Today in London rebel history: Savoy Hotel air-raid shelter occupied by Eastenders, 1940.

In the early days of World War 2, after the German Luftwaffe’s attack on Britain’s air defences failed, the planes turned their attention to bombing of civilians.

During the early days of the Blitz the Government controlled media tried to show that life in London was carrying on as normal, and there was much coverage in the press of people going to parties, dining out and clubbing in the West End.

The reality was very different, especially for the largely working class population of the East End, which received especially heavy bombing throughout the Blitz. This was partly due to its proximity to the vital London docks, a major Luftwaffe target, but civilian areas were also deliberately attacked in an attempt to break their support for the war.

Stepney, West Ham, Poplar, as well as Deptford and Bermondsey on the south side of the river, were particularly hit. During August 1940 there was relatively light bombing, but on September 7th very heavy bombing began, and soon the East End was burning.

The government was accused of a lack of readiness when it came to building shelters to protect civilians in East London – contrasting with the more extensive preparation in wealthier areas of the capital.

Initially, the civilian population had attempted to take refugee in the government’s proscribed trench shelters but these had soon filled with water, the street level shelters had been destroyed and the famous back garden Anderson shelters, made of corrugated steel, offered only limited protection from bomb blast and splinters.

Anderson shelters were named after Sir John Anderson who stated in the House of Commons in 1938 “I do not think we are prepared to adapt our whole civilisation, so as to compel a large proportion of our people to live and maintain the productive capacity in a troglodyte existence deep underground”and on 12th June 1940 “I am devoutly thankful that we did not adopt a general policy of providing deep and strongly protected shelters”.

How Londoner’s paid for such stupidity, as Londoners were according to Ted Bramley “uprooted, blasted from their homes, scattered over the face of Britain”
The few deeper shelters which were situated mainly underneath large warehouses and privately owned and open to the public, once deserted werenow full to overflowing, poorly lit, wet, and unsanitary. People lined up from 12 in Stepney to enter the Tilbury shelter, originally planned for 1,600 now holding 10,000. Meanwhile, Godfrey Phillips shelter in the City, a shelter for 3,000 was locked every night at 5.30pm. Ted Bramley estimated another 200,000 safe shelter places were available in the City, but locked at night.

East Enders joked in the early days of the Blitz on how when caught out during a raid they had learnt to “hug the walls”.

Many other Londoners were forced to travel “trek” from East London to North London, West London or South London and even the Kent countryside (Chislehurst Caves in the side of the North Downs), or coaches taking people out into the countryside to sleep by the roadside at 2s 6d.

To highlight the plight of the people of the East End, the Stepney Communist Party decided to stage a stunt to highlight the drastically unequal conditions of air-raid shelters for rich and poor. The Party had previously organised an occupation by 200 people from the East End of the Mayfair Hotel shelter on the night of Thursday 12th September, but this seems not have secured much press coverage. The next target was a jewel of the West End, the ultra-posh Savoy Hotel, occupied on September 14th 1940.

Phil Piratin, then a Stepney Communist Party member (later MP), takes up the story:

“The shelters, which until the blitz were deserted, were now packed to overflowing, and now the conditions were revealed. The little trench shelters in the little Stepney parks were a foot deep in water. The benches were half-a-dozen inches above the water. It was quite impossible to use them, and certainly impossible to stay in them night after night. Now the street surface shelters were being put to the test. Many of them were destroyed.

The Communist party immediately began to organise Shelter Committees in the shelters in order to secure proper conditions and to provide for the feeding and amenities in the shelters. This idea caught on, and within a short while was being carried on throughout Stepney and indeed the whole of London. Later the authorities took over certain responsibilities such as refreshments. The Communist Party was the first to organise entertainments in the shelters. The Unity Theatre did excellent work in this connection; mobile groups went to different shelters to sing songs and to perform their lighter sketches. Later, other organisations began to organise entertainment.

The conditions in the shelters were frightful. Most notorious was the Tilbury shelter, which accommodated several thousand people in conditions which I find it impossible to describe. Many people were without shelter, and every evening there was a trek from Stepney to Central and West London to take shelter in on of the basement shelters of the large buildings there. The next morning thousands of bleary-eyed East Londoners were to be seen on the buses and trains coming back to East London from the West End.

The contrast between the shelter conditions for the rich and the poor called for exposure. This was done. When the blitz had continued for some days, we in Stepney took the initiative. One Saturday evening we gathered some seventy people, among them a large sprinkling of children, and we took them to the Savoy Hotel. We had heard from building workers of the well-constructed and luxurious shelter which had been built for their guests. We decided that what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families. We had an idea the hotel management would not see eye to eye with this proposition, so we organised the ‘invasion’ without their consent.”

Within minutes and with the help of sympathetic waiters the group had invaded and occupied the Savoy Hotel shelter:

“In fact, there was some effort to stop us, but it was only a matter of seconds before we were downstairs, and the women and children cam streaming in afterwards. While the management and their lackeys were filled with consternation, the visitors from the East End looked round in amazement. ‘Shelters,’ they said, ‘why we’d love to live in such places!’ Structurally, the lower ground floor had been strengthened with steel girders and by other means. But the appearance of the place! There were three sections. In each section there were cubicles. Each section was decorated in a different colour, pink, blue and green. All the bedding, all the linen, was of course the same uniform colour. Armchairs and deck chairs were strewn around. There were several ‘nurses’ – you could easily recognise them. One happened to be standing around and she was wearing the usual nurse’s white outfit, with a big red cross on he bosom. We were not quite sure what she was supposed to be nursing…

…We had earlier appointed our marshals to take care of all our people. They immediately made contact with the waiters, and asked for water and other such provisions. The waiters were most helpful. We were expecting trouble; we knew that the management was not going to allow us to sit there, just so easily. After a few minutes the police came. A plain-clothes officer said to me, ‘What is it all about?’ I explained. He said: ‘We will have to get you out.’ I said ‘OK – I’m curious to see what you do with the women and children.’ (The blitz was on). I said: ’Some of these men have seen mass murder, God help you if you touch the women and children.’ He wasn’t very happy. They tried intimidation, such as calling for identity cards, but we sat there.”

During the confusion an air raid alert, (all to helpfully), was sounded, and the Savoy Hotel manager realising that that could not be seen to send the “invaders”out into danger was forced to allow them to remain until the “all clear” siren was sounded.

“The management was in a dilemma. They urged the police to throw us out. We were able to impress the management that any such attempt would meet with some opposition, and that some of his guests in the dining room were likely to be disturbed. The manager left. He agreed to ignore us; that was what we wanted. Then we settled down. The first thing the marshals did was to call for refreshments. Many of our people had sandwiches with them, and therefore we asked one of the waiters to provide tea and bread butter. The waiter explained that they never served tea and bread and butter, and in any case the minimum price for anything was 2 shillings 6 pence. We said to the waiter: ‘We will pay you 2 pence a cup of tea and 2 pence a portion of bread and butter, the usual price in a Lyons restaurant. Three of four of the waiters went into a huddle, with one in particular doing the talking. He was evidently convincing the others. How they convinced the chef and management. I do not know, but within a few minutes, along came the trollies and the silver trays laden with pots of tea and bread and butter. The waiters were having the time of their lives. They were obviously neglecting their duties, standing around, chuckling and playing with the children.

The next day this news was flashed across the world. The contrast was made in bold headlines between the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney and the luxury conditions of the shelters of West London.”

The next day the press was full of stories about the audacious occupation of the Savoy Hotel shelter and the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney. The Communist Party had succeeded in its objective. At St Pancras The Party organised a picket of Carreras, the tobacco factory, demanding its shelter – capable of holding 3,000- be opened to the public at night.

In Walthamstow Councillor Bob Smith went with some homeless “bombed out” families and occupied empty houses, and similar actions took place in Chiswick (Heathfield Court) and Kensington.

“As a result, the Home Office took special steps to improve conditions in the Tilbury shelter and others. But this militant action led to further developments. A demand had been made for the Tubes to be made available as shelters. The Home Secretary, Mr Herbert Morrison, said that this was impossible. The only valid reason he could give was that children might fall on to the line and be killed. This was not a very impressive argument, when you consider the hundreds who were being killed because they had no shelter. The police were given instructions to allow no-one to use the Tubes for shelter. Loiterers were moved on by the police. The Communist Party decided that the Tubes should be open for shelters. This was done.

Two or three days after the Savoy incident preparations were made to break open the gates of the Tubes which the police were closing immediately the air-raid siren was sounded. At a number of stations these actions were taken. Various implements such as crowbars happened to be available, and while the police stood on duty guarding the gates, they were very quickly swept aside by the crowds, the crowbars brought into action, and the people went down. That night tens of thousands sprawled on the tube platforms. The next day, Mr Herbert Morrison, solemn as an owl, rose to make his world-shattering announcement: the Government had reconsidered its opinion in the matter of the Tubes being sued as shelters. From now onwards, they would be so employed. They were expected to accommodate 250,000. Arrangements would be made for refreshment and first-aid facilities. Later. Bunks were being installed. ‘The Government had reconsidered the matter.’ They had indeed! They had been forced to by the resolute action of the people of London which they had been powerless to prevent.”

(Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red).

Another account of the Savoy occupation gives a slightly different take on the numbers involved…

“There were forty of them. There were eighty. There were a hundred. They marched. They sauntered. They were angry. They were bewildered. They came with two dogs and they came with none. Theirs was a daring act that saved thousands of lives. Or it was a pretty piece of propaganda, gift-wrapped for the Führer. What happened beneath the Savoy Hotel on 14th September 1940, the eighth night of the Blitz, depended on the position of the observer: whether she or he was Red or anti-Red; East Ender or West Ender; dreaming of revolution or restoration. That Saturday night, when those forty or eighty or a hundred arrived at the doors of the hotel – with their dogs, or dogless – a small army of journalists was on the premises for a briefing by the Ministry of Information. Few, however, wrote about their uninvited fellow guests until the war was safely over. The government also maintained a public silence on the story, despite the urgent Cabinet discussion held the following Monday morning – a discussion with sinister undertones. But old comrades, years later, made that West End outing into a famous victory, a second Battle of Cable Street. It worked its way into plays and novels, into the mythology of the British Left. And though no horses charged and no batons swung, the Savoy Hotel invasion was the most serious political demonstration of the war – and dramatic evidence that conflict with Germany did not bring the class war to an end.

Max Levitas has spent most of his long life on the front line of that conflict. He was part of the famous human barricade that halted the Blackshirts’ progress through the East End in October 1936. He stood his ground at Brady Mansions during a twenty-one-week rent strike – brought to an end only by the government’s decision to freeze rents for the duration of the war. He was one of the dozen Communist councillors elected to the Borough of Stepney in 1945, during that giddy moment when the electorate could still see the avuncular side of Joe Stalin. He was there in 1991 when the Communist Party of Great Britain voted for dissolution and secured victory in the long war of attrition against itself. He was there, too, on that Blitz- struck Saturday night in 1940, shouldering the red banner of the Stepney Young Communist League as his group of demon- strators marched from the Embankment towards the silvered canopy of the Savoy. They marched for better air-raid shelters in the East End. They marched against the myth that the Luftwaffe had brought equality of suffering to Britain. And they received their marching orders from a series of urgent editorials in the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker: ‘If you live in the Savoy Hotel you are called by telephone when the sirens sound and then tucked into bed by servants in a luxury bomb-proof shelter,’ the newspaper asserted.‘But if you live in Paradise Court you may find yourself without a refuge of any kind.’ And above these words, in thick bold print:‘The people must act.’

Max Levitas nods in agreement when I read the article back to him. ‘The surface shelters protected you from shrapnel, from flak, but not much else,’ he reflects. ‘If a bomb fell on one of those it would collapse and kill everybody in it. The Communist Party argued for deep shelters. But the National Government wouldn’t listen. They wouldn’t even open the Underground. It was easy to ignore that message if you were sitting in the basement of a very nice hotel. So we decided to march on one.’ I ask him why they chose the Savoy. Max Levitas smiles a tolerant smile. ‘It was the nearest.’

I meet Max Levitas at the Idea Store, that gleaming cultural institution planted in the East End to compensate locals for the assimilation of their much-loved public library into the Whitechapel Art Gallery. He is a small, cloth-capped nonagenarian, wrapped tightly in a raincoat and muffler. Standing on the studded purple rubber floor of the foyer, he looks like a preserved fragment of the old Stepney. It is a chilling morning in February, and he can spare me an hour before he goes for his Turkish bath – a weekly ritual since the 1920s, when his father took him to the long-vanished Schewik steam rooms on Brick Lane. We catch the lift to the top-floor café, secure two cups of tea and a table with a view of the bristling City skyline, and he tells the story of his association with the area: how his parents fled the Lithuanian pogroms in 1912 and made landfall in Dublin, where Max was born three years later; how his father took the family first to Glasgow, and finally to Stepney, where work could be found among a supportive community of Jewish exiles. History radicalised those members of the Levitas clan it did not destroy: Max’s Aunt Sara and her family were burned to death in the synagogue of the Lithuanian shtetl of Akmian; Max’s father became a leading member of the distinctly Semitic, distinctly Red-tinged International Tailors and Pressers’ Union; Max’s elder brother, Maurice, fought against Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War; Max gave his youth to the Communist Party of Great Britain and was name-checked by Oswald Mosley in a speech denouncing the enemies of British Fascism.

The organisers of the Savoy invasion shared a similar ideological background: they were all revolutionaries. ‘And they’re all dead,’Max sighs. ‘Some were clothing workers. Some were bootmakers. Some were dockers.’ It is an inventory of lost trades. The first names he sifts from his memory are two stevedores, Ted Jones and Jack Murphy, veterans of pre-war campaigns for unemployment relief. The rest comprise a knot of men from the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League, which organised rent strikes against slum landlords in the East End: George Rosen, its bullish secretary, known as ‘Tubby’; Solly Klotnick, a furrier and a veteran of the Battle of Cable Street; Solomon Frankel, a clothing worker who took a bullet in Spain that robbed him of the use of his right hand. Michael Shapiro, a wiry young academic from the London School of Economics. At the head of the group stood Phil Piratin, Communist councillor for Spitalfields, chief spokesperson of the invaders, and the author of the most widely read account of their night at the Savoy. His memoir Our Flag Stays Red (1948) puts seventy in the hotel lobby, among them a number of children and pregnant women. Max’s memories are different. ‘There were forty of us,’ he affirms. ‘I’m sure of that.’ I ask if there were any dogs. He shakes his head. ‘No dogs,’ he says. ‘It was the Savoy.’ ”

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London rebel history: Charles Moor hanged for breaking out of workhouse and robbing rich man’s house, 1707.

“Charles More , of St. Martins in the Fields , was Indicted for Feloniously Stealing Divers Books to a Considerable Value and a Silver Seal , the Goods of Sir John Buckworth Bart. on the 1st instant. The Prosecutor Depos’d that on Friday-night last his Study was shut up and Fastned, and at 6 a Clock the next morning the Window was found broken open and the Goods mention’d taken away. Others deposed that between 4 and 5 that morning, the Prisoner took Water at Mortlock for London; and was observ’d to have a Bundle with him; the Bookseller that bought the Books, Depos’d that he bought the Books of the Prisoner, and gave him 15 s. for them. The Prisoner giving no Account how he came by them, the Jury found him Guilty of Felony. But a Record being produc’d, which prov’d that the Prisoner had before receiv’d the Benefit of his Clergy, and having been an Old Offender, and broken Prison several times, he was denyed the benefit of the late Act of Parliament.”(Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 3 September, 1707)

In the eighteenth century, when you were up to be hanged, you were supposed to repent. Be penitent. Confess your sins and the depravity of your past life, feel the heavy hand of the Lord and your impending doom, and beg for forgiveness. Humble yourself. Oh and grass up your fellow crims.

Charles Moor just wouldn’t play the game.

“I Shall not here give the Reader so full an Account of this Man as I hereafter intend, when the other Malefactor, condemn’d with him, shall be out of my Hand. But so much I will now say for the present satisfaction of the Publick, That I found him all along to be a very harden’d Sinner. His Condemnation was for having broke out of Prison, wherein he was confin’d to Work for former Crimes, and for having now robb’d the House of Sir John Buckworth, Bart . all which he could not deny, but he would not discover his Accomplices, nor any thing that might tend to the clearing of his Consecience, and the satisfaction of honest Men. So obstinate he was, That when both my self and other Divines shew’d him the necestity of making a free Confession, he did more and more harden himself against all Admonitions that could be given him. True it is, that in general he acknowledg’d, that he had been a very ill Liver, having broken the Laws of Cod and Man, by doing that which he ought rot to have done, and omitting to do that which he should have done. Further, he came to acknowledge, that he had been guilty of Swearing, Drunkenness, Lewdness, and the Profanation of the Lord’s Day, That he had several times wrong’d his Neighbours, and had not thought to amend his Life by former Judgments upon him; and that if he had had Grace, he might have lived very well by his Callings, which were that of a Husbandman, and of a Sailor. He told me, that he had gone several Voyages, tho but Thirty four years of Age, and understood Sea-faring Business as well as most. He likewise told me, That if he had known when he was Tryed, that he should have dyed, he would have had one or two with him for Fancy, for then. he would have made some Discovery of Persons concern’d with him, but now he was resolv’d to make none.

Thus he express’d himself, and shew;d how little sensible he was of his approaching Death, seeming rather to be given to jesting, than to entertain those serious Thoughts, which were becoming a Man under his Circumstances. I would advise others by any means not to imitate him in this wicked and desperate Temper, which for ought we know, may now have ended in his Eternal Misery.”

“Charles Moor, condemn’d both for breaking out of the Work house where he was lately confin’d, when found guilty of Felony, and for committing a Robbery since that time, viz. the first instant, in the House of Sir John Buckworth, Bart . and taking thence several Books of great Value, and a Silver Seal. He confess’d he was guilty of this Fact, as he had been before of others of the like nature. But he would not discover the Persons that were concerned therein; saying, that he would bring no Man into trouble now; but that if he had known it should have gone so hard with him at his Tryal, perhaps he would have brought in one or two to suffer with him for Fancy-sake. These were his very Words. All that was offer’d to him, both by my self and others, prov’d of little use to the perswading him to disburthen his Sin loaded Conscience, by a free and ingenuous Confession, which he ought to make, and which could be of no prejudice to any, but of general use and service to the Publick, and possibly of particular benefit and advantage to those very Persons, whose Names and Facts he was so unwilling to make known. What I could get from him in this respect, was only this; That there were some Persons lie knew, but would not name, that had formed a Design to rob a certain House in the Country, at such and such a time, which he mention’d; telling me that it might be prevented, if I did signify the same to the Person whose House it was, But as he would by no means speak more openly to this matter, nor discover them, who were to commit that Robbery; so I perceiv’d, that he was not heartily dispos’d to serve honest Men, especially when I consider’d, not only the manner, but the time of his acquainting me with this wicked Design, which was but some few hours before it should have been executed, and the Place at a pretty distance from London; so that there was hardly time enough left for me to inform the Gentleman concern’d therein, that he might duly provide against it: Nevertheless it was taken care of; and such wicked Persons, whoever they are that contriv’d the Mischief, have found, and (by the Grace of God) will always find such their ill Attempts, fruitless and dangerous to themselves

When any one would speak to this Malefactor, Charles Moor, and represent to him the necessity of his making a full and free Confession, as well for the good of his Soul, as for the good of the World, he fell into a Passion, and would be for a while after muttering and maundering so, that no Body could guess what he said, or what he meant; but that he would have nothing offer’d to him that grated upon his deluded Fancy and vicious Inclination. However, I desisted not from my Endeavours of breaking him off from his Error and Obstinacy: But his Heart was so harden’d, and so season’d in Wickedness, that no good could be wrought upon him. He confess’d indeed, That he had been a great Sinner, That he might, if he would, have lived very well, by following the Sailor’s Profession, or the Business of a Gardiner (or Nursery-man) both which he understood, and had been long employ’d in, and particularly the former; he having gone several Voyages beyond the Seas, and been in some Actions, wherein he had receiv’d some Wounds. He said, that he was not above 34 years of Age; yet had seen and done many things. When I ask’d him how he came to steal Books, as he had done, both formerly and now; he said he never stole any but twice, and the first time was a great while ago, and a great way off; but he would not tell where or when. And as to those Books, for the stealing of which he stood under this Condemnation, he said it was not in his or his Companions mind to have taken them, if they could have presently lighted on something better: Neither did they design to rob Sir John’s House, but they mistook it; their Design being then upon another. But whose House that was, or who they were that assisted him, he would not declare. Both he and Elby, I verily believ’d, encourag’d one another in their wicked Obstinacy; which was such, as that I may say, I have hardly met with the like in almost seven years that I have been in this melancholy Office. God grant I may never see such harden’d Sinners again; and that Men, whose unhappiness it is to have been engag’d in Sin, may not in imitation of this poor miserable Wretch, cast themselves away.

When he was come to Tyburn (whither they carried him in a Cart, and where I attended him) I found him still obstinate, as before, in his absolute and peremptory Denial of making any Discovery; saying, What good would it do me to hang three or four Men, and ruine their Families as mine? Here I (as I had at other times) shew’d him, that by such a Discovery (which in Law could not affect or hurt any of his Companions) he would do a great deal of good, not only to others, but chiefly to his own Soul, which was now in great danger of being sentenc’d to Hell for this his unaccountable Obstinacy. But notwithstanding all this, he persisted to the last in his wilful and tenacious humour, and would not be by any means perswaded out of it; but express’d some vain hopes of his obtaining Mercy. Whereupon I openly declared to him (for the discharge of my Duty) in the presence of the Spectators there, That if he did not clear his Conscience by making such a Confession as I had often, and now again press’d him to make; i. e. To discover his wicked Accomplices, and all things of which he could usefully inform the World; I did verily believe his Soul should be eternally lost. And therefore earnestly pray’d him to take care of this, and consider it well, and make an open Declaration of what he knew in those Matters that had been discours’d of. But instead of giving me satisfaction herein, he fell upon reflecting on the Severity of his Sentence, tho he could not deny but that it was very just, and that he had deserved the Condemnation he was under. Which was so palpable and so evident a Truth, that he was forc’d to acknowledge it; saying, That he was sensible God (in his Justice) had appointed this Death for him, for his great Sins He declared, that he dy’d in Charity with all the World; and seem’d outwardly to join with me in Prayers and singing of Psalms; and thanked me for my Pains about him. After I had recommended him to the Direction of the Divine Spirit, and pray’d that God would be pleased to soften his hard Heart, I went from him, to whom some further time was allow’d for private Devotions. When he was ready to be turn’d off, he cry’d to God for Mercy, in these and the like Ejaculations. Lord have Mercy upon me! Lord Jesus receive my Soul! &c.

But how fruitless (alas!) are all such Prayers, which the meer Terrors of Death and Hell extort from such undone Wretches, is but too apparent. God grant, others may be wiser, and consider better (and in due time) their Latter End here, so as to make sure Provision for a happy Eternity hereafter.”
(Account of the Ordinary of Newgate Prison, 1707.)

A glass to you Charlie. Give ’em nothing. Fuck ’em all.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in vegan history: Roger Crab, pioneering civil war veggie & prophet dies, Stepney, 1680.

“Among the many crazy sectaries produced from the yeasty froth of the fermenting caldron of the great civil war, there was not one more oddly crazy than Roger Crab… His wandering mind, probably not improved by the skull-cleaving operation, then imbibed the idea, that it was sinful to eat any kind of animal food, or to drink anything stronger than water.”
(The Book of Days,
ed. Robert Chambers)

Roger Crab (1621 – September 11, 1680) was an English soldier, haberdasher, herbal doctor and writer, best known for his ascetic lifestyle which included Christian vegetarianism. Crab fought in the Parliamentary Army in the English Civil War before becoming a haberdasher. But later became a hermit and worked as a herbal doctor. He then joined the Philadelphian Sect and began promoting asceticism through his writings.

Crab was born in Buckinghamshire in 1621. At the time of his birth his mother had an annual income of £20. As a young man, he began trying to find a way to live a perfect life. In 1641 he ceased eating meat, dairy and eggs. He also chose to be celibate.

At the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, Crab joined the Parliamentary Army under Oliver Cromwell. During a battle in 1645 he received a serious head wound from a sword. He was convinced that his life had been spared only by an act of God and he subsequently underwent a religious conversion, turning to vegetarianism as a form of spiritual purification.

At some point, he was apparently sentenced to death by Cromwell, but was later sentenced to two years in prison by Parliament. Christopher Hill has suggested that Crab may have been involved with the Levellers in the late 1640s and that his imprisonment resulted from this.

After leaving the army Crab moved to Chesham, where he started work as a haberdasher, which he continued between 1649 and 1652. In 1652 he moved to Ickenham, west of London, where he lived as a hermit:

“Determined to follow, literally, the injunctions given to the young man in the gospel, he sold off his stock in trade, distributing the proceeds among the poor, and took up his residence in a hut, situated on a rood of ground near Ickenham, where for some time he lived on the small sum of three-farthings a week”

Around this time he published his autobiography: “The English hermite, or, Wonder of this age”: subtitled “Being a relation of the life of Roger Crab, living neer Uxbridg, taken from his own mouth, shewing his strange reserved and unparallel’d kind of life, who counteth it a sin against his body and soule to eate any sort of flesh, fish, or living creature, or to drinke any wine, ale, or beere. He can live with three farthings a week. His constant food is roots and hearbs, as cabbage, turneps, carrets, dock-leaves, and grasse; also bread and bran, without butter or cheese: his cloathing is sack-cloath. He left the Army, and kept a shop at Chesham, and hath now left off that, and sold a considerable estate to give to the poore, shewing his reasons from the Scripture, Mark. 10. 21. Jer. 35.” (London: Printed, and are to be sold in Popes-head Alley, and at the Exchange 1655)

Holding that profit was sinful, Crab gave away most of his possessions, and attempted to live modestly, wearing homemade sackcloth clothes. Building up a practice as a herbal doctor, he advised his patients to avoid meat and alcohol. He was said to be a popular doctor among the village women. However, he was accused of witchcraft by a clergyman, possibly because he issued prophecies. He moved to Bethnal Green in 1657, and joined the Philadelphians, a local sect founded by John Pordage.

In common with many of the religious radicals of the era, Crab was an anti-sabbatarian, refusing to observe Sunday as a non-working day. Apparently he was at some point put in the stocks for it. He was also a pacifist (presumably after his stint in the army), and had radical views on the evils of property, the Church and universities.

Crab ate a vegan diet from 1641 until his death in 1680, holding that it was sinful to eat any kind of animal for food. Though unusual in the context of the political and religious upsurge of the mid-17th century, this form of personal stand did crop up among the many radical sects and individuals of the English Revolution. Forgoing the roast mutton, rabbit and other ‘dainty’ dishes of his former life, he lived on an ascetic menu of vegetables. Crab initially included potatoes and carrots in his diet, but later gave them up, eating mostly bran and turnips, before reducing his intake to only rumex (a kind of sorrel leaf) and grass, claiming to spend just 3/4 d. (three farthings a week) a week on food. Late in his life he pushed the boat out and added parsnips to his diet. Sellout. He also refused to drink anything stronger than water. Crab’s asceticism and vegan diet developed from a vow of poverty inspired by the figure of John the Baptist (whom Crab regarded as the first Leveller).

After his death he was buried at St Dunstan’s Church, Stepney, London. His grave is no longer seen, but the slab was imbedded in the walkway. Wikipedia has a transcription of his epitaph:

“Tread gently, reader, near the dust
Committed to this tomb-stone’s trust:
For while ’twas flesh, it held a guest
With universal love possest:
A soul that stemmed opinion’s tide,
Did over sects in triumph ride;
Yet separate from the giddy crowd,
And paths tradition had allowed.
Through good and ill reports he past,
Oft censured, yet approved at last.
Wouldst thou his religion know?
In brief ’twas this: to all to do
Just as he would be done unto.
So in kind Nature’s law he stood,
A temple, undefiled with blood,
A friend to everything that ‘s good.
The rest angels alone can fitly tell;
Haste then to them and him; and so farewell!”

Much of what of known of the life of Roger Crab is derived from the four pamphlets he printed in his lifetime, most notably The English Hermite (1655) and Dragons-Downfall (1657).

Read Crab’s The English Hermite

Some interesting observations on English Civil War era vegetarianism:

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in shopping history: naked demo in Selfridges demands release of naked protestor Steve Gough, 2003.

An account of a naked protest in Selfridges store, Central London, 2003.

“Steve Gough has been walking naked from land’s end to john o groats to highlight the issue that clothing should be optional in life. he has been arrested several times, with most charges subsequently dropped, he has been beaten up, and he is currently naked in inverness prison segregation awaiting a new trial, without exercise or access to a phone.

of the neglible mainstream reports of saturday’s selfridges naked protest, most confuse the fact that previous charges acquired by Steve Gough on his journey have been dropped, without mentioning that he is currently remanded unclothed in prison segregation. Thus giving the impression he is free as a bird with no worries, rather than incarcerated in isolation without access to even a phone. 

But worse is the obligatory, almost obsessive, need in the media to make the headline into a pun….. “naked protest over in a flash” being the most common. Flashing is an aggresive and sexual form of public nudity. A criminal act that predominantly targets and victimises women and children. It is exceptionally unhelpful and lazy, almost spiteful, of any journalist to add this association. Especially when there is zero balancing argument included in the reportage to underline our actual intent. 

my personal motives are as follows: There is nothing inherently bad or criminal in the appearance of the unclothed human body. I’m not some bloody hippy who wants to tell the world how ‘beautiful’ we all are, or how ‘natural’ and free it is to be naked. Naked protest is an extremely simple and direct political and philosophical action, that highlights the absurdity and extent of our corrupted social programming and the uniformed state that enforces it. 

Public nudity is a simple human statement that simultaneously invokes numerous important complexities. As Foucault pointed out: a culture’s power structures depend largely on how we look and are looked at. 

the initial premise for saturday’s selfridges naked protest in support of steve, was that an unknown number of people who had been notified of the event, would independently arrive and disperse themselves throughout selfidges department store, and at 2.30 we would remove our clothing and make our way to the exit. from there we would walk naked as an assembled group along oxford street and as far as we could without unnescessary police interference. 

the inside of selfridges was chosen as our starting point primarily because it had been the location earlier in the year for one of spencer tunick’s mass naked photo art events, in which around 500 people participated. and after selfridges became aware during the course of this week that todays naked protest was to begin there, it seemed as though they were generally cool about it. the police reaction however was another tired old matter. 

a group of 6 of us, who we knew would definitely participate, met earlier in the day. but it was hoped that by putting out the word to people, especially people who had previously been among the hundreds of naked participants in tunick’s highly publicised past art events, that the eventual numbers would be much higher. but it wasn’t really. 

i first got involved with naked protests and issues relating to the unclothed human appearance in public, on july 15 2000. it was a naked protest outside new scotland yard police hq. to date i have been arrested naked a total of 7 times without a single prosecution. this includes spending a month continuously unclothed remanded in prison segregation, until the charges (section 5 public order act) were dropped, jan 2001. (ref: guardian prison letter) 

last week, when i was first notified of the protest i was genuinely caught off guard having to contemplate going through the whole media and police circus-act yet again. it is obvious that having to endlessly repeat the justification and defence for public nudity, to the media (who mostly don’t really give a fuck about the issues, they just want a novelty story and a tiresome “the laws an ass” bum-shot photo caption) aswell as to the crown prosecution, it becomes an incredibly mind numbing mantra, and you need a break from it. 

vincent bethell, (who was tried naked in court for his january 2001 crown trial, and who was unanimously acquitted by the jury of men and women of the charge of ‘public nuisance’), was present today. but he was determined not to take his clothes off. he was present to give support and information, but he is still experiencing the stressful consequences of having been remanded continously unclothed for 5 months in prison segregation UNTIL he was acquitted by the jury. plus he is exhausted from years of organising protests that mostly end up as yet another futile “the laws an ass” bum-shot photo caption in the press, if it even appears at all. 

there was a general consensus among the handful of protestors saturday to comply if and when the police demand we get dressed. they don’t arrest you if you put your clothes on again. i’ve never complied before, and i found it difficult to imagine complying. the choice to wear clothes or not should be mine alone. so in the lead up to saturday i had decided it would be best if i therefore just remained clothed the whole time, if getting dressed on demand was going to be an issue for me. but as there were only 5 other definite participants, i felt it necessary to get undressed and go along with the consensus. 

at the allotted time i stripped somewhere on the first floor of the store. two store security people immediately approached me and asked me to get dressed. their request certainly wasn’t part of the deal, so i remained naked as they escorted me down the escalator to the main exit where a throng of police awaited. then the police demanded i get dressed or else i’d be arrested. (with of course officers trotting out that ridiculous old knee jerk reason that “there are children present among the public.” as if the sight of naked people could in any possible way matter.) 

now i have to tell you, i feel kind of soiled and empty after going along with the police demands on this occasion. this is no criticism of other people’s compliance, we’ve all got different limits, responsibilities in the rest of our lives, priorities and of course different fears, but i’ve never got dressed on demand before and i will never ever fucking do it again. 

so the whole event was brief. some photos were taken. some printed facts and thoughts were distributed. some questions were answered and written down in shorthand. blah blah blah, and mainstream reportage is bollocks as usual. 

back in the summer/autumn 2001, in the lead up to vincent’s and my last protest/arrest/trial, we had both decided and had begun publicly stating that if we were prosecuted (following our past acquittals in both crown and magistrate trials) we were prepared to commit to hunger striking to the death if necessary. but as it was we were subsequently acquitted AGAIN in our last bow street magistrate’s trial, october 2001. 

still hunger strike was and remains an obvious next level of commitment, among others, when media events and court acquittals are not enough to prevent unclothed people from being intimidated and arrested by the police and, as in the current situation with steve gough, remanded in prison segregation cells, then a more intense form of body protest is probably required in order to underline the seriousness of the issues and intent. 

Personally I have no great need to be naked in public, but at the same time MY ONLY NEED TO BE CLOTHED IS A POINTLESSLY IMPOSED ONE. I am neither a naturist, a nudist, a streaker, an exhibitionist, nor an attention seeker. Labels belong to clothing. Concealment of the human appearance is entirely unnecessary and should only ever be optional as an individual choice. 

In reply to the often heard return that “people should also have a choice not to look at the unclothed body”, that is something similar to the bigotry that doesn’t want to see 2 men kissing. GET OVER IT. Visual prejudice and embarrassment is not an equally valid freedom. Similarly I often hear people stating that there are certain body shapes and sizes that they wouldn’t want to see. shame on you!. As for that other well worn cliche, “the need to protect children in public space”, THERE IS NO EVIDENCE AVAILABLE ANYWHERE TO SUGGEST THAT NON-SEXUAL NUDITY CAN IN ANYWAY HARM CHILDREN. For those of you who can only giggle and express dog-eared innuendos at the thought of visible genitalia. GROW UP. While to those who believe this whole thing to be a trivial matter, I can only reply that FREEDOM IS A PRECIOUS THING IN ALL ITS FORMS AND MUST BE VIGOROUSLY AND CONSTANTLY DEFENDED. In these present times we should especially appreciate that fact. 

I can not comment on the level of support that steve gough receives from his family, but when i was continuously unclothed in prison segregation awaiting trial, my mum wrote to tell me how proud she was of me for standing up for my beliefs. i was raised to believe that in life it is vital to always QUESTION EVERYTHING. 

meanwhile what is definitely certain right now is that some kind of new strategy is required. exactly what form it will take…….. we shall wait and think and see. but the use of naked protest within other protest campaigns, as a powerful expression of simple humanity is one option. 

Finally I’d include a mention of the issues related to contemporary clothing. Aside from the obvious insidious voluntary act of paying to turn ourselves into walking adverts, like so many corporately branded cattle, theres the issue of the exploitative labour involved in producing fashionable garments. 

Women make up 90 percent of sweatshop labourers. In some cases, women are allowed only two drinks of water 
and one bathroom break per shift. Sexual harassment, corporal punishment, and verbal abuse are all means used by supervisors to instill fear and keep employees in line. 

Isolation means that sweatshop workers are often unaware of their rights, and have little or no contact with unions. they are denied fundamental rights such as Respect. Safe working conditions. Affordable health insurance. Fair treatment. Paychecks that meet basic needs. The simple fact is that for big corporations, profit comes first. Sometimes clothing, shoes or other products can be produced most cheaply in a sweatshop in a Third World country, where there are lower (or no) health and safety standards, low minimum wages and restrictions on the workers’ rights to free speech and association. 

Corporations choose carefully which Third World country they will “invest” in next. Repressive governments can be more profitable than democratic ones, because repressive governments and their militaries keep unions and radical workers in line. 

all of which adds to the fact that there is something fundamentally disturbing and all too passive in the notion that we must conceal the human body at all costs.”

russell higgs

Nicked from Indymedia London. (Mistookenly in the hard copy of the 2017 calendar as 8th Sept)

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s anti-semitic history: attacks on Jews follow king Richard I’s coronation, 1189.

Anti-semitism and widespread persecution of Jewish communities is almost as old as Christianity. While the twentieth century witnessed its most horrifying peak, the root of events like the Holocaust go back centuries. Medieval Christian teaching on the Jews, labelling them killers of Christ, fed into xenophobia, scapegoating and distrust of outsiders or communities with differing religious or cultural beliefs. State and church persecution was regular, if inconsistent; officially sponsored massacres, riots and murders were common. At other times attacks on Jews might arise among the lower orders, whipped up by long-entrenched racism and the urge to blame an easy outside target for the shiteness of your own life.

Even when authorities were not behind such attacks, often elements of the ruling elites were involved or turned a blind eye.

Jews were bound by restrictive laws on what trades they were allowed to practice; in many places they were not allowed to own land, so could not become farmers. Jews were also not allowed to join the Christian trade guilds, severely limiting what work they could learn or make a living at. Local rulers and church officials closed many professions to the Jews, pushing them into marginal occupations considered socially inferior, such as tax and rent collecting and moneylending, tolerated then as a “necessary evil”. Catholic doctrine of the time held that lending money for interest was a sin, and forbidden to Christians. Jews were not subject to this restriction, and while the Torah and later sections of the Hebrew Bible frowned on usury, some leeway was given for lending to gentiles. Since few other occupations were open to them, Jews were motivated to take up money lending. This was said to show Jews were usurers, and subsequently led to many negative stereotypes and propaganda. Natural tensions between creditors (typically Jews) and debtors (typically Christians) were added to social, political, religious, and economic strains. Peasants who were forced to pay their taxes to Jews could personify them as the people taking their earnings while remaining loyal to the lords on whose behalf the Jews in reality worked. It suited the king and lords to have a buffer, a hated layer that could be blamed to deflect tensions, especially in times of hardship, shielding the aristos from getting turned over by the working people they forced to slave for them.

Of course only a part of Jewish communities became moneylenders, but the stereotype was useful.

It was in the late eleventh century that a recognisable Jewish community began to form in London. King William I (the Bastard/Conqueror, take your pick) encouraged Jews to migrate to London as part of a policy of stimulating commercial and financial development – a policy that proved to be instrumental to the restoration of London’s economic infrastructure following the devastating Norman Conquest of 1066.

The nascent Jewish community mainly migrated from northern France, though a minority came from Germany, Italy, and Spain, and one or two even from Russia and the Muslim countries. Migrating Jews brought with them money that they lent to the King at interest. For their services, the Jews of London were given rights proclaimed in the Statutum de judaismo, the ‘Jewish Charter’ issued under king Henry I. The Charter guaranteed the Jewish population of London “liberty of movement through out the country, relief from ordinary tolls, protection from misuse, free recourse to royal justice and responsibility to no other, permission to retain land pledged as security, and special provision to ensure fair trial.”

Succeeding rulers confirmed the rights established under the charter, and England in the main, during the eleventh century, was a relatively safe haven for Jews than many places in the continent where persecution was rife, especially after the beginnings of the crusades. King William Rufus (1087-1100) is even said to have encouraged them to enter into disputations with Christian clerics.

By the mid-12th century, communities were to be found in most of the greater cities of the country; besides London, they were present in Lincoln, Winchester, York, Oxford, Norwich, and Bristol. Smaller communities also existed in Exeter, Wilton, Canterbury, Devizes, Marlborough, Calne, Wallingford, Berkhamsted, Gloucester, Colchester, Sudbury, Ipswich, Cambridge, Bedford, Northampton, Warwick, Worcester, Hereford, Weobley, Coventry, Huntington, Leicester, Stamford, and King’s Lynn.

However, the London community was always the most important. Until 1177 the only cemetery allowed was in London. No communities were found west of Exeter or north of York.

However, English distrust of the Jewish population was growing. In the late twelfth century riots and massacres began, and the climate of fear and hate worsened, as a result of financial disagreements and scapegoating, and a series of criminal allegations, generally false and founded on jealousy and an irrational fear of the foreign and unknown.

In 1130 the Jews of London were fined the then enormous sum of £2,000 on the charge that one of their number had killed a sick man. Credulous Christian morons believed that Jews kidnapped and murdered the children of Christians in order to use their blood as part of their religious rituals during Jewish holidays – so-called ‘blood libel’.

The first recorded blood libel took place at Norwich in 1144 and was imitated at Gloucester in 1168, before the precedent came to be followed outside England. Similar accusations were made before the end of the century at Bury St. Edmunds (1181), Bristol (before 1183), and Winchester (1192).

But the wealthier Jewish bankers were a vital resource for the kings, lending them large sums to fund their pointless wars. Successive kings also imposed punitive taxes and penalties on Jews to fleece them of cash.
In 1168 a tallage (an arbitrary tax, theoretically levied only in emergency) of 5,000 marks (a mark was two-thirds of a £) was imposed by Henry II. In 1188 a tax of one-fourth of the value of their movable property was levied upon London Jewry. The amount raised, according to the rough contemporary estimate, was £60,000, as against only £70,000 raised from the general population. The annual revenue obtained by the state from the Jews is conjectured to have averaged at this time £3,000.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, London’s Jews were concentrated in what would later be called a ghetto, known as Jewry. The original London Jewry was centred on modern Old Jewry Street, then simply Jewry Street, which ran and still runs north from Cheapside, across Lothbury and to Coleman Street. The first Jewish Great Synagogue, the centre of the community’s religious life, was located in modern Ironmonger Lane, the next street across from Jewry Street. (It has been speculated that Coleman Street’s long later history of religious non-conformism had some relation to its being part of Jewry – was it already known for toleration, or did the later association derive from the previous Jewish population?)

Jewry Street, off Aldgate, was the second tolerated area for Jews to live, possibly in the 13th century when pre-expulsion persecution was at its height (under the bigoted Henry III and the rebellious barons who identified jews with king’s financial abuses.)

Old Jewry, like all of the ghettoes in the history of mankind, formed as a result of social, legal, and economic pressures. The very isolation of the Ghetto made it a safe haven, but also marked out and separated the Jewish community, making it a more obvious target and concentrating resentment

From the late eleventh century, anti-semitism in Europe was whipped up even higher than usual by the Crusades. Huge armies formed to march off and fight the muslims occupying the ‘holy land’ around Jerusalem, encouraged by religious blessings and announcements of concessions and free entry to heaven for sinners and criminals who ‘took the Cross’. Millenarian movements who saw this as the final struggle before Armageddon and Jesus’ second coming spread. Mass hatred of muslims was also shunted into the nearer and more convenient target, the non-Christians close at hand – the Jews. Crusaders and mobs massacred Jews all over Europe. Quite apart from general anti-semitic hatred, there was a growing feeling that the Jews should not be allowed to live in peace when brave Christians were preparing to endanger themselves overseas, besides which a belief had spread that to kill any unbeliever guaranteed admission to heaven for a Christian no matter what their other sins might be.

Although this persecution was noticeably absent in England, the muslim conquest of the short-lived Kingdom of Jerusalem in the late 1180s marked a turning point. King Henry II died after vowing to become a crusader. His son, Richard, is now known as Richard the Lionheart (although a more accurate moniker would be ‘Richard the rapacious Tax collector who bankrupted the country to fund crusades and other daft wars and his ransom when he got imprisoned by a rival royal parasite’. Doesn’t have the same ring to it I guess.) He planned to go off and fight the ‘infidel’ in Palestine.

As Richard took the throne, the latent hostility to England’s Jews broke into the open:

“A trivial episode at the coronation of the new king proved to be the spark which set the tinder ablaze. The proceedings at Westminster were long and stately, and the solemnity of the occasion was emphasised by a proclamation that no woman, and no Jew, should be admitted. [‘Because of the magic arts which Jews and some women notoriously exercise at royal coronations’ according to Matthew Paris (Historia Anglorum, ii, 9). It may be observed that Jewish custom prescribed a special benediction on seeing monarch, the recital of which might conceivably give rise to a suspicion of this sort.]

Nevertheless, on the afternoon of the coronation day (Sunday, 3 September 1189), while the festivities were at their height, a deputation from the Jewish communities of the kingdom presented itself at the gateway of Westminster Hall, bearing rich gifts – probably in the hope of obtaining a renewal of the charter of privileges granted originally by Henry I. Some of them, eager to see the magnificence, took advantage of a momentary disorder to slip in, and were driven out by a zealous doorkeeper with unnecessary brutality. This was enough to arouse the crowd at the palace gates. Several members of the deputation were beaten or trampled to death before they could escape. The wealthy Benedict, who had come as one of the representatives of the community of York, saved his life by consenting to embrace Christianity, and was immediately baptized in the adjacent Church of the Innocents by a priest from his own city.

Exaggerated rumours of what was happening at Westminster soon spread to London, where it was reported that the king had given orders for the Jews to be exterminated. In their well-built stone houses, the inhabitants were able to resist for some hours until, towards nightfall, one of the mob threw up a lighted torch which set fire to the thatched roof. The flames rapidly spread, and before long the whole of Jewry was in a blaze. Though some of the inhabitants found refuge in the Tower of London or under the protection of friendly neighbours, several perished in their houses, and others were done to death, when they ventured into the street. Thirty persons lost their lives, amongst them being the eminent Rabbi Jacob of Orleans, not long since arrived from the continent.

The news was reported to the king as he sat banqueting. He immediately dispatched the justiciar, Ranulph de Glanville, to check the disorders, but he was unable to make any impression. The outbreak had indeed been of so universal a character, and enjoyed such general sympathy, that it was not considered advisable to take serious measures against those who had participated. Nevertheless, some of the ringleaders were arrested and three were hanged – one for robbing a Christian and two because the fire they had kindled burned down a Christian house. Little else was done except to dispatch letters to all parts of the kingdom ordering the Jews to be left in peace.” (Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England).

However, this royal proclamation was only temporarily successful, with further anti-Jewish rioting postponed until Richard left the country in December. As part of his planned crusade, contingents were gathering in most towns in the kingdom readying themselves to march off and fight Muslims in the ‘holy land’. However, as had occurred during preparations for previous crusades, the first targets of the crusaders were Jews in their own midst.

As a result, a few months after the coronation and the king’s departure, a rash of anti-Jewish riots broke out, often where crusaders were gathering; and coinciding with Lent, always a time of heightened tension, as hatred of Jews for ‘killing our lord’ was then emphasised. There were vicious pogroms in Lynn, Norfolk (now Kings Lynn), where the Jewish community was all but exterminated, and in Norwich, Stamford, Bury St Edmunds, Lincoln, Colchester, Thetford, Ospringe, and most violently at York. Here, the largest Jewish settlement outside London had grown into a relatively prosperous enclave. As usual, however, local barons were heavily in debt to Jewish moneylenders, and they sparked a riot with the aim of evading payment. The community was massacred, with the remainder of the community taking refuge in the castle, but ending by killing themselves when it was besieged. At least 150 died in the castle and many more in the town.

In some places, Jews saved themselves by agreeing to covert to Christianity; in others, Jews were expelled from their houses.

King Richard, hearing of this, did get somewhat narked, in part because
a) it’s the royal prerogative to massacre your subjects, this is not to be sub-contracted;
b) disorder is generally considered a bad thing, c) the king had specifically issued his protection to the Jews, mass flouting of this making him look weak and ineffective,
and d) the royal treasury stood to lose, as the king milked the Jewish community heavily, and thus their goods getting nicked reduced the monarch’s take.

Some limited harsh measures were taken against a very few of the perpetrators of the massacres, but on the whole little was done. The king couldn’t afford to piss off the nobles on whose support he relied for fighting and ruling, and the unpopularity of the Jews made it difficult to make a point of defending them when faced with more important matters like fighting God’s wars.

The reigns of Richard’s successors, kings John and Henry III, were littered with similar events – accusations of ‘blood libel’, robbery, killings and persecutions. Jews as moneylenders were often associated with kings, whose royal power was being challenged by the nobility throughout the thirteenth century. Several popular rebellions against royal autocracy, battles between kings and powerful aristos, also sparked anti-semitic outbursts.

Nobles often targeted Jews because they were under his protection, or had lent the king money, or because they themselves wished to despoil them and/or avoid paying debts to them.

This pattern culminated with the wholesale expulsion of all Jews from England in 1290 by the psychopathic Edward I; officially Jews were barred from the kingdom unless they converted to Christianity, a prohibition which lasted nearly four centuries.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London penal history: escaped convicts fight constables, Saffron Hill, 1783.

For centuries, from the early 1600s to the 1860s, England transported hundreds of thousands of convicts, political prisoners as well as prisoners of war from Scotland and Ireland to its overseas colonies in the Americas, and later to Australia.

“Initially based on the royal prerogative of mercy, and later under English Law, transportation was an alternative sentence imposed for a felony; it was typically imposed for offences for which death was deemed too severe. By 1670, as new felonies were defined, the option of being sentenced to transportation was allowed. Forgery of a document, for example, was a capital crime until the 1820s, when the penalty was reduced to transportation.

Depending on the crime, the sentence was imposed for life or for a set period of years. If imposed for a period of years, the offender was permitted to return home after serving out his time, but had to make his own way back. Many offenders thus stayed in the colony as free persons, and might obtain employment as jailers or other servants of the penal colony.

Transportation became a business: merchants chose from among the prisoners on the basis of the demand for labour and their likely profits. They obtained a contract from the sheriffs, and after the voyage to the colonies they sold the convicts as indentured servants. The payment they received also covered the jail fees, the fees for granting the pardon, the clerk’s fees, and everything necessary to authorise the transportation.” (Wikipedia)

These arrangements for transportation continued into the 18th century.

In the 17th and 18th centuries criminal justice was severe: a large, and increasing, number of offences were punishable by execution, (usually by hanging) – many were minor crimes. As there were limited choices of sentencing available to judges for convicted criminals in England, conviction for relatively minor thefts, for example, could end in the gallows. Reaction against this led not only to juries acquitting clearly guilty crims, or deliberately undervaluing stolen goods to reduce the sentence – but also to many offenders being pardoned, as it was considered unreasonable to execute them. All these were clearly unacceptable options and undermined the strict rule of the law.

Transportation allowed an alternative punishment, (although legally it was considered a condition of a pardon, rather than a sentence in itself – thus being presented as an act of the King’s mercy). Convicts who represented a menace to the community were excluded from it, and this in itself was thought to help discourage crime for fear of being transported.

In the eighteenth century, transportation became one of the major dynamics of London life, a chasm that awaited the poor, as much as the gallows, a threat held over the lower orders. The huge distance to the penal colonies often meant convicts would never see home and loved ones again… Even if their sentence was not for life, returning home at your own expense was impossible for most. Many died en route to the colonies, or were worked to death or worn out when they arrived.

Transportation did not go uncontested, however. Opportunities for escape began in the London prisons, where convicts were often held pending transfer to a transport ship; and even once on the ship, sentenced convicts could spend months or even years locked on a prison hulk in the Thames waiting for a transport ship (of which there were relatively few). As inmates on the hulks were forced to do hard labour (often on the docks) and live in cramped, disease/pest infested and damp, sinking tubs, and faced the prospect of a long voyage during which many died, incentives to leg it were high.

At any point in this often protracted process, the chance might arrive to make a solo or collective break for it. Not to mention the chances to leg it en route (few but not unknown), or once you arrived in the penal colonies – although the likelihood of staying free and even getting back to Britain was slim (it was not, however, unheard of).

By the early 1780s, with the option of penal transportation to the Americas severely restricted by the US war of independence, and transportation to Australia still in the planning stage, London’s prisons were overflowing, and the floating prison hulks crowded to the point of explosion.

In 1783 a number of convicts escaped from a transport ship off the coast of Rye, on the Sussex/Kent border.

“A set of villains to the number of 49, rose upon the crew of the Swift transport, whom they confined, and took the two long boats to get on shore; 47 went in the boats, and two in the confusion were drowned. Before they quitted the ship, they behaved with the utmost violence to those who would not join in their plan; and not only robbed the captain and crew, but their fellow convicts, from whom they took all their little money. The captain and crew are since released, and it was thought proper to make for Portsmouth and wait for orders, as the captain did not know how to act…” (Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1783).

Several of the escapees fled to London, and took refuge in the Saffron Hill rookery.

“Three of the constables belonging to the office in Bow Street having been sent in search of the transports who lately escaped on the coast of Sussex, to a house in Onslow Street, Saffron Hill, where five of them were assembled, a terrible engagement took place. Two of the villains ran up stairs, an escaped at a back window. The three that were left armed themselves, one with a poker, another with a clasp-knife, and the word was with one voice, ‘Cut away, we shall be hanged if taken, and we will die on the spot rather than submit.” On which, a bloody contest commenced. One of the constables had the fore-part of his head laid open, and received three deep wounds from the right eye down to the cheek; another of the constables received a terrible wound a little above the temple from a large poker, after which he closed with the villain, and got him down; the third constable had better success with the villain he encountered, for, by striking him on the right hand with his cutlass, he dropped his weapon, and then they all said they would submit.”

The next day, the captured escapees were questioned:

“The above prisoners, named Middleton, Godby and Bird, were examined before William Blackborrow, Esq. when Lee and Townsend, servants to Mr Akerman, deposed that they, with many other prisoners, were on the 14th of last month taken from Newgate and put on board of a vessel, in order for transportation to America. Being asked by the magistrate, by what means they had procured their liberty, they acknowledged that they had run the ship aground, having confined the captain and the crew, and got on shore in two longboats; that no cruelty was exercised, not any property stolen, except that some of the convicts obliged part of the sailors to change cloaths with them; that they concealed themselves in hedges and ditches till night, and then too different routs; that they (the prisoners), and a few others, collected half a crown among themselves, which they gave to a countryman, for conducting them to Rye, whence they walked to London, where they had arrived but a very short time when they were apprehended and committed to Newgate.”

Saffron Hill was an ideal place for the escapees to head for. The rookery, derived from the medieval Liberty here, had a well-established reputation for thievery and prostitution, but also for its well-developed tradition of self-defence against incursions from the law, and its intricate escape routes, built into the houses and garrets, designed to allow fugitives to get away if pursued.

The Saffron Hill area was ideally situated for illegal activity and refuge, sited as it was in an administrative borderland, where responsibility for policing was split between the authority of Middlesex, the City and the parishes of Clerkenwell, St Andrew Holborn, St Sepulchre’s and the Liberty of Saffron Hill. The few constables and watchmen in service generally limited their patrols to their own patches. The authorities only rarely went into the rookeries; and if they intended to arrest, then only in large numbers. So there usually was plenty of forewarning; sometimes hundreds of the slumdwellers came on to the street to confront a police invasion. Such criminal legends as Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Dick Turpin were all at times residents of Saffron Hill. As early as 1598 (when the northern end was known as Gold Lane) Saffron Hill was described as “sometime a filthy passage into the fields, now both sides built with small tenements.” (John Stow). Much of Dickens’s Oliver Twist is set here – this is the neighbourhood of Fagin and Bill Sykes.

Being so autonomous from regular police presence meant that the rookery thieving community evolved a sophisticated environment to protect their trade. Much of the following evidence was only revealed through demolition during the slum clearances to make way for the new railway and road through Clerkenwell; “Against the incursions of the law…there were remarkable defences. Over the years the whole mass of yards and tenements had become threaded by an elaborate complex of runways, traps and bolt-holes. In places cellar had been connected with cellar so that a fugitive could pass under a series of houses and emerge in another part of the rookery. In others, long-established escape routes ran up from the maze of inner courts and over the huddled roofs: high on a wall was a double row of iron spikes, ‘one row to hold by, and another for the feet to rest on,’ connecting the windows of adjacent buildings. … To chase a wanted man through the escape ways could be really dangerous, even for a party of armed police. According to a senior police officer… a pursuer would find himself ‘creeping on his hands and knees through a hole two feet square entirely in the power of dangerous characters’ who might be waiting on the other side: while at one point a ‘large cesspool, covered in such a way that a stranger would likely step into it’ was ready to swallow him up.”

The river Fleet, by this era an open drain, was also utilised; flowing through the middle of the rookery (and being a rough boundary between the Clerkenwell proper and Saffron Hill sections), “though its dark and rapid stream was concealed by the houses on each side, its current swept away at once into the Thames whatever was thrown into it. In the Thieves’ house were dark closets, trap-doors, sliding panels and other means of escape.” In the area’s most notorious low lodging house, the Red Lion Inn in West St, “were two trap-doors in the floor, one for the concealment of property, the other to provide means of escape to those who were hard run; a wooden door was cleverly let into the floor, of which, to all appearance, it formed part; through this, the thief, who was in danger of being captured, escaped; as immediately beneath was a cellar, about three feet square; from this there was an outlet to the Fleet Ditch, a plank was thrown across this, and the thief was soon in Black Boy Alley – out of reach of his pursuers.” Famous fugitives such as Jack Sheppard and Jerry Abershaw were hidden here.

In the same house, there were other means of escape (the stairs apparently resembling those in an M. C. Escher print!); “The staircase was very peculiar, scarcely to be described; for though the pursuer and pursued might only be a few feet distant, the one would escape to the roof of the house, while the other would be descending steps, and, in a moment or two, would find himself in the room he had first left by another door. This was managed by a pivoted panel being turned between the two.” (The Rookeries of London, Thomas Beames, 1852.)

On September 19th, 29 of the Swift were condemned to death for the mutiny/mass escape. Transcripts of the trials can be found here (scroll down). Three days later some were executed, and others ‘pardoned’, ie sentenced to transportation:

“Monday 22. At half after eight o’clock the following malafactors were carried from Newgate in two carts to Tyburn, where they were executed, for being the ringleaders in running the Swift transport on shore… viz Charles Thomas, William Matthews, Thomas Millington, David Hart, Abraham Hyam, and Christopher Trusty; the last three were Jews, who were attended by a priest of their own religion. These audacious villains being executed by way of example, the others (eighteen in number) were ordered to be transported for life, one only excepted, nam’d Murphy, whose term was only seven years.” (Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1873).

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s rebel past: Jack Sheppard escapes from Newgate Prison, 1724 (the first time).

“Whereas John Shepheard broke out of the Condemn’d Hold of Newgate (with his Irons on) by cutting off one of the large Iron Spikes over the Main Door on Monday the 31st of August last, about six a clock in the Evening, he is about 23 years of Age and about five Foot four Inches high, very slender and of a pale Complection, has lately been very sick, did wear a light Bob Wig, a light colour’d Cloth Coat, and white Waistcoat, has an impediment in his speech and is a Carpenter by Trade. Whoever will discover of apprehend him so that he be brought to Justice shall receive 20 guineas Reward to be paid by the Keeper of Newgate.”
(Proclamation from the Keeper of Newgate, 4th September, 1724.)

“A file’s worth all the bibles in the world…” (Jack Sheppard)

In his day he became the most famous name in England and he remained a folk-hero to the poor for over a century after his death. In the 1840s plays based on his life were still regularly being performed for working class audiences, and his name was better known amongst many of the poor than that of Queen Victoria. Jack Sheppard was the prison escaper supreme of eighteenth century England.

Born in Spitalfields in 1702, his carpenter father died during Jack’s childhood. His mother was forced by poverty to place him in Bishopsgate workhouse. Beginning a carpenter’s apprenticeship, he picked up some locksmithing skills that would stand him in good stead in later years…

“The apprenticeship system was still controlled by an Act passed under Queen Elizabeth, the Statute of Artificers. The system provided young people with a vocational education, in another household…. they were ‘bound apprentice’ between twelve and sixteen. Parish children might begin their apprenticeship as early as eleven, and continue in it until they were twenty-four. (Remember that the expectation of life at birth was then about 36 years.) The contract would continue for seven years or more, until the master was satisfied that the apprentice knew his trade. Apart from some public holidays, no home leave was given. The boy’s parents might not see him again until his time was up. Imagine the child of twelve leaving his home to live in strange surroundings with no parental love, withstanding the storms of adolescence and reaching physical maturity with only the recollection of his childhood and what support his master gave him to sustain him, and perhaps occasional letters from home if his parents could write.” (Restoration London, Liza Picard, 1997.)

But Jack rejected these narrow and constricted channels of apprentice life; with just ten months of his apprenticeship left to serve, he deserted the master to who he had been apprentied, Mr Kneebone, and joined the swelling ranks of the ‘idle apprentices’, a group that invoked fear and suspicion among respectable folk for many centuries – a leading moral bogey of the era.

Jack took to a life of robbery. It might be said that Jack wasn’t an especially successful robber, he was imprisoned five times – luckily he turned out to be a breakout artist par excellence, so that he escaped prison four times. These technically brilliant and daring escapades, as well as his taunting attitude to authority, secured his lasting fame among the working class.

In the spring of 1723 he aided the escape of his girlfriend Edgeworth Bess from St Giles’s Roundhouse. In April he ended up there himself; betrayed by his brother Tom (who was hoping to bargain his own release from a burglary charge) and his friend James Sykes, he was lured into a trap and delivered to a Justice Parry.

It took him less than three hours to escape.

That was in April 1724. From then until the end of November the saga of his escapes grew, astounding ever-increasing numbers of people for their daring and dexterity.”

Arrested again for pickpocketing a gentleman’s watch, Jack was now taken to Clerkenwell’s New Prison. As his common law wife, Edgworth Bess was allowed to join him from her confinement in the Roundhouse. They were locked in the most secure area, ‘Newgate Ward’, and Jack was weighed down with 28lb of shackles and chains. He soon set to work sawing through these and

then through an iron bar. Boring through a nine-inch-thick oak bar, then fastening sheets, gowns and petticoats together, they descended 25ft to ground level; only to find they had landed themselves in the neighbouring prison of Clerkenwell Bridewell! Undaunted, driving his gimblets and piercers into the 22ft wall, Jack and Bess used them as steps and hand-holds and made their way over the wall to freedom in the early morning of Whit Monday 1724.

While Sheppard’s later escape from the condemned hold of Newgate made ‘a far greater Noise in the World’, the London gaolkeepers regarded the New Prison escape as the most ‘miraculous’ ever performed in England, so they preserved the broken chains and bars ‘to Testifie, and Preserve the memory of this extraordinary Event and Villian.’

Jack spent the next three months of freedom engaging in highway robbery and burglary. He was recaptured after he robbed his old master, Mr Kneebone, who called in contacted Jonathan Wild, ‘the thief-taker General’. Wild was both a trainer of thieves and a deliverer of them to the courts, a fence of stolen goods and returner of them to rightful owners; “a complex and parasitic system” that “had in these years become a system of municipal policing.” Sheppard always refused to compromise himself by having any dealings with the repulsive and hated Wild.

Wild pressured Edgeworth Bess to reveal Jack’s hideaway, and, after an exchange of pistol fire, he was captured and taken to Newgate prison. In August he was tried and sentenced to hang.

On his return to Newgate he was locked in the Condemned Hold, a dismal cell next to the Keepers’ Lodge, and close to the prison gate. It had a stone floor, and a wide wooden shelf with a row of iron bolts above served as a communal bed for all inmates. Its narrow window faced onto the dark lane beneath Newgate’s famous arch.

Deputy Keeper Bodenham Rouse ordered Jack to be chained and fettered, but the chains were long enough to allow him to stand by the door and converse with visitors.

The Lodge acted both as a reception room for the prison, and a common room for the turnkeys and keepers, including a bar (run by Mrs Spurling, widow of head turnkey Spurling who had been shot in open court by a highwayman on trial 10 years before). From the table where they sat drinking the screws could keep an eye on those who passed in and out of the prison yard, as well as on the ‘Stout partition” that separated them from the prisons in the Condemned Hold.

In the last week of August, Jack’s ‘death warrant’ arrived, setting a date on September 4th for his execution at Tyburn. He had only a few days to escape if he was to avoid being ‘turned off’.

Jack had previously, according to his own later account, agreed a plan to break out with his three cellmates, but they had pulled out when it looked like they might be reprieved; Jack had also fallen ill with a fever. But on the day before their scheduled execution, news arrived that the reprieve was not forthcoming. One of the men, Davis, gave Jack all the tolls he had had smuggled in by friends, with a view to freeing himself. He and the other two cons then departed for their appointment with the gallows. Jack, determined not to share their fate, set to work with filing away at the spikes set in the top of the partition separating the lodge from the Hold. After two days filing (halting only when visitors or turnkeys passed by) he had filed halfway through the spike. Another day’s work would see it weakened enough to be readily snapped off, he thought, leaving him able to pull himself free through the gap.

However, the next day was Sunday, when crowds of visitors flocked to Newgate, passing in and out of the Lodge all day. Jack was unable to get much filing done. He dared not do it at night as the quiet made the noise stand out and he feared the screws would hear. On Monday morning he resumed his task…

By noon, when Edgeworth Bess and her friend Poll Maggot came to visit him, he was close to achieving his goal. As they talked and laughed he continued filing away. Cruikshank’s illustration (above) hints at how precarious this was, with the screws sitting only a few yards away around a corner. Around six in the evening he managed to snap the spike off, leaving a gap; though only around nine inches square, this was enough for the wiry Jack to wriggle through, dressed in a disguise of a booney and gown Bess had pushed through to him. Pulling himself up on the neighbouring spikes, he edged his way out, lowering himself down into the Lodge. Poll Maggot hid behind a pillar, and Bess and Jack sauntered out past the turnkeys seated at the bar, who he later commented were ironically discussing Jack’s own previous escape from the New Prison, and how they would have not allowed it to happen in THEIR jail. Two women had arrived and two were seemingly leaving, chattering and laughing…

Reaching the street without being challenged, Jack and Bess ran to a waiting coach driven by Jack’s mate William Page, to be joined by Poll Maggot, who had also walked out of the jail without incident. Driven to Blackfriars Stairs, they hired a boat which took them to Westminster… In a Holborn inn, Jack sawed his chains off, fortified by a bottle of brandy. He was free once more… He walked through the City to Spitalfields where he spent the night with Edgworth Bess.

Sheppard’s latest escape threw the shopkeepers of Drury Lane and the Strand into a panic. Jack took up robbing again, this time from a watchmaker’s shop in Fleet St.

In the meantime, the Newgate authorities were seriously embarrassed by Jack’s escape, and the mockery and bad publicity it gathered them: the Daily Journal called the breakout ‘the most surprising Accident at Newgate’, and penny ballads appeared rapidly, taking the piss out of the jailers, or accusing them of letting Jack go for bribes.

However, Jack was re-arrested on September 9th, after he had been recognised around London by various people that knew him, and rumours had spread. He legged it to Finchley Common, but a posse of Newgate turnkeys trailed him there and arrested him and his mate Page. Jack was returned to Newgate once again, and locked once more in the Condemned Hold – this time chained to the floor and heavily guarded.

By this time Sheppard had become a celebrity and folk hero of the labouring classes; visited by the famous and interviewed by journalists and ballad makers. He offered some lucid comments; when urged by a prison official to concentrate on preparing himself for the afterlife rather than attempting to escape, he replied “One file’s worth all the Bibles in the world.” He also condemned the corruption and hypocrisy of the criminal justice system.

As his trial approached Jack implemented his escape plan on the 14th October. This amazing flight from Newgate was to make him an enduring legend amongst the working class for over a century afterwards. Freeing himself from his shackles he then worked his way up the chimney, through several locked rooms and eventually on to the roof and over the wall to freedom.

On 29th October Sheppard robbed a pawnshop for some spending money and began a triumphant tour, a defiant spree through his old haunts and hunting grounds. He hired a coach and, with some female companions, toured his own native Spitalfields – he also drove through the arch of Newgate itself! Defiantly parading himself around the ale-houses and gin-shops, he was recaptured after fifteen days of glorious liberty.

Jack Sheppard was hanged on 16th November 1724 at Tyburn; a cheering crowd, said to number 200,000, lined the route to salute him. A last minute escape plan was foiled, and attempts to rescue his body to preserve it from dissection by surgeons prevented plans to bring him back to life…

Jack’s short and eventful life may have been cut violently short – but his defiance of authority and his resourceful ability ensured his fame has outlasted him for nearly three centuries.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London squatting history: Camberwell Squat Centre/Black Frog evicted, 2007

“On the 10th March 2007, we climbed a high ladder and entered the empty building at 190-192 Warham Street in Camberwell, South London. It took five minutes to put life back into a building that had been left empty for 9 months.”

Camberwell, South London, has played host to a number of squatted venues and social/political spaces and centres over the last few decades.

We aren’t going to talk here about the old Dickie Dirts store (squatted four times for planning Stop the City, gigs and more), the Labour Club, Groove Park, the old Muesli Factory, Area 7, Crawford Street, and later the Ratstar, the Library House… Just some of the ones we can recall…

One squatted space in Camberwell several of your past tense mob were involved in was briefly in existence from March to August 2007, at 190-192 Warham Street, off Camberwell New Road, opposite the union Tavern (and also opposite the site of the old Duke of York pub, once used for meetings by a local group of the National Union of the Working Classes in the early 1830s).

The old Good Food Cafe in Warham Street was squatted in march 2007, by a group of mainly anarchist rebels and troublemakers living locally, some who had been involved in many alternative, radical and activists projects for years (including longer-running squats and social centres such as Brixton’s 121 Centre, 56a Infoshop, use Your Loaf in Deptford…) plus some folk who had been around slightly less time. Your typist had previously known the place as a greasy café – very greasy. Also very small. It had closed down the previous year, and lay empty and unused.
After months eyeing it up but having no time, some of us jumped the tracks and climbed in through an upstairs window using a ladder.

“As we descended the stairs, we began to put a reality to the dream we had all dreamed as we watched the building sit lifeless for all those months. We dreamed of opening up the dead lifeless space and bringing in living bodies. Bodies that could talk, have ideas, disagree, learn how to fix up and build a living space. Bodies that could share the space and enjoy it and extend an open invitation to others to be part of the new life in the building. Bodies to cook and eat together. To get drunk on what possibilities we can create here.

What’s the point of a fridge without any food in it? What’s the point of a bowl without any soup in it? Exactly, So, what’s the point of a building without anybody in it? Well, actually we know the answer to that one. It looks like this: Make £££££££. Well we choose another answer. Our answer: Make life. Surely that must be the point.”

On first sight the place did look unusable:

“The water pipes were open leaving water to run through two floors. Everything was soaked and stained with mould. The toilets and shower were smashed. The wiring was ripped out and walls were smashed.

No-one cared about the place. There was only one thing they cared about. Standing in midst of the debris that early Saturday morning, we almost turned back. We almost abandoned our dream.

We breathed in mould and looked at each other for a number of minutes. In silence. But we are dreamers…and what is the point of a dream that cannot be turned into something real?”

The chairs and tables, though, were still there from the old caff, and those with a sharp eye and long squatting nous reckoned it could be turned around with a couple of days work.

“With a passion we put our backs into the work. Others soon got involved and we fixed up the building. We brought fresh air and human warmth back inside. It’s a work in progress. There are always two questions – What needs doing? What can you do? Actually, there is a third more vital question: Are you enjoying yourself?”

The downstairs was quickly done up, replumbed and rewired, painted, and opened up, soon to host weekly cafes, a bar, film nights, benefits, meetings, parties, booksales and discussions… (the building also housed several people upstairs.)

A large argumentative collective ran the space: so quarrelsome among ourselves that Monday night weekly meetings sometimes lasted 3 hours, as we berated each other about every single detail of running the centre… While many of us knew each other, some didn’t – but the arguments came more from different ideas about what a space was, the politics behind it. Direct democracy in action, painful but absolutely consistent, and a really useful experience in how you get things done when your ideas can be almost diametrically opposed. Disagreements ran as basic as the name of the place: some of us called it the Camberwell Squatted Centre, some wanted to call it a Social Centre but others had no time for that term. Some called it Black Frog, for what reason I can’t now recall (of there was one). We never did settle on a name and the building lived under several aliases; appropriate, in a way, as it also focused diverse ideas of what the place was, what it was for. Ideas that clashed, as we argued, but also ended up complementing each other. Sure there was a lot of argument – there was also a lot of love, which brought people together in interesting and inspiring ways, helped to create new openings. Possibly the fact that a core of us had spent a chunk of the previous 15-20 years or so involved in one squat centre or another, or hanging out at others, helped us avoid some of the traps ’twas easy to fall into… although another advantage was the sheer smallness of the space. You literally couldn’t do loads of things, like having huge parties, gigs etc, that often caused aggro in squatted spaces…

We organised events, showing films every week, cooking food and holding bars, discos, discussions, history nights, workshops for various skills. Hundreds of people came down, both locals and from further afield, and many widely varying happenings followed. Some weeks we could have a totally different crowd in every night. We showed ‘The Brixton Tapes’ about the 1981 Brixton Riot, and had to turn large numbers away, as we could only fit so many in. We had talks from activists from as far afield as South Africa – from land squatting movement Abahlali base Mjondolo: “Richard Pithouse who did the talk on that day made some good connections about occupation, land and squatting etc. That was a particularly meaningful event and encounter for me – to bring such connections between two different but engaged land / housing battles but esp to hear about the self-managed politics of Abahlali.”

The space rang to live music from local session gods the No Frills Band, as well as from visiting Australian folks…

We held language classes, swapped seedlings, hosted Indymedia training, shared basic plumbing skills, heard talks on Camberwell radical history and underground Lambeth, on German anti-capitalist fascism and queer slang… The very dodgy old white nationalist geezers who lived opposite very likely took the pictures of us that ended up on some ultra-right website…

We lent the space to the Brixton Ritzy cinema workers to hold a social after their first strike over crap wages and conditions. (A struggle still going on ten years later). Novelty of novelties, we tried to have a varied decent selection of beers on offer… When Mayday came around instead of joining the leftie ramble through central London we held our own Mayday march to Kennington Park and erected a maypole there and danced around it… among much more…

“Early on, we had the unfortunate presence of two policemen inside the place with all their usual prejudices: squatters are junkies, squatters are all unemployed, squatters are this, squatters are that. They made it clear that they thought we were just rats. But who cares what they think!

‘Why can’t you live like normal people?’, they asked. But what is normal in these days? Speculating on a ruined building whilst others are homeless or can’t afford a decent place? Does it seem normal surviving another round of the working week? Labouring – commuting – shopping – resting – back to work. Some money but no time. A little time but no real enthusiasm. A two week holiday as some kind of escape. Yes, this is the normality of ourselves too! It was at this end point of the policeman’s questioning, that one bright burning spirit amongst us replied: ‘We are dreamers…’ and the words hung there, in silence, with nothing else needing to be added. Neither seeking approval nor apologising for what we are, this was a moment that we could have almost let go of but instead our good friend had let something loose amongst us all. Something that remains in the air. It pervades the building. It inspires. It fixes. It rebels.

As dreamers, we try to refuse what passes for being ‘normal’ because no-one is ‘normal’. We try to make alternatives to the daily grind. We try to open up escape routes here, now. Everyone knows that this grind cannot continue. We are all looking for a way out. For us, it cannot be an individual solution as we are all in this together. So the dream we dream is a collective one.

None of us wish any longer to slump exhausted in front of TV because that’s all our body can do at that point. None of us wish any longer to drink ourselves senseless in lonely isolation. None of us wish to feel any longer the crushing despair of the lives we are supposed to lead in 21st century London. None of us wish any longer to substitute our passions and our dreams or our desires for things, objects or trinkets. No more!

We are no longer interested in the decisions made elsewhere by waste of space politicians because we have our own decisions to make. We are no longer interested in the lives of rich celebrities because we have our own lives to be interested in.

In less than two weeks, we have created a beautiful living breathing alive space once more. What else could we do? We put in floorboards. We dried out rooms for people to sleep soundly in. We scraped off mould and put up paint. We built a kitchen. Built a café space. Put in toilets. Put in sinks. Put in ideas. We might have exhausted ourselves, some of us working 9-5, some of us working precariously but we always found more energy to keep building. What we discovered (once again), is that far from there being a scarcity of energy, knowledge, ideas, there is always a beautiful surplus available when we make our own decisions. We didn’t need a shop-bought plan nor a foreman. There was no book to tell us what to do. There was only our imagination and the fantastic possibilities that dreamers tend come up with.

We know that one day, near or far, we will be forced out of here and the building will once again be sealed off from light fresh air we bring in. We know that but it does not stop us working hard for the dream. Here now. And again. And again…And…

As one of our posters says: ‘As everyone knows, the dream is dead. The dream, the desire, the hope for a better world. And yet we are dreamers. We too should be dead, then. But if we are not mistaken…HERE WE ARE’.

But it is very much an open dream. Be here too. It is every dreamer’s space. Be occupied! This has been your invitation.”

It turned out that the building was owned by some small-scale property developers, and bizarrely they included, or were being fronted for, by a guy some of us knew vaguely, him having been the landlord of two Brixton pubs a number of the local squatters/musicians had drunk in/played in, Brady’s and the Queen. A wheeler and dealer, someone we thought we could maybe make some kind of temporary arrangement with. Before we could approach him the place was invaded by him and a couple of crap heavies, and a stand-off took place inside and outside, turning into an argument. When the cops turned up they reluctantly told the owners they’d have to go to court to get us out. Some negotiations took pace a few days later but came to nothing. So we just carried on as usual, making the best of the place while it lasted.

So after holding them off physically we were taken to court and lost, but carried on using the space as long as we could.

The Camberwell Squat Centre/Black Frog/Warham Street was eventually evicted early in the morning on 30th August, 2007:

Oh there is something inevitable about squatting and that is the free rude awakening you can get at 4am one Thursday morning on 30th August after losing legal ‘possession’ of the place. So yeah the Black Frog residents were turfed out by bailiffs in the end, as is the end of most squatting centre stories. What can we say? There just isn’t space here to go into everything that feels like it should be said. How can we answer those great questions that came up: Are you free to do whatever you like in a free space? Why do people make a dogma out of the number of ‘local’ people coming in, or worse, what some activists call ‘normal’ people? (ho ho ho). Is it a social centre or a centre? Words on a page cannot do justice to what we felt and lived at the Black Frog and we all know there’s no justice in the world.”

The building was smashed up to prevent us going back in; eventually, though planning permission for their grotesque flat and shop complex was repeatedly knocked back, a new block of flats sprouted on the site.

All in all it was a fun and mind-expanding experience for the people who ran and frequented the space, re-invigorating some people’s energy for collective rebelliousness and putting us in contact with others locally who felt like us. Unlike some previous squatted social spaces the Black Frog/Squat Centre very open, wide in its appeal, welcoming and broad-ranging in what went down there.

So it only lasted five months – it was an intense ride, and some of us were knackered afterwards. Sometimes a short sharp burst can be useful. Some of the folk involved went on to be involved in other squatted centres that followed in the area, notably the Library House. In some ways Warham Street signalled a renaissance in political squatting in that part of South London which had been quiet for a while.

Its also worth mentioning “the solidarity extended to us from Abahlali after their visit. They were very moved by seeing the images of the shack dwellers we put in the walls for their visit.”

They sent a message after hearing of our eviction:

“Solidarity from Abahlali base Mjondolo   05.09.2007 18:59 Abahlali baseMjondolo would like to extend solidarity to the Camberwell Comrades. Qina!   We acknoweldge and respect what you have done and understand your pain at this time. Keep up your courage.  

Message from S bu Zikode to Activists in London The time has come for poor people all over the world to define themselves before someone else defines them, thinks for them and acts for them. Do not allow others to define you. We are pleading to University intellectuals and NGOs to give us a chance to have a platform for our own creativity, our own politics. Our politics is not a politics that originates from institutions of higher learning. It originates from our lives and experiences. We are asking the academic intellectuals and NGOs for a work space to think and discuss – not for them to think and speak for us. We are not prepared to hear from anyone on a point of order. Not government, not NGOs. No one.”

We like to think we built something of our own. We remember it fondly, anyway. As the graffiti which quickly went up on the empty shopfront for the eviction read: “Missing You…”

“Face to face is better, so maybe we will have these discussions at the next Black Frog…see you there! Or better still squat your own place and we will pop round for a cuppa!!

We fix. We build. We occupy. TOGETHER.”

Above quotes are usually excerpts from ‘Yes We Are Dreamers’, a text written by one of our number for a social centres round up.

and another related text

Here’s more on the radical history of Camberwell

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London transport history: women tube workers return to work after equal pay strike, 1918

It’s generally well-known that during World War I, thousands of jobs normally done by men were taken over by women, as hundreds of thousands of men left to fight in the trenches and at sea (whether voluntarily, or increasingly as the war dragged on, against their will). The mass enlistment of women into work and supporting the war effort is generally also credited with the British government finally agreeing to ‘grant’ (some) women the vote in 1918, in supposed gratitude to the part women had played during the war.

Less well-known is a large-scale strike in August 1918, that began in West London and spread around a number of other cities and towns – women workers, doing jobs usually restricted to men, striking to obtain equal pay for equal work. On top of the labour shortage, the war brought new jobs as part of the war effort – for example in munitions factories. The high demand for weapons led to munitions factories becoming the largest single employer of women during 1918. There was initial resistance by employers and male workers to hiring women for what was seen as ‘men’s work’, but the introduction of conscription, in 1916, made the need for women workers urgent. The government began coordinating the employment of women through campaigns and recruitment drives.

Thus women were soon working in areas of work that had previously been reserved for men, for example as railway guards, ticket collectors, bus and tram conductors, postal workers, police, firefighters and as bank ‘tellers’ or clerks. Some women also worked heavy or precision machinery in engineering, led cart horses on farms, and worked in the civil service and factories. However, they received lower wages for doing the same work, and thus began some of the earliest demands for equal pay.

Women’s employment rates increased during WWI, from 23.6% of the working age population  in 1914 to between 37.7% and 46.7% in 1918. It is difficult to get exact estimates because domestic workers were excluded from these figures and many women moved from domestic service into the jobs created due to the war effort. The employment of married women increased sharply – accounting for nearly 40% of all women workers by 1918.

But because women were paid less than men, male workers suspected that bosses would continue to employ women in these jobs when the men returned from the war. (in fact this didn’t happen; usually the women were sacked to make way for the returning soldiers, though in some cases women remained working alongside men but at lower wage rates.) A series of unofficial strikes by men did take place, protesting at the ‘dilution’ of the workforce by women, and responding to what they saw as a threat of wages generally being reduced. However, these actions “simply exaggerated the manpower shortage, and had the unexpected effect of forcing up piecework rates for the women.” Other male workers took the slightly less chauvinistic approach of persuading the women workers to join trade unions, in a bid to prevent them being used as pawns in wage-lowering.

However, even before the end of the war, many women refused to accept lower pay for what in most cases was the same work as had been done previously by men. Public transport was an area where women were employed in large numbers.

“By February 1915, 21% of the men employed in London’s bus and tram services had joined the armed forces and only 3.5 percentage points of the shortfall had been made up. By late 1915 it was quite obvious that women would be needed to keep London’s transport infrastructure working. The first female bus conductor was taken on by Tilling’s (one of the smaller of the main bus operators) on their No 37 route in late 1915. The London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), the main bus provider in the capital, lagged a bit behind but eventually took on bus female bus conductors in February 1916.”

By the end of the war, the London General Omnibus Company alone was employing over 3,500 women, and thousands more were employed by the other bus and tram operators in London as well as on the tubes.

“As with most expansions of women’s work during the war, this change was greeted with much publicity around women doing their bit and how they could do ‘man’s work’. By mid-1918, the number of women employed on buses across the country had increased from 300 to 4,500 (on trams it was even greater: from 1,300 to nearly 22,000). It was estimated that 90% of conductors on trams and buses were women. Generally, men were retained as drivers and doing some of the heavier (and dirtier) engineering roles. The conducting role was said to be beneficial to the health of those women who did it.”

Although strikes were nominally illegal, the latter half of the war did see a rise in stoppages. Public transport was no exception. There had been a large bus strike in 1917, sparked when the London General Omnibus Company refused to recognise the Vehicle Workers Union. It lasted a few days, and was mostly solid. Out of a total of 1900 buses, only 20 were running on May 13th! The day after, it was reported that “The situation in the London bus strike today has undergone very little change. There was a repetition this morning of yesterday’s scenes as thousands of workers proceeded to business. Trams and tubes absorbed much possible the extra traffic thrown upon them.”
Services were resumed on May 15 pending negotiations – after discussion the strike was ended on the 18th. The strike was part of a huge wave of strikes in 1917, building as prices raises and wage constraints during the war hit hard, as knuckling under ‘to support the war effort’ began to crumble under disillusion with the war aims, horror at the casualties – and the surge of hope inspired by the February Russian Revolution…

Both management and the unions had consistently opposed conceding the principle of equal pay for what was obviously equal work.

“A large majority of women tram and bus conductresses joined unions by 1918. Many had been practically compelled by men members to join the union. The understanding was that they should be employed on exactly the same terms as men whilst their employment must terminate by the end of the war. In some cases women were employed on short shifts, but this policy was opposed by the Union. It was feared that any relief of this kind would not only give employers an excuse for deductions from wages, but add to men’s hours of work. It might even have the undesirable effect of encouraging women’s employment in the future. Women drivers who were entirely composed of commercial private employees formed a comparatively small section of members, probably less than 1/8th.

The larger number of women drivers involved for auxiliary war service were not encouraged by the government to join Trade Unions. Women tram and bus conductors who were well organised for a start, had little difficulty in obtaining men’s minimum rates of wages, but the question of war advances was a matter of constant dispute. The important National Award for February 1918 which men received an aggregate advance of 20/- a week on pre-war rates, laid down that, “Where agreements or awards already exist providing the same rates to be paid to women as to men, such agreements or awards are to hold good and an increase to be paid accordingly.” In the absence of such agreements, women were to receive only an advance of 4/- on the current rates. The London Women Bus Conductresses were at once accorded the full bonus and a subsequent decision of the committee of production by which they were refused, a further advance of 51- met with such a determined resistance that the decision was reversed. All women were however by no means so successful Outside London the women’s claim had been prejudiced for the most part by the terms of previous awards by which they received not more than about two thirds of men’s war advances. In London, however, their claim was undeniable and here they secured the full sum of 20/-, bringing up their earnings to 63/- a week. In the following July a fresh appeal was made to arbitration, and men were granted a further advance of 5/- a week. But this time the women were left out. The award met with an unexpected storm of indignation. London women bus conductresses were not accustomed to such treatment. They had, moreover, begun to taste power. A protest meeting was held at once and they announced their intention to take drastic action unless their claim received attention. It did not receive attention.”

Their claim for equal pay ignored, women workers on London buses and trams went on strike in August 1918 to demand the same increase in pay (war bonus) as men. The strike spread to other towns in the South East and to the London Underground. This was the first equal pay strike in the UK which was initiated, led and ultimately won by women.

The immediate cause of the trouble was that whereas the award of the Committee on Production gave a war bonus of five shillings to the men it declined a similar concession to the women employees.

On August 16th, 1918, a meeting of women at Willesden bus garage decided, without consulting or even informing either the management or the trade union leaders, to strike the following day. The next morning Willesden stopped work; they were immediately joined by women at Hackney, Holloway, Archway and Acton bus depots or garages, and thereafter the strike spread like wildfire. By the evening thousands of women had stopped work. The demand was initially for a 5 shillings War bonus, a demand which became upgraded, as the dispute escalated, to a call for equal pay for women workers, or as the strikers put it ‘Same work – same money’. « One conductress thus explained the situation, “When we were taken on by the Company they promised to give us whatever rise the men had. We are doing just as much work as the men who realise the justice of our case and are supporting our strike.”

It was reported that : “Male employees who are opposed to the women’s claim base their opposition to the fact that many conductresses are the wives of soldiers and are receiving separation allowances, whereas the men have families to support. No intimation of their intentions was given and many early morning workers found themselves unable to get to business. The inconvenience increased during the day. People in the Hayes and Hillingdon districts who desired to get to Uxbridge or Southall to do their Saturday shopping were faced with the alternative of walking or going without provisions. There was no question of buying locally for many of the villages are rationed for meat, butter etc at town shops and were therefore in an awkward position.”

Many of the men conductors and drivers who had heard nothing about the plan, as it had been more or less secretly organised by the women. The strike continued to spread. By August 23rd, women bus and tram workers at Hastings, Bath, Bristol, South Wales, Brighton, Folkestone, Southend, Weston-super-Mare and Birmingham had joined in, about 18,000 women out of the 27,000 employed in the industry had stopped work.

Back in London, many women working on the tubes – supported by some men – had also stopped work, on the same issue. The transport strikers had a series of mass meetings at the Ring, Blackfriars, where 4,000 women, many of them with children, well supplied with sandwiches and lemonade, made a day out of it.

“Sir George Asquith, the chief industrial commissioner, had held a number of conferences with the parties engaged in the dispute with the hope of arranging a settlement, but it was not until Wednesday night that an arrangement was reached.   A conference under the auspices of the National Transport Workers Federation was held in the morning and a resolution was passed committing the unions affiliated to the organisation of “Immediate appropriate and determined action” to enforce national adoption of equal pay for equal labour to women and men. The unions represented at the conference were the Amalgamated Association of Tramway and Vehicle Workers London and the Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers, National Union of Vehicle Workers, National Union of General Workers and Dock, Wharf and Riverside General Labourers Union.

The terms of the resolution adopted by the conference were sent to Sir George Asquith, chief industrial commissioner, and in the afternoon delegates from the conference were received by him. After discussion lasting four hours the following official announcement was made, “The three Unions concerned with representatives of the National Transport Workers Federation met with Sir George Asquith today and after lengthy conference decided to recommend to the Executive Committee the following terms.

Resumption of work pending reference to the Committee on Production of interpretation of their awards, namely whether under Clause 14 of the Award of July 9 the Committee be understood to nullify any agreement or undertaking and in particular any such undertaking as is alluded to in Clause 4 of the Award of March 8 and on the claim that equal total payments be made to women as to men for equal work in the tramway and omnibus, undertakings who were parties to the Award of March 8 and July 9 and that any present changes of payments are to date from the beginning of the first full pay day following July 9 and that any future changes of payments should take place jointly with those of the men. The Hearing will take place on Monday next at 2.30 and the Awards will be issued as speedily as possible.”

The public were surprised and not a little inconvenienced, but its sympathies were in the main on the side of the women. Even The Times admitted the strength of the women’s case which lay precisely in this – That their work was as well done as any man could do it and that everyone could see that it was. The Committee of Production by which body the award had been given was obliged to yield to the storm and to re-consider its decision and the women won their case. Such was the victory of the women tram drivers that Mary McArthur, the Leader of the Women’s Union declared the award to be the absolute vindication of the principle for which we are contending.”

The bus and tram strike was eventually settled on August 25th, after a tumultuous meeting at the Ring, and despite a vocal element opposing calling a halt to the struggle. However, the women working on the underground stayed out until August 28th. The women received the extra 5s War bonus, but the principle of equal pay was not in fact conceded. The details of organisation of this important struggle are obscure; indeed it is rather surprising that this strike, which must be one of the largest ever engaged in by women for their own demands, has not attracted more attention from historians of the labour movement.

London had even seen its first strike for equal pay by women working on the trams and buses – legislation wouldn’t arrive until the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

Parts of this post were taken and slightly edited from Don’t be a Soldier! by Ken Weller.

And Hayes People’s History

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s penal past: guns smuggled into Newgate, inside ‘Smoaking hot pyes’, 1735.

Newgate Prison, for 100s of years the most potent symbol of state repression in London, hated and feared by the London poor whose lives it loomed over… Inevitably its story is also one of resistance… As it was routinely used to hold those who had been condemned to death, those awaiting transportation, or court appearances which would very likely end in one or the other, many prisoners had little to lose by trying to escape.

Sometimes these were individual feats, Houdini-style, like Jack Sheppard or Daniel Malden. On occasion outsiders launched raids to rescue inmates, as a crowd of Irishmen did to free their mates in 1749, or the Gordon Rioters successfully achieved en masse in June 1780. Others were collective attempts to fight their way free. The first such mass jailbreak attempt we can find evidence of was in 1275; another riot ten years later was aimed at a breakout, which failed.

In 1735 four highwaymen staged yet another attempted jailbreak. Thomas Gray, alias Macray, Joseph Emmerson, John James alias Black Jack, and Henry Sellon, were all imprisoned in Newgate in August of 1735. They had all been sentenced to death at Kingston Assizes on August 9th, “Sellon, for robbing Mr Collins on the Highway… Macray, for robbing Mr Hammerson of his Watch and Money on Barns Common… Emmerson and James… for entering the House of Jasper Hale Esq of Peckham, and wounding him and his Servant maid…”

Macray had already escaped from the Old Bailey once… he also had a few mates rooting for him, having arranged for “14 well-dress’d persons to appear for him here, most of who, swore he was sick in bed the whole Week in which the Fact was committed, but finding they were suspected, all slipp’d out of Court. [Several of them are since apprehended by the Direction of Baron Thomson, in order to be prosecuted for perjury.]”

So it shouldn’t have been very surprising that outside help was clearly involved when Macray and the other three, attempted to escape the prison on August 18th:

“They were all wounded in an Attempt to break out of Gaol, two Nights before, which Mr Taylor, the Keeper, being inform’d of, and that they were filing off their Irons, got his Assistants arm’d with Blunderbusses, Pistols, and Cutlasses, went to the Door, and desir’d Macray to make no desperate Attempt, for there was so Possibility of his Escape. Macray replied, In their present desperate Circumstances they no body, and desir’d him to retire, for the first that entered was a dead Man. Upon this Mr Taylor order’d the Door to be unbolted and open’d a little Way; which they no sooner heard but they discharg’d 8 Pistols and one of the Keepers as Blunderbuss, but without Execution, the Door between them being very strong. Then Mr Taylor and his Guard rush’d in, attack’d them with their Cutlasses, and overpower’d them immediately. Macray was wounded in his Head, and his Arm disabled; Sellon desperately cut in several Places; Emmerson had one Side of his Face cut away; James was but slightly hurt. On Mr Taylor’s Part very little Damage was done. The Pistols were brought to the Prisoners in Smoaking hot Pyes, by the Assistance of a Man at a house in St George’s Fields, whom Emmerson, upon the Keepers threatening to dispatch him, dicover’d. One of the Keepers jingling his Keys at the Door of the said House, the Fellow took him for Macray broke out of prison, and open’d the Door to let him in, but was himself apprehended.”
(Gentleman’s Magazine, 1735)

Concealing a gun inside a ‘Smoaking hot pye’  – eat your heart, out shoe bomber… Smuggling in weapons to help friends locked in Newgate stage escapes was also a long London tradition.

Macray, Emmerton, James and Sellon were all hanged at Kennington Gallows two days later, on 20th August.

But collective breakouts continued; there were further attempts in 1758, 1763, 1771 and 1777…

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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