What with the usual seasonal delays, and posties striking for the payrise they deserve…
… Its about time to order your copy of
THE LONDON REBEL HISTORY CALENDAR 2023
… if you want it in time for the New Year, that is…
Past Tense’s latest calendar of London’s radical history: rebellious, riotous and campaigning anniversaries from the capital’s past, for every day of 2023…
Researched, designed, laid out by Past Tense. But written by the hands of thousands, over centuries…
Offset litho printed, in uproarious full colour, by the lovely People For Print (Sheffield).
For those of you complaining ’cause you liked the artisan risograph chic of our previous calendars – yeah well. Riso printing it al ourselves was time-consuming, exhausting physically, and while great, just not something sustainable this year for one reason and another. Anyway variety is the lice of strife or something.
Colourful, useful and inspiring if you love history and social change.
Overflowing with anger, humour and striking images.
And it’s only £10, (plus P&P if ordered online)
So how can you get your hands on this fabulous item?!
Longer accounts of some of these anniversaries sometimes appear on this blog… yes we know – not recently. One thing and another have kept us from the blogboard since March, but we will be back when we can.
Till Muskelini runs it into the ground, you can also follow us on twitter: @_pasttense_
1801, Bedfont – a failed attempt to enclose the Common.
While there are many accounts that we have posted up this blog of collective resistance to enclosures and the loss of access to open space in the London area over many centuries, everything we have covered remains only a part of the story. Many acts of resistance to enclosure of woods, fields, wastes and commons went unrecorded, as far from being the whole picture, large-scale protest, sabotage and riot in defence of common rights was only the tip of the iceberg. A far greater background of small scale and individual action lies behind the well-known acts of cutting down fences, court cases and agitation. Like poaching, resistance to enclosure was often expressed by anonymous acts of trespass, breaking down fences, grazing cattle on enclosed land, and much more.
Other resistance has been gradually forgotten or obscured as history moved on. Sometimes all we have are glimpses, through a memory, artefact or anecdote. A long tradition, for instance, held that the legendary Mayor of Garratt mock election festivals held near Wandsworth originated in a victorious enclosure resistance, though memory of the battle itself, if it existed, has faded.
One example of a memory of a successful resistance to land-theft preserved in a single object is recorded by Paul Carter in his excellent PHD thesis – ‘Enclosure Resistance in Middlesex 1656 – 1889: A Study of Common Right Assertion’, is a tea tray kept at the parish church in Bedfont, near Feltham, now in the west of London, though then a rural village. The tea tray is illustrated with a picture showing the commons at Bedfont and triumphantly describes a failed attempt to enclose the parish in 1801.
The inscription on the tray reads:
‘A Witness for Richard Hatchett of his abhorrence to robbing the Poor by enclosures. Bedfont. March 10th 1801. on which day the Duke of Northumberland. the Bishop of London and Governors of Christ’s Hospital & etc., withdrew their signatures from a Petition which they had signed for the enclosure to the honour on informed of the great injury the Poor would receive by it’.
Bedfont’s common land must at one time have been part of or bordered on the great open stretch of land that was known as Hounslow Heath, of which the current open space by this name is but a tiny remnant. Folk from the ‘Hounslow heath’ parishes were famed for their sturdiness in land struggles going back as far as 1381, when Heston locals were noted for their involvement in a dispute during the Peasants’ Revolt. There was a long tradition of resistance to enclosure in these various parishes, especially Stanwell, Staines, Hanworth and Harmondsworth; but neighbouring areas such as Osterley Park also saw determined struggles over fencing off of land, in which Heston residents were indited.
It is unknown how many of the tea trays were produced as a memorial to the failed Bedfont enclosure attempt, although a second one presented to William Sherborn by Bedfont parishioners was recorded as being ‘long since lost’ in a typescript history of the Sherborn family written in the 1960s. Both Hatchett and Sherborn were local farmers who, along with other parishioners, were unhappy at the attempts of the piecemeal enclosure of Hounslow Heath.”
An enclosure bill was, however, later brought in Parliament to enclose land at East Bedfont in 1813, arousing at least one petition in opposition. Some 1800 acres were enclosed around this time.
In the three decades after the legendary failed enclosure commemorated by the tea tray, land in the Bedfont area became concentrated in fewer hands, and enclosure did take place.
One of the families who did increase their holdings was the Sherbornes, noted above.
Opposition to enclosures could arise from multiple motives, and small landowners who resisted enclosures and loss of access in one parish might benefit from it in another. The Sherbornes were accumulating land, and in an era where agricultural ‘improvement’ often resulted in mechanisation, wage reductions and layoffs, this could easily mean accumulating resentment locally.
During the Swing wave of rural protest in 1830-1, one of the farms owned by the Sherbornes at Bedfont suffered an arson attack; other farmers and a churchwarden received threatening letters (a favourite Swing tactic to express anger, assert demands and force concessions).
‘Swing’ troubles mainly hit Kent, Surrey, Hampshire and other southern counties; Middlesex, the county that arc-ed around West and North London from Clerkenwell and Tottenham to Brentford and Hounslow, was mostly affected in its western parts. Swing activities were reported from Edgware, Enfield, Hampstead, Hampton, Hanwell, Hanworth, Harrow, Bedfont, Hayes, Hendon, Heston, Hounslow, Kingsbury, Staines and Uxbridge.
A note on the image: the tea tray is still displayed in St Mary’s Church, Bedfont, a building well worth seeing itself. Taking a picture of it is hard as the church interior is very dark! It’s hard to get an image without flash or reflection in the glass that the tray is cased in… Best to go and see it for yourselves…
As previously related, the introduction of the Poll Tax (officially called the Community Charge) across the UK in 1989-1990 enraged millions of people and sparked a mass community-based rebellion. A single flat-rate local authority charge on everybody, based on the number of people living in a house, replaced the rates system, calculated on a property’s estimated value. 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).
After a decade in which the Thatcher-dominated Conservative government had defeated most working class opposition – steelworkers, miners, printers, etc, they thought they were on a rollm and that the new Poll tax 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 reckoned without the mass opposition it inspired.
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 an account of the demonstration/mini-riot that took place in Hackney, in North-East London, on 8th March 1990, written by local campaigners and published by Hackney Community Defence Association shortly after the events.
A PEOPLES’ ACCOUNT OF THE HACKNEY ANTI-POLL TAX DEMONSTRATION ON MARCH 8TH 1990
III. Organisation of the demonstration
IV. Thursday March 8th
VI. Not guilty
VII. Personal accounts
VIII. What the papers said
On Thursday March 8th 1990, Hackney Council met at the Town Hall to set its poll tax charge for the financial year 1990/91. The Hackney Against the Poll Tax Federation (HAPTF) organised a mass lobby of the meeting. An estimated 5,000 people attended the demonstration outside the Town Hall which developed into a confrontation between police and protesters with many people injured and 57 arrested. Inside the Town Hall Hackney Council set a poll tax charge of £499. It is normal practice for the Metropolitan Police to compile reports into public disorder incidents. Home Secretary, David Waddington, demanded an urgent Scotland Yard report into the Hackney disturbance the very next morning. However, such reports are specifically prepared to meet the state’s needs for the policing of public disorder, and are never made public. In all matters to do with policing it is important that the community, and its representative groups, compiles its own reports. This report has been compiled by Hackney Community Defence Association (HCDA) in association with some of the people arrested on March 8th.
I. Against the Poll Tax
The scale of opposition to the poll tax has taken many people by surprise. Who could have imagined Tory councillors resigning in protest against a Tory Tax? The opposition of working class people was expected, but few Labour councillors have taken such a principled stand.
The Labour Party’s refusal to organise demonstrations against the poll tax has led to the growth of an independent political campaign across the country. In the absence of any other form of organisation, an alliance has emerged which includes disillusioned Tory voters, left groups, and the dispossessed people of Britain. Resistance to the poll tax has been co-ordinated through a well orchestrated campaign of civil-disobedience; in Scotland many people have not paid a penny one year after its introduction. In England and Wales, where the tax has been introduced one year later, many have declared their intention not to pay.
The campaign has united sections of the population who have very different ways of protesting against unpopular measures. After a decade of high unemployment, the replacing of social security with harder to get income support and widespread cuts in public services, there are many people who believe they now have little to lose by all-out confrontation.
Public demonstrations against the poll tax have drawn together on the streets those people opposed to the tax in principle, because it is unfair and infringes on civil liberties, and those who see the poverty which the tax imposes as the last straw. Both sections of the population are equally determined to express their opposition to the tax. A long tradition of free speech and the right to protest is being continued.
The poll tax directly affects council workers and members of the community who rely on the services provided. Many councils have had to make widespread cuts in order to keep poll tax bills down. Hackney Council’s poll tax rate of £499 includes £10 million cuts in services; these include the closing down of the George Sylvester Sports Centre and of the Media Resources Centre, 100 redundancies as a result of a 15% cut in grants to the voluntary sector, and cuts in education, social services and environmental services.
On the other hand, the poll tax is far more expensive to administrate than the old rates system. Thus money is being taken away from services to implement the tax, provoking outrage among council workers and members of the community affected.
It is important to stress that broad sections of the population have not suddenly’ raised their voices against one unpopular piece of government legislation. Since 1977, when the Labour Government commenced making public expenditure cuts, the welfare state has been under consistent attack. At issue is not simply how local services are to be paid for, but whether the welfare state itself is going to survive into the twenty first century. In effect the poll tax summarises over a decade of Thatcherite attacks against the working class.
II. Living in Hackney
Hackney has a radical tradition which matches its poverty and deprivation. This radicalism has not been significantly based in the Labour Movement, primarily because the area is not a home to any large scale industry. However, on issues which transcend purely economic affairs, Hackney has been in the forefront of political struggles. Three of the most important mass movements this century have been strongly based in Hackney and the East End of London – the Suffragettes, the Communist Party and the anti-fascist movement. It should therefore come as no surprise to discover a strength of feeling and determination against the poll tax in Hackney.
Hackney is generally recognised as one of the poorest boroughs in Britain, enduring unemployment rates far higher than the national average. In the four years 1984 – 87, when statistics bore some resemblance to reality, over one in five of the working population was registered unemployed, more than double the national average. The largest employer in Hackney is Hackney Council. On December 1st 1988 it had a workforce of 8,619. All of these jobs have been threatened by rate capping in recent years, and now by the poll tax. A quick glance at the Department of Employment’s statistics for 1986 shows that out of 75,302 jobs in Hackney. 36,771 (49%) were in local government, transport, construction, distributive trades, and clothing manufacture, all low paid jobs. Only 2,575 (3.5%) worked in the higher paid engineering industry, and despite its proximity to the City of London and the new yuppie paradise docklands area, only 5,009 (6.6%) jobs existed in finance, banking and insurance.
Hackney suffers from homelessness, poor housing stock and inadequate back up services. Alongside the large council housing estates Hackney has a large private rented Sector (18.7% in 1981 compared to a national average of 11%), which is notorious for poor quality. In 1987 Hackney Council investigated 1,670 new cases of homelessness. This figure does not include the many ‘homeless’ people living in squatted accommodation. With recent estimates putting the number of squatted properties at 3,500, Hackney contains the largest squatter community in the country.
Out of 46,072 council properties in 1988, 13,450 (29.2%) were considered to be in an unsatisfactory state (i.e., properties which are either unfit for living in, or lack basic amenities, or in need of basic repairs). Private sector stock is generally older than the post war council stock and council estimates suggest that over half (6,000 homes) are in an unsatisfactory condition.
Alongside the imposition of the poll tax, council tenants have seen their rents, excluding the old rates, increase by about double the rate of inflation. Private tenants have not generally had their rents reduced to take the Poll Tax into account and therefore have to find an extra £41.58 a month per member of household.
A recent report by the City and Hackney Health Authority entitled “Health in Hackney” found that the local population is “suffering from “poverty and multiple disadvantages”.
The report, which was published soon after the announcement that a planned extension to the Homerton Hospital would not go ahead, disclosed high levels of food poisoning, heart disease, tuberculosis, and one in six smoking related deaths.
Over half of Hackney’s population is made up of people of non-British descent. It has become far too easily accepted that black and ethnic minority Communities suffer the highest levels of unemployment, work in the lowest paid jobs, live in the worst housing conditions, and suffer a high frequency of police harassment.
Hackney police have built up national notoriety in the past 20 years for brutality and racism. Since the death of Aseta Simms in Stoke Newington police station in 1971, there have been five other suspicious deaths in Hackney’s police stations, including the shooting of Colin Roach in 1983.
There have also been a growing number of reports of cases of brutality and misconduct, including the well reported case of Trevor Monerville in 1987. Police oppression has been met by determined resistance. Throughout the eighties there was a succession of community campaigns which culminated in the setting up of the Hackney Community Defence Association in the summer of 1988.
As in other inner city areas the police in Hackney have increasingly concerned themselves with public order policing. More and more, the police have acted as a force engaged in social control, rather than crime control. They have taken every opportunity to destroy any growing sense of community by criminalising sections of the population and closing down public meeting places.
As in Brixtonand Notting Hill, black people and their pubs, clubs and cafes have specifically been targeted. In August 1988, 200 police sealed off the Clapton Park estate while the home of a community leader was raided under the pretext of looking for drugs. Two weeks earlier the home of another community leader on the estate had been raided without a search warrant. Armed police raids against black clubs, with press photographers in tow, took place on several occasions in 1988. These raids were linked to much media hype about Jamaican ‘Yardie’ gangs.
The Turkish and Kurdish communities have been subjected to police immigration raids throughout the years. After 37 people were arrested following such a raid in February 1989, 5,000 people, mainly Turkish and Kurdish refugees, took to the streets in protest.
The police have also singled out squatters and their meeting places for harassment. In 1986 the Three Crowns public house in Stoke Newington was forced to close after a series of violent police raids. In 1988 a community centre set up by squatters on Northwold Road, N16, was closed down by the police. In the last two years the Cricketers pub has been subjected to regular police raids. On one occasion, a Territorial Support Group unit entered the pub and ordered people to leave. Outside in the street more police officers started to abuse the people on their way home, and one person was viciously assaulted. The Stamford Hill estate in Stoke Newington developed into a squatting centre with over 120 flats squatted. In the spring of 1988 Hackney Council, needing to defend a failing housing policy, decided to renege on its non-eviction policy and announced that there was to be a mass eviction.
Squatters put up determined resistance by barricading the estate against bailiffs and police. It was only when riot police charged the estate that the council successfully evicted the squatters.
Over the years Hackney has seen many public demonstrations. The marches following Colin Roach’s death in 1983 were attacked by the police leaving many people injured and arrested. More recently, the police adopted heavy handed tactics against the Third Annual “We Remember” Commemoration, held in January 1990.
Demonstrations covering a broad range of issues, from immigration raids to support for the ambulance drivers, have been heavily policed in attempts to intimidate protesters and criminalise protest. Based on these experiences the community’s expectations of the police at demonstrations is that there will be far too many in attendance, and they will behave in an aggressive manner.
III. A week of demonstrations against the Poll Tax
On Monday March 5th, Haringey Council met at the Civic Centre to set its poll tax rate. A demonstration of some 500 people disrupted the meeting and caused it to be abandoned, there were 13 arrests. Throughout the week mass demonstrations against the poll tax across England and Wales featured on TV news programmes and in the press. The media focused on the confrontations between protesters and police, highlighting the numbers of injuries and arrests.
By the time the early evening TV news on Thursday March 8th reported that Hackney Council was about to set its poll tax rate, a large crowd had already assembled outside Hackney Town Hall. Hackney’s radical history, the prevailing economic conditions, a long standing breakdown in police community relations, and the gathering momentum of a nationwide campaign against the poll tax, seemed to make it inevitable that a confrontation would follow.
ORGANISATION OF THE MASS LOBBY
I. Hackney Against the Poll Tax Federation
The Hackney Against the Poll Tax Federation (HAPTF) is affiliated to the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation. Its principal role is to co-ordinate the activities of the Anti-Poll Tax Unions which have been organised on Hackney’s housing estates. The unions’ work is devoted to preparing for the non-payment campaign, and mobilising support for demonstrations against the poll tax.
II. HAPTF preparations
The HAPTF’s main concern in organising the mass lobby of Hackney town Hall was to get people to attend. Posters were fly-posted and leaflets distributed around Hackney by the Federation and local Anti-Poll Tax Unions.
The HAPTF did not pay any attention to the stewarding of the demonstration, nor did they prepare any contingency plans in readiness for confrontation between police and protesters. The HAPTF did not have any stewards at the demonstration who might have controlled the situation at the outset, or help people who might get caught up in any violence. As well as the HAPTF, other organisations mobilised for the mass lobby. Most Importantly the Joint Shop Stewards Committee (JSSC), consisting of the main council unions, distributed leaflets advertising the event. The JSSC agreed to provide a public address system for a rally to be held outside the Town Hall. Speakers at the rally were to include representatives from the HAPTF, Anti-Poll Tax Unions and trade unionists.
Ill. HCDA preparations
Although not ‘officially’ approached by any of the organisers, HCDA recognised the potential for confrontation and arrests two days prior to the event. Four solicitors were contacted and asked to be on standby for the evening of March 8th to represent persons arrested. 2,500 bust cards were produced giving protesters information on what to do if arrested, a telephone number to call, and an appeal for witnesses. 500 bust cards were left at the Mare Street NALGO office for distribution among the council unions. Two photographers were contacted to take photographs of people being arrested.
THURSDAY MARCH 8TH
I. Chronology of events
The times given in this chronology of events are all approximate. Because the situation developed very quickly, and many incidents took place at similar times, we have kept to 15 minute intervals to outline what took place. After the first arrest in front of the Town Hall, at approximately 7.15pm, 57 arrests were made. Numerous police charges and sporadic fighting took place throughout the mid-late evening, and many missiles were thrown at the police. The demonstration was effectively over by 9.30pm, although isolated incidents continued late into the night.
6.00pm People begin to assemble outside Hackney Town Hall, about 200 present. The lower windows of the building and those of the Housing Office in Reading Lane have been boarded up. A private security firm Is patrolling the inside of the Town Hall with dogs. A scaffolding barrier has been erected by the council on the steps to the main entrance of the Town Hall forming a narrow passageway up the steps. At the foot of the steps in front of this passageway 10-15 police officers are situated under the command of a superintendent, a few police officers are at the top of the steps by the main doors. Plain clothes police are also in evidence on the steps, outside the barriers, and on Wilton Way beside the Hackney Empire.
Police officers are much in evidence around the building. The police headquarters is behind barriers cordoning off both ends of Hillman Street behind the Town Hall. Green buses containing police reinforcements are parked in this area along with many police vans. Barriers guarded by police officers. The HAPTF is setting up a stall directly opposite the Town Hall steps. Militant has a stall on the right hand side of the square facing the building. HCDA members are distributing bust cards. Many of the demonstrators are handing out leaflets to passers by on Mare Street.
Police tell the organisers that 25 people will be allowed into the Council Chamber public gallery to hear the poll tax debate. In the Assembly Hall at the side of the town Hall, 200 people are to be allowed into the Liberal Democrat’s public meeting at which Paddy Ashdown is speaking.
6.30pm About 700 people present. The Joint Shop Stewards Committee falls to provide a public address system, and HAPTF members discuss whether to commence the rally with a stand-in megaphone. A contingent of Socialist Workers Party arrives and takes up a position directly opposite the police facing the Town Hall steps on the other side of the service road. SWP placards against the Poll Tax are handed out to demonstrators. Demonstrators begin to chant slogans against Thatcher (“Maggie, Maggie, Maggie – Out. Out, Out”) and against the poll tax (“No Poll Tax, No Poll Tax, No Poll Tax,…”). In the fading light TV arc lights are turned on and directed at the crowd.
6.45pm About 1500 people present. Large numbers of anarchists/squatters begin to arrive and take up positions directly opposite the police lines, and in front of the SWP contingent. A small number of people in this section of the crowd appear to be drunk and carrying cans of beer. The HAPTF attempts to hold their rally from the Town Hall steps.
Due to the absence of an effective PA system the speeches are inaudible beyond a limited area. After a couple of speeches the rally is abandoned.
7.00pm The crowd quickly swells to about 3,500. The make up of the demonstration is predominantly white, with equal numbers of men and women. There is a lot of pushing and shoving, and a few missiles are thrown at the police, mainly fruit and empty cans, by people directly in front of the police lines. The odd bottle and heavier missiles are thrown from towards the rear of the crowd. A line of Territorial Support Group (TSG/riot police) officers. wearing flat caps, forms up in front of the Town Hall steps.
7.15pm About 4,000 people present and the crowd still growing. The Town Hall steps are packed with people. The densest part of the crowd is standing on the right hand side (facing the Town Hall). A lot of pushing and shoving in front of the Town Hall and more missiles are openly thrown at the police by people in the front of the crowd. Protesters chant at the police “Out of the way”. A significant number of people, about 1500, are standing on the grass in the square opposite the Town Hall. The first arrest takes place. Two police officers from the steps, one in the front line and one free standing on the steps, arrest a white male from the left hand side (facing the Town Hall). He is dragged by police to a van parked in Reading Lane. Abuse is hurled at the police in response to the arrest. A short while later there is a big surge by the crowd and more arrests take place. Protesters are arrested trying to help others who have already been arrested. Some protesters run from the fighting and others run towards the fighting. By 7.30pm more and more missiles are being thrown at the police including a few small smoke bombs and flour bombs. the power on the TV arc lights is increased, illuminating the whole area in front of the Town Hall.
7.30pm 4,500 to 5,000 people present. For a short moment there is an eerie kind of silence before hand to hand fighting breaks out between police and protesters on the left hand side (facing the Town Hall) in front of the steps. Police officers hold their ground on the steps and more people are arrested. Officers who enter the crowd suffer violence when they get cut off from the police lines. A protester climbs onto the balcony above the main entrance facing the square. He is handed a large banner saying “Pay no Poll Tax” and is warmly cheered by the crowd. He stays on the balcony for about 30 minutes coming down just after 8.00pm.
7.45pm There is a concerted effort by demonstrators to overrun police lines and gain access to the building through the main entrance. The police maintain their position and skirmishes follow at the foot of the steps.
The focus of the demonstration begins to shift away from the main entrance to Reading Lane. Some protesters follow the police and arrested persons, and fighting continues.
Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown is shouted down by the crowd as he is interviewed by TV news. About 200 people try to force their way into the Liberal Democrat’s meeting. Police reinforcements come from the rear of the. Town Hall and form a cordon across the entrance to the meeting. The situation calms down and police let people into the meeting. About 100 demonstrators enter the meeting with the people going to hear Paddy Ashdown speak. There is no attempt to disrupt the meeting but protesters try to go from the hall through to where the council meeting is taking place in the Council Chamber. They are chased out of the Town Hall by security guards with dogs, and police move into the meeting to throw out protesters. There are no arrests at this stage. Town Hall windows are broken by demonstrators in Reading Lane. Police press protestors up against the car park fence, forcing many to retreat over the fence into the car park.
A convoy of about 10 TSG vans arrives and moves into Reading Lane from Mare Street. Demonstrators and bystanders standing on Reading Lane by the Housing Office scatter as the vans arrive. 40-50 riot police form a cordon across Reading Lane in front of the side entrance to the Town Hall. Some TSG vans remain parked on Mare Street and some riot police move into the area facing the Town Hall.
8.00pm There is a big push by about 400 people towards the entrance of the Liberal Democrats’ meeting. Many of these people have moved from the fighting in front of the Town Hall. They are met by the police cordon. At this time there is a change of mood among protesters who become more actively anti-police. About 200 demonstrators fight with police. An industrial refuse bin is turned over and rolled towards the police line, and a road traffic sign is used as a makeshift battering ram. The police retreat down Reading Lane and regroup by entrance to Liberal Democrat’s meeting. Police then make a few small charges.
Police from behind the Town Hall charge demonstrators standing by the entrance to the Liberal Democrats’ public meeting. Police dogs move into the car park and demonstrators climb the fence and escape down cycle path towards Richmond Road. Missiles are thrown at police throughout this period.
8.15pm Until this point the police had on the whole soaked up a section of the crowd’s violence against them with remarkable restraint. However, the increased involvement of the TSG unleashed a police assault on the whole demonstration with indiscriminate attacks and arrests.
Riot police in Reading Lane draw truncheons and charge into the crowd. At the corner of the Town Hall the police line breaks up as police charge down Reading Lane towards Mare Street, and across in front of the Town Hall into the square. Bystanders on the periphery of the demonstration, including families and the elderly, are caught up in the police charge. Police do not appear to make any arrests, but single out demonstrators by lashing out with their truncheons. Many people are screaming and some push-chairs are overturned by the charging police.
Demonstrators spill onto Mare Street and a conscious decision is made to bring the traffic to a standstill. About 40 of the 800 demonstrators in the road sit down. There are about 2,000 people in the Mare Street area, in the road and on the pavements opposite the Town Hall. The character of the demonstration changes. Many of the original protesters leave and are replaced by younger people. A motorcyclist is knocked off his bike. The crowd parts to allow an ambulance through Mare Street and cheers the crew.
8.30pm Glenys Kinnock arrives for International Women’s Day festival at the Hackney Empire in Mare Street. About 12 demonstrators, some masked, surround her car, hurling abuse and kicking the car.
Police charge along Wilton Way from the Town Hall to Mare Street. As they reach Mare Street they meet the main body of the demonstration which repulses the charge. For a brief moment the police appear to lose control of the situation. Demonstrators chase the police back down Wilton Way. Police re-group, draw truncheons and charge at the demonstrators who scatter.
8.45pm Demonstrators throw bricks and debris at police lines in Mare Street from behind a fence enclosing a derelict area. About 70 police clear Town Hall square and drive a wedge into the demonstration on Mare Street opposite the Town Hall. Police block Mare Street by Richmond Road, then after 10 – 15 minutes appear to realise it is a tactical mistake.
Scuffles continue between police and protesters in Mare Street opposite the Town Hall. Police begin to move people away from Town Hall area in the direction of the Narroway.
Groups 30-40 strong converge on Morning Lane to make a crowd 100 strong. The crowd moves down Morning Lane onto Mare Street, causing the police to back off. The crowd turns right into Mare Street and tears up paving stones to smash shop windows. Joined by more demonstrators to make up a total of about 200, they enter the Narroway and more shop windows are smashed.
9.00pm Although many people remain in Mare Street opposite the Town Hall, the poll tax protest is drawing to a close. more arrests are made as people resist police attempts to end the protest. Protesters cordoned off by police near the library are unaware of the situation developing in the Narroway.
200 strong crowd in groups of 10-15 move through the Narroway smashing the windows of business premises and setting fire to litter bins. The crowd moves through the Narroway very quickly, there is not much looting, as protesters concentrate on causing damage. At the end of the Narroway some people return in the direction of the Town Hall; about 100 move up Lower Clapton Road in the direction of Hackney police station and continue to damage some shops.
A brick is dropped on a woman police officer from the railway bridge over Mare Street.
9.15pm Police arrive in the Narroway.
About 75 people in small groups converge on Hackney police station. Windows are smashed and police lock the main entrance. A police car speeds round the corner and stops outside the police station. One PC and a WPC get out of the car and run towards the police station. They then turn round and run back up Lower Clapton Road where they are surrounded and attacked by demonstrators. The empty police car is overturned.
About 12 mounted police come out of the police station and charge up Lower Clapton Road in the direction of the Lea Bridge roundabout.
Although batons are drawn the police do not appear to use them. The police return along Lower Clapton Road at a trot harassing bystanders and people who have come out of the pubs to watch.
9.30pm Police reinforcements arrive, by which time it is all over apart from a few isolated incidents.
II. Emergency legal cover
Throughout the evening of March 8th, from 7.00pm until 3.00am the next morning, HCDA volunteers answered telephone enquiries and arranged solicitors for those people arrested. The first notification of an arrest came at 7.55pm from the duty sergeant at City Road police station, followed by another call at 8.15pm. No further calls reached HCDA from City Road police station. HCDA received one call from the duty sergeant at Leman Street police station. HCDA subsequently learnt that defendants were being told by the police that HCDA’s phone had been disconnected because the phone bill had not been paid – thus defendants were denied their right to make a phone call.
Between 11.00pm and 2.00am HCDA volunteers attended City Road and Leman Street police stations and telephoned through details of persons arrested so that they could be put in contact with solicitors. HCDA volunteers also visited Homerton Hospital to advise any injured persons who might be arrested at the hospital.
According to police figures, 57 people were arrested on the evening of March 8th. Nine people appeared at Old Street Magistrates Court on the morning of March 10th. At those hearings three persons pleaded guilty to offences and were severely dealt with by the magistrates. One man pleaded guilty to affray (throwing tomatoes), and was ordered to go to an attendance centre for 36 hours (he has since been arrested again for involvement in the Lambeth poll tax demonstration despite the fact that he was not there); another defendant was fined £250 for spitting on a policeman’s back; another was fined £50 for disorderly behaviour.
Six defendants pleaded not guilty to a variety of public order offences. One person charged with assault, criminal damage and disorderly conduct was remanded in custody. His solicitor appealed against the decision and he was later granted bail on condition that he stayed at his parents home in Blackburn. Four other defendants living in squatted accommodation were bailed to relatives living outside London.
The police and media claimed that many of those arrested lived outside Hackney. Contrary to this claim HCDA found that only one person arrested had do address outside the immediate area.
A clear pattern of arrests emerges after the first one at 7.15pm. Between 7.15pm and 8.00pm there were a number of arrests in the area at the foot of the Town Hall steps on the left hand side (facing the building), HCDA knows of 15 arrests. Those arrested were mainly charged with a variety of public order offences and a small number were charged with assaulting police officers, one person was charged with the theft of a police helmet. All the persons arrested during this period were taken to City Road police station.
Between 8.00pm and 8.30pm, when there was much fighting in Reading Lane and the police made their first significant charge, HCDA knows of only one arrest. According to demonstrators, this was the time when police were struggling to gain control of the demonstration and the police appeared to be more interested in beating demonstrators than in making arrests.
Between 8.30pm and 9.15pm, when the police were asserting their control over the demonstration, the police recommenced making arrests in the Mare Street area opposite the Town Hall (HCDA knows of 14 arrests during this period). People arrested at this time were charged with more serious offences by TSG officers, including actual bodily harm against police officers and major public order offences. Many of the people arrested during this period were subjected to police brutality. They were mainly taken to Leman Street police station.
After 9.15pm some people were charged with theft and burglary in connection with the looting in the Narroway (HCDA knows of only three such cases). HCDA knows of one person who was arrested in the area of Hackney police station, and a few people were arrested in isolated incidents after 9.30pm. All people arrested for theft and burglary and after 9.15pm were taken to Hackney police station.
In total HCDA knows of 42 arrests that took place on the night of March 8th; 31 of these approached HCDA for support. The fact that HCDA does not know the details of 15 arrests, could have been because not everyone received a ‘bust-card’ (2,500 were distributed to 5,000 demonstrators).
However, it is more likely that the majority of unaccounted arrests were of those accused of looting which, according to our information, was carried out by people unconnected with the demonstration. Those persons were unlikely to have had any information concerning HCDA.
Out of the 31 people who contacted IICDA, 28 pleaded not guilty to their charges. By August 3rd, 25 of these cases had been heard resulting in 14 acquittals, nine convictions and two bind overs. Two persons, Russell Duxbury and Neil Harding, received prison sentences. Russel Duxbury was convicted of assaulting a police officer at Old Street Magistrates Court on May 22nd and received a three month prison sentence in addition to a three month suspended sentence for a previous offence. His release date from Pentonville prison is August 8th 1990. Neil Harding received a 12 month prison sentence for affray (see below) at the Inner London Sessions House on July 23rd. At the time of writing he is being held in Brixton Prison. Gill Rogers was convicted of assaulting a police officer (see below) at Old Street Magistrates Court and received a 28 days suspended prison sentence.
II. Three cases
Below we briefly describe three cases of people arrested at the demonstration.
Gill Rogers and her four children live in Hackney. On Thursday March 8th she went with her 18 year old daughter, Kelly, to Hackney Town Hall to protest against the poll tax. She didn’t go looking for trouble, and told her neighbour, with whom she left her other children, that they would be home by nine o’clock.
Gill and Kelly arrived at the Town Hall at 6.45pm and joined the crowd in front of the building chanting slogans against the poll tax. Gill felt it was a good natured protest and did not see any trouble from where she and Kelly were standing.
Some time after 8.00pm, Gill and Kelly were ready to go home and started walking across Mare Street towards the library. Some people were sitting down in the road, and the traffic was at a standstill. They lingered briefly to see what was going on, and were moved down the road by two policemen along with other demonstrators.
Suddenly, a policeman grabbed Gill, and another took hold of Kelly, and frogmarched them down the road in the opposite direction to which they were going. Gill heard Kelly call out to her. She looked round and saw a policeman twisting Kelly’s arm up behind her back and, with his other hand, digging her repeatedly in the kidneys. Naturally distressed at this sight, Gill moved towards her daughter, trying to get between Kelly and the policeman. Gill was immediately swamped under a sea of blue uniforms, and was held by three or four police officers in a doubled up position. She managed to take hold of Kelly’s hand, who was crying, and told her to leave her and go home. Gill was then dragged off to a nearby police van.
After a while Gill was joined in the van by a young man who had been arrested and the vehicle sped off to City Road police station, getting lost on the way. At the police station Gill objected to having her fingerprints taken before she was informed that the police have the right to do this under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.
At 12 midnight Gill was charged with assaulting a police officer; the police claimed that she hit a police officer around the head three or four times. She was eventually let out of City Road police station at about 12.30am having spent more than three hours in custody.
On Thursday July 5th 1990, Gill Rogers appeared at Old Street Magistrates Court and was found guilty of assaulting a police officer. She was given a 28 days suspended prison sentence and ordered to pay £25 costs.
Kate Millson lives in Hackney and works in a centre for the unemployed in South London. An active trade unionist all her working life, she went to Hackney Town Hall on March 8th to protest against the poll tax.
Kate arrived at the Town Hall at 6.10pm and went to stand on the steps to the front entrance. She witnessed people getting arrested in front of the Town Hall some time after 7.00pm and was quite concerned for their welfare.
Despite the trouble that was going on around her, Kate was determined to remain outside the Town. Hall and maintain her right to demonstrate peacefully.
At about 8.30pm Kate was in Mare Street along with many other demonstrators. All of a sudden she was swept along with the crowd running down Mare Street towards the Hackney Empire, she stepped aside at the junction with Wilton Way and stood on the corner.
At this time police officers drew their truncheons and charged into the crowd along Wilton Way from the Town Hall towards Mare Street. Right beside where Kate was standing three women fell over one another as they tried to escape the violence. A policeman running past hit one of the young women on the head with a great deal of force with his truncheon. Kate helped the woman up and asked her if she was alright. A police officer then told her “mind your own fucking business”, to which Kate retorted “it is my business”.
The police officer began pushing Kate towards Morning Lane telling her to go home. She was angry at the way in which she was being treated and said “I am 38 years old and do not need to be told when I have to go home.”
The police officer continued to push Kate and pulled her suede jacket causing it to tear. Eventually, he let go of her jacket and she was able to see the amount of damage caused. She then asked him for his number, which she could not see in the poor light, saying that she would be making a complaint and seeking compensation. At this point the police officer said “You want my number? You can have it, you’re nicked.”
Kate was then handcuffed by the police officer and with another officer led to a police van in Wilton Way. She waited in the van for 15 to 20 minutes while other people were arrested before being taken to Leman Street police station.
At the police station the officer who arrested Kate could not be found, so she was left sitting on a bench, still handcuffed. She thought her period had started and asked what she should do if she needed to go to the toilet. To this an officer replied, “You say ‘please may I go to the toilet’”. When Kate said she thought she had started to menstruate and needed sanitary protection the police officers were quite embarrassed, released her handcuffs, provided her with a sanitary towel and escorted her to the toilet.
Eventually a black police officer came into the custody room and Kate was informed that he was her arresting officer. Kate said this could not be true as the police officer who arrested her was white and clean shaven, and this officer was black and had a moustache.
The black officer then proceeded to inform Kate that she had shouted out “You fascist bastard” at a police officer on the steps of the Town Hall. She was charged with threatening behaviour. Having been held in police custody for over three and a half hours Kate was released at 12.30am. She had been refused her right to make a phone call, and had her photograph and fingerprints taken.
When Kate attended Old Street Magistrates Court on March 29th the additional charge of assaulting a police officer was brought against her.
At Old Street Magistrates Court on Monday May 14th, Kate Millson was found guilty of threatening behaviour and assaulting a police officer, despite the existence of photographic evidence which contradicted the police story.
She was fined £50 for each charge.
Kate Milison appealed against the guilty verdicts. At Kennington Crown Court on Thursday August 3rd she won her appeal overturning the magistrate’s decision. She is now preparing to take out a civil action against the Metropolitan Police.
Neil Harding has lived in Hackney for seven years. He recently began a business enterprise scheme to set up his own music publication business. A week before March 8th, Neil pulled a muscle in his back which caused him much pain and restricted his movement. On Thursday March 8th at about 8.10pm he decided to go to the anti-poll tax demonstration.
Neil walked down the cycle path joining Reading Lane to Richmond Road, to find police and protesters fighting beside the Town Hall. He stayed and watched for some minutes before walking back along the cycle path and up Richmond Road to Mare Street, and then to a place opposite the Town Hall. By the time Neil reached Mare Street protesters had blocked the traffic. He chatted briefly to some friends at about 8.45pm. There were many people in the area and missiles were being thrown at a line of about 30 police officers who stood facing Mare Street in front of the Town Hall square.
Neil heard somebody near him shout “Police!”, and everybody around him scattered. Because of the injury to his back, Neil could not run and stood his ground to face a police officer running in his direction. He expected the officer to continue running past him, after the people who had been throwing missiles. Instead, the police officer shouted out to Neil that he was under arrest. Neil did not move, and made no attempt to resist arrest.
The police officer took hold of the sweat shirt Neil was wearing, and in one movement, threw him head first into a bus shelter, causing him to fall to the ground. The officer then held him on the ground.
Other protesters came forward to try and rescue Neil. One attempted to push the police officer away from him, and another took hold of him under the arms and tried to pull him upright. A woman police officer quickly arrived on the scene and pushed the other protesters away. Neil was again pinned down in the gutter, with the arresting officer’s knee forced into his stomach, and his left hand around his throat. With his free hand the police officer radioed for assistance.
When police reinforcements arrived Neil was dragged to his feet and marched across the Town Hall square, which the police had cleared of protesters, to a police van.
At Leman Street police station Neil was charged with affray, being accused of throwing bricks and debris at the police, and causing actual bodily harm to a police officer.
On Monday July 23rd 1990 Neil Harding was found guilty of affray and actual bodily harm at the Inner London Sessions House. He was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment.
On Friday July 27th 1990, Chas Loft was acquitted of affray at the Inner London Sessions House. The jury took less than half an hour to reach a unanimous verdict. This is Chas Loft’s story.
On March 8th I went to the anti-poll tax demonstration at Hackney Town Hall. I was looking forward to it as I knew there would be a good turn-out. When I arrived I was surprised to see a large number of police on the Town Hall steps, and the Town Hall was boarded up. These two things suggested that the ‘authorities’ had adopted a confrontational attitude to the protest.
I spent the next hour wandering around the Town Hall square looking for friends and joining in the chanting. There was a good atmosphere Of defiance and strength among the crowd with all kinds of people present.
At about 7.20pm I joined the crowd in front of the Town Hall steps. It was like being at the front of a packed gig, with little freedom of movement and sudden waves of pushing and shoving. When I got to the front I saw a policeman shouting “come on then” at the crowd, he was very threatening, beckoning us with clenched fists. Further along the line a policeman was holding a woman by the hair and punching her repeatedly in the face. These were officers from the TSG, identified by their flat caps.
Until I went on this demonstration I thought I had no illusions about the police. But when I actually got to the front of the crowd and saw how violent they were, I was frightened. As I turned to get away from the scene I was grabbed by one of the TSG. Someone tried to pull me away from him and I ended up on the ground. As I was getting up I heard someone say “get this one”, and I was grabbed and dragged away towards Reading Lane. At this point I was amazed rather than frightened at what was happening to me. I was not surprised that the police were arresting people for no reason, but I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. I started shouting “I haven’t done anything” and someone shouted “it’s alright, I’ve got photos”, which didn’t seem much use to me at the time.
I was put in a police carrier in Reading Lane and a police sergeant told me that I had been arrested for shouting, swearing and kicking a police officer; it was as if he was reciting a mental list. I was made to sit at the back of the van next to the police officer who had arrested me. When I complained that I’d done nothing, he said that he was going to take me to a closed van and give me a “fucking good kicking”. When we arrived at City Road police station the same officer told the desk sergeant to hurry up because he wanted “to get back to the fun.”
The time I spent in the police station was pretty uneventful. I was held in an an unlit cell for about four hours before being charged and released.
My first court appearance was very frightening because until then I did not know what I was supposed to have done. It was only when I read the police statements, and saw that I was supposed to have lashed out at police officers and kicked one, that I realised I was in serious trouble.
Some time after this I attended an HCDA meeting for March 8th defendants. I was shown photographs taken by HCDA of my arrest and began to realise the significance of what had been said to me when the police were carrying me away. From the photos two witnesses to my arrest were identified and quickly traced.
My solicitor was fairly confident that I would be acquitted, but he seemed to have some difficulty understanding the facts of my case. In early July I rang him and was told that my case would probably be up in a couple of weeks. By this time two more witnesses, who had been standing near me just before my arrest, had been found (one by HCDA and one by myself after scrutinising a picture in the ‘Guardian’ showing the crowd immediately
before I was arrested).
I met my barrister to go through the details of my case on Thursday July 12th. I was feeling good about my chances and my barrister agreed with me that we should ask for more time to prepare the case as statements had not been taken from all the witnesses. He told me to contact my solicitor the next morning so that the statements could be taken.
Then, all of a sudden, everything fell apart. When I phoned my solicitor the next day I learned he had gone on holiday. The same afternoon his secretary rang to tell me I was up in court on Monday July 16th at 10.00am and that my barrister could not make it as he had to go to a funeral.
Over the weekend HCDA took statements from my remaining two witnesses and arranged for all my witnesses to get to court. I discussed my situation with HCDA and I decided that if the stand-in barrister could not get the case adjourned I could sack him and appear unrepresented, forcing the judge to adjourn it.
I went to court determined to follow this through. However, my barrister told me that the judge could force me to defend myself. He was pretty aggressive about it and at one point told me that he wasn’t going to represent me anyway. After all this, my trial was adjourned because one of the police officers was going on holiday the next day.
On Thursday July 26 I turned up at court for trial. My barrister, the stand-in again, had another case to finish before my case could get underway. He finished in one court at 10.45am and came straight over to represent me at 11.00am.
My barrister’s cross examination of the police was pathetic. He concentrated on the structure of the TSG and a possible breakdown in police communications. This all seemed irrelevant to me as the police officers in the witness box claimed to have seen me aim blows at police officers and kick one.
At one stage I called my barrister over to me and told him to ask why the police had said in their statements that I was facing them when arrested while I was running away. He managed to trap one officer on this point, when he said he couldn’t remember if I was facing him or not. I watched the officer hesitate, and waited in vain for my barrister to point out that it wasn’t a question of memory because the contradiction was in his statement, written on March 8th shortly after I had been arrested.
When the prosecution’s case was over I could not believe that my barrister had failed to trip them up. I was sure that I would be convicted.
In the lunch break I spoke to my barrister and was gobsmacked when he said he wanted to change the defence case. One of the police officers had misinterpreted a photograph of me getting arrested and had then been contradicted by another officer. This was totally irrelevant to me as my barrister had virtually ignored their claim to have seen me attack police officers. But here he was asking me to abandon most of my evidence and that of my witnesses. By now I felt completely demoralised and so I agreed to his suggestion.
Luckily for me the support and advice I received from HCDA gave me the confidence to speak to my barrister and insist that I would be sticking to my original defence.
When I came to give evidence I actually enjoyed it. After four months of worry, and all the police lies, it was my first chance to tell people what really happened. Because the whole incident was so ingrained on my memory, I had no trouble dealing with the prosecution barrister when she cross-examined me. After my evidence two witnesses were called, the photographer who had been so crucial to my defence, and a witness who had been traced from one of his photographs.
By the end of the day I felt fairly confident. However, I could not get over my frustrations at the missed opportunities of the morning. With the evidence all heard, the summing up was to take place the next morning. That evening I made a list of all the points I wanted my barrister to make in his summing up. I’m glad I did because he mentioned all my points and, after my acquittal, bragged that he prepared his speech just five minutes before entering the court.
I was acquitted despite my barrister and thanks to HCDA, my witnesses and my own efforts. Now that it is all over this is how I feel about my case.
Firstly, I was found not guilty, but I served a four months sentence in so far as throughout that time my whole life was dominated by the prospect of a prison sentence or a heavy fine.
Secondly, the whole legal system is there to process the defendant. My barrister told me to leave all the worrying to him, all I had to do was be there. If I had done that I’d probably be in prison now. I discovered that it is essential to work on your case yourself and remember that you instruct your solicitor and barrister. Just because someone has a law degree doesn’t mean they know it all. It is very hard to avoid being sucked into the legal factory without the involvement of defence campaigns or organisations like HCDA. Apart from anything else, the actual physical presence of HCDA and my family and friends enabled me to handle the intimidatory atmosphere of the court.
Thirdly, I won. What does this mean? I won the right to carry on with my life. I have found it difficult to put the case behind me, not least because my barrister did not ask the questions I wanted asked. I wanted everyone to know, not only that there was ‘reasonable doubt’ as to my guilt, but that two police officers sat down and made up a pack of lies against me. I very much regret not defending myself, as HCDA suggested to me on a few occasions. I would love to have had one of those bastards in the witness box, not knowing what to say, and squirming in the knowledge that the whole court knew he was lying. This is the hardest thing for me to think about. I ‘got off’, but I didn’t do anything. The police ‘got away with it’, even if they didn’t convict me. They didn’t need to. They scared me and messed up my life for a bit, a conviction would only have been the icing on the cake.
Finally, the ‘authorities’ used my case, and others like it, to pretend that a load of hooligans went down to the Town Hall that night and attacked the police. the only hooligans I saw were wearing blue uniforms, and anyone who fought back has my respect.
In this section of the report, we have recorded four personal accounts by people who were on the demonstration. The views expressed in these accounts do not represent the views of HCDA.
“Not like a riot”
I got the bus with my partner from Stamford Hill to Hackney Town Hall, arriving there at 5.30pm. There was already quite a large crowd. The Town Hall windows and doors were boarded up and three lines of police were standing on the steps by the front entrance. Between the entrance and the police there was a small group of protesters and public speakers.
With my partner, I went to the front of the crowd, where people were chanting anti-Thatcher and anti-poll tax slogans.
After a short while the crowd became more compact and swayed with the force of people. Some people started throwing things which caused the crowd to move away. There were several surges with people being pushed from the back into the line of police. At one point we were pushed right to the front and we both fell over. I was frightened and struggled to get back on my feet and move back into the crowd. I saw my partner fall over in front of me, and while he was trying to stand up two policemen grabbed him and, although he hadn’t done anything wrong, carried him away.
I panicked. I thought 1 must try and see where they were taking my partner. I saw another woman running to stay with her arrested partner, the police considered this to be an attack and she was hit very hard by two officers. Other policemen were grabbing anybody in their way and with much force throwing them aside. Frightened, I went back to the entrance of the Town Hall.
At about 7.45pm a young man got on the Town Hall balcony above the entrance. He waved a banner and the crowd cheered him.
People started moving to the right hand side entrance of the Town Hall. I saw the TV cameras interviewing the Liberal Democrats’ leader, Paddy Ashdown, and I though this was why interest was moving to that part of the building. People were throwing things at the lights on the porch and shouting, Some people were trying to gain access to the building.
Suddenly the police get outrageously aggressive. They started forcing people down the side street [Reading Lane] towards the square saying “Right everyone, time to go home.” I went to the protest with the intention of making a stand, a peaceful protest – I did not want to go home. I tried to stand still, but I saw other people being hit and arrested when they did not retreat. I began moving into the square.
Because I am short, I was especially aware of other women about my height, 5′ 4″, being beaten up if they tried to stand still, or make any objection to the police behaviour. I got thrown out of the way by the police on one occasion and, very frightened, ran to get away from the trouble.
At one point the police charged at us very aggressively forcing us back into the square. By this time the crowd had blocked the main road, stopping buses and cars. A police Car Came up the road and was stopped by the crowd, an ambulance was then allowed through.
I stayed in the square and watched the police make various charges towards the people in the road. Eventually I saw the police make a charge straight into the middle of the crowd splitting it into two groups. At the same time a line of police came from the Town Hall and forced everyone from the square to join a section of the crowd in Mare Street. We were then moved down the street in the direction of the Narroway. I stayed near the police line because I felt I was being denied my right to make a peaceful protest, but anyone who didn’t move down Mare Street was beaten or arrested.
As we were being forced down Mare Street, some young people ran to the shopping centre and started breaking windows and setting fire to litter bins. It was not like a riot, with looting, it all seemed hopeless and unconnected with the protest against the poll tax.
At this point I gave up and walked to the end of Mare Street. Only a few people were left in this area, some were sitting on the church wall shouting at people to stay and protest against the poll tax, other people were saying that mounted police had arrived. I walked home to Stamford Hill.
As chairperson of the Hackney Against the Poll Tax Federation, I was one of the organisers of the anti-poll tax demonstration. I arrived at the Town Hall at about 6 o’clock and was shocked to find the lower windows, and those of the housing office in Reading Lane, boarded up. On the steps directly in front of the main entrance a scaffolding barrier had been erected making a passage to the main door. This cordoned off section was occupied by a squad of uniformed police. A small crowd had gathered on the pavement just across the service road in front of the Town Hall.
I found the HAPTF secretary only to hear the bad news that the PA system we were expecting to be brought by the Joint Shop Stewards Committee had not turned up. I was also told that a security firm was patrolling inside the Town Hall with dogs. Only forty people were going to be allowed into the public gallery of the Council Chamber through a side entrance.
With access to the building severely limited and without a PA to address the rally, we were faced with a massive problem. How could we co-ordinate the protest? I helped set up a table on the path opposite the Town Hall, by which time the crowd was rapidly growing. I particularly noticed one man who was wearing an expensive suede jacket and casual clothes, was listening to a personal stereo, and was clearly out of his head on something. He kept demanding the placards I was laying out on the table. He finally grabbed two and walked off. The next time I saw him he was at the front of a crowd up against the police pushing the placards into the faces of the nearest two police officers.
A stand-in megaphone arrived while the HAPTF secretary was being interviewed by a TV team. When he finished we quickly discussed what to do about the rally, planned to begin at 6.30pm. Of most concern to us was the arrival of a large group of SWP supporters, with placards and megaphone, clearly planning their own actions. There was a lot of confusion at this stage. People were milling around in a strange atmosphere of expectancy, heightened by the boarded up building in front of us and the presence of TV and radio crews.
By the time we made our way to the Town Hall Steps to begin the rally, the SWP had moved like a phalanx directly in front of the police and started a loud and insistent chant. The steps had filled up and the crowd was rapidly swelling. I started to address the crowd over the megaphone, speaking about the Council meeting going on inside the building. It was clear that I was not making any impression above the volume of noise. By now it was getting dark and the TV crews were positioning arc lights at the top of the steps. I handed the megaphone over to someone with a louder voice and went down into the crowd. It was almost impossible to hear what he was saying.
Two or three more people tried to address the crowd over the megaphone before we gave up. The noise level was impenetrable, the size of the crowd much larger than we had expected. A mention on the early evening news had attracted more people than our leaflets. We had no hope of influencing the situation with our slender resources. My previous anxiety to control what was happening gave way to exhausted detachment. From the steps I could see people hanging out of bus windows as they drove along Mare Street. In front of the steps there was a dense crowd of mainly young people, in a semi-circle around the square there were families, older people and onlookers. I went down to join them.
Scuffles broke out. I couldn’t see why, but I could see that the TV lights trained on people had the effect of raising the temperature. Finding themselves literally in the limelight increased the excitement in that part of the crowd and among the police. And that, for the most part, was all that TV viewers saw. They didn’t see the large numbers of people standing back around the square in the shadows. But these people were just as angry with what the council was doing behind closed doors and boarded up windows. You could tell their feelings by the way they clapped and cheered when a young man climbed up on the balcony overlooking the square with a large “Pay no Poll Tax” banner. Occasionally the crowd was split up by a police charge.
To my mind there were two demonstrations. One was active, the section that surged round to the side entrance in Reading Lane when it was discovered that Paddy Ashdown was addressing a meeting, and then stopped the traffic in Mare Street. And the other was passively watching, moving out of the way when trouble came their way.
Later that night the active demonstration was in Mare Street, the steps were almost deserted. I showed a friend the way to the nearest toilets in the Florfield pub. Returning ten minutes later there was a police cordon across Reading Lane. A police officer informed us that we couldn’t get through to the Town Hall, it was now a “sterile area”. We then decided to make our way home.
“Love to have a go”
I arrived at the Town Mall at 6.10pm on the night of March 8th. I recognised many faces in the crowd of about 400. I had walked to the demonstration through the back streets, where I had seen a large number of buses and vans with police sitting in them.
I wasn’t surprised to see the Town Hall boarded up as I had been told about it earlier in the day. I had also been told about groups of young people hanging around the Town Hall asking ‘what time’s the riot?’
I wanted to do something, so I helped to give out the HCDA bust-Cards. Initially this involved walking in and out of the crowd, and I took the opportunity to chat to people I knew. As the crowd continued to grow it became impossible to continue walking about, so I stood in one spot on Wilton Way and gave out the bust-cards to people as they arrived. The majority of people were only too willing to take the cards. Some older people on the fringes of the demonstration said they didn’t need them, as did some casually dressed young men who looked like plain clothed police.
As the crowd continued to grow, a fairly large number of people who I would describe as squatters began to arrive. Virtually all of these people collected bust cards and then moved into the area directly in front of the police at the bottom of the Town Hall steps. This area was filled almost exclusively with squatters. Members of the Socialist Workers Party were lined up behind the squatters chanting slogans.
The first arrests came after many things had been thrown at the police. After I had finished giving out bust cards I joined the protest on the Town Hall steps. From there I watched members of the crowd throw bottles, beer cans and the occasional placard at the police. I saw one smoke bomb thrown. Many of the missiles missed the police and hit other demonstrators. I cannot recall seeing a single police officer getting hurt and being taken away as a result of the crowd’s actions. At the front, a number of people were spitting on police officers and some were making gestures of defiance, such as ‘V’ signs. Officers from the left hand side of the Town Hall began to arrest a number of people and as they were pulled away quite a large number of people tried to rescue them.
A black lad managed to scramble on to the balcony and hoisted above his head a ‘Pay No Poll Tax’ banner. He was greeted with tremendous applause and cheering by the crowd. The lad was clearly enjoying himself, but after a few minutes the crowd lost interest in him and you could see the anxiety on his face. He was obviously worried about the risk of getting arrested when he got down.
At this point a number of people announced that Paddy Ashdown was speaking at a Liberal Democrat’s rally at the side entrance to the Town Hall, many people started moving in that direction. The lad on the balcony saw his opportunity to climb down, and was assisted by people on the steps near him.
As we moved towards the Paddy Ashdown meeting, police got out of their vans and buses. A number of people managed to get into the hall and were quite forcibly removed. Hand to hand fighting broke out as the police struggled to retain control. As the crowd moved away from the side of the Town Hall a number of people decided to stop the traffic on Mare Street. People were extremely happy and shouting loudly. Some people sat in the road, but most people didn’t bother.
I walked along to the area close to the Hackney Empire and saw a car being escorted by the police. Someone shouted that it was Glenys Kinnock and there was a lot of booing. A number of people were kicking the car and were brutally attacked by police officers who quickly ran to the area. I saw one demonstrator viciously thumped and knocked over before being arrested. One young black lad looked to be badly hurt as he was pulled into a police van.
A young white lad had been knocked off his motorbike and an ambulance turned up to take him away. As the ambulance drove through the crowd there was a huge cheer and applause. The crew were smiling and waving back. Earlier, a St John’s ambulance had been refused the right to travel through because, in the words of some demonstrators, ‘they had scabbed on ambulance workers’.
At about 8.45pm the police must have decided to try and clear everyone from the area and began making charges to the left and right.
Thinking back on the demonstration I am critical of many of the organisations involved. It was the Poll Tax Federation who organised the demonstration, but they took no account of just how angry people were. Surely they must have known that the presence of so many police around our boarded up Town Hall was bound to be seen as provocative. The union leaders involved in organising the demonstration were incompetent for not providing a PA system so that a rally could take place. The two main political parties behind the demonstration, Militant and the Socialist Workers Party, earned no respect from me that night. Militant supporters, of which there were very few present, stayed well away from the main body of the demonstration. The Socialist Workers Party, while chanting extremely loudly and encouraging others to have a go, did little more than this.
In conclusion, it has to be said that there were a few people who turned up with the intention of attacking the police. The police were able to launch a number of attacks against angry but peaceful demonstrators, who were not on the whole prepared to defend themselves. It seemed to me that by the end Of the demonstration many people would have loved to have a go and attack the police, and only did not do so because they were not organised.
Sacked for an extended tea break
March 8th was International Women’s Day at the Hackney Empire. As an employee of the theatre I went to work as usual. On my way into the building I couldn’t help but notice the crowd that was gathering in the Town Hall square to protest against the poll tax.
I was working in the upper circle of the theatre, the door of which directly faces the Town Hall. Whilst tearing tickets I watched more and more people come to voice their disapproval of this unjust tax. I could hear their anger as they saw that the Town Hall was boarded up, and that the majority of them would not be allowed into the meeting. Somehow, bypassing the barricade of police who were guarding the Town Hall, a young black guy managed to climb up onto the balcony overlooking the square.
The crowd roared, some shouted to him to break in and disrupt the meeting. After this I went upstairs into the Empire. After about half an hour of the show I decided to take my tea break and join the demonstration.
Outside the mood had changed. People were getting angrier, and frustrated. Anti police and Thatcher songs were being chanted with the crowd throwing things and spitting at the police.
Suddenly, the crowd surged forward and the police, who had previously been calm, retaliated. I was standing in the middle of the crowd. I was being pushed from the rear, and the people in front of me were trying to escape the police truncheons, for a moment I felt as if I would be crushed to death. But the whole crowd seemed to disperse backwards onto Mare Street.
Then everybody seemed to go mad. It was war, with the police charging into the crowd, not caring who they hit and certainly not caring who they arrested. A group of about 150 people sat down in Mare Street trying to stop the traffic, but a police charge dispersed them.
I saw a friend of mine who told me she had been tending to an injured journalist. “I was standing there cleaning his eye” she said, “and all of a sudden this plain clothes policeman arrests him.”
I don’t know how long it was before the police started to push the crowd towards the Narroway, surrounding the Empire and denying anyone entry, but when I tried to get back to work I was unable to. I told them I worked there, but they said I would have to walk the long way round. It was approaching the interval and I knew I should be back at the theatre.
As I walked round, I ventured up the Narroway to see what was going on. People were smashing up the shops, especially Marks and Spencers and MacDonald’s, but I didn’t see any looting.
Finally, after about three quarters of an hour, I got back into the Empire and resumed my duties; my tea break should have been for fifteen minutes.
The following day I was sacked from my job. The reason given was that I had left my post to join the demonstration. Even though I explained the situation, that I could not get back into the building, the Hackney Empire’s management felt that my dismissal was warranted. I have taken my case to the Transport and General Workers Union, and they are currently dealing with it.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
“POLL TAX MOB LOOTS SHOPS” read the front page headline in the ‘Sun’ of Friday March 9th; “MOB RULE” blurted ‘Today’: “LOOTERS ON RAMPAGE” screamed the ‘Daily Mirror’. A photograph of a man throwing a missile through MacDonald’s window featured in four national newspapers.
“PM BLAMES MILITANCY ON LABOUR” said the ‘Guardian’, likewise the ‘Times’ “THATCHER HITS AT MILITANT OVER POLL TAX”.
These were the two themes which dominated the national press coverage of the Hackney anti-poll tax demonstration. The “gutter press” focused on the looting that took place, and the “quality press” concentrated on Militant’s involvement in the campaign against the poll tax, but still found space to highlight the looting. The looting theme was returned to on Saturday 11th with many papers visiting the Narroway to speak to shopkeepers and assess the damage to the 43 shops which had their windows smashed. The most notable exception to the national press’s coverage was the ‘Independent’ whose March 9th frontpage headline read “POLICE BATON-CHARGE POLL TAX PROTESTERS”. And Hackney’s local, the ‘Hackney Gazette’, gave a more balanced report on the events of the evening under the satirical headline “A TAX OF DERISION: ATTACKS OF HATE….”.
In general the press did what they do best – sensationalise events in order to sell their newspapers. The violence was attributed to Socialist Workers’ Party, Militant and anarchist agitators (the ‘Times’ even went to great lengths to explain how anarchists have co-ordinated anti-poll tax protests as a disciplined force), there was, however, no mention of what it’s like to live in Hackney.
Margaret Thatcher, never one to miss an opportunity to politick at Labour’s expense, was given much space to attack Militant and the 30 Labour MPs who had stated their intention not to pay the poll tax. These MPs, she intimated, were directly responsible for the violence, a conclusion she reached while 400 miles from Hackney in Glasgow. Paddy Ashdown, a veteran of the British Army’s ongoing campaign against Irish nationalists, was there on the night, so he was more than qualified to compare the Hackney scenes to those he had witnessed in the six counties. Did he, we wonder, secretly feel the need for the same solutions? Hackney’s own chief of police, Chief Superintendent Niall Mulvihill, came over as the personification of reason itself, as he explained how local people had the right to demonstrate and had done so in a peaceful manner only to be upstaged by a small hard core of agitators.
As might have been expected by the people who attended the demonstration, the media’s coverage of events bore little resemblance to what took place that night. Militant hardly figured at all in the demonstration, and there was actually very little looting. Although protesters did take out their frustrations on business premises, the damage only occurred after the police forcibly ended the demonstration by pushing people in the direction of Hackney’s shopping centre.
This report has tried to put the events in Hackney on March 8th in the broader context of political protest against the poll tax. ‘Criminalisation’ has been a cornerstone of the government’s policing policy throughout the 1980’s, but nowhere is the criminalisation of legitimate protest seen more clearly than in demonstrations against the poll tax. In the ‘Daily Express’ of March 9th, Thatcher said of the Hackney demonstration “It is precisely the type of violence we have seen before at Grunwick, in the coal strike and at Wapping, and it is the negation of democracy.” On Saturday March 31st, the eve of the introduction of the poll tax in England and Wales, a national demonstration marched from Kennington Park to Trafalgar Square. Again there were running battles between police and demonstrators with widespread damage caused to London’s West End. The events of that day, the massive police follow-up operation to make more arrests, and the severity of the courts in sentencing, confirms that the government, police and courts are sparing no expense to criminalise the protest against the poll tax.
The criminalisation of protest is a political strategy by which the government, police, courts and media, combine to portray demonstrators as criminals engaged in illegal activity. For the strategy to work there has to be a high number of arrests followed by convictions in the courts. The only means by which the organisers of demonstrations can challenge criminalisation is by setting up defendants’ campaigns, and by winning the court cases, in order to demonstrate that the policing of protest is a political not a legal concern.
Labour controlled Hackney Council has always prided itself in running local services with an open door policy. On the evening of March 8th, when important decisions were to be made concerning the future of Hackney, the Town Hall was boarded up, private security guards with dogs patrolled the building, and only a few members of the public were allowed into what should have been a public meeting. It was inevitable that such actions were going to provoke hostility amongst demonstrating residents. It is evident that in the early part of the demonstration, until 8.00pm, protesters were attempting to gain access to the Town Hall. In order to do so they had to overrun police lines, and police officers were used as a buffer against an angry crowd.
Following the spate of demonstrations against the poll tax across the country in the days preceding the Hackney demonstration, the Hackney Against the Poll Tax Federation should have been aware of the likelihood of a disturbance. The Town Hall unions, who had become aware of the security arrangements earlier in the day (including the mounting police presence), must have known that the council had set a course for confrontation. Yet no attempts were made to organise stewards for the demonstration. much more importantly, the absence of a public address system meant that the planned rally could not go ahead. 5,000 people attended a demonstration without a focus and without speeches to listen to; what else were people going to do other than hurl abuse at the police officers between them and the subject of their anger?
Until 8.15pm the police, with some notable exceptions, showed restraint in dealing with the demonstration. They were subjected to a high level of abuse, both verbal and physical. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the police were disinterested bystanders in the early part of the demonstration. It appeared to HCDA as if senior Hackney police officers took advantage of the demonstration to engage in a public relations exercise. For the first part of the demonstration they kept a very low profile, wishing to portray themselves as the innocent party attacked by an angry crowd, in an attempt to restore public support for the police and boost morale. National attention has been focused on the police in the past year, most notably after the Hillsborough tragedy and the release of the Guildford Four. In Hackney, HCDA itself has drawn attention to some cases of police malpractice including the detention of two OAPs, Mr and Mrs Burke, the beating of Raphael Joseph, and the fitting up of Glenford Lewis and William Gordon. All these incidents, on both a national and local level, have drawn the public’s attention to police ineptitude and malpractice, and in turn, they have hit police morale. Given that the police were publicly acting for a Labour council at such a media orientated event, they were unlikely to begin the evening with violent charges. The policy of tolerance did not continue all evening however, but changed radically after all the camera crews rushed off their film for the evening news programmes.
HCDA rejects the notion that political agitators were responsible for the developing violence. However, there were present at the demonstration a small number of people in a drunken or drugged state who did not help the process of political protest; demonstrators who were injured by missiles badly aimed at the police can testify to this. It is obviously important that people who attend political demonstrations have their wits about them in order to deal with any eventuality. It is also important that demonstrators act democratically, with care and concern for other demonstrators.
Excessive police violence commenced with the deployment of the Territorial Support Group, particularly following the police charge down Reading Lane at 8.15pm. From then onwards skirmishing took place in the area of the Town Hall, largely as a result of police brutality and aggressiveness. A significant feature of the demonstration was that protesters refused to accept that the police could make arrests at random. Many of those who were arrested had gone to help people who they had seen assaulted or wrongly arrested by the police. HCDA rejects completely the notion, current amongst policing strategists, that anyone who attends a demonstration is ‘fair game’ for violent assault or arrest. There should be no such thing as indiscriminate policing.
The damage caused to the business premises on the Narroway was a result of poor policing strategy. The police directed people away from the Town Hall in the direction of the Narroway, for a short period they even stopped people from leaving the demonstration in the opposite direction. Between the police and the Narroway there was a high concentration of protesters, blocking the police’s access.
Although there was some looting in the Narroway, it was nowhere near as extensive as claimed in media reports. It is quite likely that most of the looting was of an opportunist nature, unconnected with the demonstration, occurring after business premises had been damaged by protesters. It must be remembered that out of a demonstration of some 5,000 only 200 entered the Narroway. It is with great sadness that HCDA has to conclude in part that the organisers of the March 8th demonstration, the HAPTF, failed to stand by those persons arrested on the evening. Most importantly, the HAPTF has acquiesced in the state’s criminalisation of protest by refusing to stand side by side with these people. The lack of concern for those arrested and imprisoned is indicative of the HAPTF’s attitude from the very beginning of the demonstration, they failed even to arrange for ‘bust cards’ to he given out, or to have solicitors on call.
It was left to HCDA to set up a defendants’ campaign at a meeting on Monday March 12th. The campaign’s priority was to prepare a defence case and to search for witnesses to arrests. A bust fund was established to help pay defendants’ fines. To date the bust fund has raised over £800 mainly through the holding of benefits in the Hackney area.
The success of the campaign can be seen in the verdicts in the cases overseen by HCDA. Of the 25 cases that have been tried to date (August 3rd 1990), 14 have been acquitted, nine have been convicted, and two charges were dropped on condition that the defendants agreed to be bound over to keep the peace. These are exceptional results by any standards. As well as showing that the police indiscriminately arrested protesters, these verdicts demonstrate the important role defence campaigns play in challenging the state’s criminalisation of protest.
However, two protesters, Russell Ouxbury and Neil Harding, both received prison sentences, of three months and 12 months respectively, for assaults on police officers.
HCDA considers Russell Ouxbury and Neil Harding to be political prisoners. In the last analysis the only reason for their imprisonment is that they demonstrated against the imposition of the poll tax.
3rd August 1990.
Policing in Hackney 1945-1984: 1988, Roach Family Support Committee, Karia Press.
Enough is Enough: 1988, Poster leaflet, Family and Friends of Trevor Monerville Campaign.
Policing against Black People: 1987, Institute of Race Relations.
Death in the City: 1986, Melissa Benn and Ken Worpole, Canary Press.
Research in Hackney: 1989, London Borough of Hackney Council.
“What will happen if I don’t pay the poll tax?”: 1990, Poll Tax Legal Group.
In honour of this being our 666th post on this blog – we invoke
His Satanic Majesty…
“In Deptford, near a Place called Flaggon Row, dwells one Anne Arthur, that had a long time got her Living, by selling things about the street, who “according to her own report, had diverse Discourses with the Devil, on the Third of this Instant March 1684, who offered her Gold and Silver; telling her many strange and Wonderful things; And, in the end carried her in the Air a Quarter of a Furlong’. “She has been a notorious Liver, often given to swearing, and calling upon the Devil; breaking the Sabbath, and the like”
In 1685, one Anne Arthur lived in Deptford, earning a living as a peddlar of cheesecakes in the City of London. In March of that year, she met the Devil. (NB: 1684/5 – old Calendar style, the New Year began on March 25th, so what we would write 3 March 1685, would have been written 3 March 1684).
Being the Full, True, and Sad RELATION OF ONE Anne Arthur, WHO According to her own Report, had divers Discourses with the Devil, on the Third of this Instant March 1684/5. who offered her Gold and Silver; tel∣ling her many Strange and Wonderfull things; And, in the end, carried her in the Air a Quarter of a Furlong, &c. Together, with the Life and Conversation of the said Party; and Directions to the Place of her Abode. And a Particular Relation of the sad Distractions she fell into, upon that Occasion; And divers other Circumstances relating thereto.
CErtain it is, that the Devil who is Prince of the Air, and much conversant in the Earth, as himself testifies in the 1st. of Holy Iob ver. the 7th would wreck his Malice and Vengeance to the destruction of Mankind, did not an Almighty Power restrain and limit his fierce Wrath, yet sometimes we see he being as it were let loose for a while, attempts the bodily destruction of such, as he cannot otherways ruin; nay, and on the contrary it has been observed in divers sad Examples, that God has permitted him to execute his Indignation, on several Profligate, Wicked and vain Persons, whilst they were yet alive, thereby to terrifie and scare others, from a fatal perseverance in their evil ways, of which I might instance many, but the subject story of these pages, being fresh and memorable, I shall pass over former Relations, and proceed to what is Material.
In Deptford near a place called Flaggon-Row, dwells one Anne Arthur, that had a long time gotten her Living by selling things about the Streets; and in that Occupation appeared to her Neighbours very Industrious and Laborious; but chiefly her Trade was in those Cheese-Cakes, which are known by the Name of the Town aforesaid, the which she frequently brought to London, and disposed to divers Customers, but so it happened on the Third of March that having been in the City and Suburbs somewhat late, as she was going home, according to what her self with many asseverations, has related to divers persons of known Integrity, who came to see her in that sad and deplorable condition, where she is; that a little beyond the Half-way-House, a House so called, standing between Rederiffe and Deptford a Human Shape, in a dark Habit approached her which she saith she supposed at first to be a Man, but narrowly and with a fuller aspect by Moon-light, observing his countenance to be stern and dreadful, she began to be in much Fear and Consternation, as doubting it was the common Enemy of Mankind; who in that solitude, was roving about, &c. Whereupon she would have gone back, when immediatly so fierce a Wind did rise, that it in a manner constrained her to proceed on her way, or as she further saith, she had no Power to do otherways, being still followed by the Gloomy Apparition, she passed on till coming out of the Fields she came into the Lane or division of Grounds, that leads to Deptford, tho’ in an extreme sweat occasioned by the Fear and Amazement conceived, when being there the Form or Spectrum, as she supposed it to be, demanded whither she was going, and where she had been, who in abrupt stammerings made reply, that she had been at London selling her Ware, and her Habitation was at Deptford, and that she was a poor Woman, and obliged to undertake that Imployment for Her Maintenance; Whereupon, after some horrid Mutterings, a Hand was held forth full of Silver, but she being fearful for the Reasons aforesaid, shunned it (praying to her self that God would deliver her from the Power of all Evil Spirits, and from Temptations) which refusal much dis∣pleased her new Associate; Yet after often urging her to take it, by alledging her Poverty, and telling many things that had happened to her through Want and Penury; saying that hereby she might be enabled to Live better for the future; he drew out a handful of Gold, which seemed to her to be a vast Heap, more than any Hand could grasp; and would have had her permitted him to put it into her Basket, But she refused. Then, as she says, he told her of her Straw-Bed, and named her Utensils, which are but poor and mean, upbraiding her for refusing his Offer. Yet still, as she declares, she prayed for Deliverance; ever wishing some Man or Woman would come by; but none came. So that, in much Terror she kept her way, with trembling Joynts; till she came in sight of the Houses that stand in she Bend or Turning to the Fields, the Lights whereof a little comforted her, but ere she could reach them, whether by the Force of a Whirlwind, the Wind then blowing hard, or by him that associated with her, she directly knows not, she was taken up, together with her Basket, a considerable Heighth, and carried, pitiously crying out for Help for the space of a Quarter of a Furlong; and there; with great Violence, thrown amongst the Bushes, where her Cryes and mournful Laments reaching the ears of some People that were then abroad, they supposed it might be some Per∣son robbed, and bound; and therefore went to see. When being directed to her by the Noise she made, they conveyed her thence to a Neighbouring House, and afterwards to her own Lodgings. She at that time, through Fear and Amazement, being in a manner bereaved of her Senses; But coming, in the end, to her self, she made this strange Relation to many that came about her; continuing in much Disturbance of Mind, often starting, and appearing fearful, as if she saw some dreadful Shape before her Eyes.
And thus she continues to persevere in the Relation before-mentioned, though in a distracted and disorderly manner. She confesses further, She has been a notorious Li∣ver, often given to Swearing, and calling upon the Devil; breaking the Sabbath, and the like. Insomuch, that she being often Reproved, instead of Relentment, proved Incorrigible; saying, to those that gave her sacred admonitions, That she knew the worst on’t; and could but go to the Civil Old Gentleman in the Black at last. So vain and ridiculous were her Expressions; though it plainly appears, that when he drew near, if her own Asseverations may be credited, she was no ways desirous of his Company. But not to ridicule on this solemn and tremendious Occasion, I shall Conclude with a hearty desire, that all People would have such Regard to their Wayes, that the Tempter may have no advantage over them; but that by resisting him, they may put him to Flight, and become Victorious, fighting under the Banner of the Lord IESUS.
Flaggon Row, where Anne lived, lay where part of Macmillan Street now runs in Deptford
Flaggon Row in the 19th Century
But it sounds like the meeting with Satan looks to have taken place in the fields then lying between Rotherhithe (then often called Rederiffe or Redriffe) and Deptford.
A later painting of the Halfway House
The Halfway House mentioned was an eating-house halfway between London Bridge and Deptford, possibly on ‘Deptford Lower Road’, now Lower Road near modern Surrey Quays.
from John Cary’s 1786 map of London – showing the location of Halfway House
Although Anne Arthur made no claim to be a witch, the ability of witches to fly had been a central element of the idea of witchcraft for centuries; in pictorial form the witch is commonly depicted in flight: “The skies in European witch paintings and woodcuts were crowded with witches astride flying goats, pitchforks, cowlstaffs and besoms: witchcraft was projected as a very aerial phenomenon. Paintings by David Teniers (the younger) recurrently depict the witch in preparation for flight, being anointed with the flying ointment, and about to be pushed off up the chimney, naked. Hans Baldung Grien’s engravings have naked witches born aloft on goats among billows of thick vapour, ‘hovering through the fog and filthy air’. Squadrons of witches and aerial devils fly into Jacob van Oostsanen’s ‘Saul and the Witch of Endor’ (1526); the motif appears irregularly in the engravings of Jacques Van Gheyn II.”
(Witchcraft, flight and the early modern English stage, Roy Booth)
Witches often flew in company of the devil or other demons. In written accounts, and in confessions, tales of flying, often to sabbat, are common. Witches were also shown and described in a state of terror, as the devil finally bears her off to hell.
Satan was called ‘prince of the air’; flying witches were not only entering his domain, but giving themselves over to his sexually:
“Ideas about witches’ flight to the Sabbath also had several sexual connotations. This is seen in the overwhelmingly popular belief that witches flew to the Sabbath on broomsticks. Levack argues that “the broom is primarily a symbol of the female sex,” was “often used in fertility rites, thus suggesting associations with ancient pagan goddesses,” and “served as a phallic symbol and therefore was appropriate in a scene that was stuffed with sexuality.” Roper remarks how “often, the sensation of flying is described in terms of riding,” and that “riding naturally had a sexual dimension.” She also notes that Most witches described how their diabolic lover accompanied them on the flight. Some gripped the mane of the goat to keep from falling off, or they held fast to their diabolic lover, sometimes riding in front of him, sometimes behind. Riding bareback with a lover on the most sexual of animals, the goat, or on a phallic rod, stick or fork, was a fantasy of sexual abandon. In images of the witches’ flight, women are shown with their hair streaming out behind them, a sexual symbol which underlines the orgasmic nature of the ride.The implied sexual nature of the witches’ flight was part of a larger sexual dynamic at work in diabolism. Descriptions of the flight often said that witches flew to the Sabbath with their lovers, who were the Devil or some other demons. Demonologists noted how, in many confessions about the Sabbath and diabolism in general, the sexual relationship the witch had with the Devil played an important role. Therefore, the sexual undertones of descriptions of the flight are not surprising and are, in fact, a characteristic of the perceived sexual nature of witchcraft.” (Making a Witch: The Triumph of Demonology Over Popular Magic Beliefs in Early Modern Europe, Rachel Pacini)
No brooms were involved in Anne’s flight, but flight by its nature was thus something of a sexual act.
It’s worth noting that beliefs about witches flying were widely interpreted, and ranged between acceptance of actual physical movement through the air, through hallucination and being deluded, onto more metaphysical theories: that (with the Devil’s help) they actually did fly (note that the writer above at no point suggests Anne’s account is not in fact true); that the experience of flying was the result of narcotic stimulation; that their flying was pure imagination—or that they flew by means of the soul, or some sort of astral projection.
The latter idea, although strongly rejected by the Church, was in fact a popular opinion… eg the Sicilian donni di fori [“women from outside”] of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, cunning women who served as mediators between the local community and the fairy world, who on nightly excursions “in spirit” would enter the houses with the fairies, who bestowed their blessing on the homes; or the Fruilian benandanti, peasants who believed they fought the malandanti in nocturnal aerial battles that ensured the fertility of the crops.
The controversy over witch flight raged in the late 16th century. A leading text was Lambert Daneaus’s A Dialogue of Witches (an English translation was published in 1575), which took the form of a dialogue about whether they actually flew, or were merely deluded by the devil into thinking that they did. Daneaus’s text, between a younger man, whose impulses are sceptical, and a wiser believer in demonic-inspired levitation.
King James VI/I, obsessed by witches, borrowed from Danaeus heavily in his Daemonologie (1597). On the other hand, Reginald Scot, in his Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), sarkily dismisses wiches flight as delusion on their part and weighs heavily into the witchfinders and theologians who believe in it.
In Anne Arthur’s time, many would still have believed fervently that women could fly with the Devil; the rate of British witch trials had just recently reached its all time peak in the mid-17th century, although scepticism was beginning to creep in.
Involuntary flight, as in Anne’s alleged case, involved by a witch (or the devil) on others was also not uncommon. (In fact, in contrast to continental Europe, there are less tales of airborne witches and more tales of unhappy victims of enforced flight in England and Scotland). For instance, Richard Burt’s sudden flight induced by the ‘witch’ Mother Atkins in Pinner in 1592, or the events recounted in Terrible and wonderful news from Scotland (1674), where a usurer from John O’Groats is swept into the air for telling his money on the Sabbath, ‘and the Devil appeared visible a vast Height in the Air, in several monstrous shapes one after another’. The devil and his victim tour the region, dropping money bags on the homes of those who had suffered from the usurer’s extortion, before the devil tears him up and scatters pieces of the body
In another account, a Scottish witch, Helen Elliot had to be carried to the place of execution with broken legs: the Devil had flown her out of captivity in the ‘Steeple of Culros’, but in her terror, she had exclaimed ‘O GOD wither are you taking me!’ At this untimely mention of God, the devil had dropped her, at a distance from the steeple which confirmed that their flight had started (and was not just a suicidal leap): ‘I saw the impression and dimple of her heels, as many thousands did, which continued for six or seven years upon which place no Grass would ever grow’.
So much detail is missing from the brief accounts of Anne’s experiences. Given that she could face serious punishment for being identified as a witch, she risked a lot by confessing even this encounter, especially if she was already notorious for name checking the Devil. Unless she was getting a defence in before being accused…?
Maybe some more mundane event had taken place and she was covering up for someone, or covering her own tracks in murky dealings.
The possibility of mental illness, or persecution complex, shouldn’t be discounted. Bad things happening in your life, feelings of powerlessness and oppression, can turn you to thinking that forces outside of yourself are targeting you, beyond the usual and normal crap social relations of the myriad class, sex, race and other networks of hierarchy. For a woman of Anne’s era, strange and inexplicable events would necessarily have been put down to the devil’s work. If in 1685 the assumption would have been supernatural or demonic forces, there’s not so much difference in the more modern paranoias about implanted 5G surveillance devices or magnetising covid vaccines. If anything it’s harder these days to split actual oppression from your delusions (never forgetting the legal and medical systems really do have a history or defining your very real oppression as your own madness, or using women, or Black, Jewish or other minority peoples for horrific medical experiments).
Or some kind of hallucination? Drink, drugs or other substance? Remembering that ‘ergotism’ – poisoning due to eating/drinking products of grain affected by a particular fungus – is thought to have been the source of many of the ‘visions’ experienced by women charged with being witches… Anne’s tale fits into a sub-genre: the various tales of “Spirit-powered aerial transport of working persons carrying food”; like Richard Burt, mentioned above, transported while eating his apple pie…
Also interesting is the ointment that witches were said to smear on broom handle and other wood to make it fly: a mixture of bat’s blood, Sium (skirret, hemlock water parsnip or jellico) acarum vulgare(sweet flag) pentaphyllon (cinquefoil), solanum somniferum (deadly nightshade), & oil – this mix contains indisputable plant-derived hallucinogens. The fat used to transfuse the drugs into the body through the skin is, the rendered body fat of a murdered young child, the pores of the skin were to be opened by vigorous rubbing before the ointment was applied.
(Reginald Scot, Discoverie of Witchcraft, Book 10, Chapter 8)
If women did run a cream anything like this on skin then some heavy trips were likely to follow…
Alternatively, given the paralysing poverty and undoubted hardship of Anne’s life, being a poor woman in a rough neighbourhood, probably ill-treated by men and feeling somewhere very near the bottom of the heap, socially, perhaps she reached out for a connection with something seemingly more powerful than the society around her, or tried to make herself noticed, listened to , taken account of, if only for a while. Used to calling on Satan in drink, she might have seized on an opportunity to take the piss out of those who found her among the bushes, or seek a little kind attention as a victim of devilry.
This is all speculation, and as there is little more in the records, it’s not known what happened next. The moralising commentator doesn’t make it clear whether her encounter with the Devil led her to change her ‘notorious living’, though that I suppose is meant to be implied that her previous boasting that she would “go to the Civil Old Gentleman in the Black at last” was tempered by actually meeting him, and her him that she told his majesty that God would deliver her from the Power of all Evil Spirits.
The tone of the contemporary account above cannot be relied on, however, as religious prudes often concluded such stories with repentance, whether or not the actual subject of the story had really done so (as with many execution ballads and broadsheets, where the hanged get pigeonholed into the repentant and the defiant rogue). It’s clear that for the writer, Anne’s previous dissolute living makes the story of the encounter spicier, and the moral lesson more relevant; if she had been a puritan bourgeois the tone might have been different. We should also take it all with a pinch of salt, in that male writers at this time were well-used to ascribing only passive roles to women in all activities, and while according to him, Anne’s part in her flight was passive, her own words may have put a different slant on things.
Postscript 1: Cheesecakes
Apparently Deptford then was famous for the making of cheesecakes, many of which were taken to the nearby city to sell. Here’s a post which recounts Anne’s story mingled with some good cheesecakes recipes!
Postscript 2: Deptford’s disorderly women
Anne’s supposed accounts of her dissolute life was far from unusual, and the moralising tone of the anonymous newssheet author far from the last sermonising scribe to lecture Deptford women about their lifestyles…
Deptford’s Convoys Wharf stands on the site of the old Royal Dockyard, and from 1879 to 1913 was the Corporation of London’s Foreign Cattle Market for the import and slaughter of animals.
Many of the workers were young women known as Gut Girls, whose job it was to clean out the innards of the slaughtered animals.
Their financial independence, behaviour and taste in clothes were a source of moral panic for the respectable. There were complaints that they spent their wages on outlandish hats instead of underwear!
A Deptford Fund Committee was set up to train 13‑16 year old girls in the essential arts of cookery, laundry, needlework, dressmaking and simple matters of hygiene. The intention of all this instruction was to prepare the girls for more suitable and ladylike employment than gutting animals, and perhaps even for marriage. The Albany Institute, which opened in 1899, grew out of this work; Deptford’s modern Albany Centre evolved from this organisation.
“Never since plate glass was invented has there been such a smashing and shattering of it as was witnessed this evening when the suffragettes went out on a window-breaking raid in the West End of London,” (The New York Times)
In March 1912, militant suffragettes launched an unprecedented window smashing campaign across London’s West End, designed to cause as much damage as possible, with the aim of raising the pressure on government in the campaign for votes for women. On 1 March approximately 150 women smashed windows simultaneously across the capital, and further actions took place three days later.
The Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) had been actively campaigning for the vote since 1903, building on the work of earlier suffrage campaigns.
While the majority of women’s suffrage campaigners pursued the vote through legal means, years of getting knocked back, ridiculed and ignored by men had persuaded Emmeline Pankhurst and her close allies that sharper measures were going to be necessary. The WSPU adopted a policy of direct action in 1905 when members, including Christabel Pankhurst, interrupted a meeting to ask politicians whether they were in favour of votes for women.
Demonstrations gradually became attempts to force their way into parliament; protests became invasions and petitioning politicians became harassing them. Women chained themselves to 10 Downing Street and other high profile buildings, were arrested and went on hunger strike.
But sustained campaigns of property destruction began in November 1910. On Black Friday,18 November 1910, a deputation of around 300 women to Parliament resulted in long and violent clashes with the police, who subjected them to violence and sexual assault.
After Black Friday, the WSPU took a fiercer militant line. The WSPU organised a large-scale window smashing campaign in November 1911.
The aim of the window-smashing campaigns was to prove that the government cared more about broken windows than a woman’s life. ‘The argument of the broken pane of glass’, Mrs Pankhurst told members of the WSPU, ‘is the most valuable argument in modern politics.’ Disruption, publicity and nuisance were seen as vital to build pressure for change.
Although a temporary truce had accompanied the government’s consultations on a Conciliation Bill, which proposed a limited granting of the franchise to some women, hopes were dashed when this Bill was shelved in favour of a Manhood Suffrage Bill to grant votes to remaining disenfranchised men. The WSPU leadership decided on a resumption of the property damage campaign.
March 1912 was marked for the second big onslaught on the capitals’ glass shopfronts…
In the weeks before March 1st, WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst sent out invitations to take part in a public protest for March 4th: ‘MEN AND WOMEN I INVITE YOU TO COME TO PARLIAMENT SQUARE ON MONDAY, MARCH 4TH 1912 at 8 o’clock to take part in a GREAT PROTEST MEETING against the government’s refusal to include women in their reform Bill. SPEECHES will be delivered by well-known Suffragettes, who want to enlist your sympathy and help in the great battle they are fighting for human liberty.’
However the demonstration was a decoy. While the police were to be policing the Great Militant Protest, the real action would be elsewhere…
Responses to the invitations were used to secretly recruit women (and some sympathetic men) to the sabotage campaign. This ‘Great Militant Protest’ was in fact a skilfully planned secret attack for women armed with hammers, stones and clubs to simultaneously smashing the windows of shops and offices in London’s West End.
In response to her call to action, Emmeline Pankhurst received numerous letters of reply from women up and down the country, indicating willingness or unwillingness to take part. Many of these letters were later seized by the police in later raids on the WSPU headquarters.
Hundreds of women from across the country signed up to take part in the protest, from all backgrounds, of various ages.
At 6:00 in the evening, some of the women on the demo brought out rocks they had been carrying, concealed in bags, sleeves, and attacked storefronts at a pre-arranged time. Mrs Pankhurst, Mabel Tuke and Kitty Marshall broke the windows of No. 10 Downing Street; simultaneously hundreds of women in other parts of London smashed the plate-glass windows of shopfronts, post offices, and Government departments.
Charlotte (Charlie) Marsh described the lead-up to her part in the action:
“From the Town Mall Square in Portsmouth I jumped on a bike and went with a friend to the beach at Southsea and sat on the beach and filled my pockets with pebbles, great big stones you could call them, the idea being that I should take those in my pockets to London and if whatever we had to use in London ran out, I would always have something to fall back on. I was given the top of Villiers Street. To fill in time I went over and bought a bunch of violets, then I bought an evening paper, and then I looked at the clock and it was a quarter to six, and that was my moment. In my right hand I had a hammer, my pockets of my raincoat were bulging with pebbles, and I went over to the corner shop. There were two people looking at rings, a young boy and girl. I waited, they moved and then – bang went my hammer, and it was a great moment for me because I was so afraid that the hammer would hook, and hook me into the glass and stop me doing any more. But I found, by taking my hammer broadside, that that didn’t happen at all; it came back with me, and so on I went. And I walked down the Strand as though I was playing hockey, and I just boldly went on like that, and I did at least nine windows.”
Under questioning by police, Lillian Ball also set out an account of her actions, on the second night of mass window smashing:
“On Monday 4th March I went to the Gardenia as near as 6 o’clock as possible – I took my ticket, I went to the long room upstairs. I showed my card to several, standing on the stairs. A lady from Balham, a member of the Union, was with me.
In the room into which I went there were a good many people all women, sitting in various groups. There were no refreshments there I had no refreshments in the Gardenia.
Opening out of the room I first went into there is another room – or a place partitioned off.
After a time somebody came out of that room, or from that particular place – it was a woman. I forget whether we were supposed to wear badges. The woman came to me and said “Are you prepared for a long or short sentence?” I said a short one, as I had made arrangements for absence from home for 7 days.
She told me just where to go and find a small window, viz. the United Service Museum. I did not bring any implement with me. The young lady asked me if I had brought my own implements, or whatever it might be. I said No. She gave me a hammer: there were words on it “Better broken windows than broken promises”. There was only one paper on my hammer. The hammer produced Ex. 94 is like the one I had, only it had not the words on which now appear on it.
The young lady advised me to put the hammer up my sleeve.
She told me I shouldn’t have more than 7 days if I only broke one small pane. She also told me to do it before 9 o’clock I could not tell what her personal appearance was – she seemed to use great authority, and she was very abrupt, – spoke as if I was not a member of the Union at all.”
(Extracts from a statement by suffragette Lillian Ball, taken as evidence for Emmeline Pankhurst’s trial for conspiracy, March 1912.)
Attacks took place on prominent streets including the Strand, Haymarket, Piccadilly, Bond Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street, as well as in Kensington, Knightsbridge and Chelsea.
Lillian Ball: “Two others and I left about 7 o’clock. I had been working during the day: I went straight to the Gardenia; and I left there with 2 others about 7 o’clock.
Then we walked about a considerable time, and went to Lyon’s and had some food, and then went to the United Service Museum and did our damage. One of the ladies I knew before: the other I did not know before.
I broke one window with the hammer.
A man held me first, and then the police took me, I believe to Cannon Row.
I broke the window about 20 to 9. I was arrested at once. An ambulance came, as I fainted I believe. […] “
Over 148 women were arrested, and 126 were committed for trial, following the window smashing campaign.
A Metropolitan police document survives recording a summary of insurance claims from March 1912. The list of claims for damage caused by suffragettes includes the name of each claimant and the address, damage done, amount claimed and, occasionally, extra comments. This list of buildings is a powerful testimony to the impact these campaigns had on private property across the capital. The claims highlighted broken windows, as well as damage to electric lighting systems and loss of trade.
West End firms were quickly up in arms about the damage to their property, organising a meeting on March 11th to discuss what steps could be taken to prevent a repetition of the attacks, and putting pressure on MPs.
One MP asked Prime Minister HH Asquith a question in Parliament as to whether the WPSU’s funds could be seized to pay compensation:
“HC Deb 04 March 1912 vol 35 cc49-5049 Mr. NEWTON: I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister a question of which I have given him private notice: whether, in view of the extensive damage done by Women Suffragists to retail traders in London by the smashing of expensive plate-glass shop windows, many of which cannot be replaced under three or four weeks, and the consequent great loss of trade which necessarily follows, he will take steps to introduce and pass through both Houses of Parliament with all possible speed, a Bill giving the persons or firms who may be damnified by future outrages of this kind, a right of action against the funds of the Women’s Social Political Union or other suffragist body to which the delinquent in each case may belong, and meantime what steps he purpose to take for the protection of public and private property against the perpetrators and instigators of these organised attacks?
The PRIME MINISTER: I only got the hon. Gentleman’s question before I came into the House. I have not had time yet to give it the mature consideration that I should like. I am sure that he is only giving utterance to a very widespread opinion when he indicates that these disgraceful proceeding should be brought home, not merely to the wretched individuals immediately concerned, but to those who are responsible. I entirely agree with that view, but I should like to consult my right hon. Friend the Attorney-General before I commit myself further.”
The practical application of Asquith’s answer was seen the next morning: the offices of the Women’s Social and Political Union in Clement’s Inn were raided on 5 March. Emmeline Pankhurst and Mabel Tuke, the WSPU’S Honourable Secretary, were already in custody after March 1st; Pankhurst’s close WSPU allies Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence were nicked in the raid, and all four were charged on warrants charging them with conspiracy ‘to incite certain persons to commit malicious damage to property’.
Emmeline’s daughter Christabel Pankhurst was also named in the same warrant. Whether by design or chance, she was not present at Clement’s Inn on March 5th, and police did not locate he, despite some effort: “For two days now Miss Christabel Pankhurst has played hide-and-seek with a hundred detectives. It has been tiring work – for the detectives. All through Wednesday night they crouched in obscure corners at Clement’s Inn waiting, hoping, conspiring against this lady wanted’ for alleged conspiracy.” (The Standard, 8 March 1912)
As the main WSPU figurehead still at large, Christabel decided to avoid arrest, disguised herself and escaped to Paris, from where she edited the WSPU newspaper and directed the tactics of those in the fighting line at home.
For many of those arrested after the WSPU action it was their first offence. The sentences at the trial ranged from 14 days to six months; 76 women were given sentences of hard labour. Harsher sentences were meted out to working class suffragettes, obviously…
Holloway Prison was jammed to the rafters; women were sent to Aylesbury and Winson Green Prisons. So many suffragettes were locked up routine discipline and control broke down: exercise time and work became mass singing sessions; women sewed suffrage banners and handkerchiefs. The normal running of the prison was subverted and undermined… Resistance was expressed as creation, as poems were written, songs composed…
It wasn’t all fun and games inside though. Many suffragettes were denied even usual prison facilities, and despite their demand for political prisoner status it was not granted. Within a month many had gone on hunger strike in support of the demand for political status. Prison authorities then began, with the full backing of the government, to force feed the hunger strikers, with screws and prison ‘doctors’ pushing tubes into their stomachs.
Emmeline Pankhurst & the Pethick-Lawrences were charged with conspiracy to incite violence; in May 1912 they went on trial (charges against Mabel Tuke had been dropped in April).
“On May 15th began the conspiracy trial—The defendants made no denial of the changes; the burden of their argument was that the Government had dealt falsely with the Votes for Women Cause. Accepting the charges as they did, the hostile speech of Justice Coleridge was not necessary to secure a conviction. Party feeling in a Judge is unbecoming. The jury displayed a more generous spirit. While finding the defendants guilty, they added:
We desire unanimously to express the hope that taking into consideration the undoubtedly pure motive that underlie the agitation which has led to this trial, you will be pleased to exercise the utmost leniency in dealing with the case.”
However, “the Judge pronounced sentence of nine months’ imprisonment, and refused, in harsh terms, the application of the prisoners to be treated as First Class misdemeanants.” (Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement)
At this time, in prison, as everywhere in society, class determined everything. Prison life was actually split into ‘divisions’, usually demarcating your social background. Those convicted of white collar crime, and Upper and Middle class offenders, could normally expect to be sentenced to the First Division, which allowed them some privileges – including being able to have visitors, send letters, order in their own food and even booze.
However, those convicted of suffragette window smashing were sentenced to the second division, without such rarified ‘perks.
The ‘second division’ sentence of 9 months on the three leaders “disturbed people who were far from sympathising with the militant methods, and caused a great deal of astonishment and indignation.”
A WSPU poster denouncing the force-feeding of suffragette hunger strikers
The WSPU announced that unless Mrs Pankhurst and the Pethick-Lawrences and the window-smashers already on hunger strike and being forcibly fed, were transferred to the First Division the leaders would join them. On 19 June they did join, though forcible feeding was one horror to which Mrs Pankhurst was not subjected.
After a huge protest by over 100 MPs and a number of international figures including Marie Curie (who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry), the French socialist Jean Jaurès, authors Romain Rolland and Upton Sinclair, the leaders were transferred to the First Division.
A handkerchief embroidered by suffragette prisoners in Holloway, 1912.
And those who were serving longer sentences faced brutal force feeding by the prison authorities using tubes down the throat; which left a number permanently injured. Some tried to barricade themselves in their cells. Emily Wilding Davison injured herself seriously jumping over a staircase. The furore led to most of the hunger striking suffragettes being released in July.
The events of 1912 were to prove the opening salvo for two years of militant violence in the WSPU campaign. Banks, post office and art gallery windows were smashed from Kew to Gateshead; in September, 23 trunk telegraph wires were cut on the London road at Potters Bar; and on 28 November simultaneous attacks on post boxes occurred across the entire country. By the end of year, 240 people had been sent to prison for militant suffragette activities.
As many went on hunger strike immediately, they faced the torture of
Holloway Jingles, a book of poems written by some of the 1912 suffrage prisoners, published later that year.
force feeding at the hands of the prison authorities – actions which only further radicalised them and increased their commitment to the militant campaign on their release.
Window smashing evolved into arson; militant suffragettes became semi-fugitives, filmed and photographed by Special Branch, alternately arrested, forced fed then released when they became very ill, and then re-arrested as they recovered. Almost until the outbreak of World War 1, the struggle for the right to vote became a war of attrition, increasing militancy and vicious reprisal…
Food delivery couriers in the IWGB union have challenged Labour’s Philip Glanville, the mayor of Hackney, to meet them and negotiate over their demands for a safe parking area in the Dalston, East London, after the mayor denied that an immigration raid on couriers in the area was a result of the couriers’ campaign for free parking space where they can wait for orders.
Eight riders were arrested in Dalston for “immigration offences” in January, just two days after protests were held outside Hackney Town Council demanding safe parking spaces.
London’s Metropolitan Special Constabulary (LMSC) said that the arrests were part of “a joint operation” involving “Hackney Police”. Philip Glanville, however, denied that the Council were complicit on the raids, and claimed they had “gone above and beyond in working to ensure that drivers have safer conditions” and that they were “liaising directly with the drivers and their representatives on their concerns.”
The IWGB union’s Couriers & Logistics Branch dispute this, and in response issued a statement to Granville: “As a majority BAME and migrant workforce who work entirely in public space, delivery riders are already disproportionately targeted by police and immigration enforcement in their personal and daily lives. As you know, this is a community of riders that has also already been subject to, for months, a concerted effort by the police and civil enforcement officers to force them out of their workplace. You should understand, therefore, that the riders’ parking campaign and the issue of immigration enforcement are inextricably linked.
“If you are serious that Hackney Council does not support immigration raids linked to enforcement action, we urge you to come to Ashwin Street to meet with riders, to negotiate on our demands about building a free and safe working environment for couriers in Hackney.” The couriers went on to reject Glanville’s claim that the council had sought to ensure safe working conditions for couriers, saying they had “yet to see any evidence of this”.
Parking at the Bentley Road car park in Dalston will cost £2 an hour from March onwards, which the couriers described as “an unacceptable cost for low-paid workers who can receive as little as £2 an hour during shifts”. The additional cost may force couriers to go back to their previous waiting place, on Ashwin Street, where there has been a concerted attempt to move them off, including through the use of £65 council fines, following plans for the regeneration of a nearby road. The IWGB have previously condemned this as “gentrification in action”, and in their statement to Glanville they said that Bentley Road was much more “isolated and dangerous especially at night” for couriers “who already endure disproportionately high levels of abuse, assault, harassment and theft”.
Financial support for the IWGB Couriers and Logistics Branch can be donated here
This kind of a ‘holistic’ approach to targetting lowpaid migrant workers is hardly new to Hackney, however – as a strike from more than 30 years ago illustrates… a tale of policing, and immigration raids being used to attack migrant workers (many refugees) on behalf of bosses and the repressive regime the workers had fled…
Bacton Fashions in Somerford Grove, Dalston, was a clothing sweatshop employing up to 90 workers. It was located in an industrial unit along with other clothing sweatshops. Workers from the different firms used the same entrance to go to work.
Like much of East London, Hackney was home to many clothing factories – often small, employing often migrant labour, on low pay in poor conditions. The 1991 census figures showed that 12,000 manufacturing jobs solely in the clothing industry in 1981. Many of these jobs were in the textile sweatshops which were dotted around the borough.
Most of Bactons workers were Turkish or Kurdish, had been living in Britain for less than a couple of years and were waiting for a Home Office decision on their rights to remain in the UK. Within the factory there were some members of TGWU’s new 1/1312 textile workers’ branch. The branch, formed at the initiative of the political organisation, the Union of Turkish Workers, with the assistance of Hackney Trade Union Support Unit and Service Workers Advisory Project (SWAAP) had recruited almost 600 workers locally.
A series of small-scale strikes had led to a union recognition agreement being signed at Dizzi Limited in nearby Well Street. There were regular leafleting sessions of factories and meetings on workers’ rights at community centres.
The workers at Bacton Fashions had many complaints about low pay, long hours, terrible health and safety conditions, no holiday or sick pay, victimisation, continuous lay-offs without pay and a management prepared to act dictatorially.
The workers themselves were not completely defenceless as they included some that had brought revolutionary traditions from the cities and villages of Turkey and Kurdistan. The previous year (1989) over 4,500 refugees had come to Hackney fleeing the war in Kurdistan. They joined, at least, another twenty to thirty thousand Turkish speaking workers in east London. Almost none of these workers were unionised and no major union had thought to change this. For example, none had ever appointed a Turkish speaking official.
When eight workers at Bacton Fashions refused to accept being ‘laid off’ they began picketing. Appeals to other workers to respect their picket line were met sympathetically, but little else. The employer, Mustafa Dill, was sufficiently embarrassed to re-employ the workers and to agree to lay off pay during slack periods. However, he kept breaking his word and there were almost daily walkouts over the next few weeks, as agreements were reached then broken once again.
Bacton Fashions itself was located in an industrial unit along with other clothing sweatshops. Workers from the different firms used the same entrance to go to work
During the Bacton strike, it became a regular practice at the end of the working day for workers from all the firms in the industrial unit to join with the strikers and jeer and handclap the boss and his managerial team as they left work. There was no violence, although tensions were clearly running high. Up to 400 people were involved in this daily humiliation of the boss and managers.
Demands from union branch members for the TGWU to make the strike official were refused, requests for strike pay was therefore ignored and strikers were instructed that they couldn’t even make financial appeals on TGWU headed notepaper.
There was no attempt by the union official, Brian Theobald, to spread the dispute to other factories or to use what was happening to recruit other workers into the TGWU. He came to the picket line on a small number of occasions and took no part in strike meetings.
On February 26th 1990 the evening picket of about 100 people was attacked by the paramilitary Territorial Support Group of the Metropolitan Police. There was a fierce fight, during which the police were initially chased from the scene, before re-grouping and attacking the pickets and their supporters.
Four pickets (all Kurdish refugees) were arrested and charged with riotous behaviour and actual bodily harm. They faced possible deportation if convicted.
Around 150 people picketed Dalston police station until 5am in the morning.
The next morning (27.02.1990) no one from any of the factories located in the same building as Bacton Fashions crossed the picket line, forcing Bactons to close.
The police attack came almost exactly a year to the day after police raided a number of factories in Hackney (on 27/2/1989) and arrested 38 Kurdish and Turkish workers. By the next day, seven had been deported and a further fourteen were under threat. This action came in the wake of a wave of raids across North and East London.
A protest against deportation raids in Hackney, 1989
The February 1989 raids had in fact themselves sparked the formation of the 1/1312 textile workers’ branch in the first place.
A campaign to defend “The Bacton 4” was launched at a demo of 400 on April 7th. The campaign helped to secure ‘not guilty’ court verdicts for all four arrestees when their case came to trial in October 1990. It emerged that Special Branch had visited Bactons and showed the security guard photographs of recent demonstrations in London against a visit of Turkish leader General Evren – these photos apparently originated at the Turkish Embassy.
One striker Tekin Kartel, later received a five figure sum in damages for what had happened to him.
Bactons was eventually forced to close permanently, only to re-open under a different name and at a different location later. Picketing and a refusal by workers to work there led to its closure again.
While the workers lost their poorly paid jobs they achieved a degree of success showing the employers that they could not do everything they wanted and needed to take the workers needs into account when making decisions. The workers established a pride in fighting back; they closed down the factory and demonstrated they had the power to not only damage the employers’ profits but get rid of it!
All in all, the strike was not well supported by the local trade union movement and the TGWU’s conduct didn’t impress the workers in local clothing outfits. Branch membership fell dramatically and recruitment became much more difficult.
However, local textile workers would strike again. On January 3rd 1991 over 2,500 London textile workers took solidarity action with their fellow workers on general strike in Turkey on the same day. Factories in Shacklewell Lane, Somerford Grove, Victorian Grove, Tyssen Street, Tudor Grove and Arcola Street were virtually empty as workers refused to cross picket lines.
Once again, police took the opportunity to attack migrant workers on strike. Police vans were driven at speeds of over 70mph to the Halkevi community centre on Stoke Newington High St, and officers jumped from the vehicles to race into a crowd of around 120. Five people were grabbed and when friends tried to stop their arrests, around 20 police officers drew their truncheons and batoned people to the ground, arresting them as they fell. One woman went to St Barts Hospital with a broken leg.
At 2pm a crowd of 150 went to protest outside Stoke Newington police station and when in protest 30 sat down, on the other side of the road to the station, the police paramilitaries of the Bow TSG rushed across the road and violently arrested dozens of people. Others fled, but were pursued by the police in all directions.
62 people were arrested with four being taken by the police to Homerton hospital. Access to the casualty department was denied by police at the entrance. 29 people were charged with serious public order offences. Many arrestees were beaten whilst in police custody.
Local police monitoring & defendants support group, Hackney Community Defence Association, set up support for the arrested. HCDA identified the January 3rd arrests as pure revenge for the police loss of face over the confrontations at Bactons:
“The facts speak for themselves. TSG officers have an image of themselves as an elite force, and they behave as if answerable to nobody but themselves. There is a certain inevitability that wherever they go, trouble is sure to follow.”
Two of the arrestees, Haci Bozkurt and Baki Ates, both 34 and from Stoke Newington, received a great deal of press coverage when their cases eventually came to trial five years later. Both had been granted political asylum after fleeing Turkey to escape police violence and persecution, when they were arrested for protesting about police arrests and violence, and charged with violent disorder. At Highbury Corner magistrates court in May 1991 no evidence was offered against Mr Bozkurt. Mr Ates was acquitted.
Turkish and Kurdish refugees (like other communities) in Hackney experienced policing as a repressive and violent force; that the police supported employers, acted as frontline troops for immigration deportations, and also tried to attack political refugees on behalf of vicious regimes from other countries was hardly a surprise. Racism and hatred of ‘foreigners’ at a ground level in the force served as the street level strongarm of blatant support for capitalists at a higher level, and the barely hidden hand of secret policing (which often co-operated with/acted as a proxy for repressive regimes…)
That Special Branch had intervened on behalf of the Turkish regime was hardly unique either. Only a couple of years after the events described above, Hackney Trade union Support Unit, which had played a part in assisting the Turkish and Kurdish workers to set up the TGWU branch, and Hackney Community Defence Association, which had helped defend the arrested strikers, together with other local activists, set up the ground-breaking Colin Roach Centre, named for a man who died in a local police station 10 years before), as a meeting and organising space. Police, and specifically Special Branch, would continue their multi-faceted/multi-agency defence of existing power relations, & attempts at repression of those trying to challenge them:Mark Jenner of the Branch’s Special Demonstration Squad was infiltrated to spy on the Colin Roach Centre, due to HCDA/TUSU’s involvement, and the Centre’s affiliation to Anti Fascist Action(AFA). Jenner used this connection to infiltrate trade union activists and reported on their organising back to the SDS, who passed some of this info to blacklisting organisations working to target trade unionists and workers on behalf of employers (he also spied on AFA and other groups).
In 1989–1990 British ambulance crews took on the tory Thatcher government in a dispute over pay– the largest action by health workers since the 1982 nurses strike.
Overtime bans and strikes lasted from 7 September 1989 to 23 February 1990. Ambulance workers’ pay had fallen behind that of firefighters, with which it had been linked in 1985: the five ambulance workers unions rejected a government pay offer of 7.5%, who instead demanded a 25.8% rise.
The dispute started in September with an overtime ban but as this failed to bring the employers to agreement, action was upped: crews began to refuse to attend non-emergency calls in November. The government brought in the Army, the police and recruited volunteer ambulance crews to cover callouts.
Ambulance provision in the United Kingdom was organised on a local basis by regional ambulance services. The pay and conditions of employees in the emergency services had been agreed by the Standing Commission on Pay Comparability in 1979, which recommended a pay increase of 25.8% (bearing in mind annual inflation was around 16%). Despite this, ambulance workers had gone on strike in 1981–2 over pay, (emergency cover being provided by the police). This strike led to a new salary scale being agreed in November 1985, which linked pay to that of firefighters.
By 1989 the Fire Brigades Union had won favourable pay settlements which broke the link and ambulance workers’ pay had fallen to 11% less than firefighters. The ambulance workers, represented by five different trade unions, increasingly felt forgotten and ignored, and that their service was being run on the cheap.
The full original set of demands were:
£20 a week increase to bridge the gap between ambulance staff and the fire service;
A formula to determine pay in the future;
An overtime rate for overtime work;
A reduction in the working week and 5 weeks’ holiday;
Better pay and holidays for long service;
An increase in standby pay.
Restoration of the link established in the 1985 settlement
The unions also pressed for funding to train their members in paramedic skills. Ambulance personnel tended to be treated as the poor relations of the NHS, and also compared to the other emergency services. During the dispute Health Secretary Kenneth Clarke expressed this, labelling them as merely ‘van drivers’.
Ambulance drivers’ pay had been pared to the point that their basic was rarely enough to live on, and they become reliant upon overtime payments to make ends meet.
The unions were pushed into the action by the strength of feeling of the workers from below. In May 1989 the government had offered a 7.5% pay rise; the unions recommended that their members accept this but it was rejected by a large majority of ambulance staff.
Ambulance service crews voted on 7 September by a 4:1 majority to implement an overtime ban and a ban on rest-day working from 13 September. Ambulance services had developed a reliance on workers doing these additional hours to provide non-emergency services like the transport of patients between hospitals. The services responded by hiring private taxis to transport patients or asking patients provide their own transport.
The Thatcher government was determined not to award further pay increases, and also strongly wanted a victory over the unions to bolster its case for planned Health Service reforms (involving heavy cuts in services and marketisation of healthcare). Health secretary, Kenneth Clarke, rejected a union proposal to enter arbitration on 22 September, which led to the collapse of negotiations.
Prior to this there had been some tension between the different unions representing the ambulance crews and the officers. However, in late September ambulance service officers and controllers voted to join the overtime ban from 4 October, and the unions agreed to co-ordinate joint action. Roger Poole was selected as chief negotiator for the workers in the dispute and eventually came to represent members from five separate unions.
However, by early October the pressure of missing out on overtime payments was biting, and there was a feeling that either the dispute had to be escalated to force a conclusion, or the overtime ban would have to end.
In an attempt to restart negotiations, in mid-October unions refused to carry out some clerical work and non-urgent patient transfers (in previous overtime bans, doctors had responded by labelling all transfers as urgent, overloading thinly stretched ambulance services) and some crews began lock-outs and sit-ins at depots. A public petition in support of the ambulance workers was launched that eventually attracted 4 million signatures. In response the Government put the Army on standby from 30 October to provide ambulance services if needed.
In November emergency ambulance crews their service to emergency 999 calls only and refused to provide patient transfer services. The government then threatened to suspend crews who refused to carry out non-emergency work or to dock their pay. The unions reply was to adopt a policy that if any member was suspended then all members in that ambulance service should declare themselves as suspended. By 7 November, some 2,500 ambulance workers in In London, responsible for 455 ambulances in 71 depots, were suspended.
The Unions asked that these members continue to provide an emergency service, though they would be unpaid, but the government thought this would be bad publicity, and ordered the police and army in to provide emergency coverage. The first army ambulances were deployed on 8 November in London together with police and volunteer ambulance crews. This marked the first occasion that army ambulances had been used since the Winter of Discontent.
The union negotiators were fighting a publicity war, attempting to use the undoubted popular support for the healthworkers as leverage against the government; they also tried hard to keep a lid on grassroots action from below and prevent all out strikes or wildcat actions, and worked hard to prevent serious solidarity action from other unions in support for the dispute. As Roger Poole stated earlier on in the strike, “We don’t want solidarity strikes from other workers” .
But their attempts to keep down ambulance workers’ autonomous activity were increasingly unsuccessful: anger from below was seething and local escalations of the strike began to erupt across the country.
In Glasgow ambulance crews voted, by a narrow margin and against the advice of their union officials, for an all-out strike from 1 December, including the withdrawal of an emergency response. After two days, Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind arranged emergency ambulance cover from 30 army ambulances working from Territorial Army drill halls, in combination with police-manned ambulances.
Rifkind claimed that ambulance crews in Edinburgh had also refused to respond to emergency calls, although this claim was rejected by the unions.
There were some attempts to widen strike action beyond the ambulance crews. Ambulance crews went down to building sitesat Canary Wharf in docklands and persuaded steel erectors to come out on strike in sympathy on December 6th, then turned up on the day to make sure they stood by their decision (300 came out). On the same day Hammersmith council workers linked up support for the ambulance crews with support for the councils’ own striking nursery workers (council workers also came out in Hackney on unofficial strike that day, as did hospital workers at the Elizabeth Garret Anderson hospital in Soho). Around the same time there were solidarity actions by bus workers at Hanwell garage, and workers at Homerton and St. Bartholomews hospitals. Ambulance crews themselves also made links with strikers at Luton, joining a Vauxhall carworkers’ picket line.
By mid-December the Army were also providing emergency ambulance services in Lincolnshire, Hertfordshire, Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, while in Surrey Royal Navy and Royal Air Force drivers were also used, alongside ambulances single-crewed by ambulance service managers.
Union bigwigs expressed their usual hate and fear of the rank and file taking this kind of action: Roger Poole denounced the ambulance workers going on wildcat strike.
As was pointed out by some supporters of the strike, at the time: “Trade Union officials and politicians demagogically talk of People Power, but conveniently ignore the fact that in East Europe People Power at least involves taking over the streets some of the time. The only acceptable form of People Power the bureaucrats praising the ambulance workers want is an obedient crowd clapping their demagogic cliches which they shout to them from on high through a microphone. We’ve heard all their usual “We shall win” rhetoric before, the ‘we’ referring to themselves – professional representatives hoping to make political capital out of a defeat that they help to bring about, since they always do their very best to throw up obstacles to the poor winning any of their battles. After all, their role would be at stake if there really was a movement with a chance of winning… With friends like Poole and co. workers don’t need the Tories’ new anti-wildcat strike laws.”
On January 13th, 75,000 people demonstrated in support of the ambulance workers in central London.
In January, the whole dispute was escalated nationally. In response to an attempt by the unions involved in the strike to tempt the government to return to negotiations by dropping some demands (abandoning the demand for a cut in working hours, and for more leave and long service perks), the government refused to budge. So then Crews were instructed to refuse calls put through by the ambulance service and to only respond to calls made directly by the police, medical services or the general public. The unions gambled this would require the deployment of more army ambulances and thus hopefully swing public opinion behind them.
A Day of Action in support of the dispute was called for 30th January 1990; unions called for the public to demonstrate support for the strike by lining the streets at mid-day.
January 30th saw 10s of 1000s go on strike for the day, and, loads of people from different sections of the working class joined in common actions. For instance, ”the St.Johns Wood ambulance crew on wildcat strike organised the blocking of Kilburn High Road for half an hour: Irish, blacks, O.A.P.s and others joined in, and perhaps as many as 200 had fun stopping the traffic. The cops were obviously furious but, because of their “nice” image of apparent support for the ambulance workers (whilst raking in loadsamoney doing overtime scabbing on the strike), they had to swallow their pride and merely resort to verbal haranguing, rather than their usual physical form of intimidation. An ambulance woman threatened with arrest managed to shame the cop into withdrawing. Bus drivers in Kilburn, though, were worse than the cops – they tried to plough into people. Yet at the same time several hundreds of bus drivers in South London took half or the whole of the day off. In fact, some of them have been on strike in solidarity with the ambulance workers on and off, days or half-days here & there, for a couple of months now (of course, this Good News is hardly ever mentioned in the media – it might actually encourage people; hence the near-total silence in the media about the dispute since Jan.30th). There were doubtless loads of other places where people stopped traffic – for example, the centre of Liverpool and of Newcastle came to a standstill, and in London Old Street and Euston Road were blocked.”
January 30th however, did reveal how limited the reality of ACTIVE support for the strike was… The ambulance men had a vast well of passive public support, but only small numbers in just a few arenas were prepared to turn passive goodwill and sticking a few quid in the collecting tins into taking an active part… Tory anti-union laws, a general feeling of passivity, lack of confidence – lack of experience of or belief in victory – all played a part in this. A decade of mostly heavy defeats of organised workers had bit hard.
Some supporters of the strike, and of autonomous working class action generally, asked some hard questions about the strike, the unions, the potential for wider active action, in a leaflet produced and distributed to ambulance pickets in early February 1990… their thoughts ranged from the immediate strike to other thoughts and arenas…
“EMERGENCY! SOME QUESTIONS ABOUT THE JANUARY 30th AMBULANCE DISPUTE SOLIDARITY ACTIONS AND OTHER RELATED MATTERS
Judging by the statement of that mass-murderer Kenneth Clarke, the man behind the cuts in the NHS which lead to thousands of deaths mostly amongst the poor, that the deal now being worked out by the Union leaders and NHS bosses shows “the dawning of a new commonsense”, ambulance crews can now look forward to the traditional insulting sell-out, doubtless to be hailed as “the best offer we could hope for under the circumstances” by well-healed bureaucrats who were never in favour of the dispute from the outset. What the ambulance crews are going to do about it, though, remains to be seen. Resign themselves to the deal whilst moaning about the bastard bureaucrats, or something better? Any new initiative from the base will only develop from a reflection of the strengths and failures of the struggle so far. What follows – written before the present talks at ACAS – is intended as a contribution to this reflection. “What is to be done?” is a question that can only he answered – initially at least – by the ambulance crews themselves.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“IF A COUPLE OF NURSES PICKETTED EVERY PIT, THE WHOLE OF THE YORKSHIRE COALFIELDS WOULD COME TO A STANDSTILL, THERE’S SUCH SYMPATHY”
– South Yorkshire miner, during the ’88 NHS strikes (when two Yorkshire pits were picketted out).
There are many independantly-minded workers who are good at formulating the problem – “When we struggle together we need to go directly to other workers, unmediated by the Union hierarchy, to persuade them to strike for us and for themselves”. But when it comes to actually doing something – well, the risky moments have been few and far between. Many fear their Union as much as the bosses: e.g. during the Wapping dispute (’86 – ’87) several sacked printers talked about going directly to printworkers in & around Fleet St. and urge them to go on strike. But they bottled out because putting up an unofficial picket line could have led to being blacked from the Union for life, weakening their chances of a future legit printing job. It’s unlikely, though, that ambulance workers would face a similar threat from NUPE, despite Poole’s menacing diatribe against the wildcat strikers. In the end, it’s a cop-out to blame the Union or this or that bureaucrat for the failure of struggles ~ submission to the Union that insures the “sell-out”. Complaining about officials is all too easy – unless it’s a prelude to action.
The Union bureaucrats only want a moral image for the NICE ambulance workers, with token appeals, petitions & opinion poll ratings about public support not because they’re Bad Leaders (‘Sell-Outs’) but because it’s their social role. When shop stewards complain that Poole “is still suppressing any move to strike action. He’s even looking to our bosses” or that he’s “duped shop stewards in London into voting against strike action” (both quoted in Socialist Worker,10/2/90) they are deliberately obscuring the fact that the bureaucrats function necessarily leads them to pursue interests independently of those they represent. Not just because they are not subject to immediate recall by the base, but more essentially because as professional mediations between capital and labour, they must inevitably act like bosses: like when lefty leader Rodney Bickerstaffe called security guards to chuck out ambulance workers who’d tried to speak to him at the TUC headquarters. And that’s why, in the various health strikes, NUPE and COHSE have consistently divided off the workers from each other (as many healthworkers are well aware).
Trouble is, submission to the divisive effects of Trade Unions'(and bosses’) cynical organisation of workers by role and category, always leads to demoralisation. Why have so few healthworkers practically supported the ambulance staff? (and few ambulance crews have posed to other healthworkers that if they really took their support seriously they too would only do emergency work). Indeed some healthworkers, despite claiming support, are only too eager to grab the opportunities for extra overtime which the dispute has created. Course, it’s no good just moralistically finger-wagging, since it doesn’t get to grips with the history of why people feel they can’t win, and attack the cynicism which comes from accepting defeat. I heard of one bus driver in Notting Hill who wouldn’t support the ambulance staff because they hadn’t supported the miners in ’84. Miners themselves don’t generally go along with this bullshit type of excuse: on Jan.30th in a great many pits throughout the country, during the day shift, all those who safely could, downed tools for varying periods of time. On the other hand, I’ve heard of a Kent miner cashing in on the dispute by working shifts with the St. John’s Ambulancemen. And I’ve met one ambulanceman who used this fact as a reason not to try to get solidarity actions from miners. It’s these divisions which are the most depressing. When yesterday’s striker/rebel/lucid critic becomes today’s scab/conformist/professional ideologist, doesn’t it make you feel suicidal (whilst dreaming of slitting their miserable throats sometime in the future, of course)? Indifference and resignation to this horror makes bastards out of individuals who, at one time, were genuinely Good People: they become everything which in the past they detested in others. Being betrayed by these ex-friends is always the most traumatic of all.
One of the reasons for all these divisions is that no-one really thinks authority can be defeated. After years of failure this is understandable, if only because no-one wants to look for some causes for these defeats other than to blame the various enemies (e.g. the Law, the cops, the media, the Union bureaucrats, the passivity of other sections of the working class). Since such enemies will always exist when people challenge authority in some way, the only function such blame serves is to resign oneself to defeat rather than look at how to combat the enemies better. In the meantime, the life or death question facing the poor in the U.K. – “How are we going to prevent the Thatcherite Economy (let alone global capitalism) completely fucking us over?” – has yet to lead to a practical answer.
The Labour Party – and all those who pin their hopes on a Labour victory which is by no means assured – have a pat answer of course: Vote Labour! (they will save us! Hallelujah!). Never mind – as one ambulanceman pointed out – that the great reforming Attlee Labour government of 45 – 51 sent troops in to crush the ambulance strikers; never mind the troops sent by the last Labour government, including Tony Benn, against the firemen; never mind the fact that Labour has pledged itself to maintaining the outlawing of sympathy strikes; never mind that Labour’s policies are about the same as those of Thatcher’s ’79 election manifesto (they’ve already bluntly stated that their first priority will be to get the Economy right, and that social concerns will come second); never mind all this – Labour will make things better – rather like praying for rain. But any reform of the State which would be of partial – and inevitably temporary – benefit to the poor could only come if the rulers (Left or Right) felt threatened by a massive explosion of autonomous class war. As de Klerk stated in South Africa, “Reform is needed if we are to avoid revolution”. Since we in the UK are as far from any revolutionary situation as Soweto was in May 1976, the rulers can get away with blatant repression. Reform is only resorted to when it’s the only means of asserting social control (that’s why the South African rulers released Mandela: they know his calls for discipline, an end to looting and an end to the theft and burning of cars, his calls for an end to classroom boycotts, etc. are their best bet of getting blacks to submit to the commodity economy there). But in this country autonomous class struggle hasn’t threatened the market economy with anything like as much consistency as the uprisings of the South African blacks. So far, class struggle here has been defeated mainly from within, especially by submission to the prison of Trade Unionism.
There are historical reasons behind this submission. In the 70s – height of the inspiring “British disease” which still haunts the CBI, Trade Union rules & structures were sufficient means to carry out a United fight against the rules of profit, to go-slow, refuse overtime, work-to-rule, phone in sick and not be disciplined, strike or whatever. Whilst there was always hostility towards the top Union bureaucrats (e.g. lefty Jack Jones got duffed up following the deal he’d arranged to sell out the dockers’ strike of ’72), up until the ’74 Labour victory, workers on a rank and file level, could generally use shop stewards to fight for their own immediate interests – or, at least, to ignore or by-pass those shop stewards who were more compromised with the bosses. Within the framework of the Union, miners in ’72, organised on a rank & file level, won their fight with the Coal Board by going directly to workers in the Birmingham area and getting them to go down with them to picket out Saltley Coke depot (if only miners in ’84 had gone round Sheffield appealing directly to workers to come down to Orgreave instead of leaving it to Scargill to appeal on TV to people to support them). Also within the framework of the Union, in ’72 dockers forced the government to U-turn and release shop stewards and others from Pentonville prison. Though the ‘revolutionary’ atmosphere was more an unfulfilled promise than a reality, these victories did encourage resistance everywhere to the point when, in ’74, Heath, the P.M., called an election based on “Who rules? The Government or…?”, which he lost. With the Labour victory, though, all the social democratic illusions of the working class in Labour and the Unions were sufficient to dampen down any mass class struggle for over 4 years. The incorporation of the Unions onto management boards and a much greater integration of stewards into the Union/State hierarchy helped suppress rank and file opposition. Looking to shop stewards to lead the struggle lost much of its previous rationality. For instance, there were a far greater number of senior stewards on 100% facility time, paid for by the company/State dept., leaving them as remote from the sharp end of an intensifying workers’ alienation as the Union bureaucrat behind his/her desk. However, beneath the Social Contract between Unions and State, a constant subterranean resistance to wage labour was forever causing misery for the bosses. Eventually all this bubbled over into “The Winter Of Discontent”(’78 – ’79), most of which was fought by the base – and won – completely within a Trade Union perspective, despite the years of Union – Government collaboration. Whereas in the 6Os over 9O% of strikes had been wildcat, in the 70s Unions generally made such strikes official, taking on the image of protecting workers’ interests even when, they were de-railing them. The Winter of Discontent saw workers taking the Union into their own hands but not going beyond the Union. And, generally speaking, shop stewards couldn’t put up obstacles to a struggle run by the base (of which, many of these stewards were still a part). With Callaghan, the Labour P .M., labelling strikers as “free collective vandals” and other sections of the bourgeoisie moaning about truckdrivers “taking managerial decisions” (Sunday Telegraph), Trade Unions seemed like the ruling classes’ “spectre of communism”, to the point where Thatcher could label Trade Unionism as the enemy, subsequently entangling the working class in all sorts of laws, falsely labelled as “anti-Union” laws. In fact, those laws have made Unions more overtly the enemy of the class struggle than ever before: fear of sequestration of funds has turned Unions into overt cops. And the new anti-wildcat strike law is making the process even more blatant: witness shop stewards at Fords threatening to discipline anyone going on wildcat strike – and this before it’s become law. Or the way EPIU at Fords is scabbing against the EETPU in a tit-for-tat retaliation for EETPU scabbing at Wapping, really just a cynical desire for recruits, justified out of submission to the Tories’ strike ballot laws (democracy moves in a mysterious way). Or the way Ron Todd (TGWU boss) went personally to the Liverpool docks last year to get the dockers there to call off the strike even though a ballot had made it completely legal. The examples are endless.
THATCHER MAY STILL REGARD TRADE UNIONISM AS “THE ENEMY WITHIN” BUT AS AN ENEMY IT’S BEEN HER BEST FRIEND
Not just the TUC (Thatcher’s Unofficial Cops), not just this or that leader or Union, but Trade Unionism as such has been a major reason for the failure of the class war here. When, for example, the 1984 striking miners blocked off the Humber Bridge during the dockers’ strike of that year, a great opportunity to break beyond Trade Unionism and develop a direct encounter between two different fronts of the class struggle was missed. However, it wasn’t the NUM or the TGWU in themselves which blocked off this chance of a potentially subversive meeting, but the miners’ and dockers’ reflex to trust only their “own” trade or to look to their own leaders, or stewards/branch secretaries for the initiative for such a meeting. In an epoch when the blackmail of unemployment wasn’t so threatening because it was relatively easy to get another job and social security was an automatic right, workers could win their struggle merely by looking to their ‘own’ trade. In 1978 Ford workers could massively defeat the State’s 5% wage rise limit simply by having a totally solid strike and a token 5-man picket which absolutely refused to even talk with outsiders. But for such Trade Unionist attitudes to continue during an epoch when the “every sector for itself” stance has led to painful defeat seems like some stubborn Death Wish. It’s not that many striking workers have not shown courage and dignity it’s just that will alone is not enough. There’ll be no successful breakthroughs until rebellious workers see the necessity of breaking through Trade Unionism, until they stop looking to the Union for initiatives and look at how to extend their own self-organised initiatives.
A few see the way forward as being the intensification of shop steward organisation. But since 1979 the number of shop stewards has risen from about 300,000 to 350,000 – and to what effect? Shop stewards generally just represent the lowest common denominator of those they represent: when a minority are militant the shop steward will tend to express the moderation of the servile majority. If the majority are in struggle, the shop steward will often participate in the most radical acts of the active section of the strikers. Though their real contribution is neither more nor ness than this active element, their greater access to contacts, phones, equipment, etc. often make them seem like indispensable leaders. But when there’s a downturn in any particular struggle, their privileged position will often be used to contribute to the ending of the strike. Basically, shop stewards, regardless of their own personal integrity, are trapped within the representative role of their authority position: they will swim with the tide, generally going where the majority goes, showing about as much consistency and coherence as an alcoholic on speed. When it comes to practical initiatives, rare is the shop steward so unconcerned about maintaining their status as to step out of line with what the – mostly passive – majority want of them. And if they do – it’s not because of their position as shop steward. In the end doing something is started by a minority, whether that includes shop stewards or not. If a shop steward is looked to as a benevolent authority, someone who can protect workers against vicious management fingering, it’s also indicative of the extent to which workers become dependant on them, even up to the point of coming to them with all their problems, treating them like a social worker, when, likely as not, these stewards will also have a fucked-up daily life they’re desperate to talk about, but which their specialist position forces them to bottle up.
To break the impasses, it’s useful to consider the examples of others, not as an ideal to be aimed for, but as something worth adapting to different circumstances. A critical knowledge of other people’s struggles helps to convince us that the danger is not overwhelming; that there will always be more security in organising some innovative subversive activity than in repeating past mistakes.
For instance it’s worth looking at some of the struggles in France. Like, for instance, the French railway workers’ strike of ’86 – ’87. There, over a month before the strike, a 31 year old class-conscious train driver put out a petition calling for a pledge from other drivers to an indefinite strike, listing the various demands. It was asked that this petition/pledge be reproduced and passed round by those in agreement. It received an overwhelming response, so later a leaflet was produced by other train drivers, 2 and a half weeks before the strike, also to be reproduced and passed around: it clearly set out the strikers’ demands, stating exactly when the strike would begin, asking the unions involved to support the strike, threatening them if they didn’t. The strike began without a single command from the unions and developed partly by means of daily assemblies of strikers held in each station, in which no particular striker held any greater power than any other. Where delegation seemed necessary, it was subject to immediate recall by the assemblies. Of course, many exemplary actions – such as sabotage – were carried out without discussion in the assemblies, and sometimes against the wishes of the majority. But, without wanting to make out that assemblies and co-ordinations are some insurance for active commitment, they did provide an environment of direct communication which made manipulation difficult and provided the strike with some continuity, although it must he said that there was often a lot of suspicion towards ‘outsiders’ and a lot of division amongst strikers along the lines of their different work roles and later developments of co-ordinations in France sometimes had a reactionary content – e.g. railway workers striking in support of a ticket collector who’d shot and killed a guy who’d aggressively refused to pay his fare. So they’re no fixed model – just worth adapting.
The ‘co-ordination’ has travelled to the UK – but without the original zing of its inception. The London tube drivers of ’89 were the first to use the term co-ordination but the co-ordinations had specific characteristics related to the fact that the UK suffers under the most draconian labour laws in the whole of Europe (east and west). They were a semi-clandestine organisation defying LRT management and unions alike (particularly ASLEF). Its clandestinity could he very broadly imitated when the recent law against wildcat strikes gets underway. As a body they were devastatingly effective – at one moment doing a kind of syncopation with Tendon bus crews and main line rail terminal staff in order to paralyse London (May 15th ’89, while June 22nd. was the most comprehensive stoppage of traffic movement in London since the 1926 General Strike). In the beginning, bureaucrats (mainly ASLEF) were ordered out of meetings and the coordinators were basically anti~party in the sense of ignoring them. But later Trotskyists began trying out their entryism routine and the coordination faltered in other ways when the national railway strike got underway with full union (NUR) control and ASLEF moved in again on the tubes, with coordinators relinquishing something of a direct democracy to union officials. Even so, the coordinators snapped back into focus when the usual union sell-out deal was handed down and mad-as-hell drivers at a final strike meeting ferociously refused (“listen motherfucker!”) to talk to any of the professional liars of the media – a response not heard since the heady days of the miners strike of ’84. However, the co-ordination had its limitations: it was an intense heart-felt expression of a sectional skill but wasn’t actually opened up to other underground workers.
Other bits of fertile ground for coordinations have been the building trade and the North Sea Oil platforms – but, generally speaking, these have been dominated by shop stewards making decisions behind the backs of the strikers – and have been basically coordinations only in name. Practical development of coordinations remains so far a tiny minority escapade in the UK. Rigid union centralism has regained ground bit by bloody bit. Recent strikes have not been very inspiring affairs and are much orchestrated by bureaucrats acting like public relations personel in tandem with companies like “Union Communacations Ltd.”, taking their theatrical cue from Saatchi & Saatchi which, whilst abstractly influencing passive public opinion, reflects an absent passionless life, where, on the simplest level, picketting is just some routine duty, hardly a lived experience. Hardly the supercession of the sabotage and violence of the miners strike or the Wapping dispute which, though defeated and trapped in the Union form nevertheless, in their rage, really did point to something more than a ‘fairer’ nicey nicey media-cultivated version of the same old order.
“I reckon it will fizzle out – people will just trickle hack to work. The building societies, finance companies, will see to that” – Camden ambulance worker on unofficial strike, January 30th.
Whilst, if it does fizzle out, it won’t just be debts that’ll force ambulance workers back, but the Unions as well, it’s also a reluctant form of Thatcherite ideology ringing through peoples minds that stops them pushing on: “Whatever happens, I’ll find some way to survive within the hell of the market economy, alone, if necessary.” In the end it’s this survivalist fantasy that makes people “trickle back” from the class struggle – putting a tough face on defeat. Why “fantasy”? Because most of the poor know, within their hearts, that every defeat for the struggle is another blow to their lives, another nail in their coffin, another victory for brutal Market Forces, where who sinks or swims is largely down to chance &/or money (Kings Cross, Zeebrugge, Piper Alpha and Hillsborough are just the most obvious examples). Others say “We’ll get them next time” – but that’s generally just bravado – because each “next time” becomes more half-hearted, wearier and warier of committing yourself too far because of the expectation of defeat, the expectation of the pain of high hopes dashed. Sure, despite 10 years of demoralising defeat, we’re not going to roll over and die – as the ambulance crews have shown. But if the ambulance dispute is not to be just another tombstone on the road to hell, and if we’re truly going to get them “next time” (over the next couple of years or so) then each and everyone of us has to analyse the limitations of the present and past struggles – and of our own relation to them – in order to draw practical conclusions for “the next time”.
It’s this that has made me put this out: it’s so utterly depressing to see another lot go down without at least doing something to try to alter the apparently inevitable course of events. Sure, a text is easy – and it’s not meant to be a substitute for practical risks (unlike the texts put out by Leftist parties and groups, which striking workers are suspicious of with good reason, since these leaflets are always saying “Do this!”, mainly with the aim of trying to get recruits or giving the Party some public image of apparent relevance). At the same time being a spectator of the class struggle, and just commenting on its limitations after the event or from afar, is an impotent role, about as smug and inconsequential as all the vanguardist fantasies of the political sects. So that’s why I’ve put this out. If it gets people – including me and my friends – working out actions they could do – then it’ll not be in vain.
Completed on 22nd February 1990
P.S. A Camden striker said on TV last night (22nd Feb.) that Roger Poole was completely “out of touch” with the crews, and that the dispute in reality was not so much about pay but about the whole future of the NHS. If the ambulance workers made direct appeals to other workers on the basis of attacking the Government’s run-down of the NHS, then we truly could begin to see the blossoming spring of a united class struggle in this miserable country! The Merseyside crews look like showing the way forward. Who can guess what magic moments may lie ahead?”
Magic moments… or not… Something of the pressures that caused greater divisions and put up barriers discussed in the leaflet above, started to undermine support for the strike within the unions involved.
The unions were spending large amounts of their funds in paying strike benefits to ambulance crews in dispute (the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) alone had paid out almost £1 million while both the Transport and General Workers’ Union and GMB had gone into debt). Some non-ambulance crew members of these unions started questioned why such large amounts were being spent on action which affected only a small portion of the membership.
The costs were so high that a pay dispute for ancillary workers, some of the lowest paid in the health service, was postponed because of a lack of funds.
The tory government attempted to mobilise public opinion against the strike in the traditional way – by lying about the ambulance crews. The press were briefed on alleged incidents where ambulance crews had refused to respond to emergencies, including claims, later proved false, that a crew in Becontree had refused to respond to a call about a newborn baby found in a ditch; that another crew refused to attend a call-out to a man with a severed foot and that one West Midlands ambulance station refused to provide emergency coverage for 48 hours. This tactic got them little traction.
Opinion polls conducted during the strike showed public support of around 80% in favour of strikers, including support of 75% among conservative voters. At its highest, only 10% of the public supported the government. In fact the unions had paid close attention paid to public opinion during the dispute, conducting polling throughout the strike to judge this, and coming down hard on wildcat activity which it felt was bound to lead to bad publicity (though generally didn’t, in the event).
A government indication that it was considering a revised pay offer in early February proved just a stalling tactic, as they were holding out and hoping for public opinion to turn against the strike.
Again, the unions escalated the strike further on 15 February – members were instructed not to follow any orders issued by senior ambulance service managers. At this point the British Army was operating in 18 ambulance service areas.
The two parties were finally brought together for conciliation talks by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. A joint industrial council was formed to consider a deal. Talks initially broke down over the issue of back-pay for suspended workers, which the government refused to countenance, but this was eventually conceded, and talks resumed on 22 February.
In the early hours of February 23rd 1990, after negotiations that lasted throughout the night, a deal was struck between the unions representing ambulance workers (NUPE, COHSE, NALGO, GMB and T&GWU) and the Department of Health.
A pay rise of 16.9% over two years was agreed; the government also agreed to a £500 per year bonus to ambulance crew members with additional medical training, an extra 2 per cent for productivity, increases in London Allowance, and funding to develop the new role the paramedic for the future. The increases were to be backdated, with part of it paid as a lump sum.
Roger Poole, chief negotiator for the Joint Unions, claimed “Today we have driven a coach and horses through the Conservative government’s pay policy!”
However, for many of the ambulance crews, the deal left something to be desired. A major component of the pay claim that year had been the establishment of an annual pay formula linked to the pay systems of police and fire-fighters. But this was dropped during the negotiations.
Put to ambulance workers for ratification; a vote approved the deal by 4:1; members of NUPE, the largest ambulance union, voted 85% in favour on a 74% turnout. Although the pay formula had been dropped, many of those involved had gone as far as they could go at that point. A partial victory felt a bit like a victory still…
Ironically the very building where that deal was struck in the early February morning of 1990 – the Department of Health’s Hannibal House – came to be used as a training centre for London Ambulance Service at which student paramedics are trained at the start of an innovative three-year course.
The strike led to greater recognition of the skill involved in the work of the ambulance crews and began their transformation into today’s multi-skilled paramedics, central to the NHS, with all staff playing a key strategic role, while having a pay determination system looked on with envy by others. One participant later wrote; “Positive change has happened and maybe 89/90 was the birth pains for it.”
Beyond the impact on the job of ambulance crews, there’s no doubt, the strike was one of the most successful of the later Thatcher era. Although there had been other victories in the 80s, they felt few and far between, and an air of general depression had settled on trade unionists and many among the wider working class. If only a partial win, the ambulance dispute seemed a positive sign. And as it was taking place, the movement against the poll tax was just beginning to shape up into a major battle (if in the community arena, rather than that of the workplace), which would also end in victory, of sorts… A sense that tides were turning…
The basis of this text was originally published in 2012, when the ‘Cuts Café’ squatted a building on the corner of Stamford Street and Blackfriars Road to use it as a campaigning centre against the government cuts and austerity onslaught… (we printed a brief account of the Rotunda, to distribute free at the Cuts Cafe squat centre).
We loved that the empty offices had been squatted for action! – not just because we passed that building regularly for years and thought it should be squatted (but were busy with other things!) … but also because they were reviving a powerful radical connection on that very corner…
No 3 Blackfriars Road, a now-demolished building which stood on the road’s west side, near the corner where modern Stamford Street now meets it, was once known as the Rotunda; for a few short years nearly two centuries ago, this was the most influential radical social and political meeting space of its era…
The front of the Rotunda
First founded as a ‘Freethought Coliseum’ and debating club, with a capacity of 1000 people, sometime in the 1780s, the Rotunda stumbled through various owners and numerous uses, until it was taken over by Richard Carlile in 1830, when it entered a brief golden age.
Carlile was a leading radical and freethinker in the 1820s and ’30s: famous/infamous, depending largely on how religious or orthodox you were politically, as a publisher and printer. He sold radical books and newspapers, concentrating on questioning religion, then a powerful influence over most people’s lives. Carlile was repeatedly jailed for re-publishing banned political works like the works of Tom Paine, and anti-religious texts, in a time when blasphemy laws were used regularly to silence anyone questioning christianity.
Carlile had also been at the forefront of the ‘War of the Unstamped Press’, in response to crippling government taxes on newspapers, designed to repress a huge explosion of radical and cheap newspapers aimed at the growing working classes. A huge movement evolved to produce, sell, smuggle these papers, evading a massive official effort to close them, through the 1820s and 30s… Carlile, and hundreds of others, were jailed, often over and over again, during this struggle, which ended with a victory, of sorts, with the reduction of the stamp, thus opening the way for a cheap popular press. From which we still benefit today (??!!)
Through the late 1810s, and the 1820s, Carlile had operated from several shops in Fleet Street, becoming one of the main focus points for a freethinking, radical self-educated artisan culture very powerful in London at this time… a culture that fed into the turbulent and rebellious working class movements of the 1830s and ’40s.
In the late 1820s, Carlile had been eclipsed slightly as the most notorious rebel and blasphemer; he was bankrupt, his book sales were declining, and the radical movements that had erupted after the Napoleonic Wars were temporarily fallen into decline.
But Carlile had a gift for thinking big and doing the outrageous… In May 1830 he spent the vast sum of £1275 (he was skint, so he borrowed the whole sum!) to rent the Rotunda as a venue lectures on atheism (although a fair chunk of this went on cleaning and a paint-job, as the building had got somewhat run down)… The Rotunda’s location played some part in Carlile’s choice of venue, being 200 yards north of Rowland Hill’s chapel (on the junction of Blackfriars Road and Union Street, where the famous Ring later gave birth to modern boxing), a leading centre of religious revivalism of its day. Carlile and his collaborator Robert Taylor saw the Rotunda as the perfect counter-blast to this famous chapel.
This was to be a public place where the disenfranchised and the disaffected could express their collective discontent. Landlords of pubs, taverns and other buildings often either refused radicals bookings, or had pressure put on them by the authorities to stop hiring places to such causes… No longer, Carlile thought, would the radical community be vulnerable to this. Carlile also hoped the Rotunda too could provide the ‘centre’ and a ‘heart’ for the real representatives of working people.
The small lecture theatre at the Rotunda
The Rotunda was to achieve this through popular dissemination of knowledge. A ‘war’ against the ‘ignorance of the whole country’ was central to his aims for the venture. He believed that working people needed, and wanted, a venue for ‘free, open and fair discussion’, but also a place of general instruction and learning for themselves and their children. Intellectual exchange unhindered by religious dogma or political orthodoxies, the ‘necessary purgation and purification of the public mind’, were necessary to build a movement capable of bringing in an inevitable new order of society. Carlile maintained that it was free discussion that was the ‘only necessary Constitution—the only necessary Law to the Constitution’.
It was not through direct political education that Carlile and his Rotunda allies initially envisaged effecting the necessary changes to society, but through science and reason… Carlile pledged that there would be ’no priestcraft, no despotism to deceive the people’.
Robert Taylor. the Devil’s Chaplain
In cahoots with Carlile, as least for a while was the ‘Reverend’ Robert Taylor, a former Church of England clergyman, who blended ultra-radical politics with a fierce opposition to religion. He was twice convicted of blasphemy, the first time in 1827 on an indictment for a blasphemous discourse at Salters’ Hall and on another for conspiracy to overthrow the Christian religion. Sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, at Oakham gaol he met fellow-prisoner Carlile; after they were both released they went on a four months lecture tour in May 1829.
At the Rotunda, Taylor preached in to large audiences dressed as a clergyman. Two ‘sermons on the devil’ in June 1830 gained him from Henry Hunt the title of ‘the devil’s chaplain.’ He was described him “over the middle size, inclined to be stout, and of gentlemanly manners”…
Taylor’s Rotunda lectures were multi-media extravaganzas, enhanced by 12 zodiacal emblems painted on the dome overhead, and a large board carrying greek ‘hieroglyphs’, a mechanical pointer, an expensive illuminated globe and a clockwork orrery… he was also sometimes accompanied by a female chorus playing guitars. His ‘Divine Service’ was offered on Sundays: a burlesque on bible, it usually started with readings from scripture, expanding into a satire on the Anglican service.
Taylor, unlike Carlile, leant strongly on theatre as a means of propaganda and saw it as a powerful lever of social change… They also disagreed on the demystifying power of satire and ridicule. Taylor’s Rotunda performances featured more and more burlesque and buffoonery, while Carlile always inclined to the more serious and moral style of lecture.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
In 1830, southern England was rocked by the Swing riots: agricultural labourers smashed and burned threshing machines in a mass movement of riotous rebellion. The reputation of the Rotunda can be seen in the fact that Government ministers of the time blamed the Swing Riots on the influence of the Rotunda: this was certainly untrue, in that the revolts were sparked by immediate grievances. But the Rotunda was certainly feared by the powers that be. Taylor put on a play enthusing about the riots: called ‘Swing, or Who are the Incendiaries?’; but a year late the authorities got their own back, jailing Carlile for 30 months for defending the rioters in print.
The Establishment vs The Rotunda
In the early 1830s, there was growing pressure for parliamentary reform. A rough alliance of middle class and working class co-operated in pressing for a wider franchise, more representative constituencies, and other measures, to limit the power of the aristocracy… For a couple of years polite political reform, riotous workers and radical demagoguery all seemed to be part and parcel; of course in the end the 1832 Reform Act would later give the vote to the middle classes, who promptly ditched their plebeian allies with a fond fuck you all… Still it was a time pregnant with possibilities.
“On Monday night (8 Nov 1830) a meeting was held at the Rotunda in Blackfriars road… an individual exposed a tricoloured flag, with “Reform” painted upon it, and a cry of “Now for the West End” was instantly raised. This seemed to serve as a signal, as one and all sallied forth in a body. They then proceeded over the bridge in numbers amounting to about 1,500 shouting, “Reform” – “Down with the police” – “No Peel” – “No Wellington.” They were joined by women of the town, vociferous in declamations against the police.”
The Duke of Wellington, then Prime minister, was the arch-champion of the most reactionary tories of the time, dead set against any political reforms or concessions to change of any kind. The class conscious workers movement especially considered him one of their main enemies. Note the flying of the French tricolour, the emblem of the first French Revolution, then still used by English radicals who took part of their inspiration from the events of 1789 in France. It was only really superseded as the main workers flag by the red flag in the later 19th century.
“The mob proceeded into Downing-street, where they formed in a line… A strong body of the new police arrived from Scotland yard to prevent them going to the House of Commons. A general fight ensued, in which the new police were assisted by several respectable looking men. The mob, upon seeing reinforcement, took to flight.
The refuse of the mob, proceeded in a body, vociferating “No Peel – down with the raw lobsters!” At Charing Cross, the whole of them yelled, shouting and breaking windows. They were dashing over heaps of rubbish and deep holes caused by the pulling down of several houses, when a strong body of police rushed upon them and dealt out unmerciful blows with staves on heads and arms.
In the evening another mob made their way to Apsley House, the residence of the Duke of Wellington, hallooing, in their progress thither, disapprobation towards the noble duke and the police. They were met by a strong force of the police, who succeeded in ultimately dispersing them. During the conflict many received serious injuries.
At half-past twelve o’clock, a party were in the act of breaking up [a paling], for purpose of arming themselves, when a body of police made a rush forward and laid unmercifully on the rioters, making many prisoners…”
The Duke Of Wellington considered the battle for the future of society as one of “The Establishment Vs The Rotunda.”
Two days later, the military besieged the Rotunda at ten o’clock at night trying to provoke another fight; they ordered Carlile to open the doors, but he refused, so they eventually buggered off.
Despite the popularity of the Rotunda’s lectures, Carlile always had problems coming up with the rent for the Rotunda. Carlile tried to solve this by opening the space up to other groups, mostly radials, even ones he had previously quarrelled with or had serious political differences with.
In July 1831, he attempted to address this problem both financially and politically by letting part of the building to the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC).
The National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) held mass debates at the Rotunda; according to leading London reformer (and police informer!) Francis Place: “I have seen hundreds outside the doors for whom there was no room within.”
The NUWC had arisen as an alliance of groups of London trade unionists, many of whom were also sympathetic to the ideas of Robert Owen. However they largely rejected Owen’s belief that political reform was irrelevant, that the working class should organise only on the economic level. The NUWC instead maintained that political action was vital, that universal male suffrage, winning the vote for working men, would in the end bring about economic equality. They saw class relations as fundamental to society, and that in order to win their rights workers had to organise for themselves: some in the NUWC said the workers should organise themselves separately, in their own organisations. In London their support was mainly among artisans, who had formed the backbone of the reforming and radical movements, with a strong tradition of self-education, self-employment, apprenticeship and independence.
Membership of the National Union of the Working Classes totalled about 3,000 in London, they were divided into local ‘classes’ of 80 to 130 people, mostly in then solidly working class areas like Lambeth, Bethnal Green, Hammersmith and Islington. But their influence was greater than membership numbers suggest: especially through papers like the Poor Man’s Guardian, which were read widely among artisans and the emerging working class. In government and official circles, fear of the power and influence of the NUWC was, however, probably wildly out of proportion to its real power.
Some leading lights of the NUWC were George Foskett; William Lovett, later a moderate Chartist leader; Henry Hetherington, (who printed the debates in his ‘Poor Man’s Guardian’, the leading unstamped newspaper) William Benbow, James Watson and John Cleave, all three of who ran radical newspaper and book shops in London. Many had been linked to the ‘War of the Unstamped’ (see above). Most of these, and much of the membership of the Union in general, helped to create, or became involved in, the Chartist movement, a much larger expression of working class desires for reform, greater rights and power. The NUWC in many ways was a sort of proto-Chartism, though strong in London, where Chartism’s greatest strengths were in the new industrial cities of the north and midlands.
A caricature of William Benbow in his printshop
It was at the Rotunda that William Benbow first advocated his theory of the Grand National Holiday. Benbow argued that a month long General Strike would lead to an armed uprising and a change in the political system to the gain of working people. Benbow used the term “holiday” (holy day) because it would be a period “most sacred, for it is to be consecrated to promote the happiness and liberty”. Benbow argued that during this one month holiday the working class would have the opportunity “to legislate for all mankind; the constitution drawn up… that would place every human being on the same footing. Equal rights, equal enjoyments, equal toil, equal respect, equal share of production.” Benbow’s theory was published in a radical newspaper, the Tribune of the People, and in a pamphlet, The Grand National Holiday of the Productive Classes (1832).
From 1831 to 1833, weekly NUWC meetings and debates were held at the Rotunda; on and off; during this time there was an intense agitation nationally for reform, and many of these were heated discussions, as the Union was from the start to its end divided. There were arguments over definitions of class, over strategy and tactics, over the uses of violence, over whether to ally with the (then stronger) middle class political reform movement, or the more progressive wing of the Whig party.
Especially after the 1832 Reform Act gave voting rights to middle class men, but not the working class, some elements of the Union came to the conclusion that the lower classes would have to rebel to obtain their ‘rights’. There was a strong sense that the middle class reformers had used the threat of working class uprising as a stick to force the aristocracy to share power with them, then shafted their proletarian allies. Benbow made a speech celebrating the great reform riot in Bristol in 1831, but was opposed by other members of the NUWC Committee… Some NUWC members made plans to arm themselves in self defence against police attacks on rallies, which jacked up the government and bourgeoisie’s fear of the Union. By 1833, the moderates were beginning to desert the NUWC and the more desperate elements came to the fore. Their plan to launch a Convention of the People (a scary notion for the upper classes, coming straight from the most radical phase of the French Revolution) led to a rally on Coldbath fields in Clerkenwell, which was kettled and attacked by police. In the fighting a policeman was killed.
The NUWC began to fall apart after this, but its influence helped give birth to Chartism. Both the London Working Man’s Association and the London Democratic Association emerged from same groups and individuals in London, and they were crucial in kickstarting Chartism in the late 1830s. But its inherent divisions over class, whether workers could co-operate with the middle class, over the use of force, over the ultimate aim (just equality, or seizing power for the workers as a class), were inherited by the larger later movement, and continued to divide Chartism through its existence… And many are indeed questions alive and kicking in our own movements and struggles today…
Carlile, meanwhile, had other problems… including a growing rift between him and Robert Taylor. Carlile disapproved of Taylor’s levity and clowning, and his wild behaviour, heavy drinking, and consorting with what ‘serious’ radicals saw as unsavoury characters, although he admired his ability to hold mass audiences. Taylor’s spoofs on religious services became wilder and wilder, he dressed as a bishop, parodied church services, and made more and more outrageous blasphemous comments on christian rituals or the scriptures. As a result he was hauled up in court in July 1831 for preaching blasphemy, found guilty, and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in Horsemonger Lane gaol, with a hefty fine. His friends raised a subscription for him in September 1832.
This jail sentence actually caused a real split between Carlile and Taylor. Carlile thought radicals jailed for their ideas should be stoical martyrs: upstanding, unbending and morally correct. But Taylor was an unsatisfactory freethought martyr: he whined, wrote to the Prime Minister trying to get his sentence reduced, and got caught smuggling brandy into his cell.
Besides the NUWC, other noted radicals of the period graced the stages of the Rotunda: William Cobbett delivered a series of lectures on the French Revolution; in late 1830, the Irish ‘Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell chaired several NUWC meetings on the situation in Ireland.
Carlile’ s willingness to open the doors to a diverse range of radicals was not just from ideological motives – it also helped pay the huge rents and expenses. “Faced with the significant sum of £1000 per annum to keep the building open, Carlile also charged admission to the lectures and performances….
The Pythoness of the Temple
But even with the NUWC in residence, Carlile continued to struggle to pay the bills, and by late 1831 had rented the theatres (when not used by the NUWC) to a circus, a concert company and, on one occasion, a man exhibiting a ‘Phenomena of Nature’: a horse with seven legs. Given Carlile’s previous barbs regarding the flippant nature of popular entertainment, it must have stung deeply to see his prized venue reduced to a forum of trivial spectacle. Nevertheless, such performances kept the Rotunda open, allowing him to plan his next move…
In September 1831, he announced the arrival of a ‘new Jesus Christ who was to lecture at the Rotunda on Thursday evenings under various titles of ’Shiloh, ‘messiah’ and ‘Sion’. John ‘Zion’ Ward, a fifty-year-old crippled former shoemaker of Irish descent, had progressed through Calvinism, Methodism, Baptism, and Sandemonianism before becoming a follower of prophetess Joanna Southcott. In 1825, he experienced a ‘revelation that he was the new Shiloh, or Joanna Southcott’s spiritual offspring’ , aka Jesus Christ (though he had formerly been Satan). Ward’s millenarian Rotunda sermons, with titles such as the ‘Judgment Seat of God’, Balaam’s Ass and Fall of Man, enthralled Rotunda audiences. Ward adopted the mantle of Robert Taylor with ease, as his performances were also strong on countertheatre and melodrama; his lectures blended ‘rationalism, republicanism and chiliastic mysticism’. But despite attracting crowds of up to 2000 at the Rotunda, Ward left London to continue on their roving lecture circuit. Carlile was forced again to search for a star attraction.
But by January 1832, large placards were seen around London announcing a ‘new occupation of the building’: “a return to Taylor and Ward’s brand of Rotunda radicalism, only this time, sensationally, in female form.” Dubbed ‘Lady of the Rotunda’ and ‘Isis’ (derived from the romantic myth of the Egyptian Goddess of Reason), Eliza Sharples’s identity was concealed for many months to protect her family, a ‘mystery’ also designed to whip up interest and controversy, and in true Carlile-style was “promoted as intensely as an opening night at the theatre”, timed to coincide with a date auspicious to all radicals: the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Paine.
From a middle-class household in Lancashire, where she had largely educated herself and adopted freethought ideas, Eliza had come to London on hearing of Carlile’s imprisonment in 1831, visited him in prison, and became his (unmarried) lover. Convinced that Sharples would also invigorate Rotunda radicalism (and thereby his financial fortunes), Carlile took the bold step of evicting the NUWC from their headquarters in the larger theatre.
Eliza’s lectures became a ’regular strain of abuse of Religion, priests and all institutions.’ In the tradition of Taylor, Ward and Carlile, Sharples used the Rotunda platform to denounce the priesthood, mock religious superstition and pour scorn on established authority.
This aroused fury among conservatives and Christian evangelicals… The very fact that a woman was lecturing in public was considered ‘unfeminine’ in itself –the ‘blasphemous content’ of her talks compounded this. A correspondent to The Times, with a classic mix of misogyny and accent snobbery, labelled her a “female who exhibits herself in so unfeminine a manner… so utterly illiterate is the poor creature, that she cannot yet read what is set down for her with any degree of intelligibility…with her ignorance and unconquerable brogue…her ‘lecturing’…is almost as ludicrous as it is painful to witness.” Another report contemptuously described her as the ‘Pythoness of the temple’, branding her message as ’rubbish’ and suggesting retirement from the public sphere back to a domestic role, where, they supposed, she would more fittingly occupied as a “housemaid, or servant of all work, in some decent family…”
Sharples took up Taylor’s theatrical approach for his popular performances, for instance appearing wearing a ‘showy’ dress for her lectures, “stepping onto a stage strewn with the radical symbols of white thorn and laurel leaves”. On a stage previously occupied only by men, in a venue that was otherwise publicly associated with the rough, unrespectable elements of radicalism, appeared a woman in respectable dress, who then asserted the most unrespectable radical ideas… This was shockingly great theatre and provocation.
Richard Carlile had always aimed to establish the Rotunda as a space that catered for and attracted women, as other previous radical meeting spaces had failed to do. Police spy Abel Hall had reported large numbers of women attending Taylor’s lectures.
But Sharples tenure as a speaker at the Rotunda only lasted a few months. By February 1832, Sharples reported that over £1000 was needed to keep the venture open, to cover rent, taxes, lights, repairs, servants and to keep it in ’good order’. The Rotunda had teetered on the brink of closure ever since the imprisonment of Carlile. At the end of April 1832, facing an ever-widening financial burden, Carlile and Sharples took the dificult decision to end their tenure at the Rotunda.
Sharples would continue to work tirelessly in the freethought movement, publishing a secular magazine, Isis (no really!), and continuing to lecture on religion. She formed a link between the freethinkers of the 1820s-30s and the later large British secularist movement that evolved in the 1850s-70s, giving a home to the young Charles Bradlaugh, later to become a leading member of the secularist movement and a Radical MP, after his commitment to free thought led to alienation from his family.
Shortly after Sharples’ tenure ended, the Rotunda again came under female management, when Eliza Macauley, a former actress and Christian turned Owenite preacher, took it over. In August 1832, Macauley established the Surrey and Southwark Equitable Exchange Bank on the model of Owen’s own National Equitable Labour Exchange, which operated a system whereby workers deposited their goods, and an exchange note was then issued, allowing the member to purchase goods in return. Macauley’s Exchange also allowed women to ‘add their industry to that of their husbands’ by issuing exchange vouchers for women’s labour.
The South London Rational School at the Rotunda
Macauley also used the Rotunda premises to lecture on the equality of the sexes, financial reform and the superstition of established churches; women were admitted free. Macauley’s decision to lecture on a Sunday roused protestations from local Christians… She also planned to open a school of education and science for adults and an infant school in the Rotunda., but, the venture did not succeed and she became mired in debt. In 1835, Macauley wrote her memoirs from the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison.
The demise of Macauley’s endeavour saw the Rotunda again return to an outlet of popular entertainment.
However, in 1842–43 the premises’ once again became a focal point for radical lectures. Again with a strongly Owenite connection with strong and a leading female presence. Harriet Martineau, radical-liberal, was reported lecturing at the Rotunda in November 1842. The Rotunda’s established history as a gender-inclusive venue for knowledge and instruction was also rekindled, as an Owenite Hall of Science opened there, providing classes to boys and girls, making no differentiation of subject matter based on sex.
Carlile, more of an individualist than a co-operator, took this development with wry amusement, joking that the ‘Socialists’ had taken over his Rotunda. ‘The Social Thieves of Lambeth’, he despaired, ‘have possessed themselves of my Rotunda! How I envied the rogues of Sunday!’ However he broadly approved that the Rotunda was again working for ‘public purposes’, noting that his friend George Holyoake, secretary to the Lambeth Branch of the Rational Society, was due to lecture there the following day. Holyoake wrote to Carlile, advising he had ‘elicited some warm cheers for you this morning at the Rotunda’.
The South London branch of the Chartist movement also held meetings there throughout 1843, with the ‘largest gathering’ since they ’obtained possession of the Rotunda occurring in July that year.
According to The Times of 17 August 1843, the Rotunda was crowded out after placards declared that the part of the queen in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, then playing there, was to be taken by “Miss Mary Ann Walker of Chartist celebrity” – a famous female Chartist (“notorious”, if you read the mainstream bourgeois anti-feminist and anti-Chartist press) When the queen appeared on stage and was clearly not the person expected, a cry went up of “No, no! That ain’t Miss Walker.” Despite an apology and explanation from the stage manager that the placards had been a hoax, the crowd howled and laughed through the rest of the play.
In late 1843, leading Chartist Bronterre O’Brien was lecturing there, and a soiree was held in his honour in the Rotunda’s large theatre in January the following year. In January 1843, the Examiner reported a meeting to appeal for the Repeal of the Corn Laws, which attracted a gathering of some 1500 people.
Holyoake proposed a subscription plan to allow the premises to be turned into a ‘Philosophical Institute’, with Owenite lecturer Emma Martin as director.
“Despite his reticence about the socialists and his Rotunda, Carlile might well have approved. As Barbara Taylor mused, the funeral sermon. Martin penned upon learning of Carlile’s death in 1843, which contained caustic attacks about the established clergy and Old Corruption, would have ‘warmed his own heart’.”
But though the subscription effort raised the required amount of £250, the landlord intervened in the plan, refusing to lease the building for ‘atheistical purposes’. The curtain had gone down on the most radical and blasphemous social space of its era…
Huge corporate developers St George have since engorged the site of the Rotunda with their erection of One Blackfriars, a skyscraper boasting 274 luxury flats, a “lifestyle hotel’ (whatever the fuck that is), and more sterile public space empty of meaning –
… But somewhere there’s a riotous crowd arming for uprising; and a man dressed as a bishop is mocking the absurdities of religion.
From the past to the present to the future: we have hung out on a lot of corners – that’s one of ours.
Originally published 2012, revised 2022
• Read more on the Rotunda, in
THE ESTABLISHMENT VS. THE ROTUNDA
a past tense pamphlet,
Which you can order here
In the last three decades of the eighteenth century, pressure for reform of the political system grew throughout Britain. The electoral system was entirely designed to reinforce the power of the dominant class, the aristocracy; only a tiny fraction of the population had the vote, mostly wealthy, all men; constituencies were designed so as to get the favoured candidates of the powerful landowners elected. Many towns and cities had no MP. Many constituencies had tiny electorates; some had literally no residents.
From the 1760s on, a growing and broad movement gradually evolved, campaigning for changes to this corrupt and loaded political system. The main demands were for a wider franchise, more representative constituencies, secret ballots (to prevent the wealthy and powerful openly influencing the vote), and more regular elections to parliament.
In its origins this movement was based largely on the now economically confident middle class, often well-educated and wealthy, but excluded from social status, from political power and influence nationally, and dependent on the political patronage of the nobility. Political power denied them, they faced heavy taxation, as the aristocratic parliament increasingly targeted the middle class for revenue raising.
A political culture of debate, discussion of ideas and grievances, and a growing and noisy press, helped solidify resentments into a movement for reform. Hostility to the blatantly corrupt and self-serving elite built steadily through the 18th century, voiced by muckraking journals, in the coffeehouse clubs and discussions, through a century punctuated by riotous eruptions.
The middle class movement for reform expressed its campaign for reform through a rhetoric of rights and liberty, often couched in the language of traditional English freedoms, lost rights being denied by the monarchy and aristocracy, ‘freeborn Englishmen’ should be free from arbitrary tyrannical government…
While this reform movement was based in the rising middle class, much of its rhetoric chimed with the grievances of classes and castes lower down the ladder, who had their own issues, many of them economic and social… Among the artisans, workmen, shopkeepers of London and other British cities, the reform movement helped trigger the beginnings of a self-organised political culture, which would help form a nineteenth century working class movement. However, for many of the leading reformers, the economic needs of political enfranchisement of the labouring classes was never really a priority.
The reform movement ebbed and flowed through the 1760s, 1770s 1780s; demagogues and spokesmen like John Wilkes attempted to direct it, partly in their own interests. A six-point program was drawn up which summed up the demands of the reform movement:
Universal manhood suffrage
Constituencies to have equal population
Payment of MPs
Abolition of the property qualification to become an MP
The secret ballot.
This program would remain at the central core of the movement for political reform for decades. Another development that would help alter the direction of the reform movement was the emergence of the philosophical doctrine of natural rights, originating in the thinking of John Locke – the idea that all men were born with inalienable rights to life, liberty and property. Locke’s philosophy was drawn on by radicals like Richard Price to develop a political program of civil liberties for all, a voice in the government of the country for all. (Obviously ‘all’ still meaning ‘only blokes’ at this stage…)
A Whig party in Parliament represented some of the more moderate positions of the reformers, but the powerful interests of the upper classes successfully resisted any shift.
External political developments would jack the reform campaigns onto new levels. The American War of Independence ended in a political settlement which seemed to embody many of the ideals the middle class reformers were striving for – representative government, political equality, but by responsible men of wealth and property, free from the shackles of aristocracy.
And then the French Revolution of 1789 added a whole new spice to the pressure for reform. The French Third Estate’s early success in curbing the power of their monarchy won them many admirers among British reformers, who saw a common cause; the formation of the National Assembly and subsequent proclamations of the universal Rights of Man aroused great enthusiasm among some elements of the reform movement.
At the same time, the increasing violence of the struggle between the revolutionaries and the aristocracy in France provoked increasing fear and loathing among the British monarchy and establishment; they not only supported the French aristos, but took more and more of a dim view of their own home grown reformers, reasoning that those campaigning for social change might take a leaf out of the neighbours’ book and end up challenging, even deposing, their own king George…
The French revolution had sparked furious and wide-ranging debate and discussion among British reformers, from the dinner parties and salons of the more refined, to the debating societies of London’s taverns and coffee houses.
From this ferment, from the reform campaigns, the sympathy for the French Revolution, the artisans and workers beginning to combine and question their own position, emerged a network of radical organisations, particularly in the growing cities of an industrialising Britain; at the heart of this network was the London Corresponding Society.
The initiative to form the London Corresponding Society came from shoemaker Thomas Hardy; he and several ‘wellmeaning, sober and industrious’ friends had been politicised by economic hardship & influenced by the American & French Revolutions as well as the reform pamphlets of the Constitutional Society. Meeting at The Bell Inn, on Exeter Street, off the Strand on 25 January 1792, they had initially gathered to talk about the poverty and hardship facing working men in their daily life; however, they also discussed plans Hardy had drawn up for a London reform society. Their discussion led them to the conclusion that fundamental political reform in Britain, opening up the franchise to the lower orders, was necessary before any government was ever going to seriously consider measures that would improve working people’s lives. Reform was the route to social and economic change.
On the suggestion of Hardy the organisation adopted the name the London Corresponding Society. Hardy and eight others of those present joined up immediately; a ninth joined the following week. Hardy who became secretary and treasurer.
The founder and first Secretary, Thomas Hardy, later recalled the first meeting:
“After having had their bread and cheese and porter for supper, as usual, and their pipes afterwards, with some conversation on the hardness of the times and the dearness of all the necessaries of life … the business for which they had met was brought forward – Parliamentary Reform – an important subject to be deliberated upon and dealt with by such a class of men.”
Hardy (who was also Treasurer) went back to his home at No. 9 Piccadilly with the entire funds of the organisation in his pocket: 8d. towards paper for the purpose of corresponding with like-minded groups in the country (hence the group’s name).
Political debating clubs were not new: there had been an increasing number springing up through the 18th century. But what made the new Society groundbreaking was that its subscription fees were low enough to allow working people to get involved. From the first, their emphasis was on corresponding with likeminded groups in other towns (hence the name): “..Its was a definite step forward in the rise of the political consciousness of the masses when they no longer felt that they were engaged in an isolated effort” (Robert Birley)
Within a fortnight twenty-five members were enrolled and the sum in the Treasurer’s hands was 4s. ld. Six months later more than 2,000 members were claimed.
The LCS continued to meet at the Bell until June; by this time contact had been made with similar societies that had emerged in Sheffield and Norwich.
Similar groups grew up in Manchester, Leeds, Derby, Leicester, Coventry, Newcastle, Bath, Rochester, Hertford, among others.
The Corresponding society’s basic demands were aimed at Parliamentary reform: universal suffrage & annually elected parliaments. They attacked the system of rotten boroughs with few or no residents being represented by MPs, while large developing industrial towns were not represented at all. These last were reasonably widespread complaints among more moderate reformers. But the LCS also developed ideas well ahead of their time: proposing that MPs should be recallable by their electorate.
And crucially the LCS also recognised class antagonism: their demands for reform were aimed at the working class & lower middle class, because they knew the aristocratic elite had a vested interest in obstructing change. The class basis of the organisation was described as “tradesmen, mechanics & shopkeepers.”
The LCS saw parliamentary reform as partly a step towards legislating for a more just society: an ‘honest parliament’ would enact popular legislation, notably an end to enclosure of land by the wealthy & the throwing open of common land already enclosed, as well as legal reform to make justice cheaper & more available to the poorer classes.
The Society organised carefully. As new members joined, the Society would split into new divisions, which spread around the capital, meeting in pubs and coffee houses. The divisions contained between 16 & 45 members; they divided into two on reaching 45. Each division sent 2 delegates each to a General Committee. The divisions & the General Committee met weekly.
By September 1792 the Society claimed to have 5000 members. However, active membership was much smaller than the numbers often claimed on paper, and membership would ebb and flow massively through the 1790s, as divisions lapsed or broke up, through repression by the state, both overt in terms of arrests and trials, and covert, through constant penetration by Home Office spies, and regular pressure put on landlords and coffee house owners to bar the reformers from meeting in their premises (often with the threat of loss of their licence if they refused.)
The Society’s main source of support was drawn from London’s artisans – Spitalfields silk weavers, shoemakers, watchmakers, tailors and cabinet makers being particularly noticeable. But membership varied widely in class and background, many being lawyers, booksellers, printers, shopkeepers, clerks and some doctors. If anything, many of the leading voices in the LCS were not artisans, though some of the founders and better known activists were from an artisan background. If the LCS did have a substantially artisan focus, its ideas did not represent or emerge from the capital’s labouring poor, though the large Society events like the monster meetings of the mid 1790s may have attracted some of this class.
On a day to day local level, LCS branches focussed primarily on education and discussion of ideas; weekly meetings often consisted of books being read out loud and discussed.
In this form the LCS represented part of the birth of the autodidactic working class club culture that would dominate the politics of the ‘lower orders’ for the next century. The Society was also crucial to the development of forms of protest and communication, through its mass meetings and outdoor speaking – following the example of religious preachers like the Methodists.
In March 1792, the LCS issued a manifesto, written by its first president, the lawyer Maurice Margarot (who was later arrested and sentenced to be transported to the penal colonies for his radical activities); this manifesto inspired the forming of other like-minded societies outside London.
London Corresponding Society pennies, cast in 1795
The Society sent messages of fraternity & support to the revolutionary Convention in France, the elected assembly which was pushing forward the French Revolution. Though the LCS were divided as to whether they supported for the ‘excesses’ of the Revolution, such as the massacres of aristocrats in Paris in September 1792, they championed the Revolution against the foreign armies intervening to restore absolute monarchy in France.
The initial popular interest in the ideas of the LCS, and the radical turn the French Revolution took (with the deposing of the monarchy and terror launched against the aristocracy) scared the British establishment into launching vicious repression against the reformers. The influence of the LCS, other pro-reform groups, and the radical writings of Thomas Paine and other reformers, seemed to many in the establishment to indicate a growing potential for a revolutionary movement arising from the democratic groupings in Britain. The more radical the direction the French Revolution took, the more paranoid the British government became.
The ruling class’s counter-measures took several forms – overt and covert, official and unofficial. There were threats to introduce repressive laws that restricted liberties; LCS divisions were subject to comprehensive spying by paid informers, putting together a picture of a revolutionary society prepared to overthrow the state… (in many cases exaggerating the threat to make it look like they were combatting an existential threat – you gotta earn your pay somehow when you’re a spycop, huh?); magistrates threatened the licences of publicans in whose premises the democratic or reformist groups usually met
In 1791 and 1792, and again in 1794, ‘loyalist associations’, reactionary groups supported by the authorities in most cases, campaigned against reformers and attacked those suspected of supporting pro-reform organisations. Patriotic ‘Church and King’ mobs attacked houses or radicals and non-conformists. Many towns & rural areas saw witch hunts against individuals suspected of ‘disloyal’ attitudes.
LCS delegates Maurice Margarot & Joseph Gerrald were sent to a British Convention in Edinburgh in December 1793: an attempt to unite democratic societies, & step up activities towards achieving universal suffrage & reform. The Convention was broken up by force by the authorities, and Gerrald, Margarot, & three Scots, Muir, Palmer & Skirving, were arrested, and sentenced to transportation to the Penal Colonies. Publishers printing radical tracts were prosecuted. Thomas Paine was outlawed and his writings banned.
Increasing repression and the workings of agent-provocateurs combined to push some elements of the Corresponding Society into more extreme positions. In April 1794, a spy visited the rooms of a LCS-linked radical group, the Lambeth Loyal Association, and found that they seemed to be drilling in military formation, possibly getting ready for an uprising…
On May 2nd 1794, a Constitutional Society dinner hosted some members of the LCS: John Horne Tooke & others present made speeches which the government later presented as seditious & republican. This sparked repressive moves by the government. Ten days later, Thomas Hardy was arrested. On May 15th a Secret Committee of both Houses of Parliament was elected, which suspended the law of Habeas Corpus on May 23. John Horne Tooke and LCS lecturer John Thelwall were shortly also nicked. All three were charged with treason.
In June 1794, Hardy’s house was attacked by a ‘church and king’ mob: his wife Lydia died in childbirth as a result of the attack.
Many LCS members were frightened off by the increased repression, but others joined the organisation out of solidarity. Britain had entered the war against revolutionary France; this quickly became unpopular. In the summer of 1794 there were riots against military recruitment, and attacks on ‘crimp houses’ (recruiting centres) which the LCS in reality had little or no part in, but added to the sense of paranoia among the ruling class.
Hardy, Tooke & Thelwall were tried for treason in November 1794, but the evidence was weak, feeling against government spies was high & they were all acquitted, to popular rejoicing: charges were dropped against other radicals. There were great celebrations, but Hardy & Tooke both largely dropped out of political activity after this.
The LCS, whose membership and influence had been suffering under the repression, began to revive in late 1794 and early ‘95. A journal, the Politician, was started in December 1794: it wasn’t a success & they abandoned it in the spring. But the Society was growing again: from 17 divisions across London in March to 70 or 80 in October. The unpopularity of the war gained them increasing influence.
In 1794 and 1795 the Corresponding Society began to hold monster meetings, huge rallies calling for reform, an end to the war and to repression, on the open spaces at London’s edge – Marylebone Fields, Copenhagen Fields, and St George’s Fields…
A caricature of the Copenhagen Fields October 1795 monster rally
On the 26th 1795 a mass meeting on Copenhagen Fields in Islington saw them at the peak of their strength: as many as 150,000 people attended. The scared authorities banned meetings of more than 50 people, & strengthened the powers of magistrates. Despite widespread protest around the country these measures would lead to the decline of the democratic movement, and encouraged local repression by magistrates. Many potential supporters were put off joining. Also at this time, divisions developed in the LCS over the question of religion, with a growing trend of deism influenced by Paine’s Age of Reason. An attempt to publish a magazine in 1796 failed, increasing the Society’s debts. Disillusion was also setting in with revolutionary France, as it became clear that with the fall of the Jacobins in 1794, the most corrupt sections of the bourgeoisie had taken power.
Thomas Evans, later the founder of the Spencean Philanthropists, became secretary of the LCS in 1796: he and other leaders at this point proved more radical than many of the membership…
Scared by the almost unprecedented navy mutinies at the Nore & Spithead in 1797, the authorities attempted to prove the LCS had been involved in inspiring the revolts – without turning up much evidence. But John Bone, an LCS member, was busted with copies of a ‘seditious’ handbill distributed to soldiers at Maidstone. As a result, on July 31st 1797 at an LCS public meeting the platform of speakers was nicked by Middlesex magistrates. On its last legs, as members dropped off, the whole LCS committee was nicked at its April 19th 1798 meeting – this marked the effective end of the Society.
The onslaught of government repression from 1794 to 1798 drove many of the Society’s members and supporters into inactivity, exile, into keeping away from meetings and keeping their heads down. 1000s had attended meetings and joined over six years, but the LCS had been reduced in its last days to a handful.
The arrests of 1797 not only put the fear into the majority; a number of the Society’s leading activists were imprisoned.
Some, however, were determined to continue with radical activity, and if organising legally and openly was now impossible, then they would meet in secret. And a number had come to the conclusion that peaceful campaigning for what they saw as their rights was not going to win them any reforms; the only open road was insurrection and revolution.
A caricature of the arrest of LCS committee members in April 1798
Small groups of ex-LCS activists and members of other radical societies around the country began to meet in groupings under the name of United Englishmen or United Britons. The name was partly inspired by the United Irishmen, Irish nationalist republicans who had been organising towards freeing Ireland from British control, with who the British radicals were now increasingly co-operating. Irish and British rebels now began to discuss plans for a co-ordinated uprising against the British government.
However the Irish insurrection erupted, without a corresponding insurrection in England. Support for the Irish rebellion did not materialise as the United Irishmen had hoped; but support in England was even thinner on the ground, and revolution was never on the cards. The small groups of United Englishmen were also penetrated (as the LCS had been) by spies backed by magistrates and the Home Office, and any plots were completely monitored and the plotters quickly rounded up. Many of the UE members and former Corresponding Society campaigners were detained, some without any charge, from 1798, and detention for most lasted months or a couple of years.
The political reforms the London Corresponding Society formed to fight for were not won in the lifetime of the organisation. Many came only decades later. But former LCS members carried the torch into the 19th century, and were involved in campaigning down the years. Ex-LCS activists were central to the post-Napoleonic War agitation for change, in the extreme radical groups like the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, and much more. Crucially, the ideas the LCS and the radical and reforming societies of the 1790s promoted spread wider and wider, as the industrial revolution forged a new working class in Britain, a class that increasingly became conscious of itself, the exploitation it faced, and the possible solutions… The legacy of the London Corresponding Society echoed down the decades, into the auto-didactic working class radical club scene, the unstamped press agitation, the National Union of the Working Classes, Chartism, and beyond…
In the early 19th century, factory owner and social reformer Robert Owen developed a broadly Utopian utopian socialist philosophy. Owen came to influence an increasing number of followers and successors, especially among the growing working class and artisans. Owen’s ideas theorised a radical reform of society, along the lines of co-operation of those producing goods by their labour, from which they would benefit collectively, rather than the fruits of their labour merely enriching the capitalists, while the producers lived in poverty.
Owen and those influenced by him – often labelled Owenites – directly led to the development of the cooperative movement, although by the later nineteenth century, co-operative production had largely been replaced by co-operatives at the point of consumption…
Many Owenites were also involved in early trade unionism, and in political movements for reform (though Owen himself took a dim view of political organising).
The Owenite movement also undertook several experiments in the establishment of utopian communities organised according to communitarian and cooperative principles. One of the best known of these efforts, which were largely unsuccessful, was the project at New Harmony, Indiana, which started in 1825 and was abandoned by 1829, which Owen himself was closely associated with.
In the 1820s, London became a stronghold of Owenism, which flourished among the capital’s artisans and the growing working classes.
One early Owenite project was a short-lived commune, generally known as the Spa Fields Owenite Community.
The community was established in a number of properties at around Spa Fields, Clerkenwell, just to the north of the City of London. The community was based on Owen’s cooperative ideas, but was the immediate brainchild of Scotsman George Mudie (b. 1788), whose main claim to fame was his invention of the word ‘Owenism’ for the collection of co-operative ideas centred on Owen’s theories.
On 22 or 23 January 1821, a group of printers met at Mitchell’s Assembly Rooms, London, to discuss Mudie’s proposals for a community, and at this meeting a committee was appointed. The following day a constitution was drawn up stating that ‘The ultimate object of this Society is to establish a Village of Unity and Mutual Co-operation, combining Agriculture, Manufactures, and Trade, upon the Plan projected by Mr Owen of New Lanark’. The co-operators met thereafter at the Medallic Cabinet, 158 The Strand, to raise money. The plan was soon formulated to create a “Co-operative and Economical Society” of 200 families.
Mudie had almost simultaneously launched an Owenite journal. ‘The Economist’, partly to sell to raise funds for the new community. In the first issue, issued on 27 January 1821, a Prospectus for the proposed community was published, noting: ‘The great majority of the members will continue at their present employments—each male member paying one guinea weekly to the general fund’, for which he would receive board and accommodation for himself and family, sickness benefit and a share in communal property and capital. In the second issue of The Economist it was announced: ‘Poverty must continue, while Production is confined within the bounds of Consumption.’
The new Co-operative and Economic Society went on in the third issue of the Economist to discuss the merits of barter as a means of matching up people’s wants with supply of goods, but it was argued that considerable saving in expenditure would be forthcoming in the proposed community, as goods could be bought at wholesale prices. Each member was to contribute towards shares in units of five shillings and ‘to facilitate the distribution of goods, and for other social purposes, as many of the members as can conveniently quit their present residences, do live as nearly as possible together, in one or more neighbourhoods’.
The male members of the Society had to contribute a guinea to the central fund. There would be a communal kitchen and dining hall, plus there were plans for a school as well. The committee calculated that the community would save around £8,000 per year through its own manufacture of various items that it would use. Mudie believed that the community would be able to become independent. A London builder submitted plans for communal premises, and a lawyer, who was also a member of the Co-operative and Economical Society, advised that the co-operative body could come
within the provisions of protective legislation for friendly societies.
During this period the chairman was George Hinde and one prominent member was the printer Henry Hetherington, active in the ‘war of the unstamped’ and later publisher of the Poor Man’s Guardian, an influential radical unstamped newspaper. However, “disillusionment soon set in at the lack
of progress-a letter from ‘A Few Co-operative Economists’ pointed out that ‘four strangers who jointly bought a sheep at Smithfield had done more than all the meetings during the course of twenty issues of The Economist.’
By November 1821 a commune had been established in houses at the corner of Bagnigge Wells Road (now Kings Cross Road) and Guildford Street East (now Attneave Street), Clerkenwell. The inhabitants became known as the Spa Fields Congregational Families. 21 families lived in a community, pooling resources and wages, ran a printing press (on which the Economist was printed) , and had a mini-health care system.
Unlike most other Owenite communes the residents, who were typically artisans such as cobblers and haberdashers, did outside work and did not work on the land.
Domestic arrangements were communal and the establishment included a hall used for eating and other activities. Rents were fixed-room charges were to range between two and four shillings weekly, including taxes and the use of dining room, stores, kitchen. Members decided, however, not to pool their incomes. A scale of weekly expenses was drawn up with maintenance for a man and wife at 145 5d; single men would also be obliged to pay 145/5d — the same charge as for a married couple-
because of the ‘communal value of a wife’s industry’.
Other features included a school, dispensary and a cooperative store, from which it was intended to set up a store from which the public were to be allowed to buy goods,
The women worked from 6am to 8pm, and the children were also kept busy “without a moment’s intermission”. The community advertised various services that they would provide, such as cobbling, painting, haberdashery, etc., and they also announced that they would be opening a school run on approved Fellenbergian lines.
The community also set up a “monitor” system whereby each monitor looked after one person and acted as his “confessor”. This was a typically Owenite feature – part of the personal monitors’ role was to admonish ‘bad behaviour’, ie enforce moral codes of behaviour…
The small size and the reduced degree of separation from the outside world were not strictly in keeping with Owen’s own views on such communities: he tended to favour larger communes, and a more detached approach from society.
Some indication of the range of skills of this small group of London co-operators is given in a notice inviting orders for work in ‘carving, gilding, and for boots and shoes, gentlemen’s clothes,
dressmaking and millinery, umbrellas, hardware (including stoves, kettles, etc), cutlery, transparent landscape window-blinds, and provisions’.
The community ran from 1821 to 1824. But George Mudie found himself working very hard to maintain the community, and this affected the quality of his paper, the Economist, and his other job as editor of the Sun [not the scum-sucking Murdoch rag of today, an earlier radical paper.] The publication of the Economist ceased in March 1822 and the community continued for another two years.
The commune was said to have ended when Mudie was forced to leave or lose his outside editorial job, so it seems to have relied heavily on Mudie’s organisational ability to hold it together.
The reasons for its demise are not known. Robert Owen himself had no direct involvement in the Spa Fields Community. Mudie later criticised Owen, alleging he had failed either to back the experiment, or even undermined it, which Mudie suggested had caused its eventual failure. He felt Owen had grown arrogant and refused to tolerate anything but slavish obedience, and had become sidetracked by abstract philosophical questions and attacks on religion… “Even if I had not differed from some of your tenets as to religion and morals and even if I had not been too practical a man for the waste of time consumed in never-ending metaphysical disquisitions and discussions …I was, and am, too much of a politician not to be aware, that the utmost result of your ‘Views and objects’ would only be the institution of a sect… and even that has not yet taken place; while the cause of co-operation, if it has not been entirely ruined, has been retarded by your mischievous efforts… Now, Sire, and believe me that it gives me real and heartfelt pain to speak thus plainly to one whom I once fervently admired, esteemed and loved—I well knew, what indeed you will find, if you enquire, is well known to every man of any intellect, who has ever been closely connected with you, or who has closely observed your tactics—I well knew that you will act only with blind worshippers.”
Mudie continued to give weekly lectures in London on the subject of co-operation, and later immersed himself in another community, at Orbiston, Scotland, run by Abram Combe, but could not agree with Combe and also left this community after a year or so.