Rent Strike Now? Inspiration from the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike

This blog normally concentrates on highlighting and discussing historical events in London. Only because we live here and this is where we mostly write about…

We’ve made an exception for this post, as we’re in exceptional times. But also times that illustrate starkly that the conditions we are currently facing are, in fact, concentrated secretions of the same old same old…


There’s lots to be written about social changes that we are – voluntarily, or less voluntarily – undergoing as a result of the rapid spread and catastrophic impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Mass deaths… horrific isolation for many… the lack of adequate protection for healthworkers, for people who live or work in care homes; for those who aren’t being paid if they don’t work, so have to carry on putting themselves and other at risk… the unequal distribution of deaths depending on your social class, ethnic background… underlying it all the unviability of a worldwide social system based on social division and economic exploitation, a society so precarious in its brutal rapaciousness that it totters when faced with a pandemic of these proportions. The horror of personal loss and fear for yourself and others; the devastation anger and pain…

People are writing that elsewhere… We might return to some of these aspects another time. Our approach is generally historical; we try where we can to link current events with struggles and movements of the past, to see what parallels and differences we can illustrate, to inspire, yes, inform, yes, but also just to throw up points for discussion which we think might be useful. (Others may disagree…)

The many economic measures hurriedly thrown up by the various nation states to support people unable to work while lockdowns and social distancing restrict our movement are not exactly unprecedented, if slightly unexpected when coming from a neo-liberal regime like the UK’s… But altruism is not suddenly the flavour of the month. After failing to convince even their own supporters that a eugenically-minded ‘herd immunity’ policy was scientifically unfeasible (as well as possibly dooming a future tory majority?) the massive ‘support’ program has been brought in to try to limit the inevitable anger and revolt that forcing people into lockdown poverty would provoke.

One way or another we’ll be paying for this for decades, and if experience is anything to go by, some of us will pay more than others; the classes with the most resources will be asked to pay less proportionally, and those who create the wealth, or can’t work, or have little or nothing, will again be squeezed as much as they will take. And more. Millions who cannot pay their way already can expect more holes in their pockets.

While millions cannot work, many of who aren’t getting paid, the bills keep coming in… Landlords are, unsurprisingly, not all cancelling rents, and the government is not even considering legislating to force them to – obviously, as the government is there to represent the interests of the propertied classes, and rent is one of the underlying pillars that keep propertied classes – well, propertied.

The new Government package lays down that landlords in England and Wales have to give three months’ notice before starting eviction proceedings. It’s worth noting though that this change won’t affect eviction proceedings already under way. Scotland’s emergency coronavirus legislation will also prevent private and social tenants being evicted for up to six months, by increasing the amount of notice the landlord needs to give before they can take steps to take over the property. In Northern Ireland no decision has yet been made (possibly the DUP will re-introduce the ducking-stool for tenants in arrears ?)

Beyond these three or six-month points, you’ll be expected to “work with your landlord to establish an affordable repayment plan which takes your circumstances into account”. Which for many tenants means – you might as well start packing.

The Government has also said that existing rules for social landlords dealing with rent arrears will be extended to also include private landlords. This is to “support engagement” between landlords and tenants and help them solve disputes. It will ask landlords to be compassionate and allow tenants to stay in their homes wherever possible – while associations representing local government and housing associations have already said that no social renter should be evicted due to coronavirus. However – rent still has to be paid. If not now – later. Not getting paid now ‘cause you’re stuck at home? You MIGHT not have to any rent while the lockdown is over – but your arrears may well build up and your landlord will certainly come knocking down the line…

While private landlords are also now eligible for a three-month buy-to-let mortgage payment holiday if their tenants are ‘experiencing financial difficulties’ – no accompanying legislation lets tenants off paying the rent. There is no legal obligation for a landlord claiming a mortgage holiday to pass this on to their tenants. Relying on the moral sense of landlords to do so – like Captain Smith calling on the iceberg not to hole the Titanic below the waterline (except a government of landlords and property magnates knows for sure what non-regulation means… the monkey never pokes the organ grinders…)

None of this exactly SURPRISING. If you’ve been paying attention.

Across the world, people are starting to respond to this, with some rent strikes having already started, and many other folk are starting to discuss the idea. There are proposals for a mass collective rent strike to begin on May 1st, International Workers’ Day… That’s this week folks!
Read/download a guide to rent striking during the Covid-19 Crisis

Rent strikes historically have had some success, at some times, in some situations. Like most tactics for forcing concessions from the properties, working collectively tends to work better than fighting alone. Refusing to pay rent now might not result in immediate eviction in these extraordinary circumstances, but might also get individuals into hot water when ‘normal conditions’ are restored. For some people it won’t be a question of choice – no money coming in means no moolah for the landlord.
But collective action might produce a different result. As with any struggle, what people want and expect to get out of it is a good start. Abolition of rents until the end of the virus crisis? All sorts of possibilities beyond this exist, though it would seem a good start.

Whether it has a chance of succeeding, across the board or even in some places, depends on developed  – or the development of – levels of social solidarity and preparedness to act together, stand by each other and – without mincing words – break the law as it stands. This type of cohesiveness varies wildly from country to country and from city to town to neighbourhood in the UK. This country in particular (though not uniquely) has seen four and a half decades through which social solidarity has withered and been weakened; much of this process has been more or less deliberately engineered to push society towards certain economic conditions and to undermine the strength of working class communities and their ability or willingness to organise collectively. Hand in hand with the destruction of industries where workers’ autonomy an§d self-organisation was strong has gone the full-scale selling of the dream of home ownership and the selling off of social housing. Both workers’ organisation on their own behalf and widespread access to social housing had resulted from decades of struggle against the crap housing and bad conditions/low pay/exploitation and lack of control at work. Both high unionisation/autonomy at work and council housing were partial concessions won in the face of fierce resistance by the ruling elites, to prevent the whole of their wealth an control being taken away; as soon as conditions allowed, these concessions were reversed. To the point where social housing and control over your labour are a pipe dream for most of us.

Working class solidarity evolved over centuries was always partial (and subject to chasms of experience based on race, sex, and any number of prejudices), but has been decimated in many communities since the 1970s. Whether the solidarity being developed now through mutual aid groups being set up to support each other through the lockdown can be part of a rebuilding is an open question we can all supply the answer to; will some of them survive the ‘end’ of the crisis (assuming there is an ‘end’) ? Could they be the basis for ongoing mutual aid in our daily lives ?

Simply in terms of rent and rent strikes, there are interesting lessons to be learnt from previous struggles. We’ve decided to post up an account of the rent strikes that took places in Glasgow during World War 1, partly because the practical methods of organising are inspiring and useful, though may not be immediately applicable to many in our atomised and isolated semis; this is only a contribution. But technology available to us now enables connections the residents of 1915 Glasgow closes never dreamed of. On the flipside, the limitations of adhering to social distancing rules can make our old expressions of solidarity, like traditional demonstrations, etc, difficult. But there’s lots of creativity, out there… ways around restrictions…

Another reason to flag up Glasgow 1915 is the parallels, in terms of the location of the struggle in times of international crisis, and the ideology of national unity, sacrifice for the greater good that people of the time would have recognised echoes of in the calls for us all to do our bit, stay at home, protect the NHS etc. Leaving aside the toxic divisions between the tories over whether to push for global capitalism or national capitalism, its easy to see that patriotism is a sham designed to make us imagine We Are in It Together –
when we’re in the Shit and our rulers think they’re It…

During World War 1 millions fell for the national unity sell, and many died for that. Small minorities spoke up and pointed out that the working class of all countries have everything in common and we have nothing in common with our bosses. However – there were those who supported the war effort AND those who opposed it who worked to resist exploitation and crap pay and conditions, expand workers’ autonomy, and to seize as much in terms of concessions out of the state and the owners as they could. Not without massive fractures and contradictions, true. Normal economic and social relations were pushed aside to a limited extent during the war (and the second one…) and this not only opened up opportunities for change, but the pressure of war, death, fear, horror made many sit up and think – isn’t these another way? A different way of being not based on profit and slog but people and love?

The ideology of the Glasgow Rent Strike should be examined critically therefore, as much as their methods and tactics admired; it is also worth seeing it as part of an evolution of resistance to the war and the development of self-organisation and revolutionary potential, as well as a parallel stage in the creation of the social housing of the following century and other welfare developments.

There are some other links to other historical rent strikes and more, at the end… only a beginning towards places to read up.


‘We Are Not Removing’

The Glasgow Rent Strikes During World War 1

In 1915 one of the largest rent strikes in urban history broke out in parts of Glasgow, in response to steep rent rises imposed by private landlords. Within months, after more than 20,000 joined the refusal to pay rent, organising a grassroots movement that physically resisted evictions and contested them in the courts, the upheaval forced the British government into passing emergency legislation to control rent levels.

Miserable Dwellings

From the late nineteenth century, Glasgow’s shipbuilding and naval engineering industries were booming, partly sparked by the demands of imperial expansion, and then by the growing expectation of a war amongst the great powers in Europe.

The growing demand for workers to man these industries led to a huge rise in the population. But housing did not keep pace with this increase. Much of Glasgow’s housing stock was severely overcrowded and in a terrible state; 70 per cent of the population lived in over- crowded one or two room flats, usually in tenement blocks. On top of this some 11 percent of accommodation was consistently empty, partly due to blatant speculation by landlords. The increase in demand worsened this situation, pushing rents up.

“The working people of Glasgow live in great many-storied barrack dwellings, in which are one roomed ‘houses’, two-roomed ‘houses’ three- roomed ‘houses and so on. In these ‘houses’ one finds a bed built into the wall of each room. In the kitchen, the bed is open to the view, though curtains are sometimes put up by the tenants. In the parlour, the bed is often hidden behind a wall and entered by what looks like an ordinary cupboard door which is only about a third of the bed’s length in width. The unhealthy stuffiness and darkness of such a bed and the difficulty of making it and keeping it clean may be imagined. The municipal authority do not allow any new cupboard beds to be built.

The overcrowding and the jerry buildings of Glasgow are proverbial, and for the miserable dwellings, very high rents are charged.” (Woman’s Dreadnought)

“In Clydeside there was more discontent about rents then elsewhere because the housing conditions were so much worse. There were streets and streets of one-room apartments, with whole families living in the one room and four or five families sharing one toilet on the stair. The tenement houses were all privately owned and there was a lot of opposition from the landlords to corporation housing. Rents were low because wages were low, but still they were difficult to collect. Rent arrears led to frequent moonlight flittings, which were possible because there was no shortage of dwellings in Glasgow before the war. The builders had even stopped building houses for rent because there was no profit in them.”

(Harry McShane)

Any kind of hovel

“There seemed to exist in the minds of the capitalist and exploiting class the idea that any kind of hovel was good enough for the working class; but an awakening was taking place throughout the country, and a demand was being made for a better standard of housing…” (Helen Crawfurd)

These pressures had led labour movement activists to put housing reform at the centre of their political programmes in Glasgow from the 1880s; immediately before the war socialist groups were pushing forward demands for municipal housing to be developed, and organising tenants associations to oppose rent increases. These demands were also linked to growing opposition to the high rates the working class had to pay for public services such as water, and gas.

But the outbreak of World War One was to sharpen the crisis in Glasgow’s housing and spark a revolt that would have long-term effects on social housing both in the city and nationwide.

Glasgow was a major centre for naval construction and munitions and arms factories. The war created massive demand in these industries, which was fed by a rapid influx of workers and their families into the city. Some 16,000 moved into the city and 4000 into its suburbs in 1914-15; as many as 60,000 new workers had by some accounts come to seek jobs in the city and its environs.

Private landlords seized the opportunity to jack up their profits: rents were increased some 23 percent, most notably in the industrial areas surrounding the shipyards where demand was highest.
With the war creating bad conditions for financial speculation many landlords saw that their ‘unearned income’ wasn’t accruing enough profit and so this had to be realized through rent increases. Rents increased steadily, as well as food prices during this period.

“When the war started all the unoccupied houses were taken up workers drafted into the workshops and shipyards for war production. The landlords immediately started to raise the rents and to apply for eviction orders against the old tenants who couldn’t pay. The hardest hit were the unemployed and the elderly, and the soldiers’ wives; but it even became difficult for the employed workers, despite increased wages, to meet the demands of the house-factors.
The struggle against rent increases and evictions became keenest in Govan and Partick, where most of the skilled workers in engineering and shipbuilding lived. New workers were moving into these areas all the time; everyone was looking for a house near his work because of the long hours of overtime.”
(Harry McShane)

Rent arrears or non-payment was treated very harshly – resulting in eviction, seizure of any possession to pay for the defaulted amounts…

Unrest was already boiling in the factories and shipyards. Glasgow, like many other cities, had seen a swelling of workers’ organising and strikes, as well as growth in socialist, anarchist and syndicalist ideas in the years before 1914; “the largest wave of working class struggle since Chartism.” These movements were to crystalise in the War years, producing the Clyde Workers Committee, the shop stewards movement, and would continue after WW1.

But while these developments were building in the workplace, the rent strike was mainly created and given its strength by the mass participation of women, in the community. Community organising was in fact somewhat disparaged by many of those who built the shop stewards movement, to start with; they saw the ‘point of production’, where workers were directly exploited by the bosses, as the crucial venue for class struggle. The rent strike was to prove that this was too narrow a view of exploitation and of resistance, and where it could be effective. It was also to cross the boundaries between ‘home’ and ‘workplace’, as workers came out on strike to support rent strikers. “What is inferred here is a short-sightedness typical of a political climate that sees industrial combat as a central and separate sector – the exploitative is seen as residing only around the workplace, a more male domain. But capitalist relations are secured and integrated in society at large; at the point of consumption as well as that of production, with both being regulated by government.”

Obviously, the war was used as an excuse to keep wages at a minimum. “so consequently the Rent Strikes can be seen in close relation to the industrial unrest on the Clyde of 1914-15, noted for the rise of militant ‘shop-stewards’ to echo a shop-floor distrust of
moderate union leaders who by 1916 were in collaboration with employers and government ministers. John MacLean, later jailed for opposing the war, saw in this conjunction of industrial and social strikes the first step “towards the political strike”. MacLean was also critical of
the TUC and Clyde Workers Committee for not becoming directly involved with the rent strike itself but remaining within the bounds of the workshop movement, itself later co-opted.”

The Role of the Independent Labour Party

“The housing conditions in Glasgow in 1914 were appalling and the Labour Party before the war initiated a Glasgow Women’s Housing Association. The two strongest sections of this Association were in Govan and Partick (the principal industrial areas of the city). Mrs Mary Barbour, afterwards a councillor and magistrate in Glasgow, was the leading woman in Govan, while Mrs Ferguson was the leader in Partick. Many women participated and were active in this organisation. They included Mrs Laird and Mrs Morrison of the Co-operative movement… The idea behind this movement was to bring women of all political parties into the agitation and drive for better housing in Glasgow.

Agitation against rent in- creases and evictions for non- payment of rent developed all through 1915. A Housing Conference, attended by 450 delegates, opposed rent increases and called for publicly funded and subsidised housing.

Although the Independent Labour Party (ILP) had called the conference, as was central to the propaganda against the landlords, it was a grassroots movement based on self-organised committees, springing up in the first months of the year, that led to the rent strike beginning in 1915.” (Helen Crawfurd)

“Mrs Mary Barbour organised the women in Govan to resist the rent increases. They got together to resist the sheriff officer when he came to evict anybody, and had processions two hundred strong against the house-factors. Mrs Barbour became a Govan legend; even now her name is still used by the Labour Party at election times…

Mary Barbour

Most of the women who led the fight on rents were in the Independent Labour Party. Andrew McBride was in the thick of it with them. Andrew was a little fellow, modest and not much of a speaker, but he was the Secretary of the Glasgow Labour Housing Association from before the war and really built it up… Andrew Hood played a big part. He was editor of the Partick Gazette and used it to publicise and used it to publicise the rent strike – later he became a Labour Lord Provost.” (Harry McShane)

While the Labour Party had a strong organisation on which a movement could be based, the movement had already to some extent autonomously organised, in many areas, into ‘Close Committees’. If Labour had hoped that solutions to the city’s housing problems could be achieved via petitions, representations, legal obstructions and not by Rent Strikes, the mainly working class women who formed the backbone of the strike had their own experience, their own ideas, and from the first found methods of defeating evictions gained strength from the particular geography of their housing.

Joseph Melling in his account of the rent strikes (which does emphasise the part played by the Labour Party) reports that there was a considerable amount of friction between the tenant committees and Labour councilors… As often happens. The party had pre-existing policies and an interest in a more legalistic solution, but also hoped to benefit electorally… the autonomous movement that was developing at the grassroots had its own interests, and undoubtedly it was the physical resistance to evictions that transformed the rent strike into the threat that it became.

Other left groupings were also involved, for instance the Women’s Labour League, also the Marxist British Socialist Party (formerly the SDF), of which John MacLean was a leading light.

We are Not Removing

The movement quickly became huge. From the start, as well as regular procession in the streets demanding the rent rises be withdrawn, and calling for a new housing policy, the campaign was based on refusal to pay the rent, legal defence in the courts and physical prevention of bailiffs eviction of non-payers.

“All day long in the streets, in the halls, in the houses, meetings were held. Kitchen meetings, street meetings, mass meetings, meetings of every kind. No halt, no rest for anyone, all in reparation for the sitting of the court when the test case came on…”

Some Dalmuir rent strikers

By October 1915 there were about 25,000 tenants on rent strike. From Govan and Partick, the strike had spread to Parkhead, Pollokshaws, Pollok, Cowcaddens, Kelvingrove, Ibrox, Parkhead, Govanhill, Shettleston, Richmond Park, Cathcart, Kinning Park, Dalmuir.

St. Rollox, Townhead, Springburn, Maryhill, Fairfield, Blackfriars and Woodside.
“The strikes were all against private landlords, as was always the case in Glasgow, and were helped by the fact that people had to take their rent to the house-factor (the solicitor who managed the rents for the landlord). They could see who was going into the house-factor’s office and knew who was paying and who wasn’t.” (Harry McShane)

“The Glasgow Women’s Housing Association took up this issue, and
in the working class districts, committees were formed, to resist these increases in rents. Cards, oblong in shape, were printed with the words

‘RENT STRIKE, WE ARE NOT REMOVING’ and placed in the windows of the houses where rent increase were demanded. When the increased rents were refused, the property owners immediately took legal action for the eviction of the tenants. The women then organised resistance to these evictions in the following way. In the Govan and Partick districts the working class houses were mainly tenements. One woman with a bell would sit in the close, or passage, watching while the other women living in the tenement went on with their household duties. Whenever the Bailiff ’s officer appeared to evict a tenant, the woman in the passage immediately rang the bell, and the women came from all parts of the building. Some with flour, baking, wet clothes, washing, and other missiles. Usually the Bailiff made off for his life, chased by a mob of angry women. The idea caught on, and it was a common experience to go through the working class districts, and find almost all the windows with these cards in them. In Govan, on one occasion, where a woman had been persuaded by the House Factor to pay the increase, having been told that the other tenants had paid, Mrs Barbour got the men from the shipyards in Govan to come out on the street where the House Factor’s office was, and then went up with the woman and demanded a return of the money. On the factor being shown the thousands of black-faced workers crowding the street he handed it over. This went on for months, with increasing
publicity and propaganda until every hall in the working class districts was packed. Rent Strike meetings gave the opportunity for anti-war and socialist propaganda from the platforms. I soon found myself in the thick of this fight, addressing meetings, always somewhat disgusted that the workers were asking so little when the whole world was theirs by right.”
(Helen Crawfurd)

Tactics adopted by the rent strikers also included: pulling down the bailiffs’ trousers to humiliate them! Without a doubt we should be reviving that… ‘Rough music’ played on pots, pans and other household implements was also used on the demonstrations, to alert people of impending evictions, and imply to intimidate the factors and sheriff ’s officers.

The Woman’s Dreadnought, a socialist-feminist paper run by Sylvia Pankhurst in London, reported on the Rent Strike in October 1915, in a report that illustrates that Glasgow was not alone – strikes has broken out in other cities:

“On Thursday, October 7th, a deputation accompanied by a procession of 15,000 people – mostly women – went in the midst of great enthusiasm to the City Council with banners inscribed:- ‘Our husbands, sons and brothers are fighting the Prussians of Germany. We are fighting the Prussians of Partick! Only alternative – municipal housing.’

Mr William Reid who introduced the deputation, said that rents had been raised since the valuations were confirmed so that the landlords might evade the payment of extra taxes. The increased costs of higher rates, bond interest and repairs was estimated at 5 per cent on a rental of £10, 10 shillings, 0 pence. But the rent of £10 houses has been raised by 15 shillings to 40 shillings.

Landlords were therefore making a profit out of the war at the expense of poor tenants.

The Town Clerk explained that the representations of the deputation could not be discussed until the next meeting of the council unless a majority of two thirds should decide to discuss them now.

Baillies Stewart, Mitchell and Izett urged that the matter must be dealt with at once to prevent the people being turned out, but as their motions failed to receive a two-thirds majority the matter was postponed.

On Tuesday, October 12th, the landlords applied to the Sheriff for nine eviction warrants. Six of the tenants were munitioneers, and as it was said that if munitions workers’ or soldiers’ wives were evicted rioting

would ensue, the Sheriff adjourned these cases for a week. In three other cases eviction notices were granted to take effect in four days.

Will the neighbours allow these people to be turned out? Strikes against increased rents are developing in many other places.

In Birmingham, registered letters were sent out by landlords, giving no- tice to quit, and stating that rents would be doubled. As soon as the rent strikers learnt the contents of the letters one of their scouts went round in front of the postman advising householders not to accept delivery of the landlords’ registered letters. The advice was accepted and when the rent collector called on Monday, he was accompanied by a policeman. The tenants tendered their rents minus the increase and it was accepted.

In a Northampton working class district, where an increase of 6 pence on a 6 shilling house rental has already been made since the beginning of the war, the tenants have met a demand for an additional 6 pence with a blank refusal.

Occupants of houses in working class districts in Dulwich have received notice of an increase of one shilling per week. One landlord has threatened an increase of another shilling before Christmas. The tenants in many streets have decided to refuse to pay any increase. In Bermondsey the landlords have given notice to raise rents and the tenants are organizing resistance.

In Tooting the 350 rent strikers have won the day, the landlords after a stiff fight, agreeing to withdraw the increase…

It should at least be possible for the government to appoint an impartial body who could decided whether or not the owners of the property were securing from the addition in rent any advantage from the national emergency.

In our view such a compromise would be absolutely futile. When food is taxed manufacturers and shop keepers raise the price and the poor consumer who lives by his or her own exertions has to pay. When rates, taxes, bond interest and so on go up, landlords raise rents and again the poor person living from hand to mouth by his or her own exertions has to pay. The rich and powerful always pass on the burden to those who are poorer. The poorest have no one to whom they can pass the burden on. What is to happen unless this sort of thing is stopped?”

(“Fight Against Grasping Landlords”, article from the Woman’s Dreadnought, 23rd October 1915.)

Apart from the areas mentioned by the Dreadnought, there were also reports of rent strikes in Aberdeen, Belfast, Birkenhead, and Dundee.

Down Tools

“By the end of the year strong feeling had built up about evictions of soldiers’ wives and widows and their children. The people’s attitude to the war had changed; the stories were coming back from the trenches,
it was plain that the war was lasting much more than six months, and they just weren’t prepared to go on suffering. The support for rent strikes and the rise in discontent and ill-feeling were so great that the government began to consider whether or not to bring in legislation on rents – although many in the government were completely opposed to limitation. Then, in November 1915, an industrial strike against the rent increases finished all the discussions.

In November 18 tenants were taken to court in an attempt by the factors to get rent deducted from their wages at source. One of them was an engineer in the Dalmuir shipyard called James Reid and all the shipyard workers from Dalmuir, Fairfield, Stephens and other yards and factories downed tools and marched to the court in support…”
(Harry McShane)

The notices to prosecute issued against Reid and other Dalmuir Rent Strikers ended with thousands congregating in George Square outside the Court House. Five major shipyards and one munitions plant came out in support of the defendants, and other plants sent deputies in support to threaten general strike action; despite the war- time regulations against industrial action. The threat of a crossover between industrial struggle and the rent strike made the situation highly volatile, especially given the state’s dependence on the munitions and shipbuilding industries.

“The men from the shipyards and engineering works in Govan, Partick and Clydebank came out in their thousands. I will never forget the sight and sound of those marching men with black faces. Thousands of them marched through the principal streets down to the Sheriff ’s Court and the surrounding streets were packed. John MacLean, afterwards imprisoned for his anti-war activity, and first consul for the USSR in Glasgow, was one of he speakers, who from barrels and upturned boxes addressed the crowds. Inside the court the judge and his attendants were attempting in a tense atmosphere to make decisions on the nine cases. The court was also packed.” (Helen Crawfurd)

“At the court-house there was a mass meeting in the street. Maclean, Gallacher, McBride and others spoke; the police pulled the platforms from under them they continued speaking, and the meeting demanded that the sheriff receive a deputation. To discuss a case with a deputation of workers before the proceedings opened was against all
the court rules, but once again Sheriff Lee was in charge and he agreed. After he had met the deputation he phoned Whitehall, who assured him that the rent restrictions legislation would be introduced in the next month. The house-factors still wouldn’t agree to an adjournment of the case, and Sheriff Lee decided it on his own responsibility.”

(Harry McShane)

The Birth of Public Housing?

After this confrontation all pending legal actions against striking tenants were dropped, and the Secretary of State for Scotland asked the Cabinet to order the freezing of rents at a pre-war level. Less than a week later, the Rents and Mortgage Interest Restriction Act was introduced into Parliament, and was law by the 25th of December.
It prevented the increase of rent on all homes whose rental did not exceed £90 a year. “This applied to the whole of Britain, so that the fight put up by those brave Glasgow women was crowned with success, and the working people of Britain reaped the benefit.” (Helen Crawfurd)

“When the Act came into force it pegged rents to the levels they were before the war broke out, and only allowed a 40 per cent increase if repairs were carried out. In the 1930s it was possible for the socialist movement to use that act and encourage tenants to with-hold rents until they got their repairs done… Even past the second world war there were some tenants in private homes that had been rent-controlled in 1915.”
(Harry McShane)

Later in 1919 the Housing and Town Planning Act was passed, mandating local authorities to build council housing and providing the cash… This is widely celebrated as the ‘Birth of public housing’; in which the memory of the Glasgow Rent Strike was a powerful influencing factor.

Obviously the legislation was implemented not through any sense of class justice, but “in the interest of the state as a whole.” The immediate and desperate needs of British Capital as a whole was threatened by the potential of the rent strike to spread to the industrial sphere.

Although municipal housing had been a labour movement demand for years, and although there were many factors in the creation of public housing, it was to some extent the extra-ordinary wartime conditions that allowed the tenants to triumph. The acclaimed climate of ‘national unity’, “we’re all in the same boat”, etc, was without doubt double-edged. It did allow the state to close out and repress some industrial and social struggles on the one hand, but did also create some space for those struggling from below to posit demands for social improvements, especially against interests seen as profiting from wartime conditions. Clearly workers and employers/the state were not ‘in the same boat’, but the rhetoric of sacrifice did sometimes cut both ways. Landlords raising rents where war work was leading to housing shortages, in this light, laid themselves open to charges of war-profiteering. The State found it difficult to side with profiteering landlords against munitions workers, and soldiers’ families.

One commentator on the rent strike and its significance identifies the difficult position the British state was put in, and the willingness of the ‘executive committee of the bourgeoisie’ to cut loose the landlords if the interest of the ‘national capital’ demanded it:

“The separate capitalist interest of the socially unproductive landlords during the first years of the war, upping rents to profit from the shortage of accommodation, and the increased spending power of the many workers, men and women, engaged in overtime on munitions production, threatened to undermine the effectiveness of the main British capitalist offensive. The object of this offensive, as we have already noted, was to increase the efficient investment of capital and the level and rate of productivity of the labour force, to intensify exploitation. But this offensive depended for its political effectiveness upon the state presenting it as a national mobilization of both capital and labour that would transcend all private interests or class divisions in a national partnership based upon the appeal for increased productivity for the war effort. The ‘selfishness’ of the landlords was undermining the state’s appeal to the national interest by producing working class resistance to rising rents and was threatening to tar the industrial capitalists with the same brush, despite the state propaganda about the control of industrial profits that was thrown as a sop to the working class. Already the working class in Glasgow in their slogans and posters, were identifying the landlords, ‘The Hun at Home’, as they were dubbed, with the ‘national enemy’, the Germans. Working class tenants were defending themselves against the bailiffs, starting with the defence of those worst hit by the rent rises and attempted evictions, the war widows on their miserable pensions and wives of soldiers serving in France who had young children to look after and so could not take advantage of the work to be had in the munitions factories. Since the class movement developing around the rent struggle threatened to spread to production and paralyse the ‘war effort’, the state was forced to ‘side’ with the tenants against the landlords and cut away the ‘parasitic’ capitalist interests of the landlords from the main body of ‘progressive’ capitalist interests it saw itself as the representative of.” (Steve Vahrman)

To some extent this pressure to adhere to a kind of ‘national unity moral economy’ survived until after the war (and could be observed even more after World War Two).

However just as it was the collective spirit of the rent strikers that made it imperative to settle the conflict quickly, after 1918, the situation was exacerbated by the high post-war workers militancy.

A growing unemployed movement and strike wave fed into by the expectations of ex-servicemen and the families, who took the loudly professed ideal of sacrifice and unity at face value (sometimes genuinely and sometimes tactically) and pushed for widespread social change. The mutinies and revolutions which contributed to the war’s end also struck fear of revolt into the minds of the more astute ruling class strategists who foresaw that public housing and other large-scale improvements in working class life would be likely to stave off more violent upheaval.

Was the rent strike implicitly backed by capital? It is suggested by Joseph Melling that the Clydeside industrialists in effect supported the demand for rent freezes and even for state-subsidised public housing, not only because it meant and end to instability that was threatening social peace and thus productivity, but also long-term because they thought it would do the same in the long term – pacify and integrate militant working class movements.

According to Manuel Castells: “The enemies of rent strikers were not the capitalists but the landlords, and individual speculators… Two- thirds of Glasgow housing was built by individual owners borrowing money from small bondholders who were charging increasingly high interest. This explains both the inadequacy of the housing production and the harshness of the landlords who had to collect their rents in order to pay their interest. As well as this class of wealthy urban rentiers, the strikers also had to fact the building industry, a very small business sector operating on an ad hoc basis under the control of the landlords.”

Thus defeat for the landlords was not as such a defeat for large capitalist enterprises. The big losers were the landlords, and the building industry; one result of the rent strike was a depression in the private building industry, which in fact stimulated the need and push towards municipal housing even more.

The Rent Strike and Class Composition

But to discuss the rent strike in terms of capital and its interests is in some ways to undervalue the positive aspects of the self-organisation and unity the rent strikers achieved. Given the high level of both legislation and social pressure against strikes, agitation, under war- time conditions, the rent strike movement reached an impressive level of solidarity. It is true that they were able to articulate the boundaries of the struggle in terms that did not in themselves oppose the war, even to cast the landlords as the ones sabotaging the patriotic consensus, stabbing soldiers in the back etc. Nevertheless they were more successful in winning substantial intervention from the state than other contemporary struggles, notably the Clyde shop stewards movement. Both these two upheavals, though, also formed part of a continuum of struggle in Glasgow that began before the war, and continued after it.

Some commentators have flagged up the 1915 rent strike as arising from the conflict around craft privileges, the breakdown of old strata of traditional skilled workers – especially in the context of the industrialists’ wartime need to break these down, in the interest of mass industrial production.

A hypothesis exists of the 1915 rent strike as a manifestation of old labour unionism; by some commentators it is contrasted with the shop stewards movement developing in the city at the same time, and in which a newer, more homogenous class movement was developing in opposition to old labour aristocracies and craft divisions. Although skilled artisan workers formed the backbone of the Independent Labour Party, which as we have seen was heavily involved in the movement…

But according to Castells, the strike provided a common ground for unity between different segments of the city’s working class, “at the very moment when workers were weakened within the factories both by the recomposition of the work process and by the dramatic altering of the procedures for unionisation and labour representation.”

However the strike was clearly only won by the support of the trade unions (Castells illustrates this by pointing out that a rent strike in nearby Clydebank in 1922 was defeated, despite again having 20,000 participants, when the local unions did not give their support.)

In terms of different strata of the working class and their involvement in the movement, Sean Damer noted the character of the areas where the rent strike was strongest: “What is interesting to note about these areas of the city is that they are markedly different: heavily industrial areas, more respectable artisanal areas, and slum areas.”

It may be that the struggle gained strength from its ability to forge unity between skilled artisanal areas and more unskilled, traditionally slum, neighbourhoods.

This is interesting, if you compare it to Quintin Bradley’s analysis on the Leeds rent strike (which began in January 1914 and ended in March, before WW1 had begun). In The Leeds Rent Strike of 1914, A reappraisal of the radical history of the tenants movement, he identifies the Leeds Strike as arising specifically from the aristocracy of labour, skilled craft workers, people who saw themselves as a cut above the slums, who were facing rent rises on their somewhat better quality housing and being forced to pay or told to move to the slums… They struck to defend themselves against being driven down wards socially, to distinguish themselves from the poorest. The Leeds rent strike was heavily defeated. Beyond this he goes on to question the twentieth century tenants movement’s view of itself and its history, suggesting that the movement’s birth had more to do with a respectable strata of the working class defending its precarious position above the slum-dweller/unskilled, that with an egalitarian vision of public housing for all.

It would be interesting to know if research bore this out for Glasgow, or even for parts of the city, in 1915. And how it compares to later rent strikes.

Quintin Bradley’s article is online here

Women led the Movement

All accounts agree women led the campaign – they were at the head of the mass demos, central to the structures that spread the strike and kept watch/alerted the closes and blocks to impending evictions; they were the ones who launched violent attacks on House factors and sheriff ’s officers attempting to evict people.

“The presence of women as the backbone and main co-ordinators of
the rent strikes is an obvious fact bearing in mind the rigidity of society at this time, but documentation of these ‘housewives’ only exists in the guise of those women who were particularly vociferous in the context of the Independent Labour Party. A certain silence descends on the motivations and thoughts of the “two women for each close” involved on committees in the Richmond Park Strike, and on the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association established in 1914. Joseph Melling mentions a Boilermaker telling a group of shipbuilding tradesmen that “The men laughed the idea of a rent strike to scorn.”

Some were widows, of soldiers, many were workers in factories and munitions works themselves… A number had been suffragettes pre- war. There had been a massive entry of women into the industrial workforce, to replace men away at war. It may have been important factor in women’s leadership of the struggle – they were the breadwinners in many families, already breaking down labour privileges in work previously restricted to men. Manuel Castells has suggested that this process had an impact on their autonomy, their ability to make decisions and take charge of the strike. But this fails to take into account previous history… women had a traditional role in asserting moral economy of the lower classes and imposing it on their ‘betters’; in bread riots and similar protests through the preceding centuries, women can be seen taking a central role.
While the rent strike may have seen women taking centre stage, ironically the end of the war had a negative impact on many women – not only as returning men expected their jobs back and there was mass unemployment as war economy was wound down, which affected women heavily as their position in the workplace was precarious. But, also, the ‘restoration of authority’ and normal relations was an important pressure in post-war Britain, and restoring the gender power relations that had been shaken by the war and by struggles like the rent strike was seen as part of this. Mass unemployment also contributed to this, forcing women on the defensive, back into customary roles.

Welfare and Class Warfare

To some extent the Rent Strike is an important struggle in the development of a welfare state, especially in terms of how organised workers imposed some of their needs and demands on the state and forced it to integrate some forms of recognition of them from the representatives of capitalist interests.

It also was a stage in the development of a political leadership in Glasgow that was to dominate politics there for decades, and play a part in transforming the city in to a stronghold of both Labour and the Communist Party; witness how both Mary Barbour and Andrew Hood rose to high positions in the City administration in later years.

Both of these two developments reflect the underlying social-democratic nature of the workers movement of the time, despite some of the syndicalist methods the Clyde Workers Committee had adopted and despite the autonomous elements that won the rent strike. Much of the welfare state, as it was gradually adopted between the early twentieth century and the late 1940s, was the result of pressure from below, working class movements pushing for far-reaching changes, but channeled through a political leadership via the Liberals, Labour and the Trade Unions.

Without getting into a complex and possibly sterile debate about whether this represented concessions granted to prevent a militant working class from taking more by force, it is undoubtedly true that capital internationally, and in the UK particularly, through the twentieth century, up to the 1970s at least, managed, or tried , to integrate working class aspirations to some extent. In the decades since, a great deal of the concessions won have been under threat, some has been dismantled, others have been slowly disintegrated or undermined, and much of what remains is now subject to a renewed onslaught under the banner of ‘austerity’, ‘sharing the burden of getting the national debt down’… Social housing is probably the sector of the social-democratic welfare state that has suffered the heaviest restructuring since the Thatcher government of the 1980s took aim at it. If Glasgow can be seen as an important point in its development, does the rent strike also have lessons for dealing with the problems of modern urban housing?

Changes in housing can hardly be gone into in great detail here. But in the decades after the World War 1, social housing, mostly run by local councils, expanded massively, to the point where 42 percent of the UK population lived in council housing in the late 1970s.

Since the 1980s, it has been both declining in size, firstly due to a massive increase in the tenant right to but schemes, and has been semi-privatised (in the form of being hived off to housing associations and more recently of arms length management organisations). New council housing hasn’t been built, in any significant amounts.

To some extent social housing’s decline has led to council housing, in many parts of the UK, being relegated to a safety net for people with no alternative, dismissed and despised by many as a last resort, rather than a collective aspiration with a shared positive ethos.
Right to Buy, the Thatcher government’s cleverest policy in many ways, has played a part in the almost total identification of home ownership with self-respect, achievement and respectability. If you can’t achieve it you aspire to it. Private rents have also soared, especially since laws restricting rent levels were abolished – again under the Thatcher government – in the Housing Act 1980 and in subsequent legislation through the 1980s.

The massive growth in owning your own gaff has been part of an undeniable atomisation of ideas of collectivity in Britain since the 1980s, which has had huge positive consequences for capital, for
its ability to reshape society in the interest of profit with very little chance of mass opposition. It also created a huge new internal potential for expansion in markets for moneylenders, builders, developers and so on. Hence, though, the spiralling madness of house prices, private rents, and the impossibility for many of social housing.

On top of this the whole idea of ‘working class areas’ has broken down in many places – for instance, in London, integration of ‘rich and poor areas’ has spiralled; people of many backgrounds now live cheek by jowl, even former council flats on estates having been sold off – in some cases whole blocks. Gentrification has accelerated this.

All this has many results – but one is undoubtedly that movements- like the Glasgow Rent Strike would be much harder to build now. Although tenants of private landlords built the first rent strikes, and won them successfully at times (not just in Glasgow, also London’s East End rent strikes in the later 1930s), in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, rent strikes became better known for taking place among council tenants. Being all tenants of the one big landlord, in the same boat, living in the same blocks, made it easier to organise. Physical geography may well also play a big part in social struggles around housing. The Glasgow and East End 1930s rent strikes worked best when organised around people living in blocks… making collective self-defence easier, to keep look out, and helping in the process of meeting other people and building solidarity with them, etc. It is more difficult in isolated housing… though not impossible…

Many private flats these days might be owned by someone who owns just one or two properties… it’s not just home ownership that has become integrated into the mindset, but also the aspiration to own somewhere to rent to others…

This diffuse and fragmented housing map seems then ideal to divide us from each other. However… if history tells us anything it’s that no barriers can stand against us when we’re cunning, and start making links outside the immediately obvious. In recent years London, for instance, has seen tentative steps towards the beginnings of a private tenants movement, with small local groups of ‘renters’ getting together to campaign and protest.

The adoption of the World War 1 rhetoric of national sacrifice, we’re all in it together, unity in the country’s interest, by the current administration, is striking. What is certain is that if working class people stop pushing forward the boundaries, imposing our needs and

desires on capital, then capital’s own class warriors will push back. As they have been very successful in the last 35 years, the question uppermost is – how fast can we get pushing?



This episode by no means marks the end of Rent Struggles in Scotland, but the seed of more prolonged rent strike that took place between 1920 and 1927 in Clydebank, which employed widespread contestation in the courts as well s civil disobedience.

Sean Damer, Rent Strike! The Clydebank rent Strike of the 1920s (Clydeside District Council, District Library.)

Joseph Melling, Rent Strikes, People’s Struggle for housing in the West of Scot- land, 1890 – 1916. (Polygon Books, Edinburgh).

Steve Vahrman, 1973, introduction to John MacLean’s War After the War.

Harry McShane, No Mean Fighter (Pluto Press 1978). McShane was a long time Glasgow communist activist and trade unionist, sometime ally of John MacLean; a veteran of the Clyde Workers Committee, the unemployed struggles of the 1920s and ‘30s… After some thirty years in the Communist Party of Great Britain, he left in the early 1950s, remaining a committed Marxist.

Manuel Castells, The Industrial City and the Working Class, in The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements, 1983.

Helen Crawfurd was born in 1877 in the Gorbals district of Glasgow. She played an active role in the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association and was a member of the Independent Labour Party during this period. Preceding the rent strikes she was militant throughout Britain as part of the women’s suffragette movement, being arrested once in Glasgow and once in Perth, and twice going on hunger strike. Her account of the Rent Strike was taken from her unpublished memoirs that lie in the Marx Memorial Library.

Also worth a look:

Rent Strike 1960: An edited account of The St Pancras Rent Strike

The Barcelona Rent Strike of 1931.

1930s Rent strikes in London’s East End 
.. and another account that discusses this rent strike in comparison to later East End housing battles…

Watch a film about the East End strikes

The Struggle Against the 1972 Finance Act

A film about the 1972 Kirby Rent Strike in Liverpool

…and an article on the South Kirby rent strike

And it’s not just rent strikes – an account of 1930s mortgage strikes in South East London

We’ll add more here when we can… let us know of good links



Resisting enclosure past & present: East London Waterworks, Leyton Marsh, and the Leyton Lammas lands

NB: Update to this post (July 2020): since this was published the application for the controversial Waterworks Festival was refused by Waltham Forest Council… One victory! The planning application for the massive expansion of the ice rink is still up in the air…

Regular readers of our blog will know that one of our obsessions is open green space in London – its history, how much of what was defended and preserved by collective action, and its present and future use…

In the capital, as in many big cities, land has often gone through many incarnations over the centuries. If some spaces have remained largely open and accessible (although that had to be fought for), some pieces of land have been split up, parts built on, some saved and other sections lost; then in some cases, returned to open space. Industry has taken over then declined or fallen derelict and been re-wilded (or re-wilded itself).

Some of this process is still going on. The long years of battling against enclosures, campaigning for parks to be built or commons and woods to be left undeveloped, are not over. Corporate interests, local authorities, admin quangos, often owning or managing space, have certain visions as to how they can be exploited; some of which clash with other viewpoints. Land is a cash cow to some; a resource to milk, or jto be sold off, built on, concreted over.

For many others of us open space remains a vital part of what makes a city liveable. Many times we have to come together to fight off attempts to enclose places we love; other times, there’s a chance to return open land lost to a useable and shareable environment. Because of the nature of land ownership, even public land ownership, campaigns to save or reclaim open space can often face an uphill battle, because the authorities who supposedly manage such resources on our behalf may see the space differently to us. (To be honest there’s often conflict about use of open space among users…)

The Lea Bridge Waterworks, where Leyton and Hackney Marshes meet, in North East London, are one space where the next developments are under up for debate at the moment shines an interesting light on past, present and possible futures. Collective resistance helped preserve part of this space in the past; community campaigns have helped fight off some recent developments, and could help re-shape the area for all our benefit…

Part of what was once open land here is threatened by the expansion of ‘leisure’ facilities… part is fenced off after failed development plans… part is open as a nature reserve but a corporate festival is planned for the next three summers (experience with other open spaces suggests this may mean increased exploitation for such large destructive moneyspinning events…)
There’s a lot of local anger and opposition, taking inspiration from the history of resistance to the loss of open land here. Parts of what was once lammas land, on the old Leyton Marsh, have been a contested zone for many decades… The high point being direct action in 1892 which helped preserve access to some of these lands…

The Icerink Cometh?

The Lea Valley Icerink, which stands off Lea Bridge Road, has applied for planning permission to expand, which would mean the building doubling in size, snaffling more of the open land around it. We ourselves love ice skating at Lea Valley, but stealing more open space to expand it is just unnecessary…

Meanwhile, on the old East London Waterworks Site opposite, there are plans for a large corporate music festival is planned for this August (and the next two summers). The site is next door to the Waterworks Nature Reserve, a lovely place, well worth a visit. Built on the former Essex filter beds, the derelict treatment plant has been allowed to fall back to nature and has been developed as a nature reserve, a cracking place for watching wild birds, but also just for wandering and hanging out. The Reserve is designated as part of a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation. It’s really not the place for a festival to have plonked next door.

As campaigners Save Lea Marshes point out: “If the noise and light pollution will be significant nuisance for human neighbours, it will be catastrophic for neighbouring wildlife, particularly birds. This is simply an inappropriate place to hold a one-off one-day music festival, let alone an annual three-day event.”

The Walthamstow Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest is very close to the proposed ‘premises’ and birds particularly will be seriously impacted by the noise coming from the event.

The immediate chance to object to both the proposals for the festival and the expansion of the Rink closed on March 10th, but that won’t mean the end of campaigning, should the plans be approved… (The festival might fall victim to the corona pandemic, maybe…!)

There’s also been conflict for a while over the neighbouring Thames Water site…

Until the 1960s the Thames Water Site was part of the Lea Bridge Waterworks, providing water to the people of London. A complex of 25 filter beds were served by an aqueduct bringing water from the Walthamstow reservoirs further north.

The site was closed after the new Coppermill Water Treatment Works were opened. The Lee Valley Park Authority eventually agreed to take over the Middlesex Filter Beds (after first suggesting they should be filled in to make football pitches) and later took on the Essex and Leyton Filter Beds.

Today, the Middlesex and Essex Filter Beds are beautiful, important and secluded nature reserves. They show what can be achieved when industrial sites are sensitively managed to return to nature.

The whole of the site was designated as Metropolitan Open Land in the 1970s.

However, in the 1980s, the so-called Essex Number One Beds were retained by Thames Water as an operational site, first of all a ‘temporary’ pipe store; later a base for the Thames Water/Clancy Docwra mega-plan to replace the East London water mains. In the process they have completely trashed the site without any regard for its status as Metropolitan Open Land.

The Thames Water Site, to the west, and the Nature Reserve, to the east, and the lammas lands, to the southeast…

When Thames Water decided they wanted to offload the land, it was originally earmarked for two brand new academy ‘free’ schools, but after much local opposition this was kyboshed in the planning process, as it was a completely inappropriate site miles from any prospective catchment area, and would have increased traffic overload on the already gridlocked Lea Bridge Road.

Defence of open space on Leyton Marsh… only part of the story

(and a long and complicated story it is… bear with us!)

Campaigners fighting to preserve the open space and reclaim the Thames Water site stand in a long local tradition: this area has a long history of resistance to the enclosure if open land; as well as complex conflicts over its use. The most famous incident took place in August 1892, when 3000 people gathered to pull down railings protecting a railway that had been unpopularly run across Leyton’s ‘Lammas’ land, and wrecked the railway lines.

The land around Lea Bridge was one all Lammas lands: of old 1 August, was Lammas Day, (from old saxon “loaf-mass”)…

Lammas Day signalled the annual shift from agricultural focus from planting crops to grazing animals. It was the last day on which grass was cut for hay, and the day grazing could commence and the hunting season began. ‘The Glorious Twelfth’ – the first day for shooting grouse – is in fact Lammas Day, pushed eleven days back by the UK’s transition from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian in 1752.

The right to cut hay and graze animals on certain fields extended to all parishioners, rich or poor. Such fields were known as Lammas land. Their use belonged to everyone, ‘without regard to tenement’  – meaning you didn’t have to be relatively well-off house-owner to have Lammas Rights. If this existed by long-established tradition, it was often a tradition that had to be enforced collectively, when the rich and powerful attempted to take possession of land, fence it off, exploit it commercially, etc. Lammas Day was thus also a day when battles around enclosure often took place, as the ritual significance of the day was a central part of the rural year, and the ritual opening up of land for grazing was a useful arena for protest around loss of access. Martinmas, November 11th, the day when woods were traditionally open to all for cutting wood for fuel, was another day of ritual protest (– see Thomas Willingale’s actions in nearby Epping Forest…) The ritual importance of these dates outlasted the actual economic significance in many areas.

East London Waterworks

Waterworks were long established on the river Lea all along its length; its proximity to London and the increasing pollution of the Thames and its tributaries further west made a relatively clean water supply on the capital’s eastern doorstep invaluable. Even today reservoirs and treatment plant dominate a good part of the Lea Valley.

The waterworks lay on both banks of the Lea, bridging the boundary of Essex and Middlesex from at least 1760, whilst expansion after 1850 was concentrated on the Essex bank within the Districts of Leyton and Walthamstow.

Waterworks were established on Leyton Marsh from the early nineteenth century, as London expanded and demand for water and its treatment increased. But each successive expansion of the Lea Bridge works, from at least 1824, encroached upon ancient Lammas lands, and required the loss, buyout or extinguishment of any existing commonable Lammas rights local communities had, whether by agreement, paying compensation, or just by jumping in and ignoring protest.

Leyton, Walthamstow and Hackney parishes all bordered on each other on the marshes, and residents of all three parishes held lammas rights there. Until around 1752, Walthamstow and Leyton had ‘intercommoned’ – shared access by agreement – on what was known as the Great Mead (or Walthamstow Common Mead). This system broke down in 1752 due to a dispute over the change in the Calendar in 1751/2. After the alteration of the calendar in 1752, apparently Leyton continued to turn the cattle onto the lammas lands on 1 August (New Lammas Day), while Walthamstow went with beginning grazing on Old Lammas Day (from 1752, 13 August). You couldn’t make it up.

The land, and the return on the property rates, was a valuable public asset.

The Great Eastern Railway bought stretches of land on Leyton Marsh for the London to Cambridge line in the 1840’s, in many cases without compensation to local people, as the Railway Acts of the time did not recognise Lammas Rights. Later sections of land were bought to build Temple Mills Marshalling Yards.

A considerable portion of the Lammas lands on Walthamstow and Leyton Marsh were ‘dis-lammased’ in 1854 and handed over to the East Waterworks London Company for extensions to the treatment plants. On top of earlier land lost, this grant reduced the Walthamstow Lammas land to only 100 acres.

The loss of land to the waterworks contributed to disputes between neighbouring parishes over the remaining lammas land, already aggravated by the complex interaction of commoning, and the slightly fragmented parish borders. In 1858, Leyton challenged Walthamstow’s attempt to establish the extent of the ‘Walthamstow Slip’ (a detached part of Walthamstow actually inside Leyton’s borders) through the most valuable part of the waterworks company’s Essex Filter Beds (an attempt to prove the valuable land was Leyton’s not Walthamstow’s? With an eye to extracting profit from the Company?). By 1873 a fence was put up on the boundary between the two parishes here. By 1876, 176 acres of Leyton Lammas Land remained for the use of local people.

In 1890, the waterworks company laid railway tracks and erected fences across Leyton Marsh, blocking a traditional bridle path, in order to create an access to the new filter beds, for the transport of coal to the pumping engines. This enraged locals, already seething at the gradual erosion of access to the land.

By 1892, commoners were agitating for the marsh to be preserved as an open space, and were lobbying the parish vestry to refuse to sell their common rights to the Company.

The Leyton Vestry (Council)’s Lammas Lands Committee, a long-standing body, with responsibility for managing access and negotiate compensation for its loss, (made up of local Liberal or Tory gentlemen), ordered the water company to take up the rails and remove the fence. The Company refused, and the vestry took matters into their own hands. Four gentlemen agreed to take responsibility for a little bit of direct action, hoping to encourage the masses to join in.

On Lammas Day 1892, a crowd from Leyton, joined by a force some 2500 strong from Hackney, and led by Councillor Christopher George, a member of the Local Board and the Essex County Council, and Leytonstone resident Henry Humphries, marched on the Marsh, demolished the fence, and instigated the removal of the rails themselves. The rails seem to have run roughly north-east-southwest, from the nearby line into the waterworks.

Barbados-born Humphries, a Justice of the Peace and County Councillor in Essex, was prominent in this direct action. He was charged, along with eight others, four of whom were prosecuted under the Malicious Damages (Railways) Act of 1861.

Many working class radicals joined in the action. Like many other mainly working class areas across London and beyond, Leyton, Walthamstow and Homerton was home to a network of Working Men’s Clubs, many highly politicised, with politics that ranged through Liberal, Radical, socialist, to anarchist. These cubs were self-organised, venues for political debate, self-education and discussion – and centres for organising. Among the trade unionists and agitators that frequented the clubs, land, and access to it, had increasingly become a subject for fierce discussion and campaigning. The urban working class had remembered that their immediate ancestors had been dispossessed by enclosure. The clubs, though inherited ideas from groups like the Spenceans and the Chartists, who had identified the theft of the land by the wealthy as one of the crucial sources of poverty, and made regaining access to land a central plank of their platforms, forming organisations like the Land and Labour League. This took the form of agitation for access to urban open space for recreation and holding meetings, as well as demanding that land be nationalised of collectivised for common use…

Among the contingent from the Hackney clubs who flocked to the defence of the lammas lands were land agitators of the “Commons Defence League,” a radical association that had been founded by the well-known leftwing agitator, John de Morgan, an Irish-born radical who had for some time lived in Hackney, and had twice served time in prison for his part in riots against theft of Common Land in Plumstead, South London.

However, the East London Water Company wasn’t going to just roll over. The Company immediately took out legal proceedings against George and Humphries. And on the Tuesday after the tracks were removed, they sent out workers to re-lay them.

A commemorative plaque to the 1892 direct action, erected in 1929

The following Saturday another mass meeting was called at the Antelope pub, still standing today at the top of Marsh Lane in Leyton.

The atmosphere was different this time. The Lammas Lands Committee – already embroiled in a court case with the water company – thought further direct action would endanger the case. They refused to endorse further destruction, leaving the crowd to be led by Ambrose Barker, founder of the Walthamstow Working Men’s Club. This kind of tactical split was quite common in battles against enclosure and in defence of common land, with moderate elements concentrating on legal tactics, (though sometimes tentatively endorsing direct action, when the legal case for doing so seemed solid), then pulling back, and a more fiery element often refusing to stick to legal methods…

Once again, after this meeting, thousands marched down to the Marsh and took up the rails. The water company, again, re-laid them on the Monday.

But on Tuesday, 1,500 people descended on the tracks, including a large party from Leyton and four Working Men’s Clubs in Homerton. They ripped up the rails and again knocked down the fences the water company had erected around them.

The water company had the rails re-laid yet again on the Wednesday.

However, again on the following Saturday, led by a man known only as ‘the Village Blacksmith’, the Homerton clubs gathered their full strength to yet again march on the tracks, pulling them out of the ground and scattering them all over the fields.

Five days of sabotage won the day. The water company gave up.

Local people – at a packed meeting at Leyton Town Hall on Wednesday 30th November 1892 – formed a ‘Lammas Lands Defence Committee’ to defend the George and Humphries in their legal battle with the Waterworks Company, and to oppose the Parliamentary Bill then being promoted by the East London Waterworks Company to extinguish further Lammas rights on Leyton Marshes.

In August 1893, locals held a meeting was called to celebrate the previous year’s ‘Great Riot’. A speaker proposed that the land saved should be handed over to the local people, for purposes other than grazing. By this time the lands were mainly used for recreation, often for playing cricket.

A compromise was reached in 1893, confirmed by the East London Waterworks Act of 1894. The company withdrew all claims to enclose any part of the marsh, ended the legal proceedings against Humphries and George, and paid all their costs, as well as donating £100 to improve the bridleway. In return, the rails were allowed to stay. What looks like the remains can still be seen, in the half-exposed cobbles in the Waterworks Nature Reserve.

In 1904, local Lammas rights were commuted, to be replaced by Access Right: the land is vested with the local authorities, but is to be kept open for the whole community to use.

Under the 1904 Leyton Urban District Council Act, 111 acres of Lammas Land to the north and south of Lea Bridge Road were acquired by the Leyton Urban District Council: “vested absolutely in the Council subject to all existing Lammas Rights…and the Council shall from the passing of such resolution and subject to the provisions of this Act hold the same… as and for an open space for the perpetual use thereof for exercise and recreation and shall maintain preserve manage and regulate the same as such accordingly.”

Lammas Rights were not extinguished by the Act, which allowed for local people to receive other rights or money in exchange for their Lammas Rights. The Lammas Lands Defence Committee wanted ‘‘rights of recreation’’ in exchange for the Lammas Rights. The decision of the LLLDC to accept recreation rights in exchange is recorded in the Council minutes of 31st January 1905:

“That the Lammas Rights over the Lammas Lands acquired by the Council under and by virtue of the Leyton Urban District Council Act, 1904, be extinguished in consideration of the said Lands being devoted to the purposes of a Public Open Space or Recreation Ground, as provided for by said Act.”

In giving up their Lammas rights, local people were expecting the council would honour their side of what was, in effect, a contract: the Council and its successors are under a duty to maintain the land as “… a Public Open Space or Recreation Ground..” perpetually. This duty applied to almost the entire area of 111 acres, excepting only parcels of land of no more than 20 acres in total which could be exchanged or sold if the Council felt they were unsuitable for use as “open space or recreation ground.”

The fields at Marsh Lane did not come under this agreement and remained as Lammas land.

The 1892 victory was celebrated in an annual festival, held here for many years by the New Lammas Lands Defence Committee; formed in recent decades to commemorate the preservation of the Lammas Lands, and to help keep them free.

Common land on the marshes further south, remaining at the turn of the twentieth Century, including White Hart Field and East Marsh, was also incorporated by the local District Councils in 1904. These lands were in turn incorporated into the Lea Valley Regional Park in 1971, as part of a network of ‘metropolitan open lands’. Although no longer truly common land, public right of access remains within the metropolitan open land definition.

Although the old lammas rights of grazing animals had been replaced by more leisurely pursuits, this was not a break, but a continuity: it was the ability to access the land that mattered to people and that people felt was their right, even if the reasons had evolved. As Juliet Davis noted of Marsh Fields, “A Leyton Lammas Lands Defence Committee (LLLDC) member recalls old Leyton ‘commoners’ returning from the marsh with pockets stuffed with rabbits and blackberries. Such practices represent threads of continuity – all-be-they ambiguous – in the context of wide ranging transformations of the site over three centuries. It is arguably less the specific or historic practices of beating bounds or grazing cattle that are important for a contemporary reappraisal of common land, but the openness and possibility offered by genuinely public space for the development and layering of multiple informal and social uses and their spatial artefacts over time. Such possibility – in terms of practice and of culture – is commonly recognised as being absent in contemporary, controlled and/or privatised public spaces.”

Campaigning to prevent the enclosure and destruction of marshes in the Lea Valley didn’t end with the Leyton Lammas riots.

Between 1979 and 1985, the Save the Marshes Campaign fought to prevent the Walthamstow Marshes, further north, being destroyed for development into a marina, and a later plan to dump 8000 tons of ballast there.

Locally, the old lammas lands have seen a succession of bits of land nibbled away and attempts by the Council to flog bits off.

In 1949 Leyton Council attempted to redevelop the Marsh Lane area as a Sports Ground and to provide Leyton Football Club with a Stadium on the Lammas Land: local people opposed them and after campaigning, the Council then dropped the idea. Railway sidings were extended as far as Lea Bridge Road in the 1950s. The Gas Board also occupies some of the former lammas land.

In Lea Valley Regional Park bought all the Lammas Land to the west of the old Cambridge Railway Line from the Council under a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO). But since then, the Park authority has taken the view that it now has the absolute freehold of the land it holds and does not acknowledge the need to maintain it as Public Open Space or Recreation Ground as provided for in the 1904 Act or contract under which Lammas Rights were given up.

Over the years the Park’s denial of rights of way over our Lammas Land has been resisted. Shortly after the CPO in 1971, people refused to stop using the ancient Porters’ Way route from the Black Path to Lea Bridge Road by Essex Wharf. The Park found that they were unable to deny people’s right to use the path.

However, the Lea Valley Riding School have now taken over all the land between what was once Low Level Brook (now the Flood Relief Channel) and the former Waterworks Aqueduct, on the former Lammas Land, and the Park has from time to time denied local people right of way over the land the School occupies.

The Ice Rink now also occupies much of the land between the Waterworks aqueduct and the River Lea, on Porter’s Field – partly on land sold by the Council to a private fairground at a time when the 20 acre limit for disposal/ exchange under the 1904 Act had not yet been exceeded and partly on Lammas Land proper.

In 1993 the Council proposed fencing off over one third of Seymour Fields at Marsh Lane so that it could be used only by people prepared to pay for the use of the football pitches, and an income-generating fenced off Astroturf football pitch, with a 15 foot high fence and huge floodlights. An overwhelming negative response from local people pushed Councillors into voting against the scheme and overturning it.

And Leyton Marsh has come under further pressure more recently. Marsh Lane Fields, which continues to be referred to as Lammas Land, is outside the remit of the Lea Valley Regional Park. The western edge of this space began was built over in the late 1990s by the construction of the Leyton Freight road (Orient Way) and the Eurostar train depot. In 1989 local people had defeated plans to put Freight Road spurs across Marsh Lane Fields, but Orient Way, was eventually built, against massive local opposition and despite its rejection at the 1994 Public Inquiry.

From 2004, the loss of land here was exacerbated by development plans to relocate businesses and allotments from the Olympic site here…

The Olympics caused major upheaval in the Lea Valley, generating much hype and large profits, destruction of housing and long-standing industry. Huge areas of East London were redeveloped; in a number of areas open green space was appropriated, for training facilities, police compounds… with lots of it to be sold off for various dubious developments… Much of this nefarious dealing is documented at Games Monitor site. Large open spaces were laid out in recompense, its true, like Queen Elizabeth Park. But conflict over management of open space has if anything intensified.

One small site of resistance to the Olym-perial Project was Leyton Marsh, opposite the waterworks, where a basketball training facility was built for the duration of the games, despite many objections, and a protest camp, which attempted to block the development. Although the land was returned to open space afterwards it was heavily damaged. There was an attempt to use the land nicked for the basketball court to erect a new bigger ice-rink, to replace the existing one on Lea Bridge Road. This was defeated in court. But there’s now yet another proposal to enlarge the ice rink, doubling it in size…

The Thames Water site’s future is still up for grabs. Although the proposal for the free school was knocked back in Waltham Forest’s planning process, campaigners fear this may be overturned on appeal; especially since the government effectively own the land, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, acting on behalf of the Education Funding Agency (now the Education and Skills Funding Agency – “ESFA”) paid the vast sum of £33.3 million + VAT to acquire the site for the pair of free school academies. ESFA were very likely aware that the site was Metropolitan Open Land but were willing to ignore the fact, and may be confident that a pliable Planning Inspector will eventually approve the change of use.

Most of the organisations, authorities and quangos who have had some involvement or responsibility for the land have behaved less than admirably. Thames Water have knowingly destroyed the site. Thames Water used to be a publicly owned utility, in theory at least, owned and operated for the public benefit. Since privatisation, had a series of owners bent on loading the company with debt and extracting as much money as they can. When the last Walthamstow Planning Strategy – the so called Core Strategy – was being adopted, Thames Water lobbied for the site to be re-designated for a “commercially viable” development: but the Inspector at the Public Enquiry confirmed that the site’s status as protected Metropolitan Open Land should continue.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency knowingly overpaid for the land, expecting compliant authorities to give them what they want.

The Lea Valley Regional Park Authority – supposed to act as custodian of the parkland as a whole – has stood by, wholly disregarding its own Park Plan and made no effort to protect the site, in dereliction of its duties to protect the Park, only paying lip service and announcing grandiose plans that have come to nothing.

The Park Authority was even offered the Thames Water site as compensation for land that it was required to give up for the Chobham Manor housing development, next to the Olympic Park. It opted to take cash compensation instead; then splurge this money on large leisure facilities and not on improving the landscape. It then stood back and did nothing while the site was purchased for a purpose that is anything but Park-compatible use.

The approval for an annual, three day, 15,000 people capacity per day, electronic dance music festival appears to fit with a continuing strategy of fencing off and eventually developing the open space here – including the lovely Waterworks Reserve.

Waltham Forest Council’s licensing department has been deluged by objections from borough residents opposed to the Premises License application of Waterworks Events Ltd. The local community has protested vehemently en masse to the Council, the festival organisers and Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, on social media and by email. However, campaigners are suspicious that the assessment of the festival’s Premises License application may be a foregone conclusion – because Waltham Forest Council’s Licensing Department, have allied with the festival’s landlords, Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, in facilitating and advising the planning process of the festival prior to the Premises License application being submitted. There’s suspicion that the Festival was given the nod of approval from at least a Senior Officer and possibly by Waltham Forest Councillors (although the Lea Bridge Road area Councillors say they didn’t know about the planned festival and that they oppose it). Is this going to be the legacy of the much-touted 2019 Borough of Culture: Waltham Forest’s precious and much loved Lea Marshes green spaces being exploited by opportunistic rich Old Harrovian (Frederick Roscoe Valadas-Letts), party animal nightclub promoters from outside the borough, to the cost of Waltham Forest’s residents?

The Lee Valley Regional Park Authority wants to ‘dispose’ of the Waterworks Centre and the land behind it, to sell it off for housing (a plan which Waltham Forest Council also supports). Is disconnecting people from the land, by fencing it off for events like this, part of their long-term strategy to turn a green field site into a brown field site, paving the way for the eventual building of housing over what should remain accessible open land?

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We Stand at a Fork in the Way

“Presently, the landscape is dislocated, with local people traversing well-worn routes into and out of each individual pocket of green space but unable to vary their walks much because of the fences they find in their way. Local people treasure these spaces, but few travel any distance to visit them and there is little to capture the wider public’s imagination. Historic buildings, such as the unusual octagonal sluice house, are hidden from view and the area’s industrial heritage and its significance as the boundary between the Danelaw and Anglo-Saxon England are ignored. Consequently, the vast potential of the area as a place to linger, a place to explore and a place to reconnect with nature is being overlooked. Re-integrating the ex-Thames Water Depot site into the landscape can change all this, bringing real health and well-being benefits to the people and wildlife that call this corner of north-east London home.” (‘The centrepiece of The East London Waterworks Park a future for the ex-Thames Water Depot site that benefits the whole community’, The East London Waterworks Campaign, January 2020)

The Thames Water site could form a connecting thread between Leyton Marshes and Hackney Marshes, linking the open spaces of the Lea valley in one continuous whole – Leyton and Walthamstow Marshes, Walthamstow Wetlands and Tottenham Marshes to the north, the Waterworks Centre and Nature Reserve to the east, Hackney Marshes and Middlesex Filter Beds to the south and the river and towpath to the west… a huge urban park where people and wildlife can roam.

Campaigners at Save Lea Marshes believe the following principles should form the basis of any decision about the land:

  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks is Metropolitan Open Land and its status as such should be protected.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks plays a critical role in connecting the marshes of the Lower Lea Valley.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks backs on to one of the most beautiful and unspoiled sections of the River Lea, the haunt of kingfishers, stretching from the mighty Lea Bridge Weir to Friends Bridge.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks contains significant remnants of its industrial heritage, adjacent to the weir, which can be interpreted to promote understanding of this important historical site.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks can be linked to the Essex and Middlesex Filter Beds and managed and re-wilded over time.

The East London Waterworks Park Campaign have put forward an alternative vision to the corporate exploiters, developers, scheming councils and quangos…
Which includes proposals for a wild swimming site, an extension of the nature reserve, and opening up the fenced off land to link it up with the other green spaces it borders onto. A brilliant and far-sighted vision, well worth getting behind.

Support Save Lea Marshes in calling for the Lea Bridge Waterworks to be protected from development and opened up to public access.

Much more info here

and more on the history of the waterworks

Worth a read: (Inside the Blue Fence, An Exploration, by Juliet Davis)

The Silvertown Tunnel can be prevented – like the East London River Crossing back in the 1990s

Climate Change – the most pressing issue of our times; Global crisis that demands global solutions. Declarations of a climate emergency by councils or governments are all very well – but the profits of big business depend on continuing destruction of the natural world and exploitation of its resources, as well as mass exploitation of people. A global solution can only be based on LOCAL action, local change, from the grassroots.

In East London, locals are opposing the planned building of a new Thames river crossing which will increase pollution, congestion and emissions. Transport for London proposes to build the Silvertown Tunnel road tunnel under the Thames, from the Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks, under the river, just to the east of the A102/Blackwall Tunnel.

TfL say East London needs a new river crossing to relieve the over-congested Blackwall Tunnel. But building new roads only attracts new traffic, resulting in higher emissions and more pollution. The building of the second Blackwall Tunnel in the late 1960s saw traffic double within a year – its new approach roads were jammed within a decade. The M25 keeps filling up each time it’s widened. The Silvertown Tunnel would be no different.

It’s true that the Blackwall tunnels are regularly rammed and even shut due to congestion, with queues of vehicles backed up as far as the Sun in the Sands roundabout in the morning… And halfway up to Leyton in the evening… But adding more lanes only opens up for more traffic…

Air quality around the A102 and its approach roads on both sides of the Thames already breaks legal limits, putting locals’ health at risk, especially children. The effects of poor air contributes to the deaths of hundreds of local people; children who grow up near polluted roads have their lungs damaged for life. The solution to transport problems is better public transport, not more roads and more cars.

At best, the Silvertown Tunnel will be an expensive waste of money. At worst, it’ll blight the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

But it doesn’t have to be this way: local people have prevented such disastrous roads being built before. The A102 itself is a legacy from the failed London Ringway proposal, a plan to encircle London with urban motorways – fought off in the 1970s by angry residents. [Interestingly for those as remember the 1996 Reclaim the Streets party on the M41 motorways in Shepherds Bush, this is the only other part of the Ringway apart from the A102 that ever actually got built…]

And just downriver from where the Silvertown Tunnel is proposed today, the East London River Crossing was defeated in the 1990s.

Originally scheduled in the 1980s, the River Crossing faced opposition from the start. It faced the longest Public Inquiry ever held into a road scheme; an inquiry 194 days; the transcripts of the proceedings contained 9.5 million words!

Planned to run across the river from Beckton through Greenwich and Eltham, to link the A2 and A13, plans for the new road would have meant bulldozing through some beautiful southeast London woodlands, including the 8000 year-old Oxleas wood, and Shepherdleas wood, Woodlands Farm, and demolishing several hundred homes in Plumstead. Government policy at the time involved a massive new roadbuilding program – developers and some local authorities strongly supported the scheme.

In the words of one of the organisers against the scheme,the odds against stopping it were getting bigger all the time. To achieve victory, a concerted strategy was needed to make Oxleas Wood a big issue locally and give it wider significance – a strategy to make it a symbol of the environmental damage that the road programme was causing and a rallying point for the environment movement. If that could be done, then, given Oxleas Wood’s proximity to Westminster, it might force the Government to back down rather than risk confrontation with a united community and environment movement, in its own “back yard”.

As ancient woodland Oxleas Woods had survived in all its beauty and peace for over 8000 years and now, in the space of a year or so, it was to be decimated in the name of progress. 900 year-old trees and a vast array of rare flora and fauna were to be destroyed to provide drivers with a faster route between the City of London, East and South East London.

Many hundreds of years previously the 77 hectare site had been gifted to the citizens of London as a leisure area “to enjoy for perpetuity”. Oxleas was one of the capital city’s last remaining sizeable green spaces and in some respects acted as the lungs of London. It has been described as “the last remaining part of the pre-historic great forest of London”. People from all walks of life benefited from Oxleas – playing children, nature lovers, hikers and dog-walking adults, from the poorest communities in London in enormous social housing estates in Kidbrooke to the middle classes of Eltham and Shooters Hill.

‘Like all the best campaigns we fought on every level. There were letter-writing stalls at the popular Greenwich market, politicians were systematically lobbied and a well-presented public transport alternative was drawn-up. We organised an “Adopt-a- Tree” scheme; the aim here was to get every tree in Oxleas Wood adopted. As well as bringing in funds and publicity, it would give supporters a real stake in the campaign. And if the worst came to the worst we could invite tree adopters to turn up to defend their tree.

In order to make Oxleas a “line in the sand” for the environment movement, we got some of the large environmental non-government organisations (for example the Wildlife Trusts and World Wide Fund for Nature) to take part in an Oxleas Strategy Group. This helped lock them into a campaign that was ultimately run by local people, but which made the best use of the resources of the national campaigns.

A couple of legal lines of last resort helped propel the campaign into the national news. The Government had failed to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment for the scheme, as required by European Community law. The heroic European Commissioner for the Environment, Carlo Ripa di Meana, took up this complaint causing Prime Minister Major to hit the roof and interrupt a Commonwealth conference to condemn the EC’s action. The complaint was never seen through by the EC, but the publicity was invaluable, as was that which resulted from a High Court case where the “Oxleas 9” (nine local people) put their assets on the line to take the Department of Transport to court over their failure to provide adequate land in exchange for the damage to Oxleas woods. The case was lost, but Oxleas had caught the public imagination and the pressure on the government was intensifying.

Meanwhile, campaigners were preparing for the worst. A “Beat the Bulldozer” pledge was launched, with the aim of getting 10,000 people to pledge to be there if the bulldozers went in. With the TV pictures of direct action at Twyford Down fresh in their minds, as well as the vivid pictures we had painted of what would happen if they violated Oxleas Wood, the Government backed down.”

In the end, the pressure of the campaign paid off. In July 1993, the government withdrew the plans. The River Crossing was abandoned, unbuilt.’

The East London River Crossing was a turning point: part of, and helping to inspire, a growing movement against the government’s road building program. Community campaigns, protest camps, occupations and sabotage resisted roadbuilding at Twyford Down, against the M11, at Newbury, among many others. Mass resistance led to the whole roads program being cancelled by the New Labour government in 1997. Acting together – WE CAN WIN.

Check out the Stop Silvertown Tunnel Coalition on twitter: @SilvertownTn

More info on Silvertown Tunnel campaign:

Pagans and magick folk played a significant part in the fight against the East London River Crossing in the 1990s – check out this account

What was really great to see was the local Extinction Rebellion action against the proposed Silvertown tunnel this year. There have been many criticism of XR (our post on Reclaim the Streets, XR and more here has some thoughts) – but this was practical and pressing action, addressing the burning issues on the ground and in daily life… A good step forward.

The Silvertown Tunnel has now been approved for go ahead… But this does not mean the struggle is over! The story of the East London River Crossing and the Saving of Oxleas Wood shows the show ain’t over if we get our act together…

In memory: Liz Willis

Liz Willis (born Elizabeth Ann Smith) has died in hospital in London with family around her, age 72, following diagnosis of pancreatic cancer last year.

Past Tense knew Liz through her contributions to the Radical History Network of NorthEast London (RaHN), of which she remained a stalwart through its (intermittent) existence (even now, is it defunct?). Liz edited the RaHN blog – brilliantly and consistently… it remains a great resource of radical causes.

Below we repost a brief obituary of Liz written by her son Mark (with some links to Liz’s own family biogs and writings about her history).

Liz was born in Stornoway, daughter of Margaret (Peggy Flett) and Calum ‘Safety’ Smith, joined four years later by sister Alison. Her early childhood is recollected as a time of street games and unsupervised freedom on long summer days and it was this vision of Stornoway that stayed with her in later years. Her parents, large extended family, the wild landscape and stifling social mores of the island provided an ongoing source of inspiration and rebellion. An outstanding and prize-winning student, she developed a facility for languages and history in particular. The family moved to Dingwall in 1959, where younger sister Marjory arrived just as Liz was preparing to go to Aberdeen University to study history in 1964 at age 16.

It was in Aberdeen that her interest in politics crystallised, as she became an active member of Youth CND and left-wing societies, attending regular meetings and hops. She developed her lifelong internationalist, libertarian socialist outlook, joining Faslane protests, a peace march to Paris, and hitch-hiking across Europe to an anarchist camp in Italy in the summer of 1967. After attaining her MA in History, she chose Belfast to pursue a course in library studies, because it “seemed like an interesting place to be in 1968” and found herself on her second day in the province helping Bernadette Devlin up during a civil rights march. It was in this heady atmosphere that she met her future husband, Roy Willis. They married in 1969 and Janetta was born in 1970.

As the political situation deteriorated, the young family moved to London, where Mark was born in 1972. Roy’s social work course took them to Muirhouse housing scheme in Edinburgh, where Liz found time to get involved with tenants’ rights and demos in support of the miners and other causes. Returning to London in 1974, they settled in the borough of Ealing, where she spent the majority of her life. She found her political home in the shape of Solidarity for Workers’ Power, remaining an active member until its demise in 1992. Amongst her many contributions was the pamphlet ‘Women in the Spanish Revolution’, which remains a key text on the subject.

While looking after young children she stacked shelves in Sainsbury’s before finding a position at the Medical Research Council library at Hammersmith Hospital. Some of her most treasured memories were family holidays in Europe, allowing her to practice her proficiency in several languages and absorb her interest in the history and culture of places that she could still recollect clearly 40 years later. Her thirst for knowledge continued as she collected four diplomas and her activism was undimmed as she took on new causes such as the Polish Solidarnosc movement and provided support to an Iranian refugee friend. In the 90s, divorce and grown-up children allowed her more time to concentrate on her writing, research and book reviews, joining Medact’s Medicine, Conflict and Survival journal editorial board in 1991, which she served on until her final year, and for which she wrote well over 100 items. She also participated in the London Socialist historians’ group, Anarchist Research Group and other radical history forums. As grandchildren appeared in the new century, she proved to be a devoted grandmother, from knitting baby clothes to excavating archive materials to help them in their studies.

She started the ‘Smothpubs’ blogspot in 2011, (so named after a mix-up when helping police with their enquiries), with articles on a range of subjects including local and family history and including a mine of material on conscientious objectors. When diagnosed with cancer last year, she carried on through chemotherapy and a clinical trial, taking it as an opportunity to learn about the latest medical research and the state of the NHS, for which she was always committed but for most of her life never had much cause to use. She was appreciative of the NHS staff’s efforts to treat and support her in this time. Over the past year living in Walthamstow, she showed little sign of slowing down, continuing her trips to the British Library, Housmans bookshop and local libraries. She continued to collect material for her blog and the Radical History Network blogspot, and even found time to do translation work for an anarchist research project and take part in the E17 Art Trail. She managed regular trips to Scotland, including a flying visit to Stornoway to see her uncle Donald Smith’s retrospective exhibition and retrace childhood footsteps. It was only in the last month or so that the disease took hold, but she remained a ‘free rebel spirit’ to the end.

Liz Willis (21.10.47-10.11.19)

There’s much more to the story… Someone out there knows the full story of Liz breaking into nuclear bunkers in Scotland in the mid-1960s (around the time of Spies for Peace?) and nearly getting expelled from university… Anyone with other memories of Liz please do get in touch.

No-one who leaves their work behind them is truly gone.

Today in London anti-fascist history, 1937: mass opposition prevents British Union of Fascists marching into Bermondsey

On October 3rd 1937, the British Union of Fascists (BUF) gathered at Millbank, Pimlico, to hold a march to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the BUF. It was a year almost to the day after the famous events of Cable Street, when a BUF march to the East End had been blocked in Whitechapel by thousands of local Jews, dockers, communists and many more…

And just as at Cable Street, the fascist march to Bermondsey was to be prevented from reaching its end point by barricades built by thousands of anti-fascists.

The BUF had in fact wanted to march through the East End, but was prohibited from doing so under the Public Order Act, 1936 (ostensibly passed to restrict the growth of the fascists, though also increasingly used against their opponents). After Cable Street, the BUF’s numbers had briefly risen, but then dropped. Now their stated aim was to invade ‘areas unconquered’.

Mass opposition had dogged Mosley’s men wherever they had gathered, from Hyde Park to the East End. Despite the BUF’s support among the upper classes, national newspapers, and a sizable working class population influenced by racist ideas which did sympathise with the BUF, working class resistance to both the ideas and presence on the streets was constant.

In July 1937 the BUF had made an application to hold a procession on 4 July from Limehouse to Trafalgar Square, which would pass through the same area fought over at Cable Street… The new Home Secretary, Sir Samuel

Hoare, banned political processions would be in effect for six weeks in this particular area in the East End of London, and the BUF subsequently organised a procession from Kentish Town to Trafalgar Square; well outside of the prohibited area. This BUF procession on 4 July 1937 passed without any serious disturbances: some 6,000 fascists had assembled but had to protected by 2,383 police, as they were ‘dwarfed by the crowd which collected in the locality.’

When the ban expired in August 1937, it was renewed for a further six weeks. In September, it was subsequently renewed for three months, the maximum duration under the Act. The three month ban on political marches in the specified area was continually renewed every three months until the proscription of the BUF in 1940 under Defence Regulation 18B.

The BUF proposed march route for 3 October was thus not going to be authorised, so a new route was then decided on, which would take the fash through Bermondsey and South London.

Bermondsey had a strong left wing tradition, based on active local trade unionism among dockers and factory workers, linked to an active branch of the Independent Labour party; Bermondsey Borough’s local council was run by a leftwing Labour administration. This was doubtless partly why the fash had targeted the area. It was also to be reflected in the huge local turnout to oppose the blackshirts.

‘No Jew red mob has the power to daunt us’, proclaimed the Fascist newspaper, which also carried an advertisement for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a violently anti-semitic hoax tract used to incite racial hatred by both Hitler and Franco.

A deputation to the Home Secretary, led by Rotherhithe Labour MP Ben Smith, supported by Bermondsey Trades Council and religious leaders, asking him to prohibit the procession failed; justified on the grounds that while it was reasonable to ban anti-semitic marches through areas with a large Jewish population because of the fear and ‘sensitivities’ that would arise, to extend of the prohibition to every area that had a ‘strong feeling of opposition to a procession demonstrating some unpopular political creed would be contrary to the spirit of the Public Order Act…’

Bermondsey had a large catholic Irish population but few Jews, which by this criteria meant a fascist demo was not provocative. Mosley might have expected some support from Irish Catholics (a proportion of who did have some sympathy to fascism in areas like Stepney) but as at Cable Street, in fact, many from this community rallied to the opposition.

When the attempt to get the march banned failed, the Executive Committee of London Labour Party then tried to dampen down local hostility, and urged local Labour branches to avoid organising a counter-demo, sending round a circular stating the fascism thrived on disorder and not to give them the publicity. However, Bermondsey Trades Council rejected this advice, calling for a massive counter-demo; they supported by the Communist Party and Independent Labour Party – although the CP in fact were not keen on militant opposition at this point, but were forced by the actions of the Trades Council and local feeling to back the call.

There was much preparation for the day, along similar lines to the local work done in the build-up to the battle of Cable Street – chalking up anti-fascist slogans, mass leaflettings, meetings held in advance of the day… The CP also managed to advertise where anti-fascists should meet without openly stating it, to get round the strict terms of the Public Order Act.

When October 3rd came, a column of 3400 fascists a mile long set off from Millbank, surrounded by 2500 police.

As at Cable Street, anti-fascists erected barricades: the BUF marchers were greeted in Long Lane by barriers formed from coster barrows, fencing and barbed wire, erected by the Jewish community, the Communists and many other groups whose anti fascist views poured out onto the streets. It is possible that numbers assembled he fascists surpassed those at Cable Street – some estimates run as high as 50,000 massed at Borough tube, though with true police numbering skills, Special Branch estimated around 12,000.

The barricades were repeatedly attacked and demolished by the police: but they and Mosley’s men were treated to a barrage of missiles – stones, eggs, bricks and bottles. Red flags waved, while a water tank was borrowed from a nearby factory and used as a barricade. Arrests and custodial sentences were even higher than they had been at Cable Street the year before. 111 people were nicked in total.

But Long Lane remained blocked, and BUF were forced to an alternative meeting point. Mosley addressed a rally briefly but was drowned out by the surrounding crowd beyond police cordon, chanting ‘They did not pass!” Mosley’s meeting place had already been occupied by Sally Schwartz and Tim Walsh of the ‘Federation of Democrats’, who staged a local talent show to entertain the crowd!

The event was reported in newspapers across the world from Montreal to Melbourne. ‘Wild scenes’ marked the day, and police on foot and horseback made repeated baton charges. The Times dramatically claimed ‘the scenes of disorder yesterday seem to have been quite as bad as those in the East End which induced Parliament to pass the Public Order Act.’ Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Philip Game attempted to use the fighting to bolster his position that the ban should be extended to the whole Metropolitan Police District, and to go further, advocating that new legislation should be considered that would make ‘processions of all kinds in the streets illegal once and for all’, stating that the Public Order Act “has had a positive effect on the conduct of political meetings and demonstrations but had not reduced their number. He recorded that out of the 11,804 meetings and processions that were policed in 1937, over 7,000 of these were either fascist or anti-fascist.”

Police remove barricades in Long Lane

There’s some silent film of the Bermondsey BUF demo here

Although less well known than Cable Street, the fighting at Bermondsey was just as bloody. But like Cable Street, attempts to paint this as the end of BUF marches, as has sometimes been suggested, is not accurate – seven months later, on May 1 1938, the BUF were able to march largely unopposed through Bermondsey and hold a rally, with Mosley speaking from the top of a van. There was on opposition because crowds had been directed to Hyde Park for an anti-fascist Spanish Civil War Mayday rally… Was this possibly arranged deliberately by the Communist Party etc to prevent another confrontation with the fash? The CP were now talking of defeating fascism ideologically not physically; in the East End they were concentrating on grassroots struggles to win the support of working class away from the BUF (notably housing struggles, which would lead to rent strikes); anti-fascist crowds were advised to hold meetings near to fash meetings and rallies, not disrupt and drown them out as had been previous policy. Dissident Stepney Communist Joe Jacobs would be suspended from the Party in 1938, and then expelled, for being one of the CP minority advocating taking a more confrontational line.

This backing down from physical resistance to fascism by the CP leadership – joining the Labour Party in advocating avoidance of confrontation – goes some way against the long-propagated myth of how the BUF were resisted in the 1930s in London. Even in the run up to Cable Street the Party had tried initially to prevent mass physical resistance, but were forced by pressure from below and the mass desire to block the path of Mosley. In the decades since, the carefully constructed image of the CP leading the fight has masked a more complex reality. Of course many Party members were central to resistance to Mosley, as in fact has been Labour Party members, locals of many political feelings and communities, forefront of course the Jews and the dockers, many of whom were catholic Irish.

Physical disruption and attacks on fascists trying to spread racist and anti-working class ideas would continue to be central to keeping the far right from growing, as the history of the 43 Group after the second world war, and later opposition to nazi groupsucules in the 1950s and ‘60s would illustrate. Raids, disruption of rallies were useful and effective.

The importance of physical opposition would be highlighted even morewith  rise of the National Front in the ‘70s, and events like Lewisham, Wood Green and Southall. And would continue, with the struggle against the British National Party and its influence in the 1990s.

That the CP hierarchy spent a lot of time in 1935-39 trying to prevent direct confrontation, though they have attempted to present a slightly different story later, is of course, not unique in UK anti-fascist/left history: compare this to the actions of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in luring people AWAY from direct occupation of Brick Lane in September 1978 to prevent a National Front paper sale.

The ANL spent a lot of energy over the next couple of years trying to divert anti-fascist efforts away from street-fighting, and shutting down branches and members who pushed for militant confrontation. Sound familiar? As with the dissident anti-fascists within the Communist Party like Joe Jacobs, stalwarts within the ANL who saw physical resistance to the National Front and other far-right groups as a continuing priority were marginalised and expelled from parties like the Socialist Workers Party. Some of these would go on to contribute to the founding of Anti-Fascist Action in 1985, which maintained the policy of combining physical and political opposition to fascism wherever it reared its head.

Although it’s always worth our celebrating and commemorating historical victories, we should also base our memories on what really happened and learn the lessons, and questioning the repetition of established myths. The battles of Cable Street and later of Bermondsey were important defeats for Mosley’s homegrown fascism, and physical opposition to far-right presence on the streets remains as vital now as then; from the BUF to the ‘Football Lads Alliance’ and Tommy Robinson, bopping them on the head is as crucial as arguing against their racist shite.


There’s a detailed account of the political machinations around the 1936 Public Order Act, the BUF marches and opposition to them in the late 1930s here


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

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For a slightly contrasting more recent experience of fascism and anti-fascism relating to Bermondsey, check out an account of antI-fascist organising in South London in 1991.

Today in London’s surveillance history: ‘Secret apparatus for tampering with, copying & forging letters in the interests of the State’ burned in the Great Fire, 1666.

Think hi-tech state surveillance of your communications are a recent development? Think again… it goes back centuries.

Between Sunday, 2 September and Thursday, 6 September 1666, the ‘Great Fire of London’ in 1666 destroyed 13,200 houses (the homes of some 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants), as well as 87 parish churches, and, famously, St Paul’s Cathedral. It took out most of the administrative buildings of the City authorities.

And it also devastated some of the most secret offices of the English state… including a mysterious machine designed for surveillance of subversive elements.

It is recorded that on September 3rd, the fire spread to Posthouse Yard, lying off Threadneedle Street, where the relatively new General Post Office was based, and that the Postmaster, James Hickes, tried, but failed, to save from the flames the ‘Secret apparatus for tampering with, copying & forging letters in the interests of the State’.

What was this machine…? Initially reading this sentence made me think of a device part kettle, part knife, slitting or steaming open letters… while other arms copy the writing, like a large steaming spider…

Samuel Morland’s design for a multiplying machine

The ‘apparatus’ had been in invented by Sir Samuel Morland, an inventor who had begun his career as a diplomat and spy under the Cromwell regime, as secretary to John Thurloe, a Commonwealth official in charge of espionage. He had then become a double agent & worked for the future Charles II; after the latter was restored to the throne, Morland employed his mechanical talent to creating various innovative devices, including calculating machines, water pumps, and an early type of megaphone or ‘speaking trumpet’…

His double agent work for the royalist cause while still serving Cromwell having led him to be rewarded with a baronetcy in 1660, Morland went to work helping supervise intelligence gathering and espionage/counter-espionage for the new regime. While his character was generally held to be shifty, untrustworthy and his loyalty pretty much for sale, he had an undeniable mechanical talent; being a place-seeker and of limited financial means, he put his abilities at the service of the state (as well as attempting to make some cash on the side).

The restored Stuart monarchy had many enemies, a number of which were to continue conspiring, plotting rebellion, uprising, restoration of the Republic, for twenty years: ex-Levellers, former Fifth Monarchists, puritan activists, ex-Cromwell soldiers… A teeming republican underground had already developed under the protectorate, as disillusion with Cromwell had set in, but this multiplied under Charles II, and was spiced by a general perception that the new reign was gradually sliding towards sympathy for the widely feared & despised catholicism. Soon penetrated by spies, the murky restoration underbelly was complicated by the power struggles of great lords and state officials, often working against each other, so that there were double and triple agents, spying on each other, grassing each other up, and being manipulated by their masters. Add to this the agents of foreign governments… there were quite a lot of people the secret state needed to keep tabs on, and the written communications of whom were of great interest to the spymasters.

The Post office was of central importance to this surveillance. The ‘Secret Office’ – an arm of what was basically a secret service, dedicated to opening post to discover plots against the government – was formed around 1653 under Cromwell’s post-Civil War republican Protectorate; but it proved so handy, the Office was continued after the restoration of the monarchy.

Part of the whole rationale of having a single state-controlled post was to be able to monitor what people were writing to each other, by opening and inspecting their letters. Nearly a century before Thurloe, the Elizabethan state had already been regularly reading the letters sent abroad by French and Spanish diplomats and uncovering plots to overthrow the queen by diehard catholics…

Cromwell’s Parliament enacted powers for a state run post office in 1657 that stated openly that a state run monopoly postal service was the “best means to discover and prevent many dangerous and wicked designs which have been and are daily contrived against the peace and welfare of the Commonwealth, the intelligence whereof cannot well be communicated, but by letter of Escript”.

In May 1655 Cromwell appointed his spymaster John Thurloe as postmaster general. In a secret room at the Post Office, Thurloe’s spies covertly intercepted letters from those suspected of plotting against Cromwell’s Protectorate. Thurloe infiltrated agents into the circles of Royalists plotting to overthrow Cromwell and restore the monarchy; he employed Oxford University mathematician John Wallis to decipher their codes.

Part of Morland’s work under Thurloe was overseeing the opening of letters at the Post office, and he continued this work in the early 1660s. Initially this work was done manually, which was obviously time consuming; but Morland bent his clever mind to obtaining or devising more sophisticated methods. Henry Bennet, Lord Arlington, the secretary of State, claimed, in a discussion with Morland, that the Spanish government had devised ways of sealing letters to make them tamper-proof; Morland, however, asserted that he could open them. Arlington wrote a sample letter to test this and posted it; Morland produced a copy of his letter. This so impressed Arlington that he arranged for king Charles himself to view the process late one night in 1664, where the monarch observed “the opening… [of] all manner of seals, as well in wafer as in wax, and then closing and sealing them up again, so as never to be discovered by the most curious eye”. Year later, Morland reminisced about the occasion: “With these [machines] the king was so satisfied that he immediately put [them] into practice as they were and competent salaries appointed for the same and this practice continued with good success till the fire of London consumed both the post house and all the engine and utensils belonging to the premises.”

At this point the machine Morland had either devised or got hold of seems to have involved dextrously opening the letters (though how this was done this is not fully described) copying them by pressing a damp paper to the writing to transfer the ink, then re-sealing them. This last part may have involved replicating the existing wax seal. The process was said to take less than a minute.

Morland was given two rooms in the post office to put his machines into operation. Relatively quickly the system was up and running, and the government was able to extract letters from the post, open and copy them, and replace them in the post overnight.

Morland also recorded what he saw as the basic function of his devices and of surveillance in general: “a skilful prince ought to make a watch tower of his general post office… and there place such careful sentinels as that, by their care and diligence, he may have a constant view of all that passes.”

After the 1666 disaster destroyed his devices, Morland continued to work on similar schemes. In 1688 he offered to sell a machine along these lines to the Venetian Republic. A year later the new postmaster, ex-Leveller and cunning politicker John Wildman, attempted to instigate a plan to build several more letter-openers, and Morland hired 60 workmen to build them. However, the new king, William III, was for some reason unsupportive, and the plan was eventually dropped.


If in Morland’s day, surveillance of the post was centralised at Lombard Street, by the eighteenth century, the surveillance function of the post office had been spread out to the local post offices across the country, where the postmasters served as ‘the eyes and ears of the state’, informing on “material transactions and remarkable occurrences”. This involved less opening mail, as reporting on people’s actions and opinions locals to the central post office, which got passed to the authorities. (Actually steaming open the post was still a perk of the central office in London.)

The work of the Secret Office, however, continued for centuries.

Its main role was to intercept and read mail between Britain and overseas. Foreign post and official dispatches passed between Britain and the rest of the world via the Packet Service: a fleet of fast ships sailing regular routes. Foreign mail bags were sent to the office, where on their arrival teams of translators and decipherers read through the contents to copy out any relevant information in English.

The copies were then sent on to the secretary of state, and the mail was returned to the GPO for delivery as normal. From the 1790s, mail arrived at the office twice a day: at 10am and 2pm. In some cases, the inspectors could be given as little as half an hour to read through all the items and send them on their way again.

Secrecy was naturally at the heart of these operations. If foreign governments realised their mail was being read, they could instead send it by special messenger, denying Britain access to valuable intelligence. Located near the Foreign Post Office, the Secret Office was so well concealed that employees of other GPO departments were completely unaware of its existence.

During the second half of the 18th century, it was the role of the chief clerk to examine any letters that he thought might be useful. However, inspections of certain items could also be commanded by the king. In 1755, for instance, King George II specially requested that the French mail bags be inspected for letters from a ‘Mr Barry’.

 At the heart of the Office’ operations was a team of decipherers, which in 1748 included a ‘Chief Decypherer’ and Second, Third and Fourth Decipherers.

These positions were well paid – the head of the group earned £1,000, and his underlings around £80 to £100. Considering the average wage for a mail ship crewman was around a shilling a day, or £18 and five shillings per year, these wages were a strong incentive to keep your mouth shut about your secret work. Even the Office ‘Door Keeper’ got £50 per year. Other employees included a chief clerk, general clerks, and an ‘Alphabet Keeper’.

When Britain was at war the need to monitor communications for possibly valuable information rose sharply. In 1752 the office employed five people, but by the time the American War of Independence was in full flow in 1776, there were 10.

These numbers remained high through the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France, (1792-1815). The number of Packet ships running between Britain and overseas also increased dramatically during times of war. At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, there were around 40 ships sailing, carrying letters to and from soldiers’ as well as government dispatches. The Packets also smuggled newspapers out of France and spies into it.

In 1816, after these wars ended, staff numbers in the office were reduced to six.

By its nature secret, it is impossible to know how many letters were opened over the centuries. Opening mail required a Warrant requesting that items of correspondence be sent to the Secret Office, but there was no official practice for recording the warrants: in fact, most warrants were burned after being received by the postmaster general.

Warrants for the interception of foreign mail tended to lead to the copying out of passages, whereas ‘criminal’ warrants relating to domestic mail often simply permitted its seizure.
These inspections certainly led to arrests in Britain. In 1758, Dr Florence Hensey was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death, based on ‘treasonous correspondence’ seized by the office.

Hensey had a friend in France whom he corresponded with and sent intelligence to, for the sum of £25 a month. In an attempt to outwit any other readers, Hensey had written in lemon juice between the lines of a seemingly innocent letter.

In another case, a letter home by a sailor ‘pressed’ – forcibly conscripted – into the Navy was seized during the Napoleonic Wars. Writing to his wife, the sailor complained about his treatment and outlined a plan to escape, but his letter was read and kept as evidence against him.

The technical skills to open, decrypt and re-seal the letters was significant. Opening and closing could be done without a trace, and there were meticulously engraved forgeries of seals and duplicates of the special waxes were developed.  In a typical operation, a letter from the King of Prussia took three hours to open, copy and reseal.”

During the 1840s, the Secret Office was exposed and an inquiry was held to investigate its activities. The interception of foreign mail was not the issue that outraged the public (foreigners basically being less deserving of human rights than freeborn Englishmen obviously!); however there was concern that the government was also spying on domestic mail.

The GPO eventually admitted that British letters had in fact been targeted. In one Post Office statement, it was said that the chief of the ‘Secret Department’ had only read domestic mail very reluctantly, and under government instruction, and that “inspection of private correspondence is altogether and entirely disclaimed”.

There’s an interesting account here on the scandal around the British state spying on exiled ‘foreign’ radicals that broke when the full extent of the secret office’s activities became known in 1844.

The 1840s enquiry into the Secret Office ostensibly marked an end of the institution’s activities, but clearly this didn’t really happen – new forms of surveillance simply replaced them.

During WW1, the War Office employed thousands of bilingual women to work on postal and telegraphic censorship monitoring correspondence with neutral countries all over the world. Assisted by the Post Office, this censorship was the largest of its kind and helped the government to catch spies, control the dissemination of military information and to compile economic data used to better execute the blockade of vital imports into Germany.

Of course, surveillance continues, especially against ‘domestic extremists’, radicals, anarchists, communists, etc… These days keeping tabs on electronic media constitutes much of their work, a huge industry in itself.

The Post Office has continued to co-operate with state surveillance into modern times – as late as the 1990s, in our own experience, Special Branch were still sending plods to Herne hill Sorting office to read the mail to the nearby 121 anarchist centre, which must have been a very dull assignment. Such activities must have been replicated against hundreds or thousands of groups and individuals considered a threat to the state – more or less accurately…

Save Reginald, Save Tidemill: resisting new enclosures and the destruction of social housing in Deptford

NB: Tidemill Community Garden was evicted by hundreds of police and bailiffs on 29th October 2018. This post was written shortly before that eviction.
The struggle around Reginald House continues…


Users of Tidemill Community Wildlife Garden in Deptford, South London, are currently occupying the garden round the clock, the latest stage of their long struggle to keep the garden from being destroyed by Lewisham Council as part of a regeneration plan which would also see the demolition of the neighbouring council block of flats. The battle to protect Tidemill Garden and Reginald House focuses several of the most crucial struggles being fought at the moment in London – resistance to the destruction of social housing, the privatisation, exploitation & destruction of open space, gentrification and the social re-ordering of many areas of the city. (NB: None of which is unique to London – being worldwide phenomena…)

Open space is vital in London, in the city. Literally a lifesaver, Parks, commons, woods, from the heaths to the slivers of green at the edge of the canals… Green places in the heart of London, places of refuge, pleasure, places for picnics, barbecues, learning, meeting, playgrounds for wildlife and people … When work and stress and all the other shite rises up and threatens to overwhelm you… you can lie on your back while the wind dances in the trees. When you’ve got no garden, when your family drives you nuts, sick of pointless work and all the abuse, exploitation and suffering in the world – or when you just love the grass. For the mad endless football matches, falling out of trees, hide and seek as the sun dapples the moss; for dancing round your phone in the summer evenings… wiping the tear away as your daughter’s bike wobbles round the lake for the first time, even for when you’re masochistic enough to go running on rainy mornings…

The benefits of having access to open green space are obvious, for exercise, physical and mental health and wellbeing, learning about and connecting to wildlife and nature (all too rare in the city), having somewhere green to just relax; quite apart from the playgrounds, sports facilities, water features, running tracks… even the bloody festivals sometimes when they don’t trash the grass and lock us out for half the summer…

Trees and plants also obviously contribute to air quality and help reduce pollution, as mature trees absorb carbon emissions from vehicles… not to mention just being beautiful, sometimes climbable, a relief from the brick and sandstone, concrete and glass…

The parks and greens maintained by councils and other official bodies are crucial enough, despite the bylaws that hem you in there, the financial pressures that lead to massive commercial festivals that lock the big parks off for weeks on end…

There’s the wilderness too, where it survives, or has fought back to wreath old factories or abandoned lots, half-demolished estates in green and growth… This wildness in London has been vanishing more and more, it made a comeback from post-world war two to the 80s, often on bombsites, or where industry was closed down… A strange hopeful beauty, we used to trespass, explore, and sometimes build in.

Even more precious than either of the above, maybe, is the space that people create themselves, communally, working together, learning and building and planning. Many such spaces were created from abandoned land, some were originally squatted or more or less occupied, often bit by bit, gradually taken over, where money and authority had forgotten or lost interest, or simply didn’t have the resources to exploit or use. Like the squatting of houses from the 70s onward, small scale community spaces were created, here and there, sometimes evicted or given institutional blessing and becoming ‘official’.

New enclosures

As with resistance to enclosures in previous centuries, the wholesale removal of access to vast areas of land for large numbers of people, in the interests of the wealthy, the nominal owners, the rich, urban free spaces can also become contested. If some were granted some kind of legal status, this has not protected them forever from the possibility of being cleared, built on, lost. Just as cash-strapped or money-hungry councils see big parks as piggy banks that can be milked, self-created spaces are often viewed as awkward, unproductive, not neat and tidy-looking, lowering the tone, run by amateurs who don’t understand. And taking up space that could be put to more profitable use. By people who know best and should just be allowed to get on with planning our lives for us.

The freely given and collective effort put into creating and maintaining small community-run spaces, and making sure they are kept free and open runs counter to this. It’s not always easy and can stall or lose momentum, but its spirit is often lovely and inspiring. Councils pay lip service to this spirit because they know it’s bad PR to say what is really often thought in the offices and boardrooms – that this spirit is annoyingly uncontrolled and gets in the way of properly ordered progress and fiscal good sense. In this sense, while in theory many larger or smaller open green spaces are ‘publicly owned’ – ie owned by public bodies like councils – there is a chasm, its not ours, in the legal sense, though people who use and enjoy space often feel that it is ours, collectively, emotionally. Enclosure was often resisted in two parallel strands – common land (always in fact owned by someone) had developed customary uses over time, which people took to be legal rights, and some went to court to oppose enclosure on that basis. Others felt that whatever the law said about who owned a piece of land and could do what they want with it, it was theirs, collectively, because they had always used it and so had generations before them, and would right to maintain that – often with direct action, sabotage, sometimes with violence. Both strands had their successes, in truth, in saving many places we still know and love today. But often people had to go beyond what the law said was ownership to assert the collective ownership they felt and had experienced, an often  contradictory jumble of realities which law, contract, statute and certificate don’t and can’t quantify. This remains a central question in many struggles, whether its about housing, space, work…

Tidemill and Reginald 

So – Lewisham council are planning to demolish Reginald House and Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden, and on the site of the old Tidemill Primary School, which closed in 2012, near to the centre of Deptford.

The Tidemill garden was created in 1997, designed with the involvement of parents, pupils and teachers at Tidemill school. For a long time it was considered worthy of support by official bodies, being funded by Groundwork, the London Development Agency, the Foundation for Sport & Arts, Mowlem plc, Lewisham College — and Lewisham Council, which invested £100,000 in it in 2000.

The garden has matured, and now contains 74 well-established trees. In August 2017, it was cited as a case study for the importance of “Children at Play” in the GLA Greener City Fund prospectus, and it also has the support of organisations including the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the London Wildlife Trust. Pupils from the new Tidemill School have used the garden for many educational projects.

Some great pix of the Garden and some recent events here

Go, Move, Shift!

If the development plans go ahead, the residents of Reginald House will lose their homes, and a unique community wildlife garden will be destroyed. The vast majority of the residents of Reginald House and the users of the garden want the plans to be re designed in partnership with the community – to build the same or more social homes, but keep Reginald House and Tidemill Garden. The new plans trumpet the inclusion of new green space – but much of this will be private gardens (guess which tenure they will be for?) or playspaces for residents only, and the open access space planned is much smaller, includes no mature trees, much of it will be paved, sterile and free of the pesky wildlife and unplanned growth Tidemill hosts. And privately owned…

As Caroline Jupp has written: “The proposed green space to replace this extra-ordinary garden is named a ‘pocket park’ in the developer’s plans…. The sterility of many contemporary architect designed parks and gardens is not conducive to outdoor play. I have seen how the planted public areas on my newly built estate become dead zones. But here, in Old Tidemill Gardens, there are ponds, gazebos, tree houses, composting bins, greenhouse, sheds, climbing trees, undergrowth and wilderness, all to nurture play and kinship with nature. Why demolish this green space, used so regularly by schools and the community, and replace it with a neat pocket park? Local residents and visitors all value this community space, want to be its gardeners, and have a real stake in how it evolves. In contrast, most designs of contemporary green spaces don’t encourage the involvement of users, with with their choice of low-maintenance planting. No doubt, the keepers and sweepers of the proposed new park will be an out-sourced company…”
(from Buddleia Bulletin, no 4, ‘Tree House’, 2018, Caroline Jupp. The 5 issues of Buddleia Bulletin are well worth a read, and all proeeds from sales go to the Tidemill campaign…)

They and many supporters have been campaigning to prevent the demolition since 2014, when Lewisham signed a deal with Family Mosaic Home Ownership (a private spin-off of Family Mosaic Housing Association), which would have seen the currently ‘publicly owned’ land sold off cheaply. Through murky secret Development Agreements, Family Mosaic lies, council refusal to listen to the community’s protests or allow the residents of Reginald House to be balloted on the plan, the campaign has gained strength, drawing up alternative plans which would transform the re-development, keeping the gardens and allowing for more social housing. Since 2015, the local community has had a lease on the garden for “meanwhile use”, but despite granting this as a stopgap, Lewisham council, has refused to seriously entertain any alternative plan.

The subsequent new homes built under the initial plan would have had only 11% social housing, and the community resistance has forced the developers and council to increase this several times, and alter other aspects to try to deflect the opposition. Family Mosaic has since merged with Peabody Housing (housing associations are joining up to create ever large mega-monsters, raising rents and becoming more and more openly property companies). But the plan has remained, and the processes of planning and law have ground on.

Peabody now intends to build 209 units of new housing on the site, of which 51 will be for private sale, with 41 for shared ownership, and 117 at what is described as “equivalent to social rent”. This last is not in fact true –  rents on the last category will fall under London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s London Affordable Rent, around 63% higher than existing council rents in Lewisham.

Here’s an account by a resident facing losing her home:

The Middle Class Are Eating Your Street Again

It’s true there’s a housing crisis in London (and in the UK generally) – but currently councils, including Lewisham, are responding by planning homes that those who need them will never afford. The Tidemill proposals fall in with the trend to demolish social housing, with secure tenancies, and replace it mainly with private flats, sprinkled with some housing association tenancies or ‘shared ownership’, ‘affordable’ housing’ that isn’t affordable. A handy outcome of this is the slow replacement of working class people and those on lower incomes with more middle class or wealthy types, who help make the place more economically attractive to money, business and ‘exciting’ and ‘vibrant’. Ie everywhere starts to look as empty and soulless as everywhere else.

Many of the displaced end up crammed in to smaller spaces but paying more, moving to forsaken spots far out on London’s edge, or forced out of town entirely.

Deptford, for centuries a working class area, has stubbornly remained a mixed and interesting place, despite several decades of creeping gentrification. It’s a frontline of contestation, between profit and residents, planners and people, development and the precarious places and existences people make for themselves. There’s land there that greedy eyes see can be made much more of; but also where public officials see unproductivity that could be turned into assets. Occupied and used by people who they see as taking up space a better class of person could be making more of.

London needs homes, yes, but for rents we can afford, in the communities we want to live in, without destroying everything that makes those places a joy to live in. And there is plenty of housing lying empty in the capital. It’s owned by the wealthy, by property developers and corporations. Second homes and flats for business jollies. Palaces with hundreds of rooms for a couple of parasites.

Housing is not generally built for need, its built for profit. Attempts by councils, ‘social landlords’ like housing associations to alter this cannot be built on alliances with huge private developers or turning themselves into private developers and make any noticeable dent in the gradual erosion (now more of a landslide) of genuine social housing provision. Labour bollocks about ballots is smokescreening their complicity almost everywhere with social cleansing and love affairs with greedy property speculators.

It’ll take more than voting in any Corbyns or Sadiq Khans to push that back. It can only be based in people at the grassroots like at Tidemill and any number of struggles around London. And it’s hard, and often loses. It needs people to stand by them who aren’t facing that process themselves (remembering that social housing and open space are a collective legacy, a commons, the fruit of centuries of battling and campaigning, and belong not just to those who live or work or play there but to all of us, in common). And it needs to open the question of who the city is FOR, and challenge fundamental assumptions about housing, space, who owns things, who runs things…

The fight to keep Tidemill does closely echo the battle against enclosures of previous centuries. people have built up space, created uses for it, helped to survive through using it, built up emotional and practical ties to it. But the forces of cold financial or bureaucratic progress sees all that as irrelevant, counting only the hard cash or the planning gains. These days our years of struggle have made them more wary of proclaiming their contempt openly, so there’s lots of gloss and schmooze. But still bailiffs, fences and men with sticks to knock you down hiding round the corner, if you don’t buy their bullshit.

Ballots Not Bollocks?

Lewisham’s Labour council has refused to allow residents of Reginald House a ballot on the plans, though 80% of them don’t want their homes destroyed. This makes a mockery of Jeremy Corbyn and London mayor Sadiq Khan’s promise of ballots to all tenants on estates facing demolition. Khan endorsed the idea of ballots only for estates whose regeneration involves GLA funding – the Tidemill plan does involve GLA funding. But the mayor stealthily approved the destruction of 34 estates — including Reginald House — before his new policy took effect.  Lewisham also now has a stated policy of ballots on demolition: but not for Tidemill and Reginald. Tenants and leaseholders in Reginald House have also been effectively denied repairs since 2015 despite paying rent and service charges…

Instead, Lewisham Council’s cabinet approved the current plans last September, and terminated the community’s lease on the garden on August 29 this year.

Not Removing

Instead of handing the keys back, however, members of the local community occupied the garden, and are fighting court battles to prevent the demolition. They have crowdfunded over £10,000 to launch a Judicial Review of the planning application, but need more to help pay for this… In the latest court appearance, the judge confirmed the council’s right to possession of the garden, he ruled that it cannot take place until seven days after a High Court judge holds an oral hearing at which campaigners will seek permission to proceed to a judicial review of the legality of the council’s plans. This oral hearing will take place on October 17… they may be allowed to proceed with the Review, they may not…

Pledge some cash for this legal battle – the campaign’s Crowd Justice fundraising page is here:

The Garden is now constantly occupied, with events happening all the time, displays on the history and ecology of the garden, and treehouses being built, banners being painted, and much more… A lovely and inspiring fight. If the court case doesn’t proceed, it will not be the end – far from it…

Four years of campaigning are now coming to the sharp point – the community is determined to resist the destruction of the garden, and this may well come to blockading the garden and trying to prevent their eviction physically. They need not only cash for the legal challenge, but help, support, publicity…

Contact the campaign:

Phone: 07739 469097

There’s more on the campaign, and other interesting current events in Deptford, here too:


The community demands:

“Refurbish Reginald House, give residents a ballot Reginald House residents have good homes, but council has refused to listen to them or to consider a plan which keeps their homes. Instead the residents have been lied to and harassed by council officers, and their homes run down. Lewisham Council should respect its residents’ needs and wishes and not break up communities. As in other developments, residents must be given a ballot on regeneration plans.

Keep Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden a community garden for ALL Any redevelopment must include, not bulldoze, the thriving Garden which was built in the 1990’s by local people, teachers, parents and kids from Tidemill School. An alternative architectural plan shows how the garden and Reginald Road CAN be kept by building on the playground and developing the old school buildings. This area has some of the highest pollution levels in London, which will only get worse if the garden is lost. And the green space on the site should be kept public, not transformed into private gardens as under the current plans.

Public land, and public money, should be 100% used for the benefit of the public Lewisham Council want to sell this land, meaning a valuable public asset will be lost forever. Millions of pounds of public money is being spent to subsidise this development, behind a cloak of secrecy due to the ‘confidentiality clauses’ of the Council’s private partners. This land should be redeveloped in partnership with the community – to build as many social homes as possible but keep our invaluable current homes and community Garden.

We want the council and developers to truly partner with the community to redraw the plans for the site!”


In case you’re interested…

… check out some other posts on historical resistance to enclosure of open space in London

Class Walls – Cutteslowe, Downham and roadworks…

Some of last week’s news outlets covered the row about road resurfacing In Oxford, where the local council had ordered one end of a street re-tarmacked, but the work stopped abruptly. Local residents from the neglected end contended that it was the middle class end where the work was done, but the working class end was left as full of potholes as ever. Some witty soul has sprayed ‘class war’ along the demarcation line…

The argument was spiced up by the fact that the very spot where the resurfacing ended once marked the infamous Cuttleslowe Wall, where a barrier was built across the road, between a council estate and a private housing development, to keep the residents of the former out of the latter. Angry inhabitants of the unreconstructed end of the street were quick to point this out – the walls might have gone, but the divide can be marked in other ways…

The Cutteslowe Walls were built in 1934. Over two metres high and topped with lethal spikes, they divided the City Council’s Cutteslowe estate from private housing to the west which was developed by Clive Saxton of the Urban Housing Company.

Saxton was afraid that his housing would not sell if so-called ‘slum’ dwellers were going to be neighbours, and ordered the walls built to separate them. The council tenants soon raised a petition asking for the walls to be demolished; there were several unsuccessful attempts to bring down the walls including a march in 1936 when campaigners armed themselves with pickaxes to knock them down, but police barred their way.

In June 1938 the City Council, against legal advice, took the law into their own hands and demolished the walls with a steam roller.  However, the development company sued the Council, and severely criticised by the Judge, the city was forced to re-build the walls.

There were various attempts during World War II to have the walls demolished for safety reasons but these also failed.  A tank on a practice exercise did (‘accidentally’ ?) drive through one of the walls, but the War Office had to pay to have the wall rebuilt.

In 1953, councils were given powers of compulsory purchase and Oxford council adopted these in 1955.   Finally, on 9th March 1959, after the city had purchased the strips of land on which the walls stood (for £1000) the walls came down.  Councillor Edmund Gibbs, son of an earlier campaigner for demolition, and Chairman of the City Estates Committee, took a ceremonial swipe with a pickaxe at the top of the first wall to come down.

It’s interesting that in the ‘30s the council was strongly against the wall, at least partially taking umbridge as it had developed the council end of the street. Whereas today it is accused of pampering the ‘middle class end’. The council has complained that the whole resurfacing affair is a misunderstanding, that as there are two separate roads involved the works were only ordered on the one, not the other… Convenient. It may have been that in the case of the wall it was the personal affront to the council that rankled, not the idea of social separation per se…

The 1920s and ‘30s were a time of huge migration internally in the UK, when vast new estates and suburbs were opening up, and hundreds of thousands of people were upping sticks as inner city ‘slums’ were cleared and parts of many cities redesigned. Many new estates, both municipal builds and private developments (for either owner-occupiers or private rents) were on the edges of towns and cities, where older slightly more upmarket residents were put out by arrivals of new communities, especially when some or most incomers were rehoused from poor areas. This was definitely the case at Cutteslowe, where it was the suggestion of some ‘slum clearance’ tenants that had sparked some of the fear from the private estate dwellers. But this tension was also reflected in internalised divisions among the migrating, where aspirations to a materially better standard of living was also mixed with desperation to appear respectable and achieve a more middle class lifestyle. This could also emerge as hostility to the more communal working class communities from those aspiring to live more individually, and just as virulently mirrored mocking of the snobbery of people deciding to move to the suburbs.

In fact, one study of the Cutteslowe area concluded that the difference in social class being enforced by the walls was in fact not that wide… It wasn’t a question of the wealthy being sheltered from a slum; many of the council estate tenants and the private estate dwellers were broadly skilled working class, or clerks and white collar workers… (though more of the former on the council estate). The nickname of ‘snob walls’ may well sum it up – it was a question as much of a perception of being better than someone, despite – or more because – the gap between you and them is wafer thin… Aspiration to get on, climb the social ladder, move from working class community into suburban individuality was powerful at this time, and for many, this was the first era when this became really possible. There is an element of keeping yourself separate from the people and lifestyles you want to escape… That you fear will hold you back.. Being SEEN to distance yourself from the riffraff (fear you are still part of ‘them’, despite all your aspirations?)

There’s a very interesting article on housing changes, suburbanisation, class & aspiration, in the 1920s/30s here

The Cutteslowe Wall was by no means unique, however. In London, very similar attempts were made to keep riff raff out of suburban streets.

In the borders of Southeast London and Kent, a very similar attempt at social exclusion was erected: the Downham Wall, a high concrete structure embedded with broken glass, built in 1925. Private residents in Alexandra Crescent felt it necessary to distance themselves from council tenants on the newly built London County Council Downham Estate in Valeswood Road, and to prevent the latter from walking through the posher bits to get to Bromley town centre… In February 1926, Albert Frampton, the developer of Alexandra Crescent, applied to Bromley Council to erect the wall. The council declined to take a decision, but the wall went up anyway. Allegedly London County Council and both Bromley and Lewisham Councils disputed responsibility, arguing over who should take charge – the wall was built right on the border between Lewisham and Bromley.

40000 odd working class people from Deptford and other dockside/riverside areas had been moved into new estates in middle class Downham, upsetting the established suburban respectable people. The borough of Lewisham had been traditionally been substantially middle class, proud of itself as a haven of health and respectability (although there had always been pockets of quite stark poverty), but it was the new 40,000-strong population of Bellingham and Downham, with its strong links to the riverside working class, which impinged on the respectable heart of the borough. To their middle class neighbours they seemed to bring a disreputable air, crime, unruly children, unemployment and charges on the rates. It’s also worth mentioning that some of the migrants from Deptford and neighbouring areas brought with them a fierce working class politics, trade unionism, some socialist and communist ideas… not at all what the suburbanites would presumably have welcomed. This spirit did manifest in a spreading of leftwing ideas into the new estates, for instance the communists who led housing struggles in the borderlands of south London in the 1930s. (Eg Elsy Borders and the West Wickham mortgage strike).

A line grew up dividing old middle class Lewisham from the new working class enclaves – soon solidified into the Downham Wall. Despite considerable anger the wall was not demolished until 1950.

The demolition of the Downham Wall in the 1950s.

Read a great Municipal Dreams article on life on the Downham Estate

Some other examples of class walls we have heard of include a barrier built to divide Springfields council estate and Acres Rise (private estate) in the village of Ticehurst, Sussex… in Dublin in the 1960s and 1970s as the city’s suburbs expanded dramatically (as London did in the 1920s and 30s) there were numerous cases of adjacent local authority and private housing estates being separated from each other by walls, bollards or open spaces – in places like Tallaght, Donaghmede, Coolock, Greenhills and Rathfarnham.

Other methods of social apartheid are, ot course, available…

Blocking off the roads as a means of social control is nothing new. As previously noted on this blog, the Dukes of Bedford attempted for a hundred years to keep all sorts of lowlives and tone-lowerers out of their Bloomsbury estate through the 19th century, by erecting gates and employing keepers to refuse entrance to undesirables.

But resistance to this is as old as the attempt… Tollgates put up to force people to pay for main roads used to be regularly attacked, robbed or avoided. The enclosure of large open spaces like Hyde Park, Richmond Park, Bushy Park, preventing the general hoi polloi from following old ‘rights of way’ or enjoying the space, were stoutly resisted, in the 1700s and 1800s, and mostly were overturned.

And small scale private initiatives to exclude the scum from your byways often also backfired. In Forest Hill, South London (only a couple of miles from the later Downham wall), wealthy silk warehouse owner Richard Beall tried to block off the upper end of Taylor’s Lane to increase the privacy of his posh home of Longton Hall in 1867. His attempt to do a Nicholas van Hoogstraten enraged locals, who smashed the walls & fences down; 100s came with axes & hammers! After several attempts to rebuild it resulted only in further demolitions, Beall gave up & went insane. How sad.

Of course, there are as many examples of victories for the enclosers and architects for social exclusion… More and more these days, it seems on the face of it. Gated communities proliferate – but even more so, (in London at least, though doubtless elsewhere) the gates and walls are being reversed.

The processes generally labelled Gentrification seem not to be just separating out working class communities from those with more power and wealth – but physically removing them from whole area of the city, confining them into smaller and smaller areas – or kicking them out of London altogether. Let’s face it – economically unprofitable people should just move out of valuable space which could be housing the better off.

However, as they say, a brick in the hand can be worth two in a wall…

Another new pamphlet from past tense: Alice Wheeldon

We are pleased to announce… another new pamphlet from past tense…

Framed by spycops for resisting World War 1

In 1917, Derby socialists and war resisters Alice Wheeldon, her daughters Hettie, Winnie and Winnie’s husband, Alfred Mason, went on trial at the Old Bailey, all charged with conspiracy to murder the
Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George and cabinet minister Arthur Henderson.
In fact the supposed ‘plot’ was a fit up, set up by a spy working for the intelligence unit of the Ministry of Munitions, effectively then run by a combination of Special Branch and what would become MI5. The aim
was to attack and discredit the growing movement opposing the capitalist slaughter of World War 1.

All proceeds from sales of this pamphlet after costs are covered will be donated to ongoing campaigns against our own modern spycops…

Price £1.50
Plus £1 for Postage & Packing

‘Alice Wheldon’ can be ordered online from our website

Or by post from
Past Tense, c/o 56a Infoshop, 56 Crampton Street, London SE17 3AE
(cheques payable to ‘Past Tense publications’)

It will also soon be available from London radical bookshops and distributors…

“Disturbance of the Publick Peace”, Sunday 8th July: a free past tense radical history walk

Join past tense for

“Disturbance of the Publick Peace”

a FREE past tense radical history walk…

around Holborn & Bloomsbury

Sunday 8th July 2018

Meet 4.15pm, outside Conway Hall,
25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL

a wander through some of the riotous and radical history of Central London: Gordon Rioters, anti-fascists, suffragettes, Chartist plotters… and spycops, lots of spycops…

For more info email:

Part of the
50 Years of Resistance events
7th-8th July

Commemorating campaigns that continue to fight for social change, despite being targeted by undercover police units  since 1968.