists, also marched and spoke from the platform.

Some pictures of the march:

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Support International Women’s Day events in London 2019:

Global Women’s Strike

Million Women Rise

 

Today in London riotous history, 1617: apprentices celebrate Shrove Tuesday holiday

“On … Shrove Tuesday, the ‘prentices, or rather the unruly people of the suburbs, played their parts in divers places, as Finsbury Fields, about Wapping, by St Catherine’s, and in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, …  in pulling down of houses, and beating of guards that were set to keep rule…” (John Chamberlain)

The London apprentices for centuries had a reputation for their rowdiness, and willingness to cause trouble; for centuries they were famed for getting involved in political upheavals, of all dimensions. Their economic position sparked many grievances; their youth led to much boisterousness. They were also jealous of their traditions; and because their working lives were notoriously long and hard, they celebrated the public holidays drunkenly, loudly, and often riotously.

Apprentices occupied a strange position in medieval/early modern life: badly paid and badly treated, but for some there was the potential that they could rise to become masters. An apprenticeship to a guild member also meant the promise of job security, a limited welfare system within the guild, which out them above many with no trade or guild protection. Apprentices’ collective recognition of their ambiguous common position, and their youth, led to them gathering and sometimes together collectively. Up to a point they were allowed specific days off work, often feast days; their bonds of hard labour briefly loosened. This generally led to drinking, boisterousness and fighting. Nothing like today then.

Apprentices could rally collectively to radical causes that pushed at the restrictions of the tight social and economic structures which bound them to the will of those above them. But in many ways they also to some extent played the roles of both licensed rebels and community police, attacking both unpopular authority as well as unpopular scapegoats within communities/outsiders – foreigners, people working outside guild structures, prostitutes and other non-conforming women… a paradoxical crowd, contradictory and sometimes unpredictable.

Shrove Tuesday, the day in February or March immediately preceding Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), is a longstanding holiday, celebrated with carnival or Mardi Gras, a day of “fat eating” or “gorging” before the fasting period of Lent.

In England, Shrove Tuesday became a ritual apprentice holiday, and in the seventeenth century became a day noted for them to riot – often against very specific targets.

Before 1598 there are few records of any disturbances arising out of the Shrove Tuesday games (though riots at other feast days had been known, eg on ‘Evil Mayday’, 1517). In Tudor times riots and rebellions were more likely to erupt in the summer months. However, Lord mayors did often issue warnings to ‘prentices’ to stay indoors, and sometimes doubled the watch to patrol in case of trouble.

Playing football had become a tradition on Shrove Tuesday – a game that caused a headache for the authorities for centuries (which led to its repeated banning). By 1598 the ball games had started to develop into something wider and more socially threatening. There were, Hutton records, riots on 24 out of the 29 Shrove Tuesdays in the early Stuart period (1600s). The riots took place mainly it seems in the ‘northern suburbs’ of London – Shoreditch, Moorfields, Bishopsgate and Finsbury – but also increasingly to outlying areas in Middlesex and Westminster. The disturbances involved mostly apprentices, but also sometimes craftsmen and artisans.

Waterman and poet John Taylor described ‘ragged regiments’ – “youth armed with cudgels, stones, hammers, rules, trowels, and handsaws’ who ‘put playhouses to the sack, and bawdy-houses to the spoil” – they smashed glass, ripped off tiles, chimneys and shredded feather beds.” Often they were opposed by aged constables who were vastly outnumbered.

As ever the riots were not random but aimed at particular targets, in particular brothels and playhouses. Hutton records that between 1612-14 on Shrove Tuesday a Shoreditch brothel was attacked each year until it shut.

1617 saw a particularly violent Shrove Tuesday apprentice gathering. A new Drury Lane playhouse was destroyed and prisoners freed from Finsbury prison by the rioters. Several houses in Wapping were destroyed:

“On … Shrove Tuesday, the ‘prentices, or rather the unruly people of the suburbs, played their parts in divers places, as Finsbury Fields, about Wapping, by St Catherine’s, and in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, …  in pulling down of houses, and beating of guards that were set to keep rule, specially at a new playhouse, some time a cockpit, in Drury Lane, where the queen’s players used to play.  Though the fellows defended themselves as well as they could, and slew three of them with shot, and hurt divers, yet they entered the house and defaced it, cutting the players’ apparel into pieces, and all their furniture, and burnt their playbooks, and did what other mischief they could…  There be divers of them taken since and clapped up, and I make no question but we shall see some of them hanged next week, as it is more than time they were”. (a letter written by John Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton)

Ronald Hutton noted that the targets ‘fitted into a much older tradition of cleansing a community before Lent’. In other words the Shrove Tuesday crowd, in rioting, was seeking to destroy what it saw as the less moral parts of the early 17th century economy. As such, while some rioters and especially ringleaders were fined or jailed, attacks on ‘immoral’ targets could be tacitly supported or at least tolerated by the respectable, and even by some in authority – usually only up to a point, though. To some extent historians see this kind of rioting is as a form of moral ‘community policing’, along the lines of skimmingtons and rituals of humiliation aimed at outsiders, or people who transgressed sexual mores or broke the bounds of accepted social roles or behaviour… Festive riots could veer between attacks on social hierarchies and viciously repressive outbursts against foreigners and the marginalised. Sometimes both would be combined.

Why brothels and playhouses? Prostitutes were an obvious target for respectable disapproval: women acting outside the traditional family, selling sex to survive, were both seen as subversive of social mores, though also barely tolerated as a ‘necessary evil’. Apprentices with little ready money also resented women who might say no unless they had the cash; and there was always an element of men collectively putting women in their place, knowing that their betters would largely turn a blind eye. (Despite the profits that many of the well-to-do could earn by renting out houses they owned as brothels, in certain areas, eg Bankside… this included the church in former times, and in the seventeenth century remained a money-spinner for some on the make. Men of course.)

Playhouses were also hugely disapproved of by those in power and the rising protestant attack on popular culture took a dim view of theatres and those who worked in them, which would persist for centuries. (One accusation levelled at theatres was that it encouraged the riotousness of apprentices…) The apprentices’ assaults on them may have even more orchestrated by the respectable than against the bawdy-houses. Portrayals of apprentices in plays of the times is sometimes unfavourable as a result of this dynamic! However, apprentices’ other targets led audiences and some writers to express a grudging sympathy for them.

As Katherine Romack notes, theatres and brothels were associated in puritan minds:

“Theatre and prostitution had always been closely aligned in the early modern imagination:  each offered pleasurable performative simulation—eroticized illusion—for cash.  Like a brothel, Stephen Gosson observed in 1579, the Renaissance theatre arranged “comforts of melody, to tickle the ear; costly apparel, to flatter the sight; effeminate gesture, to ravish the sense; and wanton speech, to whet desire to inordinate lust” (qtd. in Lenz, 833).  In the theatre, “Ungodly people…assemble themselves […] to make their matches for all their lewd and ungodly practices,” or as John Stow, in his Survey of London (1598), had it: “Good citizen’s Children under Age, [are] inveigled and allured to privy and unmeet contracts” (qtd. in Lenz, 836; 833).

The Puritan antitheatricalists had—for all of their tendencies toward exaggeration and bombastic moralism—offered a highly prescient observation about the rise of reified culture when they insisted on the indistinguishable nature of the theatre and the brothel.  For each of these institutions vividly exposed the workings of the sexual and laboring marketplace.  Both theatre and prostitution in the early modern period, as Joseph Lenz remarks, “emblematize[d] all too vividly, the worldliness of trade, the mercenary nature of all commerce” (842-843).  David Hawkes has shown that the Puritan’s hostility to idols was, at least in part, a deeply ethical response to the rampant objectification that accompanied swiftly escalating commercialism…” (Striking the Posture of a Whore: The Bawdy House Riots and Anti-theatrical Prejudice, Katherine Romack, 2009)

The tradition of festive day rioting died out only slowly, and the mass playing of football on Shrove Tuesday continued on in some areas as a distant echo of earlier times… Often leading to rioting, up to the 19th century

Apprentice crowds were to play a huge part in the street fighting, rioting and political jostling of the English Civil war years, again taking part in events that reflected both radical ferment and support for traditional festivities (the latter taking some of them into the camp of the royalist sympathisers…)

But the end of civil war didn’t mean an end to apprentice riots or attacks on brothels. As we shall see on March 23rd

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Shrove Tuesday was the English equivalent of the continental Carnival; the Shrove Tuesday riots were a reflection of a centuries-long culture of festivity and debauchery that also often slipped in to riot and rebellion.

Carnival was the most important annual medieval festival, especially in Southern Europe, though it was long celebrated in Northern Europe as well.

The Carnival season began in late December or early January, building to a peak of formal events in February. Carnival featured feasting, drinking, dancing, street theatre, and was immediately followed by Lent: forty days of fasting and austerity, imposed according to Christian tradition and enforced by the Church. It was a clear influence and was in turn influenced by the Cokaygne myths of a land of permanent feasting and role reversal (though Cokaygne was also associated with St John’s Eve.)

Carnival was a mix of formal events, plays, processions, pageants, and informal behaviour. The formal events took place mostly in the last week, concentrated in the main squares or central areas of cities and towns, and more organised, usually by specific clubs, fraternities or craft guilds. These events most often included a procession with floats, people in fantastic costumes, singing; a play or theatrical performance; and some kind of competition: races, tournaments, jousts, or football (especially in England).

The informal behaviour that characterised the Carnival season, but built to a pitch in the closing week, saw heavy drinking, massive over-eating (especially of meat – latin carne, meat, probably giving its name to the whole festival – though also of pancakes, waffles, and much more), singing and dancing in the streets, the making of music, and the wearing of elaborate costumes and/or masks. Satire was common – in both formal and informal song and play; costume-wearing could also often involve dressing up as respectable figures – popes, cardinals, doctors, monks, lawyers, merchants – and then taking the piss out of them by over-acting the part.

But carne also means sex, and sex was everywhere in the Carnival, both in innuendo (for example many songs associated with this season were highly suggestive), in the theatrical and ritual games, and in reality – as with most parties, people were having it away all over. Carnival season was second only to early Summer as the peak time for getting knocked up, recent studies of Medieval birth patterns have concluded.

According to Peter Burke: “Carnival may be seen as a huge play in which the main streets and squares became stages, the city became a theatre without walls… there was no sharp distinction between actors and spectators…”

On top of the over-eating, a culture of mockery and mock ritual grew up around Carnival: often poking fun at the Church. Mock saints’ sermons, animals prepared for food portrayed as saints being martyred; there were also satirical rules enforcing carnival excess and decadence.

Carnival brotherhoods and organisations grew up, again taking the mick out of the real pillars of Middle Ages society. Powerful trade guilds were caricatured in societies of fools, incarnations of carnival gluttony, like the one in Holland led by a ‘crazy knight called Ghybbe’ (or Gib), armed with meat skewers, in pot and pan armour, riding donkeys backwards.

Some of those reported may have been slightly mythological, even allegorical, like the wonderful Dutch ‘Aernout brothers’, a fraternity of drifters and spongers, who had rules for scrounging and hymns of praise for kitchens and those who worked there. Some definitely were, like the French ‘grande confrerie des souls s’ouvrier’, the ‘great company of those fed up with working’, who appeared in a ‘lying tale’ of about 1540, in which they inhabit a castle of creamy Milanese cheese speckled with tiny diamonds,

battlements and windows of fresh butter, melted cheese and sugar. In the castle, taking a seat at the dining table, all portions would be the right size; pieces of meat would spring into the mouth, ready to eat birds and beasts grew in the orchards.

Lent is a lean time, involving fasting and hardship, but the excess cheer, sex and carousing of Carnival was not only opposed to Lent, but to “the everyday” the rest of the year, normal life, the usual order of society.

Partly, this explosive release of pent-up pressures was designed to allow that order to function without social tensions breaking out and tearing it apart. In Carnival, “the ruler of Culture was suspended; the exemplars to follow were the wild man, the fool…” But Carnival was not really total liberation – it was policed, controlled, in some places the festival had a specific police force, to keep things just on right side of dissolving.

Carnival and other holidays were first of all an end in themselves, a “time of ecstasy and liberation”, where the three themes of food, sex and violence merged together. But the over-eating, the pleasures of the flesh, and of a bit of rowdiness, insult and vandalism, often sublimated into ritual, banter, skimmingtons or charivari, mock battles or the violence of the English shrove Tuesday football match, also served a vital social function.

That the release that festivals allowed was at least partly a conscious creation is shown by debates over another similar Medieval feast day. The Feast of Fools was a religious affair, quite specific to monastic communities, in which the subdeacons and others in minor orders in certain churches took control of the ceremonies for a day, while the usual authorities were relegated to a subordinate position. Usually held either on Innocents Day (28th December), or on the eve of the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1st – in itself a significant detail, since the New Year has always been a time when the idea of making a change or a new start is powerful). [note: In England, the boy bishop was elected on December 6, the feast of Saint Nicholas, the patron of children. Interestingly the Feast of Fools occurred at one traditional New year, (the one we also use now), but another medieval New Year was often begun at March 25th – not a week from another ‘Fools Day’, April 1st. Turning life on its head socially seems to have been associated on one way and another the turning over of years or seasons…]

At evensong, when the verse from the Magnificat was sung – He hath put down the mighty – the choir and the minor orders would take the bit between their teeth. The verse, always a slogan of revolt, was repeated over and over again. A King of Fools, Lord of Misrule or Boy Bishop, (or King of the Bean, an Abbot of Unreason in Scotland, Abbe de la Malgouverne in France) was elected, to preside over the festivities. Grotesque parodies of Mass were celebrated: an ass would be led into the church with a rider facing its tail; braying took the place of the responses at the most solemn parts; censing was parodied with black puddings: the clergy turned their robes inside out, swapped garments with women or adopted animal disguises; gambling took place on the Altar; licence and uproar would spread beyond the church throughout the town or city.

“Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office. They dance in the choir, dressed as women, pandars or minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is saying mass. They play at dice there. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap through the church without shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres in shabby traps and carts; and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gestures and verses scurrilous and unchaste.” (Letter from the Theological Faculty of the University of Paris)

The Feast of Fools was prohibited by the Council of Basel in 1431, though it survived due to its popularity. In England it was abolished by Henry VIII, revived under Mary and then abolished again by Elizabeth. It survived longest in Germany as the Gregoriusfest.

“The ruling idea of the feast is the inversion of status, and the performance, invariably burlesque, by the inferior clergy of functions properly belonging to their betters…. Now I would point out that this inversion of status so characteristic of the Feast of Fools is equally characteristic of folk festivals. What is Dr. Frazer’s mock king but one of the meanest of the people chosen out to represent the real king as the priest victim of a divine sacrifice, and surrounded, for the period of the feast, in a naive attempt to outwit heaven, with all the paraphernalia of kingship?” (EK Chambers)

In the later Middle Ages, brotherhoods or guilds of fools grew up to organise the topsy-turvy festivities. (Which recalls the pisstaking Carnival guilds – maybe the same ‘fools’ were involved in both?)

On the one hand, these festivals are widely seen by historians today as a safety valve that allowed anger and rebellious feelings, bound to arise in a static, confined, hierarchical society with wide class divisions, to be diverted into ‘harmless fun’, as well as a “demonstration of the intolerable chaos caused by unrestrained guzzling and gourmandising”, so as to show how the status quo should be maintained: how hierarchy and order were right and necessary.

This licence to misbehave, a time of permitted freedom outside normal bounds of morality and order, was represented particularly by the anonymity of wearing masks and costumes; allowed people to disguise their identity, and thus get away with acting as they normally wouldn’t. This worked on a personal level, as well as for social criticism and protest. This could take the form of social comment against civil or church authorities, but also of repressive action or humiliation against the ‘immoral’ or ‘abnormal’ behaviour of neighbours (for example of women behaving ‘unnaturally’ – bossing around or beating men, being married to the ‘wrong’ people, speaking up for themselves etc – or of other individuals breaking social norms), or insults/attacks against personal enemies. Festive Misrule also easily slipped into scapegoating, of outsiders like Jews, foreigners, Gypsies; mass slaughter of animals was also ritualised or made part of the ‘festivities’.

These elements of Carnival and other festivals are seen by historians as necessary to defuse the knife-edge tensions that bubbled under the rest of the year. More than this, it is suggested that a temporary inversion of roles is a reminder or, even strengthens, everyday hierarchies that life must go back to, when Carnival has been tried and put to death. “The lifting of the normal taboos and restraints obviously serves to emphasise them.” (Max Gluckman)

Both the licence and the bread and circus distraction acted as communal solidarity, reinforcing vertical ties between classes and could be used against outsiders/non-conformists.

But while these festivals served to support the existing hierarchies and codes of behaviour, it is also true that authorities tried for centuries, long without great success, to suppress or tone down these proceedings. The main objections of the reformers were firstly that popular festis were unchristian, that they had pagan overtones; second that they unleashed unacceptable licence, encouraging mass misbehaviour, drunkenness, sex, gluttony, dancing, but also violence and cruelty; third, that it teemed with songs, plays and street performances that glorified rebels, thieves, and other lowlife – not just undermining the proper order of society. One edict in particular claimed that they were ‘rather the unlawful superstition of gentilite [paganism] than the pure and sincere religion of Christe’

Commentators also got worked up about festivals using up resources in days that should have lasted them months.

However the main reason licenced, ritualised freedom was seen as dangerous, and needed tighter control or abolition, was because it could easily slip into real thing. It was a fine line, allowing so much violence sex and disorder could come back to bite the authorities in the ass. Symbolic violence could easily become real violence, not only on a personal level, like settling scores (Carnival all over Europe was a time of increase for murders, fights, violent crime), but also, more worryingly for the upper classes, for collective violence, both social and repressive: riot, rebellion, but also pogrom, animal slaughter, attacks on foreigners.

Riot and rebellion was constantly breaking out from festivals, especially carnival. In Basel in 1376, a Shrove Tuesday riot became known as “evil Carnival”; in 1513, a peasants revolt broke out from the Bern Carnival; during London’s Evil Mayday of 1517, apprentices led a pogrom against foreigners; the Dijon Carnival of 1630 erupted into a riot, led by wine-growers; the Great Catalan revolt against Spanish rule (1640-59) started on Corpus Christi 1640; a mass riot in Madrid broke out on Palm Sunday 1766.

These are just a few examples: for instance virtually every May Day in the build-up to and during the English Civil War saw upheavals, demonstrations and riots.

Beyond the actual threat that crowds gathered for partying represented, the forms of traditional ritual which expressed licensed protest were routinely adapted for real attempts to change things. People saw things through eyes conditioned by experience, and adopted what they knew to express what they wanted or desired… Carnival and the other festivals of reversal meant different things to different people, depending on their background; they could be channelled to express desires, resentments, interests, outlooks. Their meanings also changed as society evolved.

Since its beginnings (as we discussed earlier) Christianity had produced critiques of gluttony and over consumption. But from the sixteenth century on, in a process of reform, repression and social control, Carnival and many other festivals around Europe were gradually abolished, as part of the general disciplining of the lower orders into more productive and less festive and rebellious forms of behaviour, which took place from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

The English Shrove Tuesday, never an official church holiday, was gradually reduced in status, its holiday functions relegated to after hours and the liberties allowed the apprentices restricted. The riotousness of Shrove Tuesdays of the early-mid seventeenth century London was not fully revived after the disruption of the Civil War or the Restoration, though unruly apprentices continued to be involved in riots and protests.

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

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Today in London industrial history: uber-factory the Albion Mills burns down, 1791.

The Albion Mills

The Albion Mills, the first great factory in London, formerly stood on the east side of Blackfriars Road, on the approach to Blackfriars Bridge. They were steam-powered mills, established in 1786 by Matthew Boulton & James Watt, featuring one of the first uses of Watt’s steam engines to drive machinery, and were designed by pioneering engineer John Rennie (who later built nearby London Bridge). Grinding 10 bushels of wheat per hour, by 20 pairs of 150 horsepower millstones, the Mills were the ‘Industrial wonder’ of the time, quickly becoming a fashionable sight of the London scene… Erasmus Darwin called them “the most powerful machines in the world.”

But if the trendy middle and upper classes liked to drive to Blackfriars in their coaches and gawp at the new industrial age being born, other, harder eyes saw Albion Mills in different light. They were widely resented, especially by local millers and millworkers…

At one time the Thames bank at Lambeth was littered with windmills – eventually they were all put out of business by steam power. When the Albion opened London millers feared ruin.

Steam was one of the major driving forces of industrialisation and the growth of capitalism. The spectre of mechanisation, of labour being herded together in larger and larger factories, was beginning to bite. Already artisan and skilled trades were starting to decline, agricultural workers were being forced into cities to find work, dispossessed from the countryside by enclosure and farm machinery… Many of those who had not yet felt the hand of factory production driving down wages, deskilling, alienating and shortening the lifespan, could read the writing on the wall.

Mills & millers were often the focus of popular anger. Not only were they widely believed to practice forms of adulteration, adding all sorts of rubbish to flour to increase profits (Significantly in many folk and fairy tales the miller is often a greedy cheating baddie), but at times of high wheat prices and thus, (since bread was the main diet of the poor) widespread hunger, bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though they were often led by women. Rioters would often seize bread and force bakers to it at a price they thought fair, or a long-established price; this was the strongest example of the so-called ‘moral economy’ (discussed by EP Thompson and other radical historians) a set of economic and social practices based in a popular view of how certain basic needs ought to be fairly and cheaply available.

The idea of a moral economy was one that crossed class boundaries, a reflection of the paternalist society, where all knew their place, but all classes had responsibilities and there were certain given rights to survival. But this moral economy, such as it was, was bound up with pre-capitalist society – which were being superseded by the growth of capitalism, of social relations based solely on profit and wage labour…

“Dark Satanic Mills”

Cockney revolutionary visionary William Blake, an artisan himself (an engraver), felt and expressed the powerful mistrust of the growing changes. He lived in nearby Lambeth, and it’s thought that Albion Mills could have inspired his references to “dark Satanic mills”. The name Albion may have set Blake off, as Albion as a symbolic name for an idealised England, played an important part in his radical spiritual mythology. Blake was in the 1790s a political radical, like many artisans, inspired by the French Revolution; he also strongly opposed the rational mechanical Industrial Revolution and devised a mystical creative spirituality which set itself very much against industrialisation

Blake took the traditional mistrust of the symbolic figure of the Miller several steps further: in ‘Milton’ he described Satan as the “Miller of Eternity”, whose mills represent the cold inhuman power of intellect, grinding down and destroying the imagination.

“all sorts of base mixtures”

Dark rumours were spread locally about the Albion Works: “The millers, themselves best aware of what roguery might be practiced in their own trade, spread abroad reports that the flour was adulterated with all sorts of base mixtures.” (Robert Southey)

Powerful watermill owners had attempted to prevent Albion being opened: they had managed to deter venture capitalists in the City from investing in the building, but Watt and Boulton had found the money themselves. In 1791, after a shaky start, the Mills looked like they were hitting profitability…

“Success to the mills of ALBION but NO Albion Mills.”

On 2 March 1791 Albion Mills burned down. The cause was never officially discovered, but it was widely believed to be arson by local millers or millworkers, feeling their livelihood was under threat. It was reported that “the main cock of the water cistern was fastened, the hour of low tide was chosen” when the fire started…

The fire could have been accidental: there had been some concerns about safety, and mills were prone to fire, with sparks and friction caused by grinding, and all that dust, chaff and flour about…

“The fire broke out during the night, a strong breeze was blowing from the east, and the parched corn fell in a black shower above a league distant: even fragments of wood still burning fell above Westminster Bridge.”

The interior of the mills was totally destroyed in half an hour, the roof crashing in quickly. The fire could be seen for miles: burning grains and sparks blew all over the City and Westminster.

A huge crowd gathered and made no effort to save the Mills, but stood around watching in grim satisfaction! “The mob, who on all such occasions bestir themselves to extinguish a fire with that ready and disinterested activity which characterises the English, stood by now as willing spectators of the conflagration…” (Southey)

Later in the day locals & mill workers danced around the flames & “and before the engines had ceased to play upon the smoking ruins, ballads of rejoicing were printed and sung on the spot” (Southey). Millers waved placards which read “Success to the mills of ALBION but no Albion Mills.”

After a soldier and a constable got into a row, a fight broke out, leading to a mini-riot; but firemen turned their hoses on crowd (early water cannon!)

“…it was supposedly maliciously burnt, and it is certain the mob stood and enjoyed the conflagration… Palace Yard and part of St James Park were covered in half burnt grains..” (Horace Walpole)

A flood of speedily printed ballads, lampoons, prints and broadsheets celebrated the burning:

“And now the folks begin to shout,
Hear the rumours they did this and that.
But very few did sorrow show
That the Albion Mills were burnt so low.

Says one they had it in their power,
For to reduce the price of flour,
Instead of letting the bread raise,
But now the Mills are all in a blaze,

In lighters there was saved wheat,
But scorched and scarcely fit to eat.
Some Hundred Hogs served different ways
While Albion Mills were in a blaze.

Now God bless us one and all,
And send the price of bread may fall.
That the poor with plenty may abound,
Tho’ the Albion Mills burnt to the ground.”

(Extract from a popular song, published March 10th 1791)

“…maliciously burnt…?”

Was it arson? The Mills stood in Blackfriars, an area together with neighbouring Southwark long notorious for its rebellious poor and for artisan and early working class political organisation. Just as the Luddites, stockingers of the North & Midlands were soon to smash machinery that threatened their livelihoods, did workers displaced or fearing displacement by the Mills take matters into their own hands? 18th Century London workers undercut by the new industrial processes did destroy the machines taking their jobs… In Limehouse in 1768, Dingley’s mechanical Sawmill was burnt down by 500 sawyers put out of work.  Around the same time Spitalfields silkweavers were also fighting a heavy fight against mechanisation and wage cuts, smashing machinery and intimidating masters and workers undercutting the agreed rate.

It’s also possible that disgruntled small millowners were behind the burning. Although Albion had not entirely replaced local water-powered mills, it had caused disruptions in the price of wheat, which may have hit small mills’ profits.

Albion Mills remained a derelict burned out shell until 1809, when it was pulled down. Most of the Steam-powered flour mills subsequently built in London were much smaller. Whether or not it was arson, whether it was the millers or millworkers who burned it, the fire was long remembered and celebrated locally. Rightly or wrongly, in popular tradition, and maybe in the rhymes of Blake, the Mill stands as a symbol of the disruption and disaffection caused by industrialisation, but also of the powerful if ultimately defeated (thus far) resistance to the march of capitalism.

Some Sources/useful reading

  • William Blake, Milton, A Poem in Two Books (1804)
  • Broadsheet with a popular song celebrating the Burning of the Mills, Published March 1791, by C. Sheppard
  • Robert Southey, Excursion To Greenwich, in his Letters from England, 1802-3.
  • E.P. Thompson: Customs in Common, especially Chapter 4, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century.
  • George Rude, Wilkes and Liberty.
  • Icons
  • Lost Industry

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

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Today in London secessionist history, 1970: ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence’ on the Isle of Dogs

What with all this Brexit stuff going on… Seems likely at some point that different parts of this so-called nation will be moving in different directions… We started thinking about unilateral declarations of independence… At least two we know of took place in London (neither of them being in Pimlico!) – on the Isle of Dogs in 1970 and ‘Frestonia’, the squatted section of Latimer Road, North Kensington, in 1977… we’ll come back to the latter later in the year…

On 1st March 1970, some residents of the Isle of Dogs, in East London’s docklands, blockaded the roads that led onto the Island, and announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Although theoretically inspired by the UDI not long before declared by the racist regime in white Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the isle of Dogs UDI was not a racist move – it was sparked by poverty, resentment at the lack of resources and infrastructure on the Island, and was seen as a propaganda action, to highlight the Islanders’ problems.

The anger and the resulting community organising that produced the ‘UDI’ had been developing since the war. Massive destruction of both industry and housing in the East End by German bombing during World War 2 left hundreds of thousands without housing; much of what remained was ageing, in poor condition, and overcrowded. Many East Enders were still living in homes that had been unfit to live in during Victorian times.

A major programme of house building was initiated, centred in cheaply and speedily built estates, which would rapidly transform the East End; large numbers of people were transplanted, both further out to the edges of East London, and within the East End itself. New estates were built on the Isle of Dogs; Eastenders were moved here from other areas, themselves being rebuilt.

But although ‘the Island’ in the late 1960s was busy with tens of thousands of men working in the docks and in factories along the river, sailors of all races in the pubs or streets – there was little else for the residents. Pubs – yes. But no secondary school, few shops, poor health care facilities… Long before the Limehouse Link and the DLR were built, it was separated by water and the docks: public transport was a single bus route to get you on and off the Island. What few amenities that existed were being put under increasing strain, as thousands of families from other parts of the newly created borough of Tower Hamlets, were moved into newly-built housing estates on the Island. Largely cut off from the rest of the borough, many on the Isle of Dogs felt ignored or forgotten. Every election, the Island dutifully returned its six Labour members to the Poplar Borough Council: members who, in the view of many Islanders, quickly forgot about their constituents as they were sucked into the Labour machine, bowing to the party, and taking their constituents for granted. Whip. Locals began to call the district ‘the forgotten Island’.

This began under the auspices of the old Borough of Poplar, but would worsen after the reorganisation of London’s boroughs in 1965, when Poplar and the island were merged in to the new larger borough of Tower Hamlets.

This feeling of abandonment and simmering anger boiled over in January 1959, when the Port of London Authority (PLA) decided to close the footbridge over Millwall Docks. The bridge had supposedly been erected as a temporary replacement for the road bridge destroyed in the war, and provided the quickest way to get between Cubitt Town and Millwall. Closing the bridge would’ve added a mile on the journey from home to work, forking out for extra bus fares… Islanders felt that they were being ignored … again.

The Bridge plan sparked the birth of a campaign: a 2000-name petition was collected, and the Millwall Residents’ Association (MRA) was formed, soon attracting hundreds of members. They managed to force the PLA to back down, but only the bridge was replaced by a raisable walkway (though the long-promised road link was not rebuilt). Poplar Council were accused of backing off from criticising the Port of London Authority.

When in 1960, the PLA and Poplar officials held a meeting presenting the proposal for the new walkway, 300 Islanders turned up to barracked them. One resident demanded ‘that for once the Councils show some guts’. Throughout 1960, Islanders packed the galleries at Council meetings, urging their councillors to ‘speak up for the residents’.

Enraged at the council’s vacillations over the Battle of the Bridge, at the next Council elections in 1962, an Island Tenants Association (ITA) contested and won all three seats, overturning Labour dominance on the Island.

Even when Labour won back the council seats, one of the councillors was to be a thorn in their side. This was Ted Johns, who had worked as a timber porter and wharf manager, and who was to one of the architects of the ‘UDI’.

Born in Poplar, Johns had only moved to the Island in the mid-1950s, when his previous home in the Bow Triangle was redeveloped out of existence. He inherited a radical family tradition: an ancestor had been notable in the Chartist movement, later family members had been active in the great Dockers’ Strike of 1889, and his father had fought against fascist Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Johns himself had been a national leader in the League of Labour Youth, and had helped found several campaigning Island groups.

Active in local politics, in 1965 Johns became a Labour councillor on Tower Hamlets Borough Council. However, he was frequently at odds with his own party:

“I was never popular on the Tower Hamlets council. I was always criticising. The local government had become complacent.”

Johns pressed for development and planning decisions that would preserve and enhance the quality of communal life for Island residents. He opposed additional housing estates, demanded preference for local residents when it came to new houses, and fought middle-class housing developments.  In the face of the clearly declining docks he proposed programmes to attract and retain industry.

When In the late 1960s, the Labour Council put up council rents, after having promised not to do so, Johns went on a personal rent-strike and his own council served an eviction order on him. For this he was also expelled from the Party.

Around this time, Ted met John Westfallen, a lighterman, who was living on the newly-built Samuda Estate, and had become involved in the estate’s tenants association. They became friends, and allies in the fight for improvements. Westfallen’s practical ability to get things done complemented Johns’ rebellious spirit.

From this friendship came the plan to block the bridge and the ‘declaration of independence’.

For two hours on 1st March 1970, they blocked West Ferry Rd on the west side of the Island, and the ‘Blue Bridge’ (the road bridge over the entrance to the West India Docks) on the east side. Not only did this make it impossible for road traffic to leave or enter the Island, at least one ship – the Swedish cargo ship Ursa – could not enter the docks to be unloaded because the Blue Bridge could not be raised. Despite repeated demands from the police, the barrier yielded just once … to let a hospital-bound vehicle through.

They called for better roads, more buses, better shops and a cut in rates. They announced to the press:

We have declared UDI and intend to set up our own council. We can govern ourselves much better than they seem to be doing. They have let the island go to the dogs.

John Westfallen, a fan of the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico (his in-laws had acted in the film), thought up some attention-grabbing elements to the action – he created and distributed ‘entry permits’ and joked about having proper Island passports. A second “Prime Minister”, stevedore Ray Paget of West Ferry Rd, manned the barricades on the west side of the Island.

A few days later, the activists set up a 30-strong ‘Citizen’s Council of the Isle of Dogs’ which met at the tenants’ hall on the Barkentine Estate. They demanded rent cuts, better transport, more schools and the election of the Island to borough status. The Citizens council threatened to withhold rates from Tower Hamlets Borough Council and the GLC and spend it for the specific benefit of the Island. ‘Chairman Johns’ fired off a warning letter to Prime Minister Harold Wilson and MP Anthony Greenwood (Minister for Housing and Local Government).

The Declaration was never meant to be serious – it was a publicity stunt, meant to grab attention for the neglect the islanders complained of. It certainly did that – the press jumped at the story.

“It …catapulted the Isle of Dogs on to the front pages of the national press and elevated Johns to the status of ‘president’. Indeed, the foreign media, flocking to his council flat…and treated him as if he were the head of state of a small independent nation.” Johns later claimed he had never really called himself President: “Actually, I never called myself the President, I think someone made that up. It was all a bit of a joke.”

Ted Johns was a natural showman, comfortable in front of the TV camera, able to push the buttons that would get the press going…  Though he joked during one of his many news conferences that he also had to pay attention to more mundane matters:

“There is a danger that I might get the sack as I have been off work all week to deal with the situation.”

On 3rd March, Ted Johns was even briefly interviewed via satellite link by famous US CBS reporter Walter Cronkite, as “President of the Republic of the Isle of Dogs”.

However, not everyone locally supported the actions of the ‘provisional government’.

Local shopkeeper David Jordan denounced Johns’ “dictatorship” and said he was getting 400 signatures an hour on an anti-UDI petition. A group of demonstrators collected signatures outside the Skeggs House flat where Johns had set up his ‘government’, with one protester declaring “he’s got no right to do it” and another “it’s just plain stupid”.  There were surreal moments, one woman signed the anti-UDI petition, sighing with whimsical regret “I thought I was going to be a queen.”.

Ted Johns put this division about the protest down to differences between the longer-established Islanders and the more recent incomers:

“It was a difference between the old and new Island East Enders,’ he argued later. ‘The old Islanders were secure in their little cocoon. Those of us that came in realised we were facing a great danger because we could see our roots had gone. We were really fighting to ensure the new roots we set down here became permanent.”

The protest was followed by a few others, Ted Johns and John Westfallen also met with Harold Wilson at 10 Downing St. The wave of publicity finally needled Tower Hamlets Council into announcing some investment and improvements on the Island, they they naturally claimed they had planned to do this all along, and that the UDI protest had nothing to do with it. Unsurprisingly the Island never got separate borough status, but things did start to change. Tower Hamlets Council announced a series of new housing projects for the Island; ILEA unveiled plans for new schools; and London Transport set to improving bus routes.

John Westfallen, who also spent many years providing facilities and clubs for Island kids, died unexpectedly in 1975. Ted Johns remained actively involved in local politics and community initiatives until his death in 2004.

However, worse was to come for the Islanders, in many ways of course. While the community struggles recounted above were taking place, the docks, at the centre of the working lives of most of the residents, were themselves in decline. Most of the docks closed in the 1970s. The dereliction this brought to the Island opened up opportunities for the developments of the 1980s, the glossy corporate take-over of Canary Wharf, the yuppie flats… Most of which offered nothing but an alien colonialism to the people already living there.

Ironically, John Westfallen’s son Tony has suggested that the UDI protest actually sparked this turn of events:

It is necessary to understand the importance of this meeting in concern to the whole of London. The importance comes from the fact that it was during this meeting, that the plans for the redevelopment of this area were hatched, this meeting was the “catalyst” for the development of what is now known as Canary Wharf.

The arguments put forward by John and Ted at this meeting were so well presented and thought through, that after the meeting Wilson discussed them with Lord Vestey, along with his friends at Taylor Woodrow, who – as we know now – planned the closing of the docks and started to invest millions.

Sadly, little of this investment was seen until after Johns’ death … the vast majority of government funded projects got buried in Whitehall government offices, or at the GLC, others became hijacked by local politicians, who made a lot of noise, but actually sold-out to their political masters.

But islanders would also resist the imposition of the new corporate Docklands…

Much of this post was shamelessly stolen from

The ‘Island History’ Blog

and East End History

There’s a news clip of some local reaction to the UDI – not all of it in favour…!

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Neglect and deprivation would also play a part in another area of London which declared independence in the 1970s – Frestonia. To which we will return later in the year…

Today in London insurrectionary history, 1820: Cato Street conspirators arrested, plotting to assassinate the cabinet & launch revolution

Great periods of social unrest which contain a strand of revolutionary politics, when faced with heavy repression, often end in clandestine terror plots or furtive conspiracy… Something to do with the great hopes aroused, dashed and imprisoned…

Witness the remnants of the Leveller movement in the 1650s, conspiring with royalists to assassinate Cromwell… More recently, the civil rights/student/anti-war radical eruptions of the late 1960s/early 70s led in various countries to the development of armed guerrilla groups… Baader Meinhof, the US Weather Underground & Symbionese Liberation Army, the Italian Red Brigades…

Movements which seem to have a potential to make large scale social change, which then are beaten off the streets… the frustration, disappointment, rage can lead to the back street plots, the insurrectionary dreams…

The radical movement in Britain partly inspired by the French revolution, partly by the home grown pressure for political reform (a movement roughly spanning the 1790s to the 1820s?) was pushed into plots for uprisings in three main periods – 1798-99, 1802, and 1819-1820.

The last of these three, culminating in the ‘Cato Street Conspiracy’, saw probably the harshest state response – but was, itself, largely a product of state infiltration.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there was an upsurge in demands for political reform and the extension of the vote. This was also fuelled by the collapse of the war economy into recession and mass unemployment; thousands of soldiers and sailors were being discharged with little prospect of work, and munitions suppliers laying workers off. The unemployment and deprivation led thousands to begin to listen to movements calling for social reform – a dynamic common to large-scale wars: compare the pressures for social change after World Wars 1 and 2. Many sailors and soldiers were also being demobbed unpaid – it was common for navy and army pay to be owed years in arrears then. On top of this a rampant succession of new laws, abolishing old protections for workers and the poor, in the interests of the factory owners, merchants and employers, had for a decade been introducing unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, with devastating consequences for the lower classes.

Mass radical agitation – for political reform, but also for improvement in the lives of working people – revived for the first time since the heady days of the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s.

Major movers in organising public meetings and mass rallies were the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, followers of agrarian communist Thomas Spence (died 1814), radicals and revolutionaries who were constantly agitating for an uprising of the poor against their masters. Spence, a schoolteacher born in Newcastle, was strongly influenced by the writings of Thomas Paine. Moving to London in late 1792, he sold Paine’s writings on street corners, for which he was arrested. Later he opened a shop in Chancery Lane, selling radical books and pamphlets.

In 1793 Spence started a periodical, Pigs Meat. He wrote in the first edition: “Awake! Arise! Arm yourselves with truth, justice, reason. Lay siege to corruption. Claim as your inalienable right, universal suffrage and annual parliaments. And whenever you have the gratification to choose a representative, let him be from among the lower orders of men, and he will know how to sympathise with you.”

By the early 1800s Thomas Spence had established himself as a leader among those Radicals who advocated revolution: many of these had been supporters of the London Corresponding Society in the previous decade. Spence encouraged the formation of small groups or discussion groups, which often met in public houses. At the night the men walked the streets and chalked on the walls slogans such as “Spence’s Plan and Full Bellies” and “The Land is the People’s Farm”. In 1800 and 1801 the authorities suspected that Spence and his followers were the instigators of bread riots in London…

Thomas Spence died in September 1814. His disciples founded the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, which met in small groups all over London, discussing the best way of achieving an equal society.

Pubs used by the Spenceans included the Mulberry Tree in Moorfields, the Carlisle in Shoreditch, the Cock in Soho, the Pineapple in Lambeth, the White Lion in Camden, the Horse and Groom in Marylebone and the Nag’s Head in Carnaby Market.

Arthur Thistlewood

The small Spencean scene, mingling with ultra-radicals like the Watsons, father and son, disaffected soldiers and ex-soldiers, and other malcontents, were growing more and more enraged. A leading light of the group was Arthur Thistlewood, a former militia lieutenant, who had come to radical ideas after travelling France and the US. Another notable figure was ex-slave Robert Wedderburn, a fiery blasphemous preacher, former Methodist, angry critic of both slavery in his native West Indies and of the nascent capitalism in England… Wedderburn could be found ‘twice weekly preaching blasphemy and sedition’ in his run-down chapel in a loft on the corner of Hopkins Street and Brewer Street in Soho.

But the Spenceans and the other radical groups were under the eye of the government. A number of spies paid by the Home Secretary were employed join the Spenceans and report on their activities.

The pressure for reform led to cataclysmic events. The Spenceans and ultra-radicals formed an uneasy alliance with more moderate reformers like Henry Hunt, and organized large-scale demonstrations demanding reform; in London this led to the Spa Fields riot; government spy John Castle had been deep in the plans for an uprising, and subsequently gave evidence against several of the radical leaders including James Watson, Arthur Thistlewood, and Thomas Preston, on their charge of high treason – but they were acquitted after their defence discredited Castle in court.

There were other spies among the radicals however…

A few months later, a huge reform rally for political reform in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, addressed by Henry Hunt, was violently attacked by armed yeoman cavalry. The ‘Peterloo Massacre’, in which at least 15 people were killed and hundreds injured, infuriated reformers, radicals and much of the population. In London, the ultra-radicals began planning an uprising. At one meeting a spy reported that Arthur Thistlewood said: “High Treason was committed against the people at Manchester. I resolved that the lives of the instigators of massacre should atone for the souls of murdered innocents.”

Before Peterloo, Thistlewood, Wedderburn and Watson had already began to build a revolutionary organisation, with ‘divisions’ at Seven Dials, Cripplegate, St James, Shoreditch, Clerkenwell, Lambeth and Soho. The last of these, based at Wedderburn’s Hopkins Street Chapel, was the most insistent on immediate revolt, angrily calling for revolution at meetings, so openly that Wedderburn was in prison at the time of Peterloo, on a charge of seditious libel.

Peterloo galvanised the ultra-radicals. They began making pikes, buying ammunition, and secretly drilling with arms at night. The Soho branch attended a radical rally on 25th August 1819 in Smithfield armed… Radicals from Manchester came to London to assure the Londoners that there was much support in the north. Thistlewood was corresponding with sympathisers in Derby, Nottingham, and visited Leicester to collect money for arms. But despite plans being drawn up to persuade or bribe soldiers to join them, numbers were just too small; a planned date for possible uprising, 1st November, when simultaneous protest meetings were to be held, passed off without violence… Several groups who had intended to hold meetings in other towns backed out. The chance of Insurrection began to fade.

In the meantime, the government, alarmed by the fierce reaction to Peterloo and the clear intention of some of the radicals to attempt rebellion, quickly passed the ‘Six Acts’, whose main objective was the “curbing radical journals and meeting as well as the danger of armed insurrection”: these were

(i) Training Prevention Act: A measure which made any person attending a gathering for the purpose of training or drilling liable to arrest. People found guilty of this offence could be transported for seven years.

(ii) Seizure of Arms Act: A measure that gave power to local magistrates to search any property or person for arms.

(iii) Seditious Meetings Prevention Act: A measure which prohibited the holding of public meetings of more than fifty people without the consent of a sheriff or magistrate.

(iv) The Misdemeanours Act: A measure that attempted to reduce the delay in the administration of justice.

(v) The Basphemous and Seditious Libels Act: A measure which provided much stronger punishments, including banishment for publications judged to be blasphemous or seditious.

(vi) Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act: A measure which subjected certain radical publications which had previously avoided stamp duty by publishing opinion and not news, to such duty.

Many of the country’s radical leaders-Henry Hunt, James Wroe, Samuel Bamford, John Saxton, Sir Francis Burdett, Richard Carlile, and Major John Cartwright-found themselves either on trial or in prison in the aftermath of Peterloo and the passing of the Six Acts.

Robert Wedderburn was among the first victims. He was arrested in December and charged with blasphemous libel; he would later be convicted and imprisoned for two years. Ironically, however, this arrest may have unintentionally saved his life, as, if left free, he would undoubtedly have been heavily involved in the plot of February 1820 that was developed by the group around Thistlewood. They had determined that if a mass uprising wasn’t on the cards, they would have to assassinate the cabinet and seize power…

Still worried that the Spenceans and their allies, John Stafford, who supervised various spies at the Home Office, recruited George Edwards, George Ruthven, John Williamson, John Shegoe, James Hanley and Thomas Dwyer to spy on them.

Of these, Edwards was to become the most notorious. Born in Clerkenwell in 1788, he became a statue maker in Smithfield. According to people who knew him from this period, Edwards was very poor and often went about barefoot. In the 1790s, Edwards was making plaster of Paris busts of famous people and selling them on street-corners. Briefly moving to Windsor where he rented a small shop in Eton High Street, Edwards made the acquaintance of Major-General Sir Herbert Taylor, who recruited him as a Home Office spy.

Edwards moved back to London, establishing himself in radical journalist William Hone’s former premises in Fleet Street. Here, from January 1819, the radical journalist and publisher Richard Carlile was his next-door neighbour. Carlile commissioned Edwards to make a full-length figure of Thomas Paine and also a likeness of Carlile himself, which Edwards completed while Carlile was incarcerated in the king’s bench prison. Edwards may have been tasked with spying on the radical booksellers who thronged Fleet Street, and to see how they linked to the more active agitators, among them the Spenceans.

In 1818 Edwards met John Brunt, a member of the Spencean Philanthropists. Edwards apparent radical political views and talk, including wanting to kill members of the government, led Brunt to introduce Edwards to other friends – he was soon attending Spencean meetings. But Edwards reported everything he heard to the authorities. His accounts of the meetings, preserved in the Public Record Office, were written on narrow strips of paper that were then folded into a small square and passed to John Stafford, Chief Clerk at Bow Street Police Station.

Some among the Spencean scene, however, were suspicious of Edwards, and suggested he might be a spy. On one occasion Edwards tried to give one member, William Tunbridge, a pistol that he could use against the government, but Tunbridge refused replying: “Mr. Edwards, you may tell your employers that they will not catch me in their trap.” However, Arthur Thistlewood liked Edwards, and was convinced he was genuine. In December 1819, he made him his aide-de-camp.

At meetings Edwards constantly called for an armed uprising to overthrow the government. It was Edwards’ idea to start the revolution by assassinating Lord Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth. The plot that followed was cooked up by Edwards from the start, though the desperate naivety of Thistlewood and his fellows played directly into the hands of Edwards and his masters.

Thistlewood’s group convinced themselves the country was on the verge of revolution and that all it needed was one strong leader to rise up to guide them. The time for action came when they received news of death of King George III, who died on January 29, 1820. Thistlewood believed that all of the troops would be at Windsor for the funeral of the king and would be unable to return to London to stop any attack on the city, and reckoned he and his colleagues could further disable the troops by destroying their barracks with grenades; this would keep the troops busy putting out fires rather than attending to the insurgents…

On Tuesday 22nd February 1820, Thistlewood’s group met John Brunt’s home; it was here, that Edwards pointed out to Arthur Thistlewood an item in a newspaper that said several members of the British government were going to have dinner at Lord Harrowby’s house at 39 Grosvenor Square the following night. This story had, in fact, been planted by the home office, in order to draw out the plotters, after Edwards had alerted his bosses to their intentions. Thistlewood argued that this was the opportunity they had been waiting for. The Spenceans decided to attack Harrowby’s house, kill all the government ministers, place the heads of Lord Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth on poles and then march around the slums of the capital. Thistlewood was convinced that this would incite an armed uprising that would overthrow the government. This would be followed by the creation of a new government committed to creating a society based on the ideas of Spence. By this time the group, especially Thistlewood, were clearly somewhat deluded as to what effect their actions would likely have; despite the widespread unpopularity of the government, their attentat, even if it had succeeded, would probably not have led to a general revolution… Driven to rebellion by desperation and rage, the conspirators were east to manipulate by the government spies among them.

Over the next few hours Thistlewood attempted to recruit as many people as possible to take part in the plot. Unsurprisingly, given the slightly fantastic plan, and the widespread suspicion of police spies, a number of the ultra-radicals declined to join the attack. According to Edwards, only twenty-seven people agreed to participate. This included William Davidson, John Brunt, Richard Tidd, James Ings, John Harrison, James Wilson, Richard Bradburn, John Strange, Charles Copper, Robert Adams and John Monument.

Many of the conspirators were poor working men, living in some of London’s skintest and most rebellious corners…

Richard Tidd

Richard Tidd, a shoemaker, lived at 4 Hole-in-the-wall Passage, Brooks-market (off Brooke Street in Holborn. Like Thistlewood a native of Lincolnshire, he had been involved in the 1802 insurgent plot for which Colonel Despard and others were executed; though he had dodged being arrested. During the Napoleonic war he made a living by enlisting into more than half the regiments of the crown, then deserting immediately after being given his ‘bounty’ for signing on (this was a widespread scam at this time!).

John Brunt

John Thomas Brunt was born off Oxford-street; where his father carried on business as a tailor. Like Tidd, he became a shoemaker. Brunt lived with his son and apprentice in 4 Fox Court, Grays Inn Lane. So both Tidd and Brunt resided on the edge of the notorious Baldwin’s Gardens Rookery.

James Ings

James Ings, originally a butcher in Portsmouth, came to London when his business failed, and opened a coffee-house in Whitechapel, where he sold, besides coffee, political pamphlets; and having read the different Deistical publications, from being a churchman he became a confirmed Deist.

Ings’ coffee shop became a meeting point for the radical group that eventually hatched the Cato Street plot. Edwards, Adams, Thistlewood, and Brunt, visited the shop regularly. Edwards in fact supplied money to Ings in the months before the assassination plot was developed, as Ings was nearly out of funds… Later Edwards paid for Ings to hire a room, where Ings lived, but which was large enough to contain some of the arms and ammunition amassed by the plotters.

William Davidson

William Davidson was mixed race, the son of West Indies Attorney-General Davidson, and a woman of colour. Sent to England when very young, he rebelled against the life mapped out for him, went to sea, and became a cabinet-maker in Liverpool.

Davidson had worked for Lord Harrowby in the past and knew some of the latter’s staff at Grosvenor Square. He was instructed to find out more details about the cabinet meeting – but when he spoke to one of the servants he was told that the Earl of Harrowby was not in London. This could have put a kybosh on the plot, but when Davidson reported this news back to the group, Thistlewood insisted that the servant was lying and that the assassinations should proceed as planned.

The groups rented a small two-story building in Cato Street, round the corner from their target in Grosvenor Square: the building consisted of a stable with a hayloft above. Arms were brought here by Brunt, including sabres, swords, guns, pistols, and – allegedly – a kind of hand grenade.

On the evening of the 22nd February, the conspirators held another  meeting at Brunt’ lodging, finalising plans for the assassination of the cabinet ministers, and the subsequent steps they would take – including storming or setting fire to the principal barracks and various public buildings.

At this point, Thistlewood wrote two proclamations for distribution after the initial attack. The first was an address intended for public dissemination: “Your tyrants are destroyed – the friends of liberty are called upon to come forward – the Provisional Government is now sitting.”

The second was a proclamation to the soldiers, calling upon them to join their friends in liberty, and promising that they should be rewarded with full pay and a pension for life.

Edwards had kept his handler John Stafford informed at every stage of the plan. Richard Birnie, a Bow Street magistrate, was put in charge of arresting the plotters. Lord Sidmouth instructed Birnie to use men from the Second Battalion Coldstream Guards as well as police officers from Bow Street in the operation. George Ruthven, a police officer and a former spy, who knew most of the Spenceans, was ordered to the Horse and Groom, a pub opposite the stable in Cato Street; twelve constables were also stationed here.

On 23rd February, as the conspirators gathered in the stable, Birnie decided he had enough men to capture them, although no Coldstream Guards had arrived. Birnie ordered Ruthven to storm the building

Inside the stable the police found James Ings on guard, but he was quickly overpowered, and George Ruthven led his men up the ladder into the hayloft:

“On the officers going up the steps they demanded entrance, which they were refused. Wescot [Westcott], one of the officers, went up first, and was followed by several others, on which the persons assembled made a most desperate resistance, and the officers were fired on. Wescot received three shots through his hat, and Smithers, an active officer, received a stab in his right side, and he was carried away quite dead. A desperate affray took place, in which several of the officers were wounded, some most seriously. Gill, one of the officers [Ellis], upon going up the steps was met by a man of colour, named Davison, who was armed with a loaded gun, which after threatening the officer he fired off, but fortunately missed his object, on which Gill took out his staff and belaboured him over the wrists until he let go. Davison then seized a sword, which he was prevented using. In consequence of this resistance most of the officers were prevented from entering the loft in which these persons were, but were obliged to remain below while some of the party escaped by means of a ropeladder, [actually, it did not exist] which they (it appeared) had cautiously placed out of a back window in case (it is supposed) they were detected. As they escaped the resistance became less, and the whole of the officers, except those injured, endeavoured to enter the place, and to secure nine of the offenders, who had received much injury…”

Thistlewood was identified as the one who had stabbed constable Smithers, who died soon afterwards. Several of the gang attempted to fight but were quickly seized; Thistlewood, John Brunt, Robert Adams and John Harrison escaped out of a back window, but were arrested within a few hours due to Edwards’ detailed information.

According to Ruthven, in the loft at Cato Street, they found a large cache of bayonets, pistols, boxes of ammunition, and other items. Searching John Brunt’s lodgings, the constables also uncovered

“Nine papers with rope yarn and tar in different papers, and some steel filings; in another basket there were four grenades, three papers of rope yarn and tar, two flannel bags of powder, one pound each, five flannel bags, empty, one paper with powder in it, and one leather bag with sixty-three balls in it – this was all that was in the basket; an iron pot and pike handle…  a box about two feet and a half long, full of ball cartridges. I counted them – there were 965. I also found ten grenades, and a great quantity of gunpowder. I also found in a haversack 434 balls, 171 ball cartridges, 69 ball cartridges without powder, about three pounds of gunpowder in a paper, the ten grenades which I spoke of before, they were in a brown wrapper, tied up, eleven bags of gunpowder, each containing one pound, which were in flannel bags, and ten flannel bags, empty; a small bag with a powder flask, sixty-eight musket balls, four flints, and twenty-seven pikehandles…”

Ten men were eventually charged with being involved in the Cato Street Conspiracy; their trial was held on 28th April 1820.

Having been burned once trying to use the evidence of spies in court against the Spenceans (after the Spa Fields riot), Sidmouth decided not to produce Edwards in court as a witness. Instead, two of the conspirators, Robert Adams and John Monument, were persuaded to turns king’s evidence and implicate the others, in return for charges being dropped against them. Their evidence was enough to convict the rest.

The plotters were charged with
1. Conspiring to devise plans to subvert the Constitution. 2. Conspiring to levy war, and subvert the Constitution. 3. Conspiring to murder divers of the Privy Council. 4. Providing arms to murder divers of the Privy Council. 5. Providing arms and ammunition to levy war and subvert the Constitution. 6. Conspiring to seize cannon, arms and ammunition to arm themselves, and to levy war and subvert the Constitution. 7. Conspiring to burn houses and barracks, and to provide combustibles for that purpose. 8. Preparing addresses, & c. containing incitements to the King’s subjects to assist in levying war and subverting the Constitution. 82 9. Preparing an address to the King’s subjects, containing therein that their tyrants were destroyed, &c., to incite them to assist in levying war, and in subverting the Constitution. 10. Assembling themselves with arms, with intent to murder divers of the Privy Council, and to levy war, and subvert the Constitution. 11. Levying war.

…among other charges…

In court, however, the defendants claimed that Edwards had been an agent provocateur, the initiator of the plot. According to Ings:

“The Attorney-General knows Edwards. He knew all the plans for two months before I was acquainted with it. When I was before Lord Sidmouth, a gentleman said Lord Sidmouth knew all about this for two months. I consider myself murdered if Edwards is not brought forward. I am willing to die on the scaffold with him.

I conspired to put Lord Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth out of this world, but I did not intend to commit High Treason. I did not expect to save my own life, but I was determined to die a martyr in my country’s cause.”

Davidson wavered between claiming innocence and defending the group’s actions, stating: “It is an ancient custom to resist tyranny… And our history goes on further to say, that when another of their Majesties the Kings of England tried to infringe upon those rights, the people armed, and told him that if he did not give them the privileges of Englishmen, they would compel him by the point of the sword… Would you not rather govern a country of spirited men, than cowards?”

Thistlewood tried to justify his assassination attempt against the Privy Council but the Lord Chief Justice would not let him finish, interrupting that such “incendiary treason was not allowed in the courtroom.”

John Brunt declared in court before sentence was passed, that he had, “by his industry, been able to earn about £3 or £4 a-week, and while this was the case, he never meddled with politics; but when he found his income reduced to 10s. a-week, he began to look about him. And what did he find? Why, men in power, who met to deliberate how they might starve and plunder the country. He looked on the Manchester transactions as most dreadful. … He had joined the conspiracy for the public good. He was not the man who would have stopt. 0 no: he would have gone on”

On 28th April 1820, Arthur Thistlewood, William Davidson, James Ings, Richard Tidd, and John Brunt were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. John Harrison, James Wilson, Richard Bradburn, John Strange and Charles Copper were also found guilty but their original sentence of execution was subsequently commuted to transportation for life.

More than one of the prisoners composed defiant verses while awaiting sentence, including a poem with the lines:

Tyrants. Ye fill the poor with dread
And take way his right
And raise the price of meat and bread
            And thus his labour blight

You never labour, never toil,
But you can can and drink;
You never cultivate the soil,
            Nor of the poor man think …

Facing death, James Ings wrote to his wife: “My dear Celia… I must die according to law, and leave you in a land full of corruption, where justice and liberty has taken their flight from, to other distant shores. . . – Now, my dear, I hope you will bear in mind that the cause of my being consigned to the scaffold was a pure motive. I thought I should have rendered my starving fellow-men, women, and children, a service…”

On May 1st, 1820, Thistlewood, Davidson, Ings, Tidd, and Brunt were taken to Newgate Prison, where they were publicly hanged. Soldiers were stationed nearby, out of sight of the crowd, and large banners had been prepared with a painted order to disperse, to be displayed to the crowd if trouble caused the authorities to invoke the Riot Act. In the event there was no trouble.

John Hobhouse attended the execution, and later wrote: “The men died like heroes. Ings, perhaps, was too obstreperous in singing Death or Liberty” and records Thistlewood as saying, “Be quiet, Ings; we can die without all this noise.”

After their hanging, the men were decapitated. After the bodies had hung for half an hour, they were lowered one at a time and an unidentified individual in a black mask decapitated them against an angled block with a small knife. Each beheading was accompanied by shouts, booing and hissing from the crowd and each head was displayed to the assembled spectators, declaring it to be the head of a traitor, before placing it in the coffin with the remainder of the body.

The remaining defendants, James Wilson, John Harrison, Richard Bradburn, John Shaw Strange, and Charles Cooper were forced to witness the executions of their comrades, then quickly taken to Portsmouth and put on board the transport ship, the Guildford, which sailed on May 2nd, arriving in New South Wales, Australia on September 20, 1820. A letter from Under-Secretary for War and the Colonies, Henry Goulburn, was sent to the Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, warning him to keep watch over the men because of their involvement with revolutionary activities. The men were sent to work at the Jail Gang at Newcastle but there is no record of the five men continuing with radical activities; in fact Strange eventually became the chief constable at Bathurst.

During the trial, Edwards was concealed by the government on the island of Guernsey. However, questions were soon being asked about his role in the affair. The day after the execution, Matthew Wood stated in the House of Commons that he had information that revealed that Edwards was an agent provocateur who had organised the conspiracy himself and then betrayed it for ‘Blood Money’. Joseph Hume complained that Edwards was one of several spies that the government had used to incite rebellion in an effort to smear the campaign for parliamentary reform.

The government decided Edwards needed to be removed from the scene permanently and arranged for him to obtain a new identity, and to be resettled in South Africa (a favourite place for rehousing UK government spies for many years). Edwards died there in 1843.

The atmosphere of suspicion and bitterness among the London radicals is illustrated in the sad letter of Richard Carlile to William Davidson’s wife Sarah, after the execution. Carlile had suspected Davidson of being a police spy, after the latter had offered to spring Carlile from Dorchester Jail, where he was imprisoned. Carlile had even accused Davidson of being a nark in his journal, The Republican, shortly after the arrests at Cato Street… In May he apologised to Sarah:
“Little did I think that villain Edwards was the spy, agent, and instigator of the government, and Mr. Davidson his victim. I now regret my error, and hope that you will pardon it as an error of the head, without any bad motive. Be assured that the heroic manner in which your husband and his companions met their fate, will in a few years, perhaps in a few months, stamp their names as patriots, and men who had nothing but their country’s weal at heart. I flatter myself as your children grow up, they will find that the fate of their father will rather procure them respect and admiration than its reverse.”

That the Cato Street Conspiracy was linked to some kind of national plan for an uprising seems likely, though the 23rd February plot was possibly entered into earlier than some previously discussed date – possibly 1st April.

There were several attempted risings in the weeks following the arrest of the conspirators – in Scotland, and Yorkshire. All were small, confused and easily defeated, as they had also been heavily penetrated by spies – in fact, like the Cato Street plot, spies had largely orchestrated the events to entrap the ultra-radicals. To be fair, the radicals walked right into it, as they were up for revolt anyway…

[There’s a good account of the Scottish insurrection in The Radical Rising: the Scottish Insurrection of 1820, by Peter Beresford Ellis & Seumas Mac a’ Ghobhainn
and this article discusses the way the various attempts at revolt in 1820 were viewed and portrayed in writing at the time.

The abortive attempt to organise revolution in 1820 was almost certainly doomed from its inception; even without the actions of informers, such coup attempts are hard to pull off, and no substitute for mass movements. Whatever the links of the Spenceans to groups in Scotland, Yorkshire and elsewhere, there were just not enough in terms of numbers to succeed. As in the late 1790s, 1802 and the later Chartist uprising attempts in 1839 and 1848, it was desperation in the face of a wider movement that had disappointed, that led to conspiracy.

 

Ministers and others, holding hands, caper in a ring round a pole to which are symmetrically attached the decollated heads of the Cato Street conspirators executed on 1 May, see No. 13707, &c. Between Sidmouth and the smiling Castlereagh is a man wearing a black mask, and with a blood-stained knife in his mouth, perhaps one of the two who turned King’s evidence. On the right, taking Castlereagh’s left hand, is the Attorney-General, Gifford, grinning diabolically. Holding Sidmouth’s left hand is Vansittart (in his gown). Facing these two are Canning and Chief Justice Abbott in his robes. Four others are poorly characterized. They dance to a fiddle played by Edwards who sits on a grassy mound (right), with an empty gibbet behind his head. He says: “Dance away my Friends, I have been the cause of all this fun by your Help and Money. “Edwards the Instigator!!!”

 

 

Today in London radical history: Chartist socialist George Julian Harney born Deptford, 1817.

George Julian Harney was a central figure in London’s Chartist movement, as well as playing a significant part nationally, and became an early socialist.
The following text gives a brief account of his life, concentrating on his Chartist days.

Deptford’s Red Republican: George Julian Harney, 1817-1897
By Terry Liddle

As well as being dedicated to the memory of George Julian Harney, this text is also dedicated to the memory of Albert Standley, a pioneer of modern Republicanism.

In 1840, Harney stated: “Be ours the task to accomplish by one glorious effort the freedom of our country.” Let’s do it!

GEORGE JULIAN HARNEY was born in Deptford, then an important maritime centre, in February 17, 1817. As early as the end of the 18th century ship builders in the area had starled to organise trade unions and from the 1830s onward there would be an active Charlist movement. Harney’s father had served as an able seaman in the wars with France. Orphaned early in life. Harney’s education was rudimentary until at the age of 11 he entered the Boys School at Greenwich. Three Years later he went to sea as a cabin boy visiting Portugal and Brazil. Physically unsuited to the hard seafaring life, after six months at sea he returned to London, taking up various jobs ashore. At this time the agitation around the Reform Bill, with both the new industrial middle class and the more numerous working class struggling for the vote, was at its zenith and Harney soon became involved.

In 1832. he look a job as shop boy at the Poor Man’s Guardian. Published by Henry Hetherington, a Freethinker and Owenite Socialist, it had a circulation of 16,000. The Publications Act of 1819 had imposed on newspapers a stamp duty of sixpence which placed them beyond the pocket of working class readers. The Radicals of the day saw this as an unjust tax on knowledge and defiantly published unstamped papers. Hundreds of sellers of the unstamped press were imprisoned for the right to read and sell their own publications. Harney served his political apprenticeship in this struggle being imprisoned three times between the years 1831 and 1836.

HARNEY AND O’BRIEN

On release from Derby prison, Harney became friends with the Poor Man’s Guardian editor Bronterre O’Brien. O’Brien was a keen student of the French Revolution, translating Buonarroti’s history of Babeuf’s conspiracy and writing a biography of Robespierre. Harney followed his example. Of their friendship, O’Brien’s biographer, Alfred Plummer, wrote: “These two spirited young men, filled with revolutionary fervour, were united in conviction that given universal suffrage and the dispersal of mass ignorance… the march of regeneration would be swift and sure, all that was oppressive would be overthrown and triumphant justice would take the place of extirpated wrong.”

The London Mercury of March 12, 1837 noted the formation of the East London Democratic Association noting: “We admire the objects and principles of this new society and shall not fail to give it all the support and encouragement in our power.” Leading figures were Harney, Charles Neeson, a Painite tailor, and Allen Davenport, a shoemaker and follower of Thomas Spence. On June 11, 1837, the ELDA met to consider a motion put by Harney urging the formation of a Central National Association as the only rational means of not only obtaining universal sufflage but also the overthrow of the moneyed tyrants who grind the sons of labour into the dust.

The Central National Association was duly formed and met to consider a motion from Harney and O’Brien advocating physical force as the means to radical reform. However, the CNA was short lived, being wrecked by a dispute resulting from Harney’s attack on the conduct of the Irish MP Daniel O’Connell. Hamey and his followers formed the London Democratic Association. With a solid base among Spitalfields silkweavers and other London trades, its membership was 4,000. Its aims as stated by Harney included universal suffrage, abolition of newspaper taxes and the Poor Law, the 8 hour day and support for trade unions.

At Christmas 1838 Hamey visited Newcastle which had elected him a delegate to the forthcoming Chartist National Convention. Thousands turned out on Christmas day to listen to, and applaud, his call for physical force. Harney continued his speaking tour in Yorkshire and Lancashire, men armed with muskets and pikes attending mass torchlight meetings. Harney at the time was so poor he had to wait in a tailor’s shop while his one pair of trousers was being repaired. The mood was one of revolution, thousands coming to see the forthcoming Convention as the country’s real government.

A week before the Convention gathered in London, Harney addressed a mass meeting in Derby. He proclaimed: “We demand universal suffrage because it is our right and not only because it is our right but because we believe that it will bring freedom to our country and happiness to our homesteads, we believe it will give us bread and beef and beer.”

The convention met on February 4, 1839. An absent delegate was George Loveless who had been transported to Australia for his trade union activities in Tolpuddle. The Convention decided to seek the support of MPs for a petition with over a million signatures supporting the People’s Charter. For Harney this was an absurd waste of time. The LDA attempted to place before the Convention a motion stating that every act of oppression should be answered with immediate resistance. This was rejected. A mass meeting on March 11 addressed by Harney and O’Brien advised the Chartists to arm themselves. The Convention began to discuss the people’s right to arm. Harney again underlines his position in the pages of the London Democrat: “…there is but one means of obtaining the Charter and that is by insurrection.”

An alarmed government began mobilising the military and a new police, Armed gatherings were banned and magistrates given the power to prohibit meetings.

With things reaching crisis point, at Harney’s suggestion the Convention relocated to Birmingham on May 13. The police raided the LDA’s offices, but Harney escaped arrest having already left for Birmingham. A warrant for his arrest was sworn out on May 17. In Birmingham, serious rioting broke out when the police attacked a small meeting. It was only at the urging of Chartist leaders that the rioters dispersed. The authorities reacted by arresting Taylor and several other Chartist leaders. More riots broke out in Birmingham and elsewhere when parliament rejected the Charter on July 15. The Convention’s leaders, unable or unwilling to head a revolution, issued a call for a general strike only to reverse their decision when it became clear that it lacked support. Finally, at the urging of Harney and Taylor the Convention dissolved itself.

The authorities caught tip with Harney at Bedlington near Newcastle, their aim being to return him to Birmingham via Carlisle. In Carlisle he had to be smuggled out of the back door of an inn, an angry crowd demanding his release surrounding the front. When news of his arrest became known in Newcastle the town, was plastered with posters calling the people to action. Miners in the area struck and started marching on Newcastle. A ban on meetings was defied and rioting broke out. Once again it was the Chartist leaders who defused the situation,

By the Spring of 1840 over five hundred Chartists were in prison. Harney was held in Warwick Castle but later released. A rising in Wales had failed and its leaders had suffered transportation. Some died behind bars. In 1842 Harney spoke at the graveside of Sheffield Chartist Samuel Holberry who had died in prison aged twenty seven. “He is numbered with the patriots who have died martyrs for the cause of liberty…”, proclaimed Harney. Harney’s own trial collapsed when the Crown withdrew its case. Scotland was the only place where Chartist leaders were still at liberty and after his trial Hamey went there for a lecture tour which lasted a year. It was there that he met and married Mary Cameron, a weaver’s daughter, to whom he was greatly devoted. His activities in Scotland he reported himself in the pages of the Northern Star. Selling at fourpence halfpenny, it had a circulation of thirty thousand

A STRIKE DEFEATED

While his politics remained the same he was a Jacobin cast in the mould of Marat, the tone of his oratory altered considerably. He now stressed national organisation instead of immediate insurrection. There was now a line of caution and moderation in his speeches. During the Plug Plot Riots of 1842, when the Chartists again tried to win their demands by means of a general strike and troops fired on strikers in Blackburn, Halifax and Preston. Harney, feeling that the strike lacked real mass support, urged moderation much to the dismay of many of his supporters. Harney felt that the strike had been provoked by the manufacturers in a bid to secure repeal of the Corn Laws. Basing his analysis on the situation in Sheffield, where after a mass meeting had supported the strike, several trade union secretaries then opposed it, he wrote in the Northern Star of September 3, 1842: “I would have joined into it heart and soul but no sane man could come to any other conclusion than that the great mass of the people of Sheffield Trades were deadly hostile to any such scheme”. At a conference in Sheffield he pointed out that strikers had returned to work two days after being fired on by troops.

By the middle of August, 1842 the strike had been defeated. The government celebrated by arresting over one thousand five hundred Chartists. Of these, in excess of six hundred were put on trial, forty being transported. Peter M’Douall, a prominent strike leaders, fled to France. The strike, however, was instrumental in ending the Corn Laws, the Home Secretary in 1842, giving the strike as the reason for their abolition. Harney may well have been right.

Harney had settled in Sheffield in 1841 having been appointed full time Chartist organiser for the West Riding. The strength of Chartism in this part of Yorkshire can be judged from the facts that over fifteen thousand people turned out to celebrate the French Revolution of 1848 and that by the following year Chartists held nearly half the seats on Sheffield Town Council. He also became local correspondent for the Northem Star. His political ideas remained unchanged and his opposition to union between the middle class reformers of Joseph Sturge’s Complete Suffrage Union and the Chartists brought him into conflict with his old mentor O’Brien. Hamey, and the Northem Star with him, took the view that even if the Union’s reform proposals were adopted the working class would still be left prostrate before capitalists and speculators. The project fell apart when after a conference in 1842 adopted the Charter in name, an earlier conference having adopted its six points, Sturge withdrew. The whole sorry episode, however, had as its legacy further divisions within the Chartists ranks.

One charge thrown at the Chartists was that of infidelity. Hamey was himself an infidel. In Derby he aided the secularist booksellers Finlay and Robinson and when Holyoake was imprisoned for blasphemy Harney acted as agent for his Oracle of Reason. In a letter to Holyoake dated April 22, 1844, Harney made it plain that he was “war with all priesthoods and priestcrafts” along with republicanism and communism as part of Chartism’s future. However when the Reverend John Campbell again hurled the charge of infidelity Hamey replied: “There is nothing concerning infidelity in the Charter… The Charter promises to confer on all men… the rights of citizenship…”

In 1843 Hamey became sub editor of the Northem Star moving to Leeds where it was published. From then until 1850 the paper was under Harney’s effective control. he taking the editorial chair in 1845. During this period Harney often found himself out of step with much mainstream Chartist thinking. In particular he opposed the Land Plan a scheme whereby Chartists would buy land and settle it as smallholders. While the first estate named for Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor worked well for a while in the end the plan failed. As the historian of Chartism, Reg Groves put it: “… it was an attempt to circumvent historical development; to find a way to escape from industrial development, instead of seeking the way forward through the utilisation of the new production power”.

A striking feature of the Northern Star was Harney’s reports of international events. In this he drew on an international tradition that went back to the Civil War. Early in his political career, Harney had come into contact with Polish refugees from the failed uprising of 1831 and had later joined the Polish Democratic Association. In 1844 the Northem Star moved to London bringing Hamey into contact with the various groupings of political refugees. Within this milieu were French, Germans and Italians as well as Poles.

The Poles were organised in the Polish Democratic Association and Lud Polski. The French had been in contact with English Chartists since 1840. That year Karl Schapper, Heinrich Bauer and Joseph Moll had founded the German Workers Education Society. Schapper and Bauer were members of the League of the Just founded in Paris in 1836, members fighting in an abortive uprising In 1839. The Italians were mostly followers of Mazzini who aimed for a united Italian Republic. Together with some English Chartists they founded an International Peoples League in 1847.

0ut of this gathering of hardline republicans there arose, following a banquet in celebration of the French Revolution, the Fraternal Democrats. Its slogan “All Men are Brothers” was that of the League of the Just. The Fraternal Democrats can truly be said to be a forerunner of the First International of which Harney would become a member. Its statement of aims stated: “Convinced… that national prejudices have been, in all ages, taken advantage of by the people’s oppressors to set them tearing the throats of each other, when they could have been working together for their common good, this Society repudiates the term ‘foreigner’, no matter by, or to whom applied.” Hamey was a fervent member. appealing in the Northern Star “… to the oppressed of every land for the triumph of the common cause.” This did not stop Marx sending Hamey what he called “a mild attack on the peacefulness of the Fraternal Democrats.”

FRANCE AND IRELAND

It was at a banquet to celebrate the 1848 French Revolution that Harney and O’Brien were reconciled, O’Brien speaking in favour of a union of Chartists and Socialists. When the Fraternal Democrats met on Robespierre’s birthday, Harney was in the chair and according to the Democratic Review O’Brien’s vindication of the character of the victim of Thermidor was enthusiastically applauded. O’Brien proposed a toast to Harney and other toasts were to the memory of Robert Ernmett and the health of Smith O’Brien and other Irish patriots. Paine, Washington and Ernest Jones were also honoured. Soon afterwards O’Brien was the main speaker at a meeting held to protest the suppression of electoral reform in France. He bitterly attacked the money class in France who sought to keep the people poor by robbing them of the fruits of their labours.

O’Brien, also spoke at a meeting to protest the treatment of William Smith O’Brien, an Irish nationalist who had been transported on a flimsy charge of high treason. In 1838 over one hundred Chartists and workers organisations had signed an address to the Irish people which stated: “… seeing that the productive classes of the two islands have the same wants and the same enemies; why should they not look forward to the same remedy and make common cause against the same oppressor …” Harney was also a friend of Ireland, speaking from the Irish platform at the Kennington Common demonstration of 1848 and writing in the Red Republican: “It is high time the proletarians of Great Britain and Ireland came into possession of their rightful heritage…”

The Fraternal Democrats’ politics can be judged from a speech delivered by Harney in 1846 to the German Democratic Society for the Education of the Working Class. Said Harney: “The cause of the common people of all countries is the same the cause of labour… In each country the slavery of the many and the tyranny of the few are variously developed, but the principle in all is the same… Working men of all nations are not your grievances the same? Is not. then, your good cause one and the same also? We may differ as to the means … but the great end the veritable emancipation of the human race must be the aim and the end of all May the working classes of all nations combine in brotherhood for the triumph of their common cause.”

The Fraternal Democrats’ programme as outlined by Harney, declared: “We renounce, repudiate and condemn all hereditary inequalities and distinctions of caste. we declare that the present state of society which permits idlers and schemers to monopolise the fruits of the earth, and the productions of industry, and compels the working class to labour for inadequate rewards. and ever condemns them to social slavery, destitution and degradation is essentially unjust…”

MARX AND ENGELS

Harney and Engels first met in 1843, Harney wrote of their encounter: “…he came from Bradford to Leeds and inquired for me at the Northern Star office. A tall, handsome young man… whose English… was even then remarkable for its accuracy. He told me he was a constant reader of the Northern Star and took a keen interest in the Chartist movement. Thus began our friendship …” Engels started writing for the Northern Star in 1844. Despite Harney’s later split with Marx, his friendship with Engels endured. And fifty years later when Engels died Hamey contributed a moving obituary to the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle.

Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor looked fondly upon the years of friendship between Harney and Engels. In 1887 she wrote in the Democratic Review: “…it has been my good fortune to know as a child George Julian Harney … only a few months ago 1 heard Harney and Engels talking of Chartist times.”

Harney first met Marx in 1845 during a short visit by the latter to England. The following year Marx and Engels were suggesting that Harney act as the link between the London Communists and their group in Brussels. Harney, who had joined the League of the Just in 1846, was closer to Marx’s critics who looked on the group in Belgium as “literary characters” guilty of “intellectual arrogance”. Marx and Engels toyed with the idea of ending relations with the London exiles and making a private deal with Harney but it was fruitless. Meanwhile the Northern Star reported greetings from the Belgium Communists to O’Connor who has stood as a Chartist in a by election.

In 1847 Harney stood for election in Tiverton where he opposed Lord Palmerston. ln his election address, Harney stated: “I would… oppose all wars and interventions except those which the voice of the people might pronounce absolutely indispensable for self defence, or the protection of the weak against the powerful. I would labour to put an end to the alliance of this country with despotic governments…” So worried was Palmerston by Harney’s attack that his reply filled five columns of The Times. On a show of hands Harney was overwhelmingly elected but declined to go to the poll in protest at an undemocratic franchise.

That year Marx returned to London to attend the second conference of the Communist League. While there he addressed a gathering of the Fraternal Democrats in celebration of the 1830 Polish Revolution. The Northern Star reported: “Dr. Marx… was greeted with every demonstration of welcome. The Democrats of Belgium felt that the Chartists of England were the real Democrats and that the moment they carried the six points of their Charter, the road to liberty would be opened to the whole world.” “Carry your object then”, said the speaker, “and you will be hailed as the saviours of the whole human race.”

In the course of his speech, Marx pointed out that the downfall of the established order is no loss for those having nothing to lose in the old society and this is the case in all countries for the great majority. They have, rather, everything to gain from the collapse of the old society which is the condition for the building of a new society no longer based on class oppression.

REVOLUTION!

Europe in 1848 was aflame with revolution. In France the monarchy of Louis Phillipe was overthrown and a republic proclaimed. The French Provisional Government invited Marx to France and even offered him money to start a newspaper. The Chartists welcomed the upheaval which saw the tricolour everywhere next to the red flag. The National Charter Association, the London Chartists and the Fraternal Democrats addressed the Parisian people in these words: “…you have exhibited a spectacle of unparalleled heroism, and thereby set an example to the enslaved nations of the earth … the fire that consumed the throne of the royal traitor and tyrant “I kindle the torch of liberty in every country of Europe.”

Harney, together with Emest Jones and Phillip McGraith, was sent to France to deliver this address to the Provincial Government. At the Hotel de Ville in Paris he assured France of the support of the British people, presenting Ledru Rollin with the original of the address adorned with the tricolour. This was hung over the presidential chair in the hall of audience. Hamey and Jones then went to meet with Marx.

When British intervention against France looked likely, the Fraternal Democrats issued a manifesto which stated: “Workingmen of Great Britain and Ireland, ask yourselves the question: why should you arm and fight for the preservation of institutions in the privileges of which you have no share … why should you arm and fight for the protection of property which you can only regard as the accumulated plunder of the fruits of your labour? Let the privileged and the property owners fight their own battles.” Jones assured the Fraternal Democrats that “the Book of Kings was fast closing in the Bible of Humanity.” The Northern Star editorialised: “…as France has secured her beloved Republic, so Ireland must have her parliament restored and England her idolised Charter.”

A banned meeting in Trafalgar Square proclaimed support for the Charter and the French Revolution. A riot ensued with lamps near Buckingham Palace being smashed to the alarm of Frau Guelph. Town after town held monster rallies under the tricolour hailing France and the Charter; a joint Irish and Chartist meeting in Edinburgh sung The Marseillaise. At Kennington Common twenty thousand gathered with the tricolour in the face of armed police.

In London a Chartist Convention assembled on April 4. Harney reported that his constituents had resolved that the forthcoming petition would be the last presented to the Commons as presently constituted. All delegates reported growing willingness to use physical force if the Charter was again rejected.

A march on parliament to present the petition was banned. Harney replied that the Chartists shouldn’t meet at all unless they were prepared to fight for the demonstration. Government buildings were barricaded, clerks armed and specials sworn in. The Empress decamped for the Isle of Wight. Troops were deployed and heavy guns brought up from Woolwich. As the Chartists prepared to demand their rights, the government, mindful of events in France, prepared for war!

On April 10, the Chartists assembled to hear O’Connor beg them to call things off claiming he would be shot. By 10am the Chartists with banners calling for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and “Ireland for the Irish” were on the march. In their midst was a carriage carrying the petition with over five million signatures. It was followed by another carriage with Hamey in the front seat. Eventually one hundred and fifty thousand gathered on Kennington Common. There O’Connor said he made a deal with the police they would allow the meeting if the march was called off. Various platforms were set up with Harney among the speakers. By 2pm the crowd was starting to disperse. Apart from a few scuffles there was no violence. Britain was not France!

The National Convention reconvened on May 1. Harney had been forbidden by O’Connor, his employer, to attend. The Convention became a short lived National Assembly. The National Charter Association was reorganised and links with the Irish Republicans (Ireland in the grip of the Great Hunger was ill prepared as Britain for revolution). There was talk of an uprising in the summer. In Bradford thousands marched with pikes. Northern Chartists resolved to form a National Guard and there were riots in Manchester. At London’s Bonner’s Fields, Jones assured his audience that the Chartist green flag would fly over Downing Street. This was not to be so.

The state struck first, the Irish heading the list. John Mitchell, editor of the United Irishman was transported being held en route in the Woolwich hulks. He was followed by Smith O’Brien whose rising in Tipperary failed. Next came the Chartists. London Chartists were found guilty of conspiring to levy was against Victoria. In Liverpool two were sentenced to death and five transported. Jones got two years.

Somehow, Harney remained at liberty. Amongst Chartists not behind bars the mood became one of despair and defeatism. Many now repudiated revolution and sought an alliance with middle class advocates of a limited extension of the franchise. Splits occurred and rival organisations were set up. Harney was on both the executive of the NCA and a provisional executive set up by London Chartists.

If some moved Right, Harney moved Left. As the Red Republican put it: “they have progressed from the idea of a simple political reform to the idea of Social Revolution.” For the Left, Chartism was now “… the cause of the producers, and the battle of this enslaved class is now the battle we fight, but it must be fought under the red flag… the task given to us at present is to rally our brother proletarians en masse around the flag, by means of a democratic and social propaganda, an agitation for the Charter and something more.”

Harney was now removed from the Northern Star by O’Connor who accused him of advocating murder, a charge repudiated by the NCA. Unity moves in the form of a National Charter and Social Reform Union was stillborn. The Chartist Convention of 1851 issued a statement emphasising that Chartism should be the protector of the oppressed and should recognise that a political change would be useless unless accompanied by a social change. The Red Republican appealed for reports from trade unions and co operative societies. By the end of the 1850s Chartism was a spent force.

Fired from the Northern Star, Harney started publication of the monthly Democratic Review. This carded articles from a wide range of Radicals including Engels. It also republished articles by Marx.

The Democratic Review was followed by the Red Republican which appeared on June 22, 1850. At its masthead was the bonnet rouge and the red flag. Articles advocated the expropriation of docks, canals and railways and even the abolition of money. In its pages was published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto.

Faced with a booksellers’ boycott, the name was changed to the Friend of the People. It was published from 1850 to 1852 when it merged with the Northern Star, then the Vanguard, to become the Star of Freedom. Harney’s final publication was the Vanguard which ceased publication in 1853.

AN UNWELCOME VISITOR

In 1850 there came to Britain the Austrian general Haynau, notorious for his activities in Hungary and Italy including the flogging of women. On a visit to the Barclay brewery in Southwark, workers answered Harney’s call for protests by grabbing Haynau, cutting off his moustache and flogging him. Chased through the brewery, he hid in a dustbin until tile police rescued him. The rest of his visit was spent in bed recovering. The event was the subject of a popular song.

By this lime Harney and Jones had fallen out, hurling accusations of dictatorship. Determined to defeat Harney, Jones called a convention in Manchester. There he was triumphant but he was powerless to halt Chartism’s decline. Unity moves, opposed by Hamey, again failed. The last Chartist Convention met in 1858. It was the end.

Hamey had also fallen out with Marx who was now living in London. The cause of the breach was Harney’s willingness to open the pages of his publications to a wide range of exiles including those with whom Marx was engaged in fractional strife.

At a Fraternal Democrats event in 1848 Marx had met with the followers of the French revolutionary Blanqui. Out of this there was organised the Universal Society of Communist Revolutionaries. Among those signing its statutes were Marx, Engels and Harney.

Early in 1851 Harney spoke at a meeting to commemorate the Polish patriot Bem, organised by French followers of Blanqui and Louis Blanc. That year he managed to be at rival events celebrating the 1848 French Revolution. The first was organised by the European Central Democratic Committee organised by Mazzini and others. Its statements ‘were regular features in the Red Republican and the Friend of the People.

The other was presided over by Schapper, an opponent of Marx. During the course of the meeting, two of Marx’s followers, Schram and Pieper, were accused of being spies and roughed up. Despite Harney’s defence of Schram, in the Friend of the People of March 15, 1850, Marx, now broke off cordial relations with Harney attacking him as an “impresionable plebeian”. Some months later they met again at a tea party celebrating Robert Owen’s 80th birthday. They did not meet again for 25 years a chance encounter on Waterloo Station. Harney, however, continued to hold Marx in high esteem even offering to set up a fund to spread his ideas among British workers.

Increasingly politically isolated, Harney suffered a severe blow with the death of his wife in 1853. At the end of the year he moved to Newcastle where he tried to organise a Republican Brotherhood with Joseph Cowan. Two years later he moved to Jersey continuing to work as a journalist, resigning from his paper when it supported the Confederates in the American Civil War. In 1863 he emigrated to America.

There he worked as a clerk continuing to write articles for the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, now his only contact with the political world. When Charles Bradlaugh visited America in 1873, Harney acted as his guide.

In 1881 Harney returned to England. Living in Richmond, despite worsening health he continued working as a Journalist. Unlike some veteran Chartists he did not join H.M. Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation. He did, however, send greetings to the striking dockers in 1889 and was present at the May Day demonstration in 1890.

Shortly before his death Hamey was interviewed for the SDF’s Social Democrat by Edward Aveling. Aveling wrote: “I see in this old man a link between the years and the years. I know that long after the rest of us are forgotten the name George Julian Harney will be remembered with thankfulness and tears”. There can be no better epitaph!

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This text was originally published as a pamphlet by the Friends of George Julian Harney, in 1997, to commemorate the 100th annversary of Harney’s death. Republished in a slightly revised edition, 2002.

In memory of the author, Terry Liddle, libertarian socialist, freethinker, working class historian, and dedicated southeast Londoner, who died in 2012.

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

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