Today in London’s radical history, 1614: Lewisham residents demonstrate against the enclosure of Sydenham Common

“Memorandum that in ye yeares of our Lord 1614 and 1615 we had many troubles and suites concerning our common of Westwood being in quantity about 500 acres of ground whereunto the Lord of his mercy gave a good issue in ye end. The occasion was this: Henry Newport of Lewsham, gentleman, and yeoman of ye boiling-house to King James, having lived long in our parish, in ye yeare 1605 begged this common of the King and made meanes to his Majesty for a lease of it at a yearely rent.” (Abraham Colfe)

The area on the slopes of the ridge of hills that runs across South London, from Norwood to Brockley, was, until the 18th century, largely still woodland, the remnants of the old Great North Wood. This wood, a natural oak forest that had once stretched from unbroken from Croydon to Camberwell, had broken up by the seventeenth Century, into smaller woods and commons, including Penge Wood, Gipsy Wood, Dulwich Wood, Forest Wood (or Forest Hill), and Westwood (also called Sydenham Common).

By the late 1700s many of these woods and Commons were often inhabited by the very poor, squatters with nowhere else to go, some driven by earlier enclosures and social/economic change into scratching a living from marginal land; others were social outcasts like romany travellers, (hence the local area name of Gipsy Hill), though there was also often a smattering of outlaws, robbers and rebels. Smugglers and their contacts used green lanes through Norwood and Peckham to bring contraband up from the south coast.

From the late fifteenth century, common lands began to be enclosed – fenced off, initially mainly for more intensive sheep farming, as wool was very lucrative – the English wool trade was a major driver of the national economy (and a huge factor in the historical development of capitalism). Later, intensive agriculture, economies of scale and technological innovation also pushed large-scale enclosure projects.

Enclosure lined the pockets of the already dominant landowning classes, but also helped enrich merchants and other traders, hungry for social advancement and power.

On top of demand for land for development and more intensive agriculture there was also pressure to clear ‘undesirables’ out; for some local worthies in rural or suburban parishes, this was a useful by-product of enclosures.

While the Lord of the Manor, the landowner, was often the initiator of enclosure, this was not always the case. Increasingly from the 16th century the buying and selling of land was followed by enclosure,

The mass upheavals caused by enclosures were not pushed though without resistance. Those who depended on the rights to collect wood, furze or peat for fuel, gather foodstuffs, or graze animals, fought attempts to shut them out of the land – because they had little choice, it was a matter of survival. Others with some ‘rights of common’ might be small-scale landowners themselves, who would lose out too, but had some chance of compensation.

The latter had more legal clout to challenge enclosure. But tactics were as varied as the complex interwoven web of rights and customs that enclosure sought to do away with – ranging from petitions, court cases, demonstrations, to sabotage and riot, the destruction of fences and ditches, driving of animals onto enclosed land… At crucial periods enclosure led to armed rebellions, as in several counties across the southeast, southwest and East Anglia in 1549, and in several midlands counties in 1607.

Many battles were won – many more lost.

One battle that was fought hard, and enclosure prevented for two centuries (though ultimately lost), was that over Sydenham Common, also was known in early medieval times as Westwood or Westwood Common.  The name Westwood derives from the area being the western part of the parish of Lewisham, and heavily wooded; in fact Westwood was a remainder of the old Great North Wood.

Sydenham or Westwood Common (very occasionally also referred to as Shenewood) covered the area between modern Sydenham and Forest Hill. Bounded in the Southwest by today’s Westwood Hill & Crystal Palace Park, in the Southeast it reached to Mayow Park and Sydenham Road; to the north to where Honor Oak Park and Forest Hill Road now lie. It consisted of open fields and woodland belonging to the Manor of Lewisham, who were in turn, from the middle ages, the Abbots of Ghent, the Priors of Shene (near Richmond) and then the Archbishops of Canterbury. For centuries the common was split between coppices of farmed timber and open tracts where locals and parishioners of Lewisham had ‘Common Rights’ to graze cattle & gather fuel.

Henry VIII acquired Westwood in 1531, as part of the manor of Lewisham, an acquisition ratified by an act of Parliament in 1531.In the Act there was a proviso that the exchange was not to be hurtful to any person concerning the “Commons, ” or any rights of use which any person might or ought to have therein. The Crown, however, thereafter considered that Westwood Common was a portion of the demesne lands of the manor (thus the king’s to dispose of as he saw fit).

The coppice system was gradually abandoned, to allow more mature woods to grow for use by the navy – crucial to the wars waged by successive Tudor monarchs (and most successfully to the officially tolerated piracy in the West Indies that gave birth to both the beginnings of Britain’s naval imperialism and to the Atlantic slave trade). These trees were felled wholesale in the late sixteenth century, leaving a stripped common, apart from two main wooded areas, Coleson’s Coppice and Coopers Wood.

This open land was a strong temptation to potential enclosers.

The battle against enclosure began in 1605-6, when Henry Newport, a gentleman living in Lewisham and a Yeoman of the King’s Household (a royal courtier) persuaded king James I to lease him 500-600 acres of ‘Westwood’, and applied to fence a large part off for ‘improvement’.

Many inhabitants of Lewisham were small farmers or husbandmen who relied heavily on the free pasture available on the common. At this time there were also large numbers of squatters on the common, encouraged by the lack of restrictions on grazing of animals. They supported themselves almost entirely by raising pigs, cows and sheep.

There was an outcry locally in response to the proposal. Abraham Colfe, the vicar of Lewisham, played a central role in organised opposition to Newport. A number of local inhabitants claimed that they had always had common of pasture for all manner of cattle without number and at all times [i.e. that the land was not half year land], and also common of estovers and shreddings of all trees growing on the said common. Their first petition noted the value of the Common to local poor inhabitants:

“The Humble Petition of the inhabitants of the Parrishe of Lewsham :— “Wherefore the poore inhabitants of Lewsham aforesaide doe most humbly praye the Right Honorable the Earl of Salisburye in respect of his greate wisdom and justice and because he is the high Stewarde of Lewsham aforesaide that he wilbe pleased to be enformed of the sayd Newporte’s unjust proceedings and to relieve the poore inhabitants of Lewsham aforesaid that being above 500 poore housholders with wives and manye children greately relieved by the sayde Common and would be utterly undone yf yt should be unjustly taken from them. So shall theese poore inhabitants be alwayes ready to praye God as nevertheles for his honours long life and happie dayes with much increase of honor. “

They produced, in proof, the recollections of the “oldest inhabitants:
“Stephen Batt of Croydon of the age of 98 yeares testifieth for the same Comon by the name of Westwood or Sheenewood in his knowledge 80 yeares agoe and never heard the contrary which testimony was five yeares before the same Acte was made [ie., 1525]. “John Heathe of the age of 90 yeares testifiethe for the same Comon for 75 yeares which was at the time of the Acte made that it was then in his knowledge a Comon and alwaies so was used and that he never harde the contrary. “Thomas Frenche of Bromley of the age of 80 yeares testifiethe for the same common for 70 yeares. Arnolde Kinge of Beckenham of the age of 78 yeares testifiethe for the same comon in his knowledge for 65 yeares.”

Henry Newport asked for a commission of enquiry to look into the matter, and Sir Thomas Walsingham, Sir Ralphe Boswell, Henry Heyman, surveyor, and Michael Berisfforde were appointed “for the surveying and finding of a parcel of waste grounde in Lewsham in the County of Kent called Westwood to be the King’s and therein especially to enquire whether it be the King’s own waste in demeane or whether it be the King’s waste but yet a comon withall and of what yearly valewe it is.”

This commission seems to have found that the land belonged to the king but was a common, with the rights that this implied; however their verdict may not have been reached unanimously:
“On the 25th April 1606 the Commissioners did sitt at Greenwich to enquire and after evidence given to the jurye and the greater parte of the same jury meaninge to give up their verdict that Westwood was the King’s waste and yet a comon, they were dissolved and lefte for that time, wherby that Commission was expired”.(Abraham Colfe)

 

A painting of Sydenham Common, dating from the eighteenth century.

 

Another hearing in 1607 into the intended enclosure was inconclusive:

“The case came again before the Court of Exchequer in 1607, “after dinner, on a Starre chamber day… and againe ye 9th November, 1608,” but Newport either dropped the case at that time, “or other error fell out in ye proceedings, so that he obtained not as yet his purpose.”  The matter was left in abeyance…

But Newport was not, in fact, prepared to give up; he and his allies spent the following six years on ‘secret inquisitions’, plotting carefully to claim the land: “Since which time the aforesaide Henrie Newporte going about to defeate the inhabitants of Lewsham aforesaide of their saide Comon hathe secretly made an inquisition in a remote place and altogether without the knowledge of the saide inhabitants by that meanes seeking to get some sinister testimony uppon recorde againste the inhabitants, and also to prevent them of geving their evidence unto the jury as detendaunts of their righte of Comon.”

In 1614 Newport obviously felt his planning had built a good case, as he, together with two more gentlemen of the king’s household – Robert Raynes, the king’s sergeant of the buckhounds, and Innocent Lanyer, of Greenwich, one of the King’s musicians – approached the king again; this time obtaining a 60-year lease for 347 acres of Westwood – the vast majority of the common.

Locals with an interest in the common remaining open was again quick to organise opposition. They lodged a complaint against Newport and his co-patentees. After some preliminary proceedings it was agreed that Mr. John Burnett, one of the principal parishioners, who amongst others claimed to have common rights in Westwood, should be entered in the proceedings as representing the parish. The trial took place on 14th October, 1614, before the Barons of the Exchequer, touching the ‘Common of Westwood of 500 acres of ground lying in the parish of Lewisham’, with a jury of the County of Kent; John Sherman, of Greenwich, was foreman of the jury, and Henry Dobbins and Henry Abbot, of Greenwich, and John Leech, “of Detford,” were members.

However this hearing went against those opposed to the proposals: the jury ignored their complaints and found in favour of Newport and his allies. It is possible that the jury, drawn from members of local parishes, might have been weighted against the protestors, (perhaps because some of them had links to the enclosers, as a later jury was specifically noted as being drawn from parishes further away).

In response Abraham Colfe led a march of 100 parishioners to Tottenham High Cross, to petition to the king, a few days after the hearing, on October 20th: “Whereupon neer 100 people young and old went through ye City of London and a little on this side of Topnam high-crosse petitioned King James who very graciously heard ye petition and ordered the Lords of his Privy Counsell should take a course that he might be no more troubled about it.”

King James, uninterested, or unwilling to associate himself with a ruling that could alienate either side, passed it to the Privy Council for them to make a decision.

Newport and his fellow courtiers “then began very much to vexe ye inhabitants.” They immediately ordered fences erected around the common, recognising that if he could enclose the land, appeals to reverse the decision were less likely to succeed (a lesson possibly learnt from other previous enclosure battles  – actual possession counted for almost everything). “Presently the patentees began to make ditches about the common and inclosed it and drave out and killed sundry of the cattell of the inhabitants.”

The fences were put up over the winter, a crucial time for common rights, as residents were used to free access to collect firewood or gorse to burn, their only means of heating their homes. Abraham Colfe got busy fund-raising for an appeal. He and others collected money among local freeholders to take the case to the privy council. More than £100 is recorded as being collected. Further sums included £70 from ‘the Mayor and Commonality of London’… an interesting indication that the opposition had some friends in power in the City of London. Another march to petition the king was mounted on 19th December.

Local residents around the common, meanwhile, were not simply willing to accept the loss of rights of fuel gathering, and many continued to enter the common to collect wood. Lanier and Newport’s hired men then attacked some women gathering wood, which provoked a riot.

As with many enclosure struggles, there were different wings to the opposition. Vicar and the local worthies trying to establish an appeal against Newport were keen to see any action confined to court hearings, petitions, and dignified protest at the outside. Others, whose livelihoods or winter warmth depended on their continued ability to use the common, were prepared to use stronger methods – they had little choice.  Some began tearing down the fences and filling in drainage ditches Newport had ordered to be dug. Every time the enclosers men’ put fences up again, crowds gathered to break them down. In response Lanier and Newport’s men drove off more cattle and burned furze (gorsebushes) which were used as fuel by the inhabitants.

Several petitions were entered in 1615 regarding these troubles… including one on 31st March from the inhabitants of Lewisham, concerning a riot that had taken place on 2nd March.

Papers of Colfe from this time include a note on the activities of Henry Benden, a servant of Mr. Lanier, who continued to drive off the cattle of the inhabitants and obstructed the cutting of furze for fuel:  “Henry Benden and other of the patentees’ servants still drove of the cattell and spoiled some of them to death and would not let the poore have furzes. Hereupon the 22nd day being Ash Wednesday, Henry Benden being at church, after service I gave him advise, and wished him not to molest the poore in such sort by driving and hurting their cattell and hindering them of furzes: for if he should be sent for by a pursevant and committed for his contempt I thought his master (namely Mr. Lanier) would not beare him out in it.”

Colfe also noted descriptions of an attack by “one Southwell alias Thomas Foxe on Charles Parker of Lewisham on 20 April, an attack by Anthony Witherings on Thomas Coomes and Henry Hunt of Lewisham while they waited to present their suit to the Privy Council at the Royal Court at the Royal Court at Greenwich, a description of an attack by Henry Benden, Mr. Henry Newport’s son and a brother of Mr. Robert Raynes on Thomas Muscrop of Beknam (Beckenham) and Edward Caustin after they had broken through the new hedges into Westwood, in search of sheep”. Colfe noted the numbers of sheep lost on a small slip of paper.

Colfe drafted several petitions: to the Earl of Salisbury (as high Steward of Lewisham), the Earl of Somerset, (the Lord High Chamberlain), and this one, to the Archbishop of Canterbury:
“To ye right reverend father in God the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury his Grace Primate and Metropolitan of all England and one of his Majesties most Hon. Privy Councell. The humble petition of his Majesties poor tenants ye inhabitants of Lewsham in Kent neare Greenwich:

Most humbly shew to your grace many hundreds of ye poore distressed inhabitants of Lewsham that whereas we have time out of mind quietly enjoyed a wast peece of ground of 500 acres called ye Comon of Westwood (as we can shew by auncient deeds since ye 5th or 9th yeare of King Henry ye 5th being 196 years past, by an Act of Parliament reserving ye commons of ye manor of Lewsham to ye inhabitants, by ye King’s owne records calling it Westwood lying open and common, and by witnesses for 80 yeares as long as man can remember) yet Robert Raynes, Innocent Lanier and Henry Newport three of his majesties servants obtained a grant and a lease for 60 yeares from his Majesty of ye said common upon a rent of 40 markes by ye yeare and ye last terme impleaded your poor suppliants in ye Court of Exchequer and gott a verditt and judgment and are now closing ye said common to ye utter undoing of above 500 poore people. And whereas they had possessed diverse of ye nobles and by them hade meanes to informe his majesty that only 2 or 3 had ye chief benefitt of ye common and not ye poore, we were inforced to goe above an 100 of us ye 19 of December with petition to ye King’s Majestie for his mercifull favore, who most graciously promised we should have justice and in ye end referred ye consideracon of our petition to ye Lords of his Privy Councell. We most humbly desire your grace when our petition shall come to be heard before you that your grace will afford us your gracious favour for our quiet enjoying of ye said common, it being as we do solemnly protest a chief stay and maintenance for pasture of cattail, furses and bushes for fyering to above 500 poore people, and we shall pray to God for your grace’s health, long life and eternall happiness…”

The Privy Council referred the matter to the Lord Chief Baron and Sir Edward Bromley, one of the Barons of the Court of Exchequer, to try to mediate between the parishioners and Newport and his friends. But the patentees demanded £1000 in compensation in the event of not being allowed to proceed with their enclosures, which the parishioners would not agree to. Seeing that there was no chance of agreement, in April 1615 the Privy Council ordered that there should be a new trial, with John Eaton, gentleman, of Lewisham, listed as defendant to represent the inhabitants. At the same time the Privy Council ordered that the patentees (Newport & Co.) being in possession should continue to hold the ground meanwhile, that the gates and ditches destroyed by the inhabitants should be repaired by them; on the other hand the enclosers were banned from burning or selling any of the furze growing in or upon the common nor “disturbe or interrupt the said inhabitants of the manor of Lewsham nor any other his Majesties liege people to the use of all such wayes as have hearetofore byn used in, through or by or over the said parcell of ground called Westwood” until the trial and further order taken.’”

The Justices of the Peace for the area were instructed to punish any offenders, pending a ruling.

Though this may have been intended to prevent violence by either side, by June the Lewisham residents found that no action was being taken by the J.P.s against the enclosers, despite locals’ cattle being found slaughtered in Westwood and the skins of dead sheep being hung provocatively from bushes to deter resistance. The Justices, being local landowners, may have had interests in the enclosure themselves, or been unwilling to offend rich or powerful neighbours with connections to the court. Meanwhile vicar Abraham Colfe was subject to attacks on his personality, portrayed as an instigator of rebellion against the king: a petition from Newport’s group complained that
“Whereas on October 20th 1614 Mr. Abraham Colfe Vicar of Lewisham led through the City of London one hundred of his parishioners to Tottenham High Crosse and there petitioned his Majesty against the privileges granted to our clients in the common of Westwood and made many and slanderous accusations against them thereby filling the ear of his most sacred Majesty with injurious regard of our clients. And whereas our clients are desirous to maintain the good esteem of their most dread sovereign and the peaceable occupation of the lands that have been granted them and which they have at much cost fenced etc. they desire to be confirmed in their possession.”

Colfe’s petition to the Archbishop of Canterbury (quoted earlier) responded to this denunciation:
“Further in particular your humble suppliant Abraham Colf, minister of Lewsham, sheweth to your grace that whereas Robt Raynes, Innocent Laniere and Henry Newport in a late petition to his Majesty have abused your said suppliant Abraham Colf, saying that he out of his seditious spirit stirred up ye people tumultuously to clamour ye King’s Majestie, without any just ground or colour; and further Innocent Lanier hath used sundry other defamations and slanderous speaches ; also that he {i.e., Colfe) hath publickely spoken against ye proceedings of his Majestie’s Court here as though he had called publike meetings in the church to make ye people curse them. That it would please your grace to relieve your said suppliant against ye impudent slanders, and he shalbe bound ever to pray, as he doth every day upon his knees to Almighty God for your grace’s safety and favour with God and men.”

The parishioners of Lewisham also signed the following petition:
“We ye inhabitants of ye parish of Lewsham in Kent whose names are under written hearing of the sundry defamations and uncharitable speaches given out in a petition to ye King’s Majesty against Abraham Colfe vicar of our parish and being desired by him to testify our knowledg of his behaviour among us doe solemnly protest before God and witnes that for a truth unto all those whom it may concerne, that the said Abraham Colfe having lived as a curate and vicar these 10 yeares among us hath not to our knowledg demeaned himself otherwise then becometh the minister of God’s word; for he hath bene very painfull in his calling, duly preaching once (and for ye great part of the summer twice every Sabath among vs) liberall to ye poore, given to hospitality and other good workes, in his life peaceable, not having had any one suit or controversy in law all this time against any of us; no way savouring of a factious or sedicious spirit neither in publick or private speaches or actions; but continually dehorting us during ye time of our distressed suit about our common both from reviling them in speaches that have sought to get away ye meanes of our living and from perfourming any outward act that might be either offensive to his Majestie or prejudiciall to ye lawes of ye realme. In witnes wherof we have willing- and freely subscribed our names…”

The enclosers apparently labelled the protesters rich individuals who would not themselves suffer from the enclosure. Which may have been partly true, in that not all opponents of enclosure were necessarily immediately affected, but was certainly not completely accurate, as the poorer residents taking direct action most certainly were impacted. But they didn’t count as anyone to be worried about…

In July another court hearing was held, but could not resolve the matter. The group who had leased the common may have been willing to give up the enclosure (possibly the resistance had got to them somewhat by this time), but demanded excessive compensation for giving up their holding.

By October 1615, however, the Privy Council had had enough. Clearly the trouble the enclosure had caused was too big a price to pay – social peace had to be restored. They appointed an independent jury, chosen out of Kent, amongst whom it was noted that there was no one belonging to the immediately neighbouring parishes to Lewisham, and a hearing was held on 16th October, again before the Barons of the Exchequer. This time the jury agreed that Westwood was an ancient common with all the attendant customal rights. As Colfe wrote with relief “they passed [a verdict] in the behalfe of the poore inhabitants’ although common rights extended to many more. Mr. Colfe:  “The Lord’s holy name for ever for his great tender mercies be blessed a verdict passed in the behalf of the poore inhabitants and on the 18th November following judgment was also granted and a copy both of the order and of that judgment taken out under the seale of the Exchequier Chamber which is kept by us.”

Part of the reason why the local vicar and some other landowners in Lewisham opposed the enclosure may have been the prospect of the destitute squatters evicted from the Common becoming a burden on the ratepayers of the parish, if they were deprived of their tenuous livings (this is an issue that is quoted in other enclosure disputes). Though a genuine feeling that people across classes should be able to enjoy the economic benefit available to Westwood was also shared by both the very poor and many of their ‘betters’. Many well-off local residents had economic interests in common land themselves, that they resented larger landlords attempting to trample on. Many of those with written or customary ‘common rights’ might themselves be well-to-do landowners or tradesmen.

There were many social tensions at work in the Sydenham events, as with almost all struggles around enclosure. It wasn’t a simple case of class against class. Some existing landowners and rising men with money and power saw the wealth enclosure could bring them; others of the same background felt either social obligations to the less well off, genuinely buying ideologically into their role as protectors of the poor, as part of a paternalist, vertically interdependent society opposed to the ruthless destruction of complex social ties and responsibilities.

Others thought that the upheavals enclosure brought could threaten stability, and maybe lead to rebellion. And not only were authorities afraid of the violent response that enclosures could provoke, but the enclosure process was at this time often opposed by a section of the establishment. In the early seventeenth century, the king and certain sections of the nobility often sought allies among the rural population, for its economic power struggles against the rising merchant & improving classes. Pressure could sometimes be put on the authorities, to stop or reverse enclosures.

Not for the last time in anti-enclosure struggles, a tension existed between the more legalistic approach of Abraham Colfe and the parish worthies, and the violent resistance of the local poor, whose livelihoods were directly threatened. In fact though both strands contributed to the defeat of the enclosure, for this time at least. It’s doubtful that a dual strategy was in any way agreed, but in practice the violence and the petitions showed the Privy Council the potential for disorder but with a moderate party to make a deal with, rather than be shown giving in to the resistance of the poor. But probably the victory might not have been won without both.

Enclosures were a very politically sensitive question at this time. The early seventeenth century brought mass open warfare against enclosing landowners: most famously in the midlands in 1607, where thousands of the landless poor fought the militia, destroying fences, and breaking open enclosures. Interestingly this was where the names of Levellers & Diggers were seemingly first adopted or used to describe these poor rebels. Later these names would assume political significance in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The revolt would have been fresh on the minds of the Privy Council when hearing cases over Sydenham, and they would have borne in mind that King James had given special orders to the Commission appointed to enquire into the cause of the 1607 riots, that care was to be taken that the poor received no injury by the encroachment of their richer neighbours.

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The extent of Sydenham Common shown on a modern map

 

The victory of Colfe and the parishioners of Lewisham seems to have prevented large-scale enclosure in Sydenham for a century and a half, until the 1750s, when trouble broke out over Coopers Wood, once accounted the southern corner of the common, which lay just south of modern Westwood Hill, between the railway line and Lawrie Park Avenue.

Cooper’s Wood had first been detached from the common & begun to be “illegally” enclosed around 1540, though the loss of common rights here was apparently disputed locally for 200 years. Gradually houses built on the edge of the wood acquired large front gardens, and more houses were built, encroaching onto the wood. But many locals had never accepted the shutting off of the wood. In 1754 “persons claiming right of common” several times threw down fences surrounding the Wood and asserted rights of access and gathered wood for fuel. One target of these agitators was George Thornton, landlord of the Greyhound Inn in Sydenham, a tenant of the western part of Coopers Wood; his fences were “thrown down and prostrated”.  (The Greyhound Inn is still there, at the junction of  Kirkdale and Westwood Hill).

A year later, in 1755, there was a legal case in the Exchequer Court involving the denial of common rights to collect wood in Colson’s Wood or Colson’s Coppice, the area to the north of the old Common. This is now an area bounded by Ewelme Rd, Horniman Gardens, Devonshire Road, and Dunoon rd. One John Anderson sued the owner Thomas Hodsdon, who had prevented him from exercising his common rights in the Coppice. The Hodsdon family had bought up many acres of Sydenham land since 1713 – they were wealthy wine merchants, with an eye on possible future development. Hodsdon’s cousin had leased 17 acres of land adjoining Coleson’s Coppice to a brickmaker, clearly intending to begin a house building program in the area. John Anderson was no poor cottager, though; he was a well-to-do merchant living in Sydenham Road, seemingly acting as the representative of a group of residents in a test case. Nothing seems to have come of the claim, though, as Colson’s Coppice continued to be sold as freehold land:  it had been detached from the Common for too long to be considered common land.

Forty years later a last ditch stand against enclosures on Sydenham Common took place in Colson’s Wood. Samuel Atkinson, a Tooley Street cheese merchant, (who is called by some the ‘Father of Forest Hill’) bought the estate, & between 1787 and 1789 created the present Honor Oak Road, a new route from Sydenham to Peckham Rye, (where there had only been a track before) as a first step to opening up the wood for building. In 1789 he had constructed a house for himself, and was selling plots on the new road for development.

Those who still maintained that the wood was common land didn’t take this lying down; but resistance to the enclosure of the Wood was to end violently. In October 1792, the Times reported the death of Michael Bradley, who had a cottage at the Bell Green end of Sydenham Road. He and others had set out to assert a right of way:

“It appears that this Bradley and others belonging to Sydenham Parish, went a few days since on a piece of land called Colson’s Wood, to ascertain their rights of commonage, which have been held upwards of 200 years. Mr Atkinson met the deceased and his associates, and asked them their business; they replied, there was a footway across, which right their fore-fathers had enjoyed and so would they. Atkinson said they should go no further – and the first man who did, he would shoot.”

Michael Bradley stepped forward and Atkinson then shot him; Bradley died a few days later.

“The Wednesday following, Atkinson purchased the right of this wood and pasturage, consisting of 52 acres, out of Chancery for £350 – and has since enclosed it. The Coroner’s Inquest sat on the body of Bradley on Friday and Saturday, the 19th and 20th of October, at Sydenham, and brought in their verdict, Manslaughter, against one Atkinson… The man was shot in the leg by a pistol, which fractured the bone, and a mortification ensued. The deceased has left a family and four children…”

Despite this verdict in the coroner’s court, Atkinson doesn’t seem to have been charged or convicted in connection with Bradley’s death. He continued to own the estate and develop it, though he may have become unpopular locally, and decided it wasn’t a good idea to remain living in the parish, since he let his house to tenants in 1793.

Although the case caused uproar, it seems to have marked almost the end of the two century-long year struggle for common rights here: the whole of what remained of Sydenham Common was enclosed finally by an Act in 1810, during the most intense period for enclosure of open space in Britain. By this time the economic importance of the common for subsistence had declined considerably, as London expanded into the surrounding rural areas, and suburban villas were replacing agriculture. The descendants of the marginalised cottagers who once had made a bare living off the common had flocked into London to try to make a living there.

Landowners in the parish were allocated all the remaining common land, with the power to enclose it. Even after two hundred years of building and clearance, there were still five hundred acres to be developed. The main beneficiary was William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, the largest landowner in Lewisham. (The family had been Lords of the Manor of Lewisham since the seventeenth century: Dartmouth Road and the Dartmouth Arms in Forest Hill are named after their title.)

The only remaining part of the old common which still remains a green space is Sydenham Wells Park, which had become a popular spa of sorts in the 18th century. Interestingly, this spa subsequently became disreputable and infamous. Large numbers of people came to drink the spring’s waters (apparently foul tasting but good for you!). Later the emphasis on the healthy aspects of the Wells declined, giving way to binge drinking: it became popular to mix the ‘waters’ with other liquids (brandy, mostly); rowdy behaviour was rife. There were complaints about the “rabble of Londoners” flocking here. The Wells were eventually closed down in the late 19th century.

One reason Sydenham Common was apparently targeted for enclosure was its annual popular fair, which was resented by the gentry & posher residents for the ‘lowlife’ it attracted. This is a regular theme with proposals to enclose in the 18th-19th centuries, not only for profit but control of open spaces, which often could be used for unruly gatherings of the poor, not only fairs and makeshift dwellings, but later for political rallies and demonstrations. In 1766 the Sydenham fair was moved to Kent House Fields. It was later suppressed in 1836, as were most of the old popular local fairs in the early nineteenth century.

However this wasn’t entirely the end of resistance to privatisation of space in the area. In 1867, wealthy silk warehouse owner Richard Beall tried to block off the upper end of Taylor’s Lane, off Sydenham Hill, to increase the privacy of his posh home, Longton Hall. This enraged locals who used this path, however, and channeling the spirit of Michael Bradley and the rioters who helped see off Henry Newport, unruly elements smashed the walls & fences he had built. At one point 100s turned up with axes & hammers… After several attempts & continued demolitions, Beall gave up, eventually going insane. Taylor’s Lane was permanently re-opened.

Nearby One Tree Hill also became the arena for an anti-enclosure battle in 1897… (During this struggle investigations turned up the fact that One Tree Hill had never in fact been a part of Sydenham Common, which initially kyboshed any claim for common rights – though the fight was eventually won anyway…)

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Read other past tense posts about enclosures

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Today in London’s dole history, 1985: Islington Unwaged Centre occupied to prevent its closure

On October 18th 1985, users of the Islington Unwaged Centre, on Holloway Road, North London, went into 24-hour occupation of their building, in response to threats by the centre’s funders to evict them after their funding was cut off. The centre had been founded in August 1982, after a year’s campaigning by the Islington Action group of the Unwaged.

What follows is a history of the unwaged workers’ group and the Unwaged Centre, documenting their efforts to establish and run a centre for the unemployed and their relationship to the Miners’ Strike and other struggles of the times.

This is a reprint of a pamphlet produced in 1987, by the Campaign for Real Life. We’ve re-typeset the text, otherwise it’s unchanged, except for some explanatory notes at the end, added by past tense.

The original author’s views have changed some since writing it; past tense don’t entirely agree with everything here either, but feel there’s some really good history here and its really worth putting it out there again.

Setting Up

In October 1980, workers from Islington’s welfare rights organisations, and one local unemployed man got together to try to set up an unemployed group. Unemployment was rising rapidly and the welfare workers felt that just telling the unemployed their rights was not enough – that something had to be done to extend these pathetic rights, and they recognised that this could best be done by the unemployed themselves.

Unemployed groups were forming in various parts of London, and someone from the Greenwich group, which was already active, was invited to speak at the inaugural meeting. The meeting was organised at the Co-op Hall and the dole office nearby was leafleted for two weeks before, with new people gradually joining in the leafleting.

About five new people turned up to the meeting, plus a guy from the NF [Note 1] who was quickly thrown out. It was decided to start meeting weekly, to try to get more people involved, and to try to get up a centre for, and run by the unemployed.

But despite the belief that unemployed people had to organise for themselves, it wasn’t until some months later that the group was angered into taking themselves seriously, and taking control of their dealings with the authorities. Up till then they’d sat back and watched the welfare workers deal with the council, trades council etc. -they seemed to know what they were doing, while the group had no experience and were intimidated, less by authority than by all the forms, codes, behind-the-scenes deals etc. Instead the group was just trying to keep going, believing that when they got the centre they could take control. They were leafleting, flyposting and meeting, new people were joining, and a few dropping out.

Then in April there was a meeting in the area organised by the South East Region TUC (SERTUC) to talk about unemployment and setting up a centre. Most of the group were there, sitting at the back, listening to how the bureaucrats were going to set up a centre, how they’d been doing lots of things for the unemployed, but the unemployed weren’t interested, and so on, until finally the group started shouting that they were organising for themselves. The union hacks weren’t interested and didn’t like their meeting being disrupted by plebs. The welfare workers said nothing.

The next meeting with SERTUC was on better terms – one of them among a conference of the London & South East Federation of Unemployed Groups. He was there to sell the TUC/government line on unemployed centres  – he failed [2]. Nearly every group there totally rejected the guidelines, the imposition of paid, workers, and political control. The SERTUC guy felt so rejected he was desperate for friends, and after a few kind words on the way out, he agreed to write some nice letters for IAGOU. This was June ’81. The conference had been set up by the Greenwich and Southwark groups and was attended by 16 militant groups. There was a feeling that things were just starting, that the movement was going to grow, and be a vehicle for real change. Brixton and St Pauls had exploded [3] – in many areas the cops were careful not to provoke more trouble, and people on the streets were becoming confident. Mass unemployment was something new, at least for white males, and included many who were looking for a lot more than a job. Unemployment and the riots seemed to be the crack in the system that people had been waiting for.

A week later there was a national conference in Leicester, with over 80 people from 25 unemployed groups, plus individuals and some union reps. Everyone was excited at going national, but the question of how to organise caused major arguments. Leicester and most of the other Midland groups were controlled by Socialist Organiser (a trot group in the Labour Party) [4] who had met a couple of weeks before to organise their position. The constitution they came up with was centralised – the conference would elect individuals onto a committee which would run the ‘union’. Their proposals were sent out a week before the conference, and IAGOU immediately prepared an alternative. They argued that electing individuals was absurd because they might get jobs or drop out, or their group might disband or conflict with them, leaving them outside the real movement. They wanted local groups to be the basis for organisation, and the structure to be kept as informal as possible to allow each group and individual as much input as they wanted. Instead of creating a committee to decide what should be done, IAGOU wanted a structure where each group could come up with ideas for struggle, and develop them with the others. And there was deep suspicion of giving an individual a position from which to speak ‘on behalf of’ the unemployed or to impose a political line, as S.O. seemed to want.

IAGOU took their proposed constitution to the conference and handed round. Most of the groups not controlled by S.O. called for the decision on the constitution to be postponed as they had not had time to discus the new proposals and had no mandate on them. IAGOU agreed, but when a compromise was put to them at lunch, they copped-out and withdrew their proposals. So a committee was elected, and before long the organisation was in the hands of a few people – or at least the name was, the organisation ceased to exist when everyone went home. Still, IAGOU came back inspired by the fact that the movement was national, whatever a particular organisation might do, or fail to do.

Meanwhile, conditions in the dole offices were getting intolerable. The rising number of unemployed was not matched by an increase in staff or facilities, meaning long queues, crowded dirty offices and stress on both sides of the counter. Added to this, the staff were taking action over a pay dispute, which closed down various dole and DHSS [5] offices. IAGOU supported the staff, practically organising the strike at one dole office, giving out union leaflets to explain the dispute to other claimants, but they also put forward their own demands for improving conditions, particularly at the Medina Road dole office.

On July 7th, IAGOU held a public meeting near the dole office, and the next day held a demo. They wrote their demands on a chalkboard outside the office, and painted slogans on the pavement where the queues ended – some of them quite a long way down the road. Then they went in, about 50 of them, but the office was already packed and it looked like everyone was demonstrating. A couple of them got up on the counter (this was before shatter-proof screens) and started shouting out their demands and calling for the manager. Both claimants and staff showed support, so eventually the manager agreed to meet a delegation. She was totally patronising and obstructive (not knowing that one of the delegation was an unemployed councillor) but gave in to some of the demands;

Some notices were put up in Urdu, Gujerati, Greek and Turkish. but this only lasted a few weeks.

– A toilet was made available to claimants, but only in emergencies (as defined by management)

– A slip was sent out with giros saying when to sign on next.

– An extra bench was put in, for two weeks.

– some replacement giros were handed out over the counter instead of being posted.

– a few more staff were taken on, but nothing like the 22 lacking according to their own calculations.

Another public meeting was held shortly after, followed by another demo about the continued delay in receiving giros. About 70 claimants took part. When somebody shouted out ‘What are we supposed to ‘do pawn our gold jewellery?’ the manager replied ‘well, you can pawn your furniture’ which did nothing to calm the situation. IAGOU demanded another meeting. At first this was refused, but then a date was set for July 24th. To avoid any ‘trouble’ Regional Management made the manager close the office for the whole day creating even more chaos and aggravation.

At the same time, IAGOU had been contacting unions and the council to try to ensure that claimants were not cut-off or evicted due to delays in payment caused by the strike, and were successful. They also went over Hackney [6], to demand emergency payments from the council, and the council agreed immediately, rather than have hundreds of angry claimants while the riots were in full swing. If you were willing to queue up twice you could get two payments, or more. While there, IAGOU helped a Hackney unemployed group get going.

With the end of the strike much of the chaos continued, and some improvements were taken away again by management, so IAGOU held another demo on August 24th, again at Medina Road. But eventually the chaos was reduced by the opening of another office nearby. and the introduction of monthly signing instead of two-weekly.

In this period of chaos, IAGOU brought out their first newsletter called U B Press [7]. It included articles explaining the situation and struggle at the dole offices (with ½ page by one of the workers), proposals for setting up a centre, a section from a book by Wal Hannington (unemployed leader of the ’20s) [8] on the occupation of an Islington library as an unemployed centre in 1920 [9], reports from the two conferences, and more. And all for only 2p!

There was also a benefit at which everyone had a good time and IAGOU made 70 quid. It was called Bop Against YOP, but unfortunately those affected by the Youth Opportunity Programme, 16-18 year olds, couldn’t get in as it was held in a pub that the cops kept their eye on.

On October 22nd Norman Tebbit, Secretary of State for Employment (as they say in Newspeak) visited Barnsbury dole office in South Islington. Informed of the visit by a mole, IAGOU organised a demo to welcome him, and sent out a press-release. When it arrived, Tebbit was jostled by a crowd of about 30, hit by an egg and chased into the building. “ … the egg was thrown from two feet away, hitting him on the crown of the head. It burst and the yoke (sic) dribbled down his neck onto his clothing.”(the Times) “A spokesman for the Department of Employment said, ‘he was not hurt.” (Morning Star) Because of the press release, it was attributed to IAGOU, which upset the SWP [10] because the egg was actually one of their members.

Relations with the SWP were not particularly good anyway. During the civil servants’ strike, IAGOU and the local SWP branch organised a joint meeting, except that the SWP had organised it as their branch meeting, at which they told IAGOU to disband and join the Right to Work Campaign – one of their front organisations, which they disbanded about a year later. Then IAGOU tried to discourage a bunch of local SWP students and lecturers from trying to occupy a Job Centre ‘as a stunt’. They went ahead, gave out a few leaflets, were ignored, and went to the café.

2) THE FIGHT FOR A CENTRE

One of the main aims of IAGOU from the start was the setting up of a centre for the unemployed. The most obvious way to do this seemed to be through Islington Council and the Greater London Council [11]. They were both willing to fund ‘community groups’, especially when they expected political support and good publicity in return. Also they had property to spare. But of course it wasn’t as easy as going along to the council and saying ‘we’re unemployed and we want a centre’. There were forms to fill in, bureaucracies to deal with, support to be lobbied for, internal politics to deal with and constant pressure to apply, to force action instead of just words.

Getting them to accept that the centre would be run and controlled by the users was at that time comparatively easy. To start with it was a lot cheaper for them not to have to pay for workers. Also at that time the only existing model for unemployed centres was the MSC [12]/TUC guidelines which were not particularly acceptable to any of the parties involved; the council were not keen on the lack of campaigning imposed, because they expected that any campaigning would be effectively pro-Labour, the unions were against the MSC rates of pay, and IAGOU were against these, and the control being in the hands of the various authorities. Both Islington Council and the GLC liked to appear radical, and anyway they would have control in the long term, through controlling the purse strings.

In May ‘81 the council agreed in principle to funding a centre, and IAGOU had to go away again and produce detailed plans and a budget, which was a bit hard without having a building to base their plans on. The council were not particularly helpful over this, but eventually IAGOU found an empty council-leased shop and decided it would be the centre. It was at 355 Holloway Road on one of Islington’s busiest roads for shopping and traffic, almost in the centre of the borough and close to Medina Road. It had been empty for some time since being used as a housing advice centre. The lay-out and conditions weren’t particularly good, but they were told money would be available for alterations and improvements.

In June the council’s Employment Committee agreed to give the group £4,000 to equip the centre, and by September Finance and Planning had approved the handing over of funding and the building ‘as soon as possible’. The Valuers, Architects and IAGOU drew up plans for the alterations and in November the Solicitors approved the group’s constitution, after long arguments and delays. In December the money for equipment was handed over, and it looked like the keys to the building would follow shortly. They didn’t.

In the new year, the majority of councillors either suddenly ‘saw the light’ at the same time, or else found a way to do what they had always really wanted, but without joining the Tories – they went over to the newly-formed SDP [13]. Overnight the Labour stronghold became the SDP’s first taste of power, without an election. Those who had been spouting the Labour line could now do openly what they had only done secretly or negatively before. Grants were axed, staff vacancies frozen, plans made to increase rents and sell off 750 homes. A worker in the housing department was victimised, and nearly all the council workers came out on strike. On February 9th the Employment Committee met for the first time under SDP rule. They agreed to fund the local Chamber of Commerce to the tune of £16,500, and refused the £7,000 previously promised for the centre, and so the centre itself. According to the council leader, ‘A centre for the unemployed in Islington would only encourage people to stay on the dole’. Most of IAGOU were at the meeting, and some had to be physically removed. That night the town was painted red, with demands and threats. The next full council meeting had striking workers, threatened tenants, IAGOU and others demonstrating outside at the start while inside the meeting had to be stopped at least once, due to screaming, chants of ‘Unwaged Fightback’ and rolls of bog paper flying from the public gallery.

As a (not very successful) publicity stunt a few of them went down to the first SDP national conference at Kensington Town Hall. Two of them got in with borrowed press cards and borrowed clothes, and were meant to let the others in through a side door. They couldn’t find a side door, but anyway they hung out a massive banner, which had been cleverly disguised as journalistic fat and shouted a few slogans and insults before being led out very politely. All the press were there, but only one of the local radio stations bothered to mention it.

Before the SDP had come along, IAGOU were already getting sick of waiting, and were making plans to occupy the centre instead. They told the Employment and Valuers Departments that they needed to look over the centre again to prepare the next year’s budget and other things. Both departments said it would be alright, but due to illness and holidays neither could send anyone along, so IAGOU would have to pick up the keys and go on their own.

So on a Friday there was a special planning meeting to sort out all details, the weekend was spent at the local resource centre printing leaflets and posters to publicise the occupation and Monday the shopping was done, bog paper, tea etc, and everything was set for Tuesday. But late on Monday the head of the Employment Department rang, saying ‘what happened at your meeting on Friday? We know you planned something for tomorrow, what is it? I need to inform the councillors’. Of course he was told it was none of his business and as they didn’t know how much he knew, the plans went ahead.

The key was picked up with no problem, and everyone was in place across the road in Sainsburys, a few cycling up and down the road and the rest in a cafe up the road, plus 12 from the Student Union were waiting at their college round the corner. But the building had been boarded up and a cop was standing outside. The worst thing was not knowing who had grassed – everyone was under suspicion so it was impossible to try again. One of the people at the planning meeting was involved in setting up another unemployed project mainly for basic training which was also after funding. He never came to another meeting.

Council elections were due at the start of May, and the Labour Party promised the keys to the centre ‘within 24 hours of getting re-elected’. This didn’t make IAGOU rush round campaigning for a Labour victory, but the campaigning they were already doing, along with all the other struggles going on, must at least have given the impression that things had been, and would be slightly better under Labour.

Anyway. Labour got back into power with only a few of the defectors keeping their seats. The next day the Labour leader said that IAGOU could the keys the day after they officially took office, a week later. Nothing happened. One problem was that shortly before the election the council sold off the lease on the property, but the new lessees were just speculators and gave the council a sublease. It was the freeholders, who the council had supposedly dealt with months before who kept being a pain. Meanwhile the council kept raising questions that had been dealt with before the SDP took over but after a lot of pressure the centre was finally handed over in August ‘82, over 3 months after the election, and over 11 months from the first promised date.

3) A CENTRE FINALLY

The idea that once the group had a centre as a base, they would be able to consolidate and really start moving was soon shown to be an illusion.

The centre was there, but it didn’t run itself. Whereas before they were running around without a base, now they found they couldn’t run around so much because they were stuck holding the base. The centre had to be open every weekday (the fact that for a while it wasn’t was later used as an excuse to close it) so people had to be there even when nothing was going on. Idiots who wandered in had to be treated sympathetically. Receipts had to be kept for every pen bought. And possibly most destructive, the building alterations had to be arranged.

The building was made up of two rooms, plus the toilet. The front room was long and thin, with a lot of space taken up by the entrance, which was a sort of glass passageway leading up to the door. This was intimidating and stopped a lot of light. The back room was square and housed the crèche, TV and cooking facilities. The back wall was damp and collapsing, and each time it rained the damp spread another inch across the floor.

The plan was to make the front straight, re-divide the rooms more evenly, close off the cooking area with a serving hatch, add a disabled toilet and a couple of room dividers, and generally do the place up. The effect would have been to make the place attractive, safe, and spacious enough for various things to go on at the same time.

First they had to work out what they wanted, then the architects and builders were brought in to draw up proper plans and estimates. The GLC then had to agree to fund the work and the council had to give planning permission. And once all that had been arranged, and it took a long time, the head landlords decided they didn’t like it, and wouldn’t allow it. It was discovered that they could be taken to court for being unreasonable, but this had to be done by the council as sub-lessees. The council thought about it for a couple of months, and then said they would do it if the GLC would cover any legal costs. The GLC thought about for a few months, and then said no. So after many months of hard work, the group were left with a damp, dingy intimidating building.

Still, it was there, and people dropped in, for advice, to watch films, to join the campaigns, the occasional workshop, the meetings or just for a chat or for-curiosity.

IAGOU had its meetings on Thursdays, and Wednesdays were Wageless Women day. Islington Wageless Women had been meeting for over a year, organising women’s events, campaigning against the cohabitation laws, for nurseries etc. a London & South East Wageless Women conference, exhibitions etc. and intervening in IAGOU and the rest of the movement, to struggle against sexism and illusions. In terms of theory Wageless Women were far more together than IAGOU, but when it came to practice they had greater problems. They didn’t want to be an ‘unemployed’ women’s group, but based their analysis and struggles on the role of women in the reproduction of capital – on the unwaged work that women are trained for from birth, and perform every day whether they also do waged work or not. Their basic demand was for a guaranteed minimum income for all, to allow women (and men) more choice over what work they do, and giving women independence without them having to take on waged work as well. They criticised IAGOU for basing their campaigns around the dole office, which excluded many unwaged people not signing on as unemployed. This was correct, but the problem then was where else to organise. IAGOU’s best struggles were waged at the dole office, because there were already large numbers of people there – something would have happened there anyway, without IAGOU. To have used the centre for organising all unwaged sectors of the proletariat would have required far greater organisation, publicity, imagination and resources than they had. Of course they could have tried harder, but while accepting the criticism, and making the Centre open to all the unwaged, IAGOU remained essentially an unemployed group.

The change of name from Islington Action Group on Unemployment to Islington Action Group of the Unwaged, which happened around the time the Centre opened, caused disagreements with various authorities. The change meant not only a change in who could be involved, extending outside the terms and analysis of the ‘Labour Movement’, but signified also a change in self-definition; instead of defining themselves in terms of jobs (ie not having one) they defined themselves in terms of resources (ie not having any). Of course the two are directly related, but the point was to try to change this – to end the poverty – while pointing out the historical (and so changeable) reasons for it. The poverty of the dole is a tool to enforce work – we work because ‘we have nothing to sell but our labour’, but to some extent we choose what conditions we will work under. Mass unemployment and benefit cuts restrict our choices – they restrict our ability to struggle over conditions through the need to keep, or get a job. So instead of joining the campaigns for jobs, where the unwaged were treated as the ‘reserve army’ of the labour movement, IAGOU struggled to improve their conditions as unwaged people, and so improve their (and others’) choices, alongside the struggles of the waged. But the struggle was meant to go beyond merely improving conditions, a constant struggle with more or less success according to conditions;- it was meant to strike at the basic poverty of our class, on which our exploitation is based. The resources of this world that we have created have been stolen from us, and we can only get the means to a decent survival by selling our labour power, to be used by the bosses and state to produce more riches and means to exploit us. This exploitation can not be dealt with by demanding more of it, but by attacking its roots and its myths. We now live in a world where the bosses can only continue to impose their role, to impose labour and poverty on us, through creating artificial shortages, through destroying part of the abundance we produce and leaving the means of production to rot. The abolition of labour is the task before us, the appropriation, by all, of our products and means of production, which no longer require our sacrifice.

4) CAMPAIGNING

The first major campaign run from the Centre was against the Specialist Claims Control Unit (SCCUM), one of the specialist fraud squads sent round different DHSS offices to intimidate claimants into signing off. They tend to pick on single parents (who they accuse of cohabiting), people with skills that ‘could be used off the cards’ or whoever’s name comes out of the hat. Like the SPG [14], their name gets changed regularly to put off resistance.

In October ‘82 the SCCUM were sent into Archway Tower, home of Highgate and Finsbury Park DHSS offices, and a large demonstration was there to meet them. As they arrived they were photographed, and their pictures and car numbers flyposted around the area, with advice on how to deal with them. This was also put on the front page of the local alternative paper. They have met similar resistance in most other places, and the ordinary DHSS staff will often walk out for the day when they come, and refuse to co-operate with them. Bethnal Green Claimants Union were so successful at disrupting their visit to the area, that one of the claimants was taken to court for ‘intimidation’, but was quickly found not guilty. Outside the court the SCCUM were further ‘intimidated’ by having a camera pointed at them, so they ran off down the road with the lens-cap! It’s interesting how such anti-social elements project their own obnoxious habits onto those at the receiving end – a primary symptom of paranoid schizophrenia. A claimant was once being harassed for ‘suspected cohabitation’ and asked IAGOU for support when the fraud officer came to visit. When he came in and saw a group of people with a tape recorder, he asked her ‘don’t you regard it as a private matter?’ as though IAGOU were the ones interested in her personal relations.

Then came the struggle against race-checks at the dole office. Staff were to be ordered to fill in a computer form for each claimant, marking them down as;
1) African/West Indian
2) Asian
3) Other
4) Refusal (claimants had the right to refuse to be assessed, but the staff were not allowed to tell them that they were being assessed, making this ‘right’ pretty useless. The reason for this was that in test runs, they found that more people refused to be assessed when they’d been told about it than when they hadn’t!)

Only 1, 2 & 4 would have been marked on the computer, in other words only if you were black or bolshie enough to refuse would you have a mark on your file – a mark identifying you for the fraud squads when looking for someone to harass or for anyone else with access to the computer.

The Department of Employment claimed they only wanted statistics, and for this they were supported by parts of the race relations industry who wanted to show that black people are discriminated against in employment. But anyone who didn’t already recognise this fact would be among those, journalists, government ministers etc, who would no doubt use these same statistics to ‘prove’ the opposite – portraying black people as ‘scroungers’, as the problem. Employers are the problem so they’re the ones who should be hassled and assessed. Race statistics have always been used to promote racism, never to fight it.

In March ’83 IAGOU produced leaflets on the checks, including a tear-off slip to hand in when signing on. saying ‘please note that I refuse to be monitored for my ethnic origin’. At this stage the government postponed their plans, but by the end of the year it seemed they were ready to try again. So after a lot of leafleting, flyposting and visiting other groups, the inaugural meeting of the Islington Campaign Against Racist Checks was held at the Centre in December, with guest speakers from the Black Healthworkers and Patients Group and others. The turn-out was appalling – most of the black groups contacted had said-good luck, but had their own agendas of struggle and many people leafleted outside the dole offices expressed anger but felt nothing could be done until the checks started – and the campaign remained the work of IAGOU. The publicity continued, including a live interview on Radio London, and soon the campaign spread, so that in February ‘84 the London Campaign Against Racist Checks was set up, made up of unwaged groups, dole staff and others. Much of that summer was spent leafleting at various festivals, and the meetings, when held in Islington, would often go on till the early hours of the morning (but business was always finished in time to pop over to the pub) and generally campaigning was combined with having a bloody good time.

In August the government decided to have a test run of the checks at various dole offices – they had already done test-runs so it was obvious that what was, being tested was the amount of resistance. Demos were held at Holloway, Peckham and Brixton dole offices when the tests were supposed to be carried out there. About a year later they tried again – again there were demos-and a one-day strike by the staff. Another year on they tried it in the Job Centres, where for many reasons people felt less threatened by it so there was little resistance, but now that the Job Centres and dole offices are to be re-merged, the struggle is being taken up again. [15]

At various times there were attempts to campaign against the Youth Training Scheme etc, against benefit cuts, and for concessions at council sports facilities – (successful) and at cinemas, Arsenal, public transport etc (unsuccessful). Some fun was had at a show put on by the government as part of their ‘review’ of benefits. They held a public (though practically un-publicised) series of discussions between representatives of the government, business and a few liberal organisations. The result of this farce was a foregone conclusion, so IAGOU and some of the Claimants Unions booed the show off stage, drowning it out with whistles and loud conversation. Unfortunately the performers were allowed to leave the stage unharmed despite being outnumbered.

The question of how to effectively campaign over the level of benefits, our standard of living, was always a major problem. Obviously the unemployed (as opposed to other sectors of the unwaged – ie ‘housewives’) are not in a position to strike, but can still be very disruptive to the system. Our current level of income is due in part to past disruptions, and the state’s attempts to avoid them in future. What would most encourage the state to increase benefits would be a situation where large numbers of the unwaged (and waged) were already directly taking more, through mass looting, mass fare dodging, rent strikes etc. in which case demanding increased benefits would be irrelevant – the important thing would be to extend this real power instead of legitimising the state by making demands of it. On the other hand there is the possibility of waged workers taking up the demand, especially when fighting redundancies, but IAGOU do not seem to have directly suggested this to any workers. Instead the idea of an increase, or of a Guaranteed Minimum Income were used in effect as a way of explaining other campaigns and struggles (we should get more/a GMI because… so we’re demanding/doing X) or as an alternative/opposition to the demand for jobs. Meanwhile they encouraged shoplifting, benefit fraud, squatting, careful tampering with meters, eating the rich etc.

5) CHANGE OF MEMBERS

By the first anniversary of the Centre’s opening there was only one person left running it, it was opening very irregularly and there was no money as the GLC grant was late as usual. Some people had actually found jobs while others had just got sick of putting in a lot of work for little return, and waiting for funding to come through, or had their time taken up with other struggles. Fortunately two new active members turned up within a couple of months and helped get things going again, while some of the less active members returned once the Centre was opening regularly again. But when the last of the original activists left, in early ‘84, all continuity had been broken. The new members had to gradually discover the group’s history, contacts in other groups etc, and deal with the bad relations inherited from past disputes. Having not taken part in the long struggle to get the Centre and funding, the new members tended to take them for granted, and took the threats from the council and GLC less seriously than they should, while they also lacked the experience of fighting these authorities. And as they had not been part of the original collective process of deciding what the Centre was for, and because of the need to get more people involved, they often felt unable to impose their views on those who wandered in, meaning that at various times the place was a centre for local kids to wreck, or for the propagation of ultra-leftist ideology, or whatever. The film-shows, which were originally chosen for their political and social content, to encourage discussion and activities, degenerated into showing whatever it was felt would attract the most people, although the best attended showings were actually on Nicaragua and the Amsterdam squatters riots. Also there were the ever-present problems – that the activists became a group of friends who tended to mould the centre and its activities around themselves, making it more accessible and attractive to their friends than to the majority of the unwaged; that the smallness of the group always limited its actions, so putting off more people from joining in; and of course the many people who came along expecting someone to fight for them or organise them. But through the Centre being constantly kept open, and through constant campaigning and events, new people were attracted and the problems gradually confronted (to return in other forms).

By the summer of ’84 the Centre had again become a real centre of activity, with the campaign against racist checks leading to meetings and actions all around London, the miners strike, with miners using the Centre as a base, and the group doing collections and visiting some mining areas, and the start of threats from the GLC leading to trips to County Hall to graffiti counter-threats and leaflet their festivals, and many other things.

But as the racist checks were postponed and the GLC threats went slowly through the bureaucracy, so losing their immediate importance, what was left was the political line and posture the group had taken on the miners’ strike. This, along with the political affiliations of the two main activists had attracted a few ultra-left politicos from outside Islington, and for a while all that came out of the Centre was propaganda that had little direct relevance to the unwaged of Islington.

Meanwhile, another centre had been open for some time in Islington. Molly’s Cafe was a squatted centre in Upper Street, about a mile away from the Unwaged Centre, with a vegetarian cafe and various activities. It had been started mainly by punks who had been involved in previous squatted centres, the ‘Peace Centre’ in Rosebery Avenue [16], the anarchist bookshop in Albany Street [17] etc. and in ‘Stop the City’ [18]. For some time the two centres ignored each other, IAGOU sinking into isolation in its centre and opposed to the anarchism of Molly’s, while the Molly’s crew were put off by their expectation of another council-run community centre. But eventually they got to know each other and started working together – the Tavistock Square Claimants Union was set up at Molly’s with publicity printed by IAGOU, together they set up the Islington Housing Action Group, and a day of videos, speeches and discussion on Ireland was jointly organised at the Unwaged Centre.

It was the day on Ireland that finally brought to a head the dispute between the ultra-leftists and the other users, including the activists from Molly’s. In political terms the dispute was over self-organisation: in principle both sides were for it, but for the ultra-leftists this meant producing propaganda attacking manipulators, forms of organisation that restrain struggle, recuperation of struggle etc, so that the Centre and its resources were there for them to use as they saw fit, as representatives of this ‘correct’ ideology. But for the others the resources were for the direct self-organisation of the unwaged (and others) irrespective of political position, for developing our struggles according to our experience. Two of the ultra-leftists in particular were making the atmosphere unbearable – one was constantly critical of everything without any positive suggestions and easily wound up to a tantrum, while the other took pleasure in winding him up, hid the best paper for his own pamphlets, ignored most of the people coming in, and finally wrote stupid graffiti across a poster in the window for the day on Ireland, having made no attempt to take part and so express his views constructively.

At that time the weekly meetings had again stopped, as IAGOU as such was not doing a lot, except with the people from Molly’s who, although they were using the Centre more and more, had not got directly involved in running it. To break out of this rut, a package was put together and put to everyone involved – expulsion of the two disrupters, and new activities for the Centre with meetings again. A special meeting was held for the expulsion and the result was a forgone conclusion, the expellers having organised the invitations to the meeting. One of the expellees recognised this and didn’t turn up, having paint-bombed the front of the Centre the night before in protest, but the other tried unsuccessfully to justify himself. A new issue of Unwaged Fightback magazine was started and various activities organised to defend the Centre and restart campaigning, which gave new life to IAGOU, but with a new, informal power structure based around a few of the activists who were moving into a squat together.

6) MINERS & OTHERS

1984 was the year of the miners’ strike, and IAGOU, like many other groups, joined in by collecting money etc, joining pickets and demonstrations, and encouraging solidarity among the unwaged (and waged) of the area. Two groups of miners used the Centre at different times, as a base for organising collections, meetings and trips to speak to other workers – first from a pit in Staffordshire, and when they found a less chaotic (and more officially approved of) base a branch from Sunderland moved in. The money collected by IAGOU went, at various times, to these two groups, to strikers at a Nottingham pit, a Women’s Action Group (mainly miners’ wives) in Derbyshire and to the families of miners imprisoned for their part in the struggle. This was always organised directly, rather than through official union channels – when the Staffordshire lads were met on a demo in the early days of the strike, their regional union treasurer was supporting the scabs and refusing to pass on money to strikers, while towards the end there was the fear of the money being sequestered, but the main reason was that the group wanted direct links, so that ideas and experiences could be shared, and so that the miners would know who the solidarity was coming from and why, rather than it appearing to be the work of the union bureaucrats. Collections were held at least once a week outside Sainsburys, two jumble-sales were held, and a large window display (made famous by the Islington Gazette) encouraged passers-by to come in and donate. One guy who came in said that he had just been interviewing Margaret Hodge, the council leader, and the only way he felt he could make himself clean again was by donating a fiver to the miners. An attempt to collect toys for miners’ children for Xmas failed, but food and money were donated instead, and a couple of Islington shops donated toys without knowing it.

From early on in the strike it became obvious that the miners were not going to win on their own, and that the government was trying very hard to avoid any other important section of the working class entering into major activity at the same time. So IAGOU, like others, stepped up their encouragement of workers’ activity, they joined a picket for a one-day dock strike, distributed a leaflet by Central London post workers at the Islington sorting office, supported the local nursery workers’ strike against understaffing, made a poster calling for real action on the TUC-called ‘Day of Action’ … There was a lot of talk around of the need to open up-a ‘2nd Front’ against the state, yet IAGOU managed to avoid the obvious conclusion of what they themselves were saying – that they should have been stepping up their struggle as part of the unwaged movement. IAGOU were fairly weak at this time, which to some extent explains why they looked elsewhere for the ‘2nd Front’, but they were weak because they were constantly looking elsewhere. Once the racist checks were postponed they had little contact with the dole and DHSS offices, but instead waited for the masses to be attracted to the Centre by their extremist political proclamations. The reason for IAGOU’s existence, that the unwaged must organise and fight their own battles as part of the wider working-class movement was effectively forgotten, and they relegated themselves to the position that the left had tried hard to impose on them and that they had always resisted, the position of individual supporters of the struggles of the waged and of a particular political line. Of course the unwaged movement must support the struggles of other sectors of the working class, and the miners’ strike was a very important struggle, but the development of unity depends on each struggle becoming a catalyst for the others. The threat by the DHSS to reduce strikers’ miserable benefits by the amount of any donations should have been fought at the Islington DHSS offices, along with more general threats against benefits. The state’s attempts to make energy production more profitable should have been fought from the other end, through struggle for concessionary rates for (or free) fuel. Discussion should have been started among the unwaged on what the strike could mean for them. Despite having miners using the Centre, they were never asked to speak at a meeting there. The one aspect of the strike that IAGOU did take up and try to encourage to other sectors, was the necessity of using all possible means and force to fight our struggles.

Generally IAGOU made great efforts to support, and encourage support for other struggles, such as the Newham 8 (8 Asian youths arrested and charged for defending their community against racist attacks) the nursery workers’ strike, the struggles at Kingston and Southwark unemployed centres against their managements. But IAGOU seemed to have great difficulty in keeping permanent contact with other groups, partly through the turnover in active members, partly through the constant rise and fall of other groups and partly through quarrelling.

In the beginning relations with Islington Trades Council were fairly good especially with the labour left. The Trades Council was dominated by the Communist Party, not because they were in a majority, but because they were the ones willing to take responsible positions and do the work, and because they had contacts (and party links) with the regional TUC and other Trades Councils. On the question of the Unwaged Centre (as on all other questions) they followed the TUC line – that centres should be run by paid workers and controlled by a management committee dominated by the council and unions. But the labour left were more supportive of IAGOU and used this, and other issues to depose the CP and take the leading positions. This was the time of the council’s defection to the SDP, and when Labour won the new elections, these new Trades Council leaders had become councillors, leaving the CP back in control. Despite the differences, the chair of the Trades Council did a lot of work to get the centre and became a trustee of the building, but in April ’83 he resigned this position and tried to stop the council funding because of his (and other ‘responsible authorities’) lack of control over day-to-day running. He claimed that as the money was controlled only by the users themselves, they would ‘take the money and run’. This left relations rather bad. The Trades Council still had two delegates on the Centre’s admin committee (with 4 from IAGOU) but for a long time meetings were very irregular, and a formality when they did happen. And IAGOU had two fraternal delegates (meaning they could only speak when spoken to) on the Trades Council, but they only attended to make sure they weren’t being attacked, and to enjoy the outbursts of the secretary, who would explode at the mere mention of IAGOU. This situation suited the newcomers to IAGOU, not only because it left them free from any interference, but also because of their view of unions as bureaucratic organisations, controlling workers’ struggles and dividing them. Of course at local level most union delegates and officials are still workers, often radical workers critical of the leadership and bureaucracy, but as long as they see the union as the organ for struggle, and seek merely to reform it, they strengthen it, and so those manipulators and parasites most fit to run it, and sabotage the power of the working class, to spread its struggles across all imposed boundaries and fragmentation, and to directly seize power and the wealth we produce. Unions exist to mediate between us and our enemy (assuming and imposing their right to exist) and between us and other groups of workers. Those who run unions can never share the direct interests of their members, and do not even have to pretend to have common interests with those not in the union, who must therefore be kept separate.

IAGOU always saw themselves as an active minority, not as representatives of anyone, but to some extent this is also the true position of local union delegates. They are often elected to positions of ‘representation’ because they are active and willing to do the work – because they are an active minority. But as they take up positions in the hierarchy (on the grounds that it is better for them to be there than someone worse – the excuse of all reformists) they get caught up in the machinery of representing ‘their’ members (so requiring majority support before doing anything, no matter how important they consider it) representing the union’s decisions and-actions to the members, mediating with the boss, more and more meetings…… To break with the union structure means not only to lose the restrictions imposed by it, but also the support for (some) struggles that comes from official recognition. The fact that support is dependant on going through the ‘correct channels’ shows how different this is from solidarity – in fact through ‘replacing’ solidarity, it represses it – although rank and file activists are constantly battling to create something meaningful out of the empty form of words and gestures behind which each union continues to carve out its own kingdom of separate interests.

Anyway, when IAGOU were forced to turn to the Trades Council for support against the threats of the council and the GLC, they found they actually had quite a lot in common with some of the delegates. Relations with activists from the DHSS staff were particularly good – IAGOU often joined their pickets and took up their campaigns, while they kept IAGOU informed of goings-on at their offices and were the most active in the struggle to keep the Centre open. There were also good relations with delegates from the ‘voluntary sector’ (council funded groups, advice workers etc) who were often involved in similar struggles with the council. While the Centre was finally being evicted, a housing advice agency was being victimised and then closed down because of its campaigning, and publicising of racism in the council’s housing allocation. IAGOU also started getting involved in some of the Trades Council run campaigns, such as the campaign against the privatisation of the health service, which was effectively sabotaged by the health workers’ union rep (a member of management!) who complained about the campaign being run by non-health workers, while ensuring that ‘his’ members could not get involved. Again IAGOU became one of the main issues dividing the CP leadership from the left majority, and eventually the chair and treasurer resigned and the secretary was voted out.

7) THE END OF THE CENTRE

It was in May ’84 that the first suggestion was made by the GLC that the funding would be cut off. At this point the only reason given was that IAGOU was not considered a priority, but when other groups started writing letters of support, a list of reasons came back – ‘the irregular hours that the Unwaged Centre opened’ which had been sorted out 8 months earlier, ‘the smallness and relative unrepresentativeness of the group running the Centre, whereas they now wanted centres run by a couple of paid workers, and control over spending (in particular money given to Wageless Women so that they could control their own struggles). IAGOU answered these points and started trying to improve the Centre, by redecorating (now that the building works weren’t going to happen) more publicity and trying to get input from other local groups. Groups were invited to meetings to discuss the direction and running of the Centre, but none turned up (not even the Latin American groups which used the Centre for film shows and meetings) – when they were invited to regularly use the Centre (so freeing IAGOU from having to be there all the time) only the Claimants Union showed any interest, and eventually set up a new branch there, which only created confusion in the Centre. The local GLC councillor was invited round so that IAGOU could put their case to him, but instead he was only interested in putting the GLC case to them, showing who he really represented.

Then in September the Centre became front-page news in the local rightwing rag (and even got a mention in the London Evening Standard) when they noticed one word in the window display, and blew it up out of all proportion. Apart from the many inaccuracies (the most obvious being that about £40,000 was received, not £60,000, the group’s accounts were already in the hands of the council, although a bit behind, and the “poster saying Suspend the Bosses”‘ were actually stickers saying ‘Support the Bosses’) most of the group were pleased at the publicity, and thought unwaged people would be attracted by this image. But apart from a few people popping in to say ‘if the Gazette is against you, you must be OK’, this didn’t seem to work. The identity of the man ‘who visited the centre regularly’ but claimed that ‘people like me can not go in there’ was never proved, but he was believed to be a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain who was upset at being refused access to the duplicators for his party propaganda, and who was later seen at the Gazette office. There were some fears for the safety of the Centre, as a Gazette front-page attack on the Community Press a couple of years earlier had been closely followed by a fascist fire-bomb attack, but for some reason the Centre was left alone.

After this the council and GLC made it clear that they were really objecting to the group’s campaigning;

‘You have a radical libertarian approach to the problems of society… the activities you wish to carry on are sometimes incompatible with receiving public money’ (GLC)

‘I am concerned that the philosophy of IAGOU is that of a political campaigning organisation rather than a provider of services’ (Islington)

Of course IAGOU were not against services for the unwaged. They gave advice and support, cheap tea and coffee and-sometimes meals, somewhere to meet, films etc, but all this was seen as part of organising, not as servicing. The council wanted to be able to say ‘look what we’re doing for the unwaged’, IAGOU said ‘come and see what we can do for ourselves’. Between April and August ’84 a record was kept of visitors to the Centre – it varied from 3 to 20 a day (more for some films) which compared reasonably with other centres, and it would have been hard to fit many more people in, but the council were not impressed, or even interested. They decided to organise trips to other centres to see how they worked, first to the Reading Unemployed Centre. Any comparison with Islington was impossible; it had 24 paid workers, a lot of room and money and no facilities for campaigning – the delegate from the Chamber of Commerce was most impressed. Then to Southwark, where the centre was at that time being occupied by the users. There had been a long-running battle by most of the users and workers against the bureaucracy, manipulation, racism and sexism of the management committee, and when, in October ‘84, a black woman worker was harassed and assaulted by members of the management committee, they took over the building. But as far as Islington Council were concerned Southwark was a good example of how an unwaged centre should be run, and their report did not mention the occupation. The final visit was to Greenwich, which had a good centre but at that time no active unwaged group, partly because some of the leading activists had become workers there.

IAGOU had to admit that the other centres supplied a better service, but because they were given the money to do so. For example they were probably the only centre around without their own minibus, making them dependant either on Southwark for lifts (to mining areas, to support the Camel Laird occupation, to lobby the TUC, to demos etc) or on the council social services, who would not allow their minibuses for ‘political’ use(their office was only two doors away, so when a minibus was requested ‘for a trip to Kew Gardens’, they could see an advert in the window for a trip to a demo in Newham) and they were only allowed to specially qualified drivers, which IAGOU didn’t have after March ’84.

The council then started talking about setting up a new centre, which IAGOU certainly didn’t mind – apart from the original problems with the building, the heating system had exploded with a torrent of boiling water, the damp was eating away the floor and wall at the back and the head landlords, having refused permission for alterations, were now demanding restoration work that had been included in the plans – but the important point was how the new centre was to be run.

In May ’85 IAGOU drew up a new proposed constitution, including paid workers, greater concentration on services and wider representation on the admin committee. The council ignored it and told IAGOU to disband, and in July gave them 3 months notice to move out. Then in October they invited IAGOU, the chair of the Trades Council and Starting Point (an unwaged youth project in south Islington) to a meeting to discuss the new centre. At this meeting they brought out their proposed constitution (which most people had not seen before), shrugged off all criticism with ‘it can be changed later’, and effectively told those present that they were the management committee for the new centre. All the non-council members resigned these positions as soon as they returned to their groups to discuss it. The meeting also organised a trip to see possible sites for the centre, except that the council didn’t organise their part, so that out of three proposed sites, only one was found, and even with this one nobody knew which part of the building was available, but it was totally inappropriate anyway. The council put their proposals, not agreed by anyone else, to the GLC and got £30,000 from them for the 5 months to the end of the financial year. £30,000 for a non-existent centre, and IAGOU were accused of wanting to ‘take the money and run’. The Trades Council tried to get the constitution reopened for discussion, and the Centre kept open until the new one actually existed, but they only managed to get a statement that IAGOU might be allowed to stay until 31st December. The new centre of course never came about.

But IAGOU weren’t going to disappear without a fight. On October 15th they held a demo outside the council meeting at the Town Hall. Only about 30 people turned up, plus 20 council workers who were demonstrating about something else but had forgotten their leaflets. Only one person from the other London unwaged groups turned up, and none from the Trades Council.

The best bit was that some housing association had supplied free food for the council as a bribe, and demonstrators wandered in to partake, as did some local kids attracted by the chant of ‘Islington cares, food upstairs’. There was some heckling during the meeting, but a group of the activists managed to get locked out while trying to get permission to speak.

On the evening of October 18th IAGOU started their illegal occupation of the Centre with an all-night party, and from then on the place was occupied 24 hours a day, with a rota for nights. Posters from the original attempt to occupy the place were rediscovered and stuck up everywhere. A benefit gig was held at a squatted centre in Wood Green, which made some money, mainly on the drinks. The occupation raised people’s enthusiasm for a while as publicity was organised and new campaigns planned. An ‘unwaged Xmas Presence’ was planned to attack the misery of the festivities, but as the time got nearer people lost interest. It became obvious that it would not be practical to try anything more than a symbolic defence of the centre and by the end of the year the important issues became where the equipment and meetings could be moved to, and selling off the equipment that couldn’t be taken with. The idea of occupying the Town Hall or some other Council building when the eviction took place was discussed, but people were getting bored with occupying. The phones were cut off (with about £2,000 owed), the equipment packed up, and the occupation fizzled out. The Centre was finally evicted in February ‘86. After 20 months the building is still empty [19].

Meetings continued at an office in Essex Road, but most of the members had lost interest, including some of those who still came. Great efforts were made to attract new people and remain public – the GLC farewell festival was leafleted, a public meeting organised on the chaos at the DHSS (which nobody came to) and a demonstration was called on the night of the council election against whoever won, but the turnout was pathetic and everyone went straight to the pub.

They moved again, to a new squatted centre in Upper Street, but despite a lot of publicity nobody new came, and by the summer of ’86 IAGOU had gone to sleep.

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Notes

These notes were not part of the original text – we at past tense have added  them to help people who may not remember the 80s, (shurely shome mishtake? ed.), or who may not have followed the intricacies of the politics of that fabled era… However, they are brief points, not detailed analyses of the group/policy/benefit to which they refer; apologies to anyone who knows all this and finds our explanations simplistic.

[1] – NF: The National Front, a rightwing nationalist group, pretty similar to the BNP or EDL of more recent times (the BNP in fact began as a splinter-group from the NF); basically blaming immigrants for all the problems in society and campaigning to “send them all home”, as well as encouraging and carrying out racist attacks. In the 1970s the NF for a while grew very strong as the economic recession deepened, but they collapsed effectively after Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government came to power in ’79, and adopted many of their policies, and much of their support deserted them for the tories. The rump NF fell back to the hardline neo-Nazi core at its heart; but in the 80s they also had a policy of attempting to weasel their way into social struggles and community groups and spread their shite. For instance they sent money to striking miners (who sent it back) and as late as 1989 tried unsuccessfully to set up anti-poll tax groups.

[2] – At the time the TUC and trade unions generally were attempting to set up Unemployed Centres, under the control of union bureaucracies, and often funded by them and local (usually Labour) councils. Many survived into the 1990s, even till today, though most closed gradually in the ‘90s as funding grew tighter and Labour’s rightward lurch made them embarrassing and expensive anachronisms.

[3] – This refers to the 1980 Bristol riot in St Pauls and the April 1981 Brixton riot. Just after this conference, in July ‘81, massive riots broke out all over the country, terrifying the middle classes and the bosses alike. There seems to be a debate about whether the 2011 riots were bigger in scale; the reaction was very similar – massive repression, arrests and increases in police powers. The 81 riots did lead to funding for lots of measures in inner cities to try and to ‘address the problems’ (ie pacify) of rebellious youth.

[4] – Socialist Organiser were a left group who broadly speaking followed the ideas of Russian ‘revolutionary’ Leon Trotsky. SO had a policy of organising inside the Labour Party at that time (as did many other ‘trotskyist’ groups); they succeeded in taking control in some local Labour party branches and thus came to run local councils like Lambeth in South London. The group were gradually expelled from Labour as it became New Labour and ditching the ‘extreme’ left seemed necessary so as to become electable/respectable to middle England. Socialist Organiser have now mutated into the Alliance for Workers Liberty.

[5] – DHSS: the Department for Health and Social Security, the central government branch running the Health Service and all areas of benefits and welfare at the time. In 1988 Health and Social Security were separated into two Departments; so the Department of Work and Pensions is the DHSS’s modern successor. Many claimants in the 80s just called them the SS after everyone’s favourite nazi unit.

[6] – Hackney: the London Borough next door to Islington.

[7] – UB Press: refers to Unemployment Benefit, now replaced by Jobseekers Allowance (via numberless changes in identity).

[8] – Wal Hannington was a leader of the National Unemployed Workers Movement, a national organisation of the unemployed (which existed 1921-46). After the first world war, Britain saw mass unemployment; the NUWM was formed from the upsurge in unemployed groups that sprang up to campaign for improved benefits and facilities, better treatment from the authorities, etc… Grounded very much in the socialist and working class movement of that had grown up before the war, it came to be dominated by the Communist Party of Great Britain. Hannington and other CP members, while clearly dedicated working class activists, undeniably steered the NUWM away from its early powerful locally based strengths towards a concentration on stunts like the hunger marches, and centralised the Movement to the point of sterility. Nevertheless, particularly in the early years, the NUWM achieved many gains for the unemployed. Wal Hannington’s book, Unemployed Struggles 1919-36, is well worth a read; though for an objective account, read We Refuse to Starve in Silence by Richard Croucher; and for some unpleasant truths about NUWM and Hannington’s tendency to manipulate and control working class people in the Communist Party’s interest, check out Sylvia Pankhurst, by Barbara Winslow.

[9] – Occupation of a disused Islington Library: this was Essex Road Library, used as a meeting point by the local unemployed group, post World War 1 (see previous note). After being granted the use of this empty building, they were told to leave, but barricaded themselves in. The Council cut off power and water but food, candles and water were brought in. After holding it by force for a few weeks, in December 1920, E. H. King, Islington’s first Labour mayor, ordered the police to eject them; cops stormed the library early one morning. King described the group as ‘unemployables’. The growing radical disillusionment with the Labour Party was reinforced in September 1921 when the majority of the Labour Guardians voted to withdraw an increase in outdoor relief (the main benefit of the time) to which they had earlier agreed.

[10] – SWP: the Socialist Workers Party, a left group who are still around, (and unlike Socialist Organiser, see prior note, have not changed their name). Not orthodox trotskyists like S.O., much larger in numbers and more opportunist: they have had more front organisations than Michael Jackson had prescription pharmaceuticals. These days the SWP pretty much consists of students, though in the early ‘80s they had more working class members. What has not changed is the SWP hierarchy’s basic policy of exploiting all struggles to recruit members above all other considerations, obstructing anyone else trying to get anything achieved who doesn’t want to join the party, having the attention span of a distracted toddler, and attempting to centrally control everything. As well as trying to cover up rape and sexual assault of women members by leading cadres…

[11] – Greater London Council: the old administrative body for the whole London area (replacing the old London County Council). In its day it had responsibilities broadly similar to the modern Mayor of London and GLA, but it also ran much of London’s social housing and alot more besides. In 1981 the GLC changed hands from Conservative to Labour, and came to be controlled by the Labour Left, headed up by Ken Livingstone; they adopted a left program and increased funding for community groups and voluntary sector, especially organisations that fitted their broad socialist agenda. The press stereotyped the GLC as funding ‘loony left’ minority projects – “taxpayers money is supporting one legged black lesbian mothers against the bomb!” etc. These policies brought the GLC into conflict with the tory national government, not only because the GLC opposed the tories politically, but also because a central plank of tory policy was cutting back state expenditure, especially by cutting the amount local or regional authorities could both raise (in rates etc) and spend. Despite a high profile campaign and alot of public support, the GLC was abolished with other (all Labour-controlled) Metropolitan Authorities in 1986. This really isn’t the place for a debate about the merits of the GLC; its funding definitely allowed many projects to exist or continue that enriched life in London and improved conditions for millions of people, and its abolition was part of a process of restricting alternatives and closing down opportunities that have life harder in London for many. Much of this was down to social and economic changes, as well as political policies. On the flipside, some of its actual policies involved more posturing than effective change, and the 1980s GLC leadership had a record of backing down on them when it came to the crunch. The Council was not only bound by the restrictions of modern capitalism, but at the time those rules were being changed dramatically: Livingstone and co were on the losing side of the argument as to how modern capitalism should be managed.

[12] – MSC: Manpower Services Commission. An agency set up by the British government to co-ordinate training and employment in the UK, working with employers, trade unions, local authorities and educational institutions… The MSC promoted the idea that all these bodies had a role in improving training and education for people looking for work or while in work. In the ‘80s it was heavily involved in government employment programs like the Youth Training Scheme. It was replaced by 72 regional Training and Enterprise Councils.

[13] – SDP: The Social Democratic Party. In 1981 sections of the right wing of the Labour Party split off, deciding that the party had become dominated by the ‘extreme left’ and by too close association with the trade unions. This, they thought, was why they had lost the 1979 General Election and would be unelectable. In Islington council, Labour councillors defected en masse, so ‘seizing power’ for the SDP. The Social Democratic Party briefly became achieved popularity as a ‘centre party’ (as well as being promoted by the media as a stick to beat Labour with). Later they formed an electoral pact with the Liberal Party (then at a low ebb of support), with whom they eventually merged to form today’s Liberal Democrats. Ironically the Labour Party did in the late 80s and 90s move very much in the glossy rightward direction the SDP had previously taken.

[14] – SPG: The Special Patrol Group, the Metropolitan Police’s riot squads, basically, dealing with serious disorder and crowd control. Now called the Territorial Support Group; the name change became necessary Public Relations as the SPG became synonymous with violent police assaults killings of demonstrators, institutionalised racism, and invasions of ‘trouble spots’, eg Brixton, and systematic harassment of residents, especially black youth.

[15] – We’re not sure, but we think DHSS race checks were never revived. If anyone remembers different please let us know!

[16] – The Peace Centre in Rosebery Avenue (in Finsbury, South Islington): one of, if not the, earliest anarcho-punk squat centres in London. Occupied 6 September 1983 as the Peace Centre/Alternative Centre, an organising space for the September ‘83 Stop the City (see below), it lasted a few months.

[17] – The anarchist bookshop at no 36 Albany Street, in Euston, was a successor to the Peace Centre in 1983, based in an area of mass squatting for both housing and alternative projects, around Tolmers Square and Drummond Street. The anarchist paper Class War was briefly based at the bookshop.

[18] – ‘Stop the City’ was a series of actions in the City of London and spreading elsewhere, roughly 1983-84, coming mainly (though not entirely) from anarchist punks involved in the peace movement, aimed at City institutions and corporations funding nuclear and other weaponry and war, but widening out to an attack on capitalism generally. Thousands would gather on one day for demos, occupations, graffiti, aiming to try and disrupt daily corporate life, at least for a day. While early on large numbers and new tactics caused chaos in the City, by the later actions the police just swamped STC and arrested or dispersed everyone they could. Stop the City as an idea continued to inspire others towards similar tactics for a couple of decades though, and many of those involved formed the backbone of many activist groups and projects over the 80s and 90s and till the present.

[19] – The building remained empty for some years, but is now (2011) a Dentist’s Surgery; ironically, it’s one of the few in the area that accepts NHS patients, among whom is one of our own past tense crew!

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At the time of writing a massive ‘re-organisation’ of the benefits system is underway, with the creation of Universal  Credit. This follows on 8 years of vicious ‘austerity’, a relentless onslaught on the living standards for working class in this country as possible, and force people to work for less, live on less and work harder. Gains fought for long and hard over decades are being clawed back…

The only real alternative is to make the rich pay, permanently. Our motive for reprinting the above text, as with all past tense projects, as struggles around the dole may again become vitally important, is to take lessons, inspiration, ideas from struggles and movements of the past. By this we don’t mean slavishly following old models, but taking what’s useful and adding to it with our own experiences.

Islington Action Group of the Unwaged’s attempts to organise themselves for themselves, were unacceptable to trade union structures and politicos of right and left alike. When workers refuse to be pawns, but think and act for themselves, they turn their potential threat into real threat, and all the forces of manipulation and control unite to bring them back to heel. Union bureaucracies, Labour hacks, and ‘left’ parties are, have, as always, spent the last 8 years jostling to head the movement against cuts and keep it under control, on their terms; diverting anger and potential for change into pointless ‘days of action’, ‘one day strikes’ and other nonsense. In Islington itself, Labour councillors implemented savage cuts to services one day and led the ‘anti-cuts’ marches the next.

During the 1980s rate-capping struggles many people invested much support and hope in their elected representatives; disillusion was probably bound to follow, partly because brave lefty leaders get cold feet, or end up sacking workers and making cuts in the end (‘with a heavy heart’), usually on the grounds that it’s better for them to be in charge than someone worse, they have no choice. In reality they do have little choice, because their real room to manoeuvre IS limited, by central government funding, legal obligations, and so on, even more now than in the ’80s. It would be great to have an independent workers movement, that answered both austerity and attempts to co-opt rebellion by Labour councillors, union full-timers, and professional lefties with the proper politeness: occupy the lot, strike, not for a day but for good, and lets run the world ourselves. Time will tell as to if that develops, and how.

Now times have changed mightily since the days of the Greater London Council, and ‘leftwing’ Labour boroughs funding alternative groups and centres, as was commonplace in the 1970s and ’80s. Thousands of advice centres, childcare groups, adventure playgrounds, women’s groups, organisations campaigning for rights, equality etc for various minorities, and numerous other causes, which often started out organising voluntarily, gradually accepted funding from local, regional or national government. This allowed them better facilities, wider reach and stability, enabled many groups to run from better premises, open longer hours, and produce better printed materials, help people directly. There’s no doubt that official funding for broadly progressive projects improved the lives of large numbers of people.

However it was a double-edged sword: it also brought them under official control and tended often to hamper their independence. Their reliance on this funding could lead to toning down any challenging of state structures, campaigning against council or government policies and so on. hen the money was withdrawn, people could no longer operate on without it, and projects collapsed. More radical projects could also be bought off and neutralised in this way. Of course, if like Islington Unwaged Centre, you attempted to combine union or council funding with a revolutionary critique of how those groups basically are part of the problem you’re fighting, then eventually they’ll stop giving you the dosh – that was only a matter of time.

Local councils funding such projects as Islington Unwaged Centre are largely a thing of the past. The experiences of the Islington Unwaged do provide a warning against trusting union bureaucracies, Labour politicians and other left managers of misery. But it’s also true that the ultra-radical activist model adopted by Islington Action Group of the Unwaged present its own problems. The balance between day to day activities to keep people afloat, grab a slightly bigger piece of the economic pie, and calling for an all-out overthrow of existing social relations, is a hard one to maintain. But even if we believe the current economic system has to go, and be replaced by something more co-operative, egalitarian and based on need and love, not profit, we still have to face and fight the daily battle to survive, collectively as well as individually. Experience of numerous activist collectives (including ones based around the dole/benefits) suggests that sometimes you have to tread a fine line to avoid a kind of theoretically correct isolation on the one hand, and unpaid advice or social work, on others behalf, on the other. We don’t really have a trite solution, and some of us at past tense have tended to swing from one end of that spectrum to another: too much ultra-left posturing and you feel like a bit more practical work, sometimes, and vice versa.

As we said we’re not offering answers, just contributions to debate.

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The Past Is Before Us . . .

We can accept cuts, cut our own throats, or fight back… Some contacts for unwaged action today.

We aren’t endorsing all of the politics of these groups, and there are certainly useful organisations not listed here because we don’t know about them… These groups can also put you in touch with others in your area.

London Coalition Against Poverty

A coalition of groups based on the idea that through solidarity and direct action, ordinary people have the power to change our own lives. Email: lcap@lcap.org.uk

Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty

Formerly Edinburgh Claimants – organising around hassles with the Benefits authorities, bad conditions and insecurity at work, harrassment by sheriff officers and debt collectors, soaring electricity and gas bills, and rip-off landlords and housing problems. email: ecap@lists.riseup.net

Disabled People Against Cuts

DPAC is about disabled people and their allies. We welcome all to join us in fighting for justice and human rights for all disabled people. Info, support, solidarity, campaigns…

Boycott Workfare

Workfare – compulsory work for benefits… BW call on public sector bodies, voluntary organisations and businesses being offered these placements as well as union branches to boycott the scheme. Email: info@boycottworkfare.org

After ATOS

Atos Healthcare administer the medical test for claimants on disability benefits that examine their ability to work, ie are aimed at forcing people off incapacity benefits.

And in Islington… the struggle continues:

Islington Poverty Action Group

Advice & campaigning on problems with the benefits system and poverty.
Email: islingtonpovertyactiongroup@gmail.com

Today in drunken London history, 1736: a rumoured Uprising against the Gin Act

In 1736, the Gin Act, introduced heavy excise duties on gin production, and licensing to restrict its distribution, to try to reduce the English love of getting hammered on ‘Madam Geneva’). These measures aroused popular rage, and led to riots, widespread illegal gin-selling and scares of an uprising…

A spike in gin drinking had become the moral panic of its day. Economic protectionism was a major factor in beginning the Gin Craze; as the price of food dropped and income grew, consumers increasingly had the opportunity to spend their meagre excess funds on liquor.

Much of the gin on sale, though, was not as fragrant as your modern Spiced Pink Rhubarb number… This was often raw stuff, barely twice distilled, sometimes flavoured with turpentine and other industrial solvents if juniper was out of your price range. As parliament had abolished restrictions on distilling the stuff in the late 17th century, there followed a mass proliferation of small-scale distillers, knocking up bathtub gin by dubious methods and selling it at a knockdown price. An explosion of production and an explosion of consumption – soon all sorts of spirits were for sale on every corner. Pissed Londoners abounded.

By 1721, the Middlesex magistrates were already decrying gin as “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people”.

As consumption levels increased, an organised campaign for a crackdown on gin drinking began to emerge, usually envisioned as being effected by more restrictive legislation. The calls for new laws were led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson who, in 1736, complained that gin produced a “drunken ungovernable set of people”. He was to be proved correct…

Prominent anti-gin campaigners from the 1730s to the 1750s included the writer and magistrate Henry Fielding (whose 1751 ‘Enquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers’ blamed gin consumption for both increased crime and increased ill health among children), Daniel Defoe (who had originally campaigned for the liberalisation of distilling, but later complained that drunken mothers were threatening to produce a ‘fine spindle-shanked generation’ of children), and – briefly – artist William Hogarth. Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane is a well known image of the gin craze, and is often paired with “Beer Street”, creating a contrast between the miserable lives of gin drinkers and the healthy and enjoyable lives of beer drinkers.

Pressure from prominent magistrates in Westminster and Middlesex, and well-connected moral reform organisation the Society for the Reformation of manners had whipped up a campaign of outrage at the drunkenness of the poor, blaming much of the ills of London life on the availability of cheap gin. Their thesis went that poor Londoners were poor and many degenerate or desperate, and drinking gin was to blame. Clearly this is ass-backwards, as even commentators of the time pointed out – poor folk drank gin to blot out the desperate misery and poverty of the daily lives. Puritans generally get cause and effect all wonky, however; and when they managed to persuade Prime Minister Robert Walpole that higher duties on grain used for gin distilling and licences to sell spirits would bring in lots of lovely readies for the government coffers (much of it meant to slosh the king’s way), the way was paved for the Gin Act. It was passed in April 1736, and stipulated a twenty-shilling duty on gin sold in small quantities, a retain licence of £50 (quite a sum at the time), and a £10 fine for anyone selling gin ‘about the streets, highways or fields… on stalls, or ins any shed…’ Sellers who defaulted on the fine could be summarily sent down for two months hard labour.

However, cheap gin had become so much a part of London life that people were simply not prepared to pay more for it or do without it. A rising climate of anger against the Act saw tensions rise across the capital, already troubled with xenophobic anti-Irish rioting and shadowy Jacobite plots. Londoners were boosted by the knowledge that they had already seen off one of Walpole’s schemes to raise cash (the Excise Bill debacle in 1733)…

Anti-prohibition ballads were hawked through the streets. Seditious plays and articles mocked the government’s attack on ‘Madame Geneva’ and satirically compared the plans to heavily tax the cheap pleasures of the poor with the luxurious vice of the upper classes.

And rumours of an impending revolt spread, a rebellion, to be fuelled by gin, and launched on September  29th, Michaelmas Day, the day the Act was to come into force. Letters seized by Excise officers and constables showed that someone had circulated notes to a number of gin sellers and publicans, alerting them to the plans for an uprising and exhorting them to give away gin to the crowds to steel them for the fight. The codeword for the uprising to kick off was to be ‘Sir Robert and Sir Joseph” (namechecking PM Walpole and Joseph Jekyll, the Master of the Rolls, the leading advocate for the Act)… The letters hinted at support in the army for a revolt, and called on

“The dealers in distill’d liquors to keep open shop on Tuesday next, being the eve of the day on which the act is to take place and give gratis what quantities of Gin, or other liquors, shall be call’d for by the populace… then christen the streets with the remainder, & conclude with bonfires… All retailers whose circumstances will not permit them to contribute to the festival shall have quantities of liquor sent before the time… Invite as many neighbours as you can conveniently, & be under no apprehension of the Riot Act, but whenever you hear the words Sir Robert and Sir Joseph joyne in the huzza.”

The suggestions of a revolt, with the implication of possible jacobite influence, and possible disaffection among the troops, terrified the government. Rumours had been spreading for weeks that arms had been landed from abroad on various beaches for distribution among the poor.

The army was called into the capital to be ready for any trouble; a double guard was mounted at Kensington palace, the guards at St James, Horseguards and Whitehall reinforced, and 300 lifeguards and grenadiers were paraded through Covent Garden, to overawe the crowds… Other detachments were stationed in Hyde Park and the Westminster suburbs, and at the Master of the Rolls house in Chancery Lane. The prime minster and other notables had left London a few days earlier, just in case…

However, in the event, the plot came to nothing. There was no uprising. Whether it had been a piece of satirical propaganda, or wishful thinking of behalf of the jacobite underground, no mobs took to the streets to drown the government in gin. There was some rowdiness: “When Discontents express’d the bitterness in their Hearts by committing Violences, the Horse and Foot-Guards and Train’d Bands were order’d to be properly station’d to repel the Populace where it might gather. Some Shots were necessitated to be fired when, after the reading of the Riot Act, those inflamed by the Spirit of Madame Genever, failed to lawfully disperse while seeking to petition his Majesty at St James’ Palace at Midnight. Disturbances occurr’d through the night, in divers Locations, with some of damaging of Property and House breaking, but the Mob dispersed at the merest Hint of Authority and few firm Encounters are reported, though many spent an unquiet Night in pursuit.”

Quite a number did take to the street to carry on drinking, and some arrests were made in the subsequent days, mainly for selling gin. On 1st October a group were apparently nicked for conducting a mock funeral and wake for ‘Madame Geneva’ in Swallow Street, a notorious Soho rookery off Piccadilly. A procession gin distillers also marched to the Excise office. [Possibly shown in the illustration at the beginning of this post…] Apart from this, the only other protest seems to have involved ‘punch’ sellers draping their shops and painting their punchbowls in black. A paper reported that ‘Mother Gin’ had “died very quietly”.

This was, however, a somewhat premature obituary. There may have bene no gin-soaked revolt in September 1736 (though you could make a case that it was delayed 43 years and manifested itself in the Gordon Riots of 1780).  But the struggle against the Gin Act in fact intensified. Over the next year and a half, London saw a spate of attacks on the magistrates enforcing the rules against gin-selling, and violent mobbings and lynchings of informers, a number of whom tried to make some cash grassing up unlicensed distillers… Several informers were killed, rioters grabbed during protests acquitted, and constable put to flight when they tried to arrest ginsellers.

Illegal gin production rocketed, and exciting new ways of distributing the product clandestinely were developed… including the possible invention of the slot machine:

“The Mob being very noisy and clamourous for want of their beloved Liquor, which few or none at last dared to sell, it soon occurred to me to venture upon that Trade. I bought the Act, and read it over several times, and found no Authority by it to break open Doors, and that the Informer must know the Name of the Person who rented the House it was sold in. To evade this, I go an Acquaintance to take a Hosue in Blue Anchor Alley, in St Luke’s Parish, who privately convey’d his bargain to me” I then got it well secured… and purchased in Moorfields the Sign of a Cat, and had it nailed to a Street Window; I then caused a Leaden pipe, the small End out about an Inch, to be placed under the Paw of the Cat; the End that was within had a funnel in it.
When my House was ready for Business… I got a Person to inform a few of the mob, that Gin would be sold by the Cat at my Window next day, provided they put the Money in its Mouth, from whence there was a Hole that conveyed it to me… I heard the chink of Money, and a comfortable Voice say, “Puss, give me two Pennyworth of Gin.” I instantly put my Mouth to the tube, and bid them receive it from the Pipe under the paw, and the measured and poured it into the Funnel, from when they soon received it. Before Night I took six Shillings, the next Day above Thirty shillings, and afterwards three or four Pound a Day…”
(The Life and Uncommon Adventures of Captain Dudley Bradstreet, 1755)

Amidst the riots and murders, what did for the 1736 Gin Act in the end was evasion – the Act was simply widely ignored, and the law could not enforce it as effectively as it could be dodged.

A series of acts of parliament followed the 1736 and law, which variously introduced higher duties on distillers, brought in licences to try to prevent small-scale sellers dealing in cheap drams, or altered these laws (sometimes liberalising and sometimes jacking up the repressive measures – depending on the government of the day’s need for cash, as the licences and duties on grain for distilling brought in tidy sums…) Hardline campaigners for repression on moral grounds sometimes had the upper hand; at others the more pragmatic reformers prevailed.

In the end it was rising grain prices and falling wages that restricted gin’s appeal, and mass consumption began to decline in the 1750s… though it would make comeback in the 19th century with the rise of the Gin Palace, sparking a whole new moral panic.

No-one has yet blamed all our modern troubles on the new 21st century hipster Gin Craze… but there’s still time…

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London riotous history: police shooting of Cherry Groce sparks a riot, Brixton, 1985.

28/9/85: Five years after the 1981 Brixton Uprising a large-scale riot broke out in Brixton, after cops shot & crippled Cherry Groce, mother of 6, in a dawn raid while searching for her son.

Here’s an account from a local Brixton anarchist who participated in the riot… 

A team of armed officers had gone to Cherry Groce’s home, in Normandy Road, to find her son, Michael, who had done a runner on a charge of armed robbery. In fact he hadn’t lived there for a year… The cops smashed their way in, with a sledgehammer, and then Inspector Lovelock rushed in… allegedly shouting “armed police”. Mrs Groce said he ran at her pointing a gun, she moved backwards and he shot her. She was paralysed and confined to a wheelchair by her injuries.

SATURDAY AFTERNOON IN BRIXTON, and we hear of the brutal police shooting in the back of a woman in Normandy Road. This time the racist pigs have gone too far! We take a carload and drive down there, in the hope of having a go at the bastards. As we arrive we see a small crowd heading off towards the police station and we follow. We hear that some journalist reptiles have already been beaten up… Good one! At the pig sty there is a rush round the side and furious arguments begin with the cops blocking the gate. The Crescent was filling up as a dozen more cops filed in to protect the gate. A top cop started to make a speech… then the first bottle sailed over and smashed over his head, showering the gang of state thugs (police) with glass. A wild cheer broke out as the cops ran inside. Cops on the roof dived for cover as a hail of stones and bottles began. We all rushed to the front, fearing a trap. More stones were thrown and police windows shattered. A group of black women urged us on, running right up to the front door, flinging stones and bottles.

Saturday morning, crawled out of bed at-midday, and went out to do my shopping. The town centre was very tense. If you stopped still anywhere for a minute, all you could hear was people talking about Cherry Groce. People were saying that she had been shot twice in the back, while running away. I went into a department store and bought myself a scarf, just to be on the safe side. There was almost no cops about. I saw four, walking together in the market, but they quickly went back to the station. Everyone was staring at them, and a few people were shouting “Murderers” at them. A car backfired nearby, and they nearly jumped out of their skins!

The cowardly police were nowhere to be seen. We could hardly believe our eyes. lt was just after 6.00pm, the rapidly growing crowd was spilling back among the packed traffic and pedestrians. We had just started the Brixton Anti Police Riot, 1985! We saw 2 riot vans in Gresham Road, found stones and flung them. One van unloaded and the filth had to run like rabbits around to the side door, the other fled in a shower of bricks from the black youth. There was a big huddle on the corner, as the black women urged the men on, then a big group rushed right across Brixton Road, through the traffic, and stormed the petrol station in Stockwell Avenue. BURN THE BASTARDS OUT!… while a second posse kept stoning the Station, we could see the police cowering from the windows. In the same moments a gang of youths charged into a supermarket right opposite and emerged with the till, spilling money about… The looting had begun! In the next five hours the people of Brixton ripped off almost a million pounds worth of consumer goods! A minute later the first flames, a car had been set alight in Brixton Road, the first attempt to stop police reinforcements getting through. At that point I left, rushing home to get hats and masks for our group. The word was spreading through Brixton like wildfire… RIOT NOW… THE COPS ARE ON THE RUN!

I went back home and turned on the Po-Lice radio. Every channel was alive with orders for Units and, Serials (Riot Vans) to assemble at ‘Lambeth Traffic’. Dogs, Horses, were being ordered, and all the vans were being kitted out with shields, helmets, mesh on the windows, etc. On hearing of this, I rushed down to the Po-Lice station. There was a fair sized crowd outside, about five to six hundred, and getting bigger. There were a lot of people masked up, and black women were shouting abuse at the station. I met a friend, and we started to pull up paving stones, throwing them down again to get small, manageable lumps. I filled my pockets, masked up, and had a brick in each hand. Swallowing my fear, I joined a posse, and about ten of us ran over the road and started to brick the station. I stopped to see my rocks strike home and then from out of nowhere came a volley of mollies. They hit the station in a burst of yellow flame, and I saw a couple go through the broken windows and set alight the offices. The crowd burst out with cheering, and almost everyone started to mask up.

Cops in the station shout out “Fuck off home, niggers!

When I got back I saw people laughing with joy. The cops had tried to stop it, bringing out a line of riot police, a sellout ‘Community Leader’ and a priest in front of the Station. A top cop introduced the priest… “Listen to him, he is your leader” he said, passing the megaphone. At that moment some genius threw the first petrol bomb, almost setting them on fire. As the police and sellout shits ran for cover Brixton Police Station was petrol bombed, one even got inside but was extinguished. The police were unable to enter the area, as all hell broke loose, in the High Street, down Brixton Road, up Gresham Road, to Coldharbour, up Tulse Hill and Acre Lane, through the Market and up Railton Road.

AS we donned our scarves I saw a huge fire blazing down Brixton Road near Normandy, literally dozens of cars were burning, beyond lines of Riot pigs defending their Station. We met up with more anarchists, the High Street was still a Police free zone, traffic was still coming in as, laughing and yelling, the late shoppers began a looting spree. Burtons, Marks and Sparks, Dunn’s, then there was a great rush for the jewellers and the arcades. It was wonderful to see it, we lent a hand in smashing Barclays Bank, symbol of racism and black oppression, before the police charges and serious fighting began.

At this stage, cops in full riot gear started to pour out of the station, like ants when you kick their nest. They lined up with shields and we started bricking. Vans poured in. There was still four lanes of traffic going by, all the drivers crouched at the wheels, as a rainbow of bricks and bottles showered over the top of them … very surreal.

The tactics of the rioters were brilliant and inventive: older black men in track suits advising the younger posses, often chasing back reinforcements and lines of riot cops, rescuing people trapped by murdering racists, leaving lightly defended barricades to string them out thin. Blacks and whites fought side by side from the beginning, but there was plenty of suspicion – looking out for the plainclothes police, some white bystanders and even some activists were mugged (though the majority were against this action of a few kids). Less than one fifth of the actual fighters were white. The few bigger white gangs were accepted in when it was clear we were intent on attacking the police murderers. Reporters, photographers and TV crews were just treated as police… hundreds have done prison because of their activities in previous riots!

VOLLEYS OF MOLLIES

No sirens, no flashing lights. Plumes of smoke hang over the Angel Park area of Brixton. On the corner of Stockwell Road riot police huddle two deep behind their plastic defences. Spontaneous Combustion? No! This is Brixton through a Riot shield. Here on this corner of Brixton and Stockwell Roads volleys of mollies rain down on this PATHETIC rabble of government Wallies from behind a bush in Angel Park. Black youth is raging! More mollies in combined assault!…

At the Old White Horse Pub a car borrowed by an anonymous rioter is driven at breakneck speed down Loughborough Road… No stopping for lights in this urban war… It finds its target: plunged deep inside a corner shop, and is matched. Fifty yards from besieged Brixton Police Station a road block of Fords, Renaults and Mercedes starts to explode, The riot Police RETREAT under volleys of bricks, abuse and molotov cocktails. While in the centre pigs huddle helplessly under the ‘WE’RE BACKING BRIXTON’- sign.

Two steps forward, Three steps back. At this time – WE ARE WINNING!!

We cut round into Stockwell Road, which was a No Go Area, and helped some young blacks turning over cars and setting them alite. A few cars were still driving innocently in from Landor Road. Those who refused to stop or turn were bricked to bits. I saw white people abandoning their cars, some with their hands in the air. Then a line of riot vans appeared, one got through, swerving through the burning cars amid a hail of bricks. The others held back, as we worked up courage to charge, though we were few our fury was great. “South Africa, South Africa” a kid screamed, as we charged screaming against the pride of the British State, chasing the bastards right back towards Stockwell Tube Station

STOCKWELL RIOT

After about half an hour, we were charged, and we fell back to the rollerskate park on Stockwell Road. We overturned a couple of cars to block the riot vans, and we torched them. Traffic was still trying to get through…

We were very careful about which cars we should use, so we only picked a couple of wrecks. At one stage, black and white united, we had a half hour discussion on the ethics of car burning. We kept picking ones to block the last of the lanes, but neighbours would come out and argue with us, and we’d start again. The argument was ended when I stepped out into a lane of traffic, stuck out my hand, and stopped a Green Line coach. I went round the side, opened the emergency door, got in, grabbed the driver by the shoulders, and assisted him out. We parked it across two lanes, amidst much laughter. Was this for real? Here I was commandeering a fucking coach! Later it got burnt out, but at that point we were charged, and we went further up Stockwell Road, to do some selective looting… black shops were left alone, although later on in the day, the distinction was forgotten. I chased around the back streets for a while, lobbing a few bricks here and there. At one point about seven cops were lined up behind their shields, blocking off one road. Along with a group of black guys, we got a rhythm going, “All go, All come back.” We’d grab a couple of bricks, run, throw, retreat. This soon got pretty tiring, and as the pigs weren’t chasing, we went within ten yards of them and just kept throwing, reloading from a skip. After five minutes of constant barrage at close range, the cops got well pissed off and charged us. I turned and fled… everything went into slow motion, and behind me I saw a flash of blue, hurtling after me with a truncheon. I managed to reach the safety of a crowd, but that was the closest I came to being nicked all day.

LATER… We have visited several friends’ houses to rest, smoke and drink looted beer. We have heard the stories of sadistic violence, savage beatings, and arrests in hand to hand fighting with the pigs.  One man has a broken jaw and six broken teeth, another has his head sliced open. What we really need is guns! Detouring towards the Railton area we come to Acre Lane, and walk into a running riot as a huge crowd retreats from Central Brixton. Acre Lane is smashed up, including a DHSS office and a Lambeth Council building (Who Cares?), a Church reading room, a bank, the petrol station, off licence, etc, etc. Half way to Clapham police attack from both sides as we try to barricade, everyone escapes. into side streets, but we are cut off from the main crowd which goes towards Brixton Hill. We stop at another party (there are parties starting everywhere) for further refreshments and tales of glory.

The unofficial cops – reporters – were also savagely dealt with, with one of these defenders of the status quo – a freelance journalist – being beaten up and eventually dying because he’d stupidly taken photos of youths looting a jewellery store. Unfortunately, proletarians with no stake in the shit-heap were also sometimes attacked. Insurgents, rightly searching individuals for so me form of ID (to see if they’re from the media or plain clothes cops), sometimes turned to indiscriminate mugging (although, in at least one instance, a guy who’d been mugged argued with the people who mugged him and. after 5 minutes, they returned the money, saying “You’re o.k. “). (BM Combustion)

Interestingly black journo Sebastian Godwin aka Cuba Assegai, got abused by both cops and rioters as tried to tape record participants secretly by hiding his tape recorder under his long flowing robe. Rioters told him to hop it or face some nasty consequences. He hopped it. He then tried to speak to some cops… and got nicked.

HIGH STREET RIOT

I decided to cool down a bit and went and had a pint. Then I went down to the High Street. Burtons was being looted, and Dunns was well on fire. I lent a hand at trying to loot Sanders Jewellers, but just as we got the shutters open the cops chased us back to Ferndale Road, where we started on Samuels Jewellers. We got two shutters open, and cleaned them out, after which we started round the front. We tried our best, but the cops kept charging us, and we kept bricking them away. Eventually, I decided to piss off home, and return through a twisting route of quiet back streets. Whole families are sitting on the steps, drinking looted wine and smoking 16 skinners. There’s a real nice atmosphere, like a street party. Old black guys are sitting on the pavement next to a Ford transit calmly siphoning out the petrol into a row of bottles and chatting away pleasantly.

I make my way up to the Frontline, past the tory club. Its windows have been bricked, and the cars in the forecourt have been burnt out. Tulse Hill Post Office is on fire.

Back on the frontline all seems calm as I arrive. Suddenly three riot cops come round the corner of Effra Parade. I lob a couple of bricks at them, and to my horror fifty riot cops wheel round after them. I leg it into the rezzies, [St George’s Residences – ed.] just getting away as they charge. A running battle ensues, with mollies being thrown. The cops finally retreat. I listen to the Po-Lice radio and hear that a crowd is congregating outside the town hall. I rush down. About four hundred people are there, most of them on the Oval in front of the Ritzy. We start pulling up lumps of cut stone from the cobbles. They are so heavy you have to carry them in both hands. About ten vans are running in circles round and round the Oval, like injuns. Every ten secs we heave our massive lumps of rock at them. The vans are looking in a real sorry state, covered in dents, with lights and mudguards hanging off. Windscreens are all spidered across. After half an hour of this, they line up by Barclays (all the windows done), and charge us, chasing us all the way up to the George Canning. I make good my escape (as they say) and wander back to the frontline. Buddies is still open for business, of course, so I grab myself a Red Stripe. Listening to the radio, I can hear units complaining:” Ere, control, we’ve been on duty for 14 hours and we still haven’t had any refreshments!”

I go out into the streets and luxuriously sip my cold beer in, front of two riot vans. The pigs are staring at me with hate and envy… what a laugh! Still I must be home now, got to be ready for tomorrow!!!

There is widespread looting… with everything from cakes & nappies to double beds and jewelery being nicked. Although there is some occasional fighting over the spoils, with some blacks getting territorial and exclusive and possessive about the shops being looted – even to the point of telling whites to keep out of ‘their’ battle, there is also the usual joyful potlatch of laughter, fire-raising and pillage, an intense desire for life expressed with a spontaneous generosity. 7-year olds were seen helping their grandmothers carry away boxes of alcohol. One old woman, terrified by the atmosphere of the riot, was calmed down when some black guy gave her a couple of bottles of stolen brandy. Someone nicked a whole load of electric kettles, piled them up into a vaguely pyramid shape and set fire to them: the kind of thing which modern forms of art turn into museum-pieces become subversive when practiced without authorisation. (BM Combustion)

MUCH LATER… We reach Tulse Hill and meet up with local squatters… The Post Office has been burned down! The Tory club has been attacked with 40 tories inside, 3 of their cars have been burned as barricades and the building nearly set alight, and smashed up! The hated Housing office has been attacked and looted!

TULSE HILL RIOT

As the Brixton Riot spread out in all directions, one zone was up Effra Road to Tulse Hill where we live. About 8.30pm the barricades were going up by St Matthews Church, but as soon as they were half completed the police would charge. This happened 3 times. We were being forced back into the estates. After the 3rd charge our line was up Effra Road near Brixton Water Lane and right outside the (HO HO HO) Effra Conservative Club (which we’ve attacked many times before). As an extra bonus the Tory’s next door neighbour happened to be the heavily grilled Lambeth Housing Office. The God of Violence smiled on us that night, Long live evil! Two Tory cars were then dragged out of the car park and set alight in the middle of the road. A third was set alight in their car park (setting a tree in flames and starting rumours that the whole place had gone up with 40 Tories inside!) All the other cars were systematically trashed and the windows bricked as the terrified tories cowered behind the curtains The 150-200 spectators didn’t seem to mind. Even when the empty beer barrels went through the Housing Office windows. 50 yds up the road people had broken into the garage and relieved it of crowbars and heavy metal bars. Somebody declared they had run out of fags, someone else said they had tobacco but no papers… The newsagent was then broken into, so everybody had a months supply of fags and papers and sweets etc etc, courtesy of the insurance company!

After that the Post Office was looted of all its small change (£20 bags in 2p and lp pieces). It was then burnt to the ground. By then the police had moved the barricade so everyone fucked off to the next spot. That was the Tulse Hill Riot and it was great!

But the pigs have arrived in force and seized control of the area. On to Effra Parade and Railton Road, where the rioters fought bravely against overwhelming odds. Through Muggers Alley to the Barrier. Block, but the filth have taken over Coldharbour Lane. It’s after midnight but still small groups are lighting cars, stoning the Police and retreating into the maze of flats. Only in Brixton Road/Normandy is the riot still in full swing, but it’s impossible to get down there. We climb the Barrier block and amuse ourselves flinging stones at passing police vans. Below us at Barkers Corner is total destruction, where a looted furniture shop was torched to try and stop the pigs getting through, and the whole corner has burned to the ground. One floor above it was squatted and our friends have lost everything (which was fuck all anyway). Another flat was occupied legally by the loathsome Smeggy Kurt (of shockabilly band King Kurt, who did a benefit for the scab miners). Coldharbour Lane has gone quiet, though there was fierce fighting there again on Sunday. Off we go to the next squat for more refreshments!

STILL LATER: We pass through Central Brixton on route to another party. The place is like a smouldering war zone, with 1000’s of filth standing around. We’re all still high with our marvellous victory. But we hear tales of random police revenge prolonged screaming from pig vans rocking with the blows dogs set on people in the vans, bystanders beaten to shit and left for dead. It’s too dangerous to be out – the racist murderers are back in control. Very few if any of the rioters were arrested, but over the 2 days the pigs took nearly 250 people hostages and charged them with whatever came to mind

The only solution is to get rid of the police altogether and protect our own communities. But to do that we will need a revolution

Nevertheless, some incidents were rubbish. One or two old people were stoned after cussing the fact their flats had been inevitably torched because they were above a burning store. And in one miserable incident, a couple of Hooray Henries tried to show off their prowess by winding up some of the rioters who’d interfered with their load of high-class polished tin – a posh car. They were chased off, but a couple of rioters set about raping the girl-friend of one of them (a daughter of a Tory M.P.) and another woman, who, depending on which story you believe, either had nothing to do with the rich kids or was the girlfriend of one of the Hooray Henries. Either way such rapes, attacks on easy targets, are crap – a degraded expression of ‘sexuality’ Obviously the media, trying to ferment an even more oppressive law & order backlash than present, had a field-day with these incidents. And it’s not much use saying that rapes & mugging occur as much outside riots as during them: though true, this doesn’t get to grips with confronting the problem – how to start making the streets safe for all but the defenders of this society. Obviously, anyone who thinks the State can solve rapes is just plain stupid – and resigned to not trying to change things so as to stop such humiliating reduction of people to objects in all its’ forms – not just rape.

Nevertheless, in criticising these rapes and muggings, we should also remember something of the various changes since the riots of ’81. London, unlike the northern or midland cities, has, since ’81, become incomparably more gentrified than ever before – particularly in Brixton, where the older generation of blacks have sold up and moved back to the West Indies, leaving the ‘radical’ yuppies, anxious for a bit of street cred, to take over the houses: the rich young (and not so young) things have moved in & sent property prices soaring. What’s more, as the proletariat has become more au fait with chic, a greater levelling in terms of fashion has meant that it is becoming difficult visually to tell the difference between the rich young things and those who are more thoroughly alienated than before. Behind the tendency towards style levelling, though, there’s a major counter-tendency: the chasm of social apartheid is getting wider & wider, and, in the riots, there’s been a direct response to gentrification with physical attacks on owner occupied housing, especially those with ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ stickers in the window.

These increasing displays of wealth in ones’ immediate neighbourhood go some way towards explaining some of the craziness of the riots in London. The anonymity of London, despite the fact that, along with the greater amount of money here, it enables those on the dole to survive in the black economy or doing various fiddles more easily than those on the dole elsewhere and despite the fact that those in official work generally get better wages here – though, unless you’re squatting, 40% of that can go on rent) – despite all this, the blatant contradictions and the isolation and separations make for a more explosive, desperately ferocious, situation. Beneath the bleakness up North, there’s a constant spontaneous class solidarity, which despite a lot of bullshit about ‘community’, really does develop into a community of struggle sometimes. Sure, it happens in London in short spurts, but with the anonymity and blase cynicism, indifference and mistrust towards each other is far harder to break. (BM Combustion)

MURDERERS

The community was out on the streets on Saturday night because the Inspector ‘Windy Shitpants’ Lovelock shot a black mother of six and put her in a wheelchair for life. If it hadn’t been her it could have been her 22 year-old son – only he’d be dead. The result of this was a spontaneous explosion of class rage – of community hatred against the cowardly, incompetent, callous action of Inspector ‘Cowardly Shitlegs’ Lovelock – a so-called fucking ‘Firearm Expert’ – and his vicious racist friends – the Community Police. All this is conveniently forgotten by his idiot boss the Chief Constable of Lambeth Commander Alec Marnoch who drivels on with mindfucking stupidity about “visiting agitators from Handsworth” – what a load of fucking bullshit! No, as EVERYONE knows the riots were started, organised and led by Communist Alien Stormtroops from the red planet Bolleaux, who landed on the roof of the fucking Ritzy!!!

When are the stupid pig shits going to wise up to the fact that we riot in response to the particularly vile acts of oppression by the class enemy: the cops. We fight these bastards with all our force and all our strength with bricks and petrol bombs, we confront them and maim them and kill them BECAUSE WE HATE THEM. The Police are Class Traitors. They have always been, are now and will always be our Sworn Enemy.

29/9/85. More rioting in Brixton but nothing on the scale of the night before due to the whole area being saturated by riot cops.

CHIMPANZEES CHATTERING COMMITTEE

On Tues 2nd Oct the Police Consultative Committee had its regular meeting at Lambeth Town Hall. Its an open meeting in which the Fuzz can say openly to the public whatever lies they can think up and confidently forget it the next day. The Committee has been a sellout rubber stamp for the pigs for ages and everyone knows it.

It proved to be the last meeting of the Police Consultative Committee.

They started it in a small hall… so that many people were locked out. Almost as the meeting started 2 blokes and a woman stood up calmly, took the mikes from the table and threw them on the floor. Water was thrown at the Chairman and everyone was cheerfully screaming “Put him behind bars”. The unanimous feeling was that the Copper who shot the lady (Mrs Groce) should be charged with attempted murder, some suggested those with him on the stupid raid should be done for aiding and abetting.

All the head cop (Ch. lnsp. ‘Shit for Brains’ Marnoch) could say was that there will be an inquiry and he couldn’t say more till the inquiry is complete.

There was a crashing and banging, louder and louder. Then the door broke open and those locked out came in. We decided to move to a bigger hall. By then we were 250 to 300 people. The chairman was given a vote of no confidence, and we the people took over. When Marpox (the head pig) came to speak people suggested he stood up. He said he didn’t mind, jokingly adding that he’d make a better target. With that someone threw something at him, (unfortunately missing) and everyone cracked up laughing.

One of the many highlights came when one of Shit For Brains’ assistant pigs practically stripped off, and declared himself again a member of the public and pleaded for one more chance … The laughter could be heard in Clapham!

One woman made a motion to kick the 3 idiots out of the hall so we could have a real meeting, adding that to have a meeting with the Police present was dangerous. Sadly there wasn’t enough support for this. Half an hour later, after 3 hours of letting the Filth know

what we thought of their ‘Community Policing’ the same lady got up and said “There’s nothing more to say, lets all leave together”, which we all did. Leaving the Police Consultative Group sitting there lucky to be alive. .

The Revolution makes its own leaders.

A few days later it was announced that the Police Consultative Committee had decided to disband! (Actually it didn’t; Lambeth Council withdrew from the Committee, but it went back in 1994.)

The 1985 Brixton riot also brought another little reform in the cops’ image: a cop spokesman went on TV and virtually conceded that the anger and violence directed at the cops outside the police station (where molotovs were thrown) were, considering the sad situation, virtually “excusable” – but that the looting and arson afterwards was gratuitous and opportunistic. Sadly, Cherry Groce’s family also gave interviews to the media condemning the burning and looting, collaborating with the forces that make such “unlawful wounding” inevitable. Of course, the burning and looting was one of the reasons behind the State’s decision to prosecute Inspector Lovelock for crippling Cherry Groce. Another reason, though, is to give the State the appearance of being able to correct its’ excesses, to punish those who abuse their power, thus narrowing people’s focus on the misery of their lives down to just specific individuals and isolated incidents. (BM Combustion)

Accounts from Brixton squatters paper Crowbar, no 45. Plus interspersed comments from BM Combustion’s ‘Rebel Violence vs. Hierarchical Violence’ A Chronology of Anti-State Violence July 1985 – May 1986.

Postscript:

In January 1987 Inspector Lovelock was acquitted on the charge of ‘maliciously wounding’ Mrs Groce. “The police and the media made sure he got off….by vetting the jury, by calling queues of star witnesses to say how UPSET the POOR man was, how fearful, nervous and unlucky etc…”About 100 people picketed the Murder HQ in response, followed by a march through Brixton.

PPS: (2014)

Cherry Groce suffered paralysis as a result of the shooting, remaining in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. The cops paid her £500,000 in compensation “with no admission of liability.” She died in 2011, from kidney failure, linked directly to effects of the shooting. Her inquest found that the police had bollocksed up the whole operation; failing to check who lived in the house, and failing to communicate the fact that Michael Groce was not even wanted any more (?!), among numerous mistakes; that the police were responsible for her death. The Met publicly apologised to her family for her death in April 2014.

A few years too late.

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

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Today in London religious history, 1971: protests against the reactionary christian Festival of Light continue

Just over two weeks after the Gay Liberation Front, women’s liberationists and other activist from London’s underground had made a laughing stock of the reactionary Christian Festival of Light at Westminster Central Hall, the climactic event of the Festival was to take place on September 25th, with a rally in Trafalgar Square followed by a march to Hyde Park.

The opposition got into gear again… An alternative ‘Festival of Life’ was called for Hyde Park.

Thanks to the continued presence of the GLFs infiltrator in the Festival office, maximum confusion was wreaked on the organisation in the run-up to the 25th. Fake parking plans were mailed out, sending delegations form other town and cities to park miles away; letters were sent out a couple of days before announcing false time changes, and claiming the Trafalgar Square event had been cancelled.

In the Square, ‘old men in dark suits who carried signs that said, “Fear God” and “The Wicked Shall Be Turned Into Hell,” and young people, many more young ones than old, holding up the regulation Festival of Light poster, a map of the British Isles blazing brightly against a blue background. Young girls walked with rings of Jesus buttons pasted on their foreheads and in a circle on their hair. They wore T-shirts embroidered with buttons in the shape of a J that ran between their breasts, and the slogan “Smile, Jesus loves you” scrawled on the back. Even the Blackstone lions that guarded Nelson’s column had orange Jesus buttons glued into their eye holes.’

A number of GLF and feminist activists tried to disrupt the event in Trafalgar Square:

‘Michael [James] was a lady schoolteacher with a cane; Nicholas Bramble was the Spirit of Porn, Paul Theobald and Carla and others were dressed as riot police carrying the coffin of freedom, Mary McIntosh and others as choirboys, Michael Redding, Chris Blaby and Douglas MacDougall as nuns, me as Mary Whtehouse. We all met in Covent Garden, in Henrietta Street because we knew there would be heavy security hearer the Square, and we changed into our costumes in shop doorways. We got as far as the steps of St Martins, where I conducted the choir in ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’. We had planned to join the crowd and process to the rally in Hyde Park but we got as far as the south of the Square and we were blocked by the police.’ (Stuart Feather)

‘I was in the choir singing at Trafalgar Square. We knew the bit about the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate… that may have been the only verse we sung. We had to repeat it over and over.’ (Mary McIntosh)

‘I was part of a little Street theatre and we all organised ourselves into heterosexual couples and were chained together as heterosexual couples. There was a sort of sex symbol and a business man and I think I was a downtrodden housewife, and we had discussion with the people around us. So we formed this straggling little procession and we did manage to get to the base of the column… it was a pretty effective protest because people couldn’t quite suss whether we were hostile or not. We came up the back of the plinth and generally infiltrated into the crowd and the mass of Christians were basically confused as to whether this was just some odd it of the entertainment or not.’ (Sarah Grimes)

‘Richard Dipple was carrying a cross and there were thousands in Trafalgar Square, it was jammed to the gills. There was another group singing hymns and carols, I never knew who they were. Stuart stopped to conduct them. Then there were Womens Lib, they had a demo with prams and dolls and things. They were going across the top of the Square in front of the National Gallery. We slipped down by South Africa House and sidled up to the back of the column, no problem. I was a schoolteacher and I had all my kids in school costume, roped together and I was the oppressive schoolmarm with the cane and an earphone type wig. We had no intention of disturbing the rally itself at all. We were grossly outnumbered. What we were going to do was march with them or beside them. Mary Whitehouse and people were at the front. The police got freaked out – we were outside the railings on the pavement away from the Square itself, looking down towards Whitehall and they told us to stand there and we said, ‘We want to stand here, we’re not going anywhere else’, and this police inspector or sergeant or something freaked out and they started pushing us and pushing us until they hemmed us in to that little space between two of the lions. Well we had nowhere to go but up, because they were getting heavy, so up we went and we were quite happy there…’ (Michael James)

Mary Whitehouse took the podium. A former schoolteacher, her name was synonymous in Britain for opposition to publications like Oz, sex on the telly and dirty words on the wireless. She’d appeared on a panel show with Mick Jagger once and attacked him for “living in sin” with a woman. She is 61. “The eyes of the world are on what’s happening in Britain at this time,” she said, as a women’s lib banner began circling the crowd. It read “All God’s Children Got Nipples.”

‘They invaded the rostrum and the fake Mary Whitehouse, Stuart, was up there with the proper one. There were several Mary Whitehouses and very funny they looked.’ (John Chesterman)

‘We were gathering a crowd at the back, we had no microphones, so we were quite happy to have our little discourse. But then of course the police got up and of course we could only go higher and they got very rough and grabbed hold of me by the arms and legs and I was hauled down to the ground. I was terrified I was going to be thrown down another six feet from the plinth.’ (Michael James)

There were police chasing transvestites in all directions, smoke bombs going off… it looked like a revolution.’ (John Chesterman)

‘I saw this police inspector who’d started it all coming towards me. I was laying down with one leg free and I just gathered that leg up and shot for his balls. And I hit him, right in the balls. But he never knew it was me, because there were so many people there, all around us. But I got him. Then the next thing I knew, I was being see-sawed off the edge of the plinth. Then they dropped to the ground and I was being carried by the arms and legs, looking up through all these Christians who’d started marching off. They were screaming ‘Hang him! Birch him!’ I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly where you’re at now, isn’t that exactly it.’ I felt quite good about that, ‘I’ve dug you out, you’ve said what you really believe. We’ve got the truth.’ Once you get that, you know what you’re dealing with.’ (Michael James)

‘They accused us of being the Angry Brigade, that was what some Assistant Chief Constable said to us. As were pushed back against Nelson’s Column and our only way of escape was to get up on it, so we did. The ‘choirboys’ were at the bottom of the plinth, so we all started singing ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’ again. The police were chasing us all over the plinth and they arrested some people And on the north side of the plinth were Mary Whitehouse, Lord Longford, Cliff Richard and Malcolm Muggeridge and so on. Michael Redding was accused of waving a cucumber obscenely while dressed as a nun. Some people escaped and made it to Hyde Park, but the police swooped on them and arrested them there.’ (Stuart Feather)

‘I was the only GLF woman arrested in the Square. Mary O’Shea heard a senior officer point at me and say ‘Get that one.’ Richard (Dipple), who was Jesus, took off his robe and crown and disappeared into the crowd. I was taken to Bow Street and put into a cell with the women from Women’s Street theatre who’d come as the nuclear family. Michele Roberts was dressed as the vicar’s wife, Alison Fell was the vicar’s son. They had come as a family and chained themselves together, so when the police picked up one of them they got the lot.’ (Carla Toney)

‘A few of us decided to use the occasion to try to expose the perverse morality of the Festival organisers. On the one hand they condemned lesbian and gay people for victimless consenting relationships, yet on the other hand they were totally silent about the war in Bangladesh which was resulting in the death and displacement of millions of people. We got some collecting tins from the organisation that was fundraising to help refugees in Bangladesh and went amongst the crowd in Trafalgar Square, soliciting donations. We challenged them over their apparent disinterest in the starvation and murder of people in Bangladesh. It very successfully put them on the spot over their distorted sense of moral priorities. They found it very embarrassing.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘I was slung into the van. They’d got Michael Redding previously because he was a nun. I don’t know how they’d managed to get him. Douglas MacDougall was also a nun. I think there were three nuns. And I think one of them escaped. Whoever got into the green van – the women were already there, they’d already picked the women up from the top and they’d done nothing. So it was clear that we were not going to be allowed to express our opinions at all. We were taken down to Cannon Row police station, just by Old Scotland Yard and there were more women there when we arrived, they’d got the singers and the dykes, they’d picked them off first. They knew what to look for, they knew who to look for. We were eventually bailed about nine or ten o’clock that night.’ (Michael James)

The Festival continued on its way to Hyde Park, harassed by activists, among them the GLF Youth Group. Several hundred demonstrators (mainly straight hippies, apparently), gathered at Marble Arch, pelted the marchers with stink bombs and jeered…

‘In detachments a block long, the marchers streamed out of the square to Hyde Park. They marched behind a wooden cross with the band booming… At Hyde Park, the sound of the band brought freaks running from all over the park across open green fields, swirling through fallen leaves and vaulting over a high spiked fence to join others already wheeling up Park Lane. Surrounding the band on all sides, a raggle-taggle army with right hands outstretched in a Hitler salute, chanting “Sieg Heil.” Freaks reading madly from the Bible with no one listening as they marched, freaks carrying little children in their arms, freaks carrying signs that read “Go To Hell — It’s More Fun” and wearing jackets that said “God Speeds.” ‘

In the park, huge numbers of police were arresting any protestors on any pretext. ‘The most beautiful of the GLF banners, with three interlocking circles, in red, purple and white, was confiscated by police as an offensive weapon and never returned, it is thought to have been destroyed at a later date.’

‘Sweeping into the park like a conquering army with the band playing for them, laughing people with long hair and open faces, goose-stepping along on the green grass singing “Lloyd George knew my father … father knew Lloyd George” in perfect time to “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

“Oh, do be quiet,” folksinger Judy Mc Kenzie scolded from the stage. “Praise God. Now I’m going to sing, ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.’ He’s got the whole world …” she began.

“Between his legs,” the crowd screamed.

“He’s got the whole world …” she repeated.

“In his pants,” the crowd howled.’

As at Central Hall, Tony Salvis was dressed a vicar again, lecturing to a large crowd… So, this time around was ‘Father Fuck of Tooting’:

‘We always have younger cannabis in the Church of Aphrodite at Elmbourne Road in Tooting… we keep it in the Chalice on the altar. We… said that our church’s contribution in the Festival of Light will be a sacrificial cake baked in the shape of a phallus with half an ounce of cannabis as one of the ingredients, that we’ll take it to Hyde Park and share it with the people as the sacraments of the church… three of us took it to Hyde Park… I got up on our sacrificial altar and a crowd of about 100 heads gathered round me.

I told my listeners that the prick is the symbol of our Church because the prick with a lovely pair of ball is the symbol of life and the cross is the symbol of death. The heads were saying ‘Lets have the sacrament now’… I performed the religious ceremony: I broke off the knob of the prick, crushed it in my fingers and as the crumbs were falling to the ground I was praying aloud For Peace, For Love, For Freedom. Having thus prayed I broke off another piece of it for myself and handed the rest to the people to be shared as the sacrament of our Church.

Man, you’ve never seen a faster castration of the prick. It just disappeared in ten seconds… great happiness all round!… Later I got a bit closer to the Jesus people, put up our altar, got on it and started to indoctrinate my listeners… about 100 people were listening to me, some Jesus people, some heads… I was grabbed by a bobby and about six of them started to drag me to the waiting police van… A girl, a psychologist, walks beside us and keeps asking the policeman ‘Why are you arresting this man?’… she too is pulled into the van. Then they drive us to Hyde Park police station. A bobby says to me ‘What’s your occupation?’ ‘Reverend Father Fuck’ says I. ‘Occupation?’ ‘Minister of religion’ says I. ‘Will you sign for bail?’ ‘Yes’ says I. ‘In what name?’ ‘Reverend Father Fuck’ says I. ‘I can’t accept that name’ says he and they lock me up in the cell till Monday.’ (Father Fuck)

[NB: Father Fuck, aka Paul Pawlowski, was later one of the organisers of the somewhat abortive Windsor Free Festival in 1972. The Church of Aphrodite was apparently dedicated to ‘psychedelia and shagging’.]

‘Cliff Richard, once Britain’s Elvis and now a convert to Christ, came out and plugged in.

“Ooooh, it’s Cliff,” a GLFer moaned, swooning, “Oh, Cliff.”

“If we get honest with ourselves …” Cliff is saying on stage.

“Be honest, Cliff,” someone shouted. “Admit you’re a homosexual. … Come out, Cliff.” ‘

[2018 Note: he never has yet!]

‘Everyone was charged with breach of the peace and put in the cells, but Nicholas Bramble got charged with assault, which was much more serious. I was opposite him in the line when they charged him and all it was, was that a policeman had cut his little finger on Nicholas Bramble’s diamante bracelet while arresting him. Nicholas was a trained dancer and when the policeman had grabbed him, he’d locked his arms and the policeman’s hand had slipped. He ended up having a separate trial from the rest of us, but he was found not guilty. We went to court in the drag we were arrested in. I was Mary Whitehouse, in the dock with Paul Theobald and Chris Blaby. We used friends as Mackenzie lawyers and a Catholic Worker priest gave evidence to say that he hadn’t been offended, but wherever nuns appeared they were found guilty even though the rest of us weren’t. Nicholas Bramble felt that there was very little support within GLF for the people who’d been arrested and he said so at a meeting…’ (Stuart Feather)

‘We came up at Bow Street and we all had Mackenzie lawyers, defending ourselves. Michael Redding appeared first, in a frock I think, he was done for being a nun, they accused him of masturbating with a cucumber. I had big floppy trousers, a wrapover dress and a long maxi-coat and an Indian headscarf wound round. I don’t think I was wearing make-up. My nails were painted though. Michael was found guilty. I went in and the magistrate screamed at me straight away, ‘Take that hat off!’ I thought, what on earth’s he talking about? He said ‘You take that hat off’ and I said ‘but I’m not wearing a hat.’ I wasn’t, I was wearing a scarf, not a hat. He said ‘Take that thing off your head’ and I said ‘Excuse me, I’m coming here to be tried on a charge, what I wear is entirely up to me, it’s not up to you, you don’t buy my clothes, you’ve got no say over what I wear.’ ‘I’ll also charge you with contempt of court.’ I said ‘I’m not in contempt of court, I’m in contempt of you.’ ‘Get out of here and don’t come back while you’ve got the hat on!’ So I’m led from the well of the court by two detectives, but just as I’m leaving Douglas (MacDougall) is coming in with a full circle skirt and a broderie anglaise blouse. And I thought, go on girl, you deal with that now.

Douglas came out and I was called back into court and the magistrate said to me ‘I see you still intend to remain contemptuous of this court’ and I said ‘I’m not contemptuous, but as I pointed out to you, you do not buy my clothes and you’ve got o right to tell me what to wear. This is a free country.’ He went ‘Hmph! Let’s get on with it then.’ So we got on with the case and the policeman who arrested me was lying his head off and I cross-examined him. He accused me of shouting this obscene rhyme, it was very bad and I thought ‘what!’ and said something very dismissive like ‘If I’m going to make up rhymes I’m sure I can do better than that.’ I said ‘That was made up in a police canteen and it sounds like it.’ We hadn’t been shouting anything obscene at all, not as far as I was aware.

The dock was actually about a foot away from the magistrate, I could reach over and touch him. He said ‘Tell me what happened’ and I said ‘Can I start from the beginning?’ I went into the background of the demonstration and my part in it. He said ‘What were you?’ and I explained I was meant to represent a repressive schoolmarm. He said ‘Did you have button boots?’ and I said ‘Oh yes, I did.’ And he said ‘I think I’ll dismiss this case’ and he did. Obviously a shoe fetishist.’ (Michael James)

‘The elements of camp and theatricality gave a lot of the actions a strong humorous edge which police officers often found hard to deal with. They were used to responding to belligerent macho left-wing demonstrations, but because GLF didn’t fit that traditional pattern they found it a bit unnerving. If we had followed the orthodox leftist way of doing things with the clenched fist, all very serious and quite threatening, the police would have come down on us heavier and quicker. Because some officers could see the amusing side to what we were doing it was psychologically disarming for them… The GLF style of protest was political jujitsu – we threw the police off balance by not conforming to their expectations.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘…we were being festive. We had a lot of debate about the Festival, how it was moral rearmament and fundamentalist. We did see it as very dangerous. It might have developed as something rather unpleasant and I think it was one of those rare events that [the opposition] succeeded in tis objectives. Everyone loved putting energy into doing it, it was a target made for us.’ (Sarah Grimes)

The Festival organisers’ predictions for the mass turnouts expected at the final rallies turned out to be grossly exaggerated – about 35,000 turned up, rather than the forecasted 100,000. The protests helped to deflect the plans the Christians had to step up their movement, which never won the mass public support they had aimed for.

Sarah Grimes’ conclusion, that the GLF-inspired disruptions had effectively crippled the Festival of Light’s grandiose plans, seems to be borne out by some of the organisers’ own hindsight. John Capon, the official historian of the Festival, concluded that the press coverage of the main events and the opposition had reduced the whole movement to ridicule. This was summed up by the response of a man in the street to an interviewer asking what they knew about the Festival: ‘Isn’t it something about mice and nuns?’

This post was nicked from Lisa Power’s excellent ‘No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: An Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front’.

and some came from here

Today in London religious history, 1971: the Gay Liberation Front mash up reactionary christian Festival of Light

“Excuse me, Sister, we’ve heard some homosexuals and radicals are going to try and disrupt our meeting here tonight. Will you pray for them?”

The National Festival of Light was founded in 1971. The original founding impulse had come from two christian missionaries, Peter and Janet Hill, on their return to England after spreading the word of god to the benighted – whether the benighted wanted it or not.

After four years as evangelical Baptist missionaries in India, the Hills experienced a sense of culture shock when they discovered that sexually explicit content was more prevalent in the mass media than when they had left. Getting in touch with vocal figures in the media, the couple helped launch the National Festival of Light in May 1971, to oppose “pornography and moral pollution”.

Journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge, “clean-up TV” campaigner Mary Whitehouse, Labour cabinet member Lord Longford, and Bishop Trevor Huddleston soon became the faces of the Festival, which vowed to campaign against what they saw as the growing trends in the mass media for the explicit depiction of sexual and violent themes and for the restoration of conservative Christian morality in the UK. Pop star Cliff Richard and actress Dora Bryan were key supporters of the NFOL; many evangelical churches supported the movement, including the repulsive Salvation Army. The Festival quickly gained support among rightwingers, reactionaries and neo-fascist throwbacks of various stripes…  Signs of impending apocalypse many of the Festival supporters included the growth of sex outside marriage, the proliferation of sex in films, homosexuality, the Oz trial

The movement had two expressed aims: to protest against “sexploitation” in the media and the arts, and to offer the teaching of Christ as the key to ‘recovering moral stability in the nation’. Some supporters naturally emphasised the first, and others the second. Plans were made for major public events, including the lighting of beacons on hilltops throughout the United Kingdom, and culminating in a massed march to a public rally in Trafalgar Square and an open-air concert of Christian music in Hyde Park.

The administrative task of enlisting the support of Christian churches and denominations throughout the UK was a colossal one, as indeed was the necessity for public relations with the press and the general public. The committee and many local volunteers were occupied with this throughout the first half of 1971.

From the start, its overtly Christian proselytising attracted the critical attention of the counter-culture, which saw the message of moral reform as code for sexual repression, censorship and a return to the puritanical social values of previous eras. Homosexuality and women’s liberation, the one having been decriminalised (for men over 21) only 4 years before, and the latter in its early days challenging centuries of patriarchal domination, were both viewed dimly by many of the Festival’s supporters. These movements were not slow to rise to challenge the evangelicals’ attempt to return Britain to the dark ages…

It was the Gay Liberation Front who took the initiative in opposing it. They sent an undercover volunteer to infiltrate its headquarters and report back on its plans.

The Festival was scheduled to launch officially with a huge prestigious rally on September 9th 1971 in Westminster Central Hall; the organisers saw this as their chance to get publicity for the campaign in the media. The GLF, women’s liberation movement and other underground groups set their sights on disrupting this rally and making it a disaster. As a result, the day became what the Festival themselves admitted was a total laughing stock…

‘The Festival of Light was put to us in the middle of the summer and we were told it was this group of League of Empire Loyalists and all sorts of strange people and anti-gay. All the information was got for us by people from the Monty Python team and it was funded by Graham Chapman and others via Denis Lemon. Janet went to work in the Festival office and she got tickets and things so that more could be forged.’ (Michael James)

The GLF had been founded the previous October, and was then at its most active and creative. It was holding meetings of 400-500 every week, bursting with energy and pushing at the boundaries in almost every direction it could explode.

‘We would spend whole weekends talking about ways of furthering gay liberation and countering our opponents. John Chesterman had the kind of mind that could work out plans like kidnapping a statue or subverting a book. The festival action was much more than just Street Theatre people. They were there from other hippie groups and from the underground press.’ (Stuart Feather)

‘ ‘Networking’ as a word didn’t really exist then but its what we did over the Festival of Light. We started to put word out through the underground press. I persuaded Janet to volunteer for the Festival, in their main office, so we had access to all the literature and even the mailing list. Ae sent out fake mailings on it. For the big final rally, we sent out false parking plans for the coaches, which gave people real hassle.’ (John Chesterman)

The action to disrupt the September 9th rally became known as Operation Rupert. A number of groups were organised, each acting independently, who would kick off inside the rally in turn…

‘John Chesterman… asked us in advance to think of ideas for something to do, but not to tell anyone what our idea was. We met in the office, identified who our groups were and he gave us a number each. I was number seven and I knew who number six was. He said that once number six was finished, you won’t know what they’re doing, but you then take off from there in your own time.’ (Michael James)

‘John handed round a note: Festival of Blight – opening ceremony… Enter the hall in small groups. Ones or twos. Act unobtrusively. Dress conservatively. Act cool. Make no sign of protest until it is your turn. Do not speak to each other. Sit as close to the centre of your row as possible. Let the previous demonstration finish completely before you start yours. Let everyone settle down and the speeches start again. Part of the purpose is to slow down and delay proceedings. Stick to the agreed form of protest and/or slogans and do so clearly and loudly. Offer passive resistance only. Do not fight back. A general brawl will only confuse he media image. If there is any aggression, let them look like the villains in the press reports. Do not carry anything that could be construed as an offensive weapon. Do not carry dope or anything else illegal. You may be arrested so make arrangements… beforehand. Make no statements to the police until you have legal assistance. They can not force you to do so. Do not speak to the press or TV.

The Festival of Light demonstration was the most enjoyable one because it was perfectly orchestrated. All the libertarian left groups collaborated and nobody leaked it, which was amazing…’ (Tim Clark)

As a number of GLF members discovered a prodigious talent for forgery, there were more than enough tickets to the Festival for all who wanted to get involved in the disruption…

‘We all met at Cleopatra’s Needle beforehand. Underneath a suit I had a beige lace dre4ss with pearl buttons all the way down the front, long sleeves and a full circle lace skirt. I don’t know how I’d managed to crush it all up and get it into my trousers, but they weren’t looking for things like that. Peter Flannery and I chose this space right at the back of the Central Hall… It has this incredibly steep rake, so we sat against the back wall in the middle of the row. Gradually the hall filled up and we saw various people sitting around the hall in various spots.’ (Michael James)

Many of those who had infiltrated the hall were unaware of the scope of the plans, so tight had security been kept.

‘At Central Hall, I was with a group of people from the Youth Group who were in the balcony… it was left to everybody’s common sense and judgment about when to erupt and what to do. All we did have worked out was that different people were assigned different things… the group I was with was assigned to erupt and express same-sex affection at a relevant moment.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘It had taken just over ten days to organise. Fifteen independently operating but coordinated groups. GLF, Womens Lib, IT, Oz, Frendz, and others. But mainly GLF. Phone calls; meetings; leaflets to be written, printed and distributed; costumes; banners; all the last minute panic, hustle and briefings. About 150 people from almost all the radical groups in London. That was probably the most important thing of all. NCCL came along as observers. Many individuals came on their own and stood on their own in that huge audience.’ (John Chesterman).

The Festival organisers had possibly got some wind of the likelihood that disruption could expected; but had no idea of what they would face:

‘To cope with any disruptive tactics or opposition within the hall a strong body of marshals was recruited. It could hardly have been visualised how necessary they were going to be… Stewards had noticed several members of the audience who, to say the least, looked unlikely to be supporters of the Festival. Among the characters regarded with suspicion were half a dozen young ‘nuns’. Stewards quickly spotted that some of the were young men in disguise. To minimise trouble a steward was stationed behind each ‘nun’ in the audience!’ (And Then There Was Light, John Capon – the official history of the Festival of Light)

‘Janet and I had the white mice and Mary Whitehouse recognised Janet. She said, ‘Don’t I know you?’ but she couldn’t quite make the connections, and when the disruption was at its height she turned and gave Janet a very hard look. People did see us release the mice and this woman started hitting me over the head in a frenzied manner with her handbag, yelling ‘Jesus loves you’ again and again.’ (Jane Winter)

‘I can remember a woman coming up to Tony Salvis, who was dressed as a bishop. She made some remark about how we were living in a very sinful world, none of us is without sin. Tony turned to her and said ‘Don’t worry sister, keep right on sinning.’ The woman just stood there frozen for several seconds with her mouth ajar and looked Tony up and down and just walked off in utter bewilderment.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘Where the hell were the others? Had they got past the heavies on the door? The faces more than fifteen feet away ran into a blur. Nuns. There should be nuns. One group, yes, two, three. Were they ours? They looked too genuine. Jesus, they were actually praying. Damn this sweat. The stewards at the end of the row were looking this way. The one with the glasses had been down on the Embankment when we were assembling. Cameras, microphones, choirs, people. Hundreds, thousands of them. All the galleries full and more coming in. Somewhere out there were the groups. They had to be. Waiting for the signal. Had they got the right positions? How many of the props had they got in? Stop trembling, it must be a dead giveaway. Smile. Suddenly, a couple of yards away, a small white mouse ran like slow clockwork across the aisle. They were there.’ (John Chesterman’s notes).

‘The choir was up on stage in plum velvet cloaks. The first thing that happened was the applause – we just went on applauding, loud and slow, which has a certain menace.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘Things started and there was clapping going on too long – I think that was John Chesterman – and so they asked him to leave.’ (Michael James)

‘I didn’t get slung out because I wasn’t disruptive. One of the things I thought was impressive about it was that when Trevor Huddleston spoke, nobody interrupted him because we did all respect him and we thought he’d made a mistake. Michael Brown and I wrote him a letter with our awareness group, asking him not to be part of it and he actually went and met with this group and eventually withdrew from the Festival of Light. And I think that’s partially because we didn’t just abuse him. Because we knew in a way that he was misguided. I remember various folk groups and then people coming and talking sodomy and unchristian marriage and abortion, those were the kind of people who got interrupted.’ (Nettie Pollard)

‘We got everyone spaced around the hall and then I noticed that opposite the front row where I was sitting there was a row of plugs. I managed to pull out two but it wasn’t enough. I kept going back in after being thrown out. The trouble was pacing people; everybody wanted to do their bit straight away.’ (John Chesterman)

‘I remember all the mice being released. Two elderly women holding on to each other suddenly unfurled a banner from the balcony saying ‘Cliff for Queen’. It became total mayhem as he incidents started to pile up into each other. We deposited fake religious literature around which had religious covers, so they would be picked up and taken away to be read – only inside it was porn.’ (Tim Clark)

Danish evangelist Johannus Facius lectured the audience of the terrible fate of his home country after it had liberalised censorship laws – only to be nearly drowned out by the saboteurs in the crowd. The organisers tried to out-noise the protest with loud hymns…

‘What was most bewildering to the Festival goers was the range of tactics used and the layers of reality abused. People were blowing bubbles peacefully alongside displays of same-sex affection, suddenly disrupted by respectable-looking people erupting into obscenity or arguing with the speakers while mice scuttled around the hall. Talcum powder and pornography inside christian texts showered down from the balcony. Worst of all, you couldn’t even trust the church.

‘Tony Salvis was going round (as a vicar) going ‘Bless you, my son.’ He did look absolutely right for the part. All these Christians were coming up very worried about these dreadful homosexuals and then eventually he revealed himself in some way and it was ‘Oh no, not another one!’ Because he looked so respectable.’ (Nettie Pollard).

‘And then Malcolm Muggeridge came forward to speak. Because of his thorough recantation of his earlier liberal views he, like Cliff Richard, was a particular target for the demonstrators and he compounded their feelings almost immediately. ‘Malcolm Muggeridge was vile. He was the one who said he disliked homosexuals or something like that.’ (Nettie Pollard)

When Muggeridge made a statement about hating gays, that was when our youth group got up and started kissing. Lesbian couples and gay couples started kissing. We got jeered and abused by the Festival of Light people in the seats around us. Some of them tried to push and shove us out of the way but we just carried on kissing for about ten minutes.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘When Malcom Muggeridge started to attack homosexuals, Simon (Benson) stood p a few rows in front of him and said, ‘If hat is so, you must really dislike someone who is both homosexual AND Jewish.’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

Malcolm Muggeridge was so badly heckled that the choir was brought back on to sing ‘How Sweet the name of Jesus Sounds’  – wheeling the choir on seems to have been the standard response to disruption – while attempts were made to restore order by the stewards.

‘Plainclothes men were practically carrying me down the corridor. ‘Think yourself bloody lucky. We want a word with you outside.’ Suddenly the corridor was blocked by a large bald-headed man wearing a bible. ‘You homosexuals are SCUM. You are nothing but BESTIAL FILTH’ He was breathing into my face, shaking with rage and hysteria. ‘Read this and find out what subversive MUCK you are.’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

‘It was round this time that the nuns acted. I was just by them and I remember someone saying to them, ‘Pray for us, sisters’, and I couldn’t believe they honestly thought they were nuns. They were a mixture of men and women including Sue Gimore. As far as I remember, they started walking towards the front and then started running and whooping and about then the mice were released, I don’t know who did that. But they got right up the front and people were absolutely staggered, they couldn’t believe it. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to them that people would dress as nuns. They thought they were real nuns and they couldn’t cope – it was incomprehensible, these people had gone mad suddenly. It was the first time we had used nuns on a gay demonstration in Britain.’ (Nettie Pollard)

[Dressing as nuns however had been used previously by womens liberation groups to confuse the police on their demos…]

The GLF nuns had been part of a grander plan which had not come to fruition. According to John Chesterman, they were sitting around in the GLF office one day planning the action when Graham Chapman of Monty Python’s Flying Circus stuck his head round the door.

‘He was always the sort of person who wouldn’t come right into the room, he just hovered in and out. He said ‘D’you want any camels?’ and there was a sort of stunned silence and someone said ‘yes’. The after a few seconds pause, someone else said, probably joking, ‘And nuns.’ Camels and nuns’ he said, ‘Okay’. But there were all sort of regulations and licences, we were supposed to find camel handlers, for God’s sake. So in the end we just had the nuns.

I was dressed up as an American evangelist’s wife with some bloke from round here, it drew in all sorts of people. We had football rattles and we were supposed to run up and down the aisle shouting. It was co-ordinated really well and so it was triggered. You could have mice and then stink bombs and snow and the football rattles. Anyway, we got thrown out and I went ‘Oh my God this is terrible. They’ve just thrown me out and I’m an innocent woman going to the toilet!’ Then this husband and I ran down the middle shouting ‘Fuck for Jesus’ in front of Cliff Richard. Anyhow we got thrown out again. Meanwhile the nuns came out, and all the audience was going ‘yes sisters!’ and then they turned round and started doing the cancan and people realised they were men.’ (Julia L)

‘The nuns took off in a flying phalanx, down the aisles towards the platform. A banner unravelled with a personal invitation to Cliff Richard to take over the monarchy. On the platform he had the grace to blush.’ (John Chesterman)

‘In the midst of all the confusion, the nuns get up and begin dancing in front of the stage. The security guards wrestle with them. The crowd’s shocked, one of the nun’s robes comes off … hairy legs and big ugly boots … it’s Russ, of the Pink Fairies rock & roll band. They throw him out along with the rest of the bogus nuns and bring up the choir to sing and drown out the noise.’

‘A mouse, sailing through the air, landed on a lap full of hymn sheets. A section of the audience erupted. Peter (Bette Bourne), unstoppable, was loudly complaining of the atmosphere of violence, the disturbing vibrations and how could he concentrate on God? A woman turned around in front of him. ‘There you are’ he said, ‘I can see the violence in your eyes.’ ‘No, no, it’s the light of Jesus.’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

‘I was eventually thrown out, I was shouting out ‘There is violence in this room, there is violence’ and me and John Church, who were two trained actors, gave it lots of voce.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘My cue was Bette Bourne because I knew Bette. Bette was sat across the other side of the hall in the front row dressed as Colonel Blimp, tweeds and things. The demo previous had been a ‘Cliff for Queen’ banner which had suddenly been unfolded over the front of the balustrade. They had been hustled out with a great noise and pushing and shoving and ranting and raving. Bette started in this wonderful county voice, going ‘There is violence going on here, these men are being beaten up, there’s no reason for physical violence.’ He shocked everyone because it was quite true and it freaked the stewards, who were kicking people, to have it brought to everyone’s attention.

They sussed that Bette was part and parcel o the demo and he was asked to leave, but during this time I’d transformed myself from the three-piece suit, slipped out of that, given it to Peter next to me, who’d put it into a carrier bag, plumped out this lovely coffee lace dress, put the shoes and a little bit of eye shadow and lipstick on and a wig. Nobody noticed – we were at the very back of the hall and people were standing up to sing every time there was a demonstration and I was sat down getting ready behind them. The people next to me didn’t notice, they were too busy looking to see what was happening around the rest of the room.

It was in the middle of Malcolm Muggeridge’s speech. He must have paused and I shot up in the back of this row and screamed out ‘I’ve been saved! I believe! I see the Lord!’ just doing this terrible cod impression of a Southern belle who’s suddenly seen the light. Being where we were, in the middle of a row with that steep rake, they had to be very gentle getting us out. We didn’t fight, Peter and I came quietly but we made sure they came to us first. So they had to get everybody out the first half of the row and shuffle in disruption and I had this wonderful huge steep staircase to the exit in full view of everybody in the hall. I came down very slowly with this beautiful dress wafting the lace all over people’s heads and continuing on in the same vein ‘I believe! I’ve seen the Lord! I’ve been saved! Glory hallelujah!’ all the way down these stairs.’ (Michael James)

‘I remember when Michael [James] said ‘I’ve been saved!’ people went ‘Hallelujah!’ thinking that somebody really had found Christ. I think these Christians were extremely naïve, because I don’t think any of us looked right. I mean, this extra-ordinary over made-up man dressed as a woman… and he was right at the back, up against the wall and stood on his seat or something. I didn’t actually know who it was at the time, then gradually he was revealed as a man.’ (Nettie Pollard)

‘He came down the steps in full drag with all these people cheering, they didn’t know whether to take it seriously. The meeting was totally disrupted, people were taking out the nuns and the elderly because they thought it was going to get violent, but it wasn’t violent at all, it was harmless apart from the stewards, but it was extremely powerful in term of disruption.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘As if all that was happening within the hall wasn’t enough, a small squad from the office collective, led by Martin Corbett, had managed to get into the basement below and interrupted part of the electricity, causing problems for people trying to film and adding to the air of general anarchy. ‘Mine was one of the last actions of the day. We just put on Ku Klux Klan drag and stood there demanding that perverts be burnt at the stake… we all got thrown out by stewards wearing crosses, who got quite a few thumps in to prove to us that they were the church militant, I suppose.’ (Stuart Feather)

John Capon, in his official history of the Festival of Light, claimed that after this the protest largely ended and the speakers were able to speak unhindered – however, most GLF memories suggest otherwise, and that small-scale protests and heckling continued.

‘Outside, a nearby pub was crowded with post-mortems and high spirits. Check leaflets for distribution. ‘Is someone outside to direct he groups in here? When does the audience come out? Hey, the BBC TV news cameras are out there.’ Tony being interviewed ‘Are you a Roman Catholic or Protestant?’ ‘I’m a priest of the liberation.’ Crowds sweeping out. Leaflets. ‘Read our side of the story.’ The leaflet with crosses on it is easiest to give away. They take them as a reflex action.

The bald-headed steward is there again. ‘Get out of here. You are ANIMALS. You are intruding on our privacy.’ ‘It’s a public meeting.’ ‘Only if you have tickets.’ I give him a handful. Eleven or twelve. He tears them in two and throws them on the floor.

‘Litter’ I remind him gently, and dodge.

(John Chesterman’s notes)

‘I don’t think anyone got arrested, which is fairly amazing. There was an attempt to arrest somebody outside for kissing a policeman, but it didn’t work. There was this enormous sea of lesbians and gay men suddenly around the policeman and I remember him looking around and thinking, I don’t think this is worth it, and he shuffled off. It was very, very funny indeed. You often saw police at a disadvantage because they didn’t know how to handle us. I remember there was a stall with Christian books and people from GLF started stealing them. I got one of Trevor Huddleston’s books that someone gave me and I said to Paul Theobald, ‘I don’t think we should be stealing these books’ and he said, ‘Of course we should.’ He believed it was tight but I’m not sure.

There was a definite decision to try and talk to people as they came out. It was a really nice atmosphere and I genuinely think that talking to some of those people did have an effect and they did think twice about whether or not they should be involved. Because they weren’t just being shouted at. Although we did such outrageous things we were real people prepared to talk with them. I went to the thing OutRage! disrupted in Brighton. The Christian Family thing about three years ago, and what happened there was that they rushed the stage and got thrown out and then as everybody was leaving they went through a cordon of angry lesbians and gay men shouting abuse at them. I just thought, what is the point of this? Because we’re neither preventing them from doing this nor are we making them think. All we’re doing is making them think we’re rabble.’ (Nettie Pollard)

The whole area of pavement outside the entrance is covered with arguing groups as a public discussion gets under way with the Children of God. Inside there is a confrontation with those of the organisers and speakers who are prepared to talk. The Jesus-freak, the beautiful one with the long blond hair and flowing beard, the one with the pale blue eyes, screams, ‘You people are an abomination!’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

Press coverage of the Festival launch dwelt heavily upon the disruption, and some papers took the mick out of the christians. The Daily Mirror reported ‘five bogus nuns… fending off hefty stewards’. The Guardian reported about 150 protestors, making special mention of the nuns, the Southern belle and Bette Bourne’s Colonel Blimp. The publicity was a serious blow to the Festival; it fatally undermined their attempt to be taken seriously, and opened the gates for other protestors to take a potshot at them elsewhere. As local Festival rallies took place around the country, opposition began to mount up. At Rochdale, a Festival rally was disrupted by the White Panthers. The central plank of the Festival was the lighting of a series of beacons across the UK to symbolise the urgent warning against sin and the cleansing moral fire. One of the beacons was mysteriously burnt down the night before its scheduled date… Others were prevented by objections to local authorities…

Just over two weeks later, the climactic event of the Festival was to take place on September 25th, with a rally in Trafalgar Square followed by a march to Hyde Park…

To be continued…

This was nicked from Lisa Power’s excellent ‘No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: AN Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front’. A very fine book…

There’s a short video here of some of the ex-GLF disruptors talking about their part in the protest.

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An entry in the
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Today in London tourist history, 1850: ‘Down with the Austrian butcher!’

Field Marshal Baron von Haynau, a brutal commander of the Austrian Empire, was known as ‘the Hyena’; he had earned this nickname by torturing prisoners and flogging women, while suppressing revolts in Italy and Hungary in 1848.

Haynau was said to have a violent temper. His support for the monarchy led him to fiercely oppose the revolutionary movements of the mid-nineteenth century.

When the revolutionary insurrections of 1848 broke out in Italy, Haynau was selected to command troops to suppress them. He fought with success in Italy. He became known in this period for the severity with which he suppressed an uprising in Brescia and punished participants. A mob in Brescia had massacred invalid Austrian soldiers in the hospital, and von Haynau ordered reprisals. Numerous attackers were executed.

In June 1849, Haynau was called to Vienna to command a reserve army; he was ordered into the field against the Hungarians during their revolution and finally managed to defeat it with the help of an overwhelming Russian interventionist force, proving an effective but ruthless leader. His aggressive strategy may have partly been motivated by his wish to make Austria, rather than Russia, appear as the main victor of the war. Indeed, the general questioned the wisdom of inviting the Russians to intervene, as he considered that Austria, with reinforcements from Italy, could have won the war on its own

In Hungary as in Italy, Haynau was accused of brutality. For instance, he was said to have ordered women whipped who were suspected of sympathizing with the insurgents. He also ordered the execution by hanging of the 13 Hungarian rebel generals at Arad on 6 October 1849.

Opponents called him the “Hyena of Brescia” and “Hangman of Arad”.

Having resigned his commission, Haynau went travelling, and arrive in London in August 1850. His sightseeing itinerary included a tour of Barclay and Perkins’s Brewery on Bankside, on the south bank of the Thames, on 4th September 1850.

Though the revolutionary Chartist George Julian Harney encouraged all friends of Freedom to protest at the visit of this arch-reactionary and war criminal, he had little hope of success – and thus was as surprised as anyone by what happened next.

As soon as the Hyena entered the brewery, a posse of draymen (cart drivers who delivered beer from the Brewery to taverns) threw a bale of hay on his head and pelted him with manure. He ran out into the street, but lightermen and coal-heavers joined the chase – tearing at his clothes, yanking out great tufts of his moustaches and shouting ‘Down with the Austrian butcher!’

Haynau tried to hide in a dustbin at the George Inn on Bankside, but was soon discovered and pelted with more dung.

An account of the attack from Reynolds Newspaper gives a general sense of the widespread support the attack enjoyed:

“The Miscreant Haynau in London

Well and nobly have the high-spirited fellows employed at Barclay and Perkins’s brewery displayed their disgust and horror for a ruffian who has dared pollute our shores by his presence, and thrust his scoundrel person amongst us. The following description is given of his reception at the large brewery, where he was introduced as Rothschild’s friend:-
On Wednesday morning, shortly before twelve o’clock, three foreigners, one of whom was very old and wore long moustachios, presented themselves at the brewery of Messrs. Barclay and Company, for the purpose of inspecting the establishment. According to the regular practice of visitors, they were requested to sign their names in a book in the office, after which they crossed the yard with one of the clerks. On inspecting the visitors’ book the clerks discovered that one of the parties was no other than Marshal Haynau, the late commander of the Austrian forces during the attack upon the unfortunate Hungarians. It became known all over the brewery in less than two minutes, and before the general and his companions had crossed the yard, nearly all the labourers and draymen ran out with brooms and dirt, shouting out, “Down with the Austrian butcher!” and other epithets of rather an alarming nature to the marshal. A number of the men gathered round the marshal as he was viewing the large vat, and continued their hostile manifestations. The marshal being made acquainted by one of the persons who accompanied him, of the feeling prevailing against him, immediately prepared to retire. But this was not so easily done. The attack was commenced by dropping a truss of Straw upon his head as he passed through one of the lower rooms; after which grain and missiles of every kind that came to hand were freely bestowed upon him. The men next struck his hat over his eyes, and hustled him from all directions. His clothes were torn off his back. One of the men seized him by the beard, and tried to cut it off. The marshal’s companions were treated with equal violence, They, however, defended themselves manfully, and succeeded in reaching the outside of the building. Here there were assembled about 500 persons, consisting of the brewer’s men, coal-heavers, &c, the presence of the obnoxious visitor having become known in the vicinity. No sooner had the Marshal made his appearance outside the gates than he was surrounded, pelted, struck with every available missile, and even dragged along by his moustache, which afforded ample facilities to his assailants, from its excessive length, it reaching nearly down to his shoulders. Still battling with his assailants, he ran in a frantic manner along Bankside until he came to the George public-house, when, finding the doors open, he rushed in and proceeded up-stairs into one of the bed-rooms, to the utter astonishment of Mrs. Benfield, the landlady, who soon discovered his name and the reason of his entering the house. The furious mob rushed in after him, threatening to do for the “Austrian Butcher;” but, fortunately for him, the house is very old-fashioned, and contains a vast number of doors, which were all forced open, except the room in which the marshal was concealed. The mob had increased at that time to several hundreds, and from their excited state Mrs Benfield became alarmed about her own property as well as the marshal’s life. She accordingly despatched a messenger to the Southwark police-station for the assistance of the police, and in a short time Inspector Squires arrived at the George with a number of police, and with great difficulty dispersed the mob and got the marshal out of the house. A police galley was at the wharf at the time, into which he was taken, and rowed towards Somerset House, amidst the shouts and execrations of the mob. Messrs. Barclay have suspended all hands, in order to discover the principals in the attack. It appears that the two attendants of the marshal were an aide-de-camp and an interpreter. He had presented a letter of introduction from Baron Rothschild. who had therein described him as “his friend Marshal Haynau.”

ADDITIONAL PARTICULARS.

Our own reporter, who visited Bankside on Thursday, ascertained that the general had a narrow escape from death, as his captors exhibited a strong inclination to extend towards him the same full measure of vengeance which he had so often exercised towards the unfortunate patriots of Hungary. In flying from his pursuers, he, as stated above, entered the George, where, after seeking vainly for some outlet by which to escape, he found his way into a small pantry, in which was a door. This door the general opened with the energy of desperation, and was half-way through it, when he found there was no hope of escape that way – the conqueror of Hungary had taken refuge in a dust-bin. As he stood looking around him, half in the pantry and half in the dust-bin, his pursuers overtook him; and, as he stood in a stooping posture, had a good opportunity of thrashing him with their various weapons, one of which, a bean-stalk, about an inch and a quarter in thickness, was used with such hearty good will, that it was broken upon his back. He was then seized by half-a-dozen of his assailants, some of whom had hold of his coat, while others less tender of his person, grasped his long moustachios, and dragged him back along the passage towards the street: but watching his opportunity, he managed, with the help of two labouring men, who were ignorant of his name, to break away from his captors, and rush up-stairs. His newly-found champions closing the door at the bottom of the staircase, and mounting guard outside. The general and his two foreign friends who had accompanied him, tried to escape by a window in one of the bed-chambers, but not succeeding, were compelled to remain in “durance vile,” until the arrival of a strong detachment of police enabled them to leave the house with safety. The general’s outer man had been so damaged in the fray, that he was glad to accept the loan of a coat, and that from a pitying bystander. The two men who had so gallantly defended the “Saviour of the Austrian Empire” against his assailants, were magnificently remunerated; the one receiving 4s. 6d , and the other 2s. 10d. for his services. The landlord of the George, upon inquiry at Morley’s Hotel, Trafalgar Square, on Thursday morning, was told that the general “had gone back.” Several dismissals have, we are told, taken place in Barclay’s brewery, but the obnoxious name of Haynau, together with those of his two companions, have been carefully obliterated from the visiting book. (Reynold’s Newspaper)

By the time the police reached the pub, rowing him across the Thames to safety, the bedraggled and humiliated butcher was in no fit state to continue his holiday. Within hours, a new song could be heard in the streets of Southwark:

Turn him out, turn him out,
from our side of the Thames,
Let him go to great Tories
and high-titled dames.
He may walk the West End
and parade in his pride,
But he’ll not come back again
near the ‘George’ in Bankside.

The attack quickly became an international incident between Britain and Austria, and British Prime Minister Palmerston and Queen Victoria argued about the merits of battering foreign generals.

It also inspired a rush of prints and satires, which in the way that news and popular culture worked then, were published withing days of the attack. At least four songs written to commemorate this mobbing, three of which can be found online: General HaynauHaynau’s RetreatThe Southwark brewers and the Austrian butcher.
There was also a ‘Commemorative Handkerchief’, printed with a scene of the ‘Escape of Marshal Haynau from Barclay and Perkins Brewery, London.’

Harney’s Red Republican newspaper saw the debagging of Haynau as proof of ‘the progress of the working classes in political knowledge, their uncorrupted love of justice, and their intense hatred of tyranny and cruelty’. A celebratory rally in the Farringdon Hall, at which Engels spoke, was so oversubscribed that hundreds had to be turned away. Letters of congratulation arrived from workers’ associations as far afield as Paris and New York.

But conservative newspapers such as the Quarterly Review found nothing to laugh at: the riotous scenes in Bankside were a most alarming “indication of foreign influence even amongst our own people” – foreign influence being the standard mid-century euphemism for the dread virus of socialism.

Haynau left London a few days later, but did not leave his troubles behind. The Evening Standard of the 16th September 1850 reported:

The Zeitung fur Norddeutschland of the 11th inst., announces the arrival of General Haynau at Hanover, and the outbreak of some petty disturbances in consequence of a mob wishing to attack the hotel in which the marshal had taken his quarters. Several arrests took place, and it was found necessary to disperse the crowd by means of the civic guard.

Some of this post was nicked from the very fine anterosis.com

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Today in London’s striking herstory, 1908: Corruganza boxmakers win a strike against wage reductions.

In August 1908, 44 young women box makers went on strike. They were part of a 1,500-strong workforce from the Corruganza Box Making works, off Garratt Lane, Summerstown, South London, and they had never struck in their lives before.

Below we reprint Bronwen Griffiths’ account of this strike, originally published in the South London Record, journal of S. London History Workshop.

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The Corruganza company made cardboard boxes of all types for shops and industry and the women concerned worked in a department dealing with tube rolling, cutting and glueing. The cause of the strike was simple. Mr Stevenson, the manager, had ordered a reduction in the wages paid for piece work. In some cases he wanted to cut the pay back to half the previous rate.

Miss Mary Williams, the forewoman, refused to accept the new wages even though she herself had not been affected by the reductions.

“I asked him for a revised price list to put before the hands” she said, “and he gave me the prices on a piece of paper and said ‘If they don’t like it they can clear out’. I told the girls and they struck there and then. I and two of the others were supposed to be the ring-leaders and we got the sack.” (Wandsworth Borough News Aug. 1908).

The strike got considerable public support as well as the backing of the National Federation of Women Workers, which had been formed only two years earlier. Mary MacArthur, Secretary of the Federation, came to address the workers on the picket lines and provided them with strike pay. Within two weeks this had been increased to 5 shillings a week because people like the writer John Galsworthy had sent in sums of £5 and more.

Much of the argument between managers and workers centred around the issue of what was a reasonable piece work rate. The young women were prepared to accept a reduction on one type of the work but, according to Miss Williams, “He (Mr Stevenson) reduced plain work and they could not agree to that, especially as the girls had already lost on the first reduction. Taking all the year round and taking busy times with slack times, our wages do not average 12s. per week. We are supposed to work 91/2 hours a day.”

When we are busy, we work those hours and earn perhaps 17s. a week but for the rest of the year we don’t do nearly so much, and are lucky to get 10s. a week. Under the new conditions, I don’t suppose we could earn more than 10s. a week at the best of times, and our average would certainly be a lot lower than that”.

Another of the strikers was more emphatic. “He won’t give us a blooming chance to live. We used to earn from 15s. to 17s. per week and now we shall get from 6s. to 9s. per week. That is not enough to keep one, let alone a family on”. (Wandsworth Borough News Aug. 1908).

This was at a time when average wages for box making were from 10-15s. a week, with a pound a week being the highest wage. However, according to the ‘Women’s Industrial News’ (1912) ‘workers hardly ever get a full week’s work’.

Nor was the work easy. Polly, who was quoted in ‘The Woman Worker’ of August 21st described how she was exhausted by working on one of the large, heavy rolling machines: “Don’t yer all know that I often gits knocked up with pain in the stommick and ‘ave ter lie in bed all day through ‘andling it? They don’t remember that when they’re reducing their rites and slinging nimes abart”.

Mr Stevenson was adamant however that the women were idle and had ‘tyrannised’ his factory.

“For the past 15 years” he told the ‘Borough News reporter covering the strike “there has been no reduction in wages in the works. More than one attempt has been made to reduce the wages to a proper basis and in proportion to the small amount which the firm receives for the goods. The girls have always objected to any reduction and the managers have always given way to them. That is not my habit and 1 do not intend to start now”.

He continued: “I wanted to put little girls on the machines some time since, but they refused”. (‘They’ referring to the older women). “In fact, they have ruled the place and tyrannised for over 10 years and I don’t intend to stand it. Under the new arrangement the girh will be able to earn from 15s. to 25s. per week and that 1 consider a fair wage for girls”.

The ‘Boro’ News’ reporter toured the factory, claiming that the women could earn between 17s. and 26s. a week at the new prices. These young women were novices. The strikers were very indignant with what they alleged to be ‘mis-statements’ in the paper. “What do ‘e say in yer piper! That we could earn free paand a week at the gime. Lummy, we should just ‘alf like to have a go at it. Fifteen bob is not so bad, and a quid is a lot, but free paand!! So ‘elp me, it’s a bit fick, I don’t fink! “

Although the ‘Boro’ News’ reported Mr Stevenson as saying that no additional women would go out on strike ‘The Times’ of August 14th wrote:

“Peaceful picketing was carried on during yesterday, and one result of this is that seven girls, who were taken on yesterday morning, have signified their intention of not going in this morning”.

The strikers, together with the Federation of Women Workers, arranged a demonstration at Trafalgar Square on Saturday August 22nd. The women came from Earlsfield Station carrying banners with the words ‘Box Makers At Bay’. They marched in a downpour from Waterloo Station via the Embankment to Trafalgar Square where they were met by a crowd of between-five and seven hundred supporters. Mary MacArthur opened the proceedings and the crowd heard speeches from the women themselves, from Frank Smith of the London County Council and from Victor Grayson MP.

The ‘Woman Worker’ of August 28th gives the following account of the demonstration:

“When we got to Waterloo it was raining. My word, it did rain. We marched three a line over Waterloo Bridge and along the Embankment. The rain soaked through and through us. It got into your bones, so to speak” as Polly said.

“And the mud. It was slush up to our ankles, but we felt real gay all the same.

‘Ye waited for a bit under the archway, till all at one it cleared. Polly started to sing, ‘If you can’t do no good, don’t do no harm’.

(This was the women’s strike song).

We were all still singing when we marched into the Square, and all at once the sun started shining, and the big crowd started cheering.

“Miss MacArthur told the people all about the goings-on at the Corruganza works. Then she asked Alice -to speak up and tell the people all about everything. Alice is what they call a fine girl. She’s the big dark one what does the heavy work. Her as Mr Stevenson calls the ‘Battersea Bruiser’. She told ’em how we had been cut down so as we couldn’t earn nothing, and how she stood up to Mr Stevenson and the Galloping Major (what Miss MacArthur says is a commissionaire) and how she got the sack. Then Polly up and spoke. She told the folk how heavy the work was, and what hard times we had been having before the prices were cut down. Then it was Annie’s turn. She has always kept respectable, has Annie, though she has had an awful struggle.

“Annie told them as how she had lost her mother before she was a year old, and her father when she was seven. ‘I have always kept strite up to now” Annie said. ‘Gawd ‘elping me, I will still’.

“All the speeches were fine. Miss Margaret Bondfield and Mr Frank Smith spoke up for us grand, and Mr Victor Grayson, who looked a very young boy to be a member of Parlyment, was spiffin’.

“When the speaking came to an end the crowd flung no end of money up to us. Not only pennies, but crowns and half-sovereigns too.”

Support continued to pour in after the demonstration in the form of money and letters. A group of box-makers from Manchester wrote to the ‘Woman Worker’ saying: ‘We know how hard it is to make a living wage, and we realise that it is our battle the girls are fighting as well as theirs. So we made a collection amongst us, because we think it is our duty to help one another as much as lies in our power’.

On September 3rd the dispute was settled by the Board of Trade. The firm agreed to reinstate all the strikers and the piece work rates were to remain as before, except in the case of tube rolling for incandescent mantle boxes where the rate was to be reduced. Mary Williams, the fore-woman, decided not to return but was sent £10 by a well-wisher to help her until she found another position. The Women’s Suffrage League Paper saw the victory as an important step for women. ‘The amount of sympathy and help given to the strikers by the public shows that, thanks to the Suffrage agitation, fair play towards women has now made decided progress’.

Later in September, however, ‘The Times’ reported Mr Stevenson as saying that the strikers had agreed to accept the reductions as originally proposed and that ‘the strike was entirely without justification. The charge of ‘sweating’ which was really too absurd to need refutation, disposes of itself’.

Miss Sophy Safliger, who represented the strikers at the conciliation proceedings replied immediately to Mr Stevenson’s letter of the 17th September: ‘The reductions agreed to at the conciliation proceedings were only in respect of one class of work, and had already been agreed to by the girls before the strike took place. In the interests of the girls and their helpers, a statement that the strike was entirely without justification cannot be allowed to pass. It is not to be supposed that work-girls, most of whom had worked many years with the firm and were entirely dependent upon their own earnings, with no organisation or funds behind them, would be likely to throw up their work and risk hunger for an imaginary grievance’.

In fact, the ‘Woman Worker’ had already reported on the 11th September Mr Stevenson’s attempts to hide the facts behind the strike. ‘It seemed that at the first meeting the negotiations had not progressed at all, and a fierce resumption of the war had appeared probable. But on the second day a great discovery was made. The strike was an accident – a carelessness. Mr.Stevenson had been misunderstood by the girls, by Miss Williams, by Miss MacArthur, by the Press-men, the Board of Trade – everybody. Reductions? Bless you, he had intended one only: a little one. applying merely small percentage of work, and not seriously affecting wages … It was agreed at last that a settlement should be accepted in good faith and Miss MacArthur reminded the girls that they were organised now and therefore no longer helpless, no longer likely to be agreed upon’.

At the same time as the strike, the Women’s Industrial Council, as reported by ‘The Women’s Industrial News’ of September 1908, was investigating the box-making industry reporting that ‘fifteen or sixteen years ago the wages of. the women employed were, comparatively speaking, good, and the average wage throughout the trade, including that of learners, was, at a guess 15s. If it had been possible to form a strong trade union the same rates might perhaps prevail today. But some employers lowered prices by introducing a great many young learners, who often received for the first few weeks, or even months, nothing at all and only a very small wage afterwards’.

By 1910, ‘The Women’s Industrial News’ was able to report that it is particularly pleasing ‘those who saw at the time of the Council’s enquiry the growing underpayment in this trade, to find it included among the first four in which Trade boards are being instituted; and to learn that the women, stimulated by the hope which these Boards offer them, are joining a trade union by hundreds’. These Boards were set up to regulate wages.

The Corruganza box-makers strike, starting from personal hardship, had now become history and part of a larger struggle. It is an important landmark in working class women’s history.

SOURCES

Clapham Observer Aug 1908
The Times Aug-Sep 1908
Tooting & Balham Gazette Aug-Sep 1908
Wandsworth Borough News Aug-Oct 1908 .
Women’s Freedom League Papers 1908
Women’s Industrial News 1908-1912
Woman Worker Aug-Sep 1908
Women in British Trade Unions 1974-1976. Norbert Soldon. Publ. Gill & Macmillan, 1978.

 Typist’s Postscript:

About ten years later there was another strike at the Corruganza factory; after a popular forewoman was replaced by a strict disciplinarian, who cracked down on what some of the workers thought to be a relatively free and easy work regime, the new gaffer was assaulted by a number of the workers who then walked out on strike. As far as I can work out they were all sacked and not taken back. 

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2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London’s festive history: the eve of St, Bartholomew, traditional date for the opening of Bartholomew Fair

Bartholomew Fair, was the most prominent and infamous London fair for centuries; and one of the most important in the country. Over the centuries it became a teeming, riotous, outpouring of popular culture, feared and despised like no other regular event by those in power… “a dangerous sink for all the vices of London”.In terms of its place in the culture of its time, and how it was viewed by authority and dealt with as a public order and moral ‘problem’, think Notting Hill Carnival, maybe more in the 1980s than today, but today’s Carnival still gets close.The Fair, held in Smithfield, was rooted in the Charter granted to the monastery of St Bartholomew in Clerkenwell, in 1133 (though it may have been held before that): the canons of St Bartholomew’s originally had the right to a portion of all the income generated there, a substantial wodge.Bartholomew Fair was originally held in mid-late August, the traditional time for rowdy fairs, a time which for centuries marked end of the working year, when labourers could leave one employer and hire on with another.At first the Fair opened on the 24 August – the eve of St Bartholomew’s Day, the 25th, a date generally celebrated with carnivalesque riotousness throughout Europe in the middle ages. For three days, ‘within the precincts of the Priory at West Smithfield, outside Aldersgate of the City of London’. Later it was gradually extended, both in time and space, until it spanned two weeks; by 1377, the fair had increased so much in size that it overflowed the monastic precincts into neighbouring Smithfield.The fair continued, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, within the Liberty of the parish of St Bartholomew-the-Great. Its main economic function for centuries was for the trading of cloth – it became the leading venue for the cloth trade; however as London drapers found wider markets and transport improved, this gradually declined in importance.Later on leather and pewter were also sold here; and the seventeenth-century name ‘Rugman’s Row’ for what is now the south side of Newbury Street, suggests that rugs also were sold at the fair. As England’s woollen trade was one of the staples of the wealth of the country in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the kings safeguarded the position and privileges of Bartholomew Fair as an important market of the industry. Thus, in the year 1292, when the privileges of the city were forfeited into the king’s hands, the corporation held that one half of the profit of the takings from St Bartholomew’s eve, and the whole of those of the 26th August, belonged to the king; but the king, allowed the prior of the monastery to take the profits as before.Increasingly from the sixteenth century, the Fair was known for pleasure and entertainment. Like the medieval carnivals, ritual became an important element: for instance, it was customary for the Lord Mayor of London to open the fair on St Bartholomew’s Eve, after he had called at Newgate Prison, where the prison governor would supply him with a ritual cup of sack (fortified white wine): “a cool tankard of wine, nutmeg, and sugar;” (the flap of the tankard lid caused the death of the mayor, Sir John Shorter, in 1688, his horse starting, throwing him violently).“Every year it is usual for the Lord Mayor of London to ride into Smithfield, attended by 12 principal aldermen, dressed in their scarlet gowns and robes, and whenever he goes abroad a sceptre, that is to say, a mace and cap, are borne before him. When the yearly fair is proclaimed a tent is pitched, and after the ceremony is over the mob begin to wrestle before them, two at a time, and the conquerors are rewarded by money thrown from the tent. After this a parcel of wild rabbits are turned loose in the crowd, and hunted by boys with great noise, at which the mayor and aldermen do much besport themselves. Before this time there was an old custom for the scholars of London to meet at this festival, at the priory of St. Bartholomew, to dispute in logic and grammar, upon a bank under a tree: the best of them were rewarded with silver bows and arrows.” (Paul Hentzner, Journey to England)

But the Fair’s size and fame made it a public order headache for the authorities; trouble was a regular occurrence.
In 1363 there was “a riot and tumult in the fair’; the following year several merchants and others who used to frequent the fair, fearing violence, had intimated that they would stay away the next year. “The king therefore issued the writ, referred to already, informing the mayor and sheriffs that he had taken the prior and canons, and all merchants desiring to come to the fair, under his special protection, because ‘the non-coming of the said merchants—which God forbid—would bring the fair to nought’, and he further ‘forbade that any goods brought to the fair should be taken for his use’. Similar letters of protection were issued by the king in the years 1373 and 1376, and by Richard II in 1377.

In the year 1549 the Lord Mayor and aldermen rode as usual to Bartholomew Fair in their scarlet, but the ritual wrestling that year was not allowed by the Court of Aldermen because of the commotions in Norfolk and elsewhere that year over the rate of enclosures in the country. Just two days before the fair the sheriffs had had to witness the hanging, beheading, and quartering of three men in connexion with Kett’s Rebellion. As large gatherings of people and feast days could so easily erupt into rioting or even rebellion, its not surprising the authorities feared that trouble could be set off, at this most turbulent event at a time of great resentment of the wealthy by the poor.

In 1589, 100s of sailors and soldiers came back from Francis Drake’s expedition to Spain without the loot they had been promised: angry hungry and disillusioned.  Large numbers of them headed for Bartholomew Fair, gathering other ‘masterless men’, and threatening to sack the fair & hold their own alternative ‘Durrest Fair’ to sell stolen goods. A frightened government posted 2000 militiamen to protect the Fair.

However, being held on Smithfield, a place of both disorder and punishment, the authorities also used the Fair for their own political purposes at times. It was on one of the great days of the fair, (August 24th) in 1315, that the Sir William Wallace, the Scottish fighter for independence, was executed in sight of the jostling crowd at the Elms in Smithfield, where he was hanged, drawn, and quartered.

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

During the time of the Commonwealth all plays and interludes at the fair were stopped by the Act of 1647, but only to break out again with greater licence at the Restoration. The centre of the vice and immorality was apparently usually focussed on the Long Walk and cloister of the hospital.

In 1691, to curb the disorder for which it had become famous, Bartholomew Fair was shortened, back to the original three days (petitions against this reduction were denied); and after the change in the calendar from 1753, the fair commenced on the new date of 3rd September.

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

In the year 1698, a Frenchman, Monsieur Sorbière, visiting London, says, “I was at Bartholomew Fair. It consists mostly of toy-shops, also finery and pictures, ribbon-shops-no books; many shops of confectioners, where any woman may commodiously be treated. Knavery is here in perfection, dextrous cutpurses and pickpockets. I went to see the dancing on the ropes, which was admirable. Coming out, I met a man that would have took off my hat, but I secured it, and was going to draw my sword, crying, ‘Begar! You rogue! Morbleu!’ &c., when on a sudden I had a hundred people about me crying, ‘Here, monsieur, see Jephthah’s Rash Vow.’ ‘Here, monsieur, see the Tall Dutchwoman.’ ‘See The Tiger,’ says another. ‘See the Horse and no Horse,’ whose tail stands where his head should do.’ ‘See the German Artist, monsieur.’ ‘See The Siege of Namur.’ So that betwixt rudeness and civility I was forced to get into a fiacre, and with an air of haste and a full trot, got home to my lodgings.”

In 1702, the following advertisement appeared relative to the fair:-

“At the Great Booth over against the Hospital Gate, in Bartholomew Fair, will be seen the famous company of ropedancers, they being the greatest performers of men, women, and children that can be found beyond the seas, so that the world cannot parallel them for dancing on the low rope, vaulting on the high rope, and for walking on the slack and sloaping ropes, outdoing all others to that degree, that it has highly recommended them, both in Bartholomew Fair and May Fair last, to all the best persons of quality in England. And by all are owned to be the only amazing wonders of the world in everything they do. It is there you will see the Italian Scaramouch dancing on the rope, with a wheelbarrow before him with two children and a dog in it, and with a duck on his head, who sings to the company, and causes much laughter. The whole entertainment will be so extremely fine and diverting, as never was done by any but this company alone.”

Ned Ward, the “London Spy,” visited the fair, but in a coach, to avoid the dirt and the crowd. In his account of his visit he relates how he was “saluted with Belphegor’s concert, the rumbling of drums, mixed with the intolerable squeaking of catcalls and penny trumpets, made still more terrible with the shrill belches of lottery pickpockets through instruments of the same metal with their faces.”

In the eighteenth century the City of London Corporation made a great effort to put an end to the scandals of the two fairs which fell under its jurisdiction – Bartholomew Fair and the Lady Fair of Southwark. In 1735 the Court of Common Council decided that the fair should be restricted to the eve, the day, and the day after (which suggests that a similar decision made in 1691 had been largely unsuccessful). and to the sale of goods; also that no acting at all should be permitted. “Great resistance was offered to the enforcement of these regulations, so much so that in 1736 theatrical booths were again allowed,” – later on the fair was extended again to four days.

The Fair was long a nightmare for the authorities in whose lap policing and licensing it fell. The crowds, spilling out into surrounding streets; the drunkenness, rowdiness, crime (from anti-social – attacks, rapes, murders – through collectively social – eg riots – or individually ‘immoral’ – the selling of sex – to economic – eg fencing of stolen goods…); the potential for protest and propaganda, which usually targeted religious or political hierarchies… For nearly two centuries from the late 17th century complaints about the Fair and demands to reduce or ban it outright grew gradually more strident. The local Justices deplored the London fairs’ “corruption of good Manners and Detriment of Trade and Lawful Business’. However, they generally lacked the manpower and finances needed to police the events – both in terms or public order or morals – even where their regulations gave them the power to do so.

It wasn’t just Bartholomew Fair. In the county of Middlesex (which covered almost all of modern London north of the river Thames, from Bow to Chertsey), there were also the May Fair (in Mayfair!), Paddington Fair, Hampstead Fair, Highgate Fair, Tottenham Court Fair, Bow Fair, Mile End Fair, Pinner Fair and Welsh Fair and many smaller ones… between late Spring and early Autumn there was always a fair going on, attracting thousands, with all the attendant disruption and troubles. All this, clear-sighted moralists, churchmen and businessmen noted, was getting in the way of disciplining the poor to accept hard work. They held out temptation to apprentices and contributed to the impoverishment of poor families… (which led to an increased burden on the rates).

The City of London Council investigated ways of completely suppressing the fair in 1760-1. In December 1760, the committee responsible for letting the city lands were ordered to inquire by what grants and authority Bartholomew and Southwark Fairs were held, who were interested in the fairs, and what “perquisites or emoluments’ belonged to any of the city officers on account of those fairs. In the following August (1761) the committee reported, noting that the demands for compensation for those who legally owned ‘the benefits of the fair’, amounted to a very considerable sum; the legal opinion of the Recorder and of the Common Serjeant, was that it would be difficult to suppress the fairs legally without am act of Parliament, but that the magistrates had powers to stop nuisances.  The City Council resolved to use these powers to the limit, and the following year the ‘plays and drolls’ were again prohibited.

Though this attempt to put an end to the Fair came to nothing, it was the opening salvo of a concerted campaign against London fairs & popular gatherings. Such an important part of London’s economic and cultural life was not easily repressed, though it was reduced in size thereafter, it did continue for several decades.

The popular theatre of Bartholomew Fair and the other London fairs was one of the elements of the annual shindig that the authorities wanted most to see the back of. Plays and theatres generally had been the target of moral repression, legislation and bans for two centuries; this was due to a combination of factors, including immoral content, the behaviour of rowdy audiences, riots that seemed to start around theatres and the crime and prostitution that seemed to cluster around playhouses.

In the mid-late eighteenth century the satirical aspects of a number of plays was added to this list – a rise in anti-government satire in many arenas was a constant thorn in the side of the powers that be.

Plays put on at the fairs were equally, if not more, disturbing. The authorities were furious that theatrical entertainments often spilled out of fairgrounds and established themselves in surrounding streets, spreading “vice and immorality and to the debauching and ruining of Servants Apprentices and others as well as to the disturbance of the Publique Peace.’

Temporary playhouses and booths were able to dodge the many regulations that restricted what the more established theatres could put on; on top of this they drew all the ‘lowlife’ that the theatres were accused of attracting.

Many of the plays and entertainments put on at fairs ‘offended and challenged London authorities notions of what entailed a properly ordered commercial city’. They worried mostly about the moral corruption of the largest group of people who attended fairs – young men of the lower orders. City officials worried that the pleasures available at fairs were especially dangerous to them, distracting them from becoming industrious and productive in the context of a regulated social order. The fantastic, immoral or downright politically suspect theatrical shows staged at fairs being the most likely to undermine the development of hardworking, forelock tugging workers… “affecting morals, lessening… industry, and losing the time of those persons employed…”
The 1737 Licensing Act had severely restricted any theatrical performances outside of Drury Lane, Covent Garden and the Kings theatre – with clauses including the threat of arresting players for vagrancy. In response there was a rise in other form of dramatic entertainment, including puppet shows and ‘pantomimes’.

In 1762 the Lord Mayor prohibited plays at the fair – the City Marshal and his officers made several players who were setting up their booths take them down. This led to a riot from enraged theatre-lovers, who ‘broke the windows of almost every inhabitant of Smithfield’ in protest.

According to William Hone’s Every-day Book, in his account of his visit to Bartholomew Fair on Monday, the 5th September, 1825, there were uncovered stalls on both sides of Giltspur Street, as far as Newgate Street. The covered stalls extended from Giltspur Street to Cock Lane, then to Hosier Lane, and from thence all along the west side of Smithfield to the Cow Lane corner. They then extended from the corner leading to John Street, Clerkenwell, to Smithfield Bars, and there ended. On the west side from the Bars these covered stalls went to Long Lane, and thence on the east side of Smithfield to the great gate of Cloth Fair. Crossing Duke Street (now Little Britain) they went to the great front gate of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and so on till they joined the uncovered stalls in Giltspur Street. These covered stalls had their fronts facing the houses with the pavement between; and here were sold gingerbread, oysters, hardwear, trinkets, and such-like. The shows of all kinds had their fronts towards the area of Smithfield, and their backs close against the backs of the covered stalls; thus leaving the area of Smithfield entirely open. They completely surrounded Smithfield, except on the north side, where no stalls were allowed to be erected. The sheep-pens occupied the centre of the area, and yet, although no vehicle of any kind was permitted to pass, this large unobstructed carriage way was so thronged as to be wholly impassable.

In 1816 the Court of Common Council resolved: “That it be referred to the committee for letting the city’s lands to take into consideration the expediency and practicability of immediately abolishing Bartholomew Fair.” The committee reported that it was expedient to abolish the fair, but, as stated in 1761, it could not be abolished without an act of Parliament… The problem of compensation was still an impediment however…

In September 1817, according to Sherwin’s Political Register, on 13th September, the authorities panicked at the rumour that a radical insurrection was planned to coincide with Bartholomew Fair. Four regiments of horse were called out, and the Lord Mayor searched for weapons among the ‘oyster-tubs, sausage-stalls, and gingerbread baskets’.

The annual disorder generated at this carnival, “a dangerous sink for all the vices of London”, gradually became intolerable, as its economic functions declined, and pressures for reform of the morals and rebelliousness of London’s poor increased. In 1801 a crowd of thieves rampaged through the Fair, and  “surrounded any respectable woman, and tore her clothes from her back”. In 1802 visitors were robbed, beaten with bludgeons, and persons who came to their windows with lights, alarmed at the disturbance, had their houses stoned. In 1807 the Fair was even more lawless; “a virago of an actress, who was performing Belvidera in Venice Preserved, knocked down the august king’s deputy-trumpeter, who applied for his fees”. In one morning of September, 1815, there were heard at Guildhall forty-five cases of felony, misdemeanour, and assault, committed at Bartholomew Fair.

In 1825, the Council again ordered investigations into what measures could be taken for the removal of any nuisances existing in the same fair or to suppress it entirely; once again though the complexities baffled them, and they just ordered that the fair should be held as usual. But four years later they bought out the last interest apart from themselves whose demands for compensation had stood in the way of abolishing the Fair. The centuries-old charter still stood in their way.

But still the fair went on. The Corporation tried increasing the tolls for stalls, which had the effect of increasing the income from the fair, but not of discontinuing the stalls.

Gradually over the next few years, the magistrates restricted the festivities, which killed the Fair off piece by piece. The shows, which were now forced to close at ten, were moved to the New North Road, Islington. In 1839 theatrical shows were banned. Rents were raised, and in 1840 only wild beast shows were allowed.

In 1839 the committee of the London City Mission petitioned the Corporation for the suppression of the fair, on moral grounds.  “The matter was referred to the Market Committee, who, in turn, referred it to Mr. Solicitor (Charles Pearson). Pearson argued by shortening the Fair’s duration to two clear days, and by refusing to let standings for show booths, they would ensure the fair’s slow and natural death, without causing any protests against its suppression or further rioting.

And so it proved. “The great fair at last sank down to a few gilt gingerbread booths” by 1849.

On July 2nd, 1840, the court adopted Mr. Solicitor’s report on the recommendation of the Market Committee, and at once the opening of the fair in state was discontinued and theatrical representations once more excluded. In 1843 shows of any kind were prohibited, though, as a sop to the public, arrangements were made for their continuance in Britannia Fields, Hoxton.

The ceremony of opening the Fair had been much simplified since 1840, and in 1850 Lord Mayor Musgrove, turned up to read the traditional proclamation at the appointed spot, was faced with a shadow of the former revels. The fair was finally suppressed for good in 1855 by the City authorities.

The slow death by a thousand cuts the Bartholomew Fair suffered was part of a widespread campaign, conducted through the first half of the eighteenth century, to put a stop to debauchery and public disorder, and especially gathering places where working class people could behave badly en masse. Not just because their morals needed totally upgrading, but because they might get together, riot, or overthrow the proper order of society. Open space needed to be controlled and orderly, and events that encouraged immorality, riot and expenses on the ratepayers should be done away with!

Quotes from: The Records of St. Bartholomew’s Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 1. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1921.)

Some reflections on local anti-fascist struggles in South London in 1991

Some reflections on local anti-fascist struggles in South London in 1991…

In July 1991 the far right British National Party stood Steve Tyler as a candidate for a council by-election in Brunswick Ward. Much of this ward consisted of the large and run down Elmington Council estate, in Camberwell. The BNP campaign was vigorously opposed by an alliance of local anti-fascists, left groups, Anti-Fascist Action, supported by local residents including a number of squatters; however, the BNP did manage to march in force around the estate.

At the time the Elmington was in a somewhat dilapidated state; Southwark was (and still is) one of the poorest boroughs in London. The estate had large numbers of empty flats, and a large population of squatters, as did many of Southwark’s estates (it was thought to be the most heavily squatted borough then, at a time when London’s squatting population was variously estimated at 20-30,000). Much of the estate was in disrepair. The Estate housing officer, Rachel Webb, was a well-known leftwing activist, who was also a Labour councillor in neighbouring Lambeth at the time [She was, if I recall right, one of the remaining councillors from ‘Red” Ted Knight’s administration of the early 1980s, the majority of who had been disbarred and banned from standing to be councillors again, over the Rate Capping battle against the Thatcher government… a group alleged to be an entrist faction of trotskyites originating in the Socialist Organiser group].

The BNP campaign was partly aimed at attacking Rachel Webb, as a known leftwing activist, and also Southwark’s Labour council, and at targeting squatters living on the estate. A BNP election leaflet ran: “ [Rachel Webb] is more interested in evicting white residents for being ‘rascist’ than in evicting the drunken and drugged up squatters that infest our estates.”

A candidate for council elections needed ten sponsors from the council electoral ward in question. Anti-fascists later obtained the list of Tyler’s sponsors; not all lived on the estate. But there was a group of white residents with BNP sympathies and more, who lived on the Elmington. This group was linked to racist attacks on the estate: dogs had been set on local black kids; black families had their windows bricked; passers by had been hassled by a group of 20 white kids in combat gear.

“Squatter scum off our estate” graffiti was painted up around the estate at the time.

It’s possible that Charlie Sargent, later supremo of BNP splinter hooligan firm Combat 18, lived on the Elmington at the time – he was officially living there a couple of years later. Tyler, himself was a long-standing BNP activist and perennial candidate, who stood in general elections in nearby Bermondsey several times in the 1990s.

At the time BNP were doing regular paper sales in East Street in Walworth, and the ‘Blue’ market in Bermondsey, and saw this area of South London as having potential for recruitment; disillusioned working class residents living in poverty were seen as a good recruitment pool; ‘lefty’ Labour councils were easy meat, and migrants, especially black people, loudly blamed for the myriad social problems.

The BNP campaign was opposed by a number of groups, including the South London branch of Anti-Fascist Action [which your author was then active in]. We took the position you have to oppose any fascist presence as it was clearly shown to directly or indirectly lead to racial attacks increasing (as in Welling and Thamesmead at the time) – even if electorally they were not really likely to win, or even come close. We did a lot of leafleting of the ward, and talking to local people. Crucially, some of the South London AFA group lived on the estate or in the wider area, though the majority lived across South London (many in nearby Brixton).

Leafletting and talking to residents received a mixed, though largely positive, response. If some people hated squatters and others were racist, many were also ex-squatters or hated Nazis. On one memorable occasion someone put an anti-fascist leaflet through a door and a large west indian man came running out of the flat with a hammer, then did a double take and looked closer at leaflet in his hand and went ”oh, ANTI fascist action…” !

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

The anti-fascists held one rally on the estate. Anti-Fascist Action also organised a public meeting in the Walmer Castle Pub on Peckham Road (now defunct), which turned into a disastrous squabble between lefty factions, all turning up to spout their own political line on fascism, slag each other iff, slag us off, and generally offer nothing practical. Any non-aligned locals turning up were generally bemused by the maze of initials, groupuscules and counter-claims, and the bitter shouty row that the meeting descended into.

Some other left groups, plus some Southwark councillors (eg Ian Driver) were involved in the opposition to the BNP; other groups, like the Socialist Workers Party, informed us that small fascist groups were a distraction from the real issues facing the working class, and that Anti-Fascist Action were fighting an irrelevant enemy, the real danger in terms of racism being the state structures, police, etc. This was a line the SWP had been taking pretty much since the party hierarchy closed down the Anti-Nazi League in the early 1980s; while it is true that institutional racism is more powerful and pervasive than small fascist parties, the threat that black people, migrants and other groups faced from racist attacks is very real, and demands resistance. Not long after this the SWP would totally reverse their position, and set about reforming of the Anti Nazi League, which, while making a lot of noise and seeking and gaining widespread publicity, was generally about as much of a threat to the Nazis as a slightly deceased rabbit.

The coalition of anti-fascists organised one local march against the BNP; the BNP in fact themselves staged a march, of about 70 skins and assorted swivel-eyes (mostly imported from outside the area) round the estate, on July 20th, a few days before election day. This demo became a bit of a sore point later. It was not publicised in advance – unsurprisingly, as the BNP were afraid that opposition could be rallied and the march could be blocked, attacked or possibly even banned by the cops. Anti Fascist Action had had word that the march was going to take place, but most of the South London AFA group on the ground were not informed very much in advance until it was realistically too late to organise much opposition. We could do very little to oppose them marching (although their transit did get its windows bricked on the day). The day of the march consisted mostly of running around chasing shadows and rumours, not an untypical day out where anti-fascist activity was concerned… Anti-fascists went into the nearby Orange Tree pub on Havil Road, which was a bit of a mistake, as the reception was not too friendly, seemingly because there were some black people in the anti-fascist group. Ho hum.

A Picket was held outside Southwark Town Hall during the election count on July 25th. Police heavily protected the nazis at the count, and Steve Tyler barely put in an appearance, so we didn’t get near them, but the day did end in a fight – farcically, this barney was between two of the anti-fascist picketers, as some were local squatters, while another was one Steve Willis, the housing officer from Peckham’s Friary Estate, whose favourite hobby at the time was going round kicking in squatters’ doors and evicting them illegally.

Meanwhile the BNP’s Tyler got 132 votes, which was quite a high vote for a lunatic fringe candidate in a council by-election. This turnout, on top of their largely unopposed march and foray into an area not generally thought of as BNP material, reflected something of a minor coup for the fash.

Shortly afterwards, some dodgy white residents on the Elmington estate, who were strongly suspected of being among those who backed the BNP, burgled a couple of squatters who were heavily involved in the AFA activity: the squatters decided the wisest course to move on…

After all this estate housing officer Rachel Webb did try to evict some of the people who’d signed the BNP list; which was something that divided the anti-fascists, an Official state-backed anti-fascism seemed to us to be playing into the hands of the BNP’s ‘oppressed white people’ narrative’. It seemed to us that local dissatisfaction with the Labour Council’s neglect of the estate had partly helped open the door to the BNP; some of us felt anti-fascism was not enough really, it had to be linked to opposing the council’s running down of the area.

The BNP presence was not however massively sustained and built on, as they never stood for election again.

What we should have done?

There was some talk afterwards about setting up an anti-fascist group local to the area, one that specifically also would take on the problems that were making some people susceptible to supporting the BNP, including crap housing, poverty etc, but one that would also challenge racist and scapegoat solutions aimed at dividing people on the basis of colour, or splitting tenants from squatters. Our thought was that the deprivation and disrepair that the Elmington was experiencing were in part causing some to fall into the Nazis arms, and especially to blame squatters, and in some cases black residents, for the poverty and misery of life there…

Allying with Labour and especially Labour councillors, in the struggle against the BNP during the election, we thought, may have been something of a mistake, given the Labour council’s image as being at least partly to blame for the state of the housing… We became identified with the people residents directly dealt with, complained to, and in the end blamed. Not a good tactic.

However, these discussions came to nothing, as discussions often do, partly because the individuals active in our group, who lived on the estate, mostly squatting, were burgled shortly after, by neighbours who we think had links to the BNP, and didn’t feel safe staying there any longer, partly because there were other political struggles going on (eg the anti-poll tax movement was kind of winding down but non-payers and rioters were still being targetted and sent to prison…)… also other anti-fascist things were kicking off, with a surge in racist attacks and resistance in South East London, notably Thamesmead, but also in Bermondsey (see below). Most if us became active in this also.

In retrospect, our analysis may have been partly correct, in that a voice that linked support opposition to organised racists with opposition to the council could have been useful; however, us being largely transient outsiders, it would very likely have not got off the ground – it also underestimates the simple racism of the core of the BNP support, and – to be brutally frank – the distrust of squatters by some long-time residents, who saw us at best as fly-by-nights who would piss of elsewhere soon, and at worst as anti-social junkies. Both of these judgments were not in any way wholly true or wholly false – squatters, like tenants, were mixed bag and some were twats who gave not a fuck for their neighbours, just as some tried to put down roots, or were even local themselves.

There was an abortive attempt to put our tentative plan into effect on a wider scale, which we were involved in, later that year, as a group called Southwark Community Action was founded, to try and gather something of the anti-poll tax spirit as well as address racism and other issues… But it opened itself up to too many diverse views too quickly, became a talking shop, and foundered in irrelevance within months.

Problems within AFA

Some of us also had problems with some Anti Fascist Action practices, with how it was organised. All of us, I think, had no problem with the AFA core programme – that you had to oppose fascism physically on the streets, as well as ideologically in working class communities. That seemed to us to make sense. The problem was that in practice anti-fascism kind of became all consuming ; to be involved in AFA couldn’t be part time; to the exclusion of other struggles. At that point you could easily go to four office AFA Meetings a fortnight – all London AFA meetings, South London AFA meetings, AFA stewards group meetings, South London and southeast London AFA liaison meetings regarding the particular fascist problem in Bermondsey at that time…

There was quite a lot of pressure, I would say to be part of all those things, and people who were also involved in a variety of other struggles and saw anti fascism as only a part of their activities, did tend to be shut out of decision making, or be considered lightweights.

AFA was obviously dominated by a culture, a kind of left hooligan culture if you like, which was useful when you’re actually trying to fight fascists physically…! In practice though it also meant AFA was overwhelmingly a club for men, largely white. Not to say there weren’t women involved, or black people, and AFA did make a point of working with some black groups against fascism. But voices of women and any black members were often isolated within AFA.

AFA’s structure was increasingly authoritarian and centralised. from the beginnings of AFA in 1985 It had shrunk down from being an alliance of a wider range of political strands, with some groups and individuals who had been involved early on, falling away or being kicked out. By the early 90s it was dominated in practice mainly by members of three groups, which is red action, the anarcho-sydicalist Direct Action movement, and  Trotskyist group workers power. Many of those who turned out for AFA mobilisations or did anti-fascist work along AFA lines were not aligned with these organisations however; and a number of non-aligned AFA activists came to feel too much power was held by them – the groups had political delegates to the AFA London Organising Committee for instance, beside delegates from devolved local groups – the LOC basically made or passed down decisions for local groups to implement. A Stewards Committee was also set up, which had final word on aspects of AFA work, notably security and physical confrontations, again giving power to the 3 dominant groups.

Red Action in particular opposed attempts to overturn the power imbalances and tight control by a small group. Independent AFA activists who complained about the domination of the 3 groups were effectively told to join one or another of them, shouted down and smeared.

These were political, organisational problems, Which played out in the communication problems that we found with regards to the Elmington experience – not hearing about information on the ground, information being kept tight to some people’s chests. Obviously, some of that information came from confidential sources; possibly even infiltrators in fascist ranks. So closedmouthness sometimes make some kind of sense. But some of the some of the way information was disseminated to people , on a hierarchical basis, did leave some of us feeling out of the loop, and when we were in our area feeling like info had been kept from us it left us confused and pissed off.

Another factor at work was that in London, AFA had a concentration on the East End, Brick Lane and certain parts of Bethnal Green in particular, which they saw as the frontline of anti-fascism. And I think they considered Camberwell to be not a crucial battleground, or somewhere where the fash weren’t as much of a threat. I don’t know if that played into some leading AFA people’s calculations as to how much effort to put into the struggle on the Elmington. Some of us not in the centre of AFA felt that a decision had been taken not to spend too much in terms of time and resources on the Elmington campaign. For us, while anti-fascism was something we had been involved in already, this was close to home and represented an invasion of sorts… and linked in to other activities we were also involved in – squatting, housing struggles against local councils…

Although it did not play out at all in the brief Elmington tussle, there were many problems between Red Action and anarchists, non-aligned anti-fascists, in London and elsewhere. For those involved in AFA on a daily level, there was lots of friction. Red Action did tend to swagger around try to intimidate people who were supposed to be comrades; their view was effectively that they did all the work – untrue – and that anyone who opposed the centralised and authoritarian structures and suggested a more democratic or decentralised structure was out to wreck AFA, were liberals and splitters etc. Although in AFA their closest allies were anarchists (mainly DAM members) the Reds were also constantly denigrating anarchism, particularly in their paper…

These issues caused tensions and splits in North London AFA a couple of years later, with most of the non Red Action members leaving AFA completely to form an independent group.

Despite the AFA programme of opposition to fascism being both physical and ideological, the physical activity was almost inevitably given higher priority. Anyone who talked about doing more ideological work, more campaigning work, was likely to be accused by Red Action of basically just wanting to be in the SWP. And despite there being no justification for those smears, and when and it was supposed to be the programme of the organisation, that the ideological opposition was supposed to be another – vital – arm of defeating fascism, especially within the white working class communities, which are susceptible to fascist influence, the physical approach was generally in effect dominant. The critics from within were in almost all cases NOT arguing for abandoning the physical confrontation plank – instead that force alone in the streets was not enough.

Ironically Red Action later came to the same conclusion themselves, later on setting up the independent working class Association. They had come to the same conclusion we had in Camberwell – that to oppose fascism not physically and ideologically you had to be there addressing the economic and social issues that fascists tried to exploit and helping to turn that discontent into collective action instead of racism and division. The IWCA made a more effective job of this than we Camberwell anti-fascists ever did, though there were lots of problems with their process too.

The IWCA had its own success in some areas on London and beyond for a while, though it fell victim to RA’s basically Leninist tendencies admitting all sorts of Stalinist losers; the IWCA also had some similar problems to AFA with RA bullying, leading to at least one London branch leaving to form an independent group.

Part of the problem arose from AFA’s origins and founding basis – the idea that the white working class, in some areas susceptible to fascist influence due to disillusionment with social conditions, alienation from Labour & the left, could be won away from fash ideas by showing that the fash were bearable on the street and not as hard as they claimed. This was meant to go in hand with an ideological thrust – arguing the anti-working class nature of fascism in those communities. All well and good, but it laid itself open in reality to downplaying the extent of racism that permeates many working class people’s thinking, and to an emphasis on being harder than the nazis. In AFA’s earlier days (1985-89) there had even been a kind of anti-fascist patriotism of sorts, attempting to portray the fash as essentially anti-British, trying to lay a wreath at the cenotaph for Remembrance Day (a fave event for National Front organising)… AFA was always much wider than this, and arguments were always going on around this.

My parachute didn’t open

The other problem AFA had was the sense of ‘parachuting’ – that they cane in as a mob from outside and sorted the fash out then left. Although only half true, there was enough truth in this to make it worth discussing. Security dictated a certain approach; but realistically this kind of intervention is no substitute for community organisation on the ground. Sometimes you can’t wait for that to develop organically, true. The flipside was that when you’d left the area there was often retribution, and this was usually targeting of black people, racial violence, the usual schtick. This was another hotly debated tactical question among anti-fascists, and within AFA there was a consciousness of the problem.

The Elmington election was in some ways an opening salvo in what was to prove a few years of wider anti fascist struggle, as the BNP  rose while the old National Front declined, and proved itself more adept at both physical violence and electioneering. Two years after the Elmington the BNP won its first elected councillor, in the Isle of Dogs – a feat the NF had never achieved even in the 1970s. Racist attacks were beginning to spike, especially in Southeast London, notably around Welling, Thamesmead and Eltham. The presence of the BNP’s bookshop/HQ in Welling was seen as at the very least cashing in on the wide racist atmosphere in parts of this area, and quite possibly whipping it up. A long drawn out struggle against fascist presence, racism and the bookshop’s existence ensued.

Bermondsey Blues

Another event in the summer of 1991 that South London AFA we’re involved in reinforced a sense that parachute anti-racism was not in any way the answer – in fact could be actively counter-productive.

Both the National Front and BNP we’re heavily active in Bermondsey at this time. The Front had been active there for several years. Both sold their newspapers in the local market at the ‘Blue’ in Southwark Park Road.

As in Thamesmead & Welling, the fascists swam in a sea of wider racism and encouraged it by their activity; racist attacks were on the increase, especially around the Silwood estate…To some extent Southwark Council’s longstanding ‘sons and daughters’ policy, originally designed to house council tenants near other members of their families, had helped increase racial division in the borough, as white council tenants had been housed in Bermondsey and black people further south, generally in Peckham or Camberwell. A sense of ghettoisation had developed; not entirely helped by a real insularity and clannishness many Bermondsey locals tended to evolve anyway. Like on the Isle of Dogs, the hereditary dock work, added to a feeling of long-rootedness and spiced with a (usually genuine) grievance against official neglect of the area, helped forge a certain inward looking  culture, with a suspicion of outsiders which was not always racist but tended to fall that way often enough.

In recent years a gradual move towards housing more black people in Bermondsey had been met with hostility and a growing racist backlash from some white residents.

There were people on the ground attempting to counter this from the grassroots.

AFA (the South London and SE London branches) did make some attempts to liaise with people locally. But the situation was becoming seriously aggravated.

In the meanwhile a largely opportunistic march was called for Saturday 24th August 1991, by the ‘National Black Caucus’ was organised in protest at the racist attacks. This group had few links on the ground, and made little attempt to do any local liaison or co-ordinate with those who had a first-hand grasp of the lie of the land and had been trying to organise solid anti-racist work.

The march from the start was announced as a march on ‘racist Bermondsey’; from outside, with little consultation of what people living there were doing, and in practice was staged as a march into and out of an area, disconnected, with no thought of what effect it might have… It played nicely into the hands of the organised racists in Bermondsey, who were able to go round and play on the idea of outsiders coming in to tell them how racist they were… [we accept that part of the problem was that many were racist]…

As an organisation AFA we’re suspicious of the politics of the match organisers; we were suspicious of the tactic of marching in like a hostile force generally; but given that we were involved in fighting fascism and racism in South London we decided to attend.

This was a mistake…

The march was a disaster. The organisers has promised 150 professional stewards to ensure the safety of demonstrators – this didn’t materialise. Given the level of racist abuse in Bermondsey this was totally irresponsible, and in fact relied either on police protection (a laugh, considering both the racist sympathies of many cops then – and now – and the blustery anti-police rhetoric of the organisers). The fascists had leafletted the area and struck a note popular with locals , that do-gooding leftie poshos we’re coming to tell them how to live. Local anti-racists we knew said they were avoiding the demo – partly from disgust at the bad planning of the Black Caucus and partly as they had to live there… As a result the demo walked down Rotherhithe New Road through the Silwood Estate, which was festooned with union jacks and George crosses, 100s of locals residents mobilised against us by racists. Some folk decided to burn a Union Jack on the March at this point, not something we have out against as a rule, but definitely a red rag to the huge crowd hanging off every balcony. Then we turned left into Southwark Park, where, thanks to a myopic miscalculation by the organisers, we got faced with an additional fun complication – 300-500 or so Millwall fans, as Millwall were playing at home that day, and also having a large dodgy hooligan firm and friends who had a decidedly racist element… Again the fash had only to spread the word, where the march organisers had not enough local nouse to think to check the fixture list… (which AFA at least with its left hooligan base would have done first of all!) The Park was also a terrible point to end the demo, a trap basically.

We shat ourselves. Really. The numbers against us were large and hard and the majority on the march were not seasoned street-fighters. It looked very much like we were going to get a kicking. I remember a few of us searching under the trees for hefty fallen branches to use as weapons… An SWP member and a local black woman walking in the park were viciously attacked.

Anyway, it didn’t come to a mass beating. The police escorted us out of the park and the area. A humiliating retreat, in some ways worse than a battering. We marched back to Peckham to the jeers of the odd fash on the sidelines, with a long running battle behind us as nazis and friends tried to get at us and chucked bottles… When we got back to the Peckham park we had marched off from, and a mini rally, the organisers were trumpeting ‘We marched on racist Bermondsey’ like it was a victory, rather than ending in a huge encouragement of racist politics.

The BNP were in their element. They held their own rally in Southwark Park, with Steve Tyler (the BNP candidate in Camberwell) haranguing the crowd: “All blacks are muggers, all blacks have got AIDS, we want them out of our country, we want white power…” The crowds went off to smash up some shops and attack black drivers.

We heard that the level of racist attacks around the area that night and in subsequent days went up sharply – no shit, sherlock. The march had actually encouraged that: parachuting in and then running out, leaving the people living there to face the consequences.

AFA folk seemed to be among the few thinking this was a defeat and a disaster, a PR victory for the Nazis in Bermondsey, we regretted feeling like we had to go on the march. In the pub afterwards we had our heads in our hands – given AFA’s policy of beating fascists off the streets, but also winning working class white people away from fascism and racism, we knew this was a major reverse, on both counts.

We knew it and the fash knew it. A few weeks later we were blockading a large BNP papersale/mobilisation in Brick Lane and a chant of ours – ‘Cable St, Cable Street!’ was met with a riposte of ‘Bermondsey, Bermondsey’. They rightly saw that day as a feather in their cap… It galvanised them to pour a lot of effort into the Bermondsey area. Silwood Estate already had a high rate of racist attacks; this spiralled upwards in the early-mid 1990s following the march; the stood a candidate here in May 1994 local elections. The fash still see this area as having potential, there were NF marches once a year or so into the 2000s.

The sense of confidence that this undeniable propaganda coup gave the nazis was only really reversed at the Battle of Waterloo in September 1992, where anti-fascists gave boneheads gathering for a Blood & Honour gig a total pasting…

Since 1991 the Elmington estate, and Bermondsey too, have changed beyond what we then would have said was possible. Development, the destruction of many social housing blocks and their replacement by private housing has changed the Elmington immensely; the rebuilding of dockland derelict industrial sites as gentrified swathes of blandness, have transformed both areas… Gentrification is a more direct threat to many people on the ground in London than fascist boots.

The breaking up of older more established working class communities in areas like Bermondsey has reduced the cohesiveness of the white racist narrative in some ways – so hurray for gentrification?! Er… no. But while some white Bermondseyites whinged ‘foreigners are getting all the council houses’ they failed to notice that the middle class and corporate land grabbers had nicked the houses.

There’s no telling how many of the more affluent ‘incomers’ occupying some of the riverside nicenesses along Bermondsey’s riverfront are attracted to the new shiny alt-right currents, as in contrast to the skinheaded street fights of old much racist and rightwing agitation now goes on online.

Every day I learn lesson… less?

As we write, racism and support for far right groups are rising again. So are there any lessons to be drawn from the glimpses of fascism and anti-fascist response we have briefly detailed here?

It’s not easy to translate lessons across time and space. The UK’s organised fascism has changed and evolved; organising resistance has changed correspondingly over the decades. the rise of a more ‘respectable’ far right and alt-right presence and the populist harnessing of racism into Brexit etc poses questions about tactics and strategy. Still, we think there are some ideas and thoughts that come out of our struggle on the Elmington, South London more widely, and of the experience of seeing AFA and other anti-fascist movements in action, in the early 90s, which may be useful in considering how to oppose the current rise of the far right. These are thoughts, incoherent if anything, not intended to be a lecture or a program, but a stumbling towards something.

Firstly anti-fascism works best when it takes the form of an organic, community-based resistance; when it emerges from communities, rather than being a separate ‘movement’. Both AFA (at its least effective) and the National Black Caucus march on Bermondsey laid themselves open to being seen as outsiders, imposing themselves on a situation from outside. (NB: AFA at its best was much more useful and successful than this).

Successful anti-fascism is at its best when it is based in a wide, diverse spread of people – look at all the wildly different contingents, local, national, from the left, counter-culture and feminist movements and beyond, who turned up to oppose the National Front march through Lewisham in 1977. But at its best, resistance to fascism comes most effectively from communities targeted themselves by fascism – Jewish communities of the East End of London in the 1930s, Asian communities who built the Asian Youth Movement and many other self-defence groups in the 1970s, from Bradford to Birmingham and many other parts of the country, to defend their communities against racist attacks. It’s not to say that people can’t stand in solidarity with one another – but these initiatives created militant anti racism, which to some extent stands in contrast to other strands of anti-fascism, coming from left scenes, sometimes isolated and self-defining as a separate movement. AFA emerged from committed activists and no-one doubts the organisation’s record. But even AFA tended to think of itself as ‘THE militant anti-fascism’ in a way that often blinkered people to other ways of organising. Other anti-racist groups who coalesced around opposition to fascism, meanwhile, laid themselves open to the charge of bottling the fight and diverting attention and support from grassroots self-organisation: at times, you would have to say, this was deliberate, or at least an inevitable result of their hierarchical and centralised ways of thinking, of considering people not involved in their brand of politicking as not capable of collective action on their own behalf.

At its most problematic, AFA did have an element of separation, of going into an area to ‘do the business’ and then coming out again. It’s not it’s not to say that AFA’s efforts in themselves didn’t have many positive aspects, inspiring others, denting fashion efforts and preventing events from taking place: AFA did have impact.

Secondly, anti-fascism has to be linked and intrinsically linked to at the very least a sense that fascism is based in the material oppressions of daily life; the material social and economic conditions that allow fascism to flourish. Beyond that even, anti-fascism, I would say, has to have a specifically anti-capitalist ethos. Deprivation, alienation, despair, the feelings of total abandonment that attracts some working class people to fascism, the listening to loud voices offering what seems like a solution, people to blame like foreigners, Trade Unions, migrants, refugees, women, etc, have tobe understood and argued against. The real issues that make people susceptible to fascist influence have to be addressed.

It’s not enough to challenge fascism in isolation; it has to be an explicitly grassroots socially conscious anti fascism. The kind of liberal, ‘fascism is bad, defend democracy, vote anyone but BNP’ toss commentators from the Guardian to the Daily Mail come out with masks the reality – fascism and democracy are forms that capitalism takes, cloaks worn over the expropriating skeleton. Capital will happily wear the democratic form when it can, but will turn to the fascist costume, as needed; depending on how necessary it sees authoritarian social organisation to be. Usually, historically, in response, usually, in response to an upsurge of working class struggles and pressure for social change from below. The main reason why fascism flourishes and becomes powerful and ‘captures’ state power has, in the past, been because it achieves backing by the capitalist class, or certain elements of the capitalist class, who see it as a bulwark against the threat of revolution.

In order to resist fascism, you have to that you have to be aware of that. Patriotic liberal anti-fascism will always denounce militant class based anti-fascism, the violence necessary to keep fascism from growing, because at heart it recognises a dynamic it won’t even admit to itself – that anti-capitalist anti-fascism is also the enemy of patriotism and liberalism.

If liberals want to fight fascism let them do it in the ranks of the bourgeoisie, where fascism originates and has many of its leaders, where the profit of fascism is reaped.

Points three and four are connected, and on the face of it, not exactly contradictory, but two connected poles  which an effective and truly anti-racist movement has to both steer between and draw on…

The third factor to bear in mind is that anti-fascism and anti-racism and any movements it emerges from has to be aware of, have a consciousness of, this country’s history, the history of the British Empire, of the history of colonialism and genocide, why this country became so wealthy, the exploitation of developing countries, the plundering of resources across the world, institutionalised racism… the complex reasons why communities migrated here. Anti-fascism has to have that as a central part of its perception. It’s no good saying white working class communities are where we need to address fascism, but trying to pretend that racism doesn’t exist, or without honestly examining and critiquing the reasons why white working class people identify with an imperial past, develop or transmit racism and xenophobia, feel that they are racially or nationally superior to other people from across the planet… All those ideas and social relations have to be tackled. Material conditions alone don’t lead people into sympathy and support for fascism – racism, white supremacism, nostalgia for lost white pasts (whether they existed or not) – all that does exist in many communities, has been fostered for decades – in the interests of preventing clear thinking working class internationalism. Lexity British jobs for British Workers bollocks is just lefty-Trade Union slang for racism.

Anti-fascism is both anti capitalist and internationalist. And to be internationalist, you have to have a conception of why migration happens. Why people have come here. What are people coming from, running from, running towards, from other parts of the world?

Point four goes hand in hand with point three, its bi-polar other half: you have to also have an open mind, and approach people, work with people on many levels. It’s that the addressing the material conditions, in that sense means often working with people that you wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything politically. Crucial to countering the attraction of fascism is being part of those struggles, on an organic level, on a day to day level, against the grinding reality of poverty and despair. And vital to that is not simply denouncing people immediately for holding some ideas you might consider reactionary and breaking off with them, but being able to address them, debating and discussing, where you do share some common interests or ideas with them.

Reactionary ideas, prejudices, bigotry exist: racism, misogyny, homophobia and all the other shit. But to overcome that cannot only be a matter of bashing people. Organised fascism has to be fought – yes, and sometimes physically. Decisions have to be made about who you consider on your side and who is on the other. And who do you ‘No Platform’ and who do you debate… But alongside that necessity, there also has to be the ability to enter into discussions with people whose ideas you on some level disagree with. Folding your arms and going, I’m not having anything to do with them because you’re this and you’re that blah, blah, blah, phobic – in the end, you can end up walling yourself off from a lot of people, potential allies. This kind of happens too much, in many ways, not only where anti-fascism is concerned – the ability to build a sense of solidarity with people who don’t think exactly like yourself is limited, and it can lead people into retreating into a kind of woke gated communities. I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of recognising the power structures that exist in the world, and addressing them. But shutting yourself off from those discussions and debates, to set yourself apart working with people who you agree with on many things but disagree with on some levels is, I think, generally counterproductive. And in the context of rising racist and right wing movements could be dividing our forces in the face of dangerous enemies.

Finally, and bearing the previous point in mind, I think anti-fascism does to be specifically anti hierarchical, organised at a grassroots level, decentralised. There has to be a healthy suspicion of leftist political organisations; you have to dissect the practice of groups like Red Action, to critique the way that the SWP uses political fronts like the Anti-Nazi League or Stand Up to Racism in order to funnel people and resources into their own orbit; uses people’s struggles and for its for their own interests.
Anti-fascism has to be free from the from the manipulations of the left, and also the assumptions of the left that from some politically advanced position they know better and can waltz in and save the day… In the fight against the BNP on the Elmington the multiplying swarm of left factions all offering a slightly different position and arguing that in place of putting aside differences was confusing, depressing – and is repeated in almost every arena constantly. There has to be a recognition that wafer thin theoretical point-scoring cannot come at the expense of actually getting anything achieved.

Some of these points may seem slightly contradictory, and its true they are thoughts that clash and sit together awkwardly, maybe. Some times and places and actions demand a different balance of tactics, influences and approaches. Maybe we in AFA, acting on the Elmington, and the organisers of he disastrous march to Bermondsey, were doing the only thing we could have done at that time; its certainly taken me nearly 30 years to set the thoughts above in any kind of order and make time to write it down (although it represents the sum of many conversations between various people). Sometimes its only years later you realise what the right thing to do is. But you have to keep thinking, as well as acting.

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In a Postscript to the thoughts on anti-fascism today: There are factions of ‘antifa’ willing to identify as fascists, or at least rightists deserving physical opposition, anyone who does not sign up to specific positions on other issues. This has emerged notably in the current ‘debate’ on transphobia and the fierce argument between gender-critical feminists (labelled ‘TERFs by some) and an element of the trans rights movement and some allies. No platforming – physically preventing known fascists from speaking, debating, as well as gathering or meeting, a central plank of anti-fascism, is being extended to women who attempt to meet to discuss how the push to recognise ‘self-identification’ as the only necessary or acceptable definition of whether someone is the ‘gender’ they say they are. ‘TERFS’ are derided as nazis, bigots for whom the same treatment is needed. This process involves mainly targeting of feminists, often women who have been in the social movements we have built for many years, and has included blockading meetings, threats both online and in person, ostracism, exclusion. Anyone who suggests that there may be a discussion to be had as to how women’s rights and trans rights intersect and may in some cases collide, gets attacked – but its women who get the runt of the abuse. Some anti-fascist groups, taking a lead from the USA, where this process is several years further along, are openly lumping ‘terfs’ – ie feminists who disagree with some aspects of some transgender ideas – in with fascists. I think this is a mistake.

Many of us draw lines, if only in our heads – these people are on my side, these people are on the other side. The line changes over time for many of us. And depending on where you come from and where you place your politics, your sense of self, that line is going to be drawn in a different place. But if you want to come together to form social movements, either to oppose processes taking place or to fight for a positive change, those lines have to be re-thought. If I’m honest there are elements of the ideas of some gender critical feminists and of pro-trans rights activists that I fully agree with and some in both camps I find repulsive and nasty… but overwhelmingly I would view these movements as BOTH being part of a wider culture I would support. Where rights and interests meet and clash and mix within what I see as social movements with wider common goals is, I suggest, a point for discussion and debate, questioning and dialectic – not ostracism and no platforming.

In some ways this is a symptom of a wider syndrome, paralysingly epidemic at the moment – a closing down, a bunkering, into ideological fiefdoms, from which we can all take potshots at each other for not being in our corner on everything. Meanwhile the environment goes to shit, the exploiting classes gleefully suck more of our blood and rightwing movements are on the rise. People drawing lines in the sand might want to consider where the line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ really lies.